One book one of my classes is recently reading, The Suburban Christian, offered this simple method for measuring your consumption levels (or perhaps what you aspire to consume): look at the advertising and the goods for sale in the magazines that you subscribe to.
This reminds me of something I noticed a few months into my first subscription to The Atlantic. I like this magazine for its reporting and commentary but I noticed that the advertisements were for luxury items I had no hope of buying and had never really even dreamed of buying. These goods were on par with the commercials that suggest that buying your spouse a Lexus with a giant bow on the top is the appropriate Christmas present.
This diagnostic would seem to fit with Juliet Schor’s ideas in The Overspent American about reference groups. Schor argues that media, television in particular, has presented Americans in the last few decades with a distorted view of the middle class. The typical TV middle-class family lives in a large house, seems not have any financial problems or even worries, has all sorts of popular consumer objects, and it is hard to tell if they even work. The average American watches these kinds of shows and starts comparing themselves to these middle-class TV families and raising their consumer aspirations to match what they see. Similarly, magazine advertisements suggest a certain lifestyle or things that the average American needs. These pitches can have a subtle but marked impact on who we compare ourselves to and what we think we need.