Q&A: Professor’s consumerism research yields wide-audience book

By Joshua Madden
A&E Editor

Dr. James A. Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor, has studied consumerism in America and has revealed some of the secrets of marketers in his recent book “Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have In Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy.” Barnes & Noble on Waco Drive will be hosting a book signing for Roberts today from 7 to 9 p.m., but we decided to get an early start on the questions.

Question: What inspired you to write “Shiny Objects?”

Roberts: When I take a second to look back, I see that “Shiny Objects” has really been a lifelong work-in-progress. I grew up in a family that recycled and where my brothers and I were expected to earn money for the things we wanted.
Outside of the basics of food, shelter, underwear and socks, we worked to pay for everything else. I worked cutting grass and trees and doing odd jobs for an older gentleman by the time I was 11 years old. I also worked 80-hour weeks at the end of each summer when the corn came in for processing.
It was at these and many other similar jobs that I learned the true value of money. Along the way I may have complained about not having what others had, but it was a lesson that has stayed with me to this day.
After college, I worked as a stock broker and found that a life spent solely in the pursuit of money was not for me. A later stint in the consumer loan division of Norwest Banks opened my eyes to the devastating impact poor money management could have on individuals and their families.
For the past 15 years I have studied the psychology of consumer behavior, including the topics of materialism, compulsive buying and credit card abuse. I have always been fascinated with what many might call the dark side of consumer behavior.

Question: Your book includes an analysis of everything from Richard Nixon and the “Kitchen Debates” to Joel Osteen and the rise of mega-churches. How did you balance the various factors that went into a modern look at American consumerism?

Roberts: It wasn’t an easy task. Many factors have fed into the bloated levels of materialism we see in the U.S. today. It’s easy to point your fingers at marketers — we did spend $131 billion on advertising in 2010 — but that would be shortsighted and not entirely true. O.K., businesses (not just marketers) are responsible for two strategies that keep consumers coming back for more: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Many products are “designed for the dump” and last year’s models are passé for many American consumers.
A good argument can be made, that as humans, we have been programmed to consume. I discuss this topic in detail in chapter nine of the book. Chapter ten of the book, “Heaven Help Us: The Prosperity Gospel,” takes a close look at the role churches may play in promoting materialistic lifestyles. Has the consumer culture crept in to our church teachings? You’ll just have to read Chapter ten to find out.

Question: To follow that question, I found in reading “Shiny Objects” that it is distinctly an American book, despite the references to consumerism in other nations. Would you agree with this analysis? Why is it Americans seem to have a special relationship with consumerism?

Roberts: No doubt America is at the vanguard of consumerism. Our free enterprise economy encourages such behavior. But the current consumer ethos is not the American dream of our forefathers. Hard work, patience and sacrifice have been replaced with the desire for quick and easy riches.
The original subtitle for Shiny Objects was: “How America Lost Its Way on the Road to the American Dream and What it Can Do to Find Its Way Back.” I like the new subtitle better, but I think the former also does a nice job of summing up what’s happened in the U.S. over the past 40 to 50 years.

Question: Several of your examples in “Shiny Objects” are in a “Consumers Gone Wild” segment where you document specific instances of overspending. How did this segment develop?

Roberts: I wanted to be sure “Shiny Objects” was a fun read. So initially every chapter had two stories of Consumers Gone Wild (CGW). The CGWs show just how far some of us are willing to go in pursuit of our own special version of the American Dream. Americans will spend an estimated $58 billion on their pets in 2011, throw away 140 million cell phones, toss out 112,000 computers every day and yet 70 percent of us live paycheck to paycheck.

Question: A major aspect of the book — perhaps more than I expected — focuses on psychology and its impact on marketing and consumerism. Do you think there are psychological remedies to help combat consumerism beyond what you mention in the book? Do you think that certain remedies you suggest in the book might be particularly effective?

Roberts: The flow of “Shiny Objects” was designed very intentionally. As a marketer, I know that attitudes generally precede behavior. So the first two-thirds of the book offer the latest research that shows how and why money and possessions can’t buy happiness. In fact, Americans are more stressed out, anxious and depressed today than they were 40 years ago, despite an ever-increasing pile of possessions. The last third of the book offers practical advice on how to bolster the reader’s self-control and break the chains of materialism.

Question: I enjoyed how the book took a holistic approach to the subject and brought in references to such varied fields, including genetics and history. How did you get involved with these fields as a marketing professor? Was it through your research or through other independent work?

Roberts: I have always been keenly interested in the role genetics play in our behavior. The study of identical twins separated at birth that turned out to have eerily similar lives when reunited years later have always intrigued me. We are a product of both our genetics and environment, and both need closer attention when it comes to our behavior as consumers.
Recent research suggests that our nature impacts our environment. A fussy child engenders a much different response from its parents than a smiley, happy baby.
The “history” chapters (two and three) were written at the suggestion of my editor. It was very telling to chronicle how our behavior and attitudes about work, money, possessions and happiness have evolved since Americans first populated the shores of North America.

Question: Although there is very much an academic element to the book — you cite a high amount of research in the field — there are also a lot of personal anecdotes. How did these develop? How do you balance the more scholarly elements of the book with the humorous elements?

Roberts: I wanted the book to be accessible to a larger audience. I have written many scholarly articles on the topics of materialism, money and credit cards that were shared largely within the academic community. “Shiny Objects” was my attempt to offer an easy to read, sometimes humorous take on our struggles to find the proper balance of money, possessions, and happiness in our lives.
My hope is that people come away from reading “Shiny Objects” exclaiming, “I knew it all along — more stuff isn’t going to make me any happier. Now what can I do to start living a life of real meaning?” I have a business card for the book that I think says it best. It says, “Read my book. Change the world — beginning with you”.

Question: The subtitle of your book is “Why we spend money we don’t have in search of happiness we can’t buy” and the idea behind this is a motif that echoes throughout the book. How did this develop? Was this a thesis you went out to prove or was it something that was proven through your research? Perhaps a combination of the two?

Roberts: The research in the areas of materialism and happiness is pretty clear. People who are more materialistic are less happy than their less-materialistic counterparts. I really wanted to bring this field of study to the attention of the American people so they can make up their own minds about the role money and possessions will play in their lives.

Question: Towards the conclusion of the book, you discuss “The Heinz Dilemma,” a moral thought experiment designed to measure the reactions of participants. How would you say morality relates to consumerism in America? Why was this the note you choose to conclude on?

Roberts: Good question. Everything in life has its opportunity costs. When we spend the majority of our waking hours pursuing and consuming material objects we don’t spend it on activities that will make us happy. Reaching our full potential as humans, establishing loving relationships and getting involved in church and other social activities and causes are the real “stuff” of happiness. Money and possessions, if we let them, can get in the way of us achieving our full potential as human beings.

Question: Do you have any other projects at hand? Do you have any intention of working on other books?

Roberts: I am always working on several projects at any given time. Currently, I am looking at the role self-esteem plays in our behavior as consumers. When how we feel about ourselves is contingent upon the approval of others, as is often the case with materialism, our self-esteem is fragile and open to damage.
A healthy self-esteem is a key ingredient to living a happy life. In the end we all want to have lived lives of meaning and feel that our short time here on earth mattered. Removing the stumbling block of material possessions from our path can help us achieve such worthy pursuits.
For more information on “Shiny Objects,” readers can visit Dr. Roberts’ blog site for the book.