Think you love shopping? It's the marketing scam of the century

US author Benjamin Barber explains how buying things ceased to be a chore and became a fun day out


The folly of rampant consumerism as resources grow scarcer is lost on no one, least of all the marketing community. Still, desperate to maximise profits, manufacturers and marketing men are targeting very young children, buying their loyalty almost from birth, and infantilising adults, to deter them from making considered decisions about what they buy. This way, adults and children will be attracted to the same product, and buy it for most of their lives, trapped in a Peter Pan cycle of consumption, constructed by branding supremos.

For many, shopping changed from chore to leisure pursuit long ago. You will be hard pushed to find a British consumer who hasn't, at least once, gone to the street with the intention of finding something they want to buy, rather than buying something they need. This behaviour contrasts not only with that of consumers in developing countries, but also with the Europe and US of just 60 years ago.

The exact point at which a life of frugality – led by most people until the 1950s – developed into one of comfort, before slipping into absurd excess, is impossible to determine, admits Benjamin Barber, author of the best-selling Jihad Vs. McWorld. His new book, Consumed, tackles obsessive, "hyper" consumption. This trend, predicts Barber, is leading democratic societies towards an early grave.

"It struck me that a lot of what makes up McWorld is superfluous," he says of his inspiration to analyse this hyper-consumerism, which is most acute in Barber's US. "An awful lot of products are not necessary, whether fast food or gadgets or games," he explains. "I can't tell you where the tipping point is, but we're way over it."

Since basic human needs – food, shelter, clothing – have long since been met for most people in the developed world, marketing professionals now bang their heads together to reinvent and recreate goods in order to sell more stuff.

Barber is far from the first to draw attention to the fact that consumers are very often attracted by the image of a product, rather than its function, and that we would all benefit from consuming less. Yet he goes one further, blaming hyper-consumption for the current economic crisis. He also believes the anti-consumer movement lacks the wherewithal to address the problem. "I love the anti-consumer movement temperamentally, but it risks turning these issues into minority problems," he says.

Consumption is not only out of control at the shops. Barber uses television watching as an example: there is nothing wrong with reaching for the remote after a long day at work, he says. But 60 hours – the time each week an average American spends watching television – is way too much.

Watching TV is just part of the problem. What we are choosing to watch has changed considerably over the years and now resembles a homogenous lowbrow pulp designed to appeal to children and adults alike. Barber's book is subtitled "How markets corrupt children, infantilise adults and swallow citizens whole". Commentators have been documenting the rise of the scooter-pushing, iPod-toting kidult for a number of years now, but in Barber's opinion, the "40 is the new 20" spirit does not mean that people are retaining their youthfulness and energy for longer, but that they are not growing up at all. Why not? Because marketers desperate for instant profits are cutting corners by lumping child and adult tastes and products together, instead of building a sustainable market. This then reduces diversity and threatens to eliminate choice altogether.

The success of films such as Shrek and Spider-Man, aimed at all ages, illustrate this. "If you want to see the future of Britain, don't look at what 40-years-olds are buying, look at what 15-year-olds are buying and watching and what their music tastes are," predicts Barber. For anyone who has sat next to a gang of schoolgirls playing Pussycat Dolls loudly on mobile phones, the idea that their musical tastes will never mature and that the shade of their nail varnish will never be toned down is sobering. But why can't adults enjoy the nuances of an episode of The Simpsons, say, or a Harry Potter film? Does growing up mean becoming boring?

"I'm not saying that when we grow up we lose all pleasures," insists Barber. "But growing up means becoming more complex and that you require greater stimulation. If you can be pleased and satisfied with comic books, it means you've kept yourself as a kid. I'm not saying there's something wrong with people who have fun, but I have fun in a different way from how I did when I was 12."

Barber buried his head in marketing textbooks to try to make sense of why we buy more and more stuff we don't need, and often do not want or enjoy having, either. Saatchi & Saatchi chief executive Kevin Roberts, the man who loves Head & Shoulders so dearly he continues to use it despite the fact he is now bald, receives frequent scoldings in Consumed.

It is Roberts and his ilk who are driving our impulse to buy. These big guns are only too aware that most of our needs were met long ago, and it is with this in mind that they have set about eternalising childhood desires and fabricating new adult ones. In Consumed, the merchandising guru Gene del Vecchio explains: "the demand for adult goods and services has proved not to be endless." This must be tackled with a "kidquake of kid-directed goods and services". Del Vecchio also worked out that if you want to sell goods globally, you can't sell to adults who belong to distinct cultures. But children are the same everywhere, and if you get adults to behave like children, you can sell the same products to any generation, anywhere.

Hyper-consumerism is a major contributor to environmental problems, yet so-called green marketers are as guilty as your average marketing man. "Don't fool yourself," warns Barber. "Green consumerism is still consuming. The simplest way to go green is not to consume, or to consume less, but these people want you to consume their way, because if you stop consuming they don't make any money."

When Barber bought his last car he was tempted by a Lexus hybrid, until a friend pointed out that the hybrid's powerful engine used more petrol than many non-hybrid vehicles. Last year, a magazine advertisement for Lexus hybrids was banned in the UK, for misleadingly implying that the car caused little or no harm to the environment.

Desite his green leanings, Barber misses a trick when he orders bottled water in the bar of the London hotel where we meet. Bottled water, in a country where clean water flows straight from the tap, is perhaps the ultimate in manufactured need. "Over a billion people are without drinking water," says Barber. "Why don't we find out ways to get the water they need to them, instead of new ways of getting water to us?"

All this makes Consumed sound like depressing reading. In many ways, it is, and the idea that Western shoppers are to blame for environmental degradation, even if they have been hoodwinked into buying unnecessary products, is a heavy cross to bear.

Is capitalism eating itself? Barber is optimistic. "Capitalism has a tendency to overdo itself," he says. "It destroys everything in its path. This is a strategy for saving capitalism. There are deep, pressing human needs that still need to be met and capitalism is the perfect thing to meet them."

'Consumed' by Benjamin R Barber, Norton, £9.99. To order for the special price of £9.49, including post and packing, call 0870 079 8897 or visit

Spend, spend, spend: where the money goes

* Shopping is the top leisure activity and accounts for 37 per cent of all money spent

in England.

* More than five million mobile phones are thrown away each year in the UK.

* The cost of an average handbag is £76, with the average woman in her thirties owning 21 and adding a new one every three months. This can escalate to expenditure of more than £9,000 on handbags over a lifetime.

* Some 50,000 Nintendo Wii consoles were sold in the first 12 hours after the gaming device went on sale in the UK.

*The average lifespan of an mp3 player is less than three years.

* The average 18- to 25-year-old changes their mobile phone every nine months, with the average over 25-year-old changing their handset every 14 months.

* The combined UK box-office returns for Shrek the Third, Spider-Man 3 and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in their first weekends were £44,992,045.

Ifunanya Ifeacho

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Biology Teacher

£100 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Urgently required teacher of Bi...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments