The building of consumerism and the impact of school sorting.

Author:Parsons, Jim

A recent 2008 television commercial for Rogers Phone shows a group of young people sitting around a table, when suddenly a young woman comes up to share that she got a new phone for Christmas. In fact, she had opened it early and was using it, but said she would put it back under the tree so she could open it on Christmas morning. A young man asks, "Well, where is the surprise on Christmas morning, when you open your gifts now?" She responds "Watch," and suddenly erupts into paroxysms of feigned joy as she pretends she has seen it for the first time. The group, duly impressed, nods--good job faking it!

There are many things disturbing about this television commercial, least of which is the fact that someone in Rogers' think tank believes this experience represents a kind of "truth in advertising." First, the ad celebrates an entitled sneakiness--although it is a Christmas gift, the young woman has opened the phone because she wants to. It is really that simple. Second, she has demonstrated --and been supported by the advertisement--that instant gratification is good. Why wait, when you can have things now? Third, the advertisement honors faking it--in other words, lying. Things will be fine, because she has the ability and will to feign sincerity and no one will know the difference. Finally, all these actions are condoned by the group--whose basic value set centers around two things: (1) their appreciation for the material possession--it is a "good" thing--as in "material good" and (2) their awe for their friend's ability to pull off her act of insincerity.

The advertisement is certainly not about joy on Christmas morning, nor does the advertisement see anything wrong with the sort of "white lie" attendant upon the young woman's "stealing" [Is it really hers until the arrival of the occasion for which it is given? And what is the difference, assuming the gift was from a parent, between this child's opening this Christmas present or taking money from Dad's wallet under the belief that Dad would leave it to her upon his death anyway? It's just a matter of timing right?] The advertisement is about having what one wants--and having it when one wants it.

The "job" of the commercial is to infect a "giggle" upon those who watch. But the truth of that giggle reveals the hegemony of consumer culture. The advertisement only works because it is deeply etched within the promotion of a deeper cultural myth and the "giggle" it engenders shows how deeply we accept the myth--in other words, we get it! Furthermore, the advertisement counts on us getting it in two ways: (1) we understand the ad's logic and (2) we go out and buy (get) the product. The commercial's hermeneutic informs us of the behaviors and current practices of youth in a society of instant gratification that lacks an understanding of ethical responsibility or the consequences of being a fake. For those "inside" the commercial, the critique of us as critics would be to suggest that too much is being read into a commercial meant only to catch attention, show what a product can do and how one's life is better for having that product, and provoke a giggle.

The commercial, as is, does what it is supposed to do in a purely market-driven, corporate sense. The advertisement convincingly presents a product that creates what Valas (2009) calls a TOMA (Top Of the Mind Awareness, which in "guerrilla retailing" means developing a marketing plan so that consumers want or need the things you sell) experience for the viewer persuading them to consume--liberally and unhindered. That businesses market to children makes good economic sense, because children grow to become consumers and profits rise. For political conservatives, such marketing aligns with a fundamental philosophy that open, free, and liberal capitalistic markets, unhindered and constrained by regulation, are in everyone's economic best interests.

Our task is not to evaluate such marketing or to point out the rightness or wrongness of such advertising. Instead, our point is to highlight what we believe such advertisements represent in terms of cultural-economic shifts and to suggest what these shifts mean for the curriculum of schooling. To sum up our main point, we believe schools are unknowingly complicit in the building of consumerist culture by creating a curriculum of sorting that works to build a consumer class whose main job is to practice materialism and fuel economic growth.

Why Schools are Up Against It

To better understand this cultural-economic shift, it is helpful to understand how economic ideas have grown and changed. In North America, these changes both reflect and shape how people have lived. To highlight these philosophical shifts, Jardine (2004) notes that classic liberalism (which fell out of vogue in the late 19th century, until a brief revival via Milton Friedman in the 1970s) assumed people were producers, an assumption in line with the needs of a productive economy; neoclassic liberalism (which began at the end of the 1970s) assumed people were consumers, an assumption in line with the needs of a consumptive society. In a similar vein, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (written in 1776) argued that the market maximized people's ability to labor productively; Milton Friedman more recently assumed that the market maximized people's consumer choices. Classical liberalism morphed from a philosophy that embodied utilitarian individualism into a neoclassic liberalism that embodied expressive individualism.

Thus, liberalism as a concept has re-defined itself. Today's conservatives are more properly called "classic liberals," and it is ironic that in the United States of America, Republicans call Democrats liberals because Republicans themselves typically espouse two classically liberal policies: (1) they wish to return to a laissez faire economic system and (2) they want a return to Protestant morality as practiced before the 1960s. The economic theory espoused by Republicans is libertarianism; although Republicans are not typically morally libertarians. Republicans believe the market should be left alone to reward those who "have what it takes" to benefit from their own insights, abilities, and perhaps even good luck. Restrictions of a free market are restrictions of free economic choice and are consequently suspect. Ironically, Republicans talk of government leaving citizens alone, but really mean government should leave the economy alone. Republicans are less willing to keep government out of areas of morality and are quite willing to have government institute school prayer and restrict abortions, for example.

The medical health insurance plans offered by John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign represent a case in point about how Republicans and Democrats read the way people think--or should think--differently. Obama wanted to create governmental programs that would provide health care to people so that no one would be left out. McCain wanted to provide money to people so they could choose their own health care--or, if desired, could choose not to have health care. Beneath the chatter about "big government" and "small government" was a basic but unstated difference between how Democrats and Republicans understand human nature. The elephant in the room for Democrats was the belief that many humans would simply make the wrong choice, spend the money provided by a Republican government, and continue to be on the government's medical dole. Although one might also argue for efficiency of cost benefit, deep inside Democratic thinking is the belief that humans aren't always wise and need to be organized and "encouraged" to be so. Republicans, on the other hand, either believed humans are more sagacious, more apt to make wiser choices, or--even if they are not--should have the right to make choices because 'no one should tell anyone else how to live.' Republicans are more willing than Democrats to accept a citizen's wrong choices as part of the practical working out of freedom. What many people fail to ferret out of this issue is that, when considered, Republican icon Ronald Reagan probably had more faith in the wisdom and judgment of Americans than new Democratic icon Barack Obama--even though Obama would be considered to be more a 'Man of Hope.'

Jardine (2004) points out an enduring irony in...

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