Consumerism is central to any study of the twentieth century. In its simplest form it characterizes the process of purchasing goods such as food, clothing, shelter, electricity, gas, water, or anything else and then consuming or using those goods. The meaning of consumerism, however, goes well beyond that definition and has undergone a striking shift from the way it was first used in the 1930s to describe a new consumer movement founded in opposition to the increased prevalence of advertising. It is with much irony that by the end of the twentieth century, consumerism came to mean a cultural ethos marked by a dependence on commerce and incessant shopping and buying. This shift in meaning reflects the shift in how commercial values transformed American culture over the century and how those values continue to shape the future of America in the twenty-first century.
Origins of Consumerism
In the early decades of the twentieth century, social life became increasingly commercialized. According to the famous Middletown studies, automobiles conferred mobility on millions, and amusement parks, movie theaters, and department stores had become serious competitors to leisure pursuits that traditionally had been provided by church-, home-, and family-centered activities. By 1924 commercial values had significantly changed home and leisure life as compared to 1890; even school curricula were being altered in order to accommodate an increasingly commercialized world.
As a response to these changes, a consumer movement emerged, and by the 1930s the rapid commercialization taking place shifted the movement's attention to advertising. This reform movement was predicated on the idea that the modern consumer often has insufficient information to choose effectively among competing products and that in this new era of increased commercialization, advertisements should provide potential consumers with more information about the various products. It also objected to advertising that was misleading, such as the image-based advertising that often played on people's fears and insecurities (such as suggesting that bad breath or old-fashioned furnishings prevented professional and social success).
Accordingly, the consumer movement sought policies and laws that regulated methods and standards of manufacturers, sellers, and advertisers. Although the preexisting 1906 Food and Drug Act had made the misbranding of food and drugs illegal, the law only applied to labeling and not to general advertising. With the support of Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rexford G. Tugwell, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1933 that would prohibit "false advertising" of any food, drug, or cosmetic, defining any advertisement false if it created a misleading impression by "ambiguity or inference." Ultimately, a significantly less strict form of the bill was passed, called the Wheeler-Lea Amendment, that is still the primary law governing advertising in the 2010s.
In the 1930s the consumer movement—which was first to use the term consumerism—sought assurances about the quality of goods sold to the public. For most people, shopping in the early part of the century was still a novelty and certainly was not central to daily life. This was due, in part, to the (relatively) modest amount of goods available and to the nature of the shopping environment, which was typically an unembellished storefront. Often the shopkeeper was an acquaintance of the buyer, and frequently the act of buying was dependent upon an active exchange of bargaining. This changed, however, with the expansion of fixed-priced and display-laden department stores, which flourished after World War II (though they had been in existence since just after the Civil War).
A New Definition of Consumerism
The end of World War II marked a significant point in the development of consumer culture in its second meaning, which strongly contrasts with the perspective of the consumer movement. At the end of World War II, the return of soldiers, a burgeoning economy, and a boom in marriage rates and childbirth created a new and unique set of circumstances for the American economy. Unprecedented prosperity in the 1950s led people to leave the cities and move to the suburbs; the increased manufacturing capabilities meant a rapid rise in the quantity and variety of available goods; and the rise and popularity of television and television advertising profoundly altered the significance of consumerism in daily life.
The heretofore unprecedented growth in inventions and gadgets inspired an article that appeared in the New Yorker in 1948 claiming "Every day, there arrive new household devices, cunningly contrived to do things you don't particularly want done." The author described Snap-a-cross curtains, the Mouli grater, and the Tater-Baker as examples of the inventive mood of the era. Prepared cake mixes were introduced in 1949; Minute Rice in 1950; pantyhose debuted in 1959, along with Barbie (the most successful doll in history); and in 1960 beverages began to be stored in aluminum cans. Due to their increased prevalence and an increase in advertising, these items went from novelties to an everyday part of American life. By the end of the twentieth century many of these items were no longer viewed as luxuries but as necessities.
During this time the government responded by encouraging behavior that favored economic growth. For example, the American government supported ads that addressed everything from hygiene to the "proper" American meal and, ultimately, the media campaign was a crucial element in the development of consumerism, or what had become a consumer culture.
Because most of the consumption was geared toward the household, many television advertisements were geared toward the housewife, the primary consumer in American households. In addition to advertisements, other factors specifically attracted women to shopping, such as the development of commodities that (supposedly) reduced household chores, an activity for which women were primarily responsible. Ironically (but quite intentionally), "new" products often created chores that were previously unknown, such as replacing vacuum bag filters or using baking soda to "keep the refrigerator smelling fresh." In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which derides suburbia as "a bedroom and kitchen sexual ghetto," a critique partially based on what many experienced as the cultural entrapment of women into the role of homemaker, an identity that was endlessly repeated in advertising images.
The mass migration to the suburbs also resulted in the construction of new places to shop. The absence of traditional downtown areas along with the popularity of automobiles gave rise to the suburban shopping mall, where, typically, one or two large department stores anchor a variety of other stores, all under one roof. The by-now prevalent television advertising further created demand for material goods. Unlike older downtown centers, the new mall was a physical environment devoted solely to the act of shopping.
The abundance of goods and ease with which to buy them led to a change in the American attitude toward shopping. Visits to shopping locations became more frequent and were no longer viewed as entirely a chore. Although it remained "work" for some, shopping also became a form of entertainment and a leisure-time activity.
Like the world's fairs before them, suburban shopping malls displayed the wonders of modern manufacturing and reflected a transition from store as merchant to store as showroom. In what was now a crowded marketplace, imagery became increasingly critical as a way of facilitating acts of consumption. According to Margaret Crawford in her essay "The World in a Shopping Mall," "The spread of malls around the world has accustomed large numbers of people to behavior patterns that inextricably link shopping with diversion and pleasure." Although this phenomenon originated outside the United States and predated the twentieth century, American developers—with their "bigger is better" attitude—perfected shopping as a recreational event.
As a result, malls eventually became a central fixture of American social life, especially in the 1980s. Increasingly bigger malls were built to accommodate the rapid proliferation of chain stores, and in order to provide the "consummate" shopping experience (and, conveniently, to eliminate the need to leave the mall), additional attractions and services were added. By the 1980s food courts, movie theaters, and entertainment venues enticed shoppers. These centers became such popular gathering places that they functioned as a substitute for other community centers such as parks or the YMCA. Teenagers embraced malls as a place to "hang out," and in response many shops catered specifically to them, which aided advertising in cultivating consumer habits at an early age.
Some chain stores, such as Barnes and Noble, offered lectures and book readings for the public. Some shopping malls offered other community activities, such as permitting their walkways to be used by walkers or joggers before business hours. The largest mall in the United States is the gigantic Mall of America, located in Bloomington, Minnesota, which covers 4.2 million square feet (390,000 square meters), or 78 acres. (The largest mall in North America is actually a million square feet larger—the West Edmonton Mall, located in Canada).
Advertising and Television
Increasingly, many elements of American social life were intermixed with commercial activity, creating what has become known as a consumer culture. Its growth was engineered in part by advertising agencies, which are sometimes referred to collectively as "Madison Avenue," a reference to the New York City street where many advertising agencies are headquartered. As advertising critics note, early advertising at the beginning of the twentieth century was information-based and described the value and appeal of the product through text. Advertisers quickly learned, however, that images were infinitely more powerful than words, and they soon altered their methods to fit. The image-based approach works by linking the product with a desirable image, often through directly juxtaposing an image with the product (women and cars, clean floors and beautiful homes, slim physiques and brand names). Although such efforts to promote "image identity" were already sophisticated in the 1920s and 1930s, the proliferation of television significantly elevated its influence.
Reflecting the importance of Madison Avenue and television, a television drama on the American Movie Classics network, Mad Men, ran its fifth season in 2012, having won the Emmy Award for Best Drama Series in each of its first four seasons. Its plot centers on advertising executives and staff members in the 1960s, and part of its appeal is its nostalgic look back to some favorite commercial pitches and products from that decade.
The marriage of image advertising and television allowed advertising to achieve some of its greatest influences. First, ads of the 1950s and early 1960s were successful in cultivating the ideal of the American housewife as shopper. Advertisements depicted well-scrubbed, shiny nuclear families who were usually pictured adjacent to a "new" appliance in an industrialized home. Second, advertising promotes the idea of obsolescence, which means that styles eventually fall out of fashion, requiring anyone who wishes to be stylish to discard the old version and make additional purchases. Planned obsolescence was essential to the success of the automotive and fashion industries, two of the heaviest advertisers.
A third accomplishment of image-based advertising is creating the belief, both unconscious and conscious, that nontangible values, such as popularity and attractiveness, can be acquired by consumption. This produced an environment in which commodification and materialism was normalized, meaning that people viewed their natural role in the environment as related to the act of consumption. Accordingly, consumerism, or "excess materialism" (another definition of the term), proliferated.
Advertising, and therefore television, was essential to the growth of consumerism and paved the way for the rampant commercialism of the 1980s and 1990s. Concurrently, there was a tremendous increase in the number of American shopping malls, reaching around 28,500 by the mid-1980s. The explosion of such commercialism was most evident in the sheer variety of goods created for purely entertainment purposes, such as Cabbage Patch Kids, VCR tapes, Rubik's cubes, and pet rocks. So much "stuff" was available from so many different stores that new stores were even introduced that sold products to contain all of the stuff. By the mid-1980s, several twenty-four-hour shopping channels were available on cable television.
Consumer Interest Groups
It is important to note that with the development of consumer culture, consumerism in its earlier sense was still being practiced. Ralph Nader (1934– ) is credited with much of the movement's momentum in the late 1960s. In 1965 Nader, a Harvard-educated lawyer, published a book about auto safety called Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile. This and the revelation that General Motors Corporation had been spying on him and otherwise harassing him led to passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. Nader went on to author other books on consumer issues, and he established several nonprofit research agencies, including Public Citizen Inc. and the Center for Study of Responsive Law.
Other organizations also arose to protect consumer interests such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Better Business Bureau. The Consumers Union, which was founded in 1936, continues to be the most well-known consumer organization because of its monthly magazine Consumer Reports, which evaluates competing products and services.
Aside from the efforts of such consumerist groups, the forces of consumer culture were unstoppable. In the late twentieth century the proliferation of commercial space reached every imaginable venue, from the exponential creation of shopping malls, "outlet stores," and "megastores" such as Costco and Walmart; to the availability of shopping in every location (QVC; Internet; midflight shopping); to the use of practically all public space for advertising (including airborne banners, subway walls, labels adhered to fruit, and restroom doors). Also carrying a world's-fair-type appearance for consumers are the many amusement parks or theme parks that have proliferated after World War II, particularly following the opening of the successful Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1955 and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida in 1971. The latter featured Epcot as of 1982, a futuristic venue with exhibits often sponsored by corporations designed to show the technology of tomorrow. This omnipresent visual environment reinforced what was by now an indoctrinated part of American life: consumerism.
The ubiquity of consumer culture was so prevalent that a number of artists throughout the century made it their subject matter. Andy Warhol, along with Roy Lichtenstein and others, won worldwide celebrity with endlessly repeated portraits of commodities (Coke bottles, Campbell's soup cans) and of celebrities, which seemed to be wrapped and packaged along with all of the other products. At the turn of the century popular films such as Fight Club and artists such as the mysterious and elusive Banksy began placing anticonsumer messages in the public eye.
Impact on Economy and Ecology
Nevertheless, consumerism became so critical to Americans that millions of people went significantly into debt to acquire goods. Credit, essentially a small loan that permits the purchase of goods and services with little or no cash on the promise that it will be repaid with interest over time, was essential for average people to be able to buy increasingly expensive goods. In 1990 the credit card debt of Americans was at a staggering $243 billion. By 1997 that number had more than doubled, reaching $560 billion, and in 2011 the Federal Reserve reported that the total U.S. consumer debt exceeded $2.5 trillion. This dramatic increase in credit card spending was undertaken, in part, because of the seemingly constant need to acquire newer or better goods. Many blamed the economic recession late in the first decade of the 2000s on decades of unchecked credit spending on both the individual and governmental level, and public figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Suze Orman frequently discussed how people were dealing with debt and how to cut up credit cards.
The relentless consumption of the twentieth century has had the inevitable result of producing tons—actually millions of tons—of consumer waste. According to a report produced by Franklin Associates for the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 88 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in 1960. By 1995 the figure had almost tripled, to approximately 208 million tons, and in 2005 the number had reached almost 246 million tons. This means each person generated an average of 4.67 pounds of solid waste per day, though that number has since fallen to around 4.43 pounds per day. A full one-third of all garbage discarded by Americans is packaging—an significant amount of mostly nondecomposable material for the planet to reckon with. A large percentage of this material is plastic, which is used to wrap or cover nearly every product sold, and in the late 1990s researchers discovered a swirling collection of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that they estimated covered a span of water the size of Texas. Known as the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, the debris field continued to grow during the early 2000s and, shockingly, represents only a small fraction of the waste that disrupts fragile ecosystems around the world.
Commoditizing Hopes and Dreams
As a variety of social critics such as Sut Jhally have pointed out, consumerism is popular because advertisements sell more than products: they sell human hopes and dreams, such as the need for love, the desire to be attractive, etc. It is inevitable that the hopes and dreams can never be reached through the acquisition of a product, which, in turn, has led to a profound sense of disillusionment and alienation, a problem noted by public thinkers throughout the twentieth century, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Noam Chomsky. Sport utility vehicles promise security through domination, Oil of Olay promises beauty in aging, and DeBeers promises eternal love with diamonds.
The twenty-first century's love affair with portable devices has set in motion a new wave of technology consumerism that is at once about the apparatus itself (the next generation of iPhone or iPad) and about the stream of consumer possibilities that it offers (games, MP3s, e-books, accessories, upgrades, and add-ons). Moreover, marketing has become as refined as the nanotechnology implanted in products, and the behavior of consumers is tracked with the greatest of precision, allowing individualized sales pitches to be made in every situation in which a mobile device is carried by the subject. Yet the products remain empty solutions that run counter to the inevitability of the human condition, for no product can ever meet its promise of absolute user fulfillment. But until Americans collectively begin to view themselves as something other than consumers, producers will keep on producing, and people will keep on consuming.