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Consumerism

Consumerism And Mass Production

While the consumption of commodities has always been an aspect of human society, consumerism was not possible until after the first and second industrial revolutions (1760–1840 and late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively). The industrial revolutions, led by Great Britain and the United States, gradually caused the replacement of the artisan system, in which goods were produced locally by skilled workers on a small scale. Technological innovations, like the spinning jenny (1764), allowed fewer and less-skilled workers the ability to produce more goods, while the creation of national transportation networks, such as railroads, allowed for their wide dissemination. The factory system, in which labor was organized by specific tasks, rose into prominence, leading to the growth of cities, rising immigration, and the depletion of natural resources.

As the labor process was divided into separate tasks, laborers became estranged from the products of their labor, destroying the pride in craftsmanship they had experienced in the artisan system. Karl Marx (1818–1883), political economist and theorist of capitalism, described this disconnection as "alienation." Alienation allowed commodities to be seen not as the products of labor, which was hidden from consumers, but as fetishes, things imbued with an almost animate power in the world. A commodity's usefulness, or, in Marx's terms, use-value, became increasingly subordinated to its exchange value, or its social worth (generally its price or monetary value). As commodities lost any connection with objective value, they became fetishized. Advertising has aided and exploited commodity fetishism by suggesting that commodities have magical properties—that is, that buying a product will increase the consumer's social status or attractiveness. As the commodity has become the central aspect of social life, areas that were once outside of the economic sphere, such as the family or religion, are recreated as commodities for sale in the market.

While the industrial revolutions allowed for mass production, it was not until Henry Ford (1863–1947) introduced his assembly-line system for automobile production that goods could be produced in huge quantities cheaply enough to be widely accessible. Using Frederick Taylor's scientific-management principles, Ford assigned workers small, repetitive tasks that by 1913 allowed a car to be produced every ninety-three minutes. While the nature of this work was potentially unfulfilling for workers, Ford paid them well—his legendary five-dollar-per-day minimum wage—as a means of ensuring that he would have a mass of people able to afford the Ford Model T. The success of Ford's venture so changed the American economy and capitalism in general that the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) coined the term Fordism to describe it. Fordism is defined by an economy dominated by centralized mass production, state welfare, unionized workers, and consumption of standardized commodities, of which the Model T is the ideal example. This car was designed to appeal to all consumers regardless of class, race, gender, and so on. Under Fordism, yearly or seasonal product changes are minimal or nonexistent.

While advertising had existed previously—from town criers to handbills—advertising as a rationalized, scientific profession began only in the 1850s. In the mid-nineteenth century a variety of products, such as patent medicines, had come to be widely consumed in the national marketplace. Advertising became important as a means of creating desire for new, standardized products and especially of proving to consumers that these products were superior to homemade or local ones. In their search for status as professionals and experts, advertisers Assembly line at Ford Motor Company factory, Minnesota, 1935. Industrial advancements such as Henry Ford's assembly line, which was instituted in the early twentieth century, allowed products to be available to consumers in mass quantities and at affordable prices. © BETTMANN/CORBIS sought to distance their practice from the carnivalesque methods of peddlers, snake-oil salesmen, and other hucksters by relying on factual information soberly offered. Yet the carnival tradition never entirely disappeared, and even in this era, pictorial advertisements using magical and sensual imagery continued to appear in mass periodicals, though they were managed by the new national advertising agencies and therefore became increasingly standardized.

By the 1880s and 1890s the modern advertising system was in place. Instead of simply serving as middlemen between businesses and media outlets, advertisers sold their services as designers of campaigns, promoters of products, and experts on the media. Branding, in which products came to be known by a specific brand name, became increasingly important in differentiating essentially similar products from each other in the market. As these brand-name products were distributed across formerly insurmountable barriers of geography by steamships and trains, people in diverse regions could consume the same products, inculcating a sense of nationalism. In this way, the Fordist era promoted a nation founded on the "democracy of goods" in which everyone used the same consumer products, collapsing consumerism with national identity. Yet this "imagined community" was highly stratified by race, gender, ethnicity, and class. While the Fordist era of mass production shifted the United States, as well as other nations, from a country of artisan production, regional cultures, and individualized commodities to one of national brands, this nationalism came at the expense of many members of the nation itself, particularly people of color, the working class, and women. Blacks, for example, were portrayed in advertisements of this era almost exclusively as happy servants or as icons of slavery, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Working-class people were also rarely seen in advertisements, which presented a relentlessly middle-or upper-class world.

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