The American marketing system has been accused of adding to several "evils" in American society at large. Advertising has been a special target—so much so that the American Association of Advertising Agencies once launched a campaign to defend advertising against what it felt to be common but untrue criticisms.
Critics have charged that the marketing system urges too much interest in material possessions, and that Americans' love affair with worldly possessions is not sustainable. People are judged by what they own rather than by who they are. This drive for wealth and possessions hit new highs in the 1980s and 1990s, when phrases such as "greed is. good" and "shop till you drop" seemed to characterize the times.
In the current decade, many social scientists have noted a reaction against the opulence and waste of the previous decades and a return to more basic values and social commitment. However, our infatuation with material things continues.
If you made a graph of American life since the end of World War II, every line concerning money and the things that money can buy would soar upward, a statistical monument to materialism. Inflation-adjusted income per American has almost tripled. The size of the typical new house has more than doubled. A two-car garage was once a goal; now we're nearly a three-car nation. Designer everything, personal electronics, and other items that didn't even exist a half-century ago are now affordable. Although our time spent shopping has dropped in recent years to just three hours a week, American households currently spend on average $1.22 for every $1 earned. Some consumers will let nothing stand between them and their acquisitions. Recently, in a Florida
Wal-Mart, post-Thanksgiving shoppers rushing to buy DVD players (on sale for $29) knocked down a woman, trampled her, and left her unconscious.15
The critics do not view this interest in material things as a natural state of mind but rather as a matter of false wants created by marketing. Businesses hire ad agencies to stimulate people's desires for goods, and the ad agencies use the mass media to create materialistic models of the good life. People work harder to earn the necessary money. Their purchases increase the output of industry, and industry in turn uses the agencies to stimulate yet more desire for the industrial output.
Thus, marketing is seen as creating false wants that benefit industry more than they benefit consumers. "In the world of consumerism, marketing is there to promote consumption," says one marketing critic. It is "inevitable that marketing will promote over-consumption, and from this, a psychologically, as well as ecologically, unsustainable world." ASome critics even take their concerns to the streets.16
For a decade Bill Talen, also known as Reverend Billy, has taken to the streets, exhorting people to resist temptation—the temptation to shop. With the zeal of a street-corner preacher and the schmaltz of a street-corner Santa, Reverend Billy will tell anyone willing to listen that people are walking willingly into the hellfires of consumption. Reverend Billy, leader of the Church of Stop Shopping believes that shoppers have almost no resistance to the media messages that encourage them, around the clock, to want things and buy them. He sees a population lost in consumption, the meaning of individual existence vanished in a fog of wanting, buying, and owning too many things, ultimately leading to a "Shopocalypse." Sporting a televangelist's pompadour, a priest's collar, and a white megaphone, Reverend Billy is often accompanied by his gospel choir when he strides into stores he considers objectionable or shows up at protests like the annual post-Thanksgiving Buy Nothing Parade in front of Macy's in Manhattan. When the choir, which is made up of volunteers, erupts in song, it is hard to ignore: "Stop shopping! Stop shopping! We will never shop again!"
Such criticisms overstate the power of business to create needs. People have strong defenses against advertising and other marketing tools. Marketers are most effective when they appeal to existing wants rather than when they attempt to create new ones. Furthermore, people seek information when making important purchases and often do not rely on single sources. Even minor purchases that may be affected by advertising messages lead to repeat purchases only if the product delivers the promised customer value. Finally, the high failure rate of new products shows that companies are not able to control demand.
On a deeper level, our wants and values are influenced not only by marketers but also by family, peer groups, religion, cultural background, and education. If people are highly materialistic, these values arose out of basic socialization processes that go much deeper than business and mass media could produce alone.
Business has been accused of overselling private goods at the expense of public goods. As private goods increase, they require more public services that are usually not forthcoming. For example, an increase in automobile ownership (private good) requires more highways, traffic control, parking spaces, and police services (public goods). The overselling of
private goods results in "social costs." For cars, some of the social costs include traffic congestion, gasoline shortages, and air pollution. For example, people lose billions of hours a year in traffic jams. In the process, they waste billions of gallons of fuel and emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases.17
A way must be found to restore a balance between private and public goods. One option is to make producers bear the full social costs of their operations. The government could require automobile manufacturers to build cars with more efficient engines and better pollution-control systems. Automakers would then raise their prices to cover the extra costs. If buyers found the price of some cars too high, however, the producers of these cars would disappear. Demand would then move to those producers that could support the sum of the private and social costs.
A second option is to make consumers pay the social costs. A For example, many cities around the world are starting to charge "congestion tolls" in an effort to reduce traffic congestion. To unclog its streets, the city of London now levies a congestion charge of $16 per day per car to drive in an eight-square-mile area downtown. The charge has not only reduced traffic congestion within the zone by 21 percent and increased cycling by 43 percent; it also raises money to shore up London's public transportation system.18
Based on London's success, some U.S. cities such as San Diego, Houston, Seattle, and Denver have turned some of their HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes into HOT (high-
occupancy toll) lanes for drivers carrying too few passengers. Regular drivers can use the HOT lanes, but they must pay tolls ranging from $.50 off-peak to $9 during rush hour. The U.S. government has recently proposed a bill that would create rush-hour fees in congested urban areas across the country. If the costs of driving rise high enough, the government hopes, consumers will travel at nonpeak times or find alternative transportation modes, ultimately helping to curb America's oil addiction.19
Critics charge the marketing system with creating cultural pollution. Our senses are being constantly assaulted by marketing and advertising. Commercials interrupt serious programs; pages of ads obscure magazines; billboards mar beautiful scenery; spam fills our inboxes. These interruptions continually pollute people's minds with messages of materialism, sex, power, or status.20
Marketers answer the charges of "commercial noise" with these arguments: First, they hope that their ads reach primarily the target audience. But because of mass-communication channels, some ads are bound to reach people who have no interest in the product and are therefore bored or annoyed. People who buy magazines addressed to their interests—such as Vogue or Fortune—rarely complain about the ads because the magazines advertise products of interest.
Second, ads make much of television and radio free to users and keep down the costs of magazines and newspapers. Many people think commercials are a small price to pay for these benefits. Consumers find many television commercials entertaining and sometimes seek them out. Finally, today's consumers have alternatives. For example, they can delete TV commercials on recorded programs or avoid them altogether on many paid cable
or satellite channels. Thus, to hold consumer attention, advertisers are making their ads more entertaining and informative.
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