The Century of Self: A Critical Look at Consumerism and Citizenship

Posted on November 1, 2015. Filed under: digital citizenship, Eci832, educational | Tags: , , , |

In last week’s #eci832 class, Alec Couros mentioned the documentary called Century Of The Self.

The Century Of The Self – Part 1 from AJ Mekky on Vimeo.

This week I watched part 1 of the show, and I am going to summarize and critique it.  I will use the same structure as my last post, the 3 Best Blog Posts I’ve Ever Read.

What It’s About: Century of The Self is a documentary about the shift in culture when Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory entered the thinking of the United States of America. He believed that “primitive sexual and aggressive forces are hidden deep inside the minds of all human beings. Forces which if not controlled, led individuals and societies to chaos and destruction.” His nephew, Edward Bernays basically took these principles and marketed them to America to create a culture of consumerism.  It was the first time in history where emotion and an act of will were connected to products. Advertising was no longer about rational logic and numbers, but rather emotion and desire. This premise has continued to permeate and drive marketing and advertising today.

What I Like About It: I liked that this documentary gave credit to Bernays and Freud where it was due. Their ideas more or less changed the face of North America’s goods market. The documentary gave specific examples of ways that culture began to change as a result of Freud’s theory; for example, the way cigarettes were advertised to women as torches of freedom.


Photo Credit: Classic Film

I also liked how the documentary used pictures and videos from a specific time period to help visualize what the narrator was talking about.  Even if the narrator was describing something specific, the directors used other black and white videos from the past to help those watching stay engaged.

What It Makes Me Think About: I found it interesting that after the first world war, the world essentially “flipped.” During the war, people were stressed, unstable and unsure…committed to only thinking of their survival.  Advertising was used as a practical measure to supply needs to users. An example of needs based advertising is:

shoe ad

Photo Credit:

However, after the war, people began to calm down emotionally; they were given the opportunity to relax and think of luxury.  They entered an emotional state where their feelings and desires could be capitalized on for profit. In what ways have we evolved since that time? Have we moved even further into luxurious thinking? Will our society ever get to a point where as a whole, we are not considered a consumeristic society?

I would argue that with the entrance of the digital world, our identities are now multifaceted in even more concentrated ways. Nathan Jurgenson’s article helped me to see that our phones are just digital extensions of ourselves. Companies are no longer advertising to just our emotions and desires; they are using our analytics, our spending, our memories and our social lives for profit adding to Bernay’s ideas. At the same time, we are advertising, promoting, and advancing products and ideologies through our usage and the ways that some products become part of our identities – for example the iPhone or Facebook.

As the “Century of Self” documentary went on it explained how Bernay’s efforts allowed democracy to shift. It quoted an American journalist who wrote this in 1927:

“A change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” 

After hearing this quote, I thought, “Wow. That could have been written in today’s newspaper!” This quote made me think of the Google+ conversation that began after Jenn Stewart-Mitchell wrote a blog post about how there’s no difference between citizenship and digital citizenship. She got me thinking about how citizenship has become less about others, and more about the “self.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 7.00.01 PM

Democracy used to be, at least in part, that people made decisions by thinking about what was best for the people/the need/the greater body. Now democracy seems to be limited to “majority wins.” The interesting part is that it is seemingly a majority of “singles”- those looking out for their own best interest.

In light of these thoughts, it is interesting to think about whether our culture’s digital obsession with “self” affected our recent election?  Have politicians shifted their political stances to include ideologies directed to individuals rather than groups? The documentary described Hoover as being the first American politician to connect money/advertisement with politics. How does that fit in today’s Canadian or American politics/digital identities? Who runs who? How much money was involved in advertising or connecting emotion to political ideology throughout the campaign?

Were Canadians swayed to vote for Trudeau because of social media? (Maybe he is ready!) Or was it an emotional push to not vote for Harper? Does this align with Freud/Bernay’s idea about aggressive inward emotional forces and how Canadian voters thought?


I saw this Newsroom clip today, and near the end, the actor (Jeff Daniels) has a speech that seems to idolize the old American understanding of citizenship. His claim that America isn’t the greatest country in the world is counterintuitive to the answer the situation seems to call for.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 7.46.49 PM

Click to watch the video on YouTube. Embedding features are disabled.

I think Daniel’s speech seems to push for a “country-first” attitude over a “me-first” attitude.  In the video, you can see that halfway through the character’s speech, audience members start taking out their cell phones and recording his answer. This is a perfect example of how today’s ideas are shared and transmitted the world over. While the argument could be made that we are living in a more individualistic society, this is a perfect example of how we are sharing and connecting with people in a way that has never been done before.

While Bernays’ ideologies redefined our consumeristic worldview and with it the way we perceived citizenship, perhaps we’ve reached a time when citizenship is being redefined again.

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One Response to “The Century of Self: A Critical Look at Consumerism and Citizenship”

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I wondered the same thing about “Me First” versus “Best for our Country” mentality with the most recent election. Conversations with both friends and family continuously revolved around personal benefits and never around what would be best for communities and society in general. A part of me thinks this has always been true, but a part of me thinks we, as a society, got lost in consumerism for a bit and I hope we are coming out of that stage.

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