The capitalist economic model is based around infinite economic growth, constant invention and expansion of markets, and constant circulation of capital. This poses a problem in affluent societies where those who hold a substantial portion of the wealth have their basic needs met while still keeping enormous amounts of capital in reserve.
A growth economy thus needs to manufacture reasons to keep this capital flowing, rather than having its owners free their time from work (and thus stop generating wealth) or keeping large quantities of capital in reserve as a cushion for retirement or health-related costs (a possibility with disastrous implications for the insurance industry).
Thus, in the absence of consumer wants and needs generating real demand for products, the sellers of products must invent desires, manufacture demand, and fabricate need. Advertisers are tremendously effective at psychological manipulation‚ developing Pavlovian associations between their products and our basic desires. McDonald’s selling of happy meals with toys is one of the most blatant examples of this.
Intellectually, we know that cigarettes won’t buy us fun and adventure, that Budweiser won’t make bikini clad co-eds swarm around us, and that any particular make of automobile isn’t the path to freedom. But the cumulative impact of repetitive subtexts and messages take their toll. This is backed by hard research on the effects of advertising on viewers. The fact that these ads persist is powerful evidence to their effectiveness. Considering the enormous costs of advertising and market research to gauge its effectiveness, its fairly likely that corporations wouldn’t do it weren’t lucrative.
As effective as the marketing industry is at selling us products through our desires, their success in manipulating our anxieties for profit is even more stunning. From diet products to breast implants to zit creams, hair dyes to dandruff shampoos to hair removal products, fashion magazines to tanning salons and accent elimination classes, entrepreneurs enjoy massive profits from sending us the message that we are “damaged goods,” inadequate and unsatisfactory without modifications conveniently found in the consumer marketplace.
Even education has embraced this model. We don’t go to college for a learning experience as much as out of fear that we won’t be able to get ahead without the right piece of paper and that no one will be willing to listen to what we have to say without credentials that conveniently carry a very hefty price tag. The SAT tutoring profession in particular has managed to manipulate fear and anxiety to create incredibly lucrative markets.
In the end, advertisers no longer truly sell goods. Their product is impressions, emotions, and concepts — fun, trust, sex, family, responsibility, affluence, anxiety relief, safety, nostalgia, achievement, pride, effectiveness, reliability, and irreverence become concepts associated with a brand via the use of millions and billions in advertising dollars. Consider these quotes from the McDonald’s Canada website. “Over the years, McDonald’s has developed TV advertising campaigns that have become, like McDonald’s, a part of our lives and culture. McDonald’s commercials have focused not only on product, but rather on the overall McDonald’s experience, portraying warmth and a real slice of every day life. This “image” or “reputation” advertising has become a trademark of the company.”
— A History of McDonald’s Advertising Themes
“McDonald’s values (sic) transcend borders and cultures. Each and every day, 46 million consumers worldwide visit McDonald’s because they know and love the Golden Arches, Ronald McDonald and Big Macs. From one restaurant in 1955, to more than 30,000 locations in 119 countries, McDonald’s has become not only the leading global foodservice company, but also one of the strongest and most recognized brand names in the world.”
The corporation’s commercials rarely discuss the specifics of the items sold in McDonald’s, because they aren’t spending billions to sell gray, decaying burgers topped by wilted lettuce. They are selling “The McDonald’s Experience.”
Brand building allows mega-corporations to out-compete local or smaller businesses offering the same products and services. A local restaurant may sell far better food at comparable prices, but after years of TV commercials and other forms of advertising, we have been primed to associate McDonald’s with the satisfaction of our desires. The local business doesn’t stand a chance.
Products need not even be directly tied to physical goods. PR experts also market political candidates, lifestyle choices (like staying in school), viewpoints (e.g. the marketing of estate taxes as “death taxes.”)
While marketing can be used to sell beneficial products (e.g. seatbelt use or quitting smoking), it is fundamentally a system of manipulation. In the hands of for-profit corporations interested in perpetual market expansion, marketing becomes a tool to link retail goods and services to almost every aspect of a consumer’s life. As alluded to earlier, the producer does not sell goods to the consumer to serve the consumer’s need. Rather, the advertiser serves the producer’s need to invent consumer demand, creating a market for the producer’s products.
When William Burroughs wrote, “the junk merchant does not sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product,” he was referring to addictive drugs. But he could have as accurately been referring to marketing in general.
In the context of advertising driven commercial media, this goes a step further. As advertisers sell products to consumers, media outlets sell consumers to advertisers– the reader, viewer, or listener becomes their product, sold to advertisers in neat demographics.
Media content is shaped to draw these demographics and in many cases prime them to be enthusiastic about advertisers’ products. A program on fashion and “beauty” prepares consumers to absorb commercials on cosmetics and perfumes, for example. The entire format of media is structured around product absorption. When we watch a TV program and view the commercials, we have bought the product even before we turn off our television, as we have absorbed the concepts that advertisers are trying to project around their brand, and as stated earlier, it is these concepts, not the goods associated with them, that is truly their product. From this perspective television programming gains an ironically ominous meaning.
Consider this advertisement from New York Magazine. While upon first glance the ad appears to be aimed at Seventeen readers, the text reveals a different audience: potential Seventeen advertisers.
Carefully analyzing this text line by line, stripping away the slick, “hip” advertising language and explicity stating subtext, one finds an almost sinister level of cynicism.
“They’re the ones you want.”
Translation: These are the consumers you are targeting as your core demographic of purchasers for your product.
They”re the ones we’ve got.”
Translation: They read and are heavily influenced by Seventeen.
“They reinvent themselves constantly.”
Translation: Their insecurity-driven quest for self-definition provides ample opportunity to sell them lots of goods that they will soon discard and replace as they struggle with their identity as influenced by peer pressure and mass media.
“They search the pages of Seventeen to create their look.”
Translation: As they seek acceptance and social success within a conformity-driven culture, they seek to validate themselves by assuming mass-media approved elements of visual identity within a magazine aimed at their demographic.
“They’ll skip their favorite show, but never skip shopping.”
Translation: Constant purchase of commodities to the point of near-addiction is a critical (and potentially lucrative for those who are selling to them) element of their lifestyles.
“Hip doesn’t just happen.”
Translation: Style trends within youth culture do not spring organically from young people themselves, but are externally manufactured and inserted into the culture by profit seeking corporations.
“It starts at the source. Seventeen.”
Translation: Seventeen is a highly effective delivery system for externally created style trends into youth culture, and thus can greatly increase product sales for advertisers seeking to market their products to teenage women.
“Seventeen. Its more than a magazine. It’s their life.”
Translation: Seventeen readers define their external identities around what they see in the magazine, recognizing it as a universal rulemaker for acceptable fashion conformity among teen women. Advertisers selling their product through Seventeen have a direct line into the vehicle through which young women develop the identities that influence their purchasing choices.
Left unanswered by the advertisement is why New York Magazine was chosen as the publication to run this ad in. Is New York advertising its own demographics in still other publications? Clearly an ad such as this is targeted at a very specific audience believed to be within New York’s reader base
Examples such as this suggest that the free market “serves” consumers in the sense that a tennis pro serves a ball– aggressively projecting in a very specific direction. What does consumer choice really mean when we are bombarded constantly by advertisements for products of the largest corporations, when they collude with media that has insinuated itself into our self-concept or that fills our environment constantly like billboards and television in our TV-addicted culture? And how exactly does this all relate to freeganism?
Retail commodities are products during one point in their cycle of existence. As the commodity is being manufactured, it is not yet a product. Even during transportation from factory to store shelves it is not yet a product. Only in its element, at the point of sale where it absorbs all the advertising themes that have been projected onto it, is it truly a product.
Thus, corporations with atrocious human rights and environmental records in the production of their goods can talk about how much they care; the sweatshop labor used in Nike shoes or indigenous land destruction in mining for oil for gasoline aren’t part of the product being sold to the consumer.
In fact, marketing a product is as much about what isn’t said as what is. The practice of keeping factory farms far from public view has left consumers with images of Old McDonald’s farm in their minds on the rare occasion they consider where their food comes from. Distortions and misinformation create a false sense of comfort and security. Paper products are consumed with a clear conscience by people who have been told that there are more trees in North America today than at the advent of European colonization– a statistic that neglects to specify that massive numbers of these trees are not in forest ecosystems, but are instead plantation row crops on monocrop tree farms. The Gap bragged about its code of conduct relating to worker treatment for years before the National Labor Committee exposed that the workers are never informed of this unenforced, paper tiger Code.
Companies rely on a number of strategies to prevent the second-hand market from cutting into their profits, stripping away the product veneer on previously owned items, unless they themselves are selling them. Packed in Styrofoam and shiny new boxes, new products convey reliability and a sense of being in vogue and on the cutting edge.
Older goods are portrayed as unfashionable and unreliable. Companies like Apple Computer have created policies whereby lifetime product warranties are only extended to the original buyer, diminishing the appeal of buying a used machine. Similarly, Apple has developed a network of Authorized Service Providers, under strict instruction to not fix certain problems but to instead send the machine into Apple for repair. In many cases, Apple will refuse to repair a fixable part and will encourage a consumer to buy a replacement part, which can often cost as much as a new computer. Thus, Apple’s repair policy is little more than a backhanded method to sell new machines.
The afterlife of products is another aspect marketers don’t want us to consider. We aren’t asked to consider the environmental impact of the lead in the television sets and computer monitors we discard. When beverage manufacturers cut costs by switching from glass to plastic bottles, they tried to sell us on the durability of the new packaging, neglecting to mention this also meant that we would be returning massive amounts of non-biodegradable plastic into the environment upon disposing of the bottles.
Similarly, apathy and ignorance of the long and short-term impact on our own health and wellness of the goods we consume is another aspect of the story of the goods that we buy that marketers leave out of the product’s image. McDonald’s has taken activists to court to prevent the spread of the notion that McFood is deleterious to long-term health. The tobacco industry has spent decades experimenting on animals in an attempt to generate bogus data to prove the safety of their product.
From the mid sixties to early seventies, Ford Motor Company knowingly put on the market Ford Pintos with a defective gas tank that would result in deadly explosions if the cars were rear ended, resulting in hundreds of needless deaths. Ford owned a patent on a safer gas tank, but didn’t install them because they wanted to cut costs. Of course, while aggressively lobbying Congress against regulations that would have forced them to produce safe gas tanks, Ford never informed consumers that they were selling them rolling death traps.
As consumers, our purchasing relationship is intended to extend to the unit we purchase and the set of ideas generated to make it appeal to us. We aren’t supposed to ask overall questions about systems of production. We certainly aren’t supposed to ask what happens to all of the goods that are never sold.
A blatant but certainly not unique example is the food industry. In the United States, retailers discard billions of tons of usable food, despite a global hunger crisis, which extends into our local communities. While a minute portion of this food is donated to relief organizations, the vast majority ends up in dumpsters and compactors, tucked away behind stores or is tossed into nondescript bags on the curb in front of the store. Unsold items simply disappear from store shelves and are immediately replaced. We never notice their absence and by and large aren’t aware of their existence. We assume that anything that is discarded must be of insufficient quality to sell and must be unsafe for consumption.
Yet those workers who are forced to deal with this waste on a daily basis tell a different story. Restaurant, bakery, and supermarket workers can tell endless stories of being ordered to discard massive quantities of goods every day. Sanitation workers quickly come to realize the enormous quantities of high quality goods they throw into compactors on a daily basis.
On the surface, it would seem that stores would seek to curtail ordering if they consistently have an overabundance of goods. The reasons they do not do this are revealing. Retail establishments are selling not only specific products, but the store itself. They wish to project an image of abundance, of shelves, bins, and trays, that are constantly fully stocked. A nearly empty bin suggests that the items that had been there previously have been picked over and what is left are the dregs of the prior selection. Worse yet is the possibility that a customer may come in the store and find that they can not purchase all the goods they want in the quantity they desire. This logic is taken to the point of complete absurdity with many retailers discarding on a daily basis many times the actual quantity of goods sold on the off chance that a customer may walk in one day with a request for, say, 500 bagels. Retailers believe that failing to keep shelves constantly stocked damages the store’s ability to project an image of always having the best goods in infinite quantities.
Yet many stores don’t go to the trouble of storing food items overnight. Chains like Dunkin Donuts heavily promote the fact that they bake new items fresh every day (though not in their stores as their commercials suggest). The combination of keeping shelves constantly fully stocked and allowing goods a shelf life of only one store day means that the disposal of massive quantities of useable goods on a daily basis becomes inevitable. This is especially true of bakeries, pizzerias, donut shops, and salad and buffet bars.
There are also economic reasons for stores to over order. In some cases, hitting a certain price point requires bulk ordering at a specific level which may be well beyond a store’s actual need. Stores consider it economical to order in excess, plan at the outset to discard a substantial portion of the goods they purchase, and write off this portion as spoilage, recouping losses as a tax write-off. Taxpayers are thus being unwillingly recruited to subsidize the excess and waste of retailers.
Retailers also consider the lost profits from not being able to fully serve the hypothetical 500 bagel customer 1 day a year as ample justification to throw out enormous quantities of merchandise on the other 364.
Consumers subsidize this waste not only through the stores’ escaping their tax burden using waste as a write-off, but also by high retail prices. As waste is factored as a cost of doing business, the expense is being passed on to the consumer in the retail price of everything we buy. The fact that stores consider such massive waste economically justifiable to preserve the most outlandish possibilities of profit loss (the 500 bagel customer again) is suggestive of the massive gap between actual cost of the goods we buy and the profit margin added to their retail prices.
In some cases, manufacturers build in a planned loss safety net for retailers. When manufacturers are trying to get retailers to introduce a new product line, they will often offer a refund policy on unsold items so that the retailers can carry the new goods without risk and will thus be willing to order in greater quantities. For newspaper and magazine retailers, this is the standard business model for every publication they sell.
If consumers became aware of this massive waste, this could pose a serious problem for retailers operating under this model. Some might choose to recover discarded goods rather than purchasing the very same goods in the store. On a large enough scale, this could substantially cut into profits. It thus becomes doubly important for stores to keep this waste out of public sight. And besides, the image of people scouring through a store’s dumpsters distracts customers from the singleminded focus on the store and its for-sale products that retailers hope to instill in consumers as their shopping experience.
An increasing number of retailers discard goods in compactors that destroy merchandise and make it inaccessible to any who would seek to recover it. Some retailers have employees destroy merchandise before discarding it. DVDs are deliberately scratched to the point of uselessness. In some cases, food. is ground and mixed with water. Publications carry small print indicating that they cannot be sold if they are missing covers, and retailers are required to tear off the covers upon discarding them in exchange for a manufacturer refund.
Yet destruction of the product CONCEPT associated with goods may be even more powerful. We are led to believe that the goods presented to us in stores are safe, effective, desirable, and worth the money we are spending on them. We have spent lifetimes hearing adages such as “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” designed to convince us that only hard work at joyless jobs can guarantee our survival. We are left with the impression that anything we aren’t required to pay for can’t possibly be worth having. We therefore assume that discarded goods must be unsafe, ineffective, unusable, or otherwise undesirable. Stripping away the marketing attached to goods, it becomes apparent that neither assumption is true: the goods sold to us aren’t necessarily good for us, and the ones discarded aren’t necessarily bad. A discarded apple in a dumpster, for example carries far less food poisoning risk than a packaged cut of beef still on sale in a supermarket.
The injustice of this massive waste is yet another consideration that is filtered from our awareness. The production of all consumer goods without exception has a substantial ecological cost. We heighten this impact through mass-scale waste. At the same time this waste contributes to the ever growing garbage crisis, as more and more space is consumed as landfill.
The injustices that are endured in the manufacture of these products becomes even more obscene when we consider that they will never be used. As inherently disgraceful as the massive cruelty of factory farming is, we add insult to injury when we discard massive numbers of chickens whole and unsold on a daily basis, meaning that these sentient beings lived lives of suffering and died in terror and agony merely to be discarded as a waste product. Bananas are one of the foods discarded at a retail level in very high quantity and frequency, despite the fact that the growing of bananas, the world’s most popular fruit, is destroying massive tracts of irreplaceable tropical rainforest land that are converted into monocrop plantations
As war, ecological destruction, labor exploitation, hunger, and animal suffering exist as essential effects of our system of production, we need to ask ourselves what our own responsibilities are as consumers. This system overall is designed to instill in us a sense that we don’t truly have options outside of the marketplace, but that this is fine, as all that we could ever want can be found for sale in the marketplace. As we strip away these layers of propaganda we find other options– reducing overconsumption and perceived need for consumer goods, remaining satisfied with the goods we already have, and recovering wasted goods.
Individually, these actions have little impact on the overall economy, but like the individual choice of a vegan diet, the cumulative impact of individual action by large numbers of people has the potential to create direct economic impacts while forcing the issue into the minds of many others. Recently, a massive flood of media coverage on freeganism and dumpster diving have brought this issue to the attention of millions of Americans. Conscious consumers need to take advantage of this opportunity, to challenge the status quo and press for a real need for both systemic and personal change,, articulating and working to enact a vision of a world where we liberate ourselves from the compulsion to seek satisfaction through retail purchasing and instead look for it in ourselves, our communities, in good works, in the natural world, and in the simple joys of a fulfilling daily life.