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  • An Anthropology of Goods
  • Michael Schudson (bio)

Schudson, Michael. (1984), “An Anthropology of Goods,” Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, New York: Basic Books, 129–146. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

In the factory we make cosmetics,” Charles Revson of Revlon, Inc. said, “in the store we sell hope.”1 An advertising executive told me, “We’ve convinced the mothers of America that they’re not good mothers if they don’t serve Minute Maid.” Another executive, referring to AT&T’s “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign said, “Advertising turned that instrument, a physical inanimate object, into an instrument of the heart.” These are the sorts of statements, no matter how hyperbolic or self-serving, that critics of advertising seize on as the inner worm of truth in the apple of the ad industry. As I have argued, advertising as a business tool is more complicated than such claims suggest and people are more simple, and sturdy, than these visions imply. If one is to arrive at an understanding of the modern passion for goods, an examination of advertising is an essential step but it is not the first step—as marketers know very well and as social critics should learn. The first step, it seems to me, is to gain an understanding of the role material possessions play in human lives not just in advertising-saturated societies but in any society. The next step is to try to understand the social forces that gathered in the past one hundred years to produce both the advertising industry itself and the infrastructure of a consumer society that called for and supported new attitudes toward goods and a new receptivity to advertising. Only then can advertising’s role as a specific goad to sales and a general cultural encouragement toward materialism be viewed in its proper context.

This chapter will sketch in some key features of the role of material possessions in human social life—looking toward the ways our own relations to goods share something with the attitudes and practices of people in simple, nonmarket societies. The next chapter will outline the social forces that emerged in nineteenth-century America and gave rise to a consumer culture, including the institution of advertising. Chapter 6 will be a case study of the rise of cigarette smoking in the 1920s and an analysis of what array of factors created a change in consumer patterns as substantial as that one was.

The Concept of “Human Needs”

The common image of a primitive society is one of hunters and gatherers scraping a living from the savannah, surviving from hour to hour in search of food, spending their entire lives getting enough to eat. These creatures get along with the true basics of existence, not strikingly different from other animal species.

Such groups or part-groups have existed under extreme circumstances in advanced societies. The people who lived in Nazi concentration camps barely survived. True, their needs for survival were psychological as well as biological, but they were as close to the human edge of existence as any group has ever been. Primitive societies, however, were not and are not like that. Primitive societies, as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has provocatively observed, are characterized not by a paucity of goods but by a paucity of needs. Hunters and gatherers do not often starve nor must they normally work hard to keep from starving. They typically have an abundance of food and they typically have more leisure time than most people in modern industrial societies. Our most ancient human ancestors, as best as we can tell from the simplest societies we find today, were “affluent.” Hunters and gatherers today generally have ample caloric intake and acquire the food they need with just a few hours of work a day.2

Not only do the hunters and gatherers satisfy “basic” or “biological” needs easily, but perhaps the more vital point is that the needs they seek to satisfy, as is true of every other human society, are not strictly biological needs. People in any society we have ever encountered, or can even imagine, are biological and social at once. The infant’s first sucking at the breast is an...