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The student newspaper of Imperial College London

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Issue 1758
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

We are manipulated to over-consume

Sustainability editor Flora Dickie writes about how we are tricked into desiring things that we don't really need


in Issue 1758

those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country

Why do we want things that we don’t need? 

Like really, you don’t need that emerald green sequin top just for Christmas day, but you still want it or feel like you should wear something different. 

A want and desire for things we don’t need are intensified, especially around the Christmas period. Capitalists see this time of year as a make-that-money-don’t-stop-because-it-only-happens-once-a-year kind of thing. It has become engrained in our culture to go shopping to buy things for people they don’t need and probably don’t want or need. 

This is now our culture. It is now a tradition to spend time browsing displays of unnecessary and sometimes pointless items. Most of the things we buy at Christmas are not for the benefit of our wellbeing. Furthermore, the overproduction of goods (often by unethical labour) has generated the current situation of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. Our current consumption is using up all the finite resources that exist on Earth.

Now, maybe some people feel like they are not retail addicts, but we are all in some way stuck in this loop of overconsumption. Pretty much everyone accumulates possessions, some at faster rates than others, throughout their lifetime. 

But why are we like this? This surely can’t be natural? What happened to us in the last 100 years? 

Our western-constructed train wreck set off in the 1930s when industry started producing more than people were buying. Our transformation from the age of scarcity to the age of capacity occurred using propaganda, or so-called ‘public relations’. Principles of psychology and sociology were applied to advertising to increase sales of products. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, co-opted said scientist’s ideas to get the public to buy things that weren’t good for them or that they didn’t need – like cigarettes. Bernays managed to create demand for products by manipulating the consumer’s mind, ‘linking products to emotions’ which caused people to behave irrationally. For example, Bernays increased the number of Lucky Strike cigarettes sold from 14 billion in 1925 to 40 billion in 1930. 

Bernays’ success led to him to work for many other brands and to inspire many other brands to do the same, which ended up restructuring the fabric of our society. Over the past century, our lifestyle has become so focused on consumption that most products are designed to have a short life span so that we must buy a replacement quickly. We now perceive our desires as needs in such a way that we have created a ‘black-hole of a credit system’, according to Steven Miles in 1998. 

In short, our [human] world has become controlled by ‘the corporate’. People are now consumers, not citizens. No matter where you turn, someone is trying to sell you something. 

Digital marketing experts estimate that most people living in the USA are exposed to between 4000 and 10,000 advertisements every single day; so, it is probably a similar amount here in the UK. Bernays even wrote this in his study ‘Propaganda’ in 1928, that ‘those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country’. We are all stuck in this cycle of addiction and hyper-consumption. Our economies seem to grow, yet wealth inequalities do as well. 

The simplest action that we can take against this is to stop buying things we don’t need and to only buy from small local businesses. Not everyone has the affluence to do this; so, if we can, we should. If our position in society is now as a consumer, then we should make sure to use it for good.

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