The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life

Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

This book provides a sociological analysis of corporate marketing, ‘the larger managerial discipline of which advertising is but a part.’ More money is now spent yearly on marketing than on public and private education at all levels combined over a trillion dollars (1). And yet ‘a coherent public debate of big business marketing has yet to materialize in the United States.’   Several obstacles to such a debate are discussed, including the secretive nature of corporations and the corporate bias of mainstream media. And while the public is characterized as not particularly ideological, a strong ideological affinity is said to exist among mainstream ‘scholars, pundits and media mouthpieces’ for whom ‘capitalism means free markets, and free markets equal freedom of choice of product users end of story, case closed’ (7).

Marketing as Pseudoscience. Marketing is shown to have evolved from Taylorist principles, including the detailed study of consumption ‘habits’ among subsets of the population, and the determination of ‘the maximum price the customer will pay’ (32). The objective of ‘scientifically managing’ consumer behavior requires the ability to identify a ‘market’ ; which is to say, to identify potential consumers, those with money and possible motivation, and to ‘target’ them with ads. This idea came to fruition in the 1950s, when American corporations had accumulated sufficient resources to be able to establish marketing departments and conduct independent research, and simultaneously reached overproduction. Since then, marketing budgets have grown disproportionately in relation to every other form of corporate expenditure. The cumulative effect is dramatic. ‘Over time,’ as Dawson puts it, ‘our increasingly marketing-saturated life spaces make us dumber, lazier, fatter, more selfish, less skillful, more adolescent, less politically potent, more wasteful, and less happy than we could and should be’1.

All this is good for the economy i.e., corporations since the growth of consumer culture sustains seemingly limitless corporate growth while offsetting the deflationary tendency of markets. (There have been few years throughout the 20th century without inflation, and only once since 1955.)  One way price competition is avoided is through minor product innovation, which in turn is marketed as improvement in quality, invariably (as Dawson points out) without reference to price, therefore without providing a basis for comparison. Such marketing obscures the fact that every mass-produced commodity is designed to withstand only a certain amount of use and to be obsolete within a certain amount of time, which means that ‘quality’ is managed ‘scientifically’ rather than established ever as an end in itself. Another important fact underlined in the book is that real improvement in quality of products is generally forced upon industry, as when consumers turned away from the American auto industry in the 1980s.

And yet the reasons why people buy anything are debated even among marketers themselves. (According to one study cited by Dawson, 60% of advertising strategies reinforce existing consumption patterns, while another 20% alter them ‘in ways significantly favorable to the corporation’ [139].)  Several successful marketing campaigns are examined in the book, including Pepsi’ s use of youth imagery, Cover Girl’ s emphasis on ‘whiteness, cleanliness, and youth,’ Campbell Soup’ s identification of its product with ‘warm feeling’ (101). The research on which these campaigns are based is essentially behaviorist, notwithstanding occasional use of eclectic themes or symbolism (e.g., psychoanalytic or gestalt), in that it revolves around ‘carrots and sticks.’ Examples of effective marketing campaigns using purely ‘sticks’ include one from the 1960s on behalf of the Association of Playing Card Manufacturers, which involved advertisements designed to ‘shame’ people into having new cards on hand ‘just like clean towels in the bathroom’ (100). More recently, Florida orange growers have a television ad in which a toddler drinks orange juice after hearing a report about the health benefits of vitamin C. Michelin has one that pictures a baby sitting in its tires. In the latter two cases, parents are told, not subtly, that their children are at risk without the particular product (61).

Dawson also points out that ‘before about the 1950s ads were product-centered,’ whereas now they are mostly ‘user-centered’ (108). That is to say, instead of providing any real detail about the product, the ad is comprised of symbols and images that evoke the needs (desires, vulnerabilities) of various categories of consumers. New technology facilitates this process. For instance, Kraft maintains a computerized database of demographic and psychographic information on 70 million US households (135). Such massive amounts of information are apparently needed to ‘cluster’ people into categories like ‘young suburbia.’ Targeting gives way to ‘hyper-targeting.’

Cultural Criticism. Dawson argues that cultural critics generally understate the stealth qualities of advertisement and overstate the complicity of the ‘masses’ in their ‘conspicuous consumption.’ This phrase comes from Veblen, who, as Dawson points out, understood corporate marketing as ‘force and fraud.’ Dawson argues that the idea of conspicuous consumption is only part of Veblen’ s political economy, and that he would not have agreed with the ‘presumption’ of cultural critics ‘that the challenge is to critique the delusions of the masses, rather than the surreptitious barbarity of the corporate capitalists’ (12). But only a few pages are devoted to a discussion of cultural criticism and theory, mainly around works that seem to focus on the ideological content of advertisements while ignoring the ‘actual marketing research behind them.’   This is the least satisfying part of the book because only a caricature of such works is provided. Indeed, it would be better to ignore such people as Marcuse than to say that he understood ‘big business marketing as a vehicle of mass consensus and class harmony, rather than of class coercion and conflict’ —since even a casual reading of his work would contradict this interpretation. Equally problematic is the interpretation Dawson offers of the following statement by Jean Baudrillard: ‘consumers are mutually implicated, despite themselves, in a general system of exchange and in the production of coded values.’ For Dawson this is the same as ‘holding everybody mutually responsible for commercialism and commodification.’ Much is lost in the translation.

Macromarketing. One of the best sections of the book is the chapter on ‘macromarketing,’ which looks at the way large corporations have been successful throughout the 20th century in co-opting the power of the state to alter the environments in which they operate—including the physical environment. Among the examples provided is the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which was preceded by ‘intense macromarketing efforts by a web of business interests from the construction, concrete, asphalt, rubber, and, of course, automotive and oil industries’ (119). Such ‘influence’ would not have been conceivable in earlier stages of capitalism in the US, when there was greater competition and when no individual or business conglomerate possessed sufficient economic power. The current concentration of wealth and power would not have been possible without the growth of consumer culture and simultaneous erosion of civil society and meaningful political alternatives. Dawson’ s book contributes to an understanding of this situation and deserves accordingly to be widely read and debated.

Reviewed by Louis Kontos
Department of Sociology
Long Island University


1. Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement (Chicago: Arsenal, 2002).

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