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A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America Hardcover – January 21, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
After WWII, Americans' lives were shaped by economic, political, social and cultural structures premised on the notion that mass consumption would bring widespread prosperity and social equality. In an ideal America, mass consumption would "provide jobs, purchasing power, and investment dollars, while also allowing Americans to live better than ever before, participate in political decision-making on an equal footing with their similarly prospering neighbors, and to exercise their cherished freedoms by making independent choices in markets and politics." Although the postwar era offered a period of unprecedented affluence and encouraged certain forms of political activism, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Cohen (Making a New Deal) powerfully illustrates the consumer culture's failures in terms of social egalitarianism. The postwar housing shortage spawned suburbs that starkly emphasized class and racial differences; well-intentioned innovations, such as the G I bill, had little impact on women, working-class men and African-Americans; targeted marketing segmented citizens along class, gender, age, race and ethnic lines, accentuating divisions and undermining commonalities; and economic inequality expanded greatly during the past three decades. Cohen's sharp and incisive history particularly highlights the struggles of blacks seeking civil rights and women pursuing greater representation within the republic, illuminating the ways that mass consumption both helped and hindered their progress. Ultimately, Cohen asks whether mass consumption has successfully created a more egalitarian and democratic American society. The answer is balanced, judicious and laced with suggestions for how American citizens can begin to articulate a common vision for the future, even as the nation's population grows ever more diverse. 64 illus., 3 maps.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
*Starred Review* Without question, this is a difficult, demanding, and dense book--but it is also a greatly significant contribution to this season's business literature. Cohen, author of the prizewinning Making a New Deal (1990), submits a copiously researched, brilliantly conceived, and ultimately quite instructive study of American economics since the Depression. Stated in its simplest terms, her thesis, which she elaborately, even excitingly develops, is that from the 1930s until the present day, particularly since WW II, the U.S. defines what she calls a consumer republic: "an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption." She posits that within the second half of the twentieth century, good consumerism and good citizenship became twin concepts--ideals that were mutually inclusive. The belief arose and gained veracity that to maintain American might, the good citizen must also be the good consumer. The ramifications of this political notion are explored in various aspects of how and where Americans lived over the past half-century, with considerable attention paid to the effect of the consumer republic on black Americans. Not just for business readers but also for those who are serious about history, political science, and sociology. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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According to Cohen, what was “probably most significant” to the shift to market segmentation “was the post-war explosion of market researchers’ interest in consumer motivation, prevalent enough to attract scathing condemnation for its manipulative dangers from social critic Vance Packard.” (p. 298) The shift was one “from ‘who’ and ‘what’ to ‘why’ people bought” thus opening “the door to the possibility of greater diversity in consumers’ behavior and attitudes.” (p. 298) Cohen states, “by the 1970s continued interest in the psychological dimension of consuming would lead to the emergence of ‘psychographics,’ a term coined to mean the combining of demographic and psychological factors to define market segments.” (p. 299) Following this, “links extended to social science disciplines other than psychology, helping further to conceptualize buyers as heterogeneous.” (p. 299) In this way, “the growing influence of social science on marketing prepared the way for market segmentation and, in turn, gave practitioners more precise tools for identifying and catering to segments of consumers.” (p. 301) Among the ways in which marketers segmented the markets was “by some version of social class,” though, “with the shift to market segmentation and particularly the rise of psychographics by the 1960s, marketers turned class differentiation from an income to a lifestyle distinction” which led marketers to pay “particular attention to the working class.” (p. 310-311) To this end, “manufactures and sellers of goods ranging from furniture to clothing to magazines hired marketing researchers to help them figure out what working people wanted.” (p. 311) In the 1980s, “income inequality in America grew and working-class people had less money to spend” so “marketers and manufacturers shifted their prime target to upper-class consumers with more disposable cash.” (p. 312) The differentiation of the sexes was the next shift “as men gained more influence over consumption, accompanying their wives more frequently on shopping expeditions and exerting new control with the expansion of credit” and so “men and women increasingly became viewed as separate, profitable market segments with distinctive desires and responsibilities, no longer a single family market.” (p. 313-314) The final segments were teenagers, which “became defined as a unique consumer experience: buying certain kinds of things – records, clothes, makeup, movies, and fast food – in certain kinds of places – shopping centers, drive-in theaters, and car hop restaurants,” and minorities, “with the most significant segment consisting of African Americans.” (p. 319-323) As to politics, “the application of mass marketing techniques to the political arena dates back to the turn of the century, though it reached a new level of intensity in the 1930s.” (p. 332) It was “Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and again in 1956 that brought mass marketing fully into the political arena, sounding the death knell for campaigning by whistle-stop tours, street parades, and grassroots organizations.” (p. 333) In the 1960s, “the advent of market segmentation later that decade would change the rules of the game for political marketing, as it had for product marketing, pushing campaigns and electioneering away from selling” to the “Lowest Common Denominator” toward “crafting special messages for distinctive segments about whom more and more was becoming known through increasingly sophisticated polling.” (p. 336) When the Kennedys took control at the Democratic National Convention, “Sargent Shriver was promptly dispatched to reach out to as many of these groups as possible,” including Germans, Italians, Poles, Spanish, farmers, labor, senior citizens, the youth, and civil rights groups. (p. 337-338) In this way, “market segmentation techniques were not only implemented in candidate campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s; they were also called on to help mobilize voters around controversial issues” and their impacts were “campaign duels between televised advertisements, packaged candidates known more by image than substance, and party conventions that are no more than infomercials.” (p. 341)
According to Cohen, “suburban town centers proved inadequate to support all the consumption desired by the influx of new residents” along with suburban consumers increasingly viewing “returning to urban downtowns to shop as inconvenient,” and retailers coming to “realize that suburban residents…offered a lucrative frontier ripe for conquer.” (p. 257) These factors led to the creation of the “regional shopping center…as a new form of community marketplace.” (p. 257) Following the war, “only the most ambitious suburban tracts built…had developers incorporated stores into their plans.” (p. 258) This changed, however, when “by 1957, 940 shopping centers had already been built.” (p. 258) Unlike the small, independent stores found in cities, “each shopping center had two to three department stores as anchors…surrounded by fifty to seventy smaller stores.” (p. 259) In building these shopping centers, developers “set out to perfect the concept of downtown, not to obliterate it.” (p. 261) In their eyes, “a centrally owned and managed Garden State Plaza or Bergen Mall…offered an alternative model to the inefficiencies, visual chaos, and provinciality of traditional downtown districts.” (p. 263) To achieve this goal, various mall planning boards were encouraging “members and their communities to us ‘appropriate zoning and site development controls to encourage this desirable trend’ of making centers ‘real downtowns for the surrounding area.’” (p. 264-265) One example of the increase in shoppers that shopping centers generated was found in the anecdote of Jack Shuster. Shuster “opened two toy stores in 1962, one in downtown Rochester, the other in the suburban Pittsford Plaza; not only were unit sales four times higher in Pittsford, but charge accounts were opened and used there at twenty-five times the rate of downtown.” (p. 281) While a greater population congregated at shopping centers, they were private property and so “an unintended consequence of the American shift in orientation from public town center to private shopping center” was “the narrowing of the ground where constitutionally protected free speech and free assembly can legally take place.” (p. 277) Eventually, a series of court rulings would vaguely define what type of free speech was allowed, though it would shift from favoring the storeowners to the customers depending on the prevailing political atmosphere.
Discussing the gendered consumer republic, Cohen writes, “The pejorative labels of ‘female’ and ‘weak’ also undermined the consumer movement more broadly. Whereas its reputation as female-dominated had once given it prestige as a voice of morality and the public interest, in the new postwar world female identification only tainted the consumer movement as out of step with the times and, accompanied by a decline in ordinary women’s consumer activism, contributed to its decline.” (pg. 135) That said, “norms, whether conveyed through ideals presented on television or via government tax policies, of course, are not the same as social realities. Women could – and did – break with those norms every day.” (pg. 150) Cohen writes of the remnants of consumer representation in the 1950s, “What advocacy for consumer persisted through the 1950s, then, was undertaken by maverick (and sometimes opportunistic) lawmakers such as Congressman Roberts, Illinois Senator Paul Douglas – a champion of truth-in-lending – and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, who, as chairman of the Senate Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee, went on the attack against the prescriptions drug industry, rather than by any bottom-up mobilization of consumers, with the major exception of civil rights activism.” (pg. 348) Cohen describes the rising tide of consumer activism in the 1960s, but does not discuss comics. However, she writes, “Women served as the foot soldiers and the leadership of the third-wave consumer movement, much as they had for its predecessors during the Progressive Era and the New Deal. When Esther Peterson served President Johnson as his special assistant for consumer affairs, she was faced with a groundswell of grassroots agitation from ‘housewives’ for such goals as lower supermarket prices, fewer price-raising promotional gimmicks like games and trading stamps, better inspection of consumer scales, and more honest advertising of specials.” (pg. 367)
In the Acknowledgements, Ms. Cohen explains that this impressive book was written over the course of ten years. Her thesis profited from audience feedback at numerous college lectures and presentations she made during this time and with able assistance from a number of talented student researchers. With over 400 pages of text and 100 pages of notes, the book represents a remarkable achievement and is a testament to Ms. Cohen's intelligent use of the academic research process.
Ms. Cohen is in top form when she chronicles the struggles of women and African-Americans to assert their rights in what she calls the "Consumers' Republic" of 1945 to 1975. The author provides background material by documenting how a variety of bread-and-butter consumer issues mobilized millions into action from the Depression through WWII. Ms. Cohen then shows how power gained by women and minorities through their contributions to the war effort later found expression in the Civil Rights, women's liberation and other movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, Ms. Cohen explains that policy makers in the aftermath of WWII were influenced and corrupted by, among other things, unparalleled levels of corporate power and ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union. Mass consumption was seen as a solution to help keep manufacturing profits high and was propagandized in order prove to the world that the U.S. was practically a classless society. The reality was different, of course. The author discusses how racial, gender and class biases were reaffirmed and institutionalized by the GI Bill and other legislative acts. As a result of Ms. Cohen's extraordinary research, the reader comes to understand that the increasingly stratified post-WWII American society that resulted was not inevitable but was shaped by powerful interests who privileged private sector solutions at the expense of the public.
In my view, the only shortcomings in this ambitious book are Ms. Cohen's failure to discuss the environmental consequences of consumerism and her omission of the student revolt against the military/industrial complex in the 1960s. But overall, these are minor quibbles. "A Consumers' Republic" delivers plenty of thought-provoking material and is a pleasure to read. The book is highly recommended to everyone who might want to gain perspective on contemporary American society and further consider where it might be headed.