Monday, May 11, 2009

Consumption as Religion

Much is being made of Victor Lebow’s statements in a 1955 article about price competition published in the Journal of Retailing about the US economy needing a “constantly expanding capacity to produce.” The attention derives from an enormously popular video now being circulated in schools, which was produced by Annie Leonard, a former Greenpeace activist, called “The Story of Stuff.” More on Leonard’s video in a later blog.

What interests me most today is the assertion Lebow makes that “The very meaning and significance of our lives are today expressed in consumption terms.” I have written about this before (May 4, 2009, “Brand Fervor”). But Lebow’s statements in the middle fifties occur right at the dawn of the consumer religiosity:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and the use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance is now to be found in our consumption patterns.”

The similar stimulus patterns in the brain produced by true religious feelings and brand loyalty that Martin Lindstrom describes in Buyology (2009) are foretold here, over 50 years ago, just as the Age of Branding was getting a full head of steam. True, modern branding and brand management are generally attributed to a P&G internal memo written by Neil McElroy on May 13, 1931, but we were not to witness the full impact of branding until two difficult decades later when our pent-up demand as consumers finally emerged full blown in the ‘50’s.

The link between an ever expanding economy connected to individual identity really lies at the root of the American Experience, but it is not until the 1950’s that our article of faith—The Manifest Destiny—found its inspiration in consumer aspirations not in the divine. Now, as we have finally understood that an ever expanding economy, like Western Expansion, is a delusion, perhaps our social satisfactions may attach themselves to something more lasting, more (dare I say it) spiritual than material consumption.

More on Pent Up Demand, Manifest Destiny, and the New Economy in upcoming blogs.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Every Mother’s Wish, Whether or Not She Has Children

My mother—Gladys Helene Hoegfoss Gould, pictured above in 1938—dedicated her life to nursing. She would join me in repeating Julia Ward Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation (1870):
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Truth will out: Pentagon Pundit Propagandists and Customer-Generated Reviews

The blogosphere and search might just turn us into truth tellers—or am I being way too hopeful?

Google will shut you out if you load up your page descriptions with terms not found on your web pages. Page ranking cannot be bought off. Only the most popular and most relevant sites find their way to the top. And paid-off citizen reviewers are eventually discovered, given the number of reviews generated on a product. In the review process, the outliers—those with opinions that are extreme—may be viewed within the context of the majority of the reviewers.

But who protects us from misinformation on mainstream media? Now it appears that the blogosphere has stepped up to be democracy’s watchdog. Clearly, many mainstream journalists have abandoned that role.

Case in point: All the major broadcasters—ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC—used ex-military men who were briefed by the Pentagon prior to their appearances on television in the period leading up to the Iraq War. This policy of disinformation shaped American opinion and also lined the pockets of many of these generals posing as media consultants, some of whom also served on the boards of companies whose businesses profited by the Iraqi war.

The Pentagon during the Bush Administration developed a policy to use ex-military men—usually generals—to act as objective commentators—hence, key influencers—to sell the war product in a manner that even the most manipulative of brand managers would think twice about. Truly, an expert campaign aimed at penetrating the distrust of spin by providing the appearance of objectivity and truth.

Listen to 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning, NYT investigative reporter David Barstow today on Democracy Now to see how the tactics of product evangelism can go awry. It appears now that only bloggers and alternative media (much of which is found on the internet) are giving Barstow’s reporting and his receiving such a prestigious prize any airing. Although found on cable, the internet, and radio, Democracy Now! is the only television broadcast to interview this Pulitzer Prize winner.

You might think that comparing Pentagon propaganda to product review or site padding trivializes the seriousness of the charges against mainstream media. It’s offered as a comparison only to show that the mechanism for uncovering the truth is pretty much the same and to sound a plea for our continuing to keep the internet as democratic as possible. It may just be our last hope.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Personally, I'm against big things. I think the world is going to be saved by millions of small things. Too many things can go wrong when they get big

Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! devoted her hour long show yesterday to Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday, which was celebrated in grand style in Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Seeger whose life has been dedicated to social activism through music is an unusual celebrity. He purposefully avoided the limelight, but it consistently found him.

As she and guests chronicled Seeger’s many achievements—his pivotal, though often understated roles in the labor movement, civil rights, the environment—what struck me was how he slowly and with great determination tackled big issues in very small ways. A case in point: His singing of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” on the Smothers Brothers show in January 1968.

Controversial at the time, this unassuming appearance now seems to have accelerated the changing mood in the country. In March, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek another term as president, and, on October 31, he announced that the US would cease “all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam.” Such a view substantially rewrites history—Seeger’s act was just another drop in the bucket that, when filled to the brim, eventually changed US policy.

“Too many things can go wrong when they get big,” as Pete Seeger stated. Like banks and other institutions that are “too big to fail?” while smaller banks are allowed to go under. By concentrating on institutions that have acquired disproportionate influence over the country, we have allowed smaller organizations—banks, businesses, entrepreneurial start-ups—to fail. This policy is not only unwise; it also counterproductive in that it strains against the counter-intuitive cultural Zeitgeist of early 21st century America.

This Zeitgeist is counter-intuitive only because most of the ways we have conducted business since the ‘50’s at least are being inverted, subverted, or changed in radically new ways. A few examples: Google and its wiki adherents that offer core products for free and make money through the back or side door. A global economy where local and regional products have found greater favor. Millions of online writers, journalists or hacks with their own blogs, videologs, or websites supplanting large daily newspapers, magazines, and television. More later.

Change is afoot in every aspect of our lives, and it will arrive in the aggregate actions of individuals and small organizations that can now wield enormous power helped in part by new technologies. Small is the new big.

To quote Frances Moore Lappe, who wrote Diet for a Small Planet (cited earlier) and her daughter Anna Lappe’s definition of their Small Planet Institute:
We believe that ideas have enormous power and that humans are capable of changing failing ideas in order to turn our planet toward life. At the Small Planet Institute, we seek to identify the core, often unspoken, assumptions and forces — economic, political, and psychological — now taking our planet in a direction that as individuals none of us would choose. We disseminate this deeper understanding of root causes. With a grasp of root causes, citizens no longer disparage their actions as “mere drops in the bucket.” Once we’re able to see the “bucket,” we realize our drops are quite spectacular; the bucket is actually filling up.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Brand Fervor: Applying the Language of Religion to Consumerism

Over the past few years, it has become commonplace to refer to customers whose zeal for a company seems unbounded as evangelists. These customers may or may not necessarily be your best customers, but they can be counted on to act as influencers. They spread the word via word of mouth, on blogs, or in customer review sections of your websites about your products. When enthusiastically happy about your company, their opinions can help skyrocket sales. When unhappy, watch out. You might end up in Dell Hell.

Martin Lindstrom in his ground-breaking work Buyology used fMRI and SST technology to analyze the brain activity of 2081 volunteers over a four year period from 2004-2008. In one of his studies, he examined the correlation between electric brain activity stimulated by religious imagery and commercial brands. Summarizing the work really does it an injustice. The book is a very good read. The point here is that “smashable brands”—those brands that retain their identity, especially among brand zealots, even if you smash them apart (Apple, Coke, Harley Davidson, etc.)—elicit a similar response in brand-loyal folks as religious iconography does when viewed by people of faith.

After extensive interviews with religious and spiritual leaders to determine the 10 pillars of all religions, he concludes that iconographic brands share the same characteristics as the great religions, namely: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, storytelling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery, and rituals. I should add that he makes this association not to denigrate religion, but simply to point out that a similar kind of fervor develops among brand-loyalists.

In a similar vein, Stanley Fish, noted author and educator, wrote an editorial in the New York Times today entitled “God Talk.” The editorial is actually a review of British critic Terry Eagleton’s newest book Reason, Faith and Revolution. Again risking oversimplification, Eagleton thinks that we have begun to exact from science what we previously thought to derive from religion. He believes that “faith and knowledge are not antithetical but “interwoven.” If we demand from science answers to the eternal questions of life, we will come up empty. And if we try to seek an understanding of the material world from a religious point of view, we will similarly be at a loss.

Pointing out that those who adhere to “Progress” as an article of faith might be accused of believing in “superstition” to the same degree religious adherents have been, Fish quotes and summarizes Eagleton as follows: “’The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,’ all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.”

The application of the language of religion to consumerism points out, I believe, an underlying social need: A search for Value—material and spiritual—in an otherwise compromised world.