McDonaldization: A Mickey-Mouse Theory

Yesterday, I commented on how pathetic sociology is on the topic of big business marketing and its ongoing commercialization and commodification of modern life.

The most renowned sociologist trying to discuss matters in this vital area is George Ritzer of the University of Maryland.

Ritzer has started a mini-industry around his contention that “McDonaldization” is the proper concept for comprehending the course of events.  The basic idea is that McDonald’s restaurants are somehow (Ritzer has no empirical evidence of McDonald’s-copying; he merely asserts that it is happening) the driving essence of what’s happening to us.

Ritzer would have you believe that it’s all a question of runaway rationalization, a.k.a. generic bureaucracy, and that Max Weber, not Karl Marx, is the deepest theorist of our hyper-commercialized reality:

McDonaldization is an amplification and extension of Weber’s theory of rationalization, especially into the realm of consumption.  For Weber, the model of rationalization was the bureaucracy; for me, the fast food restaurant is the paradigm of McDonaldization.

And “McDonaldization,” a.k.a. bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy itself, is supposed to be “the paradigm” for “consumer culture,” a.k.a. the dominant trend in contemporary American life…

What a sophomoric mess! Ritzer seriously argues — and consequently draws along a substantial following of supposedly smart social critics — that everybody is running around inspired to be like McDonald’s, which he treats as a mere bureaucracy, rather than a profit-seeking business. All the while, not only does Ritzer uncritically adopt the rank capitalist bias-words “consumer” and “consumption,” but labors (and belabors) to extend them into even-worse conceptual morasses like “consumer culture” and “consumer society.”

The reality, of course, is that not only is the McDonald’s Corporation itself driven by marketing, but it is the 2-trillion-dollar-a-year (in the USA alone) discipline of big business marketing, not some random bureaucracy fetish, that is driving things forward across the whole society.

And corporate marketing is all about capitalism, not bureaucracy:

[M]arketing is both an art and a science, and like any other investment activity, it must be grounded in research, planned carefully, and measured and evaluated based on return on investment.

Ritzer not only understands none of this, but covers it all up with a deeply misleading shaggy dog story.  As a result, today’s sociology, supposedly the art and science of demystifying the institutional conditions of human life, could hardly be less helpful to those hoping to explain and redress our capitalist-dominated, market-totalitarian culture.

Big Business Marketing’s Simple Methods

Big business marketing was a trillion-dollar-a-year juggernaut by the early 1990s. It is almost certainly now a TWO-trillion-dollar-a-year juggernaut.

Big business marketing provides almost all the money for commercial television, which remains far and away the #1 shaper of people’s “free time,” mental databanks, and worldviews in the United States.

Contrary to academic jibber-jab about the complexity of “reading” advertisements, ,as a communications-maker, big business marketing operates almost exclusively via these 4 classic coercive behavior alteration tactics:

1. Lies (of both commission and omission)

2. Flattery

3. Threats

4. Brain-Conditioning (think Pavlov and his use of repetition and titillation to reform mental agendas)

Marketing is now so dominant, these tactics have come to govern not just the ads and promotions, but the actual TV shows, as well. These days, very few prime-time TV shows are NOT 100% intentional button-pushers, with underlying dramatic designs taken wholly from corporate marketers’ radically shriveled and demeaning approach to audiences.

Inequality Among “Consumers”

“Consumer” is a rotten word, a naked, vision-stunting bias parading as a basic, natural term of modern democratic life.  Whenever you hear yourself being called a “consumer,” you should reach for your gun.

Contrary to both mainstream dogma and received cultural-leftist/neo-Marcusian canon, access to commodities has never been anything like equal in the United States.  In fact, in this epoch of escalating income and wealth polarity, the newest statistics show that inequality among U.S. “consumers” is now at an all-time high.

Bradley Johnson of Advertising Age magazine’s “American Demographics” column reports:

Spending patterns vary from rich to poor.  The government’s latest Consumer Expenditure Survey shows spending by the top fifth of households (pretax income of $85,147-plus) rose 8.1% in 2005 vs. 2004.  That’s a bigger percentage boost than for any other income group.

The top fifth collected 50.4% of pretax income and accounted for a record 39% of consumer spending in 2005, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Those affluent households outspent the bottom three quintiles combined. Spending disparities have grown: The bottom fifth (pretax income below $17,579) did just 8.2% of 2005’s consumer spending, a record low.  (Advertising Age, January 15, 2007, p. 29)

As Johnson also notes, “[t]he affluent account for massive shares of spending in key categories.”  In the service of publicizing this reality and helping MR folks rethink “consumption,” I decided to calculate some of the key ratios.  The numbers signify the average spending of the richest 20 percent of U.S. households as a percentage of the averages among the poorest 20 percent and the middle 20 percent, respectively, in various “consumer” areas, all for the year 2005.

Housing: the richest quintile spends 3.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.1 times as much as the middle

New Vehicles: the richest quintile spends 19.2 times [not a typo!] as much as the poorest; 3.4 times as much as the middle

Dining Out: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Life Insurance, Social Security and Pensions: the richest quintile spends 28.8 times [not a typo] as much as the poorest; 3.9 times as much as the middle

Education: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as poorest; 5.7 times [not a typo] as much as the middle

Reading Material: the richest spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

Apparel: the richest quintile spends 4.3 times as much as the poorest; 2.4 times as much as the middle

Alcohol: the richest quintile spends 4.6 times as much as the poorest; 2.2 times as much as the middle

Overall “Consumer” Spending: the richest quintile spends 4.7 times as much as the poorest; 2.3 times as much as the middle

As you might guess, there is only one exception to this pattern: tobacco.  In that area, the richest quintile spent only 107% of what the poorest quintile spent, and only 74% of what the middle quintile spent.