If you are at all interested in consumers or consumerism or American culture and why it is the way it is, then I implore you to read The Rebel Sell. I bought this book month ago because it looked like something that would interest me. I read the first 25 pages or so and it seemed to be bogged down in a lot of theoretical stuff that frankly, seemed over my head. I put it down and 7 months later decided to pick it up because I wanted to dive into something that I thought would really make me think. It did, but not in the way that I thought it would. I guess in some ways I think of myself as a rebel, so this book sort of made me reevaluate why I feel the way I feel toward consumers, the corporate machine, and government. I felt like Heath and Potter were throwing my ideas back in my face and saying, “Try again!” I don’t mean to make it sound like this book was life-altering, but it did give me a new perspective on things I believe.
While I don’t agree with everything Heath and Potter say, they make many excellent points in this book. Let me see if I can get to the heart of their point. The American quest to be an individual has helped to create the consumer society in this country. In other words, in our quest to be non-conformist, we have only added fuel to the fire of the consumer machine. We don’t want to be a “part of the system” so we try to be different. We want to compete with each other by showing how cool we are with what we buy and what we do.
For example, Heath and Potter reference the baking industry during the 1960s. At that time, people started to bake their own bread in response to the uniformity of buying Wonder Bread. Now, Wonder Bread might not be a great product, but it is cheap and many people like it. What if you want to be different? What if you don’t want what everyone else is having? Well, you make your won bread which requires time and money. Then, a competitive market opened up for “home-style” breads. People were willing to buy the more expensive bread because it was different from Wonder Bread. Even today, we have many stores that make bread their business like Panera and Great Harvest Bread Company. If you go to any grocery store, how many different types of bread there? This reminds me a lot of what Chris Anderson talks about in The Long Tail. The point made is that in order to not conform, you are only adding to the choices in the marketplace and creating multiple competitive markets. In order to rebel against “the man”, you only make opportunities for another “man”. I had never thought about it this way, but it is true. This point makes me think.
As counterculture rebels are fighting against corporations and the evils of society, they are only helping it. In order to be different, they need products to reflect their individuality. Consequently, new markets open up. Instead of trying to work with corporations, create legislation, and institute meaningful political action, they want a revolution for their way of thinking. As Heath and Potter point out, it is tough to get people to change in that manner.
While it might not be an explicit point of the book, I like how Heath and Potter value compromise, working together, collaboration, and cooperation.
If we are going to figure out how to live in harmony in an increasingly populous world, the insistence on individuality at any cost is not a helpful point of departure. We need to start figuring out which compromises are inevitable and which can be avoided.
This might be a rather naive and Disney World stance, but I think it is important to make since an all out revolt against corporations and government is not likely to happen. Heath and Potter argue that the capitalist system we have in place is good, but it needs to be used correctly.
It is not the system that is at fault; the problem is with the loopholes that exist within it. The solution is to plug the loopholes, not abolish the system.
With the right legislation in place and a slow attitudinal change within ourselves, we might be on to something…