If the first of my lessons from MLK has informed the principles of this project, it’s now time to turn to the second: the need to truly understand the essence of the problem before seeking to solve it. My hypothesis is that the extent to which we see ourselves – consciously or otherwise – as Consumers is a root cause of pretty much every major problem our society faces today.
This work really began for me while I was still in advertising, in working with Tom Crompton (WWF) and Guy Shrubsole (then of the Public Interest Research Centre, now Friends of the Earth) on a report called Think of Me as Evil? Opening the ethical debates in advertising. We asked some searching questions of the advertising industry, offering the conclusion that there are both quantitative and qualitative issues with the role of advertising in our society today. There is a good deal of evidence that to suggest that we have too much advertising in too many places in our lives, and that advertising is endorsing and normalising a set of cultural values that are deeply unhelpful to our society.
Separating out these two issues and reflecting back over time, I have become increasingly convinced that the former, quantitative issue is the most important. The quotation that we cited in the report, and that I keep coming back to, originally came from a New York agency head in an interview with the New York Times. She said: “We never know where the consumer is going to be at any point in time, so we have to find a way to be everywhere. Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”
To me, the truth implicit in these words takes this beyond an issue for the advertising industry (though it remains one this industry can do much about) and to an issue for society. For the language here recognises that we are now – and increasingly, since this article is from 2007 – Consumers in every part and place of our lives. Everywhere we turn, we meet messages that remind us of that fact, and normalise the dominance of that role still further. My co-author Guy has done some analysis on this in books and newspapers and written it up here; the chart below sums up his point.
Reflect just for a moment and you will realise that this framing of people as Consumers is indeed ubiquitous. From the obvious, in the form of the sheer volume of advertisements (the average person sees between 1000-5000 a day depending on who you believe), to the more pervasive, such as the near-nightly reports on Consumer Confidence (seen as a key measure of national success) on our news channels, we are consistently and constantly told that our primary role in society, our key means of social participation, is to be Consumers.
That brings me to the first, ‘problem’ set of questions that lies at the heart of the New Citizenship Project:
What are we doing to ourselves when we tell ourselves we’re Consumers 3000 times a day?
What are we making inevitable? What are we making impossible? What simply can’t be spoken in such a world?
There hasn’t been a huge amount of research done on this, but what does exist has some bleak implications. The most complete study is “Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being”. Their findings? Among other things, that purely by priming respondents with the word ‘Consumer’ instead of the word ‘Citizen’ on the title page of a survey, you find the response you get is less socially and environmentally engaged. One word.
This is where the emerging science of behavioural economics, and the work of Daniel Kahnemann in particular, comes in. When we understand that people are not rational agents, but that our actions are hugely and directly informed by the circumstances in which they take place, we start to sense that perhaps all this talk of ourselves as Consumers is really not smart. It is unconscious conditioning, not innocent use of language.
All the evidence I have seen suggests that this pervasive frame of the Consumer is a truly root problem – a cause, not just a symptom. It impacts on everything from climate change to social justice to global poverty, because the idea of ourselves as Consumers has become the lens through which we undertake our search for solutions. In doing so, we become like the drunk who searches for his lost keys under the streetlight because that is where the light is (nice article on the ‘streetlight effect’ here, by the way).
If this pervasive framing of people as Consumers is a strong hypothesis for the essence of the problem, though, there’s still much to learn. I share the below as genuine questions that I’m holding at the moment and will be seeking to explore on this blog, and on which any contributions (then or now) would be hugely appreciated.
How and when did all this come about? When did the Consumer emerge as a concept? When did he become king?
How far has the idea of the Consumer extended? Politics? Shareholders? Parents?
Where is the rest of the world? In which nations/societies is it even more pervasive? Where is it less so?
What are the worst excesses? Advertising to children? Outdoor advertising? Media narrative-building?
Does this constitute Consumerism? What is Consumerism? A social system? A value orientation?
Are Consumerism and Capitalism the same thing?
What is the worldview of which Consumerism is part? What is the role of ethical and political philosophy in this? Where does utilitarian thinking come into this?
My concluding view for this post, though, is that while it is important to seek more answers in order to deepen and texture understanding of the problem, there is enough to suggest that there is indeed the essence of a problem here that it would be useful to solve. In my next post, I’ll set out a few similar starting thoughts and questions I’d like help with(!) on the hypothesis that reclaiming and reinventing ‘New Citizenship’ is an inspiring, positive, and commensurate approach to solving it.