Commentary Magazine


The Waste Makers, by Vance Packard

The Conservatism of Vance Packard1

 

Vance Packard has achieved notable financial and critical success with his two previous books. The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers, both of them harsh attacks on the mores of the business society and the behavior patterns of the middle and upper classes. They have been widely heralded in newspaper reviews as among the keenest analyses of American culture in recent years. The Waste Makers now adds a third piece to what Mr. Packard’s publishers describe as a continuing study of American society.

In all these books, Mr. Packard seeks to popularize for that part of the public which belongs to book clubs and reads best sellers, some of the findings of social science concerning status, the influence of the mass media, determinants of taste, and corporate sales policies (though in The Waste Makers, he relies more heavily on exposés of business than on social science research). Mr. Packard has set himself a worthy goal. American sociology, because most of its practitioners disdain writing for a lay public, has insufciently influenced general social policy. Psychology, economics, and anthropology, on the other hand, have all been better served by their intellectual leaders, a fact which may reflect the greater self-confidence of these disciplines; perhaps sociology is too anxious about its status as a science to be willing to enter the popular arena.

Yet no journalist has come forward to fill the gap left by the sociologists’ refusal to address the larger intellectual public—Stuart Chase has made the best attempt so far. (One of Chase’s older books, The Tragedy of Waste, written in 1925, elaborates on some of the very themes discussed in The Waste Makers—waste in production, in use of natural resources, and in advertising.) Despite the claims of his publisher and of some reviewers, however, Vance Packard’s work does not meet this need. One reason is immediately clear: Mr. Packard cannot resist writing books which are only extended versions of mass magazine articles that make one simple point and present some confirmatory evidence. But a book which purports to supply the reader with information from esoteric academic literature has an obligation to be thorough, and it must acknowledge the existence of conflicting materials. Such books, however, and Stuart Chase has written some, do not become best sellers.

The commercial success of Mr. Packard’s work has interest beyond the fact that it attempts to popularize sociological research for a mass audience; for its main thesis is that America has become a corrupt, conformist, and a status-seeking society dominated by a “power-elite.” Mr. Packard seemingly presents a radical polemic against the traditional American way of life, and so suggests to some readers that radicalism can have an appeal even in affluent America. Yet, curiously enough, his books are largely bought by those whose behavior they seem most violently to be attacking. This anomaly points to the soft center of both Mr. Packard’s radicalism and his work.

(While in England recently, I was told by an official of a management research institute that, following the publication of The Hidden Persuaders in Britain, this organization was approached by many of its clients with the request that it tell them how to obtain comparable research and results in England. The institute’s directors regretfully had to report that many of Mr. Packard’s claims for advertising and market research were grossly exaggerated. On telling the story in this country, I discovered that the book has had similar effects here as well: the Madison Avenue agencies have found it necessary to convince their clients that Packard had grossly exaggerated their abilities. This role of Packard as pitchman may explain why he could say in an ad for The Waste Makers that “most of my old friends in advertising are still friendly.”)

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The Waste Makers can best be described as a popularization of Consumers’ Report, the journal published by Consumers’ Union. In chapter after chapter, Mr. Packard describes the enormous waste built into the American economy by business’ deliberate policies of planning for obsolescence. According to studies cited by Mr. Packard, television sets, automobiles, washing machines, refrigerators, rugs, draperies, various types of furniture, and a host of other appliances are so manufactured that they will be unusable within a few years. Furthermore, American business uses Machiavellian advertising tactics to press people into buying what they do not need, and changes models every few years to shame them into purchasing the newest styles.

Mr. Packard’s picture of planned obsolescence is on the whole accurate, but the examples he uses to document it are often grossly exaggerated; like most polemicists, he is willing to accept any statement which supports his argument and to ignore those which do not. For example, as evidence for the charge that there has been a general decline in the quality of automobiles, Packard writes that in 1956 “the motorcars being led to the scrapyard chopping blocks were three years younger than the motorcars being scrapped in the late forties.” Although Packard knows that there was a shortage of new cars during the postwar years, he does not consider this relevant to his argument. He also ignores the fact that an automobile’s average life-time is a function of the relationship between the sales price of used cars and the cost of repairs, rather than the general durability of the vehicle. If the price stays up, as it does in many countries which have comparatively few automobiles, one may find twenty-year-old cars being kept in service as a matter of course.

But sloppy use of evidence—and the book has many examples—is not its central fault. Rather, the main difficulty here, as is all of Mr. Packard’s works, is that The Waste Makers shows no real concern with eliminating the ills it seems to attack. No conformity is as conformist as that which preaches external non-conformity. Mr. Packard’s bête noire, the advertising agencies, have known this for some time. Ads for the New York Daily News (“Get Out of the Status-Ratus Race”) and for Viceroy (“the thinking man’s cigarette”) are only two examples of successful advertising campaigns that have sung the virtues of nonconformity. Like these ads, The Waste Makers only creates a more sophisticated status symbol than those it opposes. But more important than this, Mr. Packard refuses to look at the evidence in his own material that status-seeking and conspicuous consumption may not simply be imposed by the policies of evil businessmen and advertisers, but may rather be inherent in institutions based on American democratic values. As I pointed out in a review of The Status Seekers, many observers of American culture from the early 19th century to the present have noted that a society which emphasizes equality of opportunity and achievement necessarily sponsors status striving and conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption is the way in which we report to other people that we have succeeded, and those who have recently made it are more likely to want to publicize this fact than those of old family background.

Yet almost all of Mr. Packard’s remedies disregard American institutions. Thus his first proposal for fighting the practices he has described is to restore “pride in prudence.” Consumers should be concerned with getting the best value for their money, and should be aided by government publication of standards and quality, and by organizations like Consumers’ Union which tests products and then issues reports. His second solution is “restoring pride in quality.” He proposes to facilitate this restoration by establishing some sort of certifying agency to issue a minimum quality seal. Third, Mr. Packard argues that we should lower the birth rate. He believes that an ever increasing population will consume so much of our natural resources that eventually there will not be enough resources to maintain a high standard of living. Packard seems to believe that businessmen deliberately foster values which encourage high birth rates in order to get more customers.

Such solutions clearly will not frighten Madison Avenue. As Mr. Packard himself points out, the group most likely to be impressed with his line of thought—such as the 800,000 members of Consumer’s Unions—consists largely of people of “relatively high intelligence in business or the professions”—in other words, precisely that segment of the population which is likely to know enough to avoid striking a bad bargain, but which can most afford to overspend if it wants to. Yet even this group of sophisticated consumers, according to Consumer Unions’ own questionnaire survey, conforms to the general expenditure patterns of American society: many of them buy the most luxurious, expensive, and biggest automobiles available. Presumably, then, these automobiles serve some need other than that of transportation.

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The basic fault of Mr. Packard’s solutions can be demonstrated by examining his explanation of the high birth rate in the United States since World War II. He argues that business’ need for more consumers is the main cause. But a high birth rate may, in fact, be a by-product of a wealthy society; with enough income and security, people can afford more children. One might think that the decision to have more children rather than more automobiles, fancy houses, or gadgets, would be regarded as a good thing by Mr. Packard. In this book, as in his others, however, he seems unable to recognize that a shift in expenditures from one item to another does not simply mean that the successful product has hired a smart “hidden persuader,” but that the new choices people make can actually reflect a change in the social situation. Thus, Americans bought more costly and often less nourishing prepared foods, not when advertisers told them to, as The Hidden Persuaders suggests, but when they reached a high enough level of income to permit housewives to hire hidden help by paying more for foods which require less drudgery.

Mr. Packard proposes no serious institutional reforms (despite his suggestion that America imitate Great Britain’s national television system) because essentially he is an old-fashioned conservative. Although he agrees with Galbraith that America is characterized by private affluence and public squalor, he refuses to take the next step and advocate the large-scale increase in taxes necessary to improve community agencies and to bring about a reduction in waste. (He does see, of course, that more government revenues are needed, but in terms of policy is mainly concerned with suggesting covert ways to tax people, i.e., with applying hidden persuasion to the tax problem.) How better to reduce the influence of advertisers than to place heavy taxes on advertisements—particularly when they are sent over publicly-controlled media such as television or radio—or to eliminate the current subsidy given advertisers in the form of cheap mailing rates for large advertisement-filled magazines, and junk mail (straight circulars) ? Or if Mr. Packard really wants to make the automobile companies unhappy, he might point to another reason why European cars are so small: a government tax which makes the cost of gasoline for high horsepowered cars prohibitive. (In Germany, annual registration fees of automobiles are based on horsepower; large autos are kept off the roads simply by charging impossibly high fees for high horse-powered vehicles.) But Mr. Packard makes neither suggestion (though he does note, in passing, without advocating it, that a suggestion to tax advertising was once made in Britain). To shift national expenditures around in the way that would be necessary to eliminate the waste Packard dislikes, obviously calls for more deliberate government planning, more government investment policies, and more government ownership. Yet The Waste Makers approvingly quotes and echoes the warning of a conservative economist, Joseph Spengler, in the Harvard Business Review, that “to try to relieve intensified social and economic problems attending increased population by state intervention” will result in doing “‘what the followers of Marx have found themselves unable to do for all they tried—fasten fetters on mankind’” and suggests that increased “intervention by government to solve problems [such as wasteful consumption of natural reserves] that have grown beyond the possibility of solution by individual intervention” means the “curtailment of individual liberty.” (Close to a decade ago, Reinhard Bendix and I suggested that in academic research on status, sensitivity to nuances of status variation and snobbery seemed related to ideological conservatism.)

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The political philosophy underlying The Waste Makers is most apparent in its concluding section, where Mr. Packard reveals his preference for the simple, primitive, almost poverty-stricken life. He believes that those Americans who live deeply meaningful lives “recognize that there is only a modest connection between possessions and life’s satisfaction, except as possessions are able to corrupt.” He cites approvingly an unnamed sociologist who told him that “The happiest. most satisfying days of his married life were spent living in a trailer camp outside Atlanta soon after marriage. All the couple’s neighbors were as poor as they were. They all shared toilet and washing facilities and they shared a can of beer, he said, as if it were champagne.” Another example of the good life may be found on “the bleak Aran Islands of Ireland” where there is a “joyful, hospitable people who always have a welcome pot of tea ready for a visitor” and radiate “the essential pride and nobility of human beings who still come to grips with the cosmos instead of with artificial problems that people invent for themselves.” Mr. Packard himself likes best “the older New England villages that have changed relatively little.” “One of the wisest, gayest, most inspiring, and most courageous persons” he has met is “a woman in her seventies who lives alone by the sea in a lonely New England cottage,” where “she has no electricity, running water, or telephone. She chops her own wood, which she drags from the sea.” Mr. Packard’s life experience suggests to him that we would all feel better if we gave a higher priority to “greater humility and idealism . . . deeply cherished personal goals . . . strongly held . . . standards on what is good and evil . . .” and so on and so on.

These quotations concerning Mr. Packard’s version of the good society give us the ultimate clue to his success. Here is no radical critique of American capitalist commercial civilization, but a nostalgic rejection of a materialistic culture written for those who believe that the only good society was the pre-industrial, pre-commercial, agrarian civilization. This nostalgia for the primitive, the rural, and the small town, is, of course, the nostalgia of the wealthy ex-urbanite for a world in which he does not live; and who, further, though he feels guilty about all the abundance he shares, is still determined to keep it. He may read Consumers’ Reports, but he buys his Oldsmobile, or Lincoln, or Triumph. He conforms, but he loves to think of himself as a rebel. I suspect that Mr. Packard, like many of his readers, privately believes he favors some liberal or perhaps even radical political action. But any such prejudice is carefully hidden in this book which combines a critique of commercialism with an espousal of the verities advocated by Herbert Hoover. (In 1921 Hoover wrote a long essay analyzing and deploring “waste” in the American economy.) And this, as the market research boys will be happy to tell him, is a foolproof combination that sells books, the Daily News, Viceroys, and many other commodities. For all Americans can unite in the belief that the frontier civilization in which men were men and women were women, in which people wore homespun clothes, lived in simple log cabins, walked three miles to school, and did not fill up their lives with the empty possessions fostered on them by advertising agencies, was the culture that built America; and product X is just what they would have bought if it had been discovered a century earlier. I think that I will take a trip to Vermont in the near future to look at those villages in which our civilization still carries on with its virtues uncorrupted. But if I do, I will not find Mr. Packard. He chops his wood and drags his blocks of ice in ex-urban bliss in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

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Footnotes

1 A review of The Waste Makers by Vance Packard (David McKay Company, 340 pp., $4.50).

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