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Hegemony and American Consumerism: Is This the Opiate of the Masses? Research Paper

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A poor man lived near a river that stayed frozen over most of the year because he lived very far north. He went there to fish because he was hungry. So he cut a hole in the ice and dropped his baited hook in. It was not long before he pulled in a nice fish. He cooked it and ate it and then built a little shack on the spot so he would have a place to sleep, sit, fish, and eat protected from the elements. The shack had a nice window he had found in an abandoned cabin and he took up residence. Every day he pulled in one fish, so he stayed alive. He was hungry still, but he knew he would not starve.

After a while, he saw another fellow on the other side of the river do the same thing. However, there was a difference: the stranger was catching 6 fish every day. Now the poor man watched this for weeks, but he was catching his one fish every day, so he refused to take a chance and cross the river because he was catching one fish every day. He was not happy, but he would not risk his one fish a day to go after more by moving across the river. What made him really angry was that the guy across the river did not need six fish a day, but he would not throw one of them over to the poor man.

That is why eighty percent of the public allows itself to be led by government, religion, and corporations owned or operated by the other twenty percent. Adam and Eve, or their interdenominational equivalents, had to leave the garden to become human. As long as they stayed in the garden and everything was provided, they needed nothing and would never grow. Even if the garden had only provided enough to barely keep them alive, they, like the poor fisherman, would never have left on their own. Most people will accept having just enough to get by rather than take a chance or make a change.

Corporate America knows this, and they have the secret to survival in a free market: words. “Religion is the opiate of the people” is one of the most frequently quoted statements of . It was translated from the German original, “Die Religion… ist das Opium des Volkes” and is often referred to as “religion is the opiate of the masses”. The quote originates from the introduction of his 1843 work Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right which was subsequently released one year later in Marx’s own journal Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbücher, a collaboration with Arnold Ruge. The phrase “Tis opium you feed your people” appears in 1797 in Marquis de Sade’s text L’Histoire de Juliette. (Wikipedia 2007)

Marx and all the others may have been right. However, religion has changed. It is the dollar and the respect gained by its acquisition is that is sought. We worship with our credits cards and cash. Financial success is a development of the industrial age, but the rush to consume has overtaken us only during the last century, and the development of modern mass media has accelerated progress. When people get paid they rush to spend. In fact, they usually spend the money before it is earned, based upon their credit rating. Who did this happen and how does it work? That is the subject of this paper.

Hegemony and American Consumerism

Hegemony is defined in most dictionaries as control or dominating influence by one person or group, especially by one political group over a society or one nation over others. The methods of control differ, but the controlled group is dominated by persuasion. Mass media has made advertising the engine of control over a consumeristic society in a constant round of growth economics. The method of control, in this case, is a whole network of functions that create a need in the consumer designed to fill the needs of the supplier.

In its simplistic form hegemony concerns the construction of consent and the exercise of leadership by the dominant group over subordinate groups; in its more complex form, this deals with issues such as the elaboration of political projects, the articulation of interests, the construction of social alliances, the development of historical blocs, the deployment of state strategies and the initiating of passive revolutions. (Joseph 1)

A definition of Hegemonic is the processes by which dominant culture maintains its dominant position: for example, the use of institutions to formalize power; the employment of a bureaucracy to make power seem abstract (and, therefore, not attached to any one individual); the inculcation of the populace in the ideals of the hegemonic group through education, advertising, publication, etc.; the mobilization of a police force as well as military personnel to subdue opposition. In this case, the control is exercised through education, advertising, and government regulations. (Introduction to Marxism 2007)

The education system of any society is based upon the needs of those who rule the society. At the beginning of this country, children were needed to work the fields, and school schedules still reflect that need. Subjects taught in school included reading, writing, arithmetic, and the philosophy or religion of the group that was paying for the education. Children learned to be honest, hard-working, respectful of authority, and mindful of their neighbors. Today they learn useful subjects, the acculturation is now making them into good little consumers. The books assigned, the materials used, the research: all are contributing to that idea.

Even though some schools and some teachers try to teach them media literacy, children are even more influenced by the absolute deluge of media information. Everywhere we look we see sales pitches. Most of them are not recognized as such, because we are acculturated to believe that text is educational and graphics are entertainment or art. Further than this, advertising has become so subtle that we do not even see it, especially since it is usually placed within or in the proximity of an obvious advertisement. If you hit someone with a big hammer they will not be likely to feel the tiny prick of a hook inserted into the same spot.

Ewen (1976) traces the roots of consumer culture in American society to the 1920s when advertising first began to infiltrate the popular consciousness of American workers by offering the “good life” to those who invested in an ever-expanding array of consumer goods. According to Ewen, the newly developed media became a tool by which capitalists kept workers passive through both the creation of an enticing and fantastic visual spectacle and, where necessary, the co-optation of voices of resistance.

In his book Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa (1945) explored the power of language, how we expand our own consciousness to include all the others in our environment and use their perception to expand our intelligence. If someone shouts lookout, because they see a piano falling, we look up and maybe get away without being squashed. That other person’s eyes saw the piano falling and his brain interpreted it as danger, so he shouted to warn everyone, and saved our lives.

We were the beneficiary of his perception. However, just as language benefits us by expanding our ability to access the information it also can gather information without us really paying attention, but that information is not filtered through conscious examination. “Advertisements ordinarily work their wonders, to the extent that they work at all, on an inattentive public.” (Schudson 3) Therefore, it is never tested for validity. So, “television ads may be powerful precisely because people pay them so little heed that they do not call critical defenses into play” (Schudson 4)

Language has tremendous power, and advertisers have harnessed it. Ads are everywhere. The least noticed are those found within movies and television shows. “When women go to the movies they go to see themselves not in the mirror but in the ideal world of fancy. During that hour or two in the romantic world of make-believe, potent influences are at work. New desires are instilled, new wants implanted, new impulses to spend are aroused.” (Rorty 254) One particular instance of a successful television campaign was when the TV show Friends launched.

Following the first two episodes, patronage at Starbucks increased dramatically. While the very recognizable logo of Starbucks was not seen, the layout and style of the café were very close. In fact, whenever a logo or other clearly identifiable brand is visible on television or in a movie, the company has paid big bucks for that spot, millions in fact. Car companies, computer and electronics companies, and other businesses with easily identifiable logos or products are prime customers for this type of largely subliminal advertising.

In modern developed countries, we are surrounded by media, and all of it is designed to sell us something, a product, an idea, a lifestyle. Even the stories on TV, in the movies, and in video games are selling something. We are being constantly accosted by the media. Everywhere you look there are logos and slogans, headlines and warnings, reviews, and press releases. “Design, typically, touches people without their focusing on it–the design of buildings, of products, of packages.

Television and radio are somewhere in the middle, with soap operas and sports near the fireworks end of the spectrum and most another programming far closer to the unattended end, existing for most people as a kind of background noise.” (Schudson 4) There are dozens of logos that are instantly recognized around the world, like Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, and the like. As Goldman (1987) points out, the logos become infused with values that the companies want to transmit to the public. Ads are way past selling products, they now sell sales, consumption, and capitalist ideals. “Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life.’” (Schudson 6)

“During the last two hundred years, in the capitalist West and increasingly elsewhere as well, advertisements have acquired a powerful iconic significance. Yet they have been more than static symbols: they have coupled words and pictures in commercial fables–stories that have been both fabulous and didactic, that have evoked fantasies and pointed morals, that have reconfigured ancient dreams of abundance to fit the modern world of goods. By the late twentieth century, these fables of abundance-especially the ones sponsored by major multinational corporations–had become perhaps the most dynamic and sensuous representations of cultural values in the world.” (Lears 2)

The really frightening thing about all of this is that consumers think that spending is good, consumption is good because it keeps the economic engines of a growth economy going. Every year we hear statistics about the GDP and the GNP, sales figures, and stock prices, and we are brainwashed to think that growth is good, flat is bad and reduction is a disaster.

“Though it was articulated in secular idioms, their critique derived from Protestant commitments to plain speech and plain living, as well as from republican fears of conspiracy against the independence of the individual self. Critics in this tradition derided advertising for employing deceptive strategies against a passive, hapless audience, and promoting the cancerous growth of wasteful consumer culture.” (Lears 2)

More and more schools are adding courses in media literacy, but it is, for many students, several years too late. Ads target children on a level that cannot be blocked by legislation, such as that which bans toy, candy, and cereal commercials from children’s programming. There is no law, nor can any be made, to prevent admen from creating ads that appeal to children: animation, animals, music, and primary or bright colors. The agencies could argue correctly that these things also appeal to a great number of adults.

No Logo (Klein, Naomi 2002) criticizes the omnipresence of brands, the images of which are increasingly permeating such settings as schools and other locations that were once free of commercial messages. Klein also takes exception with the version of democracy and diversity promoted by multinational corporations in which consumer choices are likened to free choice and democracy while offering less and less choice due to the merger and acquisition frenzy that began during the 1990s and continues today unabated. In addition to discussing the plight of workers in well-known multinational retailers, Klein discusses recent efforts, such as cultural jamming, human rights “hacktivism,” and ethical shareholding, aimed at countering the harmful consequences of corporate branding.

It has long been known that writers, and poets especially, reflect and drive the ideas of their culture. When any country takes over another they imprison, silence, or even kill the writers and poets first, silencing the voice of the people. Modern business has gone these guys one better, they have hijacked the writers and poets to their cause by controlling the market. The only literary markets not totally owned or controlled by big business are academic, and these are not popular and do not reach the eighty percent of consumers targeted by ads.

It has been argued that the Internet is controlled by nobody, but even if that is true, it does not matter, because the information overload on the Internet makes it nearly impossible for most people to discriminate between good information and trash. Besides, search engine optimization makes the same sites come up in a search over and over again on the first page of results, which is as far as most people will look for answers. Some search engines give results according to what is paid by the advertiser and even those which try to give accurate results also present paid ads on the sidebars or banners.

Words are the major method used to lure an unsuspecting public into the web of continuous spending. “Poetry and advertising both seek to touch us on a deeper level with as few words as possible. To do this they make use of images and point to things that will create a nearly universal response.” (Andrusyshyn 2002) As Hayakawa (1951) pointed out, while we all have different definitions for most words, the media has cultivated responses to key phrases which are used in advertising and stick in our minds: “Read My Lips” (Reagan XXXX). “Where’s the beef?” etc. These phrases become our new clichés. Advertising uses them to brand ideas. Both of these phrases have a deeper meaning that has become accepted all over the country and even in other countries.

The consumer society has grown into a giant until most consumers consume unconsciously, that is, they spend without even thinking about it and do not realize it has become a pattern. Most consumers cannot walk through a mall without spending, and never go outside the home and return without spending. In a time when it is becoming apparent that we are actually beginning to consume the very planet on which we live, this has become a problem. Nick Stevenson writes in his book Consumer Culture, Ecology and the Possibility

of Cosmopolitan Citizenship(2002), “Within cosmopolitan dialogues, the practices of consumption and consumer society need to be understood rather than demonized. A critical cosmopolitan politics would need to bring the “other” into an extended dialogue that held out the prospect of a remoralized dialogue across a number of social and cultural spheres.” (Stevenson, nick 2002) Stevenson is right that we have to find a middle ground.

Western society has become so used to consuming that try to reverse the trend too quickly would have little effect. In addition, we must at the same time, convince those who hold the power, the corporate heads which have turned western society into a snake that eats its own tail by hypnotizing the public through media saturation must also be convinced that it is in their own best interests to do this.

It is doubtful that we can turn things around without the cooperation of big business, as they simply have gained too much control over our society. Therefore, it is imperative that we seek ways to make them understand that their own survival also hangs in the balance. Even so, it may take so long to convince them that we will not be able to reverse the trends in time. Nobody really knows what will happen if we do not, just that it will be devastating.

Al Gore made dire predictions in An Inconvenient Truth (Gore, Al 2006) Will the human race survive, will the planet? That is anyone’s guess. It is possible that widespread disasters and famines will bankrupt big business before the entire planet dies, and nature has certainly been shown to be quite resilient, so the planet may eventually recover from the damage brought by human expansion and consumption. However, there are alternatives, and we need to start applying them now.


Desai, Radhika. “Second-Hand Dealers in Ideas: Think- Tanks and Thatcherite Hegemony.” New Left Review a.203 (1994): 27-64.

Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of consciousness: Advertising and the social roots of consumer culture. New York: McGrawHill. 261 pages.

Goldman, Robert, 1987, Marketing Fragrances: Advertising and the Production of Commodity Signs, Theory, Culture & Society Ltd. Web.

Gore, Al, An Inconvenient Truth, 2006, Lawrence Bender Productions.

Hayakawa, S.I. , and Son, 1990.Language in Thought and Action, Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, NY.

Introduction to Marxism, 2007, Introduction to Marxism.

Klien, Naomi. 2002. No Logo: taking aim at the brand bullies. New York.: Picadro. 490 pages.

Lears, Jackson. Fables of Abundance A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Basic Books, 1994..

Rorty, James. Our Master’s Voice: Advertising. New York: John Day, 1934.

Schudson, Michael. Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Stevenson, Nick, 2002, Consumer Culture, Ecology and the Possibility of Cosmopolitan Citizenship, Consumption, Markets and Culture, 2002 Vol. 5 (4), pp. 305–319.

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