November 28, 2002, Episode Twenty-Seven:  The Desire to Buy Nothing

What do North Americans have in common with their neighbours?  How they spend their money.  Consumption has become a key to the character of social life.  While many social scientists (but not all) have been slow to grasp the implications of this, many activists have come to understand consumption as one of the major battlegrounds for quality of life in contemporary society.  Buy Nothing Day (celebrated the day after American Thanksgiving) is an opportunity to join others in simply not consuming for one day out of the year.  

We spoke with one such activist this week.  Pema Douma is a local Victoria man trying to do his part in critiquing consumption and making his own lifestyle choices to reflect that critique.  We talked with him about Buy Nothing Day and ways to drop out of the consumption game the other 364 days of the year.  

Finally we discussed the economics of advertising and how desire is manipulated in order to encourage consumption.  Can contemporary North Americans really know what they want in a world where they are regularly bombarded with messages about their wants and needs?   


In 1988, Michael Weiss wrote a book that should have changed the way that sociologists approached issues of class. It didn't, but it should have. The Clustering of America shared the dirty little secret about how Americans divide themselves into groups. Traditional sociology examined socio-economic status, race and ethnicity as determinants of the kinds of lifestyles Americans led. The truth is, according to Weiss and the advertising execs upon whose work Weiss based his book, what Americans have most in common with their neighbours is what they consume. Yes, buying habits are predictable according to where Americans choose and/or are able to live. Almost since the inception of zip codes and postal codes in North America, advertising executives have targeted markets on the basis of (1) social rank, (2) mobility, (3) race/ethnicity, (4) family life stage, and (5) housing style. They have connected these characteristics to specific zip or postal codes. One of the most widely used systems, Claritas' PRIZM, has produced 62 clusters that represent groups with a specific combination of characteristics and these characteristics predict consumption. Advertising agencies pay big bucks to have access to these 62 clusters, and they design their marketing strategies to reflect the assumption that where people chose to live predicts uniquely well what people will buy. Clustering concludes that similar individuals live near each other and pursues this conclusion aggressively.

This may be common sense - at least on the surface. What we can afford to rent or buy, the architecture of the buildings in which we live, the characteristics of the neighbourhood most certainly would reflect our ability to pay for things and our tastes. But a deeper contemplation of these clusters may reveal some things that should not just be taken for granted, the empirical grounding of clustering notwithstanding.


First, there is the implication of having 62 categories instead of the three, four or nine categories often cited as indicators of socio-economic level in general social surveys conducted by social scientists. 62 categories indicate a greater fragmentation of lifestyles than most researchers care to acknowledge. It also indicates a complexity that disinforms parsimonious approaches to questions of class, race and ethnicity.

Second, there is the implication of assumed-predictability. Marketers often model their approaches to markets as if it were linear. The 62 clusters are meant to tell the marketers the needs of the market; the marketers consequently respond to those needs. Another reading, however, might be that marketers then train those markets to want certain products. Rather than a linear model, one can imagine a spiral effect with people choosing a neighbourhood because of certain tastes and then being educated about what those tastes mean through their mail, telemarketing, billboards, and so on. They see their neighbours purchasing many of the same things, which they then purchase in an effort to be a part of the neighbourhood and then more advertising responds to those purchases shoring up the desire to be loyal to those products and their competitors. The push-pull of the spiral effect escalates from there. Is this predictable? Or is it constructed? No one quite knows who is the chicken and who is the egg and which came first.

Finally, there is the implication that neighbours are keeping up with each other's consumption even in neighbourhoods where neighbours rarely speak to each other. These patterns seem to emerge even if there is not real cohesion among the population. This similarity in consumption can't be explained easily and offers a fertile ground of study of the ways in which consumption offers cultural resources to people to demonstrate their identity as well as reflect their taste.


These implications, and we are sure there are many others, suggest that to understand society and culture in the United States, Canada and Europe, one must study consumption. A growing number of people outside the advertising industry are beginning to understand that consumption has become the key battleground for the hearts and minds of people. Understanding why we consume, in what ways we respond to calls for consumption and how we construct our selves in relationship to what we consume will help us understand how contemporary western society works. The understanding could also help break the spell of consumption as a sustainable approach to economics and reveal the ways in which unchecked consumption is leading to a world of haves and have-nots and ecological disasters.

A Vancouver artist and activist named Ted Dave became concerned about consumption in 1992 and conceived of a day each year when people would simply not buy anything. Originally called "No Shopping Day" and celebrated on September 24, this idea has taken on a life of its own. Over the past decade this simple idea has evolved into International Buy Nothing Day, now falling, in most countries, on the day after American Thanksgiving because of its relation to Christmas consumption. It is celebrated on every continent, with activists creating local celebrations that include scavenger hunts, pot luck dinners, postering at malls and shopping centres, bartering bazaars, the exchange of "quality time" coupons in lieu of Christmas gifts and other creative endeavours. Many people chose to celebrate the day simply by buying nothing, refusing to purchase anything on at least that one day of the year.


Buy Nothing Day offers an interruption in the consumer rhetoric that stands both as a public political action and a personal reflection. Consider how difficult it is to conceive of a day where you would buy nothing. It may be harder to contemplate and execute than it seems at first. Is the only way to accomplish the task to stay at home? Can you spend time with friends without consumption? Does watching television count? How about cable or satellite television? Does using electricity count? Does driving count? Am I consuming if I use the cable connection to the Internet, check my e-mail, use my telephone?

The whole concept of spending a day not consuming, not purchasing anything becomes much more complex than one might imagine at first. It serves to curtail consumption for a day as a reminder to the world of the rate at which we consume, and it serves as a reminder to ourselves about our own spending habits.


Of course, the hope is that such a reminder will curb spending on other days as well.

The Buy Nothing Day campaign in Seattle distributed a checklist for consumers to consult before making a purchase:

Do I need it? How many do I already have? How much will I use it? How long will it last? Could I borrow it from a friend or family member? Can I do without it? Am I able to clean, lubricate and/or maintain it myself? Am I willing to? Will I be able to repair it? Have I researched it to get the best quality for the best price? How will I dispose of it when I'm done using it? Are the resources that went into it renewable or non-renewable? Is it made of recycled materials and is it recyclable? Is there anything I already own that I could substitute for it?


We found this list interesting because it seemed like exactly the kind of list one would make if one were in a free market, a market where buyers assessed their needs and purchased according to value. You know, the kind market capitalism is supposed to produce. The irony is that the sellers in this market would like the buyers to forget this self-examination and to believe that they want the particular product they are being sold. "Desire" becomes a manipulated emotion rather than a rational assessment of the advertising market.


On today's show, we talk with a local man, named Pema Douma about Buy Nothing Day. Pema is a musician, an activist and someone who espouses the values promoted by Buy Nothing Day in his everyday life. He is not a star in the activist circles; he is simply one person trying to do his part. We also discuss this manipulation of desire and contemplate our own consumption footprint on the earth in an episode we call "The Desire to Buy Nothing."

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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