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Who Are “They”?: Identifying the Influence of Consumer Culture on Beliefs

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by Jen Dubos, LPC

I’ve heard it a hundred times from a hundred different people.

They start out by saying “Well, they say…” and usually end with some general statement about politics, or a weird health statistic, or the rate of divorce in marriages. Sometimes I even get an intriguing historical fact, but those are more rare.

They say you can grow organs in a test tube now.
They say most people should have a BMI of 6%.
They say people are happier if they have a dog.
They say religion is a crutch for the masses.
They say leggings are the greatest gift the 80’s gave us.

They, they, they. Who are these people and why do they know so much? Where do they get their information and why do we just blindly trust what they say? They could be villains or punks, or brats or unconnected philosophers. They might even just be computers spitting out statistics based on information gathered on Facebook.

The influence of popular consumer culture’s agenda on any individual’s mind in the present day U.S. is staggering to me. Through the mediums of technology, social networking, the news, and advertising, a handful of folks behind behemoth organizations have the virtual ear of hundreds of millions of people. And most of the time, we don’t even realize the influence they are having on us. This truth comes to light in sessions over and over when I ask clients to define their world view.

As I’ve mentioned in other articles, world view is the way we interact with the world around us based on our answer to three questions:

1.) Who am I?

2.) What do I believe?

3.) What is my purpose?

Often times, when clients define answers to these questions, they do not even realize they are reciting the beliefs or agendas or messages of another entity. Popular entities we attach to and claim their beliefs as our own like Evangelical Christian views, Catholic views, Secular Hedonist (or Consumerist) views or Green Movement views. Sometimes people are aware that their beliefs are not original, because they’ve investigated these views and thoughtfully decided to make particular beliefs their own. Other folks fall into their world view by adopting the primary beliefs of their parents or peer group. More often, people don’t know what they believe, why they believe it or who told them they should.

Now I promise, I am not a conspiracy theorist and I am not a pop culture hate monger. That being said, what I do not like to see is the “brainwashing” effect, where popular media uses its wiles of advertising expertise and its wealth of knowledge about human habits to twist a person’s core beliefs in order to better suit the consumer market or the extreme beliefs of a few.

I don’t like magazines that put a skinny dolled-up superstar with personal trainers and private chefs on the cover right next to diet tips and a recipe for indulgent chocolate cake.

I do not appreciate advertising that says I deserve bon bons and buttered popcorn in one breath, and a butt reduction or a sale priced Jenny Craig subscription in the next breath.

The issue I have with consumerist culture’s message is that it is fundamentally dichotomous. “They,” being the shamans behind popular media and contemporary advertising, function by keeping people unbalanced. If we get a new car, we need a new house. I used to have a mop but now I have to have a Swiffer. I want to have it all but I do not want to have to clean it, store it or pay for it.

And why? Because consumerism tells me I deserve better. This primary lie – the lie of entitlement – when internalized by individuals and applied to any or all scenarios in his or her life, leads to a mountain of problems.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the freedom of the market, the competitive production and pricing a capitalistic model allows us to have. I am not a communist. But if you are failing to engage our consumer culture in a mindful way, I can guarantee part of the source of your issues is because you are believing messages that are intended to create a void in your life – a void producers hope you’ll fill with Diet Coke or Seven Jeans or perhaps a new Honda. If you want to espouse the ideals of popular culture and the priorities of the individualistic American way, or if your American dream does involve Coke, jeans, and Hondas, you are free to pursue them.

Just take the time to know the source and motivation behind the beliefs you espouse. Know where your beliefs come from, what evidence they are grounded in, what people in past generations of history have believed and how those beliefs stood up to the tests of time and collective human experience.

Clients who have purposely or, more commonly, inadvertently embraced the consumerist mindset often prioritize pleasure-seeking and general “happiness”. They like novel stimulation like new clothes or toys and struggle to delay themselves gratification. They usually have a strong sense of entitlement and feel they deserve the best out of life but can’t usually say why. They are puzzled by the lack of satisfaction they glean from living, since they have denied themselves nothing they desire. They believe it is important to indulge themselves because it’s really the only way to enjoy life. Again, if you want to live this way it is your choice; one of the other many privileges of living in a liberty-loving country. But do understand that, contrary to what consumerism preaches, there are real life consequences to living according to the “it’s all about me” creed.

For instance, if you believe you should be able to have whatever you want or do whatever you want, whenever you want to, your relationships will suffer and you will likely have poor coping skills (not to mention other health problems in the future). Be aware that if you live by the “I’ve done enough” or “I deserve better” principles, you’re entitling yourself to a likely divorce or break-up, and you’ll probably never enjoy a single job or steak you ever have. If you follow the principles of indulgence, splurging, spontaneity, or instant gratification, you will almost certainly carry crippling debt loads all your life and find yourself unable to really feel content, no matter how much you accumulate.

As dry and old school as it may sound, there is something to be said for the benefits of cultivating classical character qualities like patience, discipline, loyalty, selflessness, and self-control. The idea that tremendous satisfaction can come from delaying gratification and putting the needs of others before our own is almost entirely lost in today’s transitional America. We need to remember that material things have their place. We need to remember it is not all about ourselves and our personal momentary wants. We need to engage our modern culture with mature discernment and revive the internal parent inside that tells us when to show restraint. We need to rediscover the joy of making a real sacrifice for the benefit of another – not just once but daily.

If you can turn your focus 90 degrees to include a little of you and a lot of more of other people, you’ll soon find the world does not actually revolve around you – and you’ll realize that’s a good thing.