Here's a copy of the wiki entry I wrote on Consumer Culture and Design.
What is consumer culture?
Consumer culture is the term used to characterise a society/ culture that defines itself by the products/ goods they buy/consume. Through television, media, advertising, brand loyalty, celebrity endorsements etc, consumers are seduced by clever marketing ploys to make them think they need or want a product even if this is not really the case.
Consumer culture is all around us whether we realise it or not. It is a global phenomenon. However it is more wide spread in western societies possibly due to the fact that it originated in the west. For many people it is a way of life and part of their identity without them even knowing it. Every day as consumers we are bombarded with images and messages all trying to convince us we need a certain product, that our lives would be so much better if we bought it. You only have to turn on the TV, open a magazine or newspaper and you’ll find such evidence of this. According to (Slater, D, 1997) consumer culture is ever growing and regenerating, thus continuously grabbing the attention of would be consumers.
Brief history of Consumer Culture
There are conflicting opinions as to when consumer culture first began. Some historians believe its beginnings were in the 18th century. Around this time people were starting to take more notice of style. A marked rise in this followed which in turn saw a rise in textile manufacturing and technologies to feed these business opportunities for money and style always go hand in hand.
Other historians believe it to have originated in France in the late 19th century. During this period French retailers started using marketing and advertising to boost their sales which in turn is believed to have been the first beginnings of the department store.
However it wasn’t until the years after the second world war that consumer culture was really underway in a big way. According to (Miles, S, 1998) this is when mass marketing began. It saw the rise in people’s wages which meant more disposable income which allowed people to think about indulging themselves in ways they could not have imagined before and in no time so they were into serious consuming. Miles also refers to Henry Ford and the term ‘Fordism’. This was the name given to the late Henry Ford’s philosophy on the mass-production system that he pioneered. He believed the key to success in business was mass production, which kept costs down, and because the costs of the manufacturing were less then wages were higher which as already mentioned allowed for more expendable income and more personal indulgence and more consuming.
Psychologist Dr Edward Bernays, nephew of Dr Sigmund Freud is considered to be one of the originators of the consumer culture we know today. He was a master at public relations. Bernays himself (Bernays, E, 1928) believed it was possible to control people’s ways of thinking and perception, to a certain degree, in order to make them consume more without them even realising it. Stating that propaganda in recent years proves this theory. He called this method of manipulation ‘Engineering of consent’ . Bernays also believed that this was an important part of a democratic society and by controlling the way people think he believed that society in general would run more smoothly and without conflicts.
An example of Bernays’ ability to manipulate the masses was when in the 1920’s when the American tobacco company came to him for help in trying to persuade women into take up smoking. In the BBC documentary (The Century of the self, May 2002) You see how Bernays orchestrated a media frenzy by sending a group of women to the New York city parade instructing them to light up their cigarettes on his signal. He of course alerted the media stating that a group of women’s rights activists were planning a protest ‘Lighting torches of freedom’. The media were there to catch the story and it became front headline news thus practically eradicating the taboo subject of women smoking.
Today Bernays’ techniques are still going strong. Whether we like it or not we are constantly being manipulated by marketing and advertising. How many times have you seen an advert on the television or in a magazine and thought ‘hey I’d like that’ When in truth had you not seen the advert you wouldn’t even have thought about it let alone consider buying it. So maybe next time you find yourself in this position stop a second and ask yourself ‘Do I really need this? or is it more that someone else for less than altruistic reasons thinks I need this? Being aware of marketing strategies helps us to question and even to resist but humans being human many of us still manage to be persuaded as some marketing is very subtle and cleverly presented.
Relevance of consumer culture to design practice
Without design consumer culture simply would not exist. For consumer culture to work we need things like advertising and marketing and these process have to start somewhere and that is through a design process. All the imagery we see everyday, all the slogans good and bad and mediocre have all been planned and designed. Designed in such a way as to temp you as a consumer to buy a certain product. For instance advertising. Before you can sell a product you need to have a target market in mind, somewhere to punt it in a profitable way, then there is how the item is going to be packaged/branded (again bearing in mind the target market) and how that item is going to be portrayed to this market in order close the deal of persuading, to make as many people as possible want the item enough to actually buy. The use of imagery, layout, colour choice, typography etc are all important factors and again knowing the target’s preferences etc. is vital so here comes in the market research industry to provide the right information required. If this is not well collated then the promotion of a product may miss the target or fail to grab people’s attention and ultimately the product will not sell resulting in loss of the desired profit.
Imagery plays a major part in consumer culture as it helps people to identify with the product and instantly recognise it. A prime example of this is the Nike logo which is the result of very careful market research which is built on year on year. This company understand their market and apply all their design and promotional expertise to this and they are very good at it. As soon as people see the logo they know straight away what brand it is and accept what it implies.
A major player in consumer culture and design was industrial designer Raymond Loewy. He designed everything from postage stamps and cigarette packets to cars. According to the website (http://www.raymondloewy.com/about/bio.html, 26th September 2010) some of Loewy’s most recognisable work was the coca cola bottle and the shell petrol logo which are instantly recognisable for many of us today. Through his designs Loewy managed to increase profits for many big businesses. An example of this was when the American tobacco company drafted him in to re-design the lucky stripe brand of cigarettes. Here was a designer who had a great feel for the market and as a result did he not only increased sales of this particular brand of cigarettes with the new packaging he also saved the company money as he changed the packaging form green to white therefore cutting out the cost of the green dye.
Imagery is so important and we as consumers may not realise it but when we see an object for the first time we make so many assumption about it in a split second. So it is important for designers to get this right and this only happens with market knowledge and understanding of possible mass reaction. The documentary (Objectified 2009) looks at this concept, how some of the world’s most influential designers come up with these ideas and how we as consumers react or interact with the objects around us. This documentary also looks at how designers are constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to keep us buying products and ultimately keeping consumer culture alive.
Of course we must also accept the importance of the resulting flow of money to steady growth in any developing society.
Bernays, E, 1928. Propaganda. New York: Horace Liverigh
BBC4, Curtis,A, 2002, The Century of the self, Documentary
Hustwit, G, 2009, Objectified, Documentary film
Miles, S, 1998. Consumerism as a way of life. London: Sage publications
Origin 68 T-shirt. Buy lots of things make life better you can have it all consume. May all your dreams come true but don’t forget Image available at www.teritic.com
Raymond Loewy The father of industrial (online) available at
Schor Scribner, J.B. Born to buy. Image available at www.frankwbaker.com/toybooks.htm
Slater, D, 1997. Consumer Culture & Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press,