The discussion last week on LunarBBDO blog and in Campaign was whether advertising increases consumption, or merely shifts it from one place to another.

I thought we were discussing brand share versus market growth, but actually they were discussing whether advertising was responsible for global warming by encouraging unnecessary consumption.

It’s an interesting question, but actually the answer is the other way around.

The need to fuel unnecessary consumption created advertising in the first place.

Nowadays we believe the consumer society always existed, but it isn’t so.

Until the 1920s, less that 5% of the population could afford to buy more than they needed.

The idea that you buy something that you didn’t need, but wanted, didn’t exist for ordinary people.

You had one pair of shoes, and you would get them repaired until they fell apart.

When they wore out you bought another pair, and repeated the process.

The idea that you would have more shoes than you needed wasn’t on the radar.

There were no ‘consumers’, just people who needed things.

The only things you’d buy that you didn’t actually need were beer and cigarettes.

And, as these were addictive, most people probably did actually need them.

The person generally credited with creating the consumer society was Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew.

At the end of World War One, American industry was producing much more than was actually being bought.

So they needed to find an outlet for this excess production.

Edward Bernays began using his uncle’s techniques to educate people to want things they didn’t actually need.

He made crude cinema commercials using Eleanor Roosevelt to explain to women why they should have more than one pair of shoes.

How their husband must be getting bored seeing them in the same dress all the time.

How there was a good reason you should buy more than you could wear every day.

In the beginning this behaviour needed a logical explanation to jump start it.

A purely emotional appeal would have just been frivolous, you needed a real reason to part with the housekeeping money.

As the habit took hold, it didn’t need justifying anymore.

As women began working and earning money emotional appeal became more acceptable, and logic was dropped.

(Brand versus Product)

Increased consumption meant more workers were needed, and everyone had more money, fuelling the whole cycle.

(See Adam Smith, also Reaganomics and Thatcherism)

Everyone accepted they should spend their money on things they wanted, not just on things they needed.

Nowadays it’s accepted that people buy primarily what they want, without relevance to need.

In fact, in today’s marketing parlance, something bought purely because you need it, is called a “distress purchase”.

So, like the design industry, the fashion industry, the music industry, the film industry, technology and mass communication, advertising is just a symptom of the consumer society.

Not the cause.