Itís about time that there is a non-consumerist perspective on consumer products. A generation after consumer products came into prominence when national markets were established in the Nineteenth Century because of the development of national magazines and a national transportation system, consumer products became identified with the worst features of American society. Deodorants are dismissed as the result of an anxiety created by advertising, while a choice in automobiles, which were advertised as providing a girl in the back seat, was dismissed as a way of competing for social prestige, and cigarettes were outright dangerous products that were lied about with the greatest sincerity that could be manufactured.
Never mind that some products are actually useful. Frozen dinners provide fast and nutritious food; Lipitor, Cialis and all the other drugs advertised to aging baby boomers do alleviate the health problems of the elderly; and an auto insurance policy is a state requirement for driving a car and the focus of most auto insurance ads that are now running is on rates even if the ads do grab your attention by being funny. Never mind. All advertising has been identified by the Frankfort School and its descendants as part and parcel of the industrial, capitalist system and therefore a source of exploitation of the workers that produce them as well as of the consumers themselves who go from having a ďnaturalĒ relation to objects to having an exploited one in that they develop a fetish about owning and using products, get some satisfaction that isnít really there in purchasing them, as if these products constituted part of their identities rather than were merely useful. It is as if we have lost the capacity to understand a life without the intrusion of advertisements. Schools vend soda pop and Google makes its living selling ads, and we consider the virtues of one or another tablet or reading device rather than the quality of what we can access through those devices. Has consumerism taken over our lives to such an extent that we donít even bother anymore with the criticisms of consumerism?
This question is purportedly unanswerable because what would be the difference between not noticing consumerism and having talked it out so there is nothing left to say? Society would be the same in either case. But there is a difference. The difference is in our consciousness. The way consumerism exists in our consciousness allows for a different interpretation of consumerism than that it is either a sensed force of oppression or that it is a form of oppression that people have not recognized or a force of oppression know so well that oppression has become the usual state of the consciousness. Which allows the following proposition: people donít usually talk about consumer products because consumer products are of very little concern to them. Only your intimates know what kinds of cookies or shampoo you like. Making conversation about consumer products is awkward unless you are at a dinner party and tell about your spouseís ďsecretĒ addiction to Mallomars. Then, it is just a human interest story to make everybody feel cozy. There is less emotional wear and tear in this kind of sharing than there is in spouse-swapping.
That consumer products are a constant but only peripheral matter of attention is why advertisers have to work so hard to bring their products to attention, to make them a topic of conversation rather than just the givens of ordinary life. So ask the contrary of the usual question. Donít ask why people are obsessed or overwhelmed by advertising; ask why people are not more enslaved by them. Why is there not more attention to products that take up such a large though not important part of life? Consumer products are tools rather than images or icons of life. Toothpaste does not make you attractive to the opposite sex; it just keeps you in a very particular way from being unattractive to the opposite sex. And it tastes good in the morning, sort of like orange juice, but stronger. And it really does help to prevent tooth cavities. Everybody knows this but it is too hard to say because it is easier to go after meanings than it is to go after uses. Every high school student can rhapsodize about a clean mouth being like a clean soul. They can write a college application essay about it and some can grow up to be copywriters.
Here is a different reason people groove on consumer products and the advertising for themóother than the fact that there is so much exposure to them and so many catchy jingles it is difficult to get out of your head (Jingles, it is to be granted, are not as good as Chopin or Cole Porter but no one thinks otherwise, however much movies like to make believe that there are some people who do). An underlying fact of social life that explains our relation to consumer products is that people donít talk about things they canít change. Talking politics and religion posits that a personís mind can be changed, and since that is unlikely to be true, conversation on those topics is pointless or rude unless one is the sort of person or belongs to a group of people who just talk politics, whether it changes anybodyís mind or not. Men donít talk about their wives, even if wives talk about their husbands as a kind of joke about trading them in for new models. That is because wives want to feel free, as if they were still in an age when they were not free to divorce or take lovers, but since they live in an age when such things can happen, it feels good to be able to talk about it, while men donít want to joke about their commitments because the point of a commitment is that you canít change it.
There are many examples in everyday life of things people donít talk about because they cannot be changed. It is rude to talk about how stupid or ugly someone is unless there is a reason to. It is possible, though, to nag people about what they might do to pull themselves together or look a bit more presentable. It is no use complaining about the fact that there is pay discrimination at the place where you work, whether against Negroes or women, and so most people donít until a social movement arises which says that it is possible to change that. When a teenager complains about too much homework, he or she is regarded as whining rather than getting down to work in a ďmatureĒ way. Doesnít the kid want to get into college?
This fact holds true for very emotionally charged matters as well. People will change the subject or engage in superstition and fantasies rather than talk about things they cannot change. People canít change the fact that they will all die, sooner or later, and so they engage in gallows humor or superstitions about an afterlife. Atheists I know donít talk about death because what would be the point, unless one was in a philosophical argument about why there is such a thing or a literary argument about Boethius. People talk about their aches and pains but not about their cancer treatments, a topic fit only for intimates. Why a person decides to engage in a painful or very uncomfortable treatment to extend life probably for no more than a few months is considered such a private matter that no one inquires too closely. Only a vast theoretical apparatus allows you to think about how to change the class structure because it is such a hard thing to do and so people take the class structure to be an inevitable given of life. Introductory sociology students find it difficult to recognize there is a class structure that amounts to more than the recognition that the anonymous ďtheyĒ control things and that I and the students donít.
On the other hand, people do talk about things that they can change, as a job or a doctor or a treatment or, if they are reminded it is possible, and that is what advertising does, toothpaste. I am capable of deciding to move from a Chevy to a Ford, or from Netflix to Movies on Demand, or from one cell phone to another (if I can just get out of my frigginí contract). Indeed, a great deal of life is taken up with these possibilities, some more significant than others, but all presenting people with the specter of possibility, and only some of which one decides to consult other people about. The very important ones, like which cancer surgeon to go to, you discuss with intimates and experts and the friend of a friend who went to someone on your list of prospects, while the very unimportant ones, like which fast food place to patronize, you discuss only with amusement, and the truly trivial, such as whether to take one or another route today on getting home from the subway, you discuss with no one lest you be taken to be an obsessive compulsive. The narrow range of choices you do discuss, that you are free to break out and discuss, are ones that meet the rigorous condition of being not too private and not so public or momentous that it is beyond the range of talk because it has to do with convictions. You donít discuss religion because you donít want to talk someone out of their religion or even give the suggestion that you might be trying to do so, but you do discuss, in that you can have a conversation without going too far beyond propriety, whether a movie was any good or not, but even that you donít press too hard because then informal movie evaluation turns into the exercise of a better schooled judgment about an aesthetic form, and most people have preferred since they were in school not to test themselves that way. So, yes, there are things to discuss, but not all that many, and we are clued into what is to be discussed by all that advertising. It is even alright to talk about politics when the election season warms up, which means in the month or two before the four year vote for President. Earlier than that, like now, only campaign junkies make more than passing reference to the people the talking heads go on and on about.
The idea of freedom, which has a very distinguished and highly articulated history as a philosophical and a political concept, can be identified with rather than merely exemplified by freedom of consumer choice. That is not a distraction from real issues of freedom. To the contrary, it is the taste of freedom that is exercised every day and so one can recast the philosophical and political ideas of freedom as having arisen in part from the fact that the Israelites questioned God and even Moses, and that peasants found they could slightly renegotiate their relations to their lords and so perhaps even ask for more choice in their relationship to their lords. Freedom doesnít belong only to the intellectuals and the apologists.
Consider the store window of a cosmetics store in my neighborhood. It is decorated this October with the following graphic: Zombies: Looking Dead, Feeling Good. That is liberating to notice because it is a fresh turn of phrase and copywriters are to be congratulated for having contributed to our language by allowing people to see the possibilities of language. The sentiment as well as the language is ironic. Zombies in movies look unhealthy, and here, with the proper application of makeup, you can look very fetching in white powder and mascara and call up images of being independent by being different, not the way being proud of your ethnic group is imposed on you so that you can either be proud or ashamed of it, but by trying out a very different imaginary role and transvaluating it into being something to identify with rather than to think of as one of the things bad guys are. Everybody is free because everybody can ponder what it means to live in that alternative universe of good but zany and exciting Zombies. You hide your goodness, what you know to be your goodness, for a moment. Irony is not just for literature professors and literature courses. It is an event in everyday life.
Now this is a definition of freedom that does not appeal to Marxists or their descendants who are preoccupied with bringing to attention things that are very difficult to change. They want the human imagination to ponder those things rather than waste itself on flippancies which are to be regarded as distractions from the real social issues. But that is to deny the freedom that is all around us and that we engage in while living in a world of inequality, as if there has ever been anything else. Most people do not make an impact on politics, but that does not mean that they cannot be free.