The consumer culture

Gratification from work also diminished, as more people found themselves employed in industrial, assembly-line jobs that required no skills — jobs which were becoming increasingly monotonous, scheduled, organized, and regimented. Mass production was having an effect on the quality of life many individuals had known before. This lead to a good deal of tension, confusion, and social unrest in the populace of the time. Since one’s work could no longer ensure satisfaction or contentment, people began to look for other avenues of gratification outside the workplace.

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Somewhat paradoxically, advertisers picked up on this yearning for some sort of relief from the monotony and drudgery of industrial life, and began to present a life of consumption as the solution to the new industrial crises. Advertisers understood (with the help of psychologists and managerial theoreticians) that in order to motivate the population to consume, you need to capitalize on their dreams, desires, fears and insecurities.

Subsequently, through advertising, the consumer culture was presented as the path to excitement and gratification; it depicted a convenient world of continual leisure and novelty. It offered salvation and the possibility of a meaningful and non-problematic lifestyle, where relationships would be mediated by consumer products. It was even depicted as a less radical avenue for seeking compensation for the woes of daily factory/urban life. Cloaked in the ideals of modernization, Americanization, and freedom, advertising and its surrounding ideology was meant to “mollify social conflict” (Ewen p.190), create demand, and promote a life of continual consumption.

The utopian claims and promises of the advertisers appealed to a large part of the population and consumption soon began to increase; a consumer market began to develop. Markets for products once produced in the home began to appear, as did markets for products never before used in daily life. Automated home appliances, packaged processed foods, and disposable fashion items (from furniture to clothing) were just a few of the products which began to grow in sales upon the inception of mass advertising. People were beginning to rely on mass produced goods to meet their needs, and subsequently, demand for consumer products became a constant: the consumer culture was here to stay.

Here, then, was the way to increase consumption; advertising didn’t just sell the odd product, it promoted the whole consumptive lifestyle as a method of achieving happiness in a new and unsatisfying industrial world (to which mass production was a major contributor). In fact, the drudgery of production, the very process from which consumer products are made, could actually be used to increase productive output when its fruits were lauded as the remedy to its effects: a rather interesting and ultimately profitable contradiction. Of course, to maintain such an effect, advertisers were careful not to mention the realities of production (they still don’t show you the guts of the factory in ads), and, instead, focussed on more fanciful and calming images to soothe and distract consumers, as it were.

For the captains of industry then, advertising provided a number of solutions. It was to increase sales, distract workers from the drudgery of the work day, and ensure continued demand for their products. Even if a product had no apparent use, a demand for it could still be created. The creation and manipulation of consumer desires was to be an extremely effective method for increasing production and sales.

The consumer culture has been a fairly recent development in our society. Self-sufficient home production and personal subsistence farming has given way to a new and all-encompassing form of living and survival: consumption. Everything we use, eat, or wear is now mass produced (with the rare exception of course); we are surrounded by consumer products. In fact, the consumption ethic is so pervasive in our society that we rarely take notice of our reliance upon it — much to the chagrin of ecologists, environmentalists, and anyone concerned with the sustainability of the world’s resources and ecosystem.

The consumer culture grew out of a society coming to terms with a new industrial lifestyle, and was made possible by a monumental growth in industrial production capacity. Advertising spurred the transition from a righteous work ethic to a more “care-free” consumption ethic, and courted the emerging mass society with depictions, images, and promises of an easier way of life.

Primarily due to the energies of advertisers, designers, and corporate strategy managers, mass consumption has reached epic proportions. Of course, there were a number of other factors involved in it — such as the relative buying power of consumers, flux in the marketplace, and the predilection of individuals towards the ideas and values behind consumption — but overall, the move to mass consumption has been carefully engineered and organized by profit-oriented capitalist interests to follow the demands of production and industry. The re-adjustment of the mass consciousness to a mind-set accepting of the values and rites of consumption has been fairly complete.

Unfortunately, in the consumer melee, we forgot to stop and ask what we were running into here; we neglected to look ahead to what the effects might be. Per-capita consumption has sky-rocketed on our planet, and with it has come a massive increase in natural resource use and waste production: the new, “Now more comfortable”, “As seen on TV” consumer culture has not been without its drawbacks. Now that we have looked at the origins of our culture, perhaps a reassessment is in order.