It would appear that in recent years we are beginning to enter a new golden age of consumerism. As traditional brand loyalties die out, we have ushered in a new era, one that is not reliant upon possessions in the typical sense, the era of the chemical shopper.
At first there was the great automotive age, where car culture dominated the American market and huge bucking vehicles were in style; Low performance, gas guzzling machines that were the corporate seal of American approval. The ford thunderbirds and leering Pontiacs that cruised like massive predators the wide streets of the United States. These vehicles perfectly represented the minds of consumers, unimpressed by performance, reliability or value; people whose very ethics were driven by the invisible wheel of marketing genius, with no attention paid to the product, only the brand. This allowed the corporations to knowingly undersell the product, creating a void in American engineering that has never, even now, been filled.
This period, however, was doomed to end, with cheaper, more reliable Japanese imports and the tougher European ones eventually controlling the previously monopolized markets. This forced the industry to become necessarily competitive, and both the environment and the consumer have benefitted as a consequence. No longer were the incredibly harmful muscle cars so prevalent, allowing emissions and road deaths to halt their furious incline. During this time it seemed that the people had beaten the gargantuan power of blind brand loyalty, shopping with their heads rather than their passports.
The same tale is repeated hundreds of times over throughout the twentieth century. It happened with coffee, changing from Colombian/American imports to fairer, more sustainable African blends. It happened to cigarettes, where customers are swapping their brands from Marlboro and Camel, to European and Arabic brands manufactured in countries where the exploitation of workers if minimal. It would seem, and I personally take great solace in this, that given enough time, the consumer is intelligent enough to see through the illusionary world of marketing and observe every product stripped of glitter and pomp.
With the ever more apparent phenomenon of globalization, this previously American trend has now become a universal one. With every brand available in every country, we have seen consumer taste change from the quaint and provincial to that of the international. Take a drive through the English countryside, and make a note of the different garages on the outskirts of every town; Nissan, Volvo, Volkswagen and Chevrolet. The wealth of choice has meant that the newest form of blind loyalty is no longer concentrated just in the united states, or on one type of innocuous possession, making this new market more dangerous than anything previous.
Whilst household names like Pfizer grow stateside, with pharmaceutical lobbies increasingly controlling the political landscape, the trend is to fund research with the promotion of certain chemicals in mind. In Both Europe and the United States, psychological research is becoming a private enterprise that is increasingly seen as an extension of corporate marketing’s leathery wings, abusing the faith that people place in modern medicine. At the turn of the century less than one in a hundred people were diagnosed with any form of mental disorder, now, at the dawn of the new millennium, that figure is closer to one in two. Where nearly half the population is essentially crazy, you may well ask yourself, what, if anything, is normal. The internet has spawned a generation of self diagnosis, where people (teenagers in particular) appear to ‘shop around’ for defects that they are convinced the possess in order to feel individual. Bi polar disorder is the new little black dress, ADHD; your powerful muscle car. These symptomatic diseases are now products we long to possess as badges of our individuality, and the prescriptions that treat them become the brand names that legitimize them. The act of collecting these illnesses has been called empowering by some people. Having ‘something wrong’ with you allows you to take affirmative action to treat yourself, by begging doctors for meds that used to be very rarely prescribed, in short the knowledge that you are sick, but your doing something about it, has become a mark of self possession.
This movement is much like the others, driven by money and status. The youth of today sees hundreds of stars fighting through expensive bouts of rehab, combating all sorts of mental defects on their road to eventual perfection; they swallow all manner of multicolored medication in the name of cerebral balance. Your everyday kid however, is unable to afford the uppers and downers prescribed by private practitioners, so they stick to known, available brands that have a similar effect, just like product endorsement; Lydsay Lohan doesn’t wear DC shoes, but they have her face on them. Some people will blame the phenomenon of celebrity, you can try to blame their false familiarity with the average man or woman, but this is marketing pure and simple.
Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel. The internet can be beneficial, and due to this information revolution, people are, on the whole, more educated. People know, for example, that the chemicals found in nearly all ‘mood stabilizing’ (a phrase invented to market Prozak) drugs can be found in green tea. But this world of rapidly changing molecules and disorders being discovered on a daily basis, is it not essential that we merely switch off to the pharmaceutical fear mongering for a while? I have faith that, like all other products, the desire for psychoactive chemicals is not permanent, but were no longer merely losing our money, we are losing our minds.