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Consumerism And Post-fordism

The term post-Fordist has been used to describe the shift from an economy based on mass production and mass consumption of identical goods to one distinguished by "flexible specialization." Production is specialized through the use of technology. The post-Fordist labor force is multiskilled and global, which has eroded the class consciousness of Fordist labor movements. Importantly, consumption has become specialized as well. No longer is there one product designed for the mass of consumers. Instead, products are target marketed to particular niches, using demographics, psychographics, and other marketing techniques. At this point, style becomes the major method of differentiating products. Advertisers encourage consumer desire to become more volatile and individualized. Products are not marketed by extolling their utilitarian value but by proving to the consumer how he or she can use them to display a particular identity to the world. The development of a post-Fordist economy is difficult to pinpoint, though scholars suggest that the 1970s in the industrial West was a turning point. Even within one economy, such as the United States, the development of post-Fordism did not occur unilaterally through all industries. While current Western economies can be described as post-Fordist, Third World economies are not necessarily so, though First World post-Fordism relies on the exploitation of labor, resources, and markets within the Third World.

Scholars agree, however, that one of the most significant aspects of the post-Fordist economy is the reliance on market segmentation as opposed to mass consumption. Market segmentation emphasizes particular aspects of a product or creates a particular product to appeal to specific market segments, which are differentiated by income, gender, race, ethnicity, age, geography, and so on. This marketing paradigm developed out of the baby boom of the post–World War II era and the social and identity movements of the 1960s that became the predominant paradigm by the 1970s and 1980s.

The social and identity movements of the 1960s suggested that people understood their identities as differentiated by a number of characteristics. In response, advertisers and marketers explored the potential for "breaking up America" and the world into an ever-increasing number of segments of people who had "lifestyles" that were defined by the particular commodities they consumed. The development of cable television is an ideal example. Beginning in the late 1970s, cable networks were designed to appeal to particular types of viewers, whether women (Lifetime), African-Americans (Black Entertainment Television [BET]), and youth (Music Television [MTV]), through the content of their programs as well as the flow of shows and commercials. As important as "signaling" or attracting the desired type of viewers, however, was ensuring that unwanted types of viewers were not watching.


Soap was first sold under a brand name in Great Britain in 1884, placing it indelibly within the history of British imperialism and Victorian notions of gender and race. Soap advertisements portrayed soap as a fetish, imbued with the power to cleanse and bring civilization. As Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) argued in an 1885 testimonial for Pears soap, "If Cleanliness is next to Godliness, then surely SOAP is a means of GRACE." Soap advertisements consistently used magical imagery to hide the intense labor performed by working-class maids employed in middle-class homes. Middle-class women were never shown as laborers, creating a gendered ideology where middle-class women were "angels of the household" whose major role was that of consumer.

Soap advertisements also offered a racial ideology, described as "commodity racism" by Anne McClintock. A Pears soap advertisement of 1899 argued that "The first step toward lightening THE WHITE MAN'S BURDEN is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. PEARS' SOAP is a potent fact in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances." The scientific racism that posited evolutionary notions of biology and history came to be projected onto commodities, which would do the work of empire. Soap became the symbolic carrier of whiteness, imperialism, and Victorian gender roles.

Race and ethnicity are becoming increasingly critical market segments. In 1994, according to Brandweek, at least half of all Fortune 500 companies were using ethnic or racial marketing techniques. Latinos, for example, are one of the fastest-growing ethnic minorities in the United States, and corporations are searching for ways to appeal to this segment, which is divided into a variety of subsegments (Mexican-American, Puerto Rican–American, Cuban-American).

An important corollary of these developments is that as style becomes central in product differentiation, it is necessary for styles to change rapidly. What has been described as the essentially postmodern practice of pastiche is an outgrowth of these marketing and economic changes, in which capital recycles old styles in a desperate attempt to create products that seem "new and improved." As the commodity becomes even more divorced from use-or exchange-value, it becomes a sign, able to be given a variety of possible and mutable meanings depending on the particular market segment. Price fluctuates not according to actual production costs but according to how much a particular consumer will pay. Cultural intermediaries, or those members of the professional-managerial class that work in cultural industries such as advertising or public relations, serve as cultural guides for the middle class, helping these consumers navigate the array of potential commodities available for consumption and offering their lifestyles as models of how to live successfully in this new world of constant consumption.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConsumerism - Consumerism And Mass Production, Consumerism And Post-fordism, Soap, The Politics Of Consumerism