Being a wise consumer today is more difficult than ever. On the one hand, we have a seemingly infinite number of choices for products and services, and just about anyone can get credit to spend beyond what they can afford. On the surface of it, choice and access to money are good things. On the other hand, a very large segment of the workforce is focused on researching even more effective ways to get you to buy the latest, newest products with all sorts of implied promises about how you will be a more desirable, care-free, better version of yourself. Some of the most effective tactics are relatively subtle. Have you ever noticed how the “average American home” depicted in commercials is more representative of what the top 10% can afford? And it’s not just traditional advertisements that we need to guard against, which used to be limited to conventional media and were transparent for what they were trying to do. Every time you search on the internet or jump on social media, you are being marketed to. It’s even in our movies and TV shows, and not just limited to conventional commercials between shows; the downtime we seek to escape and relax is full of “product placements,” with companies paying millions of dollars for us to see their brands and characters’ fulfilled promises of happy, shiny lives. The current frontier for product placements is your dreams. Seriously. This tactic – which uses “targeted dream incubation” – is already in use, and is drawing a lot of interest from marketers.
The money that goes into promoting products is staggering – so much so that the boundaries of artificial intelligence (AI) technology are being pushed harder to get you to buy products than they are to solve our many neglected and worsening health care issues. In fact, the industry that leads AI spending is consumer retail, with spending focused on “automated customer service agents” and “sales process recommendation and automation.” The next biggest industry is banking – to help you buy more stuff! How is it that Facebook knows I was shopping for a new mattress online yet my primary care doctor doesn’t know that my surgeon prescribed opioids for my post shoulder surgery recovery?
How we consume also depends heavily on our social networks – what our friends are talking about and what they are buying. And, increasingly, the influence of social networks is exploited by companies who hire “brand advocates” on Instagram and even place influencers in bars to get you to buy the latest must-try drink. It’s a lot harder to filter these when you’re not even aware of the source and underlying motivation of these “guerilla marketing” tactics.
I actually don’t think that most business people are bad, or that most are intentionally trying to exploit consumers. I worked in industry – and in marketing – for over a decade, and I teach marketing students in one of the country’s top business schools. My students are good, caring people. But as a society, we have placed a big premium on commerce – that is where the money, jobs, and a lot of the prestige are. The problem is one of balance and priorities. Little is being done to equip consumers to be aware of and manage their consumption in ways that promote their well-being. Our approach to consumption doesn’t come anywhere close to the sophistication of our system of production. Our system prioritizes GDP growth and profits above all else. Measures of well-being are emerging, but they are peripheral and rarely drive public policy. There are many longer-term solutions, but that is beyond the scope of this blog. The point is that the responsible consumer recognizes the power of the market, appreciates the abundance of choice, and yet realizes that the goals of companies and individuals are not aligned. Companies have a “fiduciary” responsibility to maximize profit. That is how the vast majority of companies are legally incorporated in the US. Our market is increasingly dominated by large public corporations focused on increasing profits every quarter. Executives are fired for weak financial performance; they are not promoted or fired based on whether or not their products and services – and how they are marketed – promote your well-being. So, wise consumers carry a healthy skepticism and accept the responsibility for making choices that are in their own best interest (which is addressed directly by the Consumer Wisdom habit of Reasoning).
 An alternative exists, the Benefit Corporation, but that represents less than 1% of corporations in the US