The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life.

Author:Prasch, Robert E.
Position::Book review
 
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The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life, by Michael Dawson. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2005. Paper: ISBN 0 252 07264 2, $17.95. 174 pages.

American business spends over a trillion dollars a year on marketing. This includes direct mailing, price discounts, promotional giveaways, sponsorship of games and events and, most prominently--advertising. This last and increasingly ubiquitous activity extends across the entire media spectrum from print to television, radio, internet, and every imaginable public space including billboards, lawn signs, people's clothing, even our schools.

Generally, economists have ignored, downplayed, and on occasion flatly denied the importance of these expensive and prominent modern phenomena. Such a position is untenable. Stated briefly, one may not acknowledge that massive advertising expenditures exist while also insisting that (1) consumers are "rationally" maximizing a fixed set of tastes and preferences as expressed in the conventional "utility mapping" of neoclassical economics, and that (2) firms everywhere are always engaged in "profit maximization." If advertising is more than simply informational then it follows that either consumers have utility functions that are open to manipulation, or business firms are persistently engaging in unnecessary and therefore profit-squandering expenditures, or both. Advertising is, in short, a fundamental challenge to mainstream economics.

Michael Dawson, a sociologist, has no professional commitment to mainstream economics. He states flatly that marketing exists, is an enormous expenditure, and is generally effective. He is also concerned with the impact of marketing on its primary target--our society and ourselves. "Over time, our increasingly marketing-saturated life spaces make us dumber, lazier, fatter, more selfish, less skillful, more adolescent, less politically potent, more wasteful, and less happy than we could and should be" (p. 2).

To support these claims, Dawson presents a lively and well-documented chronology of the strategies marketers have developed to manage our consumption and purchasing patterns. His narrative is supported by a wealth of interesting and valuable sources including archival materials and articles from leading academic journals on consumer research and marketing. Research and long practice each affirm that consumers can be misled and manipulated over extended periods.

The idea that consumers can...

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