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The Empty Promises of Consumerism

With Black Friday in recent memory and Christmas shopping right around the corner, what better time to look at the issues of consumerism in our society.

Modern advertising is rather peculiar. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that many of the commercials you come across don’t actually tell you much about the product that is being sold. The advertisement doesn’t present reasons or rational arguments as to why you should buy the product. Rather it appeals to our deep-seated emotions and desires.

It speaks to our universal longings to be loved, to have close and genuine connections, to be acknowledged, respected and to be authentic.

Let’s take a minute to look at this perfume commercial for Coeur Battant by Louis Vuitton.

Notice how the commercial doesn’t tell you much about the product being sold. What does it smell like? What is the price point? How does it compare to similar brands on the market?

Nonetheless, what the advertisement is conveying to the consumer is a certain image. An image of beauty, attractiveness and desirability from others – namely from other good looking men. With this perfume, and only with this perfume, one can surely achieve the confidence, recognition and status we’ve all desired. Right?

According to recent data, 46% of parents with children under 18 and 48% of those with existing credit card debt are willing to take on more debt in the 2020 Christmas holiday season.  What can explain our irrational behaviour as we wait in long lines to buy the newest products on the market or spend far beyond our means on stuff we cannot afford? Why are we never content with what we own?

 What is actually being sold to us?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To understand the intentions and messages behind modern advertising, we need to look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs such as food, shelter, clothing and at the top lies self-actualization. One must first satisfy their lower level needs before they begin working up the pyramid.

Maslow’s theory was that once we meet our basic we naturally aspire towards higher developmental needs such as: meaning, purpose, love, friendship etc. The crucial point made by Maslow was that there needs to be a healthy balance between our material, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. 

The famous Biblical passage suggesting that we “cannot live on bread alone” speaks exactly to this idea. Humans require more than just physiological nourishment and material things to truly thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The issue is that marketers are selling the idea that buying a product such as luxury clothing or fashion brands (ie. clothing\psychological needs) can fulfill our longing for another higher-level need such as love and belonging or esteem needs.  Philosopher Alain De Botton explains this confusion clearly.

Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom

Alain De Botton, The Purpose of Advertising

Character Develops Through Repeated Action

Now this is not to say we can not or should not enjoy the pleasures that luxury products bring us. It is rather noting that we should not be deluded into thinking that consuming an item can necessarily satisfy our deep yearnings for psychological wellbeing.

It is easy to get trapped into thinking our issues stem from not having things rather from our own flaws in character and disposition. We can not become mature or become a more admirable or respectable person by purchasing fancy sports cars.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on

What are we really hinting at when we purchase a luxury sports car – perhaps it is our wish for status, admiration and recognition?

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and virtue or character can not be bought. As Aristotle claimed, character traits can only be acquired through repeated action and habit. One becomes courageous by performing courageous acts just as someone is considered honest when they consistently act honestly in all circumstances.

Yes, we can enjoy material things and consumer products, but there is a whole other world of possibilities outside of mindless consumerism. These are the ideals written about by the great writers, poets and religions – of transcendence, love, community and meaning.

Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.  

So, as we get flooded with commercials and advertisements over the holiday season, we can all be a little more skeptical about what is actually being sold.  

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This article was originally posted on my personal blog

Title Image Source: Pexels Free Photos

13 thoughts on “The Empty Promises of Consumerism

  1. Ah, yes, the endgame of runaway capitalism: You have what you need, now you need to go into debt because I need your money. Now in my 70s, I flatter myself that I’m immune to this, but most likely they’re getting to me in ways that I don’t realize. I favor one brand of peanut butter over another. My wife likes a certain coffee. Have we been manipulated? Can’t say, but here’s the fourth stanza of The Story that Never Starts by Abney Park:

    “And we’re told our new goals, we’re told our new dreams
    They’re nothing like the dreams we once held
    And now to follow our dreams we have to buy all this crap
    Fulfil the dreams of someone else”

    And yes, we’re spending more this Christmas, as we always do. We aren’t taking on more debt, but we’re reducing our savings. Only one of our grandchildren is a minor, but we’ve been conditioned to equate it with love. At least we aren’t buying cars, furniture, and major appliances…

    The handmaiden of this nebulous “quality of life” upgrade is the urgency. I’m expecting an important e-mail, and I took a break while reading your article when one came in. Not an important e-mail at all, but one from a clothing company that began “Huuuurry – Before this sale melts!” Don’t think, just buy! When I was a child in grade school in the 50s, we were all taught that in this wonderful free society, we can all raise ourselves to whatever level we wish to strive for.

    Now, I don’t dislike American life; I’ve been free to leave for half a century, and I remain right here in one of the most expensive places in the US. But what they didn’t teach us in those heady school days when the Dragons had been slain and all the world was new was that there is a finite amount of wealth, and the only way I can make my pile bigger is to take some of yours. Some of us are more adept at that than others. Let me leave you with the refrain from the song mentioned above. It’s quite a philosophical ride. Search it by name on YouTube to see them deliver the goods.

    “But don’t let ’em check you, they’re sucking the wrong brew
    The cowards should not steer your life by their own fear
    Care what you’re dreaming; the future is teeming
    With stories that want to start.”

    Important words to live by in this day and age! Thank you for a very profound post.

  2. Andrew….thank you. I love this thought — it feels especially evergreen and true: “Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.” Such wisdom there…thank you for that. Becoming…yes. Even when the progress is slow, and the payoffs aren’t as splashy. 😉

  3. Youre so right, advertising/marketing taps into our subconscious and tells us what we want, need to hear. We’re always striving to move up Maslow’s hierarchy; to achieve what’s just out of reach. I think though, that as well as selling us dreams and aspirations, they’re also feeding off our fears

  4. Hi. I love the ad! And I love the Thoreau quote too. I would like to see the ad go one step further with the woman aging over time. I agree with your point but at the same time the ad says to me, YOU can have this! It oozes positivity. Not that I have to have the Louis Vutton. It says I can have the amazing garden of flowers, the beautiful views, the amazing man (that I do already 🙂 It says I can have it all. And if they have to invent a perfume to get that message across well good on them. As long as we can see past that and realise its not the perfume that will give it to us. It’s the mindset. Good on you for bringing this up for conversation. Love it!

  5. My idea about gifts is to buy things people will enjoy using. I keep my eyes open for sales and buy throughout the year when I see something that a person on my list would like. This spreads my payments over the year so I’m not running into huge debt, and when I buy something they like on sale, I feel like I’m taking care of myself too by managing my resources wisely.

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