Plastic Free July: Selling Plastic

05 July 2019

Cultural Studies

This blog includes temporary free access to a marketing document from 1965. Click here or below to view this report for free until 5th August 2019.

In line with recent pleas to cut down on our consumption of single-use plastics, this month marks Plastic Free July. Anybody who’s been to the supermarket recently or tried to figure out recycling will realise how ingrained this material now is in our lives, as we shop for our plastic covered fruit and vegetables and try and figure out if we can recycle our yoghurt pots.

So common is this material that it made me wonder when it became such a staple. I decided to have a dig around in our resource Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965 (because I think it’s safe to assume we can always blame advertising for convincing us we need things we do not), to see if there were any reports on the introduction of everyday disposable material.

Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

As luck would have it, I found A Proposal for A Motivation Research Study of Consumer Attitudes Toward Disposable Cups and Plates - - Paper, Plastic, Paper-Plastic Combinations and “Other Synthetics”. Catchy title aside, this turned out to be a fascinating proposal from 1965 from the advertising company representing the Dixie Cup wanting to investigate whether disposable cups and plates were a momentary fad or here to stay. They also wanted to explore whether a disposable culture in general had longevity and if this was a movement worth investing in.

Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

To find these answers, they proposed a two-stage process which would first consider overall attitudes to plastic and disposables before moving onto cups and plates specifically. To answer the questions, they would take groups of housewives from specific areas of the US in set age and wealth brackets to gauge reactions across class and age divides. They would only ask housewives for their opinions, because apparently in 1965 only women were invested in plates and cups.


Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

This description of the process is very interesting from a marketing point of view, but it was the questions they wanted the thoughts and answers to that grabbed my attention. The housewives would be asked for their definition of disposable – what would they be willing to throw away? What did they think of disposable plastics or other material in general? Were these luxury items? Did they associate them with inferior items? What role did the husband have in deciding if these items were bought? Who is the housewife that would be willing to throw cups and plates away? Is she secure, insecure, morally responsible, an innovator or a follower?

Image © Hagley Museum and Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

So many questions to ask – more questions than most of us would ask before throwing away a plastic cup or plate. Looking back, it appears that the marketers worked out a way to develop items that we are happy to dispose of, with no questions as to what kind of housewife it made us. Plastic Free July is part of the movement to change this thinking and return to a less disposable focused culture.

Market Research and American Business, 1935-1965 is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

About the Author

Jo Perdicchia

Jo Perdicchia

I joined the Adam Matthew team in April 2014 as an Editorial Assistant. Since I began I've worked on a variety of different projects, including American History, 1493-1945, and have enjoyed rummaging through the materials (both electronically and physically) of all of the projects I’m involved with.

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