By Matthew Madden
In neo-classical economics, the paradox of thrift describes an economic scenario in which the more people save their own money, the worse off the overall economic situation becomes. As a result, the paradox of thrift states that what may be good for the individual may not be good for society. The consumption paradox describes a situation in which an individual enjoys an increased quality of life from a material standpoint, yet is less satisfied and content with that life. The consumption paradox is specifically focused on both the “take-make-waste” model we’ve embraced as well as the role marketing, advertising and sales campaigns play in increasing the throughput of this model.
The commonality between these two concepts – the paradox of thrift and the consumption paradox – is the focus on the individual. Marketing, advertising and sales campaigns in traditional product environments have a primary focus of increasing sales and, by extension, increasing individual consumption and the lifestyle of consumerism.
A primary method for achieving this goal is by focusing on the individual from an emotional and psychological perspective. Our current society is so abundant that consumption is no longer related to satiating our needs, but is now an attempt to satisfy more complex, emotional needs. One reason that citizens of the United States may be particularly susceptible to sales and marketing campaigns – specifically campaigns geared towards capitalizing on the isolation and alienation of the individual in our society – is the enduring American myth of the individual.
This quality of individualism is both integral to the folklore of our country and celebrated as part of the “American spirit”. Symbols like the American cowboy, as an example of American individualism, are now commonly tied with the American experience and, as a result, there are many branding efforts built almost exclusively around this concept. Examples include John Wayne and Ronald Reagan – both became American icons due to the branding efforts to associate them with American individualism.
The Consumption Paradox references recent research on the decrease of informal, social interaction in the United States (a topic explored at great length in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) and cited multiple reasons – such as time pressures, excessive television viewing and suburban sprawl. It’s difficult to argue with these well-tread explanations, but I contend these reasons are symptomatic of a larger issue.
The reason Americans feel time pressures is because we spend more of our time working to pay for our materialistic habits. The reason we watch so much television is because we crave a reprieve from the constant pressures and anxieties, often related to our overly consumerist lifestyles. And the reason we live in suburban homes is because we’ve fully embraced the myth of American individualism. Where we live and how we spend our time are symptomatic to the root cause of the myriad of problems facing our society. The value systems we’ve embraced – typified by this American glorification of individualism – is the true issue that needs to be discussed in order to create change.
Of course, individuals aren’t solely responsible. It can be said that American corporations are incredibly effective at achieving goals once they’ve been defined. If one of the goals of the marketing and advertising industry was to increase throughput – to increase consumption – you have to admit that this goal has been met over the past 80 years. And one of the tactics deployed to meet that goal was to capitalize on the myth of American individualism to convert American citizens into American consumers.
We’ve all experienced this phenomena – we all acquire more materials goods, yet continue to remain unsatisfied… Seth Godin has some great advice for anyone stuck in this paradox of consumption: “If you decide what you want (instead of letting someone else decide for you) perhaps you could choose the things that would actually bring you and your loved ones the satisfaction you can live with.”
That would be the mark of a true individual.
Matthew Madden is currently writing a book tentatively titled Status Quo Values. The purpose of this project is to explore status quo value systems – economic, political and social values – and discuss the role these values play in our society’s aversion to change. The goal of the work is to define status quo values, discuss the historical roots of our institutional embrace of status quo values, examine the role our institutions play in promoting these values to individuals and investigate examples of institutions and individuals adhering to alternative value systems.
He is also pursuing an MBA from the Presidio Graduate School – one of the first graduate institutions to integrate sustainability into all facets of the curriculum. He lives in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.