The Corporate Consumption Complex And The Need For A New Public Health Agenda

Note: This blog post can be read on its own but can also be read as a sequel to my previous post “Corporate Consumption Complex And The Need For A New Public Health Agenda”. Since I introduced some different concepts and terminology in the previous post, it can be very helpful to first read that before you jump into this since I will reuse several of the terms introduced there.

Part Two

I would like to answer the following questions in this blog post:

  • What is a corporate myth? How can we identify them?
  • What is the antidote to corporate myths? How do we counteract them?
  • Which concrete tools do we need to build a movement for a healthier and more democratic society?

What are corporate myths?

Simply put, corporate myths are all types of marketing or messages that are communicated to citizens where the infantilist ethos and ideology of hyper-consumption is advocated. The myth lies within the idea of that through consuming specific products and services we can have instant gratification (infantilist ethos), for needs that the corporations selling these products created in the first place. When we are met by marketing or a product that manages to reach the void of alienation that this modern day society creates inside of us, you can hear someone exclaim: “I didn’t think I needed one before I saw this, but now I definitively know that I need one!”. This is the very essence of hyperconsumption.

Corporate Consumption Complex And The Need For A New Public Health Agenda

Another way of defining corporate myths is when the corporate consumption complex (CCC) addresses people as consumers rather than citizens. This is unfortunately increasingly becoming the norm where even politicians and NGO’s are addressing people as consumers with consumer power rather than citizens with democratic power. However, this just means that NGOs and politicians run the errands of the CCC, despite having no actual product to sell to us.

So to conclude, corporate myths are actions that strengthen the CCC and promote hyper-consumption in the spirit of the infantilist ethos as the solution to problems we already have the tools for to fix ourselves.

Adbusting 101 – identifying corporate myths in advertising and how to avoid harmful prevention communication

 

The purpose of this exercise is to learn how to identify consumption myths and practicing to avoid communication that reinforces and perpetuates these same myths. Let’s try the ad busting exercise with an old advertisement from the tobacco industry.

In adjunct to this ad I have made an ‘ad busted’ version, trying to incorporate preventative communication. Here are these pictures next to each other:

In the original picture we see the textual message: “A maybe has no fun, don’t be a maybe. Be [Marlboro]”. Visually, we see young people jumping into a pool with their clothes on. The implied message is clear: life is too short to say no or to be hesitant. So don’t be a maybe and say yes to smoking (and preferably Marlboro).

Now let’s look at the picture to the right. I have added a couple of words to the original picture, trying to ‘adbust’ it, where it reads: “Don’t be a maybe – and be dead”. A sentence less convoluted would be “Say no – and stay alive”, this would however miss the reference that Marlboro is making about not being a maybe.

The million dollar question now is: Is the picture to right just as harmful as the picture to left?

I would argue so.

The picture to the left is trying to appeal to both our insecurities as well as our basic human needs of fun, adventure and recreation. “Use this product and have fun” is literally what the ad say. This message could be especially appealing to adolescents where insecurities and a strong inclination for trying new things in life is common.

So what happens with the message in the picture to  the right?

I am making sure to convey the message that using the product presented in the ad is dangerous, a matter of life and death even. But I have not at all addressed (and ad busted) the key message of the ad, that using tobacco is fun!

In fact, when I don’t counter the major underlying message in the picture (which is: tobacco = fun) it only appears that I am reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that this very fact is true. Because, if this is a false statement (tobacco = fun) why am I not addressing that? Instead I am trying to convince the reader by appealing to their logic where they should be mindful about their health. I would argue that for most adolescents, the dimension of health or harm is not the major factor for making lifestyle choices. The main factor driving choices of adolescents is fun, belonging and the search for meaning – much more concrete and immediate drivers, than long-term consequences of behavior.

Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to talk about these drivers of adolescent behavior and choices.

What is the antidote to corporate myths?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to sell you an ‘antidote’ (which is a misleading term in my opinion since this suggest there is a ‘quick-fix’ solution to this problem. But for the sake of the argument I will continue using it). I think it will take time, dedication and hard work to counteract and bust these myths that are so pervasive and invasive in our everyday life.

In order to find a solution I think we need to think long and hard about why the CCC so successfully manages to trap and ensnare citizens in the myths that are created to milk us of our money (which is the ultimate goal of any business, despite how well written their Corporate Social Responsibility or sustainability plans are). What are our needs and desires that let us be fooled by colorful or gender-targeted marketing that make different groups of people pay vastly different amounts of money for exactly the same products?

To fully answer this question will need a blog post on its own, but for now to put it simply, we have become alienated human beings.

What do I mean with this?

First, I want to use the Marxist theory of alienation to illustrate my point. Even if Karl Marx wasn’t the first to use this term, he was definitely the first to popularize it. Instead of me trying to explain it, I will use three paragraphs from Estranged Labour, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 written by Marx which neatly sums up the most important aspects of the theory of alienation (my own numbering).

1. […] the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own.”

2. […] labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.”

3. As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.”

Secondly, let me show you this famous quote of French economist Victor Lebow (which I also use in my previous blog post). This is a prediction from 1955 on where society would need to go in order to sustain capitalism and the market economy:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.

These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption.”

So here we have two very important clues: first how the introduction of wage labour created the foundation of alienation and secondly how the introduction of neoliberal economics and market forces created a new type of consumption pattern. I would argue that these two forces were two of the key ingredients for creating the ‘perfect storm’ for priming citizens into becoming consumers.

A possible reaction to these arguments might be: “But Viktor, isn’t Marx’s theory of alienation outdated, most people who work in the 21st century enjoy their wage labour! And isn’t the consumption of goods and services what makes up a good society?”.

First, let’s deal with the former statement. According to the frequent Gallup report themed around workplace satisfaction (State of the Global Workplace, 2017) the vast majority of employees are not engaged (meaning that one is enthusiastic about their work and one’s workplace)  and actually disengaged (feeling unattached to their work) or actively disengaged (strongly unhappy and resentful about the time spent at work).

Worldwide, 15% of employees feel engaged, 67% feel disengaged and 18% feel actively disengaged at work.

But then the response might be: “The low income countries might be skewing the numbers – as long as you live in rich countries, you are satisfied with your wage labour”.

If we take Western Europe as an example (which is characterized by a large amount of high income countries), they are at the bottom of the table, way below the world average with 10% of employees feeling engaged, 71% feeling disengaged and 19% feeling actively disengaged. So here in Europe where I live, 90% of people are feeling detached and unsatisfied with their work and their workplace. With this is mind I would say we have some indication that workplace alienation could be an important factor.

Now, let’s take the latter point of the criticism.

Less is more?

When I discuss public health and sustainable development issues, I am often faced with the idea that economic growth is the single most important factor for human development, better lives and happier societies. This is obviously true to a certain extent, but does not explain some of the empirical evidence on life satisfaction.

For example, the world average of life satisfaction has declined in the last fifteen years (from 5,3 to 5,2 on a scale from 1-10) and with that came a sharp increase in negative emotions (World Happiness Report, 2019). This has happened as world GDP and world consumer spending have increased during the same period.

To be clear: I am not arguing that economic growth is entirely irrelevant for creating better societies. But obviously, the effect on life satisfaction is not very strong. In a section in the World Happiness Report, the researchers try to explain the results from the report with a set of different parameters that is deemed to be important, such as GDP per capita, social support, corruption etc. In their analysis of each individual country, GDP per capita explains at best 20% of the life satisfaction score in some countries (and in some countries, the contribution is almost zero).

What makes a good society?

As I described in my previous blog post, very few people are buying most of the goods and services produced in the world (~10% of the world population are responsible for 60% of the world consumption expenditure), which is another indication that the CCC is promoting hyper-consumption in order to sell their products and increase their profits. Without making our lives or societies any better.

This is also why it is interesting to look at the data collected and produced by the Happy Planet Index which is ranking the best countries in world, all adjusted for ecological footprint. Here we see that it is not the countries with the highest GDP per capita consumption who are producing the best societies. As I am writing this post, Costa Rica is ranked number one, with a life expectancy and average well-being (as measured by the World Happiness Report) comparable to most other countries we consider as “developed” or as high-income. The difference is that Costa Rica is achieving this at a fraction of the ecological footprint compared with countries such as Sweden, Canada or Australia.

I think it is long over due to start redefining what we mean by healthy societies and good lives.

What is the natural remedy of alienation?

Now, take these feelings of alienation: the feeling of slowly becoming a stranger to yourself and combine it with the forces of hyper-consumerism where with Lebow’s words “the very meaning and significance of our lives today [is] expressed in consumptive terms”.

To me it is quite obvious that we have created a vicious cycle of spending our time on producing stuff which gives us money but make us feel empty and then spend our money buying stuff trying to fill the void of meaning and constructed needs.

Is there even a solution to this problem, because that was the point of this paragraph to begin with! To me, the remedy to alienation could only be one thing: and that is meaning.

We need to create lives, activities and relationships where the meaning and significance is not ‘expressed in consumptive terms’ (to use Victor Lebow’s own words). Because I would argue that if we became better at infusing each others lives with meaning we could “vaccinate” one another against the infantilist ethos and the fever of hyper-consumption.

With true meaning also comes a life without the need of hyper-consumption.

The follow-up question is, of course: “So how do we create meaningful lives?”

That my friends is the real million dollar question. And it is also a question that we must answer individually as well as collectively.

*In my next post I will describe some practical tools and reflections that might be useful when building a movement for a healthier and more democratic future. A blog post on the quest for meaningful lives and activities will also be posted here, hopefully during the next couple of months. 

For further reading:

Reading on Marx

Reinventing organizations” by Frederic Laloux 

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