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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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What we really want

Do we consume so much because we are materialistic? Or to satisfy hopes and longings?

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, 4:11).

“Advertising helps to keep the masses dissatisfied with their mode of life, discontented with ugly things around them. Satisfied customers are not as profitable as discontented ones” (Printers’ Ink, 1930).

Two thousand years separate Paul’s words from those of the magazine writer’s. Still, the struggle goes on—within society, within ourselves. If people were genuinely satisfied with what they already had, why would they want more or buy more? The word “satisfaction” comes from the Latin word for “enough.” People who can say, “I already have enough” don’t make model consumers.


Several years ago a computer ad urged: “Buy tomorrow’s computer today.” Tempting. But if you buy tomorrow’s computer today, when tomorrow comes what was tomorrow’s computer will have turned into yesterday’s computer. When tomorrow comes, a new “tomorrow’s computer” will be faster and more feature-laden than the one just recently bought. It will now seem outdated. And you’ll find yourself on a treadmill of perpetually renewed dissatisfaction.

We describe our consumer society as “materialistic.” Yet marketers long have recognized that products sell more quickly if people see them not just as material goods but as carriers of their hopes and dreams.

As far back as 1923 radio personality Helen Landon Cass encouraged those attending a sales convention: “Sell them their dreams. Sell them what they longed for and hoped for and almost despaired of having. ... After all, people don’t buy things to have things. ... They buy hope—hope of what your merchandise will do for them. Sell them this hope and you won’t have to worry about selling them goods.”

Today marketing expert Douglas Atkin puts it this way: “We live in a world ... where products are consumed less for what they are (materially) and more for what they represent (spiritually, or at least socially).”


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August issue

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