Wednesday, January 19, 2011

John Kenneth Galbraith “The Dependence Effect”

Writing in 1958, Galbraith asks “What creates our obsession with material goods?” His answer:

Dependence Effect: As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied

The dependence effect suggests that the more wants that are satisfied, the more new ones are born. Our wants never end, despite however much more money we make and goods we buy. This goes against conventional wisdom, says Galbraith, that the drive to fulfill "wants" is easily controlled and much less powerful than the drive to fulfill "needs" such as food and shelter. In fact, the more we get, the more we want. This is what Galbraith means when he says fulfilling one "want" just creates another. He likens this situation to a hamster on a spinning wheel, which he warns is a dangerous model for an economy.

Two things responsible for creating “wants”:
    1. Advertising
    2. Society that values high standard of living
Below is an ad for the new Edsel car from about the same time Galbraith wrote the article. Notice the gated home or community from which the car emerges, and how the narration plays upon how people will "know you've arrived" suggesting not just literally arriving in your car, but having become successful.

Valuing a high standard of living, says Galbraith, means we are always wanting more than we currently have, no matter how much that is. This is something that we can readily see in advertising, even though Galbraith is talking about consumer culture in general. Ads, both print and video, often foreground images that showcase scenarios of a high standard of living, or play upon anxieties of not "keeping up with the Joneses." Advertising and popular culture are potentially even more important than our immediate neighbors for providing examples of what possessions and standards of living we should strive for.

We can see an example of this tendency in this car ad, which describes how Range Rover has updated the definition of luxury--a higher standard of luxury is always possible! This ad also echoes the Lexus slogan "The Passionate Pursuit of Perfection," which pretty much perfectly expresses the Dependence Effect, suggesting that perfection can never be reached, it can only continuous be striven for. Makes sense if you want to keep selling lots of luxury cars!

This ad for Continental Airlines business class appeals to a sense of luxury, though its style is quite different. There is no appealing image, rather a tongue-in-cheek reference to how hoity-toity people supposedly hold drinks with an extended pinkie. This ad simultaneously plays upon caricatures of the upper-class and promises luxury treatment.

Questions for discussion:

1.     What products or other items do we currently associate with a high standard of living? Can you identify whether your own standards of changed over the years?

2.    What examples of advertising or popular culture can you think of that seem to be organized around a display of wealth, consumption, and a high standard of living?

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