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Book Review: Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough

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Affluenza, by Australian economists Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, is challenging to read. It uses statistics and facts to paint a frightening picture of an Australian society&#8212and by extension Western society&#8212that has forgotten why it exists.

Affluenza’s key message is that, while Australians are three times richer than in the 1950s and among the richest people in the world, there is still a perception that the “average Aussie family” struggles to get by. In fact, the book asserts, some of Australia’s richest people claim they don’t have enough money for their basic needs.

So what exactly are our basic needs? That’s what the book asks, attempting to show the absurdity of the materialistic, money-dominated consumer culture.

Marketers get a bum rap in Affluenza, bearing 100% of the blame for the Current State of Things. The authors are largely right, but in their fervour to make their point they haven’t shown any examples of positive, socially responsible marketers. What’s worse is the only solution they have to the marketing problem (that marketers and brands create wants which lead to overconsumption and waste) is to come down strong with legislation. It’s as if ‘marketers’ were an evil race from another planet. The solution’s got to be deeper than legislation.

Other solutions to affluenza include political action. The authors are unashamedly political, harshly criticising John Howard’s government for preaching family values while undermining them through materialistic policies that place the market above all else. At the back of the book is a ‘Political Manifesto for Wellbeing’ which makes interesting reading.

Affluenza reminded me of In Praise of Slow; it covered similar ground and offered some similar advice, however, while Slow is a showcase of answers to the “cult of speed,” Affluenza spends at least 75% of its time painting a picture of the problem, before finally (halfway into the “What can we do?” section; I’d almost given up) looking at some people who have turned their backs on the altar of mammon: the downshifters.

Affluenza is by Australians, for Australians, but pertinent to a global audience. Apparently New Zealand is suffering from the opposite problem; after reading this book, I’m not so sure it’s such a problem after all.
Edited and Published: WK

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About Simon Young

  • The lure of mammon and the lust for the material has been a favorite topic of concern for preachers of all stripes, at least since Biblical times, in the West.

  • Nancy

    They haven’t cited positive, socially responsible marketers because there AREN’T any, certainly not among the large multinationals that dominate world trade, & their hired hand advertising agency pimps. Their goal – their ONLY goal, is to separate you & your money, any way they possibly can, including illegally if they can get away with it and more stringently if they can’t. The whole idea behind marketing is to package a product, and then convince as many people as possible that they NEED it – must have it – cannot live without it. If they have to knowingly & deliberately create physical addictions a la the tobacco companies in order to perpetuate their profits, so be it. They don’t hesitate to try to snare kids too young to be aware of their conniving; or to play on the desperation of those who are ill, dying, or who have some perceived physical impairment (think: Weight Watchers). Anything to get their hands in your wallet, and it matters not if they destroy you in the process, as long as they end up with your money in the end. IMO the authors are absolutely correct to attribute overconsumption 100% to marketers. People certainly don’t sit around going, ‘now, what else do I need to waste my money on today?’

  • So the consumer is a mindless blob, helpless in the toils of “their” nets, Nancy? I prefer to realize that I can “just say no,” and thereby foil all “their” dastardly plots.

    By your way of thinking, spammers who advertise Viagra are equally culpable with the corner crack-pusher, and no less vile than the guy who sells you a loaf of bread from the bakery.

    C’mon, let’s choose a narrower brush before you begin to paint!

  • Nancy, that kind of blinkered, cop-out thinking is exactly part of the problem. It’s not us mere mortals, it’s “the marketers”, forcing us against our will to buy, buy, buy. That’s lumping every marketer into the same basket. The thing is, marketers are people too, and while some are most definitely unscrupulous and care only about money, there are a growing number who don’t want to be part of the problem; they want to be part of the solution.

    The problem with blaming everything on marketers is that it can lead towards a communist-style system where there is no choice, no competition, only government-controlled monopolies. And who’s to say the government are any more trustworthy than marketers?

    Another thing that people can easily overlook is that everything is marketed. Every idea has to be communicated, and to get through the information clutter there is today, it needs to be packaged.

    A good book to read is Seth Godin’s latest, All Marketers are Liars. He agrees a lot with the ideas in Affluenza, but instead of blaming all marketers and suggesting legislation, he talks to marketers and helps them understand what to do.

  • Actually, I think DrPat said it far better than I did. Nice words, Pat! Thanks.

  • Nancy

    One of the most valuable classes I ever took was a class in basic marketing techniques. It was an eye-opener, to say the least. One of the things it did NOT mention was ethics. In fact, several times, in several of the course books, ethics were derided as something to get around, altho they weren’t that bald about saying it, but the message was there loud & clear. The very fact that marketers are increasingly looking for ways to weasel their monitoring into people’s private spaces, into their very brains if they can, tells me everything I need to know about marketers & their ethics.

  • Psst, everybody! Nancy just admitted to having training in marketing… Should we shun her now?


    Really, if you expect a grounding in ethics in every course you take, you’d be equally dissatisfied and alarmed by a course in art, physics, or mineralogy. Why (besides a prejudice on your part before enrolling in the class) would you expect to receive training in ethics during a “basic marketing techniques” class?

  • Nancy

    I took it before I knew anything about what lengths marketers will go to, to push their stuff. I was appalled by the level of sophistication & connivance of techniques + the consumer beware attitude that would exist in a basic course. That was a few years ago, and marketing has become commensurately more invasive & sophisticated; I shudder to think what they intend to do if they can get away with it, these days. Yes – compared with the tools & techniquest these slimebags practice, the average consumer is indeed grist for their mill & fairly helpless in face of their tactics. Also please bear in mind I DID specify the large multinationals, and cited specific examples that have been PROVEN to be particularly toxic in their practices & attitudes, such as the tobacco companies – or are you defending their 50+ years of lies & disreputable marketing products & practices? Even BushCo doesn’t do that.

  • Nancy, marketing is a tool or job, neither of which can, in any real or philosophical sense, have ethics. People make ethical choices (or they don’t): the leaders of marketing firms (people) make ethical choices (or they don’t), and the manufacturers of goods (people) make ethical choices (or they don’t).

    Likewise, people make choices to buy. Or they don’t.

    I don’t buy cigarettes, crack cocaine or Viagra, Nancy, despite the addictive (and toxic) nature of the first two or the constant marketing efforts for the first and last. -I- make that choice.

    “Multinationals” sell food, garments, cars, toys, cosmetics, movies, jewelry, furniture, and all sorts of things that you and I may (or may not) choose to buy. Your attempt to tar all marketing or all multinationals with the same broad brush is, frankly, a far more disturbing piece of marketing copy than anything I’ve ever read from Phillip Morris.

  • It, marketing, can definitely manipulate feelings, however.

    Self-confidence is the issue again, really.

  • and available money, of course

  • Rob Read

    I really think we need some regulation to control those promoting more regulation!

  • Odd that you say this is “by Australians, for Australians” when every other piece I’ve seen about this book and its related materials talks about discussions of American culture and American economic lifestyles.

    That doesn’t make your review or the book any less valid. It simply strikes me as odd.

  • Thanks for your comment Victor. The discrepancy is that the Amazon link is to another book of the same title. The one I’ve reviewed, written by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, isn’t available on Amazon. It’s published by Allen & Unwin.

  • Nancy,

    I took more than a few courses in marketing. One of the required classes for my marketing major was, in fact, business ethics. A solid business program is going to include that class — the ones that don’t need to be ignored.

    I view marketing as similar to hypnosis — you can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do under hypnosis, and a marketer can’t either. In fact, one of the key parts of marketing is to identify what products certain groups of customers want, and target that group. Very little is actually marketed to a general audience.

    People want to spend money, because they think it gives them status. Marketers harness that desire, but they don’t put it there to start with. Do I think marketers are totally ethical? No — that’s why I got out. But are they the root of all our problems? No. I seem to recall reading soewhere that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s something that marketers exploit, but the root problem is much deeper.

  • Nancy

    I’m not terribly good at arguments, but I have to point out that if marketers were are benign as you are trying to make them out to be, then there would be no need for ANY of the regulatory agencies, either state or federal, because marketers would voluntarily forgo illegal or dishonest tactics on their own – which they don’t, never have, and I doubt ever will. Point out to me a car manufacturer that has voluntarily on ANY account made changes for safety’s sake, or fuel efficiency, or emissions reduction, without having been dragged kicking & screaming at the threat of lawsuits both class action and federal; you can’t, because they don’t exist. Pharmaceutical marketers are increasingly being exposed for direct marketing of drugs to the public that in fact have NO value, or are dangerous, or which have not been properly tested by neutral testing, or have been tested but the marketers have carefully falsified or disregarded the adverse testing results, so they can peddle their crap & make money at the expense of public safety & health. The diet industry is rife with false marketing claims & scams involving weight loss, health risks, and god knows what else, also in order to squeeze out every penny they can by preying off the problems of others. Tobacco companies for years lied & twisted testing results denying there was any harm in their products, and marketed them in ads implying that those who smoked were glamorous, powerful, macho, sexy, etc. In fact, they are STILL trying to lie & weasel out of and around restrictions. They have the deaths of millions on their heads, and STILL they’re trying to indirectly market to young people & get them hooked on a drug that’s as deadly as it is noxious. All to line their pockets & nothing else. Food marketers load their products with so many chemicals, preservatives, & artificial ingredients people would be better off swiging straight petroleum – and try to fob it off on the stupid & gullible public as healthy, fun, good food when in reality it’s fat loaded garbage, w/no nutritional value whatsoever. Marketers of every stripe target kids – the least discerning group of all – and bombard them with advertising featuring beloved & popular, fuzzy, friendly cartoon characters for every conceivable product under the sun. And that’s with some restraints as to what they’re allowed to hit kids with. If those restraints didn’t exist, marketers would not hesitate to be trying to peddle all kinds of crap to kids. It’s a known mantra of marketers, to ‘hook’ kids – consumers – early, so they grow up and inspire brand loyalty in their own kids. Marketers’ very jargon in the business says all one needs to know about how they regard the public: consumers are “target” groups. People are ‘captured’. Marketers talk about inducing subliminal consumer impulses – i.e. brainwashing. That is NOT benign behavior or thinking in anybody’s lexicon, except perhaps a marketers. A recent study has come out in the past few days, citing that consumers tend to believe advertisers’ claims if they’re worded a certain way, or buy a certain product if it’s packaged a certain way, or named a certain way. Marketers carry out huge psychological tests on groups of people hoping to find the key to enable them to mind-control the hapless stupid public at will to empty their wallets on command. This is NOT benign. If it were, laws would not be necessary to protect the public from marketers & their lies, and the consumer protection agencies would be out of business today.

    So save your marketing spin & advertising hype for someone who might believe you. I sure as hell don’t.

  • I think we as consumers are quickly waking up to the fact that we need to be more proactive in bringing about real social and environmental change to secure a safe, healthy and fair world for our future generations.

    I am working with a great group of folks who are creating http://www.alonovo.com. This website is an information source, community builder and shopping resource to help enlighten consumers that they can buy from companies that match their values and beliefs for social and environmental responsibility. It’s often hard for consumers to know more about how companies operate on a social and environmental level — so alonovo.com brings unbaised, trusted information directly to consumers. Consumers can shop by their concerns and beliefs and then donate a portion of the revenue generated from the sale to a non-profit of the buyer’s choice.

    http://www.alonovo.com makes it simple and easy to shop by your social values. This is an idea whose time has come.

    I believe that we as consumers need more tools to help us make better, more intelligent decisions. I think more conversations like this and more forward thinking leaders who champion smarter consumerism is great. Love to hear more about how you think consumers are getting smarter and more socially active with their shopping dollars.

  • Rob

    This stuff is funny. Nancy, I think you represent many people out there, and your points are therefore valid, but only on those grounds.

    It is fair to say that “Marketeers” are only as remorseless at extracting money from consumers as you would be from your employer. This behaviour is natural, so don’t be afraid of it because you think it is complicated!

    As mentioned above many many times, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Marketing is not theft. You do not take money from people without their consent. Maybe against their better intellectual judgement, but not against their will.

    And if you (and I assume you are) were not so against profits, then you can be sure of newton’s physics taking action in the market: Opposite and equal reactions (remember that?).

    For every company hell bent on making a profit by misinforming you, there’ll be another hell bent on making one by telling you.

    Anybody who can perceive a social good could buy up healthy companies, and market the flaws of the others – such as pesticides, hormones, poor construction techniques, etc. that is what competition is all about.

    The problem is, people don’t usually care about those things. If a car is going to get a young man laid, then he will accept a lower level of fuel efficiency and impact survivability standards to a car that won’t.

    If a mother is going to get more peace and quiet by purchasing a $50 toy because her kids have seen it on TV rather than sitting down with them and making stuff out of used egg cartons, then that is her (and their) loss.

    The answer is Information, not regulation, as shari points out above.

    I can’t believe you’d volunteer less control over of your life to a bureaucracy just because you can’t be bothered making decisions! How dare you insist I loose the same.

  • jamesie :)

    this is so boring. how can you be bothered to read it. blah blah blahd