As the 20th and 21st centuries radically altered living through advances in industry and technology, there has been a vast response as to the dehumanizing aspects of these progresses. More specifically, cultural theorists focus on how consumerism, fueled by the engine of advertising, is restructuring traditional ideologies of sense of being and society, and not to their benefit. Alarms have been sounded; we are being lulled into believing we are independent consumers when, in fact, the choices are removed from us. We are being duped, it is widely felt, and intense examinations define exactly how these machinations occur. Unfortunately, even the most strident theorists may have missed the ;point. They are correct in believing that consumer choice is largely illusory, but they also perceive a victim here who has been absent from the scene for quite some time. Essentially, consumerist culture has not merely placated and misled the individual as consumer; it has shaped them into precisely what it requires to succeed, and it has done so in the extraordinary manner of completely redefining identity itself.
The idea that rampant consumerism is “consuming” the individual and the culture is not new, even as it generates increasingly heated argument. I personally know that, in the 1960s, youthful rebellion against commercialization led to a national movement celebrating non-material values. Since then, several interesting developments may be traced. One is that more focused attention on consumerism as mentioned. Advertising today is so omnipresent, in fact, that the individual who believes they have a choice in ignoring its messages may be delusional, for the advertising has so advanced in sophistication and presence that the very idea of what is real has shifted. What is bought and sold today, more than ever, translates to happiness (Cunningham 229). The other developments are just as striking in impact, in that the rebellious “hippies” grew up and began consuming, and the advent of the Internet and modern media offered explosive opportunities for the consumption to expand at unparalleled levels.
In assessing what this actually means for the individual and society, it is necessary to fully comprehend these impacts as such. They are both significant and disturbing, in that they are unprecedented in human history. Adorno adamantly holds that, in modern culture, advertising deliberately and insidiously belies its own purported meaning. It professes to exist for the consumer, yet the consumer is nothing more than an object within the marketing equation (Adorno 99). None of this may be reasonably disputed, as advertising employs a vast array of techniques to ingratiate itself with the consumer. Moreover, these techniques go further than advertising ever has before, and not merely in terms of reach. In the past, it sought to connect in representational ways; the happy housewife using the detergent was a model for contentment, targeted to a somewhat vague consumer trusted to wish to become that representation. Today, the appeals are blatantly directed to actual being. The genius of modern advertising is that it began to celebrate the “real” person and, in so doing, it altered the nature of reality for real people, inextricably linking it to the advertised association.
I consider the presence of Facebook in modern life, which seems to be a telling example of this process of cultural consumerism shaping the identity of the consumer. Facebook, as is widely know, is a vastly popular social website, and one that is increasingly relying on advertising within it. More exactly, modern advertising here has developed an exponential process of its own; as the advertisers use the selections made by consumers to target those most likely to buy from them, they then gain from the “friends” of those consumers linked to them. This in itself is not a particularly new strategy, as advertisers were among the first to recognize the exponential advantages in online interactions. What makes the Facebook experience different here is the “cultural osmosis” of the advertiser within the social arena. In scanning friends recommended to me by Facebook, for example, I come across businesses of all kinds interspersed between the actual people acquainted with my own list of friends. This astounding infusion of actual markets within “real” friendship circles is permitted because the advertising has merged its identity with its target. This is nothing more than a variation on the process of the basic social network itself: “The creation of a ‘social contact,’ an individual who may be beneficial or useful in the future, occurs and introduces the individual to the world of networking” (Porter). If we are ourselves, we are also just as much our jeans and our cell phones, and they have a right to social inclusion because we have elected to interact with them at these levels.
This is the great issue at play in consumer culture, and it is easy to understand why the harshness of it is avoided. Hints of this merged identity between the consumer and the consumed may be seen, however. For example, Porter takes issue with a core element of Culture Industry Theory, asserting that: “Horkheimer and Adorno give too much power to the ruling class and their ability to produce their ‘ideal’ consumer(s).” The point is valid, because even critics like Adorno and Horkheimer are still operating on a premise of some form of human identity remaining apart from these processes. There is, in fact, in most such theorizing a kind of “call to arms,” in which the real human being is being entreated to assert themselves and break the hold of consumerism. It is probably too late. For decades now, advertisers have so ingeniously structured marketing that the consumer willingly surrenders identity, and it is surrendered with no sense of loss whatsoever. No consumer would admit to being persuaded against their will to make a purchase, but the issue itself is irrelevant because the consumer has been transformed into the “advertiser,” and this has occurred because the individual has accepted that products define self and reality. I myself see this in today’s detergent commercial, wherein the ideal is not a clean, suburban home; it is a spiritually complete and natural-looking woman or man who affirms their being by using that soap. The soap will also, in one form or another, be listed among my potential friends on Facebook.
There is no denying that, traditionally, American culture is based on a concept of individual choice and self-governance (Cunningham 229). Sadly, the immeasurable force of consumerism has rendered those concepts little more than memories. Advertising has triumphed in a way even its harshest critics shy away from acknowledging; it has effectively merged itself within the American psyche, and the line between value of thing and value of person is gone. This is, perhaps, the last “choice” consumers made, in willingly giving up the self. Ultimately, consumerist culture has not lulled the individual as a consumer; it has transformed them into what it requires to succeed, and it has done so by redefining identity itself, and with the full cooperation of the consumer.
Adorno, Theodor. “Culture Industry Reconsidered.” The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Eds. Theodor Adorno, J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 1991. 98-106. Print.
Cunningham, Anne. “Autonomous Consumption: Buying into the Ideology of Capitalism.” Journal of Business Ethics 48.3 (2003): 229-236. Web. <http://philpapers.org/rec/CUNACB>
Porter, K. “Horkheimer and Adorno’s Culture Industry: Loss of Genuine Dialogue and Variation Due to Media and Mass Marketing.” University of Colorado at Boulder, 2009. Web