Victor Lebow was an American economist that is oft-quoted by those of us that have the gall to question the value of consumer capitalism to humankind. I bring him up as NBA reader Saffron commented recently, "Victor Lebow wrote an article Price Competition in 1955. I highly recommend it, and maybe you will publish it in the future."
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.”
But I had never read "Price Competition" in its entirety. The paper is full of quotable passages beyond the one that comes up most often in discussions of Lebow. Information like this lets us confirm that we have been trained to want, trained to desire, and trained to buy everything, or at least as much as we possibly can.
"To use a military analogy, marketing involves the over-all strategy of distribution, while merchandising, advertising, promotion, and selling comprise the tactics. The costs of distribution actually represent the pressure needed to maintain the high level of consumption. Our economy demands a constantly expanding capacity to produce."
Why do we want so much stuff? Because of the enormous amount of pressure brought to bear upon us. Under the constant assault of marketers, backed by hundreds of billions of dollars per year globally, you can hardly blame people for wanting to buy things.
What is more surprising is that anyone is able to resist the military style campaign, dare to value non-conformity, and refuse to participate in the materialist feeding frenzy. When the average human is subjected to something like thousands of pleas to buy stuff every day, it can be hard to say no to the drug of buying things that we don't need. The advent of television made it even harder.
"Television achieves three results to an extent no other advertising medium has ever approached. First, it creates a captive audience. Second, it submits that audience to the most intensive indoctrination. Third, it operates on the entire family."
Wow. If that doesn't make you want to throw out your TV, install an ad blocker on your computer, and monkey wrench a few billboards, nothing will. There are more such eye opening passages in Lebow's paper, and I recommend anyone interested in knowing how we got here read it in its entirety.
Apparently there is some confusion as to whether the author was advocating consumerism in order to stimulate the post WW2 economy, or was warning us of the perils of moving in that direction. Regardless, it does explain why our consumer capitalist-based society is the way it is.
Thank you to NBA reader Saffron for the idea/inspiration for this post. And to another NBA'er, Terri, for doing some of the research I used to whip this up.
Read Victor Lebow's Price Competition in 1955 here.
"What becomes clear is that from the larger viewpoint of our economy, the total effect of all the advertising and promotion and selling is to create and maintain the multiplicity and intensity of wants that are the spur to the standard of living in the United States."
- Victor Lebow