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Consumer Culture


Any spectator of the contemporary visual landscape readily recognizes the prominence of material goods and their consumption in the increasingly global culture. Some observers argue that the landscape is "littered" with consumption icons and that it is a product of a larger project to create and sustain consumer culture. Other, less conspiratorial perspectives at least acknowledge the role that the "dream worlds" of the media play in perpetuating consumerism.

Defining Consumer Culture

There are many definitions of consumer culture. To begin, consumer culture should not be confused with two of its attributes: consumerism and materialism.

According to Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang (1995), consumerism has at least five distinct connotations. It is a moral doctrine, a means for demarcating social status, a vehicle for economic development, a public policy, and a social movement. Consumerism is defined here as the collection of behaviors, attitudes, and values that are associated with the consumption of material goods.

Materialism is another perspective that is prevalent in consumer culture. The term "materialism" also has a rich etymology. However, as it relates here, Russell Belk (1985, p. 265) defines materialism as "the importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions." At the highest levels of materialism, possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. While one might readily think that materialism is a good synonym for consumerism, materialism, at least as it is defined here, only covers a part of consumerism. Namely, materialism deals only with the social value of material goods.

Consumer culture, which subsumes both consumerism and materialism, has been studied from the perspective of a variety of disciplines, including communication, cultural studies, theology, sociology, psychology, marketing, anthropology, and philosophy. Regardless of the disciplinary approach, a central feature of consumer culture is the relationship between people and material goods. Generically, consumer culture is a social arrangement in which the buying and selling of goods and services is not only a predominant activity of everyday life but also an important arbiter of social organization, significance, and meaning.

Origins of Consumer Culture

In a review of historical accounts of consumption and culture, Grant McCracken (1988) remarks that there is little consensus as to the origins of consumer culture. According to the perspective of Neil McKendrick and his associates (1982), consumer culture began in eighteenth-century England with the commercialization of fashion precipitating a mass change in taste. According to these historians, the new predilection for style fueled a demand for clothing that was mass-produced through technical innovations in the textile industry and mass-marketed through innovations in printing technologies that afforded wide-scale advertising.

Another historian, Rosalind Williams (1982), claims that the consumer revolution began in late-nineteenth-century France, when the pioneering efforts of French retailers and advertisers transformed Paris into a "pilot plant of mass consumption" through the Paris expositions of 1889 and 1900. Williams argues that the expositions significantly contributed to the development of the department store and the trade show, key factors in the development of consumer culture.

Finally, McCracken (1988) suggests that it may be less useful to identify the specific points of origin for the consumer revolution than to note patterns of cultural change that foretold the radical restructuring of society. He identifies three moments in history that undergird the development of modern consumer culture. The first was Elizabethan politics in sixteenth-century England, where Queen Elizabeth I introduced the use of objects to her highly ceremonial court to communicate the legitimacy of her rule. The second was the increased participation of the masses in the marketplace in eighteenth-century Europe. As more members of the culture could participate in the marketplace because of the widespread prosperity of the industrial revolution, the marketplace expanded, creating an explosion of consumer choices. The gentry, the middle class, and the lower class perceived and adopted the social significance of goods and attempted to appropriate those significances for themselves. The third was the institutionalization of consumption through the emergence of the department store in the nineteenth century. The department store, McCracken argues, fundamentally changed the nature and the context of purchase activity as well as the nature of the information and influence to which the consumer was subjected.

Don Slater (1997) summarizes these thoughts by arguing that consumer culture began with a wide penetration of consumer goods into the everyday lives of people across social strata, that consumption was ignited through a new sense of fashion and taste, and finally that the culture was cemented through the development of infrastructures, organizations, and practices that took advantage of the new markets, namely, the rise of shopping, advertising, and marketing.

The Role of the Media in Consumer Culture

From the beginning of consumer culture, the media, particularly print advertisements, were used to help inculcate demand for newly mass-produced goods. Stuart Ewen (1976) maintains that before the advent of mass production, industry had produced for a limited, largely middle-and upper-class market. However, with the revolution in production, particularly Fordism (i.e., the use of the assembly line to mass-produce consumer goods), industry required an equivalent revolution in consumption. The mechanism of mass production could not function unless markets became more dynamic, growing horizontally (nationally), vertically (into social classes not previously among the consumers), and ideologically. The media were used to encourage people to respond to the demands of the productive machinery. Ewen identifies "captains of consciousness," industry leaders and advertising executives, as the chief architects of the new social structure that privileged the consumption of mass-produced materials.

A structural concern of the "captains" was the provision of resources, namely time and money, for greater consumption by the masses. Ewen (1976) asserts that the general strategy to consumerize labor began in the 1920s as laborers were given higher wages in the hopes that they would purchase some of what they produced. They were also given more time in which to spend those wages because shorter work hours were made possible as a result of the greater efficiency of the production line. That labor movements were already pushing for these concessions made the job of the "captains" easier.

Once structural barriers to consumption were set aside, the industrialists needed to change the attitudes of the masses so they would be favorably disposed to purchasing the goods that they were constructing. Inspired by the social psychology of Floyd Henry Allport (1924), advertisers tried to grasp the nature of human motivation. They believed that if human "instincts" were properly understood, they could be manipulated not only to induce consumers to buy particular products but also to create in them a habitual desire to participate in the marketplace to extract social meaning. That is, not only might the consumers buy the advertised product, but they might also use the advertisement to understand their social selves, others, and the culture at large. Advertisements were to be the substance of mass culture's dreams. In such a case, the social control of the captain would be maximized (Ewen, 1976, p. 81).

As Ewen (1976) indicates, this project of social control was accomplished through the presentation of partial truths depicted through commercialized expression, namely art. Ewen states, "Artists, often gifted in their sensitivities to human frailties, were called upon to use those sensitivities for manipulation" (pp. 65-66). The images these artists produced painted industry as a benevolent fatherly figure that held society together, able to fulfill all of mass society's dreams by depicting perfect harmony, happiness, and opportunity for all.

In Advertising the American Dream, Roland Marchand (1985) provides a more neutral analysis of the early role of media in the promulgation of consumer culture. In doing this, he analyzed more than 180,000 advertisements, corporate archival data, trade journal articles, and even the minutes of advertising agency meetings during the period between 1920 and 1940. Marchand argues that advertisers in the 1920s assumed the dual function of "apostles of modernity"—heralds of modern technologies and missionaries of modern styles and ways of life—and "social therapists"— assuaging feelings of diminution and alienation stimulated by the fast pace of modern production and consumption. Advertisers presented a two-sided message about the good news of modernity. First, they praised the coming of a corporate, technologically sophisticated, urban civilization. Second, they reassured the masses that this civilization was a kind of self-correcting system that produced numerous products that were capable of solving the problems and calming the anxieties that it generated.

Marchand's analysis of the advertisements of the 1920s and 1930s revealed two categories of conventions. The first comprised a series of textual parables and the second a host of visual clichés that advertisers repeatedly used to advise consumers of the promises and the perils of the times. In terms of parables, the first he discusses is that of the "first impression." This parable stresses the importance of external appearance in an impersonal society in which one is under the constant surveillance of strangers who judge character. These advertisements advised the consumer to avoid the disastrous consequences of body odor, bad breath, and other problems by using the advertised product. The second parable regards the "democracy of goods," which held that social equality was realized through the genuine opportunity of everyone to buy the same staple products (e.g., toothpaste, cereal, mattresses) that the wealthy purchase. Another parable, that of "civilization redeemed," reassured Americans that modernity would rescue itself from its own shortcomings. As an example, vitamin advertisements promised to supplement the nutrient-impoverished diets of people caught up in the fast pace of modern life. Finally, the parable of the "captivated child" offered consumer products as a way of placating even the most angry children, making other forms of coercion obsolete.

Advertisers also insinuated products into the consciousness of consumers by using visual clichés. The expanded technology for reproducing illustrations and using color made visuals an attractive alternative for advertisers. Because psychologists had regularly advised that pictures could best stimulate the basic emotions, the strategy was irresistible. Visual images also became the preferred modes of presentation because, as Marc-hand (1985, p. 236) states, of their utility "in cases where the advertiser's message would have sounded exaggerated or presumptuous if put into words, or where the advertiser sought to play upon such 'inappropriate' emotions as religious awe or thirst for power." Visual clichés include the office window through which a business executive gazes on a dynamic cityscape as the master of all that is surveyed, the family painted in soft focus, the towering and resplendent heavenly city of the future, and the harmonious world saved by modernity. Marchand suggests that advertisers appropriated sacred symbolism to imbue products with spiritual significance. Goods were presented in heroic proportions, towering over towns of consumers. Adoring throngs or smaller collections of worshipful attendants surrounded them. Often, products were juxtaposed against poignant moments, such as weddings, or were the object of radiant beams of light.

The Media in Contemporary Consumer Culture

If consumer culture was established at the beginning of the twentieth century, what role do the media play in its promulgation in the twenty-first century? With consumer culture established, the media are no longer tools of its development but rather transmit the culture to the young and reinforce the culture among adults. This process of transmission and reinforcement is referred to as socialization, and in the case of consumer culture, it is referred to as consumer socialization.

In the seminal work in this area, Scott Ward (1971, p. 2) defined consumer socialization as the "processes by which young people acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes relevant to their functioning as consumers in the marketplace." He argued that in order to understand the consumer behavior of adults, one must first grasp the nature of the childhood experiences of the adults, since those experiences shape patterns of cognition and behavior later in life. Ward sought to understand how children acquire attitudes about the "social significance" of goods, or how they learn that the acquisition of some kinds of products or brands of goods can be "instrumental to successful social role enactment" (p. 3).

The role of the consumer is defined by the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are associated with consumption. Consumer skills include such practices as pricing goods before making a purchase decision, knowing the rights of the consumer, and budgeting. Consumer attitudes include the affective orientation toward goods, both general and specific, the value placed on the practice of consumption and the products consumed, and the evaluation of the marketplace. Consumer behavior simply refers to the consumption of goods.

Agents of consumer socialization can range from the small-town store clerk who teaches children to exchange bottles for money that they can use to buy candy, to the big-city billboard that depicts a liquor as a means to high social status and pleasure for adults. However, there are four agents of consumer socialization that have been formally studied in the literature: family, peers, mass media, and schools.

Whereas print advertisements were the medium of choice for establishing consumer culture, television has served a vital role in socializing new consumers and reinforcing consumerism among older ones. There are at least three different ways in which television may be related to consumer culture. The first way suggests direct effects through a learning model (e.g., social cognitive theory). It may be that individuals watch portrayals of consumerism and then model consumerist behaviors and adopt socially rewarded consumerist attitudes and values. Television also may be related to consumerism by influencing viewer perceptions of the world (e.g., cultivation theory). Finally, television may simply reflect the existing consumer culture.

Regardless of the mechanism, perhaps the most prevalent media messages for consumer socialization are television commercials. Interspersed between television programs, commercials are explicitly geared to prompt viewers to participate in consumer culture. Leslie Savan (1994) reports that the average television viewer in America is exposed to approximately one hundred television commercials a day.

For the most part, the messages for consumer socialization found in television programming are not as explicit as those found in advertising. Nonetheless, they are present and add to the cumulative effect of the general consumption message of television. One manner by which consumer socialization messages are implicitly conveyed is through the presentation of a world of affluence. Early studies of television, conducted by Dallas Smythe (1954) and Melvin DeFleur (1964), for example, during the 1950s and 1960s found a strong bias toward portrayals of middle-and upper-class lifestyles in network programs. More recently, George Gerbner (1993) analyzed 19,642 speaking parts that appeared in 1,371 television programs (including cable) from the 1982-1983 season through the 1991-1992 season. The content analysis of these programs revealed that, on average, 92.3 percent of the characters were middle class, 1.3 percent were clearly lower class, and 4 percent were clearly upper class. Gerbner concluded that in the overwhelmingly middle-class world of television, poor people play a negligible role.

Another manner in which television conveys consumer culture is through its biased presentation of high-status occupations. Such occupations are esteemed at least in part because of the high incomes and consumption power that they wield. Nancy Signorielli (1993) conducted an extensive content analysis of the occupations presented in prime-time programming. She examined week-long samples of prime-time programs between the 1973 and 1985 television seasons. When compared to U.S. census reports, professionals were overrepresented by 66 percent on television. Doctors, lawyers, judges, and entertainers were some of the overrepresented occupations. Teachers, clerical and secretarial workers, sales workers, and other blue-collar workers—occupations that are generally associated with less than affluent lifestyles—were some of the underrepresented occupations.

Some work has been done on the effects of media messages on socializing people to consumer culture. As is true of most other areas, more work is needed to draw definitive conclusions about the nature of the relationship; however, examples of work in the area that uses different methodologies indicate that the media play at least a modest role in promulgating consumer culture. Survey research has indicated that television viewing is related to consumer role conceptions (Moschis and Moore, 1978), and motivations to view television commercials are related to the adoption of materialistic values among adolescents (Ward and Wackman, 1971). Longitudinal research has indicated that exposure to television advertising leads to higher levels of subsequent (fourteen months later) materialism among adolescents who are not already materialistic or who do not discuss consumption issues with their families (Moschis and Moore, 1982). Finally, experimental research has shown that preschoolers who are exposed to advertising are more materialistic than their counterparts who are not exposed to advertising (Goldberg and Gorn, 1978). In this research, children who were exposed to advertisements were twice as likely as children who were not exposed to advertisements to choose to play with an advertised toy instead of playing with a playmate in a sandbox.

The research in the field as a whole does not permit definitive conclusions about the effect of the media on promulgating consumer culture. Many questions still need to be addressed to explain a relationship that is likely to be small and cumulative over time. What role do the media play in conveying other aspects of consumer culture to audiences? Through selective exposure, can audiences avoid consumer culture messages? How do the media reinforce consumer culture among adult audiences? These are just a few unanswered questions in an area that begs further exploration.

See also:Advertising Effects; Children and Advertising; Cultivation Theory and Media Effects; Cultural Studies; Culture and Communication; Culture Industries, Media as; Social Cognitive Theory and Media Effects.


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Emory H. Woodard

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