The Media Education Foundation’s film Shop ‘Til You Drop: The Crisis of Consumerism is a refreshingly contemporary and interdisciplinary peek into the machinery of American consumerism and advertising. Though it sees no end in sight to our appetite for overconsumption, it documents an end to the capacity of our planet, with its limited resources, to sustain that appetite.
To set the stage, we hear a dizzying staccato recitation by Juliet Shor, author of Born to Buy—all the objects in a typical middle class home—as we kaleidoscope through stuff.
The first half of the film focuses on the psychological impacts of consumerism: how the media and advertisers bombard us and how their techniques manipulate our desires, making us believe that we need much more than we actually do.
If you play soft music to cows, they give more milk. If you play music to shoppers, they buy more stuff. The many talking heads in the film— professors, authors, mental health professionals, and leaders of the Voluntary Simplicity movement—suggest that we need to step out of the Matrix and learn to make choices for ourselves. Otherwise, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
Once upon a time, we consumed conspicuously because we wanted our neighbors to see what we had; the paradigm was local social comparison. Today, the reference frame has expanded. It’s moved from the roughly egalitarian neighborhood of the folks on your block to the national “neighborhood” of televised affluence. There’s rising anxiety in our culture as people continuously compete to live like the wealthy.
The second half of the film swings to a more ecological perspective, straightforwardly addressing the issue of how the consumerist drive of developed nations is using up or harming–even destroying–our most precious resources. In the process, we may well be sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
Shop ‘Til You Drop is more than a useful tool for the overshopper; it’s a much-needed wake-up call for all of us. The film encourages us to see that the habit of “keeping up with the Joneses”—whether they live next door or in the fantasy world of television and other media—misuses our lives and our planet. It offers us some perspective and invites us to step back and reassess our values and goals.