In looking at the ‘Consumption is Communication’ question it is necessary to consult a range of theorists from those of the 1920s Frankfurt School to those of recent years. This will in turn help in the understanding of how a consumer culture has developed and exactly what certain terms mean. Society’s obsession with material items in such a commercial world and the trends of consumption will also be looked at as well as the investigation of some of the advertiser’s methods i.e. the utilization of celebrities. Finally, a discussion will ensue into the effect of such a consumer culture on the public and the role that the public plays.
Jean Baudrillard stated that ‘Today, we are everywhere surrounded by the remarkable conspicuousness of consumption and affluence, established by the multiplications of objects, services, and material goods.’ (Baudrillard, 1988, p29). The term ‘consumption’ and ‘consumer culture’ are phenomena of the twenty and twenty-first centuries, where the buying of material goods is becoming ever more prevalent. This essay seeks to ascertain how the knowledge of these phenomena can be used to the advantage of advertisers to produce maximum profitability and competitiveness. The theories of more traditional writers from the Frankfurt school will be contrasted alongside a more modern approach with the view of explaining what is meant by a consumer culture and its use to advertisers. The negative aspects of this culture on modern society will also be looked at.
‘Men of wealth are no longer surrounded by other human beings, as they have been in the past, but by objects,’ which has resulted in ‘the permanent festive celebration of objects in advertising.’ (Baudrillard, 1988, p29). It is true to say that people in the twenty-first century have a greater disposable income, with the wealthy becoming increasingly more so. With this has come the desire to purchase and consume material items to the extent that a ‘consumer culture’ has been created. Greater emphasis is placed on what people wear, what car they drive, where they go on holiday and what items they own. The phrase ‘consumer culture,’ however, is itself an oxymoron in the way it contradicts itself. Traditionally, ‘culture’ encompasses the appreciation of high art, music and enlightenment. It is not traditionally thought of as a business, a consumer industry. ‘Commercialism and profit-making dominate our daily built environment.’ (Gottdiener, 2001, p189) Culture should be more than a manufactured product but it seems that industry has encroached upon more of our culture, making it a multi-million pound commercial business.
The words ‘consumption’ and ‘consume’ suggest that a person consumes, almost devours something, quickly and easily, before merely discarding it and moving on to the next object. Advertisers can use this to their advantage as people are always on the look out for bigger and better things, the latest designer bag, and the newest and superior model of car. The next gimmick is always round the corner. Everything has become a commodity and ‘commodities appear to illuminate those who bought them, to have the power to transform purchases into certain kinds of person living a certain kind of life.’ (Rose in Bonner, 2003, p105) People want to surround themselves with goods that reflect their status, their income and their success. In modern day society advertisers focus particularly on the younger generation who place importance on what is ‘in’ at the time, teenagers pleading with their parents to have an ipod, the latest games console or the ‘coolest’ trainers. As Luhmann explains:
Cult objects which enable young people to form themselves into a distinct group are created as products, equipped with design and name and simultaneously offered in advertising and production.’ (Luhmann, 2000, p49)
This is communication in itself. If a product becomes popular within a certain group of young people they become ‘craze’ items and are a must for every teenager. It may only be a passing trend but alongside advertising campaigns every teenager who has purchased an item becomes a walking billboard to show their peers exactly what they are missing out on.
Within our consumer culture it is not just items or commodities that we are consuming. Commodities in human form are utilized by advertisers to boost their selling power. Celebrities are circulated images on the basis of their own fame and help increase sales. Celebrities are the new role models of our generation, no matter what they have done to gain this notoriety. These new role models are part of the culture of distraction today, where consumer culture is not able to produce integrated culture, because it brands each commodity as momentarily distinctive and ultimately irreplaceable. (Rojek, 2001, p90) Like the passing phases of various material items, celebrities too have a limited shelf life and it is up to advertisers to capitalize on the fleeting moment of a certain superstar to maximize their profitability. Consumers read in magazines and in newspapers about the people they have seen on television, most are interested in their lifestyles. So when they see their beloved Kylie Minogue advertising her new perfume or Kate Moss talking about her new clothing range the people rush out to buy:
‘On the principle that the public recognition of the celebrity as an admirable or desirable cultural presence can be transferred on to the commodity in a commercial or advertisement.’ (Rojek, 2001, p92)
So, by buying a product endorsed by a certain celebrity the consumer feels they have become that little bit closer to a celebrity lifestyle and the advertisers have capitalized on this notion.
There is the example of the TV commercial for Canon cameras where Andre Agassi jumps out of a sports car onto the tennis court. After rejecting the traditional and uniform ‘tennis whites’ he instead opts for flashy, multi-coloured spandex. The court dissolves to a frantic, digitized cityspace and Agassi turns round to utter the words, ‘image is everything.’ (Ewen, 2000, p194). The advertisers for Canon have chosen the well-known tennis superstar to advertise their product which immediately attracts the viewer more than if it had been an unknown actor. By using the slogan ‘image is everything,’ on one hand it evidently relates to the high quality photograph that the camera is said to create, but it also refers to the idea of individual image. Agassi has rejected his usual tennis attire, showing his rebellious side and confirms that actually his image is everything that the way he looks and what clothing he wears are of high importance. Whilst advertising the camera he is also indirectly revealing to the viewer that it is good to be a rebel and that individuality is essential to being a popular and successful tennis player. The effect of this is that subconsciously the consumer is being told to consume to make themselves look and feel great, ‘image is everything – the over-whelming yardstick of success.’ (Ewen, 2000, p194)
One criticism of consumer culture is that it leads to mimetic and one-dimensional behaviour. Theodor Adorno states that ‘the conformism of the buyers and the effrontery of the producers who supply them prevail. The result is a constant reproduction of the same thing.’ (Adorno, 1997, p134) Therefore, the media exacerbates the tendency to be mimetic. One of Adorno’s key arguments is that the consumer industry, or ‘culture industry’ as he refers to it, has an assembly-line characteristic where products and commodities are mass produced which in turn leads to the standardization of these goods and the homogenization of society. (Adorno, 1997, p163) Whereas advertisers would argue that they are providing the public with increased choice and variety, the Frankfurt School’s argument would be that far from empowering the masses it is actually reverting them to the lowest common denominator. (Gottdiener, 2001, p184) The Frankfurt School, set up in 1923, aimed:
‘To reveal the social contradictions underlying the emergent capitalist societies of the time and their typical ideological frameworks in order to construct a theoretical critique of modern capitalism.’ (Strinati, 1995, p53)
Whilst these theories are quite old they are very much relevant and supported by modern writers in today’s capitalist society. Ewen comments that ‘if consumption is choice, then choice is inevitably dependant upon one’s ability to consume.’ Adding to this is the idea that ‘if choice is limited to the marketplace, those priced out have no voice. (Ewen, 2000. p197) So whilst advertisers may feel that there is the choice for everyone, it is only really available to the more wealthy middle and upper classes.
Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen’s essay entitled ‘Shadows on The Wall,’ discusses the idea of the real world and human beings perception of it using Plato’s metaphor where people are likened to living in a cave. People look up at the mouth of the cave towards its innermost wall, where they see the shadows of the activity taking place outside of the cave, the ‘real’ world. These shadows, however, are not reality they are a mediation of the actual world that for the inhabitants of the cave constitutes reality. (Ewen, 2000, p189) So for the consumer society ‘our shadows on the wall are projected by the social, cultural, economic, and political currents that mark our time.’ (Ewen, 2000, p193) The mass media, and within this, advertising, can then manipulate our ideas of reality for their own purpose as every moment of human perception is viewed, by marketers, as a potential media opportunity, a point of contact for advertising (Ewen, 2000, p195). Leiss supports this idea when he says that people are ‘primed by a barrage of messages about what he or she needs,’ and that before the age of 20 the average American has seen 350,000 television commercials. He goes on to say that:
Advertising has already identified particular emotional and social artifacts forcing consumers to engage in intensive efforts to bind together their identity and personal integrity.’ (Leiss in Crawford, 1996, p12)
When Adorno states that, ‘consumers appear as statistics on research organization charts,’ (Adorno, 1997, p123) it suggests that advertisers are manipulating the fundamentals of consumer culture by gathering human perceptions and using them for their own ends.
There is the criticism that advertising manipulates and controls the consuming public where ‘the customer is not the master or the empowered element…is not the subject but the manipulated object.’ (Witkin, 2003 p47) An alternative idea and one that advertisers use to their benefit is that ‘the triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.’ (Adorno, 1997, p167) Luhmann agrees with this stating that ‘advertising declares its motives. It refines and very often conceals its methods.’ (Luhmann, 2000, p44) This suggests that the public know exactly what advertising is trying to do, it is there to sell a product and is just one part of the whole consumer culture that so many are embroiled in. Consumers are still compelled to buy; they see through the adverts and see past the shadows implying that they are content in their own passivity. The result of this appears to be that this culture will never change. While people buy into the adverts and the adverts continue to sell the products the circle of consumerism is continuous.
After looking into what exactly consumption is and how it has resulted in a consumer culture it is clear to see that advertisers definitely need a sophisticated knowledge of how this culture and the consumers within it work. Theorists, whether from sixty years ago or today, are in general agreement. Crawford states that ‘the ethos of consumption has penetrated every sphere of our lives. As culture, leisure, sex, politics and even death turn into commodities, consumption increasingly constructs the way we see the world.’ (Crawford, 1996, p11) As consumption is now such a big part of life, advertisers must and do utilize this to be instrumental. Advertisers need to know their consumers, how they think and what they want. Advertisers have also capitalized on the modern idea that ‘image is everything.’ People are more concerned than ever about the commodities that they surround themselves with and it is fair to say that the advertising industry have exacerbated this situation further. They have used the public’s interest in celebrities and the obsession with self and identity to their advantage and adapted their methods accordingly. In his essay ‘Consumer Society,’ Baudrillard comments that:
Marketing, purchasing, sales, the acquisition of differentiated commodities and objects / signs – all of these presently constitute our language, a code with which our entire society communicates and speaks of and to itself. (Baudrillard, 1988, 48)
Consumption communicates the wants and needs of modern society and in an industry with millions of pounds at stake advertisers need this to improve their own means of communication. Advertisers need consumers to function but in order for the consumer industry to thrive consumers also need the advertisers to make sure that they have access to the very best products.