Contesting the Formative Power of Consumer Culture: Problems, Resources, Possibilities

[1] One of the most insidious aspects of the omnipresent advertising and branding that rule the lives of children and youth is the way it perpetuates a vastly diminished understanding of life in human society. Advertising portrays a world in which there is no poverty, there are no workers (and if there are workers, they are happy and never face injustice), and products are freely available, emerging ex nihilo without industrial effort or environmental impact. Now, advertising exists to sell products, and is therefore not obligated to present the world with any degree of economic verisimilitude. But when children and youth — anyone, really — are constantly immersed in the world as imagined in advertising, there are effects that extend far beyond the increase of sales, to the ordering of our shared life in society and the exercising (or not) of our responsibilities in society. It is these effects to which we must urgently attend, with all the theo-ethical and political resources at our disposal.

[2] The first of these effects is to obscure the global systems that produce and distribute the goods and services being advertised. In most cases, the sources of the things we are encouraged to buy are kept entirely invisible: where and in what conditions a product is made and delivered are simply not ask-able or answerable in the world offered to us by commercials. And where the sources are (partially) explained, it is generally for the sake of reassuring consumers that they are ethically unobjectionable. According to advertising, products have no sources — and we need not worry about them if they do.

[3] Now, within this obscuring of the economic systems of production, there are two specific dimensions. Their omission is intensified directly in proportion to the range and depth of moral issues that would need to be confronted if they were openly engaged: labor and the environment. Heartwarming images abound of small-scale farms producing food or factory workers guaranteeing quality and safety, but the low-wage work of the industrial agriculture that yields much of the food eaten by people in the US, and the sweatshop conditions of many factories that make the clothing, toys, electronics and many other products targeted to children and youth are left invisible. In a parallel manner, while environmentally sustainable practices are increasingly highlighted for all sorts of products, the environmental degradation inherent in their production — from hyper-deforestation to exhaustion of water supplies, and much more — is never made clear.

[4] By promoting the spending of money for the buying of products, without acknowledging the human and environmental destruction that make those products available to us at all, advertising functions as a particular kind of curriculum. It makes some issues and questions come alive for us (primarily what we should want to buy and why), while pushing others into the background. It offers us terms and frameworks for understanding how the world works — un-problematically available products, happy workers, and undamaged environments — and this choice precludes alternative explanations. Most of all, advertising and the whole consumer culture of which it is part train us to imagine that we can, and should, act in the world in certain ways but not in others.

[5] This last “curricular” function of advertising is perhaps the most damaging of all, and a particular threat to children and youth. Consumer culture purports to its viewers and listeners that they have no other roles to play — in economic systems that are mostly obscured anyway — than desiring, buying, possessing, and conspicuously enjoying things. Advertising trains people from their earliest years to act by means of consumption. It constantly reinforces that fulfillment, happiness, and good relationships are best mediated by having things. Indeed, advertising increasingly markets a happy life full of leisure and success itself as much as the product being sold.1 Consumer culture cultivates a self-understanding that the most important way one can act in the world is through buying. This comes at the expense of any sense of the meaningfulness of actions such as questioning the way economic systems operate, caring for those who are harmed by them, or organizing for the common good.

[6] Thus, advertising is a curriculum that, beginning with children and youth, reductively de-forms both a full understanding of how economic systems work and any sense of agency to affect these systems other than through further consuming. Against this highly effective and pervasive de-formative training, Christian communities must pursue an active counter-formation. The best counter-formation against consumer culture will be a comprehensive formation for economic justice. Now if, as I have suggested, the problem lies equally in de-formed understandings of economic systems and de-formed senses of agency to change them, then counter-formation for economic justice must involve both coming to alternative awareness and living out that awareness in concrete ways. For each of these tasks, I want to identify some starting points, drawing on the ELCA’s collective efforts for the first and on a case-study in my teaching for the second. The challenge remains, however, for us as a whole church to develop from these starting points a curriculum of counter-formation for economic justice that is robust enough to challenge the power of consumer culture.

[7] For the work of counter-forming an understanding of the economic systems that surround us, the ELCA has already carefully crafted a powerful set of resources that allow people to perceive what consumer culture intends to obscure. I am referring to the extensive body of social policy related to economic life that this church has adopted over the past two decades. Above all, the ELCA Social Statement on Economic Life, Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, offers a rich vantage point from which to understand the workings of economic systems, from material sufficiency, to worker justice, to eliminating poverty and hunger. This Social Statement acknowledges the complexity of bringing a Christian theo-ethical awareness into economic matters. Witness, for instance, its recognition that “[w]hile a market economy emphasizes what individuals want and are willing and able to buy, as people of faith we realize that what human beings want is not necessarily what they need for the sake of life.”2 Moreover, the Statement challenges members of this church through specific commitments and calls to action, both within the church and broader society.

[8] Alongside Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, other policy documents related to economic life question the world as it is imagined in advertising. The Social Statement on the Environment, for instance, recognizes “excessive consumption by industrialized nations” as one of the main drivers of environmental degradation, and recommends the practice of “environmental tithing,” in which individuals “reduce their burden on the earth’s bounty by producing ten percent less in waste, consuming ten percent less in non-renewable resources, and contributing the savings to earthcare efforts.”3 The Social Statement on Health and Health Care commits this church to work towards the goal of “equitable access to basic health care for all people,” which persists as a central economic issue in the US and throughout the world.4 Even the ELCA’s intensely deliberated Social Statement on Human Sexuality — which has received more attention on the matter of same-gender relationships — includes a strong stance on sexual consumerism: “This church notes with grave concern the public commodification of the human body as an economic asset. The sexual body is never to be used as an object for commercial purposes…. Especially deplorable are the billion-dollar global sex market and the economic systems that thrive on it, both in the United States and abroad.”5

[9] Across the ELCA’s social policy on many topics, then, there is a thoroughgoing analysis of economic systems that refuses the hyper-reductive vision peddled in advertising, in favor of recognizing the myriad ways economic systems can harm people and the environment and calling for just action on the part of all actors in the economic domain. However, this powerful witness is limited in its reach to children and youth. We in the ELCA have not channeled the analytical power of our social policy on economic matters into learning materials that are accessible to children and youth. Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All is not readable by a third-grader (and, to be fair, it was not written to be thus readable): but given that advertising already constrains the ethical imaginations of third-graders, then the principles of Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All and in our other social statements must be rendered in forms that will reach third-graders with as much impact as commercials for the latest toy or video game. We need to translate our social policy on economic matters into a comprehensive curriculum for children and youth at all age-levels.6 Wherever this church deems it appropriate to teach age-appropriate lessons from the Bible, it should also be teaching the economic vision that is the most prevalent vernacular in our “first language of faith.” The work of producing such a curriculum is massive and must now (given the budgetary crises of broader church bodies) fall to local members and congregations cooperating with one another across the country, but it is necessary as a next step in counter-formation against consumer culture and for economic justice.

[10] There remains a second, overarching task for such counter-formation of children and youth and all Christians: generating a deep sense of agency to change economic systems. I offer here an example of this second task drawn from my own teaching, as an illustration of several principles that can guide the creation of multiple learning activities that make the crucial move from understanding to action. At Austin College (a small liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), an ecumenical partner of the ELCA), I teach a course called “Figuring Out Who You Are.” In it my students and I explore various dimensions of identity and how they are shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political structures. For several weeks, we read the book Ain’t No Makin’ It, by Jay MacLeod, who was training in sociology when he first wrote the book and is now an Anglican parish priest in the United Kingdom.7 The book chronicles the lives of two groups of men from their adolescence to middle-adult years. Both groups grow up in the same low-income neighborhood of a major US city, but one group is predominantly white and the other predominantly black. MacLeod explores each group’s different motivations for trying to succeed, as well as the structural factors that inhibit their success. I chose the book especially because MacLeod does a magnificent job allowing the men’s own voices to be heard, expressing their experiences with poverty, racism, and educational inequality.

[11] The last few sessions dedicated to the book included a time when students worked in teams to prepare a poster presenting a concrete program to intervene in the neighborhood portrayed in the book. Each team was required to identify some specific socioeconomic structures that restricted the men’s opportunities. They then designed programs that would help break through these obstacles and expand the opportunities available to children and youth in the neighborhood. Proposals ranged from comprehensive community centers that integrated recreation, health care, nutrition, and education, to educational programs that incentivized staying in school in various ways, to internship programs that would open up many avenues to real middle-class careers through in-depth mentoring. In the final session, each team presented its proposal to the class. Then, each individual student changed roles and acted as a “funder,” allocating a portion of fictional currency to any project (other than their own) that they felt had the greatest creativity or likelihood of effectiveness.

[12] From this activity, I want to propose several principles for designing learning activities that can cultivate a sense of agency in children and youth to change economic systems (rather than simply participating in them as consumers). First, these learning activities should be grounded in the first-person experiences of economically marginalized people. MacLeod’s book allowed my students to imagine people of the same age who were navigating similar life — choices under profoundly dissimilar life — chances. Not only is a “first-person” foundation more accessible for children and youth (and many adults), it encourages thinking about economic problems as a matter of creating more just relations with real human beings, rather than instituting abstract reforms. Powerful first-person accounts are available in a number of age-appropriate forms. For young adults and adolescents, a number of the vignettes in ELCA pastor Heidi Neumark’s Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx could be a beginning. For elementary age children, a book such as Diana Cohn’s ¡Sí, SePuede! Yes We Can!: Janitor Strike in LA could be an appropriate source.8 There are many options for children and youth, but the point is to begin with the real-life experiences of those who are marginalized by present economic structures.9

[13] A second principle is that children and youth must be trained to think in terms of economic systems and not merely individual choices. Consumer culture leads people to believe that economics is only a matter of individual choices. But each individual choice, no matter how small, is made possible only through and within whole systems that determine who has access to what material goods, at what price, with what degree of inequality, and with what consequences for labor and the environment. Systemic thinking is an important counterweight to the common tendency of Christian communities to focus energies on alleviating the symptoms of economic injustice rather than disrupting its causes.10 Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All calls on Lutherans to engage in change at the levels of both direct service and policy systems, which is reflected in the fact that the ELCA both sustains a vast network of social ministry organizations and pursues the enactment of more just policies by local, state, and national governments and international bodies.11

[14] A third principle is that activities should encourage children and youth (as well as adults) to practice concrete actions that will allow them to transform economic systems toward greater justice. In the activity I described, students had to propose concrete solutions that, according to the best of their understanding, would have a chance of effectively reshaping the opportunities available to youth in low-income neighborhoods. In the “funding” phase of the project, they then had to evaluate each other’s proposals in terms of likely effectiveness and make decisions to support specific options. Many of the concrete steps that are fruitful to practice in learning activities are those in which ELCA congregations have participated through congregation-based community organizing networks.12 ELCA pastor Dennis Jacobsen describes these practices in Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing.13 For instance, one-on-one interviews to assess community needs are at the heart of congregation-based community organizing; youth in a confirmation class could read about this kind of interview in Jacobsen, and then undertake a project of one-on-ones in the congregation to identify new directions for ministry.

15] The preceding discussion does not, of course, exhaust either the possibilities or the necessities for a comprehensive counter-formation for economic justice over against the power of consumer culture. It does, however, give us some sense of the breadth of the challenge before those who have responsibility for forming children and youth to live responsibly within the complex economic systems of the present — that is, the challenge before every member of the church, in the broadest sense. The structure of contemporary society does not allow for children and youth to opt out of the ubiquitous and powerful consumerist identity of which advertising is the core curriculum. Whether we take up the work of offering a meaningful counter-formation against consumer culture is a sign of our trust in God’s promise of “a world where there is enough for everyone, if only we would learn how to use and share what God has given for the sake of all.”14


1. It must be strenuously noted here that advertising’s effects fall differently on children and youth of different economic levels. For instance, advertising encourages children and youth in middle- and upper-income families to imagine that most people have the level of material security that they have, while it communicates to children and youth in lower-income families that their lives are not as fulfilled and that they themselves are not as valuable to society.

2. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, A Social Statement on Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1999), 4.

3. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, A Social Statement on Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1993), 4, 9.

4. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, A Social Statement on Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2004), 18.

5. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2009), 34.

6. An outstanding secular analogue to the kind of curriculum I have in mind is the “Popular Economics Education” program of the group United for a Fair Economy, which focuses on supporting social movements that promote shared prosperity and genuine equality of opportunity; see (accessed December 27, 2011).

7. Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2008).

8. Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (Boston: Beacon, 2003); Diana Cohn, ¡Sí, SePuede! Yes We Can!: Janitor Strike in LA, illus. Francisco Delgado (El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2005).

9. This is consistent with the ELCA’s call in Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, for “scrutiny of how specific policies and practices affect people and nations that are the poorest, and changes to make policies of economic growth, trade, and investment more beneficial to those who are poor” (6).

10. The activity I described did encourage proposals that were largely a kind of direct service. However, I challenged students to think more systemically by requiring them to analyze structural dynamics in which they wanted to intervene and how their proposal would transform whole communities, not just individual participants. The activity can and should be expanded to encourage even further systemic thinking.

11. Another resource (and first-person account) for thinking through the difference between direct service and systemic change is Peter Gathje, Sharing the Bread of Life: Hospitality and Resistance at the Open Door Community (Atlanta: Open Door Community, 2006).

12. The ELCA has a website of links relevant to Lutherans engaging or interested in congregation-based community organizing: (accessed Dec. 27, 2011).

13. Dennis Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001).

14. Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, 4.

Jeremy D. Posadas

Jeremy D. Posadas is a tenure-track instructor of religious studies at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, and a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.