11 July, 2007

Edmund Wilson on American Consumerism


From "Mr. and Mrs. X", 1931:

In America, in the period that followed the war, our life had become a stampede to produce and sell all sorts of commodities — the question was not whether people really needed or wanted these things but whether by any means they could be induced to buy them. Hence American advertising — one of the most fantastic features of capitalist society. Advertising as we have it in the United States, is a sheer waste of money and brains; but if you allow competitive business for private profit, you have to have a whole corps of poets, artists, preachers, blackmailers and flatterers to compete in selling its wares. It is a formidable undertaking to persuade people to invest at high prices in valueless breakfast foods and toothpastes; in cosmetics that poison the face, lubricants that corrode your car, insecticides that kill your trees; in heal-builders made of cheese, fat-reducers containing cascara, coffee made of dried peas, gelatine made of glue, olive oil made of cottonseed, straw hats composed of wood shavings, sterling silver that is lead and cement, woolen blankets, silk stockings, and linen sheets all actually woven of cotton, sealskin coats that are really muskrat, mink and sable that are really woodchuck, mahogany furniture of gumwood that will splinter into bits under use; in foods that do not nourish, disinfectants that do not disinfect, shock-absorbers that cause you to ride more roughly, and gas-logs for the fireplace that asphyxiate — all articles which have lately been put over with more or less success. Even when the article offered is of genuinely good quality and what it pretends to be, it has to have its ballyhoo, , also, to outshout or underinsinuate other products in the same field. And the result of all this publicity is that the Americans have come at last to accept an ideal of success based solely on the possession of things: cars, clothes, toilet accessories, electrical appliances; and a conception of patriotism that glorifies the United States as an inexhaustible market.

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