Consumer culture, the creation and cultivation of self-and social meaning from the marketing, purchase, and display of commodified goods, is a central characteristic of modern and postmodern society. Although related to other forms of culture, such as commercial culture, material culture, and popular culture, it is a theoretically distinct realm that includes the symbolic qualities attributed to mass-produced goods, brand logos, product packaging, advertising campaigns, retail spaces, shopping activities, and consumption-centered media content. How these symbolic goods and activities relate to modern life, the self and social groups – and their destructive and/or emancipatory implications – have comprised much scholarship and debate in the humanities and social sciences.
Development Of Consumer Culture
There is no exact starting date for the creation of modern consumer culture. Although tied to the beginnings of industrialization, it could also be said to have existed in some forms as long as rudimentary capitalism existed. More specifically, British royalty emphasized and displayed the need to be fashionable in the 1500s. Colonialism exoticized spices and other goods from colonized lands. In the nineteenth century, popular events such as the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and other World Fairs displayed and promoted industrialized goods.
Also at this time, in industrialized countries, mass manufacturing forced companies to market themselves outside of the companies’ home communities, developing the idea of branding as a sales and promotional technique to generate symbolic trustworthiness. The expansion of nationally distributed mass media, especially the national magazine, facilitated the use of advertising to create universally known brands and symbolic linkages to these brands. Advertising was especially key in the development of consumer culture in that it inculcated people as consumers, teaching them not only the difference between brands, but also what the idea of a brand is and its legitimization as something to be trusted even more than one’s own skills or the local merchant. Such legitimization was especially important in the establishment of consumer culture, given that earlier generations made many of their own goods or bought locally produced bulk goods.
Mail-order catalogs offered images of manufactured commodities, especially to rural and isolated households. The separation of work from other sectors of life cultivated leisure as an element of life, as did the rise of a middle class with disposable incomes. The creation of branded retail spaces that displayed goods rather than merely distributing goods also elevated modern consumerism, and encouraged shopping as a pleasurable activity. Finally, such meaning creation occurred in a context of great social change, in which traditional symbolic realms (religion, the family, local community) became unsettled, and universally understood commercial symbols offered meaning stability.
From its beginnings, consumer culture intersected with class, gender, and race. Although many mass-produced goods were available to the middle and upper classes, working-class people often labored long hours to produce or display goods they could not afford (a trend accentuated in modern globalization). Consumer culture was also strongly gendered. Shopping areas and non-spouse approved credit could create women-centered activities and spaces in the public domain. However, many image-oriented and emotionally laden brand strategies were designed to appeal to the prejudicial market construction of the purported irrational female consumer (Paterson 2006). Despite claims that the new consumer culture could be democratic and inclusive of everyone (with money, that is), people of color still often found that they were excluded from such participation, even with money to spend. The use of terrible stereotyping in early advertising – often more subtle but nevertheless present even today – also highlighted the social divisions still central in consumer culture.
Critical historians such as Stuart Ewen (1976) view the development of consumer culture, and advertising’s role in this development, as profoundly hegemonic, both solving mass capitalism’s problem of overproduction by encouraging participation in capitalism while also placating workers (via the promise of valorized, branded goods) who found themselves alienated from the corporate, mass-manufacturing workplace. Other historians, such as Gary Cross (2000), although recognizing the negative elements in early consumer culture, nevertheless argue that this development helped ease individuals through the great social changes of the early twentieth century in a way that minimized social and psychological trauma.
Later developments further refined and accentuated consumer culture. Credit and installment plans and discounted “bargain basements” allowed the middle class to have access to upper-class-coded goods. Electronic media such as radio and television not only could display commodities via sound and video channels, but also economically were even more dependent upon, and thus beholden to, advertising revenue than print media such as newspapers and magazines. Lawrence R. Samuel (2002) contends that the display and celebration of products in early television advertising rejuvenated US consumerism after years of thrift cultivated by the Depression and World War II.
New retail spaces such as malls systematized and aestheticized the shopping experience. Corporate and postindustrial capitalism increased advertising and marketing budgets while refining target marketing. Globalization encouraged an emphasis on universally recognized and understood symbols and an even sharper distinction between sites of production (often exploitative) and consumption. Marketing research gradually became more sophisticated, focusing on demographics, psychographics, and lifestyles to facilitate, or even manipulate, purchasing. By the late 1990s, marketing firms used ethnographic and other naturalistic techniques to complement more quantitative methods.
Media And Youth In Consumer Culture
The media continue to play a key role in consumer culture. Media, of course, carry advertisements, the most explicit voice for consumerist messages. The level of advertising in society has steadily risen with the increase in both the number of media outlets and media organizations’ expectations for advertising revenue. In addition, media promote the consumption of media products, such as commercials and publicity for DVDs and pay-per options on television, an emphasized factor in the era of large-corporate media synergy. To offer a selling-friendly symbolic climate for advertisers, many elements of media content – from lifestyle magazines to self-improvement television programs – are commodity and consumption-oriented even in their nonadvertising messages. Direct purchasing opportunities are increasingly integrated in media use, with the development of home-shopping options on television and the ease of online shopping and purchasing via the Internet and other interactive media. The convergence of audiovisual media content with mobile delivery systems such as mobile phones broadens the reach of consumption-oriented messages and activities.
Much scholarly attention has been devoted to how young people are inculcated into consumer culture, including the heavy commercialization of youth culture. Works such as Juliet B. Schor’s Born to buy (2005) and Alissa Quart’s Branded (2003) focus on the continued targeting of youth by commercial interests.
Criticisms And Defenses
Scholars reacted early to the social implications of these trends, establishing arguments critical of consumer culture as well as counterpoints from scholars who see positive developments in modern consumerism.
Commodity fetishism – defined broadly as the separation of a commodity from its production context and the subsequent consumption-oriented celebration of such commodities – was a term coined by Karl Marx and subsequently adopted and developed by other scholars writing about consumer culture, including Judith Williamson, Sut Jhally, and Robert Goldman.
Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the leisure class (1899) introduced and critiqued what he labeled as conspicuous consumption, in which the display of symbolic commodities by the nouveau riche was used to distinguish themselves from other classes, ultimately encouraging class envy and excessive debt. This criticism was updated in more recent times by such scholars as Juliet B. Schor (1999). Consumption as a way to reify social difference also finds resonance with the work of Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that it is often used to display different forms of capital and enact social distinctions between groups. The notions of consumer distinction and envy as enacted in a highly segmented, market-researched, and interactive consumer culture is explored by Joseph Turow (2006).
Scholars associated with the Frankfurt School also have been influential critics. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued that mass-produced and marketed goods foster standardization and homogenization, smothering creativity and cheating/ deceiving citizens. Similar points were made in Herbert Marcuse’s book, One-dimensional man (1964), which claimed that advertising and consumer culture inculcate false needs in people and thus degrade critical awareness. Standardization in modern consumer culture is an element explored by sociologist George Ritzer in his argument on the “McDonaldization” of society. Although not from the Frankfurt tradition but influenced by it, Guy Debord, in Society of the spectacle (1967/2004), argued that the commodity-based spectacle – as exemplified by high-profile media events and advertising campaigns – is a defining characteristic of modern life that deflects attention from larger capitalist inequities and indignities.
Recent criticisms of consumer culture have similarly focused on the anxiety, low self-esteem, materialism, and vulnerability to advertising claims about self-image sparked by heavy emergence in consumer culture. The environmental destruction and waste that overconsumption promotes have also been a concern of many scholars, especially Sut Jhally (2006).
Other arguments emphasize the emancipatory elements of consumer culture. Consumer culture offers symbolic materials that may be used to create unique cultural identities and cohesion, for instance. Market niches may recognize social groups marginalized by other sectors of society. How consumers may play with consumption activities and resist meanings imposed from above has been advocated by such scholars as Michel De Certeau, John Fiske, and Henry Jenkins. James B. Twitchell argues for the positive social benefits of both advertising and materialism (see, for example, 1999).
Activism against consumer culture offers a counter-voice, even if it seems to be a whisper compared to corporate-amplified consumption messages. Groups that have organized against the excesses of consumer culture include, in the US, Consumers’ Research Inc. (founded in the 1920s) and, in Canada, Adbusters. Movements such as various forms of counterculture in the 1960s and environmentalism also offer critiques against consumerism. However, many critics have noted consumer culture’s ability to co-opt and depoliticize such critical elements, including Goldman’s notion of commodity feminism.
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