New York — Advertisements are everywhere and have been everywhere for a long time. But the advertisement industry took off in the ’70s as Television and mass media reached new heights. Now, this multi-billion dollar industry forms the perceived desires of American consumerism through the clever use of beautiful images, gorgeous models, catchy jingles, and sheer frequency of exposure. Mountains of cash are given to ad agencies every year to take a brand, product, service, or image and blow it up to unthinkable proportions.
The purpose of the ad agency is to create public desire around a brand. And the goal is simple: Consumption, which, in turn, fattens the profit margins for manufacturers. It’s a central pillar of capitalism. And the rising popularity of social media has not harmed this process in the least. In fact, social media outlets are critical spaces for displaying advertisements for household goods, clothing, jewelry, and other materials.
Let’s face it: It feels great to purchase something new. But you might not know that that feeling is a biological response. When you buy something new, a chemical in your brain, Dopamine, is released. Theorists claim this feeling leads consumers to purchase more despite not needing the item they are buying.
According to the Federal Reserve Board, 25% of U.S. households experienced some form of financial hardship. And nearly half reported insufficient savings to cover three months of expenses. J.P . Morgan Chase found that, except for top earners, U.S. households across the income spectrum lacked the liquid assets necessary to weather adverse shocks in income and rising costs of goods.
What does this indicate? And who’s at fault? Perhaps these numbers indicate that Americans prioritize material value above long-term financial health. Long story short, there’s a social significance assigned to the acquisition of…stuff.
Tracing the Diderot Effect to American Consumerism
Denis Diderot was a French philosopher known for writing the encyclopedia during France’s Age of Enlightenment. It was an enormous project shared with other philosophers, but Diderot was a chief contributor and remained involved until its completion in 1765, despite the controversy it garnished in France at the time. In hindsight, it’s viewed as an antecedent of the French Revolution.
So how is Diderot a figure that relates to the issue of American consumerism?
Despite his many contributions to French philosophy and society, Diderot spent most of his life in poverty. Initially, he had no need for material possessions — until he received a gift from a friend. The gift: A scarlet robe.
At first, to Diderot, the gift seemed ridiculous. It was so grand, so expensive. And most importantly, it did not match his other belongings. But the peculiar thing was, rather than appreciating the gift, it made the philosopher hungry to acquire more expensive objects. Slowly, he began replacing his furniture, his clothing, and even his art to make his entire collection of possessions match the luxury of the scarlet robe.
This spiral of senseless consumption eventually led Diderot to acquire many beautiful, expensive, new things he did not need. Hence, the term “The Diderot Effect” was born. As you might guess, Diderot’s reckless acquisitions landed him in massive debt.
In his famous essay, “Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune,” Diderot writes:
“My old robe was one with the other rags that surrounded me. A straw chair, a wooden table, a rug from Bergamo, a wood plank that held up a few books, a few smoky prints without frames, hung by its corners on that tapestry. Between these prints three or four suspended plasters formed, along with my old robe, the most harmonious indigence.
All is now discordant. No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.”
Mastering Your Impulses
Sound familiar? At this point, purchasing item after item with nonexistent funds is part of the all-American tradition. And tech has served only to fuel American consumerism. Apps like Klarna, Affirm, and Afterpay help to contribute to the “buy now, pay later” culture Americans have so thoughtlessly adopted.
So how do you escape such a mindset, especially in a country that promotes consumerism to the tune of trillions of advertising budgets every year?
One way to mitigate the impulse is to first assess the necessity of the item in question. The second suggestion is setting a strict budget and sticking to it. Your paycheck should be considered a tool for addressing your bills, immediate needs, and preparations for the future. When you get paid, “pay yourself” by setting aside some savings and then using the remainder to treat yourself.
Try it out. You’ll be surprised by what you are actually able to accomplish.
For more breaking news, opinion pieces, and coverage, visit the Current Affairs Times homepage. Have something you want to submit? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to pitch any article ideas.