The Myth of Consumerism
Every society has mythology. In some societies, it's religion. Our religion is consumerism.
Ellen Weis, San Francisco's Museum of Modern Mythology
Consumerism fuels the capitalist fire. In a capitalist society, the goal is to make money, by whatever means possible, exploiting whichever potential weakness that might exist. The human race is one with a wild imagination, and this wild imagination, though a great strength, can, like all great strengths, serve as a potential weakness.
It is our imaginations that advertising exploits, and it is our imaginations that religion and myth traditionally played the role of satiating, telling stories that have morals to them, lessons to be learned. Now consumerism fulfills this role. The consumer ideology serves as the golden rule, advertising serves as sermons, products serve as our idoltry, and just as religion instills faith at an early age, so too does consumerism.
Ellen Weis (qtd. in "Advertising Characters" 1997) speaks from the perspective of one who is an authority on mythology. Her analogy between religion and consumerism is an accurate one. Undoubtedly, she's referring to this role that consumerism is playing in stimulating our imaginations. It does this by telling us a story, with us playing the lead role, painting a picture of life as being better with the products being sold to us. Our imaginations are carried away by these stories. We want to believe them because they make sense of the world. We want to believe that all it takes to be happy is a trip to the store. This making sense of the world and simplifying to such a triviality is exactly the reason why myths are created.
For example, nearly every cigerette ad features a picture of an ideal person smoking their brand, ideal at least by the standards of most people who long to be accepted. For women, the smoker typically has long blonde hair, a beautiful smile, and perfect, white teeth. The ads that best demonstrates this are those for Virginia Slims. For men you have Marlboro with the infamous "Marlboro man," who is a rugged, handsome loner out in the countryside with his horse and campfire. The ads seem to say, "this could be you." All it takes is a trip to the store and a couple of bucks for a pack.
Like all myths, the stories these ads tell have a moral to them. The lesson they teach is: your life can be better with these products or, put another way, you can be a better person with these products. This is the consumer ideology and, just like every religion has some "golden rule" that pervades all of its lessons, consumerism too has its own golden rule, the consumer ideology. All of its lessons seem to be based upon this underlying assumption that more is better, that we need the things we're being sold, and that somehow buying them will make us happier and better people.
Of course the medium for these lessons are the ads themselves. Advertising nearly always has some emotional appeal to them. Instead of catering to our intellect and giving us rational reasons why we should consume the products they flaunt, rather they cater to our emotions. What better way to stimulate our imaginations? This is almost directly analogous to the emotional appeal traditionally found in sermons. Especially before our society has become so secular and scientific, sermons were heavily driven by emotion.
One heavy emotion that we're susceptible to is fear. Fear tactics are used in advertising just as they are in sermons. For example, the Dial soap ads use the slogan, "aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everyone did?" This slogan seems to assume that the consumer already uses their product which can't possibly be the case because if it were, why would they need to advertise? Thus they seem to be implying that if you aren't using Dial, you'd sure better redeem yourself quickly before they find out! Similar fear tactics are also used in religious sermons. One extreme example of such sermons are those presented by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which he says, for example, that sinners "deserve to be cast into hell; so that divine