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.
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.
- Dittmar, H. (2007). The Costs of Consumer Culture and the “Cage Within”: The Impact of the Material “Good Life” and “Body Perfect” Ideals on Individuals’ Identity and Well-Being. Psychological Inquiry, 18(1), 23-31.
- Oxford Bibliographies: Consumer Culture
- Psychology Today: Consumer Culture and Well-Being