seven books about . . .

Checking out our consumer culture

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Ilike to switch it up, sometimes, and write these columns on my laptop at a café. Panera is just the ticket: No one cares how long you sit; it’s moderately priced; and after hitting each 400-word-ish target, I treat myself to a scone, or some soup, a smoothie.

One pity party day, when the sentences were creaking and stuttering, I eyed the lobster salad roll. But I didn’t succumb: It was $16.99! Why was something so luxe on the menu anyway? After reading these books on consumer culture, I know why and then some — and kind of wish I didn’t. That’s because our era of “neuromarketing” (yes, it’s an actual term) is insidious, fascinating, and this side of creepy.

Panera’s lobster salad roll was “a masterstroke” writes Mark Ellwood in “Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World” (Portfolio/Penguin, 2013). Introduced in 2009, in the pith of the recession, this “absurdly expensive treat became an anchor price, throwing everything else on the list into bargain relief.” An anchor price, aka a “reference point” is a classic strategy. That $16.99 item is a high-priced decoy; it makes the $8.79 steak and blue cheese salad seem like a good idea, just as J. Crew’s $650 sequined dress helps us feel smart buying that cute $59.99 linen dress.


Umpteen studies show that the happy hormone dopamine (“buyagra,” as Ellwood jokes) kicks way up when we purchase stuff — especially when we think we’ve gotten a deal. Indeed, “Bargain Fever” says it’s never been a better time to be a shopper since today’s retailers know bargains are the new black. Hitting the stores this holiday? You’ll see this in action.

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And when you’re there, think of these revealing bits of vending history. In 1869, Aristide Boucicaut, the owner of Paris’s Le Bon Marché (“the good deal”) offered a novel thing called a price tag. Before that, prices were fluid and subject to haggling, which the Industrial Revolution’s emerging middle class found undignified. In the United States, Macy’s forbade its clerks to dicker. And eventually, companies hired price consultants to play with the math. They discovered that prices ending in nine stimulate dopamine, since we unconsciously think $9.99 is a bargain over $10 (one study says a $9.99 item CAN sell up to 20 percent more than the round number).

“Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy” (Crown, 2011) widens the aperture. Author Martin Lindstrom, marketing guru turned consumer advocate, tells us how retailers use “fear, sex, celebrity, New Age promises, insecurity, nostalgia” and more to probe our deepest desires. And they want to instill brand loyalty from the moment we’re born; in the Philippines, the Kopiko candy company gifts its sweets to pregnant moms, hoping their babies will acquire the taste. Over here, Shell Oil cleverly partners with Lego.

Then there are tricks like “priming.” Whole Foods places its flower section right by the doors, so we are unconsciously ready to associate the store with freshness. Or take the concept of “brand disapproved” in which companies catering to teens purposely offer a product adults don’t like and can’t use. Two words: skinny jeans. Lindstrom also shows how friend recommendations are the most potent force of all. He gets an attractive family to nonchalantly shill brands among their circle — DSW shoes, Stinky Stink body spray — and tracks how many then adopt those products. (Answer: A lot.)

“Ads are predatory,” we learn in “Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture” (Faber & Faber, 2009). Carrie McLaren, Jason Torchinsky, and Rob Walker have here mined the best loot from “Stay Free!,’’ their ad-industry gadfly blog. And so we get cheeky pieces on such lively, disparate topics as the Volkswagen as a measure for all things, viral marketing, and (my favorite) the mid-1950s terror of so-called subliminal advertising. It got banned because folks thought if you could flash subconscious signals to buy popcorn at a movie you could also (sneaky!) stoke up a totalitarian takeover.


Two excellent books trace how we became a nation in thrall to plenteousness. “A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America” (Vintage, 2003) follows the evolution of a consensus — government, business, and labor all in the same boat — that it was in the nation’s interest if we all buy stuff. Lizabeth Cohen, who teaches American Studies at Harvard, says mass consumption was supposed to be win-win: You satisfy your own needs while creating jobs so others can satisfy theirs. From 1945-1975, this held to a degree, though women and minorities obviously didn’t partake equally, and Cohen spends incisive time on who missed out and why.

“Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture” (Vintage, 1993) reaches further back in time to right after the Civil War and describes how isolated dry-goods stores gave way to larger entities — namely corporations and department stores, aided by the movement of goods through railroads, and the rise of industry. Author William Leach explains that this new business class realized it couldn’t survive unless it fomented demand among a populace used to living more modestly and self-sufficiently.

How so? By dazzling them. As such, the book shines with wonderfully vivid characters: John Wanamaker, the visionary store owner, Simon Patten, the positivist economist, and L. Frank Baum, a virtuosic window dresser before he wrote “The Wizard of Oz” books. I loved the Baum material the most; he started a magazine called “The Show Window,” which touted over-the-top displays of color and light, including electric revolving stars and mechanical butterflies. Think “Emerald City: The Prequel.’’

Although it’s dated, a consumer culture book from our most recent gilded age, “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need” (Harper, 1998) still has much to say. Author Juliet B. Schor reminds us that flaunting objects has a long past. In the 18th century, Italian nobles embedded this phrase in the tiles of their villas: Pro Invidia (to be envied).

And she speculates as to what would happen if, in America, we had “a sudden attack of frugality.” Fifteen years after publication, we can report that it’s a mixed blessing. In the Netherlands, they may have a substantial “postmaterialist” movement in a quasi-welfare state, but over here, there’s a fine tension between healthy retrenching and economic paralysis.


Which brings me to “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” (Broadway, 2008). It’s another by Lindstrom, who also wrote “Brandwashed,” and it teems with insights gleaned from a big MRI-based study on why we crave certain merchandise. I’ve always loved the Mini Cooper, for instance: turns out when we look at this car, our brain’s facial recognition sector lights up. Cuteness sells, headlights are great big eyes, and we unconsciously go for “Bambi on four wheels.”

Lindstrom also talks about product placement, which he says is ineffective unless it’s integrated into the story: ET’s trail of Reese’s Pieces works (a week after the movie came out, sales tripled), but the 2002 James Bond movie “Die Another Day,’’ with it’s 23 gratuitous plugs, didn’t. Wags renamed it “Buy Another Day.”And buy another day, we will. Though in our discounted era, it seems, haggling is making a comeback. The motto of Bing Lee, the big Australian hardware chain, is “everything’s negotiable.” Plus, in a recent study, 72 percent of us reported asking a salesman for a price cut (in the past, the figure was only a third) and 80 percent of the time we got it. Ah well. If only it worked for my lobster roll.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore