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OUGD501 - Lecture 1 - Consumerism


  • Analyse the rise of US consumerism.
  • Discuss the links between consumerism and our unconscious desires.
  • Sigmund Freud.
  • Edmund Bernays.
  • Consumerism as social control.
The content is largely derived from two sources:

Century of Self (2002) - Adam Curtis
No Logo (1999) - Naomi Klein

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

  • New theory of human nature.
  • Psychoanalysis.
  • Hidden primitive sexual forces and animal instincts which need controlling.
  • The Interpretation of Dreams. (1899)
  • The Unconscious. (1915)
  • The Ego and the Id. (1923)
  • Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (1920)
  • Civilisation & its Discontents. (1930)
The personality structure of Sigmund Freud suggests that all our psychic energy originates in the unconscious and only a small amount of the mind is in contact with the outside world.

In 1930, the book Civilisation and it's disconnects by Sigmund Freud displays the fundamental tension between civilisation and the individual, human instincts incompatible with the well being of community, and the pleasure principle.

The Pleasure Principle: 

If we can outlet our desires of sex and violence, we are docile and happy. This makes the human mind feel content.

He argued that we should expect what happened in WWI because of how intent on violence the human mind is.

Edmund Bernays (1891-1995):

  • Press Agent.
  • Employed by public information during WWI.
  • Post war- set up 'The Council on Public Relations'.
  • Birth of PR.
  • Based on the ideas of Freud (his uncle).
  • Crystallising Public Opinion (1923).
  • Propaganda (1928).
"Any business can succeed if it can be linked to an unsatiated desire of a human, this creates demand."

He was hired by cigarette companies to try and enforce the idea of women smoking to be acceptable.

He took advantage of an Easter day Parade in 1929 where he hired debutants to walk the parade in NYC with cigarettes and were photographed by the press. He fed a story to the press that these women were suffragettes and it was entirely a political women's rights protest - lighting the torches of freedom against male oppression.

Cigarette smoking became a prime symbol of power within society but also enhanced sex appeal. Attaching something meaningless to a desire to make a product a symbol of power and sex appeal. - This was the beginning of american mass production, endorsements through fame, and the use of pseudo-scientific reports.


  • Henry Ford (1863-1947)
  • Transposes Taylorism to car factories of Detroit.
  • Moving assembly line.
  • Standard production models built as they move through the factory.
  • Requires large investment, but increases productivity so much that relatively high wages can be paid, allowing the workers to buy the product they produce.
Emergence of the Importance of Brands:

Aunt Jemima's pancake flour was hugely unsuccessful for a long time, the brand came to see through focus groups that housewives would feel uncomfortable buying it as it reduces their role of a housewife and works as a shortcut or cheating making a meal.

As soon as the company stated you needed to add egg as well as water, a huge emergence of purchases were made because it made women feel like they were completing their role.

Oldsmobile (1909):

Oldsmobile completed their branding by being the first to relate their cars to power and sexual desires with their campaign. Their ads would include men driving women around and using words like pleasure and power which signified the power over women you would have if you drove that car which made them do very well.

Culture shifts very much from needs to desires. Products are sold for their attached values rather than their actual use.

Marketing hidden needs. The Hidden Persuaders (1957) - Vance Packard:
  • Selling emotional security.
  • Selling reassurance of worth.
  • Selling ego-gratification.
  • Selling creative outlets.
  • Selling love objects.
  • Selling sense of power.
  • Selling a sense of roots.
  • Selling immortality.
Public Opinion (1920) - Walter Lappmann.

  • A new elite is needed to manage the bewildered herd.
  • Manufacturing consent. This was a government movement of using propaganda combined with consumerism to control society and create the illusion of people's desires are satiated with products which will make society easy to control.
  • Walter Lappmann wanted the consumerism to spread into government leadership.
Russian Revolution (1917):

Peoples social revolution, rich were overthrown. Americans saw this as a threat towards capitalism.

Roosevelt and the 'New Deal' (1933-36):

Government control of wealth creation. Unpopular with the big business leaders as it lead to them not being able to do everything they wanted.


Are we really a free society of money is involved with so much? We have the freedom to do as we please but only with the amount of money to afford it. Our freedom is based on consumerism.

  • Consumerism is an ideological project.
  • We believe that through consumption our desires can be met.
  • The consumer self.
  • The legacy of Bernays/PR can be felt in all aspects of the 21st century society.
  • The conflicts between alternative models of social organisation continue to this day.
  • To what extent are our lives free under the Western consumerist system?

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