What is... psychology series

What is… Consumer Culture

graphic of a head with cogs turning inside

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is consumer culture.

Mel of Caramel (Learner at Love) did a post recently called Buy Now Pay Later that mentioned images she’d seen pictures of luxury vehicles accessing food banks. It got me thinking about the pressures to consume newer, bigger, shinier things, and how some people seem to be more immune to it than others.

What consumer culture involves

Oxford Bibliographies describes consumer culture as “a form of material culture facilitated by the market, which thus created a particular relationship between the consumer and the goods or services he or she uses or consumes.” It’s not about the act of consumption itself, but rather the status that’s associated with consumption and the inequalities that this creates.

An article in Psychology Today described two broad types of goals and values. Extrinsic goals/values arise when people accept the messages of consumer culture and focus on the pursuit of money, material goods, and status. They also try to project an image reflective of that. Intrinsic goals/values, on the other hand, relate to intangibles like inward experiences, meaning, and relationships. Placing more weight on intrinsic, non-consumerist values and goals has been associated with greater life satisfaction and better mood.

An article in Psychological Inquiry argues that the importance of possessing certain items isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as some items can become symbolic markers of the life histories of self or others. However, consumer culture creates a number of problems beyond simply the potential importance of possessions.

The article goes on to say that consumer culture, fuelled by advertising, perpetuates myths like the “body perfect” and what it means to live the “good life.” We’re also encouraged to seek and express our individuality through the products we consume.

When people are unaware that these messages are being conveyed to them, entrapment can occur. It’s when people think advertising doesn’t affect them that they tend to be most susceptible. Developing greater media literacy can improve people’s ability to evaluate the messages that they’re receiving and detect attempts to manipulate them.

Creating change

So, what can be done to bring about change? I don’t think there’s an issue of inevitability when it comes to individual responses to consumerist messaging. The tendency to focus on extrinsic or intrinsic goals and values probably has a fair bit to do with one’s upbringing.

I grew up in quite an anti-consumerist household, and that mindset was very strongly ingrained within me by the time I had any real degree of purchasing power. I’m exposed to the same kind of consumer culture messaging, but I’m able to recognize it and choose to reject it.

It would be nice if corporations and their advertisements didn’t continue to fuel this consumer culture, but they’re unlikely to be motivated to do so voluntarily, and I’m not sure how regulations could effectively address this.

Perhaps if there was greater awareness about these insidious effects, people would be able to reevaluate their consumer behaviour and start thinking about shifting from extrinsic to more intrinsic goals and values. I would think that changes in consumer behaviour and demand would be the most powerful incentives for changes in industry.

How do you tend to respond to consumer culture messaging? Do you have any ideas to bring about change?

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

Sources:


Therapy Mini-ebook collection from Mental Health @ Home

32 thoughts on “What is… Consumer Culture”

  1. great article……..this is so ingrained in our society that many people have no idea they are being brainwashed into buying things they don’t need. We have worked hard at raising children that value their hard earned money and to spend it wisely and frugally.

  2. It’s easy to get sucked in. I’m not strongly materialist, but I have a weakness for what as a librarian I see as knowledge, in the form of books in particular. The amount I spend on them is small, though, as I buy a lot second-hand, usually from charity shops where the money is doing some good.

    There is the global ‘Buy Nothing’ Day. I once worked out that observant Jews keep approximately two months a year when we don’t buy anything (the exact figure varies a bit from year to year). Nevertheless, some religious Jews are still very materialistic, so I wonder how much it helps if you don’t make a conscious effort to change.

    1. I would tend to think that consumption of material goods that inherently bring enjoyment to an individual can happen without accepting the messaging of consumer culture.

  3. For me it changed a bit under the influence of different things. Not having a lot of money helps tremendously 🙂 The strongest effect was when I finally realized how I was manipulated by those big corporations to buy into the ‘trap’, the trap to keep you consuming. I bought a lot less stuff when I was severely ill and that behavior was reinforced by not being able to shop during isolation.
    I think we need to open our eyes and see for ourselves, try not to buy random things for a while. I make a list of things that I really need (or want), I let it be and look at it after maybe 2 weeks and than I re-evaluate if I really need the item or want it. I also use this approach while with online shopping. Just put it in a list or your cart, log off and come back a few days later.

    1. I think that part about finally realizing is what’s key. The messaging will still be there, but once you can see it for what it is, it’s easier to make more deliberate choices.

  4. This is so interesting. I really ought to post some photos of my car sometime. I mean, she’s pretty much a clunker that you’d have to see to believe, but I love her. Kind of like in The Princess Diaries–that princess loved her clunker of a car.

    I passionately hate advertisements. Unless they’re giving direct promises (“Buy our toothpaste! It will keep your teeth healthy,”) then I sense obvious and flagrant manipulation going on, and I HATE IT. You know what I’m talking about–scripts that are more fictional than direct and that are filled with subtle efforts at manipulation that have nothing whatsoever to do with the product itself. Hate. Hate. Hate. For decades now, I’ve been putting the commercials on mute. I can’t stand to listen to them and be manipulated. And their manipulative attempts offend my intelligence. “We here at the toilet-paper company understand how important toilet paper is to you in these trying times, and we’re working hard to…” Shut the freak up. You’re excited to profit from the panic, and I’m not remotely convinced of anything else. Quit your virtue signalling. And even if they add, “And that’s why we’re donating one dollar for each sale…” I’m like, whatever. I shouldn’t have to make your president richer for you to donate to the needy. What do you want, a pat on the back?

    HA HA! Oh, you got me started today!! 😀 I’m not kidding. I hate commercials with a bloody passion.

    Granny Smith used to say we should watch the commercials because they’re funding our television programs. [Facepalm.] She had a point… but still.

    Anyway, I don’t think I’m into status, but everything I spend money on does make me happy. Pretty colorful things, happy environment, or even the expensive toothbrush I just bought that flosses your teeth while you brush–I think it will highly improve my dental health. Great blog post! You’ve got my mind in full gear this morning, and now I’m awake!!

    1. Granny Smith had an interesting point. Advertising ends up funding a lot of things that we take advantage not having to pay for. That’s especially true in the internet age. If it weren’t for advertising, there are a lot of things we’d have to pay for that we currently get for free. Not that it makes advertising a good thing, but it’s a tradeoff that we collectively as a society have to decide whether it’s worth it or not.

  5. I’ve heard many experts say that there is NO way we can save the earth (and ourselves) from Climate Change without greatly reducing our consumption, which means that capitalism and its “constant growth” model has to go.

  6. I occasionally buy things I don’t need, such as books and new clothes, but it’s easy for me to resist other stuff bc I simply don’t have the space for it. I cut back on entertainment spending even before the lockdown… just wasn’t getting that much pleasure out of it…

  7. We do not consume much television/streaming media so that we don’t see many full adverts. Yay!! A tv helped raise us so that we disdain much about tv, including ads. Especially with no live sports, our family tv is rarely on anymore while we are awake (they all stream together after we go to bed). We can visually ignore ads on our phone. Books don’t have ads on the pages!!!! We are aware of external appearances. It was primary to our birth family. We want to be more internally motivated, and we put effort into it.

    Hi, Ashley!!🌈🌈💕❤️ (Love, Littles!!!!)

      1. I can’t have it so by definition I should be unhappy. I am not. In my past people who bought themselves everything, even partners actually hated me for it. There’s a long list of what one can buy, even experiences. ; )

  8. I related so much to this post and to your last post. The amount of stuff that customers buy at work is absolutely ridiculous. I hate pretty much everything about our capitalist societies. If I ever have any children, I’d hope to raise them to value the truly important things in life over material possessions.

    1. I’d hope the same thing for myself. Certain material possessions can be very useful, but seeking happiness through possessions probably isn’t going to work out very well.

      1. I completely agree. I’ve often wondered where travel fits into all of this, but I suppose if it’s primarily to have new experiences rather than just to show off that you went to X location/ landmark or simply for the sake for ticking places off, I don’t that’s materialistic. I also love going to concerts (though I haven’t been to any in a long time) and I’m never quite sure how to feel about those either.

        1. If something brings you joy, then hey, why not. I used to do a lot of travelling, which luckily I had the money to do, and it really opened my eyes to the way people live beyond just where I am. Experiences can potentially enrich life more than possessions can.

  9. How interesting!, I was only mentioning this – the consumer culture – to John the other day, how most of the world’s societies have a consumer culture framework. We were talking about this pandemic virus, how it is damaging countries’ economies and how vital it is to finally get things up and running again, albeit in a different way of course. Because it is our consumerism that fuels our societies; without it, the societies as we know them will breakdown.

    But consumerism has many ‘prices’ (!) to pay. One, as you mention in your blog post, is the effect is has on our mental health. When needing to have the latest and shiniest thing puts us in debt etc. When feeling less because you don’t have much and how expensive items give you a little high – but only for a little while.

    The narcissism is screaming and its out of control. Beware of Instagram, the brainwashing interspersed within our viewing habits (internet/t.v.), the magazine articles on celeb and the latest and greatest fads and products…

    I agree that a lot of our attitudes towards materials goods is entrenched during childhood/upbringing. My own childhood was affluent (enough), we never wanted anything because my Dad was a workaholic; his mistresses were his small businesses. I rarely saw him and he was mainly highly critical, mean tempered, emotionally and verbally, with me, although he had his sweet moments where I believe I saw the real him. My Mum was cold, disinterested emotionally in us, had a volatile temper with a little physical abuse, while seeing to her children’s physical cares. I was picked out of the three for being their scapegoat.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    Ashley, I do apologise! I’ve written the longest ever comment because I felt a concise thought wasn’t enough. Your consumer culture post really got me thinking about the roots of it starting in our own individual childhoods, of how we personally react to it. I hope you don’t mind the lengthy reply.
    ~ Faith xo
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    The other two children were spoilt – they always asked for stuff – whereas I was happy, content in my imaginary worlds and around the nature in which I grew up. I didn’t have to be around people to feel whole. I’d learnt young that I couldn’t wholly depend on anyone. But I grew up with anxiety and depression due to this dysfunctional parenting and I suffered/suffer a kind of biological depression whereby the pressures in the weather trigger a ‘feeling of dread’, an enormous anxiety and low feeling.

    My Dad was a shopaholic always buying himself expensive gifts, or treating my Mum who isn’t that materialistic – as long as she has her big car. We were born later due to my Mum’s ‘inability to have children’! and then there was a time where there was no thriving business or businesses, just a small 2-person fledgling business producing printed signs etc. In those days they were like a couple of hippies and my Dad told me they were happier THEN, before the worries of running a business, before looking after three children.

    We didn’t always wear brand new clothes, let alone ‘designer’ ones!, we mostly got gifts only at birthdays and Christmases – except in their teens/20s my siblings got new things quite often, during the 1980s – we had a modest holiday once a year. But we did have weekend excursions – not every weekend – to a wildlife park, stately home (this is Britain!), museum of varied types, our favourite craft shop. Rarer still the ballet, orchestras, the theatre, or cinema. As a teen – I was working full time from 15! – I was permitted to drive the new BMW or the Volvo but myself owned a car not even worth a hundred pounds. And it didn’t bother me.

    There were private lessons of horse riding, piano lessons, dance lessons, and swimming; I drove 3-wheeled motorcycles at 10, could shoot an air rifle at 12. I was lucky in that regard. At 16 I had to pay my own way though, from my very modest salary.

    The only time it really bothered me was when the main business, the only one left was ‘lost’ due to the recession of the early ’90s. Because I was strongly aware of the sudden departure of the Safety Net.

    My Mum was uninterested in business and my Dad didn’t have that support from her because for too long he’d treated her as a spoilt child. He didn’t have to give up his business but he began feeling at a loss as how to deal with various problems – a workforce of 80 needs a confident employer. He began to doubt himself and this is where the trouble began.

    Most parents talk to their child about what the young person might want to do for a living. Not mine. I was guilted and bullied into staying at the factory and I thereby lost the chance of free college. You have to pay from 19. A month before I turned 19 the factory was gone. I’d lost my job and the recession was rife. The college said they couldn’t pay for me to train as a nanny.

    I looked around at my drug-taking older brother living in his free house (courtesy of parents) and vowed I’d never be like that. He was into the drugs since 14; he wasn’t resilient as I, never had my balls. He grew up entitled and behaved badly, probably exacerbated by my parents’ coldness (although they were materially giving to him). I gave a lecture to my younger sister on the importance of getting her college education which would enable a more secure lifestyle through a better paying job. At first she listened……………then she followed my brother’s way and at the same time cut me out of her life (for being too boring and sensible) and then ‘stabbed me in the back’ out of her jealousy of me.

    I applied for almost every job in the two local papers. I still had my Yamaha RXS100 motorcycle. I kept the other two jobs I’d had whilst working at the factory, selling Avon door-to-door and doing bar work. But these were really hard times. There were hardly any jobs. I began to think of working overseas. I decided if I couldn’t get a job as an au pair in continental Europe, which was my first choice, I’d get a job on a cruise liner or failing those options, join the Navy who were actively recruiting.

    So, at that time in my life for the next three years I scrimped and saved. Buying ‘materialistic’ things for the sake of buying them was out of the question. And had never been a part of me.

    When I started making real money at 22, in Germany, then married with two step-kids half my age, working two jobs as a nanny and in a bar. Oh, THREE jobs because I got saddled with most of the housework/childcare being a woman and him being lazy and sexist! When I started making real money I only saved. The most I spent it on for myself was filling up a full tank in my small car. And the rest that wasn’t saved was spent on his children and household bills – and later, I found out to my horror on his drug addiction. You marry who you feel comfortable with, i.e. family of origin. In a way I’d got together with my brother (the drugs and laid-backness) and I was my father, the workaholic.

    Today, due to chronic illness and disability stemming from an untreated physical injury (the docs took no action!) I am poor, materially. I had to swallow my healthy pride and accept government benefits – which have been axed twice and threatened to be cut a third time but my local MP who I’d written to fought for me!

    I moved back in with my Mum and we try to take care of each other as we’re able; later John moved in, all the way from New Brunswick in Canada. Not your typical relationship and more of a friendship because of certain difficulties; we’ve known one another 13 years now, a few months before my dreadful, disabling and painful injury. He had manual work before and not much money, and now he’s my carer. I sometimes fall and don’t handle stairs or any distance well.

    Rather then easing my own inner turmoils with things I always tried saving. Saving money for a better life; my own small house and small business, for children. I briefly had my own tiny one-woman businesses (teaching English abroad, translation, graphic art, bar-work and cleaning – I looked after children of six families but that was all but one, salaried) but life didn’t give me any of my goals. Despite my very determined actions. Because life doesn’t work out like that.

    I mainly miss money to pay for much needed everyday healthcare, including operations. But we eat quite well. My Mum helps financially a little – when one of my dogs needs vet help or I need warm clothes because the old ones are literally falling apart. (Clothes never mattered that much to me anyway). I’ve bought MANY books over the years! Because I am housebound at times (due to health and money is tight) so I love to read – write and craft.

    Chronic illness made me slow down. I learnt to appreciate the birdsong, the affection from my dogs, the wonders of nature again… And sometimes I have aspirations of becoming a successful writer. These are also RICHES. Does the main wealth come from people-relationships?

    Thanks Ashley for your thought provoking post. I must now make dinner lol. Have a lovely weekend with Piggies and co. xox

  10. How interesting!, I was only mentioning this – the consumer culture – to John the other day, how most of the world’s societies have a consumer culture framework. We were talking about this pandemic virus, how it is damaging countries’ economies and how vital it is to finally get things up and running again, albeit in a different way of course. Because it is our consumerism that fuels our societies; without it, the societies as we know them will breakdown.

    But consumerism has many ‘prices’ (!) to pay. One, as you mention in your blog post, is the effect is has on our mental health. When needing to have the latest and shiniest thing puts us in debt etc. When feeling less because you don’t have much and how expensive items give you a little high – but only for a little while.

    The narcissism is screaming and its out of control. Beware of Instagram, the brainwashing interspersed within our viewing habits (internet/t.v.), the magazine articles on celeb and the latest and greatest fads and products…

    I agree that a lot of our attitudes towards materials goods is entrenched during childhood/upbringing. My own childhood was affluent (enough), we never wanted anything because my Dad was a workaholic; his mistresses were his small businesses. I rarely saw him and he was mainly highly critical, mean tempered, emotionally and verbally, with me, although he had his sweet moments where I believe I saw the real him. My Mum was cold, disinterested emotionally in us, had a volatile temper with a little physical abuse, while seeing to her children’s physical cares. I was picked out of the three for being their scapegoat.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    Ashley, I do apologise! I’ve written the longest ever comment because I felt a concise thought wasn’t enough. Your consumer culture post really got me thinking about the roots of it starting in our own individual childhoods, of how we personally react to it. I hope you don’t mind the lengthy reply.
    ~ Faith xo
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    The other two children were spoilt – they always asked for stuff – whereas I was happy, content in my imaginary worlds and around the nature in which I grew up. I didn’t have to be around people to feel whole. I’d learnt young that I couldn’t wholly depend on anyone. But I grew up with anxiety and depression due to this dysfunctional parenting and I suffered/suffer a kind of biological depression whereby the pressures in the weather trigger a ‘feeling of dread’, an enormous anxiety and low feeling.

    My Dad was a shopaholic always buying himself expensive gifts, or treating my Mum who isn’t that materialistic – as long as she has her big car. We were born later due to my Mum’s ‘inability to have children’! and then there was a time where there was no thriving business or businesses, just a small 2-person fledgling business producing printed signs etc. In those days they were like a couple of hippies and my Dad told me they were happier THEN, before the worries of running a business, before looking after three children.

    We didn’t always wear brand new clothes, let alone ‘designer’ ones!, we mostly got gifts only at birthdays and Christmases – except in their teens/20s my siblings got new things quite often, during the 1980s – we had a modest holiday once a year. But we did have weekend excursions – not every weekend – to a wildlife park, stately home (this is Britain!), museum of varied types, our favourite craft shop. Rarer still the ballet, orchestras, the theatre, or cinema. As a teen – I was working full time from 15! – I was permitted to drive the new BMW or the Volvo but myself owned a car not even worth a hundred pounds. And it didn’t bother me.

    There were private lessons of horse riding, piano lessons, dance lessons, and swimming; I drove 3-wheeled motorcycles at 10, could shoot an air rifle at 12. I was lucky in that regard. At 16 I had to pay my own way though, from my very modest salary.

    The only time it really bothered me was when the main business, the only one left was ‘lost’ due to the recession of the early ’90s. Because I was strongly aware of the sudden departure of the Safety Net.

    My Mum was uninterested in business and my Dad didn’t have that support from her because for too long he’d treated her as a spoilt child. He didn’t have to give up his business but he began feeling at a loss as how to deal with various problems – a workforce of 80 needs a confident employer. He began to doubt himself and this is where the trouble began.

    Most parents talk to their child about what the young person might want to do for a living. Not mine. I was guilted and bullied into staying at the factory and I thereby lost the chance of free college. You have to pay from 19. A month before I turned 19 the factory was gone. I’d lost my job and the recession was rife. The college said they couldn’t pay for me to train as a nanny.

    I looked around at my drug-taking older brother living in his free house (courtesy of parents) and vowed I’d never be like that. He was into the drugs since 14; he wasn’t resilient as I, never had my balls. He grew up entitled and behaved badly, probably exacerbated by my parents’ coldness (although they were materially giving to him). I gave a lecture to my younger sister on the importance of getting her college education which would enable a more secure lifestyle through a better paying job. At first she listened……………then she followed my brother’s way and at the same time cut me out of her life (for being too boring and sensible) and then ‘stabbed me in the back’ out of her jealousy of me.

    I applied for almost every job in the two local papers. I still had my Yamaha RXS100 motorcycle. I kept the other two jobs I’d had whilst working at the factory, selling Avon door-to-door and doing bar work. But these were really hard times. There were hardly any jobs. I began to think of working overseas. I decided if I couldn’t get a job as an au pair in continental Europe, which was my first choice, I’d get a job on a cruise liner or failing those options, join the Navy who were actively recruiting.

    So, at that time in my life for the next three years I scrimped and saved. Buying ‘materialistic’ things for the sake of buying them was out of the question. And had never been a part of me.

    When I started making real money at 22, in Germany, then married with two step-kids half my age, working two jobs as a nanny and in a bar. Oh, THREE jobs because I got saddled with most of the housework/childcare being a woman and him being lazy and sexist! When I started making real money I only saved. The most I spent it on for myself was filling up a full tank in my small car. And the rest that wasn’t saved was spent on his children and household bills – and later, I found out to my horror on his drug addiction. You marry who you feel comfortable with, i.e. family of origin. In a way I’d got together with my brother (the drugs and laid-backness) and I was my father, the workaholic.

    Today, due to chronic illness and disability stemming from an untreated physical injury (the docs took no action!) I am poor, materially. I had to swallow my healthy pride and accept government benefits – which have been axed twice and threatened to be cut a third time but my local MP who I’d written to fought for me!

    I moved back in with my Mum and we try to take care of each other as we’re able; later John moved in, all the way from New Brunswick in Canada. Not your typical relationship and more of a friendship because of certain difficulties; we’ve known one another 13 years now, a few months before my dreadful, disabling and painful injury. He had manual work before and not much money, and now he’s my carer. I sometimes fall and don’t handle stairs or any distance well.

    Rather then easing my own inner turmoils with things I always tried saving. Saving money for a better life; my own small house and small business, for children. I briefly had my own tiny one-woman businesses (teaching English abroad, translation, graphic art, bar-work and cleaning – I looked after children of six families but that was all but one, salaried) but life didn’t give me any of my goals. Despite my very determined actions. Because life doesn’t work out like that.

    I mainly miss money to pay for much needed everyday healthcare, including operations. But we eat quite well. My Mum helps financially a little – when one of my dogs needs vet help or I need warm clothes because the old ones are literally falling apart. (Clothes never mattered that much to me anyway). I’ve bought MANY books over the years! Because I am housebound at times (due to health and money is tight) so I love to read – write and craft.

    Chronic illness made me slow down. I learnt to appreciate the birdsong, the affection from my dogs, the wonders of nature again… And sometimes I have aspirations of becoming a successful writer. These are also RICHES. Does the main wealth come from people-relationships?

    Thanks Ashley for your thought provoking post. I must now make dinner lol. Have a lovely weekend with Piggies and co. xox

    1. Thanks for your comment! Life manages to teach so many lessons along the way. The piggies are very much a source of riches in my life. I’m very thankful that saving was a priority when I was able to, as it’s allowed me to have a greater sense of security now.

  11. Well this was an interesting read I must say!

    I kind of feel like a hypocrite being an advertising student myself while saying this but corporations will play on showing their products as consumers’ needs with impunity and a strange satisfaction coated in the justification of businesses need for advertisements in the contemporary world. But who is to be blamed? We live in a highly capitalistic world where money means everything, from your social standing to all the things that it promises.

    To unlearn the awe for material gains to be “happy” or “yourself” as you put it, needs deconstruction of the conditioned mind which was taught the importance of capital and the things you can get if you have it.

    I think an option to educate people around you who need to see intrinsic value in things would be to speak spiritual. As with spirituality can you inculcate the sense of real happiness that lies beyond material gains.

Leave a Reply