Definition of consumer culture

Consumer culture refers to a theory that human society is strongly influenced, even predominantly influenced, by consumerism. This concept states that economic and social cultures are based on the purchasing of commodities and services and that social functioning and behaviour is bound up with the fostering a desire for these goods. It is also intricately bound up with notions of advertising and globalisation.


The concept of "consumer cultures" is generally considered to have originated in the early twentieth century, during the period known as Modernism. This was a time when advancements in production methods and communication, which had begun during the Industrial Revolution at the end of the nineteenth century, led to a great deal of questioning about the ordering of society. Mass migration to work in new factories producing such items as automobiles created a more fluid, less provincial society, less defined by rigid class structures, that became defined by increasing prosperity and thus the ability to buy more and more goods. Advertising and free market politics were developed to exploit this ability.

Features of Consumer Culture

The primary feature of a consumer culture is the idea that people's identities are defined by the things that they possess and the services that they can afford to purchase. Meaning has become invested in things rather than, say, deeds. There is a perceived link between the accumulation of objects and the degree of happiness one attains. There is also a greater focus on leisure time (within which shopping is included). All these features are linked to free market politics that assert the right of individuals to choose which products they purchase and of industries to be able to compete for their money. One of the ways that industries and businesses seek to attract customers is through advertising, which burgeoned from the 1920s onward.


When consumer culture first developed, it was limited to the powerful states of western Europe and the United States. These countries had the economic power and political clout to develop their industries. However, with faster global communications and the need for these countries to export their goods, Consumer Culture has spread to many parts of the globe. While it is debatable how much traditional cultures, such as that in China, have been depleted by consumerism, the ability for goods to be exported and for advertising to reach across borders makes it a distinct possibility.


Consumer culture has had its critics since its inception, with religious and social groups during the 1920s decrying the perceived breakdown of traditional communities and values. Consumer culture has often been seen as thwarting people from developing their innate abilities and character by seeking to define them by objects outside of themselves. Guy Debord, a French theorist in the 1960s believed that consumer culture and advertising had become so persuasive that human beings no longer lived "real" lives but simulations of life that had been created by companies to seduce them. There has also been criticism that goods are over-produced and the need for companies to find new consumers has led to a global consumer culture (a feature of globalisation) whereby everyone wants the same things.


Critical ideas about consumer culture began with sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his book "The Theory of the Leisure Class," which was published in 1899. Karl Marx included analysis of commodity culture in his writings and sociologists and cultural theorists have debated it ever since. Key figures in the 20th century include Marshall McLuhan, whose book "The Medium is the Message" investigated advertising, and Jean Baudrillard, who theorises on where consumer culture and globalisation will take society in the future.

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About the Author

Dirk Huds has been a writer/editor for over six years. He has worked for bookshops and publishers in an editorial capacity and written book reviews for a variety of publications. He is currently studying for his master's degree.