Book: The Consumer Trap

The Consumer Trap A few years ago I put together a list of books about media that have helped me understand different pieces of our culture. I'm currently reading a book that I'm officially adding to my Guerilla Media Literacy List. The Consumer Trap by Michael Dawson sounds at first like a personal finance book, and I suppose it might affect readers' buying habits in some ways. But the book is really an examination of the business systems that influence and direct our off-the-job lives.

Before reading this book I was very aware of standard marketing terms such as branding, differentiation, distribution channels, and targeting. I was even aware of psychological advertising methods that were pioneered by Edward Bernays, explored by folks like Vance Packard, and are in heavy use today. (Check out the excellent documentary The Century of the Self for a crash course in psychological advertising.) So I considered myself fairly familiar with the Marketing Machine. But reading Dawson's book brought together these familiar concepts and many more new marketing tools into a complete, coherent picture.

The book starts with a history of both marketing and marketing criticism. Dawson introduced me to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who used methods from science to organize business, and Thorstein Veblen, an economist and early critic of corporate business practices. In one example of scientific observation, Taylor attached lights to workers, filmed them as they worked, and found ways to make their movements more efficient. Taylor's ideas about engineering work environments, objects, and people's actions lead to companies taking a similar, scientific approach to people's off-the-job, product-related activities as well. Veblen, on the other hand, coined the term conspicuous consumption and found that corporate marketers were using "force and fraud" to engineer people's activities in a form of absentee ownership that has existed throughout history. These two figures set up the tension that exists throughout the book.

At times I couldn't tell if I was reading a critique of marketing or a how-to manual. But I think a big part of being a literate media consumer is understanding how the system works. Dawson shows that marketing is about much more than advertising, and that it's marketing that decides which products are produced. He describes marketing strategies such as differentiation between equal products, planned obsolescence that increases the chances someone will buy a new product before an old one is used up, and elaborate packaging that extends the brand.

I don't think we can be completely free from the forces of marketing, and we probably wouldn't want to be. But a greater awareness of the carrots and sticks that are out there can help us make informed decisions. If you're interested in how your media environment influences you on a daily basis, you are the target market for The Consumer Trap.

Comments

Thorstein Veblen is awesome in a way that only a cranky son of immigrants can be. Conspicuous consumption (and conspicuous waste) are so much a part of marketing strategy.
heh, I picked up a couple of his books. From the description in this book, it sounds like Veblen was prescient about our path toward consumer culture. Plus there's nothing like a cranky economist to put you to sleep at night.
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