(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Mankind has been getting smarter and smarter when it comes to producing material
well-being. The productivity of workers today is much higher than it was in
ancient times. Growing productivity enables you to enjoy the same material
standard of living with less and less work, or the same amount of work with an
increasing level of consumption.
English economist John Maynard Keynes
predicted in a famous 1930 address that mankind would go the first route. He
believed that the great problem of humanity would be how to make productive use
of our leisure time. Keynes was a wealthy man, and it was probably hard for him
to imagine who could desire an even more lavish lifestyle.
practically speaking, the trend has been the opposite. The number of hours
worked has declined since pre-industrial times, but not by very much, and lately
the rate of decline has been negligible.
By contrast, the level of
consumption has been growing steadily and has for centuries been approximately
doubling each generation.
Perhaps the market system actually depends on
Many agree with economist Victor Lebow, who wrote in a
1950s article: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make
consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into
rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in
consumption... We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and
discarded at an ever increasing pace.”
One consequence of this situation
is that our “ecological footprint” – the amount of natural resources needed to
sustain our lifestyle – is constantly increasing.
Not everyone is happy
with this situation.
Some of these resources are renewable, but others
are not. All in all, the natural environment would probably be much more
sustainable if we consumed less and spent more of our time and energy in study,
reading, talking and other activities that consume few resources.
Environmental Protection Ministry decided that promoting this trend toward
moderating consumption is part of its mandate. It initiated a “Green 0”
broadcast campaign to encourage less consumption by Israelis. The campaign
targets two fictitious store chains: one called “Mega Sal” and the other “Super
Channel 2 has refused to broadcast the spots, concerned that they
reflect badly on actual chains with similar names and logos, which are among the
station’s leading advertisers.
The ministry is incensed because it
believes the similarity to actual chains is critical to getting consumers to
internalize the message.
It is clear that the similarity of the names and
logos is only a small part of the problem. When competing chains engage in
similar tactics in their own ads, the networks are seldom reluctant to accept
The problem here is more fundamental: The magic goose of
consumerism is what lays the golden egg of ad revenue. An ad that encourages
people not to consume threatens to kill the goose.
There can be little
doubt that the coming years will see more and more of this kind of conflict. It
won’t be a battle of one consumer product versus another, but rather the battle
of consumerism versus anti-consumerism, and it will play itself out in the home
court of consumerism: advertising in the mass
Asher Meir is research director at the
Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem
College of Technology (Machon Lev).
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