Jeffrey Kaplan in an article from 2008 for Orion Magazine called “The Gospel of Consumption” makes the case that our obsession with having more and more can be traced, at least in part, to a deliberate decision by American industrialists in the 1920s.
There was a fear that the American public might stop buying things when they had what they needed. He writes:
…despite the apparent tidal wave of new consumer goods and what appeared to be a healthy appetite for their consumption among the well-to-do, industrialists were worried. They feared that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break. Perhaps even more threatening was the fact that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them.
It was in response to this fear that Charles Kettering of General Motors Research wrote an article in 1929 called “Keep the Customer Dissatisfied”. As Kaplan points out, he was not advocating a dissatisfaction due to the quality of the product but a created dissatisfaction. The American people did not yet know all the things they “needed” but advertisers were about to tell them. Kaplan describes it this way:
By the late 1920s, America’s business and political elite had found a way to defuse the dual threat of stagnating economic growth and a radicalized working class in what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough.
Did it work? Here are a few statistics cited in the article:
- In 2005 per capita household spending adjusted for inflation was twelve times higher than in 1929. For larger ticket items like cars and houses it was 32 times higher.
- Between 1979 and 2000 the average number of hours worked annually by a married couple with children increased by 500 hours.
- In 2004 and 2005, 40 percent of American families spent more than they took in each year.
Clearly we’re working more than ever before and spending more as well. The industrialists’ dream of a market where people are never satisfied seems to have come true.
Hundreds of years before the business boom of the 1920’s, however, there was another dissatisfied consumer:
Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 5:10
While we need to be aware of the impact advertising and culture have on our purchasing decisions, ultimately indulging ourselves with more and more things and never being satisfied is not the fault of Madison Avenue but of our own wicked hearts. During the time of King Solomon, few men could afford to indulge themselves this way with material goods. However, thanks to the unprecedented prosperity we’ve enjoyed in this country – not to mention free and easy credit – it’s now possible for the average person to indulge him or herself in ways only available to royalty in the past.
We must always be on guard against this Gospel of Consumption – the belief that that next thing I aquire will be the answer to the longing of my heart. Only Christ can fulfill that longing. Only when I realize that He is all I truly need can I stop being a slave to materialism.