The Engine of Consumerism

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

It is impossible to over-emphasise the influence Bill Bernbach (“We try harder!”) had on advertising, Adam Curtis says — and on the whole engine of consumerism:

His central idea was to encourage people to be “different” — and what that led to was a new dynamic in society.

If you want to be different you are always running away from the others who are also trying to be different — and thus become like you. So you are continually searching for something newly different, something Hip.

And that required an endless stream of new — different — products. As Thomas Frank puts it very eloquently in The Conquest of Cool:

“Bernbach’s enthusiasm for the idea of ‘difference’ became the magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself had produced

Hip was indeed the solution to the problems of the mass society, although not in the way its ideologues had intended”

But one could argue that it is precisely that continual search for difference that has led us into the static world of today. If consumerism continually scours the margins of society for rebellious or contrary notions and then immediately turns them into stuff to sell — it ironically becomes very difficult for new ideas to change society. Instead they tend to end up reinforcing it.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    Wow, Adam Curtis quoting Thomas Frank. Surely the end times are near…

  2. Bill says:

    I thought that the engine of consumerism was created by disconnecting purchases from actual needs, and tying purchases to self-care needs like calming anxiety or improving self-esteem.

    Maybe the “engine of product creation” works like this guy suggests, hand in hand with planned obsolescence. Maybe it’s easier to sell people a new, modern, improved car (exciting!) than it is to simply replace an existing car (boring and how come that other one didn’t last longer?).

  3. lucklucky says:

    We are already different. Only socialist left and socialist right wants us to be the same.

    For example the Internet; This Isegoria blog is a way for its author to state how different he is.

Leave a Reply