“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” – Edward Norton
One of the most underestimated players in the subject of inequality is marketing. While marketing is not the cause of inequality, it is one of the biggest driving forces behind shaping societies, cultural values, and most importantly, the way consumers behave. Marketing has the power to turn a want into a need, a need into a habit, and a habit into an addiction. And it is these wants, needs, habits, and addictions that have driven the rampant materialism and consumerism in America. Marketing has produced a culture where buying the newest sports car, latest technological gadget, or finest fashion brand is not merely about owning a product, but a tangible extension of one’s personhood. Thanks to marketing, what you own is who you are.
With the continually increasing gap between the wealthy and the middle-to-low income households in America, it is becoming harder and harder for consumers to keep up with the financial demands of materialism. But because marketing perpetually propegates that the consumer is defined by what he owns, the average American keeps buying.
Consider the burden of debt on the average American household today: household debt relative to disposable income is at a record high of 104%. In other words, for every $1 the average american has in his pocket, he has $2.04 in debt. According to Christen and Morgan, “Rising income inequality has forced households with smaller income gains to use debt to keep up their consumption level relative to households with larger income gains.” We’re buying what we can’t afford because some brilliant marketers convinced us we need something we don’t have.
So what can be done?
As a consumer, you can start to open your eyes to the marketing messages (obvious and subtle) that are bombarding you daily. Do you really need the newest version of that smart phone? What are your motivations for buying that car? The list goes on…
As a marketer, you can begin to adopt and implement the principles of Responsible Marketing. Respecting the consumer’s intelligence, disclosing environmental impacts, and honestly portraying products or services are the first steps toward eliminating rampant materialism and social inequality.
Marketing is by no means the cause of inequality – it simply plays a part in the larger story. But until marketers recognize the important role they play in either furthering or eliminating inequality, consumerism and materialism will only continue to skyrocket.
After all, we’re just trying to keep up with the Joneses.
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Image Credit: The Guardian