Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast – A Slackjaw Film
How many brand names are within your arms’ reach? How new is the computer on which you’re reading this? Are you wearing clothing that bears a popular name? Are you carrying a cell phone, iPod, or Blackberry? How much stuff surrounds you? And how much do you buy into the need to have even more?
I just finished watching Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast, a Slackjaw Film. It’s an extremely thoughtful video that put my own participation in consumerism into perspective — and into question.
Though I don’t frequent malls and rarely buy anything new if I can help it, I have to admit that I still get caught in the web of consumerism. (Yes, I’d love a new iPhone 4S, with SIRI; but I surely don’t need one.)
As an environmentalist, I don’t want to be a part of the over-consumption that’s afflicting us all in the “developed” world. Yet, as a blogger, I’m not immune to the lure of advertising to help pay our bills. It’s a dilemma for sure.
Perhaps you’re caught in the consumerism web, too. If you’re in the U.S., it’s hard to avoid today: it’s the mother of all consumer days here: Black Friday.
We, in the developed nations, have what the film describes as “a weird mental illness called consumerism. We’ve all gone psychotic.”
As the narrator and filmmaker, Richard Heap, states, “Our lives have never been richer, yet our need for more seems undiminished.”
Susceptible to Persuasion
Heap intersperses film footage from television ads of the mid-20th century with footage of today’s consumer society in action. The older ads are laughably quaint by today’s standards: A couple in formal wear dances around kitchen appliances, and adolescents thrust their heads around in circles while wearing a ridiculous-looking gadget called the Swing Wing.
It’s hard today to understand how such hokey scenes shaped the purchasing habits of masses of consumers. But they did; and today’s consumers are just as susceptible to being persuaded.
In this roughly hour-long film, Heap presents psychologists, designers, and scientists, all of whom comment on our consumer culture. Their insights strike home.
Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design, tells viewers, “Our grandchildren will think, ‘What were they on about? And why did they care about brands and having six-bedroom houses if they’re only one married couple and one kid? Why did they care about that?’”
It’s a good question, and Heap’s experts go to great lengths to explain the relationship we humans have with consumption. It turns out that consumption is basically normal; it’s just our excesses that are abnormal.
As Heap says, “Our lives have never been richer, yet our need for more seems undiminished….
“Addictions, depression, and mental health issues are becoming part of everyday conversation. We are losing ourselves in the rush, struggling to keep our heads above water.”
A Cancer on the Planet
“It’s not just the individual financial, and psychological cost of modern culture, there’s also an environmental cost,” Heap tells viewers. “[T]he human race is acting like a cancer on the planet, displaying all the four major characteristics of a malignant process. Ultimately, cancer kills the organism that supports it.”
A sobering thought.
Tim Cooper, Professor of Sustainable Design and Consumption warns, “I think it’s become increasingly clear, the kind of growth rates we’re getting around the world… can’t be sustained.… In Britain, the average household is consuming as if there were three planets rather than one.”
If the British are consuming at such a fast rate, I shudder to think what their neighbors across the pond are doing (yes, that includes me).
Indoctrinated to Consume
Most of our consumption is fueled by advertising. Heap says, “By 20, the average Westerner has seen one million commercial messages. Budgets for advertising to kids have risen to over one billion dollars. We are now indoctrinated to consume from birth.”
You won’t be surprised to hear that there’s a lot of sophisticated psychology involved in appealing to our consumer impulses, but it’s kind of creepy nonetheless.
As Alistair McIntosh, Professor of Human Ecology, says, “The corporations, especially in the mid-20th century, were actively looking at the way they could trigger off psychological impulses deep within us that would cause us to desire new products that we had never ever thought to desire before…. It’s only possible to do that because, as Microsoft would put it, there are security vulnerabilities within us.”
Quite naturally, some of our vulnerabilities lie in our fears about our ability to attract a mate. Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, says, “One critical thing that advertising does is that it tries to convince consumers that above-average products can compensate for below-average traits.… It might interest people of the opposite sex at a kind of superficial level, but it doesn’t really pack the emotional punch that leads people to fall in love with you as a person.”
But superficiality doesn’t seem to stop us from trying.
Sadly, advertising persuasion isn’t limited to adults. Ever wonder why stores like Abercrombie and Fitch use life-size images of half-clad teens in their advertising? The answer is simple.
“Advertising is trying to insinuate itself into the kids and the teenagers and the youthful consumers at an ever younger age,” Miller says. “And it’s realized, for example, that if you sexualize young teens, that if you make them think about mating earlier and earlier, you can capture more of their money, or more of their parents’ money.”
We’ve Reached the Limit
“The environmental effects of unfettered consumption are well documented,” Heap says. “But if we are to lead our children to a more hopeful future, we need to understand how psychologically we’ve become untouched by destructiveness.
“More people are chasing fewer resources. Food production is near the limits of growth. Oil has reached its peak. The world’s population will pass 9 billion by 2050. Strong nations are reaching into weak nations to take what they need. Forests are cut down, and the oceans emptied. Biodiversity is already collapsing.
“But as long as our economies continue to grow, we pretend not to notice. We’re like the people on Easter Island, enthralled to our culture, throwing up structures that prove our mastery, ignoring the damage we are doing to the planet we share. We’ve always done it. Only now, we’ve reached the limits of what the planet can provide.”
“And so,” Jonathan Chapman, says, “the challenge, the intervention, if you like, is about looking at ways of designing products and marketing products and consuming products in ways that have a sustainable kind of meaning and a very durable set of values and desires so that we perhaps don’t fall out of love with them so quickly…
“We need industry to think about new business models as well so that their profit and future don’t depend on shoddy, cheap, throwaway rubbish, but in fact their profitability’s built into designing products that last…”
Revolutions Are Born of You and Me
But don’t think our politicians will save us from consuming until our resources are gone, Heap claims. “Drawn to power and prestige, politicians display all the traits that have got us into this mess in the first place. The very competitiveness of their nature marries perfectly with modern society, and they are unlikely to find the answers we need.”
Heap brings us to the end of the film with the following observation: “We must acknowledge that we’ve become captives in a consumerist system. We cannot see the bars or understand what keeps us in. But even if we have doubts, we are swept along by the stampede around us. Things do need to change. We are wrecking the planet.
“But we must understand that revolution doesn’t come from within a system. Revolutions are born of you and me. They may be as simple as a change of heart. They may be as difficult as saying, “I’ve had enough.”
Have you had enough?
It occurs to me that this film’s message, in many ways, resonates with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Let’s get back to living simply, within our financial and planetary “means.” Let’s not allow marketers to manipulate us into an unsustainable way of life while we give outrageous profits to the companies they represent.
Let’s start by making conscious choices about what we spend, where we focus our attention, and what we’re willing to believe.
As the 99%, we are in the perfect position to make changes in the consumer society and financial system — starting with ourselves.
I encourage you to watch Consumed. If you’re part of a film festival committee, recommend it to them. Encourage your librarian to purchase a copy for your community. Or buy a copy and share it with your friends. You can even watch it online (a very environmentally friendly way to consume) for only $4.95 (about £3).
Consumed has a powerful message for all of us at a moment in history that couldn’t be more timely.
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