As the title suggests, this essay is going to discuss, to what extent does consumer culture affect contemporary identities. In today’s society consumer culture is everywhere and we would probably not be able to survive without it. It became such an important part of our lives that some people even build their carrier around it. Most businesses in modern societies, all around the world work as successfully as they do, simply because people became consumers and they buy their products.
This essay is first going to look at why this change of attitude occurred and how exactly it brought about consumer culture. This will lead us onto how exactly consumer culture works and how it affects consumers. To answer the question fully, we will also look at the two view points on this matter. First we are going to discuss arguments which support the view that consumer culture creates modern identities. Secondly, arguments supporting the view that consumer culture is far less important than in the development of one’s identity.
Before the question itself is addressed, some background needs to be drawn about this issue. To be objective about this matter, it should be pointed out straight away that consumer culture is not the key aspect affecting contemporary identities. There is one very simple explanation to why this is true. Humans have been around for a much longer period of time than consumer culture and were successfully developing their identities even before consumer culture came about. Therefore it is definitely true that in the past, there were other things creating our identities sufficiently enough.
The definition of identity which Jodi Davis finds the most fitting is “My identity is determined by a complex mix of things“. The question however concentrates on contemporary identities. So is it possible that consumer culture managed to take over the power of all the other aspects of the creation of identity in the past 200 years? Some believe that the answer to that question is yes. In fact, Bauman argues that “The roads to self-identity, to a place in society, to a life in a form recognisable as that of meaningful living, all require daily visits to the market place”.
Similarly, Featherstone states that “criteria for the good life revolve around the desire to enlarge one’s self, the quests for new tastes, and sensations, to explore more and more possibilities”. (Featherstone, pg 67) Therefore many people would be happy to say that in today’s society, consumer culture has an enormous effect on our identities. To some extent, this is true. Jagger even believes that “we become what we consume”. (Jagger, pg 45) To explain why this is true, the term “floating signifiers” needs to be explained.
It refers to the fact that these days, all products and brands have a certain meaning/story behind them. People buy them because of these images they carry with them, rather than the actual use of the product. This leads us to the use vs. exchange value question. It could be argued that this was one of the main changes which caused consumerism to expand so much. Basically Use vs. Exchange conflict refers to the fact that at a certain point, people stopped buying goods for their use value and started buying them for their exchange value.
Material goods are used as communicators, not utilities. (Featherstone, pg 84) Today, consumerism has reached such level of success, that people no longer buy things because they need them, but because they like this image that products give them. “Consumption, then, must not be understood as the consumption of use-values, a material utility but primarily as consumption of signs. ”(Featherstone, pg 85) This way, the things we buy, create our identity, because people judge us based on what the products we use say about us.
In today’s society of strangers, it is the only way to judge a person at the first sight. So for example if someone was to drive a Ferrari, people would think of him as a successful individual. This assumption would be based on the fact that to be able to afford this kind of car, the individual must be very rich. Also the brand itself gives him the image of a young successful man. This shows that automatically, without even speaking to people or getting to know them, they already judge us based on our appearance.
Obviously we all want to be liked and accepted by others so we try to fulfil their expectations of us. We attempt to “live up to (but not above) the standards attached to the ‘social category’ into which we were born”. (Bauman, pg 27) These standards are also however determined by the media. Beauty ideals are set by TV, commercials and celebrities. They determine what’s “cool” and what isn’t. For example celebrities often act as beauty idols, so many women strive to look like them.
This inner need to ulfil society’s expectation forces them to buy products which promise to make them look like a celebrity. Whoever does not at least attempt to fit in within these standards, or even worse, tries to do the opposite, might be stigmatised for it. For example over the past 80 years, it became very popular for women to shave their legs. It became so popular that nowadays, women who don’t do it are usually highly stigmatised. This all roots in consumerism, because the initial reason why it became popular was to force people to spend money on razors- which were until then unnecessary.
Trying to fulfil these expectations creates our identity in a way. In most cases consumption of goods only affects our external identity but in some extreme cases it may even start to affect one’s internal identity. For example certain brands portray certain groups of people. So if one was to shop at Gucci or Chanel, one is expected to act a certain way. These brands carry the image of a very traditional, well behaved and upper class individual. So anyone wearing Gucci or Chanel strives to live up to the standards of these brands.
That way one is already is changing his behaviour as well as his appearance, which is affecting not only his/hers external, but also internal identity. So really, when we think about it, the identity other people think we have, judging by our appearance, is very artificial and fake. This is because it is only created by the products we use, not by us ourselves. But then again, we choose which products to buy and it is us who decides how to look for other people so whatever we wear or look like, it is a bit personalized by our taste and other choices we make. Campbell brings up an interesting point in his book.
He says that consumer culture develops our identity because since there is now such an enormous choice of products, it gives consumers opportunity to define their taste. They are able to decide what they like and what not. Also, since shopping malls are so anonymous, customers can try on anything they like, just to see how that “role” would fit them. This also helps them to find the image of themselves which they want to portray to other people. (Campbell, pg 159) However others believe that consumer culture is far less important than other factors in the development of one’s identity.
Jodi Davis divides identity into external and internal. External is “cultural classifications (nationality, race, religion and gender) as well as societal characterizations (family, career, and position or title)”. Whereas internal is “natural gifts, strengths, capabilities; the intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual characteristics that comprise our uniqueness and innate talents and abilities; our basic orientation toward the world around us, our learning styles, how we process and organize information, and other predisposed tendencies and characteristics“. Davis, pg 7) As we can see, there are a lot of things which define a person’s identity.
And we were to look at them individually; we would notice that we were actually already born with most of the crucial aspects of our identity and therefore are not able to change them. Our appearance is one of the very few aspects of our identity, which one can alternate. Therefore if a person is not happy with his overall identity, one of the few ways in which he can change it is through consumerism. In fact consumerism and advertising often aim to make the customer feel like this.
As the ads intimidated that anything natural about the customer was worthless or deplorable, and tried to make him schizophrenically self conscious of that notion, they offered weapons by which people could eclipse themselves”. (Ewen, pg 48) If a person dresses a certain way and uses certain products, he may be able to convince some people that he fits the standards set by media. As mentioned before, this is thanks to the fact that every product we buy tells people something about us. The image the product portrays might not be true, but just the fact that a person uses that product makes people believe it.
Even though the second part of this essay attempts to support the idea that there are other factors affecting contemporary identities more than consumer culture, we should not forget its importance. The fact that consumer culture helps us to change the only changeable part of our identity makes it, in my opinion, even more crucial. Consumer culture is actually very significant when it comes to understanding contemporary identities. It is its products, which create the image we try to portray to other people and that way fit into society.