"We overdo pretty much everything," Gayle Bessenoff, who teaches psychology, told the Hartford Courant. "There's something about the American Dream that leads to overdoing everything."
It's one of several stories focused in "The Psychology of Overconsumption." The idea came out of research for another class, when Bessenoff noted the increased attention on hoarding and addiction. And she believes the American dream might have something to do with it. She's partly right, claiming the American dream originated as religious freedom, and suggests it is now fruitless.
In actuality, the American dream was first defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931. He said America was a place where citizens of every rank can achieve a "better, richer, and happier life." You can find the idea in the Declaration of Independence. It says that "all men are created equal" with inalienable rights such as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The American dream Bessenoff is talking about today, is a misunderstanding. That American dream came about in the 1950s when certain items became commonplace as part of the American experience — a suburban home, lawn, car, and television. Basically, the public as a whole decided you could not have happiness without those things.
As the years moved forward, the quest for the new definition of the American dream became a compulsion and entitlement as opposed to something earned. We've added a lot more to the list too — a computer, smart phone, game console, certain services, certain assurances, etc.
More central, it seems to me, is her argument that people identify with not what they do (equally bad) but what they own (like a toothbrush).
How Does It Apply To Marketing And Communication?
If we oversimplify, marketing often comes in one of two forms. Innovate and create demand. Or, out position as a preferred choice. Both hope to establish a brand relationship that people identify with, as it generally solidifies consumer loyalty.
If Bessenoff is mostly right, then she is saying that people allow their things to identify them as much as they identify with their things. But I don't think that is right, except in some cases that I won't get into here.
Most people seem to buy something because it best meets the values or characteristics that they possess, like a hybrid car. Innovation tends to come out of these values too, which is why there is an increased focus on public transportation. And that is why what she is doing might be important to marketing. It helps clarify the thrust. People buy things (besides essentials) because it best meets their values and characteristics.
That seems like a very different class than overconsumption, although I agree with her that some brands are trying to hijack "happiness" into every can, cup, or cardboard box. Overconsumption is something else entirely, and I wish more marketers would pay attention to it. It's because the experience of purchasing the product (or consuming the product) is providing more happiness than the product.
That is something to think about. It could underpin which products or services are inherently weak, giving someone an opportunity to better innovate. Or perhaps, even more importantly, help us understand why popular tends to be less satisfying.