Commodified Culture

You have probably seen the commercial. A young woman walks into the kitchen of a very posh house and places two sets of keys down on the counter and smiles at her husband (presumably). They race out of the posh house and stand beside two brand new GMC trucks (costs, appx. $50,000.00 apiece). One truck is blue and the other is red. The man points to the blue one, but his wife has already claimed it for herself and he weakly smiles as he realizes that the red one is his.

I have borrowed the words of Robert Heilbronner to help us grasp what is wrong with this commercial, so typical of those we see on our television at this time of year. To begin with these are apparently Christmas presents that the woman has bought for herself and her husband. Thus begins the set of problems this commercial sets before us.

Christmas is not all about getting, though the commercials like this one would lead us to believe it is. Granted, if all are expected to get something at Christmas then someone must be giving, but the point is moot because the scenes we witness again and again are about the joy of receiving, not giving. So that’s the first problem. A season of giving has turned into a season of getting — and we mustn’t ignore the sad faces of the little children who may not get anything this Christmas. Heaven forbid.

The second problem is the fact that these expensive gifts are now the aspiration of a great many people in this country most of whom could not even dream of spending that sort of money to buy Christmas presents. So it breeds resentment, of which I have spoken before: the frustration and anger that arise because others have things we want for ourselves. But the fact that we want these things is a fact that rests on the virtual certainty that the marketing forces that rule the media have convinced us that those expensive toys will make us happy.

The third problem suggested above, is that the woman’s behavior in claiming the blue truck which her husband clearly wants shows us her selfish desire to gratify her own pleasures and to ignore his — again, getting takes precedence over giving. What started out to be a gift turns out to be a sort of booby prize because the man has the very thing he wants snatched away from him by the giver, in this case his wife.

But beyond these obvious layers of message, and there are many when we reflect on commercials, is the growing evidence that ours has become indeed a commodified culture that stands or falls on the willingness of consumers to buy things they do not need simply because they have been conditioned by the “hidden persuaders” that they want them.  Therefore they must have them. Need is forgotten. Wants trump and they are easily created by a media that has become very astute at sending messages, both conscious and unconscious, that help us decide what sorts of things will make us happy.

And here is the nub of the problem. It is bad enough that we have become a society of blind consumers, but it adds to the problem when we realize that Christmas time, starting these days immediately after Halloween, has become all about getting things. Getting and things: two concepts that are at the core of a commodified culture. Thus, a season that is supposed to be all about love and peace on earth, is now about getting the stuff we want, regardless of the cost. Period.

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34 thoughts on “Commodified Culture

  1. It’s interesting that you point out ‘marketing forces convince us ‘ and yet know one I know would ever admit that advertising has the slightest effect on them , they simply tolerate or ignore the adverts and will not be brainwashed by them.
    Some I believe are resistant but there is a more insidious attack the advertisers know very well ; once some of the goods are in circulation we willingly see others using them and that will push us to make the decision.
    There is another interesting trait in human nature at the salesmen study well , value for money and we are convinced that organic bananas must be better , or that Heinz baked beans must supersede all others. We are very susceptible to the placebo effect a visit to the doctor improves our heath no end , along with a glass of tonic wine it works miracles.

  2. When my children were young, I constantly harped about differentiating between ‘need’ and ‘want’, for it seems many … perhaps most … have great difficulty in understanding the difference. All advertising has one goal … to create the illusion that we ‘need’ their product. That their product will somehow improve our lives. Since I don’t watch television and have 99% of ads blocked on my computer, it is very rare that I even see an ad. Add to that, the fact that I am frugal and consider how many people could eat for a month on what I am considering spending on a new ‘toy’, and I am the worst nightmare for marketing companies. That said, most people are fairly easily convinced that the new cell phone, the latest gadget or that new blue truck will add value to their lives. When it doesn’t, they go searching for something else that will. And thus we have people who are easily led around by the nose come election time … an empty promise to provide “more” is often the only selling point a candidate needs to make. I do buy Christmas gifts for family and just a few close friends, but what I buy, especially for the young people, is most often books, for their value is never-ending. We have become a highly materialistic society and the day is likely to come when a lot of people learn the hard way that ‘things’ don’t bring happiness or even contentment. Excellent post, Hugh, and a message that everyone should hear and ponder, therefore I will share it. Thank you!

  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    I have often posited that greed is possibly the single biggest cause of the mess we are in today. As we wade knee-deep into the Christmas season, with retailers hoping to turn red to black on their income statements, advertisers are in full swing trying to convince you that you simply must have that shiny new object. Our friend Hugh has written a very good, thoughtful and thought-provoking post on this topic that carries a message we all need to hear, to be reminded of. Thank you, Hugh, for this post and your generous permission to share it.

  4. Mary and Joseph would probably have been happy with any colour vehicle, more comfortable than a donkey for the 80 – 90 miles to Bethlehem! I don’t drive, cars are the ultimate in wrong aspirations – pollution, accidents etc Perhaps we should all aspire to a donkey for Christmas…

  5. Dear Hugh and Jill,

    There are people out there who are sure that if they had this one thing, or lived in this one area that they would finally be happy. I look at a guy like Mr. Trump who is mostly angry.

    But then there are the necessities. Have you noticed all those pharmaceutical companies marking those must have medications?. I did a recent check. The least expensive product was only about $500.00.

    This pharmaceutical industry needs some fixing.

    Hugs, Gronda

    • There is a form of cancer treatment involving pills that cost more than $10,000.00 a month — and one must take them for the rest of his or her life! As you say: the pharmaceutical companies need some fixing!

  6. Hugh, buying a vehicle is an extravagance most people would not or could not do for Christmas. Buying two is unheard of. The only people who would do such would not miss the money.

    As for the lack of gratitude, that is its own issue. This commercial is bothersome on multiple levels as you note. Keith

    • What is really bothersome is the extent to which ours has become a commodified culture — especially at this time of the year when the companies make more than a third of their profits!

  7. Gratefully I am one of the few who has not seen this commercial, and I count my blessings that televisions and ads are not part of my life. Whew! You described the commercial well, and I understand the clever marketing (grrrrrrr) and how ‘Joe Public’ would embrace that commercial…
    $50,000 would build a really really really lovely home here, or would buy a vast amount of land…. sigh.. if wishes were horses….

    Today I visited a Wildlife rescue center way way way off the beaten path. It was like stepping 50 years back (for Ecuador) and probably 100 years back – or more in the USA. Yet the people had few wants, and most of their needs were met. I told my guide as we looked at the people in their thatch-roofed houses, “THIS is where one would want to live – with sweet neighbors who live off the land – if there should be an event that took out the electric grid… People like this take care of each other…”

    I did note that even though they had little, most had a direct tv or similar receiver on the roof so they could be connected to the world….

    • It is interesting how often we hear about those who have little but seem to be the happiest. And, by the way, there are communities in this country where folks live off the land and “off the grid.” I have two very dear friends who moved to such a place in Iowa!

  8. If you watch TV, buy a PVR, tape the shows you want to see, watch them when you want to watch them, and fast forward past the commercials. That is if you watch TV.
    Books don’t have commercials, you can pick them up and put them down when you want, take them anywhere, and trade them in when you are finished with them.
    Consumerism is a choice, though not everyone realizes that. It is like most things these days, easy to do, hard to resist, but necessary to learn the difference. It has created the “NOW” culture, but this is where being a lifetime rebel comes in very handy. Question everything. Accept nothing!

    • It is somewhat of a choice but you only have to go shopping to have no choice , or walk around a shopping mall to be inundated. When technology benefits us we are most at risk ; no need to get out of the chair to change channels , to ride is much easier than walking , why not Hoover instead of laborious sweeping. Perhaps a tricky one is audibooks lovely for the blind but nice and easy for the sighted . Librivox is huge popular site run by volunteers .

      • Indeed. The objective of the marketers has increasingly become that of making the choice for us. The history of advertising is fascinating and we can see the gradual attempts by those who sell to convince buyers that they need what they clearly do not need.

      • I avoid malls like the plague. I question every ad I do see or hear. I drive my girlfriend crazy with my constant picking at the obvious stupidities. But not everyone sees them. And that is who they are aimed at.

  9. Very well put Hugh.
    There is also the disturbing concept that the advertising folk, the folk they hired to shoot the commercial and the company selling saw absolutely nothing wrong with this advert. They all probably thought it rather ‘clever and witty’

  10. Yeah, a great sermon, Hugh, one I’ve heard a hundred times, read entire books on, even preached myself a few times. It’s frustrating at first when we begin to see behind the veil to realize how many do not and never will. Greed is the gospel of capitalism and capitalism has become the type of predator that destroys its own prey. So why worry about it? We who see know that change can only come when the entertainment centers close; the box stores and super stores are empty, there is no paying work to be found and real hunger and real want is being felt. Then change will happen but it won’t be positive change as we well know from history. It will be violent revolution, bloodshed and vengeance against imagined enemies or culprits for the bottom having fallen out of things. In case anyone wants to question this, consider what mindless, criminal violence Black Friday shoppers are capable of: deadly shootings, trampling to death, pepper spraying… just to get a cheap deal on something likely not even needed. Is the nation shocked? Maybe for a moment or two, certainly not to the point of considering changing one’s lifestyle.

    • Sorry. I try to be original but can’t always reach the goal. Thus I must settle for stating the obvious and hoping that it makes things a little clearer for me and those few who red these posts!

  11. I think this comes down to mentally growing up and using common sense. That add seems to cater to the rich. I’ve never known anyone who can go and buy two cars at the same time. They’d have to buy double the insurance as well. Of course, the advertiser would love us to buy like that but they know most of us can’t. It’s a silly ad. Even most of the wealthy probably are more careful with their money and wouldn’t do it. That’s why they have money. —- Suzanne

    • The ads that cater to the rich are also suggesting to all of us that there is where happiness lies. It is a not-so-subtle message that is repeated often. Thus do we equate success with things: “the one who does with the most toys wins,” as the bumper sticker says!

    • I don’t know, I think the ad’s intent is to make people feel like losers if they can’t do this and motivate them to at least buy one new car, to show off and feel better about their situation. As for the wealthy they have money by simply stealing it from the poor and taxpayers. They don’t have to be careful with it, in fact their motto is you don’t save money you make money.

  12. This is just an excellent piece. Every Christmas when the vehicle commercials begin I laugh out loud and ask “Does anyone you know actually give new vehicles for Christmas?” The particular one you mention is particularly ridiculous because the majority of women do not have 1000,000 in cash to spend for two new vehicles anytime in this lifetime, nor do the majority of women make enough money to suddenly assume two new vehicle payments…I hear you can get them for five and seven years now….for the coming New Year.
    Excellent piece. Got here via Jilldennison. Wishing you a most excellent holiday season. Thank you

  13. At last I have time to stop by, Hugh.
    I read this when it first appeared. I have become utterly depressed and at the same time angered by what passes for ‘Christmas’ today. I haven’t seen an equivalent of your car advert here, but we have the incessant messages: your lights must be a display, not decoration and new each year and more and more and more of them; you must eat new variations on foods each year, now, preferably decorated with real gold (what next? platinum?); you must have a new outfit or two; you must have special plates and table runners and serving platters; you must put out special food – not just carrots any more – for a non-existent reindeer; you must have an advent calendar that has a miniature liqueur or a beauty product for each day – aaaargh! God help us if it’s just a picture behind the windows.
    Advent is now Christmas by another name. There is no wholesome centre to this ‘feast’. Gift giving is about excess, about duty, not pleasure. The meal is all about showing off, and endless work for many women. The 12 days is no more. It’s December, then the newer retail fest of New Year and over.
    Your wretched Black Friday, which has no cultural or commercial origin here is now firmly implanted in retailers’ calendars. I hate it all!
    We will have a pleasant day, no tree, some coloured lights and decorative evergreen boughs on the table, candles, no presents. Except a book or two. And I reckon we will enjoy it more than most people.

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