June 21, 2016

The Logic of Consumption, Your Friends and Your Health

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

We live in a consumption-oriented society. It’s not hard to find examples of ways in which we are encouraged to buy things, not just for survival, but presumably to make us happy. Advertising is predicated on the notion that a new product will help us become more attractive, make our lives easier, and in short, make us feel good.

And sometimes having new things does improve our lives, sometimes in small ways and sometimes dramatically. Driving a newer, more reliable car might ease our worries about car repairs and safety. Replacing any malfunctioning product—say, a computer that you use for work or school—with one that works better is certainly an example positive outcome of consumption.

Consumption isn’t just about buying things and enjoying them; its logic is so pervasive that it shapes how we think about many other aspects of society. For example, if we view ourselves primarily as customers rather than workers, we might be more likely to support policies that claim to make goods cheaper, rather than prioritizing better wages or living conditions, for instance.

What is the logic of consumption? Not only does it suggest that buying things will make us happy, but we may start to see ourselves as customers in all sorts of situations, and evaluate our interactions with others as “consumers” expecting good customer service.

I regularly participate in a hiking group that uses Meetup.com as a platform to announce events, at no cost to the participants. Yet many participants treat the organizer as if he is supplying them with a paid service. Some complain if they don’t like a (free) event that he has posted, rate the group negatively if they show up late and the group has left, if the hike started too early, if it was a hot day, or complain that the hike was too hard despite their failure to read the hike description. For some participants, the customer is always right—even if they are not actually customers. In this case, it actually costs the organizer money to maintain the site; he is the consumer, and we are benefitting from his decision to share the use of the site to attend free events.

Our ability to rate and review practically everything online supports our tendency to view ourselves as consumers. Not only can we rate businesses online, I have come across reviews for post offices, for nonprofit animal shelters, and for traffic court (which I imagine consistently gets bad reviews everywhere). Women can even rate their male friends and dates using an app called Lulu.

Are we really consumers of friendships and romantic relationships, consuming a “service” rather than active participants in these interactions?

The logic of consumption also pervades medicine. In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration loosened regulations, allowing pharmaceutical companies to advertise directly to the public on television, leading to a barrage of ads for all sorts of drugs, so we can ask our doctor to prescribe them for us. Some doctors may feel pressure to comply. (To learn more, check out the film Big Pharma, Big Profits.) In 2015, the American Medical Association called for a ban on direct to consumer drug marketing, arguing that marketing costs have contributed to the escalation of drug costs and encourages people to seek drugs that might not be best for them.

When people view themselves as their customers, rather than patients, they might actually jeopardize their health and the public’s health more generally. Finding a doctor who will tell you want you want to hear—rather than what you need to hear—can be dangerous. It can lead to “doctor shopping” in order to get a prescription (or multiple prescriptions).

According to a 2014 survey, 93 percent of British general practitioners felt pressure to prescribe antibiotics to their patients who felt ill—even if they did not have a bacterial infection. As you may know, the unnecessary use of antibiotics contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can be a serious public health threat and make some life-threatening infections untreatable.

Viewing patients as consumers also encourages a profit motive over ethical concerns. One of the most egregious cases made news last year, when an investor bought a company and raised the price of a drug used to treat AIDS and cancer patients from $13.50 a pill to $750.

The way in which some manufacturers market painkillers is another example of the dangers of viewing patients as consumers. Anyone who has ever had a serious injury or even a minor surgery knows that painkillers can be a very important part of recovery, even a godsend. They can provide comfort to the terminally ill and give peace to families who can help relieve their dying loved one’s pain.

But they can also cause addiction; as a Los Angeles Times investigation details, OxyContin was marketed as a painkiller that lasted 12 hours, unlike the other drugs on the market which didn’t last as long and weren’t as strong. According to the Times, many patients reported that the drug’s effects wore off well before 12 hours. “OxyContin is a chemical cousin of heroin, and when it doesn’t last, patients can experience excruciating symptoms of withdrawal, including an intense craving for the drug.” OxyContin became the bestselling painkiller in the U.S., but it was created—and marketed—in a way that makes addiction more likely. Might $31 billion in revenue make a manufacturer look the other way if their product is addictive, or worse yet, even encourage addiction to increase sales?

How else might the logic of consumption shape our health, health care, and interactions with others?

Coming soon: how does the logic of consumption impact your education?


Cheaper goods or higher wages are essentially the same thing - increased standards of living and "wealth" in absolute terms. Cheaper goods can also increase living conditions, if people need to spend less of their income on goods such as food, housing, etc.

Stephen, I think the point being made in that section of the article is that we may experience a conditioned shift by the notion that we are to view ourselves as consumers (first and foremost) by advertising and rating applications, rather than thinking critically about an experience (the free labor put into organizing a free hike, whether we have an illness that matches the meds we are inquiring about or pressuring a doctor to dispense us). Cheaper goods and higher wages are not essentially the same thing. Higher wages provide autonomy for saving and spending. Cheaper goods just allow people who can afford the goods in the first place to buy more of them.

Anthony, I'm not really criticizing the entire article. I'm just making a comment about wages vs. consumption. Workers ARE consumers, and consumers ARE workers. People work to consume. Why do people work? To purchase goods - food, clothing, housing etc. If your wage goes up, you can save more and buy more, yes. If things get cheaper, then you can save more and buy more as well.

If you are unemployed and do not have any wages at all (an extreme example would be if you experience homelessness), you ONLY benefit from cheaper goods. For example, you might be able to eat more if healthy food becomes cheaper.

Someone's wage should only be measured in the amount of goods he/she can buy. Otherwise, lets just add 4 zero's to every dollar bill and every wage in Canada and every consumption good. Would we all be happier? ..

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