Thursday, August 31, 2006

Consumer Hedonism and Product Novelty.

I've started a book by Woody Register, entitled "The Kid of Coney Island". It tells the story of Fred Thompson, the man who created the famous Luna Park of Coney Island. He struggled with the mindset of the 1800's male- expected to be industrious and to eschew pleasure and sensual gratification. I was surprised that the era's prohibition of fun extended to "reading for pleasure". Leisure was supposed to have a feminizing effect on the red-blooded American male.

Register has written a quasi-academic work, and sifting through it takes work. But the payoff is exposure to sociocultural theory that is often quite fascinating. Besides battling the conventional perspectives of an industrial age society, Thompson (the amusement-oriented entrepreneur) had to respond to the desire for novelty. Sociologist Colin Campbell, from the University of York, is introduced into the discussion regarding novelty's relationship with consumerism. His claim is that "Only in modern industrial societies have innovation and novelty risen to the level of moral obligations" (this is Register paraphrasing Campbell). This fact arises from the definitions of traditional and modern-day "hedonism". In the traditional sense, familiar objects were appreciated for their known sensory pleasures. The modern form of hedonism, alternatively, begins with the individual's dreams of possibility, and the expectations the hedonist has for new and unfamiliar pleasures. The past is a mere record of disappointments, rather than remembered pleasures.

Campbell theorizes therefore, that consumerism is not about the actual satisfaction or pleasure gained from a product... because it will never meet the dreams or imagination of the "modern-day hedonist". The novelty of the product is what holds out the hope that past disappointments will be supplanted, and thus the product must seem unfamiliar, even if in reality it offers nothing new at all. Thus the quality of a particular consumer good is beside the point. It's the promise of the "new", and the neverending cycle of that pursuit that will ensure the success of a company. The main task is to encourage a consumerist hedonism, and then keep the ball rolling.

While grounded in ideas that I could identify as "common sense", this reasoning indeed seemed enlightening. It attempts an answer to a question that has long mystified me- Why do Americans constantly flock herdlike to a succession of shoddy goods and products, whether in the realm of food, film or fashion? They have been tempted by the tantalyzing prospect of an undiscovered pleasure appearing in that new chain store in the strip mall. Advertising is structured so as to catch the consumer's attention with flashy gimmicks and a sense of the novel. The product doesn't even need to be that good... in fact it can't satisfy the continuing quest of the hedonistic consumer because after awhile it will by necessity play the role of the mundane familiar... and inspire the next round of searching.

But how do advertisers turn customers into hedonists? They do it by inspiring the dreams and imagination that lead to the neverending quest for future satisfactions. They associate their "new" products with youth, sex, or financial success. If you choose their brand, then your dreams of satisfaction just might come true. It's actually the expectation that consumers get addicted to.... certainly not the reality of the products.

I'm barely a third of the way through "The Kid of Coney Island", but I'd have to assume that Fred Thompson intuitively understood the ideas that Campbell would explain years later. And that would account for the phenomenal success he would have with Luna Park. The glitz and the glamour created the expectations in his clientele that were the true product that he was selling. It's fair to say that he was literally selling dreams.


Blogger John Morris said...

I am going to put a very different spin on this.

It is fairly true that it is a very recent trend in human history, to value "novelty", inovation or for that matter origial thought. But to describe this as a useless or frivolous pursuit shows a crazed disregard for the mind in human existence.

If one lived in a complety static world ( the garden of eden ) in which all things were unchanging and risk free; in which there were no storms or floods, or new illnesses and the supply of all resources was never a problem- then novelty and inovation could be considered useless. In the real world, people rationaly value and cherish invention it is an essential requirement of existence.

The underlying illusion pushed by a lot of people is that somehow, the entire world of work, risk and change is a capitalist plot.

The rather goofy anger that breaks out in statist societies when the world fails to coform to thier exact five year plan for shoe production is a riot.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I think you have a valid point. I was speaking of "novelty for the sake of novelty" in the consumer realm as a dubious obsession. Spend some time among fourteen-year-olds, and you'll begin to see the validity of my perspective. In fact, I'm sure you've seen the same principle at work in the art world. You have told me as much.

There is certainly no such thing as a static world. And I'm glad that's the case. I do however disagree with your contention that "In the real world, people rationaly value and cherish invention". That seems like wishful thinking on your part.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous merge cirque said...

This is off-topic from your blog entry, but I like the new moniker.

10:01 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I did kind of understand what you are saying. But, I think that a lot of peoples interest in novelty comes from a sincere desire for improvement and to see something new. Also there is a constant desire for happiness shortcuts, I guess.

To me the way capitalism works is as process of diversity and natural selection. A gazillion gizmos are thrown against the wall and some stick and some change and most die. Then the hopefull businesses sort through the broken parts for new ideas and try again.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I think in the US, when people talk about "capitalism", they really mean to say "no government regulation of big business". Incentives and subsidies...yes. I don't think a system that favors monolithic corporations encourages innovation. As you know, I don't believe that anything near a "free market" exists in this country (or anywhere else, really). But I envy your idealism.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi people
I do not know what to give for Christmas of the to friends, advise something ....

10:42 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home