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The Many Faces of Materialism

So commonplace is the charge that modern industrial societies suffer from runaway materialism that we often make such claims without much thought. This issue of Advertising & Society Review gathers together a range of works in a way designed to "make strange" this second-nature assertion.

Often, the flat statement that Americans—or other citizens of modern economies—have been reduced to meaningless lives of chasing goods is the corollary to a critique of advertising. Yet such thinking seldom accommodates the range of human objectives served by the purchase of objects or the multiplicity of appeals ads use to match their goods with those consumer intentions. A now classic attempt to reorient scholarly investigation of materialism is reprinted in this issue, Michael Schudson's "An Anthropology of Goods," first published in his 1985 Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion. Schudson's first charge to his readers is to look more broadly at the human relationship to objects:

If one is to arrive at an understanding of the modern passion for goods, an examination of advertising is an essential step but it is not the first step—as marketers know very well and as social critics should learn. The first step, it seems to me, is to gain an understanding of the role material possessions play in human lives not just in advertising-saturated societies but in any society (129-130).

From here, Schudson turns to a survey of the anthropological literature on consumption and exchange, supplemented by a smattering of literary comparisons and some strategic points taken from both Adam Smith and Karl Marx. The result is a provocative argument in favor of a more humane—and more informed—study of material behavior in modern societies. Many of the key sources used by Schudson are worthy of follow-up for students of material culture: Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood's The World of Goods and Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton's The Meaning of Things are both works that reliably rock conventional thinking. The basic bedrock for all this work, Marcel Mauss's The Gift, is the definitive study of human exchange, based on a broad synthesis of reports from the so-called "primitive" societies of Mauss's own time but also from the records of archaic societies.1

All these works lead to a view of human consumption as a complex behavior, the output of a cultural forge that seamlessly melds the social, spiritual, cognitive, and material. Using this framework, we can see that each act of purchase distills into one instant the society's past, the buyer's present, and the hopes or fears of both for the future. Having taught these works for a number of years, I now find it impossible to imagine any act of human consumption that could be reduced to the "merely material." The actors and their actions are simply more subtle—and more worthy—than that. The original works in this issue extend and illuminate this complicated, socially-grounded behavior along the lines explored and reviewed by Schudson.

Two of the articles in this issue explore specific examples of consumer behavior in American history as symptoms of profound, even revolutionary, social change. The first, "Advertising Success through Consumption: 1900-1929" by Monica Brasted, begins by establishing the unusual material conditions of the early industrial period. The simultaneous birth of democracy and factory production created a fluid social circumstance that is recognized by American historians but not often by social critics of the present-day United States.2The fall of the social hierarchy brought about by the Industrial Revolution also demolished the sumptuary customs that had precluded common folk from consuming goods reserved for the aristocracy. At the same time, modern manufacturing reduced the prices for these goods, while putting cash into the hands of ordinary folks who wanted to purchase them. The result was an outburst of impudent consumption that pointedly challenged the hegemony of the hereditary aristocracy, expressed the "go ahead" attitude of the new citizens of the republic, and built the material scaffold of the new American passion for upward mobility. By the end of the 1800s, magazines like the Saturday Evening Post had emerged as vehicles that not only advertised the goods of social aspiration, but instructed the ambitious populace in their use and display. Taking a page from economic anthropology, we might speculate that the charges of shameless status-seeking often leveled at these upwardly mobile "commoners" may have merely been a mask for the status deprivation being experienced by the elites who criticized them—and that the "creditability" sought by the common populace through consumption was the visible expression of their pursuit of dignity in other, more overtly political arenas.3

The subject of Jason Chambers's "Equal in Every Way" occurs against this very backdrop. During the same period that "common" white Americans were expressing their new social freedoms through consumer goods, a bloody war for the emancipation of African slaves created another liminal moment in the social hierarchy. Consumption by former slaves gives us a unique case in which to view the behaviors of human beings who, only recently released from commodity status themselves, seek to assert their humanity through the purchase and display of goods. Not only were slaves traded as goods themselves, as the possessions of others, they had also been precluded from owning property. From their clothing to their household effects, the slaves were utterly dependent upon the choices of their "owners" for the objects with which they lived their lives. It makes sense, then, that along with the assertions of other freedoms during the post-bellum period, the former slaves would act to assert their identity and social membership through the acquisition of the same goods that warranted "creditability" and even "humanity" in their society. Having sketched this history for us, Chambers then moves to a more recent case in the founding of Ebony as a "lifestyle" magazine that attempted to establish and legitimate a black middle class. As Chambers points out, criticism of the emergent black middle class and their alleged materialism speaks as much to the felt challenge to whites' social superiority as to "wastefulness" or "luxury," and it neglects the special circumstances of? African Americans' shared past.

I am particularly pleased to have in this issue a roundtable transcript about the global MasterCard "Priceless" campaign. When I approached Joyce King Thomas about letting us talk to her group about the campaign, I suggested that if Schudson's "An Anthropology of Goods" were an ad campaign, it would be MasterCard's. Such projective comparisons (e.g., if Volkswagen were a flower, what would it be? If Macintosh were an animal, what would it be?) have been standard techniques in advertising research for many years and thus are often translated into jokes in that world. But I wasn't really joking. If there is one "takeaway" from Schudson's argument, it is that humans consume mostly for nonmaterial reasons, for purposes of inclusion, of identity expression, and so on. In other words, they consume to achieve things that are otherwise "priceless." It seemed to me that the MasterCard campaign very often simply and beautifully expresses those "priceless" motivations for consumer purchases. The fact that this campaign has now been translated into local terms for communities around the globe points to Schudson's essential premise: that there is some common ground that human-object relations share across cultures—and it isn't biological. I found the "applied anthropologists" who manage the MasterCard campaign to be insightful, sensitive, intelligent people who have something to teach those who analyze such campaigns "from the outside." I think this material will be useful to scholars as a window on "materialism," but I also think it will be a surprising look into the people and processes that produce ad campaigns "on the inside." I have already planned further roundtables of this sort for future issues and I hope such material can become a regular feature of Advertising & Society Review. These discussions not only provide insight in the here and now, but will help fill in the heretofore abysmal gap in the archival documentation of key ad campaigns for historians of the future.

I asked Patrick Vargas and Sukki Yoon to provide an overview of the state of psychological research on materialism. Charges of "materialism" do, after all, presume a distinctive attitude, an array of socially destructive values, or an underlying pathology that should be identifiable and measurable by psychologists. Those who eschew the variability and mutability of consumer motives demonstrated by anthropology and history are surely pointing to a malaise that is more objectively verifiable elsewhere in the literature, right? As it turns out, they are not. The psychology literature, though it has sought to operationalize materialism in some consistent way, seems to point once again to the fact that this phenomenon is much more complex and elusive than critical judgments imply. Vargas and Yoon begin by pointing to the difficulty of defining and measuring "materialism," then move to comparative data that looks at the link between happiness and purchasing power across both social classes and cultures. The results they report often contradict our expectations—indeed, they often seem to contradict each other. Psychologists are beginning to struggle with definitions that parse "materialism" as a single (rather superficial) construct, seeking more diagnostic components. For instance, one stream of recent research that Vargas and Yoon report attempts to separate purchases of "material" versus "experiential" products. Yet, as these authors suggest, one can easily think of both material and nonmaterial reasons and outcomes for the purchase of just about any class of objects.

Perhaps, then, we come back once again to the motive for purchase. The happiness—or "subjective well-being," as psychologists say—that may (or may not) come from the wealth to purchase objects could be inherent in the goal to be achieved rather than in the nature of the object itself. And, if Schudson or even the MasterCard people are right, we will eventually come to understand that those motives cluster around a short list of nonmaterial ends, with "inclusion" or "connection" clearly and consistently at the top.

What, then, about the negative consequences of materialism? It would be foolish to suggest that materialism is a purely benign force or that its pursuit should be allowed in a "no holds barred" way. The potential damage to the environment alone should be enough to stop that. I also think, though, that a more subtle understanding of human needs—that is, the full and real range of reasons people consume—could ultimately be used to form a policy of balance and dignity for the material conditions of a global economy. It is quite obvious that goods distribution is cancerously out of balance in the world today. But the compassion that would be needed to address this imbalance cannot come out of a stubborn, puritanical stance that, somehow, the desire for goods is unworthy or not important. Instead, a full sense of the physical pain and material suffering that is caused by the world's uneven goods distribution, as well as respect for the small luxuries that would be needed everywhere before a true balance were achieved, must grow from a more humane sense of what "materialism" really is.

Linda M. Scott


1Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods (New York: Basic, 1979). Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (New York: Cambridge, 1981). Mary Douglas, foreword to The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, by Marcel Mauss, trans. W.D. Halls (London: Routledge, 1990). The Gift was first published in English in 1959, but I like to use the 1990 version because the foreword by Mary Douglas is so illuminating.

2Gordon S.Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1993). Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Knopf, 1992).

3The foreword in the 1996 version of Douglas and Isherwood's The World of Goods makes a particularly strong point of the use of goods by privileged groups to exclude others on a broad social basis.