October 30, 2020

Credit: Jamie Garbutt / Getty Images

Years of good marketing may have convinced us that life isn’t complete without a junk drawer, overflowing closet or unusable garage. Now, according to historian Wendy Woloson, Americans are suffering from the outright “crapification” of their lives. So where do we go from here? And how do we clear out that closet?

Woloson, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University Camden and author of “Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America,” says our relationship with junk goes way back. We’re naturally drawn to possessions for “our comfort, for our safety, for our sense of identity,” she explains. But Americans’ modern courtship with cheap goods began in the late 19th century as manufacturing geared up and trade networks went global. Enter plastic toys, collectible spoons, old erasers and gift store knickknacks. They’re all souvenirs from a long journey of capitalism and consumption.

Three Takeaways:

  • Infomercials and advertisements often “create a problem where it didn’t exist” and a need for unnecessary products, Woloson argues. Marketing campaigns convince us these new products will change our lives, but, she says, they frequently create more problems than they solve. 
  • Cheap toys and free gifts are tactics to capture consumers young and keep them for life, notes Woloson. Back in 1910, Cracker Jack popcorn adopted this strategy, including small toys as a sweet bonus in caramel corn snacks. “If you can get kids from an early age, you can buy their loyalty very cheaply and for, theoretically, a very long time,” she says.
  • Big box stores make their money by tempting customers with lots of cheaply made, low-quality items sold all in one place, according to Woloson. She says these companies frequently just pay their staff enough to afford “the junk” from their own stores. It’s a tactic meant to “keep them in [a] cycle of exploitation and degradation,” she believes.

More Reading:

  • Instagram recently cracked down on influencers who use their platform to do paid promotions. Spurred by a UK Competition and Markets Authority investigation, Instagram will force celebrities and influencers worldwide to make advertisements aimed at the British public more obvious. The Guardian has more here
  • The pandemic has changed how we shop, explains this CNBC piece. Malls are closing, home goods sales are up, and online orders have skyrocketed — but there’s still a good amount of crap being brought home. 
  • This piece in The New Republic looks into growing economic inequality and the future of consumption. Will spending swing back up? Will we spiral into global recession? Or, will COVID help us shake our materialistic habits? Author Frank Trentmann explores it all.

Junk, Wendy Woloson, capitalism, Crap, Materialism

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