WE ARE killing our children softly with the song of consumerism. It’s a deadly lullaby that stops us seeing the world dying around us. It weaves a shroud around us that wraps us up in a closed system of thinking. This virus that some name affluenza is more contagious than swine flu. But how does it spread?
We need to begin by washing our hands after every advert. Big business uses the applied research of consumer psychology to manipulate powerful and nonconscious psychological processes in us so that we will buy their particular products but also adopt a consumer lifestyle.
Studies show that much of consumer behaviour is automatic and unexamined. This leaves us open to being controlled, and advertising and marketing strategies try to strengthen that automatic thinking because it leads to over-consumption. It is critical and observant thinking about our patterns of consuming that breaks the unthinking patterns of over-consumption. It is here that mindfulness can have an ethical component.
As we vegetate in front of the TV information is processed on autopilot, mindlessly. Advertisers know this and seek to exploit it. It is clear that big business has been very good at reshaping us into over-consumers.
Advertising is adept at creating this closed system of thought whereby the consumer believes shopping is the only answer to his deep desire for fulfilment. Sadly many spiritual answers are also now packaged as consumer products.
One of the main ways advertisers form our preferences is through the use of exposure. I exaggerate but if you take a popular programme like The X Factor it feels like there is now 30 seconds of singing followed by 15 minutes of adverts.
The other key technique is conditioning. In conditioning the product, which might mean nothing to us, is paired with something that we do desire and the advertisers hope that we make an association between the two stimuli. For example there was an advert which appeared before the 9 p.m. watershed which had a partially naked woman advertising a product for bleeding gums. A classic piece of crude conditioning.
Consumerism is a cruel master. Beneath the promise of well-being in each advert and marketing campaign is the whisper of fear that slides through our letterboxes, creeps into our homes and heads, hearts and beds. Without this you will be nobody. Without this no one will like you.
It is for no small reason that Jesus tells us we cannot serve two masters.
The effect on our children is as bad as anything imagined by Philip Pullman in his Dark Materials trilogy, where childrens’ souls are cut away. What can we do about it?
It is important as parents to watch the TV programmes our children watch. We can teach our children to turn the sound down when adverts come on, or we can sit with them and help them deconstruct the adverts.
It is possible to retrain our minds, for example people are much more aware of ethical issues to shopping, whether it is fair trade or child labour.
As Christians Jesus tells us we can either be cross-bearers or consumers but not both. The cross is many things, but as Martin Luther said, Crux probat omnia – everything is put to the test of the cross. Only by putting our consumer patterns to the test of the cross can we break the habit within us of mindless and automatic consumption. In the same way the cross helps us develop the habit of sacrificial and generous giving and a simpler lifestyle.
It is through the cross that we reach the crown of fulfilment and life in all its fullness. Unless we address this deep desire for fulfilment and the real reasons for inner emptiness the quick fix offered by the world of advertising will continue to allure us.
As usual we often have the answer but are not aware of it. Research also shows that a sense of connectedness and belonging to a community gives a us a sense of fulfilment thereby breaking the consumer mentality that grips us.
As Paul says the hour has come for us to wake up from our slumber (Romans 13:11). If our average tithe as Christians measures our wakefulness, we are only 2 ½ % awake to God, and 97 ½ % consumers. Be aware of affluenza. Protect yourself. Protect others.