Book Review: The Consumer Trap

Last spring I reviewed Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, a book that explores what motivates us to purchase products, and explains how businesses sell to us. Today guest-author Paul Bausch looks at a similar book, The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life.

The Consumer TrapWe are continually bombarded with advertising, but as savvy web folk we like to think we're immune to the effects of marketing. We use our rational mind to weigh the costs and benefits of our purchases, and advertising is merely an annoyance we endure — the background noise of modern living. We've got it wrong. According to The Consumer Trap by Michael Dawson, big business marketing plays a central role in our lives, shaping our choices, thoughts, feelings, and even our culture.

Before reading this book I was aware of standard marketing terms such as branding, differentiation, distribution channels, and targeting. I was even aware of the psychological advertising methods pioneered by Edward Bernays, explored by folks like Vance Packard, and in heavy use today. (Check out the excellent documentary The Century of the Self for a crash course in psychological advertising.) I considered myself fairly familiar with the Marketing Machine. But reading Dawson's book brought together these familiar concepts and many more new marketing tools into a complete, coherent picture.

The book starts with a history of both marketing and marketing criticism. Dawson introduced me to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who used methods from science to organize business, and to Thorstein Veblen, an economist and early critic of corporate business practices. In one example of scientific observation, Taylor attached lights to workers, filmed them as they worked, and found ways to make their movements more efficient. Taylor's ideas about engineering work environments, objects, and people's actions lead to companies taking a similar, scientific approach to people's off-the-job, product-related activities as well. Veblen, on the other hand, coined the term conspicuous consumption and found that corporate marketers were using “force and fraud” to engineer people's activities in a form of absentee ownership that has existed throughout history. These two figures set up the tension that exists throughout the book.

Dawson describes what he calls “The Marketing Revolution” that took place in businesses during the 1950s. As companies found selling products to mass audiences difficult, companies became aware of a need to shift their focus. Dawson quotes marketing pioneer Marion Harper Jr., summing up the change: “The large firm's constant purpose is to manufacture customers.” During this revolution, Marketing went from a small part of business that was primarily involved with advertising to the “central organizing principle” of big business. Instead of manufacturing products and using marketing to help sell those products, business realized they needed to manufacture markets.

With the history of Marketing established, Dawson explores how Marketing operates today in four areas: Targeting, Motivation Research, Product Management, and Sales Communications (Advertising). Dawson quotes heavily from Marketing textbooks, and at times the book reads like How-To manual. Even though I'm not involved in Marketing, it was enlightening to get a look at how marketers see me. And this view of humanity from a marketing perspective was eloquently described by advertising critic Vance Packard.

“[Marketers] see us as bundles of day-dreams, misty hidden yearnings, guilt complexes, irrational emotional blockages. We are image lovers given to impulsive and compulsive acts. We annoy them with our seemingly senseless quirks, but we please them with our growing docility in responding to their manipulation of symbols that stir us into action.”

And beyond emotional and demographic research, it was fascinating to read about Product Management techniques like planned obsolescence where products are specifically built to last for a limited time so markets for those products will continually renew themselves.

After looking at the mechanics of Marketing, Dawson describes the ways Marketers market themselves, especially in the political arena. Much like pushing products, Macromarketing persuades politicians to enact business-friendly legislation such as cars over public transportation, suburbs over urban living, and commercial television content over public interest programming.

In the end, Dawson looks at how Marketing affects all of us as individuals, and encourages readers to look at the aggregate effect of marketing—what he calls the “Piranha Effect”. One piranha poses no threat to a cow in a stream, but a swarm of piranha will devour a cow in seconds. Similarly, one marketing campaign has little effect on our daily lives, but we're exposed to hundreds of campaigns on a daily basis. Dawson proposes 14 aggregate effects including unnecessary clutter in our lives, relying on businesses to solve our problems (which he calls deskilling), and even narcissism through the constant flattery in advertising.

I walked away from this book with a better understanding of the forces that are trying to influence my decisions. And one decision I've made is to stop calling myself a consumer and look at myself as a product user. It's a subtle shift in thinking, but I think it's a positive shift from passive to active. I think even this small change will help me make better decisions about what to buy because it'll shift my focus to the utility of products. If you'd like a new look at how Marketing affects your life, you are the target market for The Consumer Trap.

Paul Bausch is a freelance web developer, author, and product-user in Corvallis, Oregon. He blogs at onfocus, and helps Oregon bloggers gather at ORblogs.

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Gaming the Credit System
Gaming the Credit System
13 years ago

Sounds interesting. I will be sure to look for this one at my local used bookstore.

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

Sounds like a fascinating (and infuriating) read.

About the last line of the review–wouldn’t it be great if everyone in America regarded themselves as *citizens* rather than *consumers*?

Nu
Nu
13 years ago

An excellent review, thanks. This is why we don’t have a TV connected to the outside (lots less advertising sneaks in that way). For a Finance site however, I suggest the extrapolation of the concepts to we who are stock market “product users”. In particular, I mean anyone who buys stocks other than ETFs and no-load, index mutual funds. Its a paradox that the product that’s best for virtually all consumers is the product that gets little marketing put into it, because the amount to be made by the market makers selling no-load index mutual funds is far smaller than… Read more »

Filip
Filip
13 years ago

While on the topic of books, if you haven’t read it already, you could check out (and possibly link to on the front page for everyone?) Robert H. Frank’s “Luxury Fever”.

Maybe do a list of such “oh crap” books, that once you read them, change your perspective on your place in the world and its economy.

betamax
betamax
13 years ago

Even if you’re aware of how you’re being manipulated by advertising, you’re still subtly affected it just the same.

betamax
betamax
13 years ago

oops…”affected by it…”

Princess_Manners
Princess_Manners
13 years ago

Great, insightful review. I am better-informed on this topic just from having read it, and will check out all the links. Bravo.

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