According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the size of the average American house more than doubled between 1950 and 1999. Between 1982 and 2004 alone, new single-family homes grew some 40 percent larger — from 1,690 square feet to 2,366 square feet. In the meantime, the size of the average American household shrank from 3.3 people to 2.6 people. What’s going on?
The answer is, I think, that we Americans have fallen hook, line and sinker for the Big Marketing Lie. For decades we’ve been pummeled by advertising urging us to buy more, more, more — a relentless drumbeat that carefully reinforces the idea that our happiness is directly proportional to the size, cost and number of things we own.
This mind-numbing message grew exponentially more shrill with the advent of television, and it’s being further amplified by the Internet, which makes it possible for us to shop our duffs off even while we’re still sitting on them. Not even the present economic troubles have seriously slowed our mania for consumption.
Inevitably, the dual mantras of marketing — "More is more," and "Bigger is better" — have worked their way clear up to the single-biggest purchase most consumers ever make: their homes. This is one reason why today’s smaller families still feel compelled to purchase ever-larger houses, even if they have to commute an extra 50 miles to afford them.
Yet whether we’re talking about televisions, cars or houses, a moment’s reflection will quickly reveal who really benefits from rampant materialism — not those who buy consumer products, but rather those who make them.
The reason is so obvious it’s almost funny: Owning two wide-screen TVs certainly doesn’t make us twice as happy, but it does quite plainly bring the seller twice the profit.
Likewise, homebuyers quickly learn that owning a gigantic house can be more of a headache than a pleasure, but by then the seller’s money is safely in the bank.
Perhaps there is a point when too much really is too much. We’ve all seen that bumper sticker beloved by the terminally empty-headed: "He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins." It’s a testament to the thoroughness with which Madison Avenue has brainwashed consumers into equating material goods with happiness.
Yet few intelligent Americans would profess that owning a huge house, a boat and a couple of Escalades has made their lives any happier. Some might even confess to the opposite effect. Still, we seem unable to shake off the siren song of materialism and see it for the profiteering sham it is.
There was a time, long ago, when Americans were frugal, inventive and could do a lot with very little. But years of prosperity, coupled with the relentless urging to buy more, more, more, have made too many of us complacent, over-entitled and obsessed by material goods beyond all else.
Frank Lloyd Wright once observed: "Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions." Today, it’s not just the wealthy who are so afflicted. Rich and poor, left and right, in good times and bad — we Americans are becoming little more than serfs to our limitless craving for stuff.
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