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The Consumer Society

Perpetuating Consumer Culture
Media, Advertising, and Wants Creation
Overview Essay

by David Kiron

On any given day, 18 billion display ads appear in magazines and daily newspapers across the United States. In consumer cultures like the U.S. the urge to buy is sanctioned, reinforced, and exaggerated in ways so numerous, so enticing, so subtle, that ignoring them is not an easy option. The sales message is perhaps nowhere more vivid and insistent than on television. And with credit more widely available, buying is easy, its consequences distant. The cumulative impact on the psyche of all this urging and buying is never fixed. Dissatisfaction recurs with each reminder that the goods we have are not good enough. In part, this section addresses the cycle of dissatisfaction-satisfaction promoted by the media and advertising. At a deeper level, there is a focus on what happens in a market-oriented society when visions of the good life are structured by commercial images.

When broadcast advertising, television, and modern forms of consumer credit were introduced, each could claim to be services that would further the public good. In the mid-1920s, commercial sponsorship of entire radio programs was widely accepted as a public service. During this period even the advertising industry argued that the dignity of the radio medium should not be debased by advertisements for specific products. In 1940 David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA, then owner of NBC, the National Broadcasting Company), predicted that mass distribution of commercial television would unify the nation and contribute to the greater development of the individual. In the late 1950s Bank of America promoted credit cards as a service that would permit upstanding middle-class citizens to achieve the American Dream. Today, however, the voices extolling the public virtues of credit and commercial broadcasting are difficult to hear above the din of their critics.

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