As a contributor to my local public radio station, I receive their magazine, Desert Companion. I don’t find it particularly compelling, because the intended audience for many of the articles must shop at a higher price point than I do; a story about Tom Ford opening a new boutique is entirely irrelevant to me.

Given the economic crisis facing Las Vegas (as of December 2010, our unemployment rate was 14.9%), I was particularly struck by the class assumptions in an article in the January 2011 issue. It discussed the opening of a new H&M store and provides rules for getting the most out of shopping there:

Notice Rule 3:

Well, perhaps. I don’t personally own any $200+ shoes, but I’ll accept the general idea that at least up to a point, when you pay more, you may get higher quality, and insofar as that means they last longer, it may be an overall better investment per dollar, long-term. I’m just going to set aside the fact that you may also be paying mainly for a brand name, not significantly better construction (in terms of being more comfortable or lasting longer).

Even if the premise is entirely true, the breeziness of saying you should go spend a minimum of $200 if you want “decent footwear” (not truly amazing shoes, just decent ones) is an example of the type of class assumptions that make the poor or working class invisible while the experiences or opportunities of the upper middle class (and above) are presented as normal . You are, of course, only “better off” spending $200+ on a single pair of shoes if you have an extra $200 that is entirely unnecessary for your basic needs and that you don’t need to put in savings for an emergency or retirement.

Further, advice such as that given here present this as simply a matter of being economically smart, rather than as a class issue: unless you’re looking for the type of trendy shoes that you’ll only want to wear briefly anyway, you shouldn’t waste your time at H&M.  Similarly, in grad school I was once told I was “dumb” to rent rather than buy a house, in a town where they cost $150,000+. In both cases, the opportunities provided by economic advantage are perceived as economic common sense, obvious choices for anyone who is smart and has decent taste. Combined with the invisibility of people who can’t afford to spend that much money, accepting these class assumptions allows us to gaze disdainfully at people in “cheap” shoes, confident that they, too, are simply “cheap.”

For another example, see our post on, where non-rich folk just mess things up for the worthy.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in a link to a 13-minute video in which Van Jones discusses the problems with patting ourselves on the back too much every time we put a plastic bottle in the recycle bin instead of the trash, and the need to recognize the link between environmental concerns and other social issues:

Also see our posts on the race between energy efficiency and consumption, exposure to environmental toxins and social class, race and exposure to toxic-release facilities, reframing the environmental movement, tracking garbage in the ocean, mountains of waste waiting to be recycled, framing anti-immigration as pro-environment, and conspicuous environmentalism.

Full transcript after the jump, thanks to thewhatifgirl.


In two of my favorite earlier posts, I featured photographs by artist Edward Burtynsky.  These photos depicted the outcomes of our consumerist societies: giant repositories of recycle-able materials and the consequences of resource extraction.  In the same vein, J. Henry Fair has been taking photographs of industrial sites and environmental disasters from an even more distant place: small planes.


Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

To commemorate the last weekend before Christmas, when many will be out trying desperately to complete holiday shopping, I thought I’d post this image, designed and sent in by Joseph Moriarty in response to the craziness of all the holiday-season shopping frenzies (including the now-predictable tramplings):

In this video we see people trampled at a 4am opening of a North Buffalo Target on the Friday after Thanksgiving. There is an analysis to be made here, and it involves something about American materialism and the orgy of consumption that is called “Christmas.”   But I would be happy if we would just stop calling sales “Doorbusters” given that, y’know, sometimes people actually break down doors and people die.

Via Blame it on the Voices.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Last week I posted about some potential problems of “awareness branding,” when products are marketed by promising to make a donation to breast cancer research, or wilderness restoration, or something of the sort. Greg P. then sent me a link to a video on RSA Comment where economist/philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues against a reliance on private charity, and particularly ethical consumption, as a solution to global problems. He suggests that, say, buying fair-trade coffee at Starbucks is unlikely to relieve inequities that are directly related to global capitalism (of which Starbucks is a part and beneficiary), and may in fact reinforce them by making individuals in more privileged nations feel like they’ve done something to address the problem, thus relieving them of any obligation to look more deeply into the problem:

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Accordingly, during October we come across more than the normal number of pink-ribbon-adorned items that variously give a portion of proceeds to breast cancer research, remind women to conduct breast exams, contain supportive messages for breast cancer survivors, or just sort of, you know, support the existence of boobs and oppose cancer. For instance, Alicia, the moderator of Think Before You Pink, found this thong

And Renée Yoxon noticed that Staples, among other office-supply stores, has a lot of pink ribbon products for sale, including pink-ribbon paper, file folder, calculators, daily planners, pens, and, in Canada, a tape dispenser from 3M shaped like a high-heeled shoe:

We’ve posted on the whole issue of breast cancer awareness branding before. And one response that always comes up is, basically, yes, companies may be using breast cancer as a marketing tool to increase sales, but if by doing so they also donate money for breast cancer research or prevention, who cares? By buying pink-ribbon address labels, money goes to fight breast cancer that probably wouldn’t have been donated otherwise, so the net effect is good, right?

In his book Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are, Rob Walker suggests perhaps not. He summarizes a number of studies that found that “doing good in one area of life provided a rationale to worry less about such things in another” (p. 222). Specifically, feeling they had contributed in some way (by imagining they had agreed to volunteer at a community organization) significantly increased subjects’ preference for “luxury” items. It appears that feeling we have done a good deed makes us feel like we deserve rewards in other arenas, or at least frees us to make decisions we might otherwise be a bit embarrassed about.

Walker connects this research to the wide array of companies that either create a particular product that is slightly more eco- or labor-friendly than their regular line or that donate a tiny portion of profits to a charity of some sort. He suggests that the ability to easily “do good” through consumption — that is, I can choose the pink-ribbon file folders and feel good about myself for being a good citizen — may contribute some money to a particular charity, but may ultimately lead us to be less concerned about the impacts of our other consumption choices. As Walker summarizes the effect,

These various efforts each add just enough options to the miles of retail shelves to give us all an ethical fix — to do our one good shopping deed. Then we can push our basket a little farther down the aisle, letting other rationales take over: Here’s a bargain, here’s a great product…and here, yes, here is something ethical. I’ll take one of those, too. (p. 223)

From this perspective, this type of branding may benefit companies not just by making it more likely we’ll buy the specific product they’ve attached a pink (or red, or yellow, or whatever color) ribbon to, but by satisfying our need to feel like we’re aware, concerned consumers, and thus making us less likely to question the production practices of the other items we’re choosing among.

As we’ve talked about before, one marketing strategy to get people to buy more stuff is to manipulate sizes. In the case of clothing, companies often use “vanity sizing,” labeling clothes as a smaller size than they really are. Food serving sizes have followed a form of vanity sizing of their own, with portions getting larger over time. Ben Ostrowsky sent in a great example of changing norms of consumption, highlighting the enormous increase in what is considered a standard serving of soda.

In this 1950s ad for soda, the text proudly proclaims that a 12-oz. can is “king-size,” and includes 2 full servings:

Compare it to this sign at Long John Silver’s, where the smallest size is 20 oz., and a 32-oz. medium soda, presented as the default size, is nearly 3 times as large as the 1950s king-size double serving (though, as a reader pointed out and I didn’t think to mention, we do have to make some allowance for ice in the cup):

The gas station nearest me used to have fountain drink cups that started at 20 oz. I noticed recently they’ve completely dropped that size; the smallest cup you can now buy is 32 oz. The largest is a whopping 64 oz. I am actually curious how a person gets it home in their car, as I don’t see how it would fit in a standard cup holder. Perhaps you buckle it into an empty seat?

Of course, the larger the default size, the more product a company sells. For other examples of the push to increase portions or serving sizes, see Lisa’s post on manufacturers’ instructions for use.