In ‘The Century of the Self’, Adam Curtis sketches a broad image on the insights of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, his daughter and child psychologist Anna and his cousin Edward Bernays, who can be called the founder of public relations. In 4 parts the documentary lays out the influence of the above-mentioned in governments and societies, which mostly happened through manipulation and consumerism. Edward Bernays is called the father of public relations because of his ability to get the mass to consume or desire whatever he wants them to consume or desire. This started when commercials and advertising started to boom in the 50s. With this time also came technological improvements. Here is when people discovered that life was not centred solely around family, church and community. People discovered things. Fancy cars, radio’s, dressing to impress. For the first time people were being exposed to advertising everywhere they went, on the street, in shops, on the radio. Buying was everywhere. The advertisements were built so that it would trigger the mass to buy and consume.
Not only did the new technological improvements bring a more differentiated range of products, it also brought out differences between the same products. Some cars went faster than others, some fabrics were more luxurious and some radios sounded just a bit sharper than some others. Because the economy was thriving at this point, people were also able to buy these technological, state of the art, products. At a time where community feeling was still very important, this freedom to consume could lead to a feeling of competition. Wanting a car that’s more ingenious than your neighbors, wearing the newest season skirts to church to have all the people looking, and so on. People wanted other people to know they were wealthy enough to buy the best items. Something that still exists to this day. For example, if you would put one person all alone on an island, it would never pay 100 euros for a polo shirt with a crocodile on it, because no one would be there to witness. No one would care if the shirt was designer’s or not.
At the base of these events lies image, the way people are looked at. Wearing designer clothes, driving fancy cars, it gives people the impression that a person is wealthy and successful enough to buy these types of things. The preservation of this image then leads to consumerism. More expensive clothes, a new car, renovating your house until it becomes the masses dreamhouse. We can ask ourselves some very important underlying questions. When Edward Bernays talked about people’s desires, was he really talking about their own desires? Of course, he anticipated on the mass’ desires, but it seems to me he was aiming more at the mass’ desire of image. Does the mass really desire having luxurious fabrics around their bodies, or is it desired that other people can see these fabrics?
When people started to consume more, started to desire more, started to buy more, a new societal mechanism started to develop itself: materialism. When tangible possessions become more important than becoming spiritually enriched, we can speak of materialism.
The origins of materialism can be found long before society could even catch a glimpse of technology and globalization. In Christianity, for example, holy relics like statues, artwork and other material things are used to get in contact with the higher spirit, meaning God. In Belgium a cross is often found hanging above a doorstep to have God protect your home and everyone in it. These materials were thus used to give people a feeling of comfort and harmony within themselves.
Given this argument, it is important to ask ourselves the question where and why exactly this took a different turn. A great part of the answer can be found in capitalism and its link to globalization. The goods, people started buying because of the advertisements they saw, were sold by private companies. Because of rising free-market economies, more firms entered the market and competition rose. Multiple companies offered little differentiated products, or they tried intensively to bring completely new concepts to the market. When the process of globalization arose, the labor process of products was shifted to other countries where it was cheaper for companies to fabricate the products. Because it became cheaper, more time and money could be invested in developing even more products to sell, which led to a market overflowing with different ranges of products. Given this broad market and a thriving economy, consumers were exposed to a massive amount of differentiated products. This freedom of choice, comes with some cons as well. In 2000 a study was published by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, known as the jam experiment. In a supermarket two tasting booths were displayed. One booth had 24 different flavors of jam to try out, while the other one had only 6. It is expected that people would buy more when there’s 24 different pots of jam displayed, but the contrary seemed to be true. Consumers bought 10 times less when the there was a big display of jam. This encounters a phenomenon that can be called the paradox of freedom of choice. Having the possibility to choose between a broad range of products, gives consumers the chance to find a product that fits within their needs, but it also makes it more difficult for them to be completely satisfied with the choice that is made. When talked about jam this satisfaction is less relevant, but when talked about other, more radical choices that are given, certain feelings can arise: guilt, doubting if the choice made actually is the right one and knowing you left some other good choices behind. Freedom of choice can in that way lead to a paradox feeling of oppression.
The paradox of freedom of choice is only one challenge coming with consumerism. People that are less wealthy than others often face the desire wanting to be as wealthy as the more fortunate. Unfortunately, being wealthier, and thus having an even bigger freedom of choice, does not always result in people being happier. Emile Durkheim described different types of suicide, with one of them being anomic suicide. Anomic suicide occurs when people want to take their own life because of having too much freedom. When people win the lottery for example, special psychological support is offered to help them cope with the life changes that come along with winning a grand amount of money.
It is clear that more money and more choice does not always make consumers happier, but we can also ask ourselves what happiness means when there is an overflow in wealth and materialism. In 2015 Sandie McHugh published a study that was already once done in 1938. They asked participants what happiness meant to them and we can conclude that our idea of happiness has changed over time. In 1938 people listed security, knowledge and religion as the three most important factors for happiness. When looked at the results in 2014, people still attached importance to security as it was still in the top 3, but good humor and leisure replaced religion and knowledge. It is known for most people that since the process of secularization, the importance of religion decreased in most people’s lives. Not having knowledge in the top 3 might be even more problematic.
We see lawyers and bankers in fancy clothing we would love to afford, but what goes missing is what preceded in having this amount of wealth. Successful people are successful for a reason. By working hard, having a good degree or just being smart enough to make some things work. Unfortunately, what is seen is only the results of these capacities: their wealth. The essence of becoming wealthy often goes missing because of people’s way of thinking. Materialism makes society see only the substantive side of things. Rich people post photos on Instagram posing in a €1,000 suit in front of a 10 times more expensive cars, but they will not post their tired face after working for their fortune the whole day.
In modern day society it has also become easier for people to show their wealth and materials. Even if we would put someone alone on an island, maybe it would still spend 100 euros on a crocodile shirt because creating an image is only one Instagram or Facebook post away. Anno 2019 being an influencer is an actual profession that can make someone a lot of money just by showing materials on social media. Other people’s wealth is all out there and it makes people want to have the same. The fact that people want to have luxurious products for quality is understandable, but let us not forget that there is a huge market for fake designer clothing or other counterfeit products. People buy plastic Louis Vuitton bags in Turkey or China just for the status symbol, which has nothing to do with the quality or authenticity of the product.
Christian Louboutin for example is a French shoe designer selling shoes with a red sole for prices varying between 650 and 7000 euros. The red soles are a status symbol and are often bought from the counterfeit market for people who cannot afford the real ones. What is lost here is the essence of the authenticity of the brand. Louboutins are created in Europe, are made by craftsmanship and his designs are known to be avant-garde in the world of designer shoes. Buying the ones that only look like them, but not made just as fair, messes with the foundation of haute couture.
It is of course difficult to scientifically prove that our society has become more superficial because of materialism, but some patterns can definitely be noticed and linked to both materialism and consumerism. Having the freedom to consume goods and being consistently exposed to other people’s wealth and even more choices to consume, makes materials rise in importance, sometimes at the cost of other factors. It is not so that our society should be totally looked at as a two-dimensional one, as there is still a lot of demand for spiritual depth through a constant flow of books, documentaries or people trying give life a more in-depth perspective, but it is noticeable that the importance of goods and consuming have risen over the last century.
- British Psychological Society (BPS). (2015, May 4). How our view of what makes us happy has changed in 80 years. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 24, 2019 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150504210704.htm
- Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing? The Construction of Preference, , 300–322. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511618031.017
- The School of Life. (2017, January 25). Are we too Materialistic? [Video file]. Retrieved April 25, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24L7r7SoK_Y