In The Men Who Made Us Spend BBC TV series, journalist Jacques Peretti examines consumerism. The three thought-provoking programmes explore, in order, how product lifespan, fear and children are used to drive consumption.
Peretti sets out to answer the questions “why do we buy what we buy?”, and “how is our desire to spend manipulated?” by interviewing experts, influential marketers and the shoppers they’ve affected. The three programmes form a non-linear account of modern consumerism, illustrated with clips from contemporary films and adverts.
Unusually for a modern documentary series, Peretti has packed a wide range of ideas and sources into the hour-long programmes. Yet I could not find an accompanying website that supplies the viewer with useful reading about the issues raised by the programmes.
So, for curious viewers, who’d like to find out more, here are a few notes and web-links that you may find interesting…
Episode 1: Product lifespan & consumerism
- Products deliberately engineered to break, so shoppers will buy more.
- We’ve been “re-programmed” to dispose of our possessions.
- How technology has been used to perfect consumerism, to drive hunger for products.
At the beginning of the first episode scenes include: Xbox product launches, and people waiting in line to purchase a new-model iphone. Then the viewer is shown a recycling centre – filled with items that are “instantaneously obsolete”.
Peretti: “Many of us are happy to spend and discard, and it’s this churn of products that supports our whole economy. And the concern is that our economic recovery is being driven once again by consumer spending.”
According to Peretti, this “cycle of relentless spending was engineered”. Its origins lie in 1920s Berlin. He says that “artificially limiting the lifespan of a product” – planned obsolescence – began with the lightbulb.
His proof: long-forgotten papers were discovered by Helmut Hoge in the Osram factory, East Berlin – in the early 1990s.
The papers detail the dealings of the Phoebus Cartel, chaired by Dr. William Meinhardt.
In 1924, a deal was struck in Geneva and bulb lifespan was reduced to 1000 hours, which was “expected to double the business of all parties within five years”.
Peretti is then shown to meet researcher Stefan Schridde at the Technische Universitat Berlin (Berlin Technical University), he’s investigating how planned obsolescence works today
He says planned obsolescence happens widely today. It’s an open secret. The printer cartridge with a counter that declares the cartridge empty, even though it may not be, is the example given.
From the physical to psychological re-programming
From the physical, Peretti heads off to explore the psychological and cultural origins of recent consumerism. He tells us that planned obsolescence is now being woven into the very fabric of our every day lives.
He says that the idea of continual spending is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, “as a duty – a duty to consume”. This began during the cold war, says Peretti – as the “world faced a choice between capitalism and communism”.
Lizabeth Cohen is interviewed: “American democracy was viewed as really linked deeply to mass consumption. Not only that everybody could have goods, and everybody could live a prosperous life, but that we had choice as consumers – in contrast to the Soviet Union…”
A clip from the Man in the White Suit (1951) is shown – as evidence that British society was aware of what the modern economy was built upon – planned obsolescence.
Lizabeth Cohen: “There was an assumption that for a decade there’s be no end to the prosperity that comes from mass consumption.”. But by mid 1950s, “there were marketers who were realising that there was going to be an end to this profitability, that at a certain point these markets would get saturated… “. So they experimented with different approaches, to keep people buying even though they already have all they need.
The solution was the psychological re-programming of the consumer, says Peretti. And that idea came from Alfred P. Sloan – head of General Motors.
Sloan realised that he could vastly increase sales by offering a different car for every income bracket. “He could segment the market over and over.”
GM called this theory of continuous upgrade “the organised creation of dissatisfaction”. A “selling philosophy” that would encourage people to buy a new car every year – a new car such as the 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air.
To Peretti, car designer Tom Mattinou (?) confirms that GM would change the shape of their cars every year. Cars became “fashionable” – the first mention of the word in this programme, I think.
Peretti then says Sloan “rebooted” obsolescence – from it “being done to the product – to obsolescence being in your head”.
Over to Britain
Soon the idea of the “the organised creation of dissatisfaction” spread across the Western world – helping to drive the economies of the 1950s and 60s says Peretti.
To paraphrase Peretti’s narrative:
- End of the 60s wages in the UK began to stagnate – and no longer kept pace with prices.
- By mid – seventies prices soared – and people could not afford the consumer paradise.
- 1974 – Miners strike. Not an ideological strike – the miners were angry consumers.
- Heath out of government, then Labour did not raise living standards either.
Economist Bernard Donoghue ran Harold Wilson’s policy unit: “falling real incomes in the second half of the 1970s meant that the workers wouldn’t put up with it anymore”.
The trade unions were just trying to pursue the consumer dream says Donoghue – it was a move towards materialism.
At the end of 1970s says Peretti: “consumerism Mark One was over – and its demise had threatened to make Britain ungovernable.”
UK consumerism Mark Two – free market philosophy
Peretti then says Anthony Fisher, a wealthy chicken farmer, helped shift the UK from a country obsessed with class war to one obsessed with shopping.
Fisher brought the idea of battery farming to the UK, says Peretti, but for humans he “wanted freedom for the individual”.
Anthony Fisher, of Buxted Chickens: “After the war I found England slipping into socialism, the people somehow believing that the government was going to solve all their problems”.
In the late 1940s Fisher became enthralled by economist Friedrich Hayek – and believed that postwar government policies were a form of serfdom, as companies and individuals “should be free to spend what they want”.
Fisher wanted to put Hayek’s free market philosophy into action. Hayek told him to set up a think-tank.
Fisher: “he told me make your case to the intellectuals, that is the teachers, the students and the media, because they, in turn, influence the people.”
Note: This is known as the Two-step flow of communication (from the 1940s).
In 1955 Fisher set up The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) – but it only came to prominence in the turmoil of the 1970s.
Patrick Minford, economist: “The IEA was trying to explain to people how free markets worked and that the best organisation of an economy was one where individual consumers and producers were empowered to produce what people wanted. Market forces. And the idea was, people would then produce better stuff that people actually wanted to buy.”
Peretti: “No longer would Britain be divided by tribal loyalties, by communities built around localised production – now we would be consumers whose spending power would change our sense of belonging”.
Patrick Minford: “In the free market the consumer is sovereign… and to allow ordinary people to conduct their lives in a way they want, which is consumerism”.
The Conservatives in opposition, says Peretti, seized upon the IEA’s ideas in the 1970s. They were looking for Britain’s new identity – “built not on class war but on economic freedom and consumerism”.
The IEA’s ideas were taken up by Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph. Peretti: This was a new “depoliticised identity for Britain – not as workers, but consumers. Freed to spend”.
Margaret Thatcher. Conservative Leader’s speech, Blackpool 1975: “Let me give you my vision: a man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master – these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free country and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.”
Peretti: But “to some this wasn’t salvation, it was brainwashing”. Cue the Dawn Of The Dead clip, in which “consumer society was portrayed not as a new type of freedom, but of slavery”. “To Romero the consumer was not an individual, but a zombie blindly following the herd into the shopping mall”:
The rise of consumer credit, and new design technology
Professor of Sociology Juliet Schor: “In the 1980s the nature of the consumer culture changed from being one in which people aspired to something 10-15% more than what they had to being a time when people started aspiring to be rich. It’s consumer credit that squares that circle. This is the time that consumer credit becomes much more available, and that’s a relatively new thing… Like a magic fetish, and you’re able to buy things that you didn’t have the income for.”
Peretti: “A new technological innovation would also transform choice and make goods vastly cheaper… Mike Riddle invented AutoCAD – computer aided design. Released in 1982 it allowed designers to tweak the shape of products in a way previously unimaginable – created an explosion of choice – filling giant new out-of-town retail parks.”
CAD made things desirable and cheap, says Peretti, fuelling a consumer binge in the 1980s.
Juliet Schor: “New products become really important. The turnover in the fashion cycle really shrinks (note: because we now have design tech). The amount of time when a person buys something and when they discard it because it is no longer socially valuable (although it still has utilitarian value) [shrinks].”
Swatch was a symbol of fast disposable consumerism, says Peretti.
Darren Clare was a head of sales for Swatch. Linking into fashion industry was key says Clare and having a 100+ new watches every year. They had a spring/summer and autumn/winter collection every year
Peretti: “Swatch wanted people to buy 4 watches every year” .
A million sold in first year 1983 – selling 12 million by 1986. Swatch made money, says Peretti, by turning long-lasting consumer items into a frequent purchase. Made desirable by being “designer”.
IKEA, and their “Chuck out the chintz” adverts, is another example of disposable consumerism given in the programme.
Formed in the 1940s by Ingvar Kamprad – it is now world’s largest furniture retailer. Conquored Britain in the 1990s. By 1994, its global sales were 5 billion a year.
Johan Stenebo worked at IKEA for 30 years. IKEA changed the way British people bought furniture – helped to usher in a disposable, throwaway culture says Stenebo.
Everything is designed with a fashion says Stenebo, and fashion tends to have a limited life span.
Consumer hysteria over new technology
The programme shows clips of shopper hysteria, including at the opening of the Primark store in Oxford St. It also mentions that Black Friday sales are now happening in UK, too.
2011 riots were an example of consumer frenzy too says Peretti. And it was consumer technology – the mobile phone – that was popular with looters.
At the heart of the allure of phones is continuous obsolescence – the perpetual upgrade. Steve Jobs, with the Iphone (2007) perfected it, says Peretti.
In the last part of the programme Peretti questions experts on technology’s role in consumerism.
He asks Dan Crow is it great design or a relentless quest for profit that drives each upgrade? Has Jobs created the perpetual purchase?
The upgrades, says Crow, are about making products better – and improved technology
Peretti speaks to Casey Neistat, one of the brothers who exposed iPod’s “dirty secret” in 2004 – (that their batteries didn’t last more than 18 months, and were difficult to replace) – another example of built in obsolescence according to Neistat.
Peretti then meets Kyle Wiens, of iFixit. He speaks about how the Iphone 4 had unusual screws, designed to stop consumers upgrading the product themselves – making it obsolete when the battery dies.
Apple would not be interviewed for the programme, says Peretti. Suggesting instead that he speaks to tech analyst Benedict Evans.
Weirdly, it’s not shown if Peretti asks Evans about the specific case of the Iphone 4 screws. Instead he begins with a question about upgrade culture and whether its designed to make us spend more. Evans is able to swat him away easily, stating that “we are still seeing really dramatic improvements” in the products – it’s not just about profit and increased sales.
Evans also goes onto say: “it’s not the consumers job to know that something is better. It’s not the consumers job to have an opinion on things that they haven’t seen”.
On the Ipod’s non-replaceable battery, Evans says that removable batteries mean a totally redesigned device. In other words, there’s a trade off between performance and style says Peretti.
Peretti: “But isn’t that ushering a throw away culture?”
Benedict Evans: “I think that’s an argument that says that we were a lot better off, we had a much lower consumption, we had much slower lives, when 80 or 90% of the population were peasants. The story of humanity’s move away from peasantry – that life expectancy of 25 or 30 – is in part the story of consumption. It’s very hard to separate change and improvement from the improvement in people’s lives.”
Peretti: “So you think it’s right that we have a culture where companies are prepared to upgrade things relentlessly and that we throw these things away?”
Evans: “I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it… Companies are continually struggling and striving to make better products.”
In Peretti’s conclusion, he warns of the future, “Consumer technology must deliver never-ending improvement to sell to us, which means we’ve now reached a pinnacle of obsolescence with the mobile device.”
Also, that as technology expands to every product, the need to upgrade will be become an inescapable fact of life.
“Today we live in a world of relentless continuous spending. Not so much because we were manipulated, but because we the consumer chose to be part of the project.”
Episode 2: Fear and anxiety
This episode shows us examples of how our fears and anxieties are used to drive consumption – from large cars and cosmetic surgery to breath freshener and the creation of medication for syndromes created by drug companies.
Peretti concludes the programme by saying: “However sophisticated today’s consumers may seem it’s a technique that works on enough of us enough of the time to make a lot of people very rich.”
“Over a hundred years ago The Men Who Made Us Spend first learned that purchasing to make us feel better about ourselves is rooted not in aspiration but in fear.”
“Fear is at the very heart of why we buy”
Episode 3: Children and consumerism
In this programme we’re shown examples of how advertisers began to target children – as they are more easily affected by messaging – especially on television.
In the US, there was a backlash against “turning kids into mini-consumers” and the Federal Trade Commission started to lobby for restrictions to be placed on marketing to children.
But Fred Furth, Kellogg’s lawyer, was “defending big business” says Peretti.
Furth: “In an American democratic capitalistic society we all must learn, top to bottom, to care for ourselves and what the last thing we need in the next twenty years is a national nanny.”
Also, at the end of the 70’s a recession was underway “and the proposed ban was portrayed in Washington as an attack on trade.”
The resulting backlash, says Peretti, gave President Reagon “a mandate for huge deregulation” and the “government set about dismantling the rules that protected children from advertising”.
The programme also goes onto examine the “infantalising” nature of modern consumerism – if you can get adults to remain children for longer, they’ll consumer more – the programme appears to argue. With games that combine “challenges and rewards” – so that games become compulsive. This “gamification” is now being used elsewhere in shopping – McDonald’s Monopoly, for example. “Challenge, achievement, dopamine”. “Rewards, levels and achievements.”
Peretti: “Business had learnt from selling to children how the adult market could be turned into a game.”
Benjamin Barber: Business wants consumers to say “”I want it, I want it now!” Like a child.”
And the “greatest enabler of instant gratification is credit”, says Peretti.
Barber: The credit card becomes the facilitator of impetuous, narcissistic, buy-now consumerism. Because you don’t have to wait a second.”
Peretti wraps up the three programmes by saying: “Business summons our deepest anxieties, then offers us a solution.”
Consumption says Peretti: “is hard wired into us by training that begins almost from birth”
The British are now a nation of shoppers says Peretti. “It’s through spending that we’re able to express who we are, and who we want to be. But this entire world of consumerism was actually the result of carefully crafted strategies by the men who made us spend”.
“But what’s cleverest of all is that the desires they created can never be satisfied. Whatever we own there will always be something more, something better and that’s what keeps us spending.”
Further reading and viewing