A Nation of Shopaholics: America’s Unhealthy Appetite for Consumption

   It comes with little surprise that headlines stating “Stores Will Open Even Earlier This Thanksgiving”appeared in local news reports as early as the beginning of September this year. The day after Thanksgiving, commonly known as “Black Friday,”is a tradition as equally observed as the actual Thanksgiving holiday. According to a study from the International Council of Shopping Centers Inc., 46% of consumers are projected to shop on Black Friday. Consequently, one study states that 20% of Americans are estimated to be working the day after Thanksgiving. The United States’vast participation —whether through work or recreation —in post-Thanksgiving shopping festivities indicate that the ideological root of the celebration lies within the veneration of consumerism.

   How could it be that a holiday rooted within the idea of “being thankful”for the spiritual and material riches one possesses, morph into one of the biggest weekends of hedonistic materialism?

   In this current age, it appears advertising tactics are more aggressive than ever. While slyly addressing customers’underlying fears and inadequacies, they sell the newest version of some “life changing”product through tactics that make them feel dissatisfied with their current possessions. To reinforce this strategy, retailers incorporate “door buster”sales that give an impression of false scarcity and re-affirm the consumer’s decision to purchase immediately: shoppers believe they need an item to be happy, and will stop at no means to ensure that it is in their hands regardless of limited quantities. Thus, they respond to slashed price tags with an almost Pavlovian race to see who can get to the stores quickest, out of fear of missing out due to limited quantities.

   Take for instance the recent debut of the iPhone 6. Thousands waited in line for hours, just to be one of the first people to own the “life changing”product. Ironically, issues with the phone’s thickness as well as the emergence of premature software glitches caused many of the phones not to work, leaving those who waited in line with no functioning phone at all.

   A similar phenomena has appeared recently within luxury fashion. Some high-end designers such as Moschino are delivering next Spring’s collection to stores in limited quantities, in as little as just one week after showing. The result is a mad rush to purchase immediately, as the collection will appear dated by the time it is actually supposed to debut in store several months from now.

   It’s safe to say that the very essence of consumerism is a self-perpetuating, endless cycle of change and innovation. The only consistency within consumerism is its lack of consistency itself: as soon as you purchase one product, there will be another product that will debut to usurp the previous one’s “value.” Could it be that the allure of mega sales such as Black Friday rests more within the act of consumption itself, rather than the actual enjoyment of material objects?

   In 1946, renowned psychiatrist and Nazi concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl argued within his book Mans Search for Meaning, the existence of a cultural “existential vacuum,”or the perception that one’s life is unstructured and inherently meaningless unless “filled”with concepts that define one’s value and purpose in life. By adding values to our existential vacuum, we can assuage fears about the validity of our own life’s existence and move forward with confidence in our beliefs.

   Normally the aforementioned values would consist of religious devotion, national loyalty, or familial and community driven relationships. However, in this present age people work longer hours than ever, and due to technological advances are able to “tune out”for enjoyment rather than having to engage with those around them. We as a society are, oddly, more connected than ever through technology while experiencing less actual face-to-face interaction. Due to this shift in cultural value, modern day humans have been searching for other means to filltheir vacuums, taking cues from the media’s projection that over-indulgence is representative of the highest and most fulfilling standard of living—an ethos of value grounded entirely in what benefit a human can bring to consumerism.

   Similarly, the advent of “real time”information has also caused society to re-assess its existential values. With global unrest filling up our news feeds, we are reminded continuously of our mortality. Many use consumer purchases as a means of filling a spiritual void, soothing their fears with pleasure, or a permanentconcrete device to distract them from the impermanence of their own lives.

   Existentially, we may not be able to control when our timewill come, but we can control where and when we spend our money. In a consumer society, objects are the one thing we do have control over. Consequently, we use them as tools to craft our self-narrative in the same way that a child uses clothing to play dress up. When we want to change our lives we purchase new clothes, buy healthier food, or join an expensive gym: consumerism is the vehicle through which we enact self-improvement.

However, does any of this really cause lasting fulfillment?

   Consumerism alone is not a panacea for society’s lack of meaning. It is rather a rat race built upon the insatiable and never ending idea of “more.” We as a society need to acknowledge that the ultimate reward of consumerism—having the newest and best objects at all times—will never be attainable. Instead of trying to keep up with the Kardashians, and other figures our consumer culture glorifies, we need to come to the honest truth that our appetite for consumption is insatiable and cannot be quelled with consumer goods alone.

   Instead of lining up early in the morning for cheap thrills that won’t last through the afternoon, let’s take small bites this Holiday and savor them.


by Christine Buzan