Can We Transcend Materialism?

Marketers appeal not only to our egos—they also want us to self-actualize.

Posted Feb 22, 2021

It seems no company these days can sell a product without communicating its social mission or commitment to sustainability. We, as consumers, have come to expect it. This is a great triumph of 21st-century marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility efforts.

For most of the 20th century, marketing has been heavily criticized for contributing to materialism and waste. So this will be welcome news for many people. Have we transcended consumerism? The sociologist Ronald Inglehart believed that when a society achieved a certain level of wealth, consumers would stop pursuing material security and focus instead on higher needs, such as self-actualization from Maslow’s hierarchy. 

Have we achieved post-materialism? I am not so sure, and the reason has to do with Maslow’s hierarchy.

This is why: Marketers understand that it is pretty easy to create desire through advertising and promotions because while our needs are limited, our desires are limitless. Such was largely the objective of the classic, “sales-oriented” era of marketing, the glory days of 1960s Madison Avenue ad agencies, as anyone who has seen Don Draper and company on Mad Men knows well. The post-war 1950s had created a large middle class and the availability of seemingly futuristic technologies that completely altered life as a consumer: Refrigerators, televisions, and automobiles became near-ubiquitous.

By this time, most Americans had the things they needed, at least in terms of their basic survival, and then some. The goal of advertising, then, was to stimulate desire: buying not out of true necessity, but out of wanting—wanting a better, newer automobile, a second television, a bigger refrigerator. Or, more likely, the desire for one company’s product over a competitor’s, or a more expensive model over a less expensive one, and so on.

The problem was that most Americans didn’t really “need” these things, at least not in any traditional sense, because they already had them. It wasn’t always that way, though. Marketers like to trace the origin of modern marketing to the industrial age, often known as the “production” era of marketing.

In the early 20th century, the emphasis on marketing activities is on making, building, scaling up, reducing costs, and creating availability of the product to consumers. It is an age of innovation and the first introduction of mass-produced consumer goods. Arguably, these inventions did dramatically improve lives for millions of people, raising many out of poverty and paving the way for the post-war middle class. Scarcity became abundance.

The post-war era created the exact conditions for a post-materialist society. But marketers were ready: Perhaps you don’t need a new car—but you do need self-esteem! Having a newer car than your neighbor could help with that. Or perhaps you need a little love in your life. In fact, this ad for Chrysler was based on the work of Ernst Dichter, a psychoanalytic psychologist who pioneered the idea of linking desire to underlying needs as an advertising tactic.

Messaris (2013). How to Make Money from Subliminal Advertising and Motivation Research.  University of Pennslyvania Scholarly Commons
Ernst Dichter Chrysler ad
Source: Messaris (2013). How to Make Money from Subliminal Advertising and Motivation Research. University of Pennslyvania Scholarly Commons

Such advertising helped foster the materialistic values that American consumer society became known for well into the late 20th century. But some would say there has been a turning point. It is well-known that millennials and Generation Z are far less materialistic than previous generations, such as the Boomers and Gen Xers.

I see an interesting contradiction here. Given their dedication to sustainable production and efforts toward environmental stewardship, there is little question that buying a Patagonia jacket (for instance) is better for the planet. The same goes for Tesla electric vehicles. But these are expensive products, and they come along with a kind of social exclusivity that surely fuels ego.

This is not to knock Tesla and Patagonia. We need cars, and we need jackets. And we need to take better care of our planet. I greatly admire both companies, and I am the proud (and thankful) owner of Tesla stock. I could even argue that those of us who have the means have an ethical obligation to consume in a social and sustainable way—certainly, more so than those who can least afford to do so.

The North Face
North Face ad: Never Stop Exploring
Source: The North Face

I just wonder whether post-materialism is something we can truly realize. And perhaps the marketer in me is a little cynical that we can transcend materialism. Consider this North Face ad, for instance: Climbing mountains is exactly the kind of activity that should foster self-actualization.

But even if consumers are no longer jostling for the newest and best consumer goods to fuel an ego competition, marketers are adept at appealing to even our highest-level needs to sell products.

So, please, keep buying. It is the engine of our economy, and for that reason, we can truly change the world through our consumption habits. That is the beauty of capitalism. If we demand sustainable products, companies like Patagonia and Tesla will oblige.

But always ask yourself, "Why?" What need am I fulfilling? And will it help me achieve the kind of sustainable well-being fostered by self-actualization?

References

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Inglehart, R. (2008). (2008). Changing Values Among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006. West European Politics. 31 (1–2): 130–146