conservation media

On consumerism and rioting

Yesterday I spent my lunch break browsing the official enquiry report on last year’s riots, so that I could comment intelligently on LBC Radio. I was talking about consumerism, which the report dedicates a whole chapter to as a reason for the riots.

“The riots were particularly characterised by opportunistic looting” says the report from the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel. “The majority of shops targeted stocked high value consumer products – clothes, trainers, mobile telephones and computers.”

There are obviously a broad range of factors involved in the rioting, including parenting failures and family breakdown, social exclusion, and anti-social behaviour generally – most of those charged with offenses had previous convictions, as it turns out. But consumerism was a factor too, as people spotted the opportunity to grab things that they have repeatedly been told they need, and probably deserve, but inconveniently can’t afford.

When the panel surveyed affected neighbourhoods, 77% of people believed that there is too much advertising aimed at young people. It’s a finding that echoes previous research. The Children’s Society found that 89% of people think children are more materialistic than previous generations. In their investigation into the commercialisation of childhood, Compass discovered that more three year olds know the McDonalds logo than know their own surname.

The problem with pervasive branding is that as children grow up surrounded by brands, they learn to identify themselves with them and by them – to the brands’ delight no doubt. We are encouraged to shape our identity through what we own, particularly what we wear. We develop a brand consciousness, and use it to evaluate our own worth as individuals, and the worth of others. We become critically aware that our trainers or mobile phone aren’t the latest, that others’ are better than ours. Our trainers become the standard by which we are judged. If they’re cheap, we are worth less as people – someone others don’t want to be seen with.

If you’re on a low income, you’re automatically priced out of this game. Or you’re forced into compromises, spending less money on other things in order to prioritise conspicuous consumption. If you cannot afford the goods that supposedly make us better people, and TV and the media remind you of your inferiority on a daily basis, it’s hardly surprising that people took the opportunity to loot them when they could.

The report makes a variety of suggestions about how to improve this situation. The one that gets the most attention is Corporate Social Responsibility – encouraging the brands to give something back. This is all well and good, but it is actually likely to reinforce the positive images the brands are cultivating and do nothing to lower people’s acquisitive individualism. They also flag up ‘responsible capitalism’, a phrase politicians have been brandishing earlier this year.

A better idea in the report is that the Advertising Standards Authority should help to educate children about marketing techniques. Schools could teach media awareness and personal resilience.

We should do that, but we can do more. We should follow Sweden’s lead and ban all advertising to children under 12. It’s been illegal in Sweden since 1991, and it wouldn’t kill us (or our economic growth, God forbid) to ease the pressure on children to consume. We can reclaim public space from advertising, and restrict new forms of ads, measures I’ve described before.

Ultimately we need a change of culture, and it will be slow. But if we start with children, we can nurture different values – community, character, intrinsic self-worth. Perhaps the next generation will grow up more resistant to consumerism, and less aggressive in their need to have branded stuff.


  1. Interesting ideas. You probably know this book already, but I’ve just started reading No Logo by Naomi Klein, which picks up a lot of these issues relating to brands. I got the 10th annivsary edition, but it’s still as relevant as ever.

  2. Yes, No Logo is required reading on this topic.

    I wasn’t aware of the Swedish law. Nearly every time I hear something about that country, I am impressed. How have they managed to get so many things right?

  3. A small and fairly homogenous population is the usual answer for why the Nordic countries are able to sustain a progressive agenda for so long, usually doubling up for an excuse why we couldn’t. I think there’s more to it than that. I think they’ve developed a rather different model of capitalism which has much more room for the public good.

    It’s been years since I read No Logo. I might pick up the 10 year edition and read it again.

    1. Having now been to Oslo (increasingly a multicultural city, with something like 25% of its inhabitants born outside Norway, from memory), I did a little research into the “fairly homogenous” claim that is often thrown around. I can’t find the stats I came across back then, but Wikipedia says: “According to Eurostat, in 2010, there were 1.33 million foreign-born residents in Sweden, corresponding to 14.3% of the total population.” and then “At the time of the most recent UK census, conducted in April 2001, 8.3 per cent of the country’s population were foreign-born.[2] This was substantially less than that of major immigration countries such as Australia (23 per cent), Canada (19.3 per cent) and the USA (12.3 per cent).[3] Figures for each census since 1951 are given in the table below. In 2010, the foreign-born population was estimated at 11.6 per cent, compared to a European Union average of 8.6 per cent.[4][5] In 2010, there were 7.0 million foreign-born residents in the UK, corresponding to 11.3% of the total population. Of these, 4.76 million (7.7%) were born outside the EU and 2.24 million (3.6%) were born in another EU Member State.[6]”

      As for size, if that is true, then this would be another case of “small(er) is beautiful” and another arrow in the quiver of the Scottish independence movement.

    2. So in short, I’m agreeing that those usual explanations don’t go very far. Yes, there are also resource questions (plentiful hydro for Norway/Sweden and the huge revenues from North Sea oil for Norway), but these don’t explain the whole region.

      The striking differences in their mode of capitalism seems to be the most plausible primary factor.

  4. Inequality is a major factor, I reckon. Where you have high inequality, people are suspicious of those at the other end of the spectrum, and that makes it politically difficult to ask anyone to make a personal sacrifice for the sake of society. The Scandinavian countries, generally speaking, have a much more equal spread of wealth – helped, in Norway at least, by some very well stewarded oil revenues.

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