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12.3 We Buy, Therefore We Are: Consumerism and Advertising

Learning Objectives

  1. Define consumerism.
  2. Discuss the power and problems surrounding advertising that creates desires.
  3. Consider special issues surrounding advertising and children.
  4. Investigate the penetration of advertising in life.

What Is Consumerism?

The word consumerism is associated with a wide range of ideas and thinkers, ranging from American economist John Kenneth Galbraith and his book The Affluent Society to the French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard. While definitions of the word and responses to it vary, consumerismThe identification of ourselves with the products we buy and an accompanying need to buy in order to exist. in this text is defined in two parts:

  1. We identify ourselves with the products we buy. Consumerism goes beyond the idea that our brands (whether we wear Nike shoes or TOMS shoes, whether we drive a Dodge Charger or a Toyota Prius) are symbols of who we are. Consumerism means our products aren’t just things we wear to make statements. They are us; they incarnate the way we think and act.
  2. If we are what we buy, then we need to buy in order to be. Purchasing consumer items, in other words, isn’t something we do to dispatch with necessities so that we can get on with the real concerns of our lives—things like falling in love; starting a family; and finding a satisfying job, good friends, and fulfilling pastimes. Instead, buying becomes the way we do all those things. The consumption of goods doesn’t just dominate our lives; it’s what we do to live.

The subject of consumerism goes beyond business ethics to include every aspect of economic life and then further to cultural studies, political science, and philosophy. Staying within business ethics, however, and specifically with advertising, the subject of consumerism provokes the following questions:

  • Does advertising create desires (and is there anything wrong with that)?
  • Do advertisers have a responsibility to restrain their power?
  • Should there be different rules for advertising aimed at children?
  • Is advertising too intrusive in our lives?

Does Advertising Create Desires (and Is There Anything Wrong with That)?

Our society is affluent. With the exception of marginal cases, all Americans today eat better, enjoy more effective shelter from winter cold and summer heat, are healthier, and live longer than, say, the king of France in 1750. In fact, necessity in the sense of basic life needs hardly exists. We struggle heroically to afford a better car than our neighbor, to have a bigger home than our high-school classmates, to be thin and pay the doctor for a perfectly shaped nose, and so on, but no one worries about famine. Our economic struggles aren’t about putting food on the table; they’re about eating in the most desirable restaurant.

How do we decide, however, what we want—and even what we want desperately—when we don’t truly need anything anymore? One answer is that we create needs for ourselves. All of us have had this experience. For our entire lives we lived without iPhones (or even without cell phones), but now, somehow, getting halfway to work or campus and discovering we left our phone at home causes a nervous breakdown.

Advertising plays a role in this need creation. Take the Old Spice body wash ad. Body wash as a personal grooming product was virtually unheard of in the United States until only a few years ago. More, as a product with specific characteristics, it’s hard to see how it marks an advance over old-fashioned soap. This absence of obvious, practical worth at least partially explains why the Old Spice ad provides very little information about the product and nothing by way of comparison with other, similar options (like soap). Still, the Old Spice body wash is a hit. The exact techniques the ad uses are a matter for psychologists, but as the sales numbers show, the thirty-second reel first shown during the Super Bowl has herded a lot of guys into the idea that they need to have it.Noreen O’Leary and Todd Wasserman, “Old Spice Campaign Smells Like a Sales Success, Too,” July 25, 2010, Adweek, accessed June 2, 2011,

Is there anything wrong with that? One objection starts by pointing out that corporations producing these goods and selling them with slick ad campaigns aren’t satisfying consumer needs; they’re trying to change who consumers are by making them need new things. Instead of fabricating products consumers want, corporations now fabricate consumers to want their products, and that possibly violates the demand that we respect the dignity and autonomy of others. The principle, for example, that we treat others as ends and not means is clearly transgressed by any advertising that creates needs. First, guys out in the world aren’t being respected as “ends,” as individuals worthy of respect when corporations stop producing their required products better or more cheaply. Second, guys out in the word are being treated as means—as simple instruments of the corporations’ projects—when their desires are manipulated and used to satisfy the corporations’ desire to make money.

Another argument against this kind of desire-creating advertising starts from a rights approach. According to the theory that freedom is the highest good, we’re all licensed to do whatever we want as long as our acts don’t curtail the freedom of others. The argument could be made that using sophisticated advertising campaigns to manipulate what people want is, in effect, curtailing their freedom at the most fundamental level. Old Spice’s advertising strategy is enslaving people to desires that they didn’t freely choose.

A final argument against need creation with advertising is the broad utilitarian worry that consumers are being converted into chronically, even permanently unhappy people because they have no way to actually satisfy their desires. If you work to attain something you’ve been told you’re supposed to want, and the second you get it some new company enters with the news that now there’s something else you need, the emotional condition of not being satisfied threatens to become permanent. Like mice trapped on a running wheel, consumers are caught chasing after a durable satisfaction they can’t ever reach.

On the other side of the argument, defenders and advocates of desire-creating advertisements like the one Old Spice presented claim (correctly) that their announcements aren’t violating the most traditional and fundamental marketing duty, which is to tell the truth. The Old Spice ad, in fact, doesn’t really say anything that’s either true or false. Given that, given that there’s no attempt to mislead, the company is perfectly within its rights to provide visions of new kinds of lives for consumers to consider, accept or reject, buy or pass over.

Stronger, advocates claim that consumers are adults and attempts to shield them from ads like those Old Spice produced don’t protect their identity and dignity; instead, they deny consumers options. Consequently, ethical claims that ads aiming to generate new desires should be constrained actually violate consumer dignity by treating them like children. We should all be free, the argument concludes, to redefine and remake ourselves and our desires in as many ways as possible. By offering options, advertising is expanding our freedom to create and live new, unforeseen lives.

Do Advertisers Have a Responsibility to Restrain Their Power?

The Old Spice ad didn’t end after its thirty seconds of fame on the Super Bowl broadcast. The actor Isaiah Mustafa went on to became a Twitter sensation. By promising to respond to questions tweeted his way, he effectively launched a second phase of the marketing effort, one designed to stretch out the idea that body wash is big and important: it’s what people are talking about, and if you don’t know about it and what’s going on, you’re out of the loop, not relevant. The tone of the invitation to Twitter users to get involved stayed true to the original commercial. Mustafa asked people to “look for my incredibly manly and witty and amazing responses” to their questions.Meena Hartenstein, “Old Spice Guy Takes Web By Storm in Viral Ad Campaign, Creating Personalized Videos for Fans, Celebs,” New York Daily News, July 14, 2010, accessed June 2, 2011, personalized_vide.html.

On YouTube, Mustafa’s status went to instant legend: not only has his commercial been viewed about 20 million times (by people who actually want to watch and pay attention and at zero cost to Old Spice), there’s also a long list of copycat videos, derivative videos, spoof videos, and on and on. The depth of the advertising campaign is now virtually infinite. You could pass years watching and listening and reading the social media generated and inspired by the original commercial.

All that is advertising. It’s not paid, it’s not exactly planned, but it is part of the general idea. When Old Spice spent big money to get a Super Bowl slot for their ad, they weren’t only trying to reach a large audience; they were also hoping to do exactly what they did: set off a firestorm of attention and social media buzz.

Called viral advertisingThe exploitation of consumers to do a company’s promotional work., this consumer-involved marketing strategy drives even further from traditional, informational advertising than the activity of branding. Where branding attempts to attach an attitude and reputation to a product or company independent of specific, factual characteristics, viral ads attempt to involve consumers and exploit them to do the company’s promotional work. When viral advertising is working, the activity of branding is being carried out for free by the very people the advertising is meant to affect. In a certain sense, consumers are advertising to themselves. Of course, consumers aren’t rushing to donate their energy and time to a giant corporation; they need to be enticed and teased. The Super Bowl ad with its irresistible humor and sex-driven come-on does that—it provokes consumers to get involved.

Viral ads—and the techniques of public enticement making them spread contagiously—come in many forms. One ethical discussion, however, surrounding nearly all viral advertising can be framed as a discussion about knowledge and resource exploitationThe employment of specialized marketing knowledge and the use of the vast financial resources to condition consumers.. Two critical factors enabled Old Spice, along with its advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, to generate so much volunteer help in their endeavor to get the body wash buzz going:

  1. Knowledge of consumer behavior
  2. Tremendous resources—especially money and creative advertising talent—that allowed them to act on their knowledge

Compared with the typical person watching a TV commercial, the raw power of Old Spice is nearly immeasurable. When they aim their piles of money and sharp advertising experts toward specific consumers, consumers are overwhelmed. Without the time required to learn all the skills and strategies employed by today’s advertisers, they literally don’t even know what’s hitting them. From that fact, this ethical question arises: Don’t today’s sophisticated marketers have a responsibility to inform consumers of what they’re up to so that potential purchasers can at least begin to defend themselves?

Making the last point stronger, isn’t the economic asymmetryIn the field of marketing, a large imbalance in monetary power and commercial knowledge favoring professional advertisers when weighed against consumers.—the huge imbalance in monetary power and commercial knowledge favoring today’s professional advertisers—actually an obligation to restraint, a responsibility to not employ their strongest efforts given how comparatively weak and defenseless individual consumers are? The “yes” answer rests on the duty of fairness—that is, that we treat equals equally and unequals unequally. In this case, the duty applies to companies just as it does to people. Frequently people say to large, muscle-bound characters caught up in a conflict with someone smaller, “Go pick on someone your own size.” It’s simply unfair to challenge another who really has no chance. This duty comes forward very graphically on a video snippet from MTV’s Jersey Shore when a thin girl attacks the physically impressive Ronnie. He just shoves her aside. When her boyfriend, however, who’s about Ronnie’s size and age, shows up and starts swinging, he ends up getting a good thumping. Leaving aside the ethics of fistfights, it doesn’t take profound thought to see that Ronnie understands his superior physical power is also a responsibility when harassed by a comparative weakling to hold himself in check.Nicholas Graham, “Jersey Shore Fight: Ronnie Gets Into Vicious Fight,” Huffington Post, August 1, 2010, accessed June 2, 2011,

While the case of Old Spice and Wieden+Kennedy isn’t quite as transparent as Ronnie on the street, it does obey the same logic: all their power and marketing expertise is both a power over consumers and an equally forceful responsibility not to exercise it. Compare that situation with the famous “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” advertising campaign. No one objects to powerhouse Apple taking some figurative swings at powerhouse Microsoft since that company clearly has the means to defend itself. When a corporation manipulates innocent and relatively powerless individual consumers at home on the sofa, however, it’s difficult to avoid seeing something unfair happening.

The argument on the other side is that consumers aren’t powerless. There’s no real imbalance of might here because consumers today, armed with their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, are perfectly capable of standing up to even the mightiest corporations. Viral messaging, in other words, goes both ways. Old Spice may use it to manipulate men, but individual men are perfectly free and capable of setting up a Facebook group dedicated to recounting how rancid Old Spice products actually are. Beneath this response, there’s the fundamental claim that individuals in the modern world are free and responsible for their own behavior, and if they end up voluntarily advertising for Old Spice and don’t like it, they shouldn’t complain: they should just stop tweeting messages to Isaiah Mustafa.

Further, the proposition that consumers need to be protected from Old Spice is an infringement on the dignity of those who are out in the world buying. Because today’s consumers connected to social media are alert and plugged in, because even a solitary guy in pajamas in his basement running his own YouTube channel or Facebook group can be as influential as any corporation, attempts to shield him are nothing less than disrespectful confinements of his power. Protection, in this case, is just another word for condescension.

Should There Be Different Rules for Children?

The discussion of knowledge and resource exploitation leads naturally to the question about whether children should be subjected to advertising because the knowledge imbalance is so tremendous in this particular case.

According to a letter written by a number of respected psychologists to their own professional association, children should receive significant shielding from advertising messaging. The first reason is a form of the general concern that advertising is creating desires as opposed to helping consumers make good decisions about satisfying the desires they have: “The whole enterprise of advertising is about creating insecure people who believe they need to buy things to be happy.”Rebecca Clay, “Advertising to Children: Is it Ethical? Monitor On Psychology 31, no. 8 (September 2000), 52, accessed June 2, 2011,

The problem with advertising that creates insecurity is especially pronounced in the case of society’s youngest members because once that attitude of constant need and consequent unhappiness is bred into these consumers, it’s difficult to see how it will be removed. Since they’ve known nothing else, since they’ve been taught from the very start that the natural condition of existence is to not have the toys and things that are needed, they have no way of escaping into a different (nonconsumerist) way of understanding their reality. Finally, if this entire situation is set inside a utilitarian framework, it’s clear that the ethical verdict will fall somewhere near reprehensible. If, as that ethical theory affirms, moral good is just any action contributing to social welfare and happiness, then advertisements consigning children to lifetime dissatisfaction must be prohibited.

The second part of the psychologists’ argument elaborates on the condition of children as highly vulnerable to commercial message techniques. Children aged three to seven, for example, gravitate toward the kind of toys that transform themselves (for example, Transformers). Eight- to twelve-year-olds love to collect things. Armed with these and similar insights about young minds, marketers can exploit children to want just about anything. The virtual defenselessness of children, the point is, cannot be denied.

Still, there is a case for child-directed advertising. It’s that where children are defenseless, parents have a responsibility to step in. First, they can turn off the TV. Second, no young child can buy anything. Children depend on money from mom and dad, and to the extent that parents enable children to live their advertising wants, it’s parents who are at fault for any feelings of insecurity and dissatisfaction affecting their kids.

Whether advertising aimed at children is right or wrong, the stakes are certainly high. Children under twelve are spending around $30 billion a year, and teenagers are hitting $100 billion in sales.Rebecca Clay, “Advertising to Children: Is it Ethical? Monitor On Psychology 31, no. 8 (September 2000), 52, accessed June 2, 2011,

Are Ads Too Intrusive in Our Lives?

Another sentence from that letter written by concerned psychologists indicates a distinct area of ethical concern about advertising: “The sheer volume of advertising is growing rapidly and invading new areas of childhood, like our schools.”Rebecca Clay, “Advertising to Children: Is it Ethical? Monitor On Psychology 31, no. 8 (September 2000), 52, accessed June 2, 2011,

It’s not just children in their schools. We all go to concerts at the American Airlines Center, our shirts and shoes are decorated with the Nike swoosh, public parks are sponsored by corporations, the city bus is a moving billboard, the college football championship will be determined at the FedEx Orange Bowl. Every day it’s harder to get away from ads, and each year the promotions and announcements push closer to those parts of our lives that are supposed to be free of economic influence. Maybe someday we’ll attend Mass at the Diet Coke Cathedral, weigh guilt and innocence in the Armor All courthouse, elect senators to vote in the Pennzoil chamber.

And maybe that’s OK. The push of advertising into everything is a proxy for a larger question about the difference between business life and life. It could be that, at bottom, there is no difference. We are Homo economicus. The antiromanticists were right all along: love can be bought with money, fulfillment is about consuming, and that bumper sticker “He who dies with the most toys wins” is true.

Since serious thought about what really matters in life began in Greece 2,500 years ago, people have promoted the idea that there are more important things than money and consumption. Those usually ill-defined but nonetheless more important things have always explained why most poets, artists, priests, and philosophy professors haven’t had much in the way of bank accounts. Possibly, though, it’s the other way. Maybe it’s not that there are more important things in life that lead some people away from wealth and consumption; maybe it’s that some people who don’t have much money and can’t buy as much as their neighbors explain away their situation by imagining that there are more important things.

Who’s right? The ones who say money and economic life should be limited because the really important things are elsewhere, or the ones who say there are no other things and those who imagine something else are mainly losers? It’s an open question. Whatever the answer, it will go a long way toward determining the extent to which we should allow advertising into our lives. If there’s only money and consumption, then it’s difficult to see why the reach of the branding factories and viral marketers should be significantly limited. If, on the other hand, there’s life outside the store, then individuals and societies wanting to preserve that part of themselves may want to constrain advertising or require that it contribute to noneconomic existence.

Key Takeaways

  • Consumerism places our entire life within the context of consumer goods and services.
  • Advertising can create desires.
  • Advertising creating desires raises questions about whether ads violate consumers’ dignity and rights.
  • The knowledge and financial power of companies (and their ad agencies) may also be an obligation for restraint.
  • Children are especially vulnerable to sophisticated advertising and may require special protections.
  • Discussion of the advertising that creates needs is a proxy for a larger discussion about the role of money and consumption in our lives.

Review Questions

  1. Put into your own words the definition of consumerism.
  2. How can an ad create a desire?
  3. Why might an advertiser seek to create a desire?
  4. Make the case that ads that create desires violate a consumer’s basic rights.
  5. Why might a consumer want advertisers to create desires?
  6. What is a viral ad?
  7. With reference to the concept of economic asymmetry, why is advertising aimed at children the subject of special concern?
  8. Why might an advertising company feel obligated to limit the places in which its work appears in the name of protecting the noneconomic parts of our lives?
  9. Why might someone want advertising to be everywhere?