- Educating the Consumer-Citizen: A History of the Marriage of Schools, Advertising, and Media
Over the last two decades historians have paid a great deal of attention to the story of how advertisers transformed Americans from a nation of producers into a nation of consumers.1 However, Joel Spring's new book sharpens the analysis by exploring how the promotion and marketing of the ideology of consumerism led to the creation of our current "consumer state", thanks to the efforts of an unholy alliance (he calls it a "marriage") among schools, the U.S. government, advertising, and the corporate media.
Spring's terminology and theoretical framework offer considerable insight into why most Americans have become so enthralled with things like shopping malls, fast food, and designer goods. Defining a "consumer citizen" as a "person who accepts any political situation as long as there is an abundance of consumer goods" (p. 4), one begins to see that the U.S. exists as a "consumer state" peopled by "consumer citizens" rather than by the political or productive citizens that were more common in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.
Although the role of advertising and the media in creating consumers has already been well documented, Spring adds to this literature by outlining the role that manufacturers, home economics teachers, and the U.S. government played in promoting consumerism in the first half of the twentieth century, and the role that public schools played in promoting consumerism in the latter part of the twentieth century. His analysis of the writings and campaigns of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Legion show how these vehemently pro-business groups were able to prevent educational textbooks from criticizing the ideology of consumerism, and to conflate democracy and free enterprise in the mind of the public (via advertising, media, and text books). Moreover, his exploration of how the American Legion's [End Page 1250] championing of the consumeristic "American way of life" as an antidote to the "menace" of cold-war communism explains why current slogans such as "shop till you drop" and "America: Open for Business!" seem so natural today.
Spring's examination of how the early (school-based) home economics profession transformed young women from 19th-century producers into 20th-century consumers of processed food, ready-made clothing, and cleaning products is especially insightful. He outlines how the original home economics pioneers who dreamed of freeing women from the drudgery of housework and food preparation taught schoolgirls to buy and prepare instant processed foods such as Jello, Wonder Bread, and Crisco Oil. He also describes the 1920s fashion shows they organized in the schools (in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture) to teach schoolgirls what kind of ready-made clothing to buy for themselves, and their future families. Particularly surprising was the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture printed up scorecards so these students could be rated on their "general appearance and clothing choices" (pp. 55-56). It is surprising to see how many of the major socio-economic institutions were actively promoting U.S. consumerism in the first half of the twentieth century.
The book's final chapter examines how numerous national fast food chain enterprises such as McDonald's, Burger King, Coca Cola, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut inserted their marketing apparatuses and their foods and beverages into the public schools over the past two decades. For example, McDonalds provides "Black History" curriculum and lesson plans to teachers, Taco Bell provides science program materials to California schools, 24 Burger King Academies partnered up with the schools to provide mentors and tutors for impoverished students, and Pizza Hut's BOOK IT! reading incentive program served 22 million kids between 1998-1999 alone (see pp. 201-205). Young students who met their reading incentives were awarded a "personal pan pizza" from Pizza hut, and could redeem their "rewards" by stopping by the local Pizza Hut with their families. The fast-food industry is working hard...