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By Jourdan Phillips
In 1993 William Leach stated, “Whoever has the power to project a vision of the good life and make it prevail has the most decisive power of all. In its sheer quest to produce and sell goods cheaply in constantly growing volume and at high profit levels, American business, after 1890, acquired such power and has kept it ever since.”
The term “the good life” is a marketing term that was coined in the 1950s and 60s to reflect the drastic economic growth of the time. It is defined more or less as living a life in which the society member’s needs are met and their wants are within reach. To understand the context for such a cultural framing, we should consider the time periods from which it was born.
During the economic boom period of the 1950s & 60s, the gross national product grew by nearly 250% and over 50% of American families moved up into middle-class status. Such unparalleled growth allowed the government to reinvest in the nation’s infrastructure through highway and sewer construction, education and job training, and housing loans. Suddenly the ‘needs’ of the people were met and the ‘wants’ began to take center stage. The amount of discretionary income in households doubled and there was money to spend. Marketing and advertising firms started to craft an idyllic image, where status and happiness could be bought through products on a shelf.
This projection of “the good life” was defined in economic terms, linking income to well-being and placing a middle-class standard of living as the measurement of achievement and status. With the wave of heightened income and the influence of advertising and marketing, consumerism was born and has escalated in its cultural prevalence ever since.
So, we know what Leach stated in 1993, we know the 50s and 60s were eras built around developing the good life, and yet where are we today? Researchers speak to the shrinking of the middle class. Most people no longer have the kind of heightened discretionary income of yesteryear, but we continue to spend like we do, swapping the wants of the now for the needs of the future. The country’s infrastructure, built 60 years ago, is falling apart and we can’t afford to fix it. Today, we revere this past through period-based entertainment, through such shows as Mad Men and Pan Am and through our continued dedication to consumerism. Our economic times are not the same, but marketers would like to give the illusion they are as they encourage consumption, even going so far as to unveil products like a Mad Men inspired Banana Republic clothing line. If we want to think nostalgically and go back to “the good life’ golden days, we should look first at rebuilding our infrastructure and value system instead of rebuilding our image.
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