Commercialism, Materialism, and Ethics - Some Observations


Kim B. Rotzoll (1992) ,"Commercialism, Materialism, and Ethics - Some Observations", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 208-212.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 208-212


Kim B. Rotzoll, Department of Advertising, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Being the astute individuals we are, having chosen to attend this conference in general and this session in particular, it has probably occurred to us that there's more than usual to be concerned about in terms of the increasing presence of commercial values and commercial entities in our societies. We are not alone. Among an abundance of examples from various media, the Washington Post Magazine recently called its view-with-alarm, "Is Nothing Sacred? The Commercialization of Almost Everything," 1 while Ronald Collins and Michael Jacobson warned readers of the Christian Science Monitor that we are witnessing nothing less than a telling confrontation of "Commercialism Versus Culture.'(2) (Note the either/or position here.)

Polanyi's "great trans-formation" that "turned Western societies once relatively traditional, slow changing, status-bound, sacred into the relatively innovative, quick paced, contract-bound entities they have become"(3) did not, of course, just happen yesterday, but when we note the sponsorship of Boy Scout merit badges and learn that the Energizer rabbit lapped the bases between innings at the Philadelphia Phillies opener this season, we may safely conclude that the trend line is up - sharply up.

Imagine the possibilities not yet completely explored. The wails of the Grand Canyon would certainly bring a handsome price, with appropriate cost-per-thousand adjustments depending on the distance from viewing platforms. Or, as Time essayist Michael Kinsley suggested about this attractive product placement opportunity:

Another Shakespeare production, still in the planning stage, involves the rise and fall of a Scottish king and offers a variety of rich product-placement opportunities. Three elderly sisters will be cooking on-stage throughout the play, sometimes even reciting recipes. A single product reference - 'Eye or newt, too of frog, one-quarter cup ReaLemon reconstituted lemon juice' -- will be $20,000. An entire couplet will be priced at $40,000. For $60,000, the sisters will say, "Heck, let's just dump this mesa and call Domino 3."(4)

Now, what I will be attempt to do in this paper is to offer some modest insights an the subjects of commercialism and materialism by probing for the philosophical and ethical assumptions of their proponents and opponents. For we are, after all, dealing with what psychologists might call an "ambiguous stimulus field," lacking precise structure and definition and, hence, subject to the patterning brought to it by those who choose to be interested. Thus, seeking an understanding of the frames-of-reference of those who view commercialism and materialism with alarm and those for whom their presence is simply world-taken-for-granted is, I believe, a matter of some importance. (You will note I use the word "probe" to describe my efforts. I have often admired this technique as espoused by the renowned Canadian Marshall McLuhan. It conveniently frees the author to explore without being excessively burdened by that nasty baggage of proof.)

First, then, some thoughts about the subjects of commercialism and materialism. If we choose to define commercialism as a growing commercial presence in our societies, then it is not un-reasonable to think of commercialism as the means to the ends of materialism -that is, so much commercial sponsorship eventually is expected to lead to so much acquisition of the products and services of commercial enterprises. But to the extent that the concerns of the critics of commercialism are at least importantly concerned with values - as Collins and Jacobson obviously are when they write, 'Value alternatives beyond those of the marketplace are disappearing. The very idea of citizen has become synonymous with consumer"(5) - then the concerns of the critics of both commercialism and materialism seem virtually identical, as frequently assumed under the often derisive use of the term "consumer culture," implying not simply a collection of artifacts, but the value system that gives them meaning and, hence, provides motivational force for things material.

In short, I see commercialism as both leading to materialism in the sense of materialism's physical dimensions, and harmonious with materialism in that both stimulate and reinforce a value system that critics often find disquieting, demeaning, or dangerous.

Before I attempt a more precise look at the assumption of critics and defenders, it may be useful to attempt to clear the playing field with some general background observations:

(1) The commercialism/ materialism wave is intense, inevitable, and far short of peaking. We may in fact be entering a period of world history which may be called, with only a dash of whimsy, pax McDonalds, with market forces in ascendancy in first, second, and third world countries, and many governments looking not for defenses but for inducements.

(2) There is no shortage of hypocrisy afoot. This is seen in the presence of corporations which often cloak themselves in the mantle of altruism yet can be observed to have many of their acts of noblesse oblige bear a striking resemblance to a strategic marketing plan. It is certainly observable in the activities of some academics, who feel quite above the battle while trashing marketplace values and resultant materialism in the classroom, but are more than willing to seek out and accept the largesse that private enterprise may offer increasingly financiaily strapped bastions of higher education. And, at least for some of us, there is the uncomfortable whisper of truth to columnist George Will's recent assertion that "Contempt for consumer culture is generally an affectation of comfortable people addicted to the pleasures of condescension."6

(3) Of no small consequence to the subject at hand is the inescapable observation that a considerable part of our commercial and material milieu is apparently welcomed, even sought, by the citizens of our societies. To note the more obvious:

. There are apparently now some 6000 catalogs of purely commercial communication on the market, most enjoying a brisk business.

. Gloria Steinham informs us that when she examined such enormously popular magazines as Glamour, Vogue, Redbook, and Family Circle, she found that more than 75% of their contents could be fairly described as advertising or advertising related.(7) One would assume the readers know what they're getting.

. I haven't chocked the figures, but my guess is PBS wouldn't mind having the audience attracted to the pure shopping channels now becoming increasingly common on basic cable.

. And certainly the modern shopping mail is our contemporary temple of consumption. But consider the future! Mall of America is now under construction in suburban Minneapolis, with 4.2 million square foot, including an 18-hole miniature golf course, a 14-unit theatre, 13 restaurants, a walk-through aquarium, and Camp Snoopy, an amusement park. More than 1500 tour buses have been booked and 50 different groups from Japan plan to visit in the mega-mall's first year.(8)

So certainly the argument can be made, at least in part, that the citizen to be saved from the coils of the snake commercialism has not only already dined from the alluring tree, but may have enthusiastically signed up for the fruit-of-the-month club.

(4) Finally, in this initial attempt to clarify the lines on the playing field, it seems clear that we are not infrequently dealing with different ethical mind sets. For defenders of commercialism will often tend to justify their actions using market based criteria or, in terms of ethical principles, the notion of the "greatest good for the greatest number" that we know as utilitarianism. For example, in responding to a recent Consumers Union attack on various marketing activities directed to children, Coca-Cola's manager of public relations commented, "The Coca-Cola system has been involved in contributions of scoreboards to schools for decades, and if the parents, teachers and students didn't want our help, we wouldn't be there."(9)

In contrast, consider this admonition of the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

To brace America's ethical, cultural, and economic backbone, we must also demand by public protest or legislative fiat, that certain areas of life be declared commercial-free. At a minimum this would include our children, homes, schools, books, and museums. Additionally, practices such as movie product placements and commercials in theatres should be challenged as should each now transgression of the advertising frontier.(10)

Notice the tendency to rely not on spontaneous market signals sent by individual decision makers in their everyday yea/nay choices, but on 'public protest," " legislative fiat," and directed "challenges,' more in the spirit of the ethical absolutism of Emanuel Kant.

Thus, in this general scenario, both defenders and attackers of the values and artifacts of commercialism/ materialism can contend that they are acting ethically - that is, in accordance with "determinative principles." In the defenders' case the contention is based on the assumed endorsement of market forces as aggregated in individual decision making, or at least in the absence of hostile signals, and in the case of the critics, there is not infrequently the assertion of an essentially absolute judgment - the activity is simply considered wrong, regardless of clear consequences.

This can be a very frustrating experience for all parties, particularly for those waiting for signals of protest from a maddeningly indifferent market. Perhaps some further understanding can be offered by examining a well publicized critique of the commercialism/materialism values and effects in light of a recent and spirited defense. Specifically, I wish to examine significant assertions from Collins and Jacobson's manifesto "Commercialism Versus Culture" paired with Michael Schudson's widely discussed article "Delectable Materialism," subtitled, 'Were the Critics of Consumer Culture Wrong All Along?'(11)

After dealing with what they see as commercialism's detrimental effects on our health and environment, Collins and Jacobson dwell on five areas of over-arching concern:

Psychological well being. Concentrating on advertising as a handmaiden of commercialism, the authors make the frequently noted assertion that "Our system of advertising purposefully promotes envy, creates anxiety, and fosters insecurity.' By contrast, Schudson argues, 'the social aspects of consumption do not depend on advertising," and that "the consumer culture is sustained socially not by manufactured images but by the goods themselves as they are used," often in relation to our particular peer or reference group, but at an even deeper level because ownership "gives a pleasure of possession, convenience....'

The differences in assumptions then, are over influence, particularly the source of influence. Collins and Jacobson suggest the influence is external, impersonal in the sense that it emanates from advertising, an impersonal form of persuasion. Schudson apparently sees the influence as largely interpersonal, in the case of a poor group, or aspirational, in the case of a reference group, and more basically found in the attractiveness and/or convenience of the goods themselves, as we anticipate or receive satisfaction in possession for a host of psychological and social reasons.

To the extent that individuals experience consumption related envy, anxiety, and insecurity then, Collins and Jacobson see it being stimulated and reinforced by advertising, while Schudson could be interpreted as seeing it as a trade-off of the "satisfaction and seduction" inherent in an abundant society.

Communal values. "Civic mindedness,' Collins and Jacobson tell us, "is an aflon concept to people mesmerized by consumer goods." This results in a world where "public institutions that depend on government are forced to turn to business dollars to survive [leading to] the commercialization of schools, art museums, and non-profit organizations."

Schudson would likely see this as what he labels a "republican" (small R) criticism, based on the promise that "satisfactions with goods produce acquiescence in politics' (and, by implication, civic life in general). But, he asserts the balances between public and private life are not always clearly drawn. He asks...

... whether of under what circumstances and with what benefits, as well as costs, materialism truly stands in the way of community-building and the provision of public services. When do backyard pools endanger public pools or when do they help provide enthusiastic swimmers for them? When do private and parochial schools endanger public schools and when are they a goad to improving them? When do bookstores endanger libraries and when are they a civilizing component?

The lines, then, are rather clearly drawn. Collins and Jacobson see the values of commercialism and community in unequal combat, with community values the loser in a "me only" cocooning world, while Schudson sees a synergy, apparently fueled by the sell interests of the market mechanism.

Egalitarian values. The concern here, Collins and Jacobson assert, "is that at some point championing excessive, consumption exacerbates social disparities of the kind linked to class conflicts, especially along racial lines." This is so because "differences between the commercial haves and have-nots become synonymous with one's rank in society.'

Some critiques of materialism, Schudson observes, are Marxist or socialist in their orientation, particularly those involving the accentuation of class differences. Of course Collins and Jacobson concentrate on social and racial schisms rather than the traditional own"r/worker, but it would seem the essence of the argument is present, as represented in Christopher Lasch's statement that, "instead of attempting to change the conditions of his work, (the worker] seeks renewal in brightening his immediate surroundings with now goods and services.'

"The questionable assumption here,' Schudson adds, "as in other criticism, is that the satisfactions achieved through the world of goods are illusionary." For Schudson then, it would seem that. regardless of social stratum, goods can be seen as "authentic sources of meaning" for individuals, perhaps with democratic dynamics such as 'the recent experience of social transformation in Eastern Europe, galvanized by economic aspirations as well as political hope...."

Collins and Jacobson, in contrast, assert that if consumption values dominate there will inevitably be the haves and the have-nots as defined by standards based not on intrinsic character or spirituality, but access to money as the means to the and of acquisition.

The value of thought. "Much advertising substitutes imagery, sloganeering, and a brand-name mentality for rational, fact-based decision-making.' This approach, Collins and Jacobson continue, 'accustoms us to be more accepting of irrational sales schemes and encourages mindless and wasteful shopping binges.'

Here one is reminded of what Schudson calls the "Puritan critique' which 'worries about whether people invest an appropriate amount of meaning in goods." Of particular relevance here is Raymond Willams' who, in Schudson's quotes as contending, "modern advertising is proof that people in modern capitalistic societies are not materialist - because the job of the ad is to convey added value to the product itself." "If we were sensibly materialistic," Williams is quoted, " would be enough for Us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly.'(121

We are, then, for Collins, Jacobson, and Williams, clearly animale symbolica, easily distracted from function to fantasy, particularly with the symbol packages of advertising, all at the price of our more rational capabilities. Predictably, Schudson places greater value on individual choice, symbol laden or not. In reviewing Schudson's article, George Will captures the theme: "Possession of a house that provides privacy, a car that confers mobility, clothes that express individuality, travel that broadens, is not a trivial thing."(13)

The clash on this subject of "the value of thought' then, would seem to be over a definition of 'thought" itself. Clearly one interpretation is far more liberal than another.

Simple and honest living. 'There is a longstanding American ideal," Collins and Jacobson state, 'of simple and honest living, of moderation in the marketplace. Frugality was a key word in the founders' civic vocabulary." There is apparent emphasis here on attitudes toward goods rather than features of the goods themselves, although they both seem related to what Schudson refers to as the "Quaker critique," concentrating on the "wastefulness or extravagance" of products beyond some presumed norm of simplicity and functionality. Addressing this elusive standard, he adds, 'How do we arrive at a baseline for consensus - and, if we can't (and I think we can't), then what is the character of the moral objection to excessive consumption?" Yet clearly, Collins and Jacobson believe that some standards of conduct are superior to others.

Schudson makes the ideological conflict bald:

In the past generation, people have listened to one set of voices from the East and have. borrowed notions of a simple life, a life of self-discipline and self-denial, from Buddhist traditions of Asia. Now we are listening to a different set of voices from a different East - the voices of Yeltsins and the unashamed emulation of economic abundance.

Now, what have we learned from this ideological Super Bowl? Clearly that there are starkly different .realities' in play, patterned by quite different assumptions about such bed rock concepts as perceptions of human nature, as well as the relationship between the individual and the collective.

One mechanism which may allow us to explore the subject with somewhat greater order and subtlety is the so-called "Potter Box," a mechanism for facilitating ethical analysis developed by Dr. Ralph Potter of the Harvard Divinity School . ~14)


As you can see, the Potter Box first requires a precise definition of the situation to be assessed - what, in other words, is seen through the eyes of the beholders. Next, there is a need to address operating values - our presuppositions about social life and human nature - held important to us in relation to the particular situation assessed. Then there is a need to see these values in some way linked to solid ethical principles, to be rooted in some well thought out system of assessing rights and wrongs that transcend the whims of the moment.

A final critical stop of analysis is then an assessment of where loyalty is owed - to the individual, for example, to colleagues, friends, or some abstractions such as the group, or society.

Now, following this analysis could lead us to greater understanding of the assumptions behind the actions taken or recommended by parties in the commercialism/materialism arena. For whether we observe a coherent pattern or not, by illuminating each of these rich variables we can better assess whether or not each of us is in agreement with the values, principles, and loyalties addressed.

In other words, we can develop more acute insights into what we consider "unprincipled" activity if, for example, we assume a party is operating without coherent situation-values-principles-loyalties linkages or if we simply disagree with those which are in play.

As an initial step, let's examine what might loosely be called the "commorcialism/materialism situation' as possibly perceived by Collins and Jacobson as well as Michael Schudson.

Definition of the situation - Collins and Jacobson could be interpreted as "seeing' a situation in which the values and actions characteristic of American society are increasingly dominated by commercialism and materialism, to the detriment of the commonweal. Defining the "same' landscape, Schudson could perceive an 'Ideology of choice," with the benefits of a materialistic society outweighing the costs.

Values. What is of importance here? For Collins and Jacobson, there is apparently much to be valued, ranging from the psychological (e.g. well being of the individual, value of thought) to the social (e.g. egalitarian and communal values). For Schudson, it would not be inappropriate to characterize his predominant value to be .recognizing a certain dignity and rationality in the desire for material goods," as reflected in individual choice.

Principle. As suggested earlier, in a general sense ethical principles can be divided into those that weigh the ethics of an act by standards that are dependent on the consequences of the act, and those that are not. Collins and Jacobson would seem to rely upon principles failing into the latter category. They seem to be asserting that, regardless of the play of market forces, the current presence of commercialism /materialism is wrong. it is damaging to the individuals who form our society and, hence, the society itself. There are, then, higher truths at work here, truths that need to be asserted to stem the current commercialism /materialism wave for the presumed good of ail involved, even though citizen actions in the aggregate could seem to reinforce that which is opposed.

By contrast, Schudson is clearly concerned with consequences, and positions himself defender of materialism, largely because, "Consumer culture and advertising, along with elections, are the most important institutions that promote the ideology of choice." Not surprisingly, this is utilitarian in nature, the ethical system which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number as expressed, in this context, in the pecuniary actions of individuals through the market mechanism.

Loyalties. If one were to argue that Collins and Jacobson's loyalties were primarily to the individual, it could be added that it would not be to the individuals currently afoot in the market. Those individuals are, after all, responsible for at least the manifestations of materialism that the authors decry. Rather, it would seem apt to consider their loyalty primarily to the shaping of the culture in non-commercial, non-material ways, often with a reliance upon a higher civic order such as government.

In contrast, with his references to goods as authentic sources of meaning' for individuals, it can be contended that Schudson's primary loyalty is to individual choice, with the resulting decisions manifesting themselves in a "Consumer culture" without apology, and expressed in 1. a certain dignity and rationality in the desire for material goods."

It is apparent, and hardly surprising, that these representatives of different positions of commercialism/materialism in American society define the ethical landscape with sharp differences. To summarize:

At least these critics of the values and products of materialism tend to define the situation in terms of exploitation, placing emphasis on social and psychological values of rationality, simplicity, and social harmony, with ethical principles rooted in absolutist imperatives of higher truths, and loyalties to abstractions such as a society less reflective of, and dependent on, commercialism and materialism.

By contrast, at least this defender defines a consumer culture as an arena of search for meaning in material goods, values individual choice in that pursuit, relies upon the familiar market system support of utilitarianism, and finds meaningful loyalty in the unapologetic consumer choice process.

This seems, then, to borrow from a pioneering work by Bauer and Greyser, a classic example of a "dialogue that never happens."

I began this exploration with the hope that, by attempting to examine some of the assumptions apparently underlying two representative positions in a controversial field, we could arrive at perhaps slightly enhanced understanding of some of the nuances involved. At the end of the quest, then, let me offer these thoughts:

(1) It is clear to all that the commercialism /materialism tendencies that so vex Collins and Jacobson, and many of us, will continue. For most of the perpetrators, relying frequently on market mechanisms to signal whether they have perhaps gone "over the line," there is simply no "off' button. The potential gains are too tempting, while the potential downside is largely diffused through general consumer apathy and/or acquiescence.

(2) Those wishing to challenge the advertisers and marketers who are the most visible elements of the consumer culture, will find little support on utilitarian grounds. tf we look at some of the current suggestions of ways to "fight the commercial onslaught" - e.g. "Don't be a walking advertisement,' "Keep your home clear of brand names,' "Turn off TV,"15 etc. - it seems clear they are more likely to appeal to the readers of Adbusters than the couch potatoes of prime time television, or the frenzied denizens of the shopping mail. Generally, the market is telling the commercializers and materialists, 'We're doing fine, thanks, except we could use just a little more.'

(3) The challenger can, however, confront the system and its perpetrators on utilitarian grounds if there is latent discontent on the part of an affected population -e.g. museum patrons who may be happy about the new exhibit but are vaguely uneasy about the blatant sponsorship that made it possible. If this were the case, boycotts, letter writing efforts and the like could be organized, thus confronting the commercializer's normal reliance on the assumption of the greatest good for the greatest number.

(4) Short of attempting to turn market forces against the presumed offender, the critic would seem to need to assort the moral force of ethical absolutes, with the contention that a particular practice is simply wrong, regardless of explicit or implicit consequences. This is not, of course, likely to be a particularly easy sell, given the entrenched market rationale confronting it.

A French intellectual was recently quoted as hoping with all his heart that Euro Disneyland "burns to the ground." This is certainly a hopefully extreme reflection of the frustration many critics of commercialism/ materialism share when confronted with a seemingly amoral business community and an agonizingly indifferent citizenry, often quite willing to think of themselves as "consumers" high among their other identities.

I do believe Schudson is right to focus our attentions on what he calls the "search for meaning" in consumption choices. We need, after ail, to start with individuals as we find them and certainly, for most of us, consumption plays a part, if not a defining one, in each of our lives. It's not hard to got the feeling that Calvin Wine understands consumer behavior better than Consumer Reports, and if we're going to have a meaningful dialogue about the tradeoffs of our commercialist/ materialist societies, we'd better at least consider that possibility and its consequences.

Hopefully, than, one avenue to greater understanding and action in this important area of societal focus is to examine the assumptions behind the words and the actions of those involved. Polemics are, after all, better tools for reinforcement than conversion.


1. Peter Carlson, 'It's an Ad Ad Ad Ad World," The Washington Post Magazine, November 3, 1991, pp. 1519,29-33.

2. Ronald K. L Collins and Michael F. Jacobson, "Commercialism Versus Culture," The Christian Science Monitor, September 19, 1990, p. 19.

3. K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, (Boston: Bea con Press, 1957)

4. Michael Kinsley, 'These Foolish Things Remind Me of Diet Coke,' Time, June 11, 1990, p. 88.

5. Collins and Jacobson, op cit.

6. George Will, 'U.S. Citizens Should Accept, Respect Consumer Culture,' syndicated column.

7. Gloria Steinem, "Sex, Lies & Advertising," Ms., July/August, 1990.

8. Kate Fitzgerald, "Mega Malls,' Advertising Age, January 27, 1992, pp. S-1, S-8.

9. Judann Dagnoli, "Consumers' Union Hits Kids Advertising,' Advertising Age, July 23, 1990, p. 4.

10. Collins and Jacobson, op cit.

11. Michael Schudson, "Delectable Materialism - Were the Critics of Consumer Culture Wrong All Along?" The American Prospect, Spring, 1991, pp. 26-35.

12. Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980).

13. George Will, op cit.

14. See Clifford G. Christians, Kim B. Rotzoll, and Mark Fackler, Media Ethics (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1991), pp. 1-28.

15. "20 Ways to Fight the Commercial Onslaught," Utne Reader, January/ February 1992, p. 77.



Kim B. Rotzoll, Department of Advertising, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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