Consumer Capitalism Definition

consumer girl image by Lev Dolgatshjov from Fotolia.com

Consumer capitalism is a term that has been continually redefined since its introduction into popular culture in the 1920s. Largely, this is due to the rise of the public relations industry, which uses techniques derived from psychology and sociology to mass market consumer goods. Most commonly, capitalist consumerism refers to the notion of corporate entities manipulating the consumer to purchase (and continue purchasing) material goods, thus driving the capitalist economy.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Consumer capitalism deals with the idea that corporations manipulate customers to make purchases through techniques such as psychological applications to appeal to customers' desires.

Early Examples of Consumer Capitalism

Edward Bernays, a revolutionary author best known for his 1920s book "Propaganda," argued that manipulation of consumer wants and desires by the upper class was essential in organizing a democratic society. He is known as the guru or founder of the public relations industry.

His first great success was organizing one of the first consumer capitalist marketing campaigns selling cigarettes to women, on the psychological premise that women should declare their independence from their male counterparts by smoking.

Features of Consumer Capitalism

The entire consumer capitalist framework is predicated on the idea that the value of a product is determined by the desire of the individual, regardless of the actual need of the product. For instance, the consumer may think he wants or needs a product, and as long as this desire is maintained, the value of the product will continue to rise. Consumer capitalism functions on the basic economic paradigm of supply and demand, but without regard to a product's intrinsic value.

Capitalist Consumer Culture Effects

Many have argued, including noteworthy author Naomi Klein, that the trend of consumer capitalism has led to a disaffected public that has been effectively cut off from both themselves as individuals and from society at large. In being bombarded by consumer culture — some estimates state that individuals see anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements daily — people may lose sight of their own self-worth in the pursuit of material possessions, and fill the spiritual gaps in their lives with products instead of real connections with other human beings.

Theories and Speculation

Public relations officials have often maintained that advertising to the consumer capitalist population involves no coercion of the individual: that people choose products of their own free will. But some critics decry the practice as a conspiracy against the public, involving not only the mass media, but public institutions like schools and churches. In effect, the techniques of marketing have intertwined themselves with all aspects of everyday life in order to keep the public organized and docile at the expense of corporate profit.

Capitalist Consumer Culture Benefits

Economic growth in the industrialized world, especially in the U.S., has continued to expand for many decades due to the consumer capitalism culture. Since the advent of cheap oil in the early 1900s, the desire of commercial and material products has continued to rise, driving the price of goods upwards, thus driving economic growth around the world. Conversely, when consumers fail to consume, the industrialized economy declines and enters recession.

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About the Author

Andrew Schrader has been a professional writer and filmmaker since 2004. He works as a writer and director, holding a Bachelor of Arts in film and media studies from UC Santa Barbara. Schrader specializes in writing about technology and computer software.

Photo Credits

  • consumer girl image by Lev Dolgatshjov from Fotolia.com