Response to Practices of Looking Chapter 6: “Consumer Culture and the Manufacturing of Desire”

1. What are some of the historical and cultural reasons why consumer culture has appeared and proliferated?

The use of advertising – which almost always incorporates visible rhetoric – has been a staple in the spread of consumerism. “Increased industrialization and bureaucratization in the late nineteenth century meant a decrease in the number of small entrepreneurs and an increase in large manufacturers … ” (191). People also began to do a lot more traveling, and more public places sprang up that could support commerce. In other words, increased competition and increased visible rhetoric are directly related. This phenomenon is occurring again with the rise of e-commerce and telemarketing (192). People can now participate as consumers without ever leaving their homes. It’s easier than ever to be a consumer now – plus, the government encourages consumerism, especially now, in order to prop up our failing economy.

2. How did the rise of consumer society change homes? Change family relationships? Change the dynamics of the private and public spheres?

The consumer society discussed above brought with it a number of changes. Space for advertising is now available in the average American living room. Families gather around the television rather than talking over dinner. The public sphere continues to encroach upon – and sometimes masquerade as – the private sphere. The quote used below in question number 3 illustrates the extent to which this has occurred.

3. On page 193, the authors note that some media and cultural theorists have argued that “advertising replaced what had previously been the social fabric of communities, becoming, in effect, a central source of cultural values” (this is also an argument presented in Klein’s and Holland’s essays). Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

While Sturken and Cartwright present this view as somewhat extremist, I think it’s exactly right. That’s not to say that all demographics have undergone this change, but I believe the average American is far more consumer-driven than anyone realizes. We live in world of needs that are really wants. Everything is marketed to us, from cars to food to nursing homes. Millions of people have spent hundreds of dollars for the social status of owning an iPod (see the dicussion of NIke on page 201), when a similar mP3 player is often half the price. The social makeup of our world is driven by advertising.

4. Think about your last visit to a local mall. What aspects of the design, layout, and visual elements of the mall lent themselves to shopping being constructed as a leisure activity? A pass-time? What design aspects contributed to the cultural ideological belief that shopping is expected of us? That consumerism is good?

The last mall I was at was White Oaks Mall in Springfield, which features a centralized design with spokes that contain larger chain stores at their ends. Stores are not grouped by category, but spread out so that a person on a mission for one thing will have to walk all over the mall, past all other kinds of stores, during their search. This layout also allows the mall to have more doors, and closer parking access, thus allowing people to easily return to their cars to leave their purchases and then go back into the mall to continue shopping. Recently, even more signals than usual have impinged upon the American consumer to fulfill the duty to spend money. This tax season, anyone filing was given about $600 in “free” money and encourage to pour it directly back into the ailing economy. Consumerism was framed as a healthy goal for the economy.

5. What’s the difference between exchange value and use value? What examples do the authors use to articulate these concepts?

Both of these terms are dependent upon the society they are used in. Exchange value refers to what a products costs within that society, and use value is about the item’s use in that society. Sturken and Cartwright suggest rice has a high use value – it can keep you alive – and a low exchange value – it’s cheap. Perfume, on the other hand, has little use value, but often is quite expensive. Their best example, in my opinion, was comparing a Honda to a Mercedes-Benz. These items have exactly the same use value, but vastly different exchange values. (199)

6. What did the Frankfurt School theorists mean by the term pseudoindividuality? (See page 205.)

Pseudoindividuality is the idea of mass marketing based on individualism. The example given is of perfume. The mass marketing campaign says the perfume will smell different on everyone, thereby priveleging individuality even as the ad markets to the masses. This technique is quite popular today, with many ads encouraging people to “think outside the box” or “be different” and take a risk on this new product. Of course, if everyone does so, no one is different. That’s where the “pseudo-” prefix comes in.

7. What would ads be like if they didn’t work to create a sense of dissatisfaction? If they didn’t prey on our anxieties and insecurities? If they didn’t make us feel weak and needing?

I disagree with the basic assumption made by this question (and, at times, Sturken and Cartwright) that all ads do create a sense of dissatisfaction. I think there are a number of very positive ad campaigns that make a point not to prey on anxieties and insecurities, ads that try to promote a sense of power and confidence. These ads are often directed at women, a group that is perhaps the most in need of empowerment. While I know some would make the argument that these ads are the worst kind as far as playing on people’s fears, I do not believe that is their intent. They do not “work to create” this strife.

Nevertheless, many ads do – and the world would be very different without them. A world without ads working for dissatisfaction would certainly not be so consumer-driven. Needs and wants would be much better delineated in the mind of the average person. There would also be a lot more space in which people could value other sorts of communication. At the same time, though, we could not live in a free market society if this were the case. A sense of dissatisfaction can be a very good, motivating thing. Without advertisers for motivation, we might not achieve as much. Frankly, the idea of a world without advertising playing on personal dissatisfaction is so far removed from reality that it is impossible for me to imagine.

8. What’s the difference between bricolage and counter-bricolage? Can you think of an example of each?

Bricolage is when consumers (often youthful ones) appropriate a product and imbue it with a new meaning. This is often seen as very hip, forward-thinking, or individualistic. Counter-bricolage is when commercial culture takes that product or idea back and reconfigures it. The book’s example is the advent of designer boxer shorts based on the fact that young men were wearing low-hanging pants (224). Another example would be the rise of rap music. Rap was born as a cry against hegemonic forces, but was promptly appropriate by suburbanites (bricolage). Now, rap artists have altered their message to appeal to those suburbanites and gain profit (counter-bricolage).

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