Why We Buy Too Much Stuff


I was recently struck, like knocked to my knees, by a quote of George Saunders’. Asked of the pressure of raising kids in our society, where desire to give them the world and to keep up with the Joneses butts up against reality, Saunders noted, “Materialism is not only rampant and ascendant but is fast becoming the only game in town.”

“Materialism is the only game in town.”

Saunders was being interviewed w/r/t his new book of short stories, Tenth of December. The centerpiece is a story called “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in which a family attempts to leap from middling- to upper-middle class by engaging in the common practice of hanging live young girls from the third world by their heads in the front yard as decoration. The point of the story is that we have massive moral blind spots when something becomes the only game in town. The subtext is that such a reality is creeping ever closer.

He might be right. In my role at Thought Catalog, I spend a good bit of time dealing with advertisers. Advertising (or more broadly, marketing) consists of two parts: demand fulfillment and demand creation. Demand fulfillment is simple — it gets you what you want. An example is Google search advertising. You want a toaster, people who make toasters bid on search advertisements to try to sell you their particular brand of toaster. Demand generation is more complex — it seeks to make us desire things in the first place. For instance, hamburgers are paired with sexy girls in a spot on a hetero-male-oriented TV program. The ‘videlicet’ here is pretty obvious: eat the burger, fulfill the immediate desire ‘hunger,’ and get the girl (– who will satisfy a much deeper desire.)

Demand generation is 80% of the $700 billion U.S. marketing and advertising industry. That’s $560 billion every year trying to make you want stuff.

We need stuff, of course. I need my computer for work. I need water, food, shelter. I need clothing. Everyone needs clothing, and clothing is easy to make. So naturally, a lot of people make it. There are so many types of clothing. How do we choose? We choose based on meaning.

This is more or less what marketing is all about: make stuff mean something. Without it, the life of a consumer would be pretty boring. We’d pick the perfectly best things for our needs based on product specs and price, and that would be that. Without the privilege of choosing products on meaning, humans have proven pretty darn rational.

The fact that those of us not starving spend so much money on “brands” is fascinating. It is, in an absolute sense, anti-rational. Public corporations have a line-item on their balance sheet for “Goodwill.” Goodwill is the difference between what people will pay for a company, and the sum of that company’s actual, physical assets. It is, in large part, the value of the brand. Investors believe the Goodwill in Coca Cola is worth somewhere between 12 and 27 billion dollars. We consumers believe it is worth the difference in price between a can of generic and a can of Coke.

Why do we put up with this? Humans, it seems, are getting smarter, and our society more rational, with every passing year. Advertising, marketing, “Goodwill”, the meanings of commodity products, might all be waste in the system. The studies show that beyond a relatively modest base more money and more stuff doesn’t make us happier. And this waste-called-materialism is so clearly at the heart of so many of the world’s problems — global warming, resource wars, post-colonial poverty. This problem is literally existential. Materialism is the great sickness of our age.

The reason why, I think, is brutal and insidious: the alternative strikes us as worse. The alternative to measuring ourselves by the stuff we have is to measure ourselves by the stuff we do. Moralism is the only other game in town. And God is it scary. The thing about materialism is that it always allowed for a degree of dissociation. “I bought this thing and it’s part of me but if you don’t like it I don’t care it’s just some thing it’s not part of me.” Materialism is the mother of dissociative irony. It’s soul-protective — the only game in town, but after all, only a game.

The alternative has no escape-hatch. We are only what we do. The ego suffers for the difference between the facts of who we are and who we want to be. But it’s for the best. It’s for the best because only here will we see our blind spots — the hole in the ozone, the dry river in Colorado, the starvation in the tropics. Only here will we realize that caring about “stuff” makes these problems worse. Only here will we realize that moralism was always the only game in town. And here, only on that day when moralism is rampant and ascendant, only here is our chance to save the world. TC mark


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