The Rational Consumer Myth

The first and principal tactic of the global elite in opposition to the global environmental movement is to blame the consumer. This tactic relies on the myth of the rational consumer, which has been disproved innumerably by advertisers.The myth asserts that consumers make decisions based on rational deliberation with full knowledge of their choices. The myth also asserts power equity between capitalist and consumer.

Let's diverge for a minute and disprove the myth right here before your eyes. I'm always hesitant to quote Adbusters because it's so radical but, as their name suggests, they really have a good handle on the corporate advertising situation and their Jan/Feb 2011 issue is how I learned what I'm about to do. Cue slide one please.

166 1909 AdvertisementWould you look at all those words! I know I'm not going to read them but my guess is that print media was still a bit of a marvel for folks in 1909, when this advert for some newfangled horseless carriage was printed. Anyway, if you actually take the time, the ad is appealing to that rational consumer myth by saying this car is worth your money. My classmates might recognize this as one of Lakoff's cost/benefit metaphors. Can you guess what the metaphor leaves out? That's right! This ad fails to mention the hidden social costs of pollution produced by that big hunk of steel. Cue slide two.

167 Advertisement 1920Only eleven years later the advertising tactic had changed dramatically. Notice in this automobile advertisement from 1920 that there are fewer words, more people and more... lifestyle. All around it looks more modern, but what's really going on? Here comes Adbusters for the explanation: "Advertising moved from simple factual announcements into status symbolism and the stimulation of desires... It strikes an emotional chord and coins an unforgettable slogan."

Now that I've planted that meme in your head, I'd like to set some of you loose to explore while I explain some academic stuff to the adults in the room. I first have to offer a contemporary example of advertising evolution. With all the Steve Jobs obituaries floating around I thought it would be timely to include this link to a history of Apple Inc. advertising. First note the sexual undertones and the general appeal to businessmen doing nerdy stuff. Then scroll to the bottom and note how individualistic and escapist they have become. I must also insist that you check out Chelsea Alexander's blog primer on greenwashing. Please take a moment to contemplate the green Chevy ad she's included in relation to the history I just provided. If you still don't buy my argument, here's the experts with the science.



They're gone? Ok, let's get back on topic.

The myth breaks down because consumers were either born into the consumerist economy or physically forced into it - this is the part from Capital that, almost everyone agrees, Marx nailed on the head. The fact is there's a serious discrepancy of power between top and bottom - that's why the Occupy movement says it's the 99% calling out the 1%.

 In accordance with the rational consumer myths, economists often cite  “cultural autonomy” in their rationalizations of pollution activities (Parenti). I find it terribly hypocritical that the same people who intentionally misinform the public are the same ones claiming that culture and consumers are formed by rational choice in a democracy.

168 "Trading With The Indians"To really drive my point home here's another example of how the myth of the rational consumer has infiltrated our culture - this one's for you, Okiokwinon Chelsea Francis. Let's do some semiotic analysis of this picture of some white guys trading with Native Americans. The trade is going down in the middle of the frame, with the two brokers facing each other at equal height. Both sides are carrying weapons, but they are sheathed and the exchange looks so placid that some of the Native Americans are sitting down.

Don't go any deeper with the analysis because we have plenty to work with already. The trade appears equal but what if I told you those blankets were laced with small pox? What if those Native Americans weren't aware that the rest of the world was set to descend upon them? Don't you think there's a little bit of a Marxist power discrepancy here?

Now please put yourself under the small pox blanket of crony capitalism, with a blindfold of oppressive advertising, on the treadmill of wage labor and commodification of everything. I asked politely but you don't really have a choice... unless you choose to fight back.

So after yet another divergence I would like to conclude with the argument that the news media is influenced by these myths, that journalists saw the picture of the Indian trade myth in grade school and their teacher told them to put their hand down. They didn't question it as they took notes on rising sea levels and typed out stats on automobile gas mileage.

This blog will question it extensively by analyzing how the journalists fail to convey the social structures that reproduce the status quo. You can also check out my academic essay-in-progress on the same topic, where you can find more about the sources I mentioned here.


Re: The Rational Consumer Myth

Steve, this is great! I love how you discussed the issues of capitalism and its effects within Native American tribes. What you should look at a little deeper though, is how it all came crumbling down in the end (as in today). I'm very appreciative for the nod, and I think this is a great beginning to what capitalism has done to our society. The use of the Adbusters as well made a great point to how advertisement has evolved and acted as a guide to bring people into the capitalistic ways of thinking.

Great blog!!