When did health care become a commodity?

What we spend on health care now represents 17 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.  It is the single largest sector of the U.S. economy.   The Congressional Budget Office says that health care costs will reach 25% of GNP by 2025 under current trends.

Health wasn’t always such an article of commercial consumption. Once upon a time, health was less a “thing”, and more of a deeply personal, even spiritual practice.  In many realms of natural health, these features remain today.

We’re curious about how health became such a fundamental commodity in the marketplace.  As silly as it may seem, let’s consider the history of soap as a metaphor of sorts that sheds some light on how this happened.

Beginning with the American Revolution, and continuing with the westward move across the continent, the American spirit was fiercely independent and self-reliant.  An especially simple example was that family soap was made and used almost exclusively at home through most of the 1800’s.  In a sense, soap-making was one of the simplest forms of autonomous health care.

Advertising changed this. Few people know that the soap business was one of the first industries to use large-scale advertising beginning in the late 1800’s.  Soap manufacturers set out to mold the American experience so that consumers needed to buy – not make their own – soap.  They built an advertising strategy centered on the connection between physical health and spiritual wellness, with an embedded message that only industrially-produced pure soap could provide that connection.  For instance, one early advertisement featured cherubs bathing with a large bar of soap.  Another included a testimonial from the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher in 1870:  “If cleanliness is next to Godliness, then surely soap is a means of grace.” [Lears, Jackson, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, Pantheon Books, 1981]

The rest is history.  Now, we’re not suggesting that we return to the days of making our own soap as a way of escaping the advertising matrix.  Yet, this story shows how advertising deeply penetrated one of the simplest forms of personal health care and transformed it forever.  It also reveals that the fundamental goal of advertisers is not just to sell a product.  It’s to create a need, to establish that commerce holds the expertise to meet that need, and to maintain consumer dependence on that expertise.

This is Advertising 101.  In fact, next time you’re watching t.v. or flipping through a magazine, keep an eye out for health care ads – drugs ads especially.  The basic method hasn’t changed much.  Instead of cherubs washing, you’re apt to see people waltzing through pristine fields. It’s just another way of connecting physical health to inner wellbeing.

We’re all for the connection between physical health and inner well-being. But we serve ourselves by paying better attention to whose hand controls that connection.  And we have to ask whether turning health into a commodity is the best way to foster that connection.

The advertising business hasn’t accomplished the task of turning health into a commodity all by itself. Orthodox law and science have helped.  We’ll explore that in Part II coming up soon.

In the meantime, be well.

Coming Soon:
How Healing Became a Commodity – Part II:  The “Ownership” Dilemma

How Healing Became a Commodity – Part III:  The Cost and the Cure

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