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New Drexel Course on Affluenza and Consumer Culture is Open to the Public

The new course will provide students with a broad, interdisciplinary overview of critical, historical and practical issues pertaining to branding, marketing and consumerism.

January 12, 2015

As the dust settles after the chaos of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the holiday shopping season, it’s the perfect time to take a closer look at America’s consumer culture, including ‘affluenza,’ the so-called epidemic of overconsumption. In a new course, called “Studying Consumerism,” offered by the Department of Communication in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, students—and a limited number of alumni and members of the general public—can do just that.

The winter term course, which runs from Jan. 5 – March 21, will provide students with a broad overview of critical, historical and practical issues pertaining to consumerism as well as branding and marketing. Each week, students will attend a lecture by a guest speaker highlighting a key issue or development in the consumer marketplace. Speakers will include faculty members from across the university as well as special guests, discussing topics ranging from consumerism in health care to how public spaces are consumed and current trends in consuming clothing.

Devon Powers, PhD, director of communication undergraduate programs and an associate professor of communication in the College of Arts and Sciences, is teaching the course.
Devon Powers, PhD, director of communication undergraduate programs and an associate professor of communication in the College of Arts and Sciences, is teaching the course.

“Consumer culture is a growing area of interest and research across a broad range of disciplines,” said Devon Powers, PhD, director of communication undergraduate programs and an associate professor of communication in the College of Arts and Sciences, who is teaching the course. “For that reason, we chose to make this course an interdisciplinary seminar, involving a number of units and disciplines across the university. The students, who also hail from a range of colleges and majors, will really be team-taught by some of the best minds at Drexel on these issues.”

The course also includes classroom discussions and activities, reading and writing assignments and an end-of-term interdisciplinary project that explores some problem of the contemporary American consumerism. Students’ final projects will include an interactive component that will take place on campus in early March. Possible projects could include a protest or other form of activism; developing a pitch or prototype; the branding or rebranding of a Drexel service or unit; or staging a debate, panel discussion or movie screening.

Required reading for the course includes the books “Buyology: The Truth and Lies of Why We Buy” (Crown Business, 2010) by Martin Lindstrom and “Affluenza: How Overconsumption is Killing Us – And How to Fight Back” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014) by John de Graaf, David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor.

The hybrid course also includes an online component, and students will keep an online journal that chronicles their own consumption habits as well as responds to ideas raised in the lectures and reading.

Powers believes that the course will appeal to a broad audience. “The things we’ll be covering this term impact all of us, so this is really a class that has the potential to have broad general interest,” she said.

“We’re all consumers in various areas of our lives, from the clothes we wear to the doctors we choose to manage our health care and even in our own educations and workplaces.”

Class sessions take place on Monday evenings from 6 – 7:30 p.m. in room 108 of the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building (33rd and Chestnut Streets). Approximately 15 seats in each class session will be open to members of the public, free of charge (members of the public are not eligible for academic credit for the course). To attend, please RSVP to Devon Powers at djp74@drexel.edu.

“Through this course, I hope students will become more critical consumers,” Powers said. “I also am hopeful that this will start broader conversations across the campus and our community about what it means to be a consumer, why thinking critically about consumer culture is important and whether thinking like a consumer is always the best way to meet our needs. I would love for this course to spark more research projects among faculty and students on these issues.”

The full schedule of class sessions is below:

Week One, Jan. 5

Introduction and lecture by Powers

Week Two, Jan. 12     
“From Patient to Consumer: Examining the Rise of Consumerism in Health Care”
Lecture by Philip Massey, PhD, assistant professor of community health and prevention, School of Public Health

With the continuing transition from patient to consumer and the growing prevalence of chronic illness, how people seek, obtain and evaluate health information becomes increasingly important when managing one’s health and preventing the onset of chronic disease, especially given the increased access to and use of digital and other new technologies.

Week Three, Jan. 19                
No class on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Week Four, Jan. 26       
“Packaging Spaces”
Lecture by Debjani Bhattacharyya, PhD, assistant professor of history and politics, College of Arts and Sciences
This lecture will highlight how, increasingly, urban spaces like parks, neighborhoods, malls, water-front areas, esplanades, airports and plazas are used and “consumed” as spaces of leisure in cities across Asia. Such packaging of spaces results in the creation of new economies, while at the same time displacing older forms of livelihoods.

Week Five, Feb. 2         
“New Media, Same Ideals: Pitchfork Media and the Ideology of Consumerism”      
Lecture by Jordan McClain, PhD, assistant teaching professor of communication, Communication, College of Arts & Sciences
This lecture will examine online videos from Pitchfork Media to better understand the ways in which consumerism is evident in influential, music-related Web content.

Week Six, Feb. 9
“Vinyl Solution: Material Music Culture in a Digital Age”
Lecture by Darren Walters, assistant teaching professor in the music industry program, Westphal College of Media Arts & Design
In 2013, overall recorded music sales were down, yet vinyl sales were up for the sixth consecutive year from 4.55 to 6 million copies. This class asks the question “What is it about this physical format in a digital age that appeals to consumers?”

Week Seven, Feb. 16              
“Wearing Whatever”
Lecture by Brent Luvass, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences
Fashion theorists have long depended on two intertwined assumptions to make sense of the way people dress: 1) that the clothing people wear says something meaningful about them, and 2) that clothing does important work in distinguishing one person from another. But what if the people we study put little thought into what they wear and why they wear it? What if people profess to just throw on “whatever,” lending little weight or significance to their choice in adornment? This talk will draw from two years of taking street-style portraits and conducting street interviews in Center City, Philadelphia, to discuss current trends in the culture of consuming clothes.

Week Eight, Feb. 23                  
“Disrupting Business as Usual: Student Consumerism and Rise of the Close School of Entrepreneurship”

Lecture by Joseph Master, director of communications, Close School of Entrepreneurship
The Close School of Entrepreneurship was founded to address a very real market demand — an extremely competitive global workforce that values initiative, independence and the intellectual dexterity to rethink old ways of doing things and invent new ones. In this talk, students will learn how the Close School is preparing students from all academic disciplines to enter the job market on solid footing — and make their own opportunities.

Week Nine, March 2
“Purchasing Corporate Values”
Lecture by Daniel Korschun, PhD, assistant professor of marketing, LeBow College of Business
For many purchase decisions, people look at more than just the product. They consider what the company stands for. This talk will be about customers buying the values of the corporation.

Week Ten, March 9
Lecture by Mimi Sheller, PhD, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy, College of Arts and Sciences

Week Eleven, March 16*
“How to Engage Consumers in a Digital World”

Lecture by Frederic Bonn, executive creative director for marketing communications brand JWT New York
Smartphones and, soon, all connected devices such as watches or glasses, are completely redefining consumers’ behaviors and expectations. From the way we interact with each other to the way we consume media and information, from the quality of service to the speed of response we become accustomed to, these devices are setting the bar not only for what we can expect from brands, but also what we can accept. This talk will explore the new model, language and terms for the next generation of mobile advertising.

*This class will take place in the URBN Center Annex (3401 Filbert St.). About 75 seats are open to the public. A reception will follow. 

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