The consumer culture is a powerful subculture in wealthy, industrialized nations. It seems to have originated in the United States in the 1950s. During this time, the population was growing rapidly because of the "baby boom" after World War II. Industrial productivity was rising as well, and relatively new psychological methods of advertising were being used to encourage consumption in order to keep the economy growing. These campaigns claimed that with the proper consumption, an ideal happy life could be achieved.
The source of this culture is the corporate sector of society, which produces the goods to be consumed. Beliefs that characterize this culture are:
  • Happiness is gained by purchasing the proper name brand goods. Consumer culture is a culture of passivity. The idea of creating things, as opposed to simply buying them, is totally foreign to it.
  • The importance of the "new". Faddishness can be found in other cultures, but in consumerism it seems to exist as an interplay between individuals, groups, and corporations. Fads, usually at the group but sometimes at the individual level, can be picked up by corporations and disseminated to the culture at large. Then, they become fashion, and tend to be enforced within the consumerism hierarchy fed by that set of corporations. Certain individuals are able to improve or maintain their hierarchical status by redefining fashion or creating fads.
  • Personality can be meaningfully defined in terms of brand loyalty. The modern concept of brands originated in the first half of the 20th century and were marketed as a way to be sure of getting a consistent and reliable product in a time when many things were still sold in bulk. Brands that are part of consumer culture are marketed as a way to achieve a lifestyle. One’s personality is defined by the message that one’s choice of consumer goods says about one’s desired lifestyle.

While consumer culture certainly bloomed in Post War America, it would be false to assume that it did not exist prior to that. The Industrial Revolution brought about mass production which required the creation of mass culture in order to sustain itself ("we must have more profit each year than we did in the prior year", rather than the more sane and rational "we must have a profit"). If you peruse microfiche of the New York Times, Times of London, etc etc from the last half of the 1800's you will see many many early experiments in branding and of course some truly outrageous claims (you think ads are dishonest now? Truth in advertising laws really have made some difference).

Advertising became more organized and "professional" over the decades, and certainly by the turn of the century the consumer culture was in full swing, with five and dimes, more and more factories, pulp literature, and a thriving periodicals industry. The roaring twenties throttled consumer culture up to full speed and drove it right over the cliff into the Great Depression. Consumer culture became a shadow of its' former self until post-war, at which time it came back in full force. The omnipresent ad industry and exponential growth of the phenomenon in the post war era certainly make it seem as though it never existed prior, but consumer culture had already been around for close to 100 years.

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