Educating the Consumer-Citizen: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising and Media

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Educating the Consumer-Citizen: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising and Media. Joel Spring. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2003. 254 pp. $24.50 pbk.

How did U.S. schools become consumer factories, and how did the American Dream become the ability to buy more things? In Educating the Consumer-Citizen: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising and Media, Joel Spring takes the reader through a journey of about the past two-hundred years to explain how and why today's U.S. schools and marketing are so closely intertwined, as are democracy, free enterprise, and patriotism. Early chapters explore the development of a common culture and the roles drawn for women, men, and high school students.

Spring offers an interesting angle on how the role of women was affected by home economists, who encouraged the development of a common cuisine served at schools and hospitals and taught in classes. The role of the homemaker changed from producer to consumer via the use of the new packaged and prepared foods, like Jell-O. This new woman would be highly educated and devote a significant part of her time to social improvement projects. There was a difference, however, between the way home economists and advertisers envisioned this new woman. Home economists saw consumption as a way of liberating a woman, expanding her free time by buying Wonder Bread instead of baking bread at home. Advertisers, however, played to women's fears that could be calmed by buying the right product-such as the right toothpaste, deodorant, or cigarette.

The change in the role model for the masculine man is also explored, although men continued well into the twentieth century to be the providers while women shifted to consumers. A change occurred after the Civil War, when U.S. men lost a sense of independence. Instead of working for themselves, or owning a farm, they worked for someone else, in corporations and factories. By the 1930s, as high schools became ubiquitous, sports became a focus for male students. Later in the twentieth century, the football player replaced the cowboy as the macho image.

While an emerging teen culture was created during the 1930s by high schools, students then had little buying power. This changed after World War II, when high school students were, by comparison, relatively affluent. Magazines like Seventeen promoted what was termed "civic consumerism," combining the role of active citizen and consumer. Patriotic groups and business leaders endorsed this idea, going so far as to ban certain textbooks and teachers with anti-U.S. (read anti-business) ideas. The American way of life was, and still is, tied to consumerism. Being successful meant being able to buy more things. Someone who did not support capitalism did not support democracy. Why go to school? To get a good job to make more money to buy more things.

Spring devotes much space to describing how schools and media both contributed to a mindset that equated success with consuming. Advertising helped by pushing the new and improved, the new models, and new trends. In order to keep people consuming, it was necessary to make them dissatisfied with their current products. This dissatisfaction was key to keeping the economy rolling. …