Consumer Capitalism Definition

consumer girl image by Lev Dolgatshjov from

Consumer capitalism is a term that has been continually redefined since its introduction into popular culture in the 1920s as the public relations industry became ubiquitous, and used techniques derived from psychology and sociology to mass market consumer goods. Most commonly, this term refers to the idea that consumption drives the capitalist economy through corporate manipulation of the consumer to purchase (and continue purchasing) material goods.

Early Examples

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.


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.


Many have argued, including noteworthy author Naomi Klein ("No Logo"), 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 are exposed to an average of 2,000 advertisements per day), 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.


While 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--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.


Economic growth in the industrialized world (especially in America) has continued to expand for many decades due to the consumer capitalism culture. With 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; and, thus, driving economic growth around the world. Conversely, when consumers fail to consume, the industrialized economy declines and enters recession.



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