Gabriel, Rami. (2013) Why I Buy: Self, Taste and Consumer Society in America


Main argument – In Why I Buy, Rami Gabriel offers a model of what constitutes the “default nature of the self” in America and suggests this general conception of the self leads Americans to consume the way they do.  He argues that this individualistic and expressive self has been constructed by historical, religious and psychological influences that have shaped American culture.  Gabriel suggests style and taste are natural expressions of this inner self and that Americans use consumption to reveal our inner selves to each other.

Part I

The first section of this book asks what is the “default nature” of the self and proposes a theoretical model.  Gabriel explores various dimensions of the self and claims our selves are characterized by dualism (mind and body), individualism (concern for self over collective others) and expressivism (hope and fears).  We are naturally drawn to consumption as expressions of taste that reveal our true inner selves to each other.

While the main argument is intriguing, the execution of the research is weak.  In the introduction Gabriel admits the subject of this book falls outside the scope of his regular area of expertise.  His model of the self provides the core contribution of the text but, although trained as a psychologist, Gabriel draws mainly from historical and philosophical texts instead of engaging with sociological and psychological theory.  Here he barely scratches the surface and the result is a basic text book survey condensing two thousand years of thought into convenient sound bites to support his overall argument.

Chapter 4 outlines the structural causes behind our current value systems by exploring the history of marketing and consumer culture.  The book jacket promises “an analysis of the psychological roots of consumer society in America” but, while Gabriel engages key historical and cultural texts, this section merely provides a surface review of literature lacking in thoughtful analysis or unique insight.

Part II

Advertisements are successful because they appeal to the “default nature of the self” by portraying myths that appeal to the American values of dualism, individualism and expressivism. Here he provides a very basic overview of semiology based on Judith Williamson and then explains how “default nature of the self” is also a myth ?????  Gabriel maintains that advertisements act as mirrors that reflect the true nature of the self in any given culture and can be “read” to uncover that culture’s conception of the self.

Chapter 6 provides an empirical study intended to prove his model of the default nature of the self in North America.  He compares American ads to ads in France and Egypt.  Gabriel maintains that advertisements act as mirrors that reflect the true nature of the self in any given culture and can be “read” to uncover that culture’s conception of the self.  As evidence, he compares American ads to ads in France and Egypt.  While he advocates semiotic theory for understanding advertisements in the first part of the book, Gabriel’s study instead employs quantitative content analysis.  After coding each ad for elements of myth relating to dualism, individualism and expressivism, Gabriel concludes that American ads rank significantly higher on these characteristics than those in France and Egypt.  This, he claims, proves his model of the default nature of the self in America.  While I agree that adertisements can reflect core cultural values, they can also shape them. This study does not prove that individualism and expressivism are our “default” natures.  It is just as possible that advertisements, over the last century, have trained us to identify as indivualist and expressivist to generate need for products and services.  Many undergraduates will attest that correlation does not equal causality.

 

Essentially this text provides an informative summary of key works and theories in the study of advertising and consumerism but little is offered in the way of analysis or new insight.  The book jacket promises “an analysis of the psychological roots of consumer society in America” but Gabriel’s text functions as a review of literature for newcomers to the field and does not add in any significant way to ongoing debates within the field.

 

****If Why I Buy was condensed into an article based on the study in chapter 6 it might be more useful?

****Reads more like a master’s thesis than an academic text.

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One thought on “Gabriel, Rami. (2013) Why I Buy: Self, Taste and Consumer Society in America

  1. Pingback: Miller, Daniel. (2012) Consumption and Its Consequences | Cheryl Williams

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