Consumer Activism and Corporate
How Strong a Connection?
BRENDEN E. KENDALL REBECCA GILL GEORGE CHENEY
as a Primary Goal
“Consumerism was the twentieth century's winning 'ism'” (Gopnik, 1997, p. 80). With this bold and deliberately ironic statement, a writer for the New Yorker magazine made the point that whatever other movements rose and fell in the past 100 years or so, the force of consumerism is with us. Indeed, it is now so common to speak of “consumer society,” to substitute the term “consumer” for “citizen,” and to speak of nations like China as “emerging markets of consumer power,” that in everyday talk consumption has ceased to be an object of attention. For people in industrialized societies, regardless of their position on the political spectrum, consumption is not just a means to live but a way of life (Miles, 1998). And nowhere perhaps is this truer than in the contemporary United States.
But, how did we get here? At the turn of the twentieth century, “consumption” referred primarily to use, to waste, and to the disease of tuberculosis. That is, the term had negative and neutral meanings, but not particularly positive ones. With the advent of lifestyle advertising (and indeed, the notion of lifestyle choice itself) in the 1920s, the rise of mass production technologies from the 1910s onward, and especially through the creation of the marketing discipline in the 1950s, consumption became elevated beyond need and desire to a fundamental pursuit (see the critical history in Ewen, 1976).
By the mid-1970s, most neo-Marxist theorists and writers agreed that the focus of a contemporary critique of capitalism must shift from production to consumption, in recognition of the nexus of images of individual success, material comfort, and even transcendent “salvation” that accompany late-twentieth-century consumption practices (Baudrillard, 1980).
The 1960s and early 1970s, of course, gave voice to consumer activism (e.g., Nader, 1965) just as the period featured broader movements reacting against material indulgence and the traditional emblems of success in capitalist democracies. This consumer activism centered, first, on awareness of issues such as safety and integrity of products/ services, extending to demands for information under the banner of “consumer protection.” Today's Simple Living movement (see http://www .simpleliving.net/) is to some extent the successor to the back-to-basics and counterculture “return to nature” of that earlier period.
What is especially interesting for our purposes is how that so-called “radical” period also gave rise to—or at least was trumped by—an even more thoroughly consumptive culture and the almost