Capitalism, Consumerism and Marketing

As we’re currently experiencing a cultural and economic shutdown, here are some musings on capitalism, consumerism and marketing.

Capitalism, while causing its fair share of problems (not least environmentally), has driven fantastic human progress.

It’s a model so entwined with modern life, that we only appreciate its role when the machine falters.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented time, without access to staple goods and services and businesses closing their doors to custom.

On a personal level, containment of the virus has necessitated a curtailment of freedom.

This hits us in two ways: 

  • The economy values productivity
  • The human values pleasure

Two interdependent factors. 

Institutions attempt to maximise output via predictable and repeatable inputs, while consumers demand variation and dopamine-driven newness.

The yin and yang of work and leisure.


Consumerism helps balance the books, keeping the capitalistic wheel turning, while satisfying our transient needs.

It functions in part by tapping the insatiable well of human desire, which is amplified in different ways:

  • Addressing a genuine problem that requires a solution
  • Persuading someone they have a problem that requires a solution 
  • Convincing someone they’ll feel better after buying said solution

So while we might feel stifled as a cog in the corporate machine, we can crank the psychological release valve by purchasing products and services and stimulating a neurochemical reward.

We’re led to believe that these products will:

  • Solve our problems
  • Make us feel better

Seems simple, like any good transaction should.

For real issues, it’s often the case.

But, here’s the crux:

  • Many problems may not be problems, but rather mind-made discontent with the present moment.
  • Many solutions make us feel good, but only temporarily.

Temporary highs don’t lead to lasting satisfaction.
And so the cycle starts anew.

Some of us chase the novelty of newness constantly, chained to the hedonic treadmill. 

Others, after a few revolutions on the media-driven consumer merry-go-round, intuit an inherent flaw with the approach.


So to grease the consumerist wheel, we have marketing which is:

1. A medium of matching problems with pleasing solutions

Science and technology have evolved enough that with any problem, we expect an easy, quick fix. 

Even with mind-made problems.

The best marketers are able to position the right product for the right problem at the right time.

Data is the fuel that ignites the inferno. 

  • Person has a problem
  • Person searches for a solution using the omnipotent Google God
  • Smart marketer advertises her shiny, hopefully appropriate, object for said person

This works well, as long as the marketer offers a genuine solution for a genuine problem.  

2. A global distraction mechanism, making us forget the temporary feel-better phenomenon

Quick thrills soon abate and we return to our previous baseline.

To compensate, marketing tactics often magnify discontent by suggesting we may not yet have discovered the correct solution.

And so it produces a new shiny offer, promoting another cycle of quick fixes and immediate gratification.

In so doing, it inadvertently disguises the fact that our reward-seeking state is flawed.

The product changes, but people’s genuine problems stay the same.

Time for change?

Marketers, now more than ever, need to solve genuine problems. 

Instead of peddling unhelpful or harmful wares, they must focus on the fundamental problems faced by humanity in the wake of the recent outbreak.

And on the other side, as consumers, we must cease chasing imaginary solutions and get comfortable with this new, temporary reality. 

Whether that’s through Stoic reframing or meditative acceptance, it’s imperative to stop chasing ephemeral thrills and settle into ourselves.

The unremitting march of economic growth has temporarily stalled as we adjust to a new reality.
According to Vaclav Smil, renowned scientist and author, such a slow down isn’t such a bad thing (at least in developed countries):

“We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realise how much slack in the system we have.”

This effect, while creating enormous short-term pain, may redefine our relationship with consumerism and how companies do business.

When the crisis subsides:

  • Will we still be seduced by shiny, happy people in adverts promising the solution to all our problems?
  • Will we still crave the car to enhance our self-image and earn external validation?
  • Will we still desperately collect new and novel experiences through exotic travel?

We’ll have to wait and see.

But for now, use this time wisely; for reflection and ultimately re-emergence as a better human. 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” – Blaise Pascal