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consumerism and consumer culture. Images are a central aspect of commodity culture and a society dependent on the constant production and consumption of goods in order to function. Ours is a consumer culture .

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consumerism and consumer culture

and consumer culture

Images are a central aspect of commodity culture

and a society dependent on the constant production

and consumption of goods in order to function.

Ours is a consumer culture.
  • Consumerism pervades almost everything we do, every act of ‘identity construction’ we participate in, and every interpersonal relationship we conduct.
  • We don’t think about how historically strange consumerism is because we live and breathe it ‘24/7’

It is all about a world of things to be desired, envied and imagined…. Life as it “should be”.

It speaks the language of the imagined future - a world that works by abstraction.

what is consumerism
What is consumerism?
  • Consumerism as a moral doctrine- consumerism could be considered as our ‘moral responsibility’ to shop. This shopping, the doctrine goes, confers choice, freedom, autonomy and ultimately happiness on the individual.

What is a consumer society?

A society in which the individual is surrounded by an enormous assortment of goods, goods whose characteristics are changing constantly.

Marxist theory explained that the production of surplus (goods) gave rise to the need for workers to be consumers and to spend large sums of money on mass produced goods.

This all gives rise to modernity and the expected lifestyle in our society.

With the recent introduction of e-commerce and telemarketing, the physical basis of selling may be going through a major change, as virtual shopping may make stores obsolete.

Customized ordering of goods and services have impacted the manufacturing and distribution model that has been in place.


In the 20th century the workplace, home and commerce were increasingly separated.

Women were relegated to the home (private sphere) while men were delegated to the public sphere.

Within the context of the city, people came to feel the concept of self and identity were influenced by the greater group - and the fact that commodities gave ‘meaning’ to their lives in the absence of the once close knit community and its traditions..

Consumerism as the ‘ideology of conspicuous consumption’ - this ideology suggests that consumerism is less about ‘stuff’ for ourselves, and more about how what we buy confers identity and social status compared to other social groups.

Consumption is about signalling social status and group membership.

What is consumerism?

Consumerism as economic ideology- an incredibly powerful ‘logic’ post WW2. This argument has it that consumerism is necessary to stimulate economic production. If people ever felt content with what they had this would lower production and ‘economic growth’.

Consumer culture must continually stimulate new desires in populations whose basic needs are already met.

What is consumerism?


Window shopping is one manifestation of this new activity, where the flaneur/flaneuse is one example of the mobile practice of looking in the consumer culture.


Associated with this is a belief that everyone was potentially inadequate and in need of improvement through consumption of goods.

Consumption was seen as a form of leisure and pleasure as well as therapy.

Even though a global market has come into existence, advertising remains something that is organized to demographics, age, culture, gender and class.

Consumerism as political ideology- has largely replaced the idea that politics should be about the state providing for its people.

Now all the main political parties tell us that a successful political state is one where people’s needs are satisfied by ‘individual choice’ in the marketplace.

George Bush said this after 9/11 - that it was every American’s patriotic duty to shop more than ever.

What is consumerism?


Commodity culture and commodity fetishism

Commodity self (Stuart Ewen’s) idea that we as subjectivities, are, at least partially, mediated and constructed through our consumption of commodities.

A commodity becomes part of one’s self identity and helps project one’s self into the world. (e.g., choice of drink, of automobile, of clothing, of body tattooing, etc)


Theorist Michael Schudson argues that advertising itself may not really be so powerful; that ads function indirectly and there is a host of other commercial efforts that make the commercial environment work.

Since the 60’s advertisers have stopped the hard sell and favored being hip/cool as they appeal to the counterculture.


Marxist theory:

exchange value —what a particular product costs in given system of exchange

Use value —refers to a product’s use in society (what they are valued for in abstract monetary terms).

Marxist theory critiques the emphasis on exchange value - that is, not what the products are really worth, but what they are worth in abstract monetary terms.


Commodity fetishism — when products are imbued with cultural meanings quite apart from specific production conditions and context.

Labor and working conditions must remain invisible to the consumer.

Nike, which originally was promoted as a signifier of female self empowerment.

Then, when it was learned that Indonesian women worked as exploited producers, the company had to institute some reforms.

Yet the argument goes today that the paltry pay is a huge amount of money in a country where poverty is the rule, not the exception. Thus, Nike can still argue they are doing a service by having offshore production plants!


Commodity fetishism operates through reification which asserts that abstract ideas are real or concrete.

Driving a fancy sports car assigns a symbol of wealth, carefree-ness, “coolness” to the owner, or at least the owner thinks they become so.

Condemnations of consumer society and commodity culture have proliferated throughout the 20th century.

The Frankfurt School argued that commodities were a death knell for meaningful social interaction - a corruption of the really valuable aspects of existence.


Pop Art (1960s-70s) attacked distinctions between high and low art, declaring that TV, comic books, etc were as socially significant as high art.

Fine arts, classical music were considered elitist and upper class.

Andy Warhol embraced popular, commodity culture when he queried the boundaries between art and product design, while celebrating the repetition and conformity of mass culture - as a statement of the repetition characteristic of commodity culture.


Roy Lichtenstein, another Pop Art artist, made comic strip paintings, celebrating and commenting both on the flat surface of the comics - on the “kitschy” stories they told as well as the aesthetic.


Addressing the consumer

Advertising uses interpellation, the process by which the consumer recognizes themselves in the subjectposition offered in a product or its advertisement.

Judith Williamson calls this appellation, where “you,” the individual, are constantly being addressed in the message.

The Frankfurt School referred to this practice as pseudoindividuality, an ad’s (false) promise to produce individuality.

The whole process is one in which we consume products through commodity signs.


Ads create a relationship of equivalence between a product and its signifier.

Sometimes they use well known figures to endorse their product; sometimes they try to show their product is unique when there are in fact, many products like it.

Companies also use differentiation to show their product is unique.


So ads construct relationships of equivalence, differentiation and signification to create commodity signs.

They operate with a presumption of relevance that allows them to make inflated statements about the necessity of their products.

If photos establish the “truth” of a claim about a product, they also are a primary source of fantasy.

Text is used to force the viewer to re-read the image with a new meaning—this helps to create the ad’s impact.

Images are powerful connections to concepts, but words have great potential as well.

Allied to the sounds of the words in your head are the new words, or new word combinations (neologisms), that advertisers create deliberately to implant novel elements in the audience’s heads.

Often they can even be nonsense words – but these nonsense words i.e “Beanzmeanzheinz”, can become part of the cultural vernacular.

Watch out for taglines or jingles that deliberately don’t make grammatical sense, but which stick in the head.

Also look out for wordplay that uses:

  • polysemy - a play on a word that might have more than one meaning
  • homonyms - words with different meanings that are spelt the same
  • Descriptive adverbs- drives SMOOTHLY, cleans BRIGHTLY, and adjectives NEW, FRESH, SPECIAL
  • simile- when the qualities of one thing are compared to those of something else ‘runs like a cheetah’
  • metaphor - an expression that doesn’t say something is LIKE something else, it suggests it IS something else ‘Nescafe your cup of inspiration’
  • euphemisms - often used if the ad deals with potentially sensitive or distasteful subjects. Tampon commercials and funeral home commercials commonly use them ‘feminine protection’
All this leads to hyperbole- that is to say the deliberate exaggeration

of promotional claims way beyond reason, just to get our attention.

We can discuss the legality or ethics of claims like:

  • “No-Age: Say No to Aging” - Christian Dior
  • “Who says you can’t restore what time takes away” – Nutrimentics

Often this hyperbole is situated in a justifying bed of technical jargon.

The jargon itself may be pseudo-scientific, and most of the time we are

not meant to understand the meanings of the jargon.

However for some products (techno devices, cars, medicines, some cosmetic products) the use of these terms carries the cultural prestige of science and rationality that can help persuade us even if the claims are actually outrageous:

“Surgery can Wait!

Wrinkle-Decrease with BOSWELOX, a unique phyto-complex

that helps to counteract skin micro-creasing” - Loreal


Advertising designers combine iconic signs—drawings or graphs, indexical signs - which might appear in photographs, and symbolic signs—in the form of text or other imagery.

Most ads depend on symbolic and indexical combinations.

The photo is perhaps the strongest sign because it depicts what we accept or believe to be the ‘real’, and so relays a sense of ‘authenticity’.


Glamour is the state of being envied (John Berger).

Envy and nostalgia are also combined to engage the consumer.

The irony is that ads sell an unattainable highly constructed world that promises to be an attainable ideal.

And as John Berger states - it is a world always situated in the future.


Advertising uses the idea of our desire to return to a nostalgic state (perhaps of innocence?) and our knowledge that we suffer from a “lack” which remains unfulfilled…

Some ad campaigns intentionally try to create a connection between a product and a symbol of the past.


Other ads sell concepts of the nation and the family as norms.

There is also a tendency to promise “membership” like an exclusive club to interpellate all consumers as potential members of a class regardless of their actual class status.


The use of races other than white promise exotic-ness/multiculturalism to a product.

Consuming otherness is central to commodity culture in the global era.


Bricolage and counter-bricolage

Redeployment of commodities for new purposes/meanings involves bricolage.

Fashion designers and advertisers use counter-bricolage to appropriate styles, which have reconfigured commodities. (e.g.: wearing boxer shorts visibly above one’s pants to show off the designer label)


Or advertisers might co-opt contemporary values of feminism (self-control, empowerment, and self realization) to appeal to female consumers who identify with those values.

Thus important political principles become part of the act of selling.


The brand

Similarly a brand can become a generic item that sometimes leads to a product’s loss of uniqueness, e.g., Kleenex, Xerox, Doc Martens.

Consumers ‘appropriate’ logos as a means of constructing their identity.


Anti-ad practices

Anti-ads are often pointed at commodity culture, using billboards or graffiti against ‘straight’ billboards to convey their message. (See for more examples)

This is known as culture jamming.


One thing that remains unchanged in our era is the sense that coolness and hipness are central to the exchange of commodities, even when using marginal cultures to sell to the mainstream.

The boundary between the mainstream and the margins is always being renegotiated.



Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Broadly, a consumer society will have these features:
  • The ‘balance’ or ‘guiding force’ of society has moved from productionto consumption.

We hear less about blue collar factories these days (which are employing less and less workers as production is automated and exported overseas) and more about the ‘palaces’ of consumption - the shopping malls (which employ more and more people).

  • Consumer societies are post-industrial societies in this respect
The family moves from a unit of production to a unit of consumption, and beyond that, the family breaks down and more appeals to consume become centred on the individual.

Because consumption must always increase, consumer societies commodifymore and more aspects of life (spaces and rituals, including the imagination itself), and make them a matter of exchange value (money).

More things become valued chiefly for what they are ‘worth’ money-wise - this ‘logic’ applies even to families and religions

In consumer societies debt is not a sin, but is encouraged

When most consumption goes beyond ‘basic needs’, ‘persuasive rhetoric’ - marketing and advertising - becomes an ever larger component of consumer economies.
  • This rhetoric must appeal less to use, or utility valuesand more to sign valuessuch as brand values:
      • ‘Use or utility value’- what a product was made to ‘do’, its basic functionality (a chair is for sitting on)
      • ‘Exchange value’- in an industrial society the worker is ‘alienated’ from the product of their labour - they no longer make the chair and so some artificial standard must be introduced to determine the relative value of things - this is abstract/money. People work for money to buy the chair…
      • ‘Sign value’- what a product or service comes to ‘represent’ in society as a social meaning maker. Any value that is separate and ‘added to’ its use value.

In the case of the chair, we might buy it because we can sit on it, but there will be other factors too - we might like its style [aesthetic value], or the logo [brand value], or we might like the images and dreams evoked by the advertising campaign.

To maintain the façade of ‘more consumption=more happiness’ consumer society must make us feel like ‘gods’ - ‘sovereign consumers’
so how do advertisers indulge the all powerful consumer
So - how do advertisers indulge the ‘all powerful’ consumer?

They assign them various ‘consumer

identities’ where the shopper is ‘hailed’

or appealed to as:

  • Explorers
  • Identity seekers
  • Seducers / hedonists
  • Thrill seekers
  • Artists
  • Experts
  • Victims
  • Citizens
  • Leaders
  • Activists
  • ‘Authentic rebels’ (the ‘rebel’ mode of address becomes increasingly common – you’re not like all the rest, you’re special)
so how do advertisers indulge the all powerful consumer1
So - how do advertisers indulge the ‘all powerful’ consumer?

They can also imagine different ‘ways

of shopping’, where the consumer

is considered to shop:

As a ‘rational’ household manager

As a bargain hunter

As a fashion victim

For ethical / political reasons (green / organic shopping)

As an expert / aficionado



Adventurously – ‘extreme’ consumption


Entire ‘themed’ shopping environments

can be constructed with these

‘shopping personae’in mind

Consumerism supplies not just ‘stuff’, but meanings and values - rules for living.

A certain amount of consumption is necessary to fulfil basic needs,

but our economies would change drastically if they weren’t supported by

‘non essential’ consumption.

Lots of people also like consuming, not just the physical products but the act of shopping itself and the reading of the creative, complex non-product texts that go with them (the ads!)

The economic risks to consumerism for ad-makers include:

  • consumers getting jaded, cynical and bored by the claims of consumer culture
  • Economic recession and a credit squeeze (no money to borrow)
  • The actions of anti consumer activists
But there are also more ‘systemic’ downsides to consumption societies:

Increased rate of unhappiness and depression in spite of increased wealth

Ecological unsustainability (we cant keep making and buying more forever)

Greater division between haves and have nots – and in a media society the have nots can see what the haves have, which breeds resentment

in conclusion
In conclusion:

• It could be argued that consumerism is well on the way to becoming a complete belief system with shopping centres as the new ‘cathedrals’ and advertising as the new religious texts

• The logic of consumerism seeks to commodify - place an exchange or money value - on all aspects of human creativity and sociality, and especially on self-realisation and happiness itself.

• So pervasive is this ‘logic’ that even anti-consumer groups now ‘market’ themselves using promotional rhetoric.

• Keeping consumers interested is however hard work. Much recent creative advertising rises to the challenge by appropriating dissent to make ‘stuff cool’ for the ‘rebel consumer’– the ‘true individual’

• A much bigger challenge to mass advertising is network society – mobile phone culture, Ebay, Facebook, Myspace and YouTube.


For Thursday:

Find one example of hyperbole or neologism for this weeks Thursday class. Bring in a copy and briefly explain how this is used in the message.