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The Politics Of Consumerism

As consumerism has become the fundamental doctrine of contemporary capitalism, individuals have been encouraged to consider themselves primarily as consumers rather than as citizens, workers, or members of religious denominations. While in many ways this ideological shift has been spurred by capital as a means of ensuring a continual increase in consumer spending as a means of growing the economy, numerous individuals and organizations have used this consumer identity as a way to encourage government control over business and to protest social, racial, political, and economic injustice. For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s women's organizations such as the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the League of Women Shoppers led consumer protests for food legislation and against rising meat prices. Dr. Kathryn McHale, the general director of the American Association of University Women, summarized the consumer movement's philosophy in 1935 when she said "there is no interest which is more fundamental than that of consumers. All residents of our nation are consumers in large or limited way. No matter what our other interests, we have in common one function—that of consumption" (Cohen, p. 34).

Even the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s utilized consumer identity to justify its claim for equal rights. The first and most-remembered protests were the Montgomery bus boycott, when African Americans refused to consume public transportation as a protest against their inferior treatment in the transit system, and the lunch-counter sit-ins, when protesters refused to move from whites-only dining areas. These tactics showed the government and the American public the correlation between citizenship and the right to consume—in the consumerist world of post–World War II America, being banned from consumption demonstrated second-class status.


Psychographics is a method of market segmentation based on personality, lifestyle, and geodemographics. These techniques promise to offer marketers the ability to define their target buyers by their beliefs, values, and self-perception. This allows for micromarketing, or marketing tailored to the level of very small segments, such as neighborhoods. For example, a department store that serves a neighborhood of young unmarried people may not carry children's products, while the same department store in a different but nearby neighborhood, with a different geodemographic profile, might do so. Psychographics also allows marketers to appeal to consumers based on their perceived self-perceptions. Does this consumer generally make decisions based on status? Beliefs? The online service "You Are Where You Live" offered by the marketing analysis company Claritas in the early 2000s is an example of the use of psychographics and geodemographics.

While consumer movements have been successful to a degree in protecting certain rights, they can be faulted for accepting the overwhelming ideology of consumerism and, more widely, capitalism. Instead, other individuals and organizations have sought to protest the ideology of consumerism through a variety of methods and means. While consumerism relies on the creation of desire, anticonsumerist movements focus on "need." Religious sects such as the Amish and the Shakers adapted the Christian idea of voluntary poverty, for example, to create a more godly existence based on need, while the counterculture of the 1960s used voluntary poverty to justify its renunciation of material goods and capitalism. However, even voluntary poverty or its secular corollary, "voluntary simplicity," created by Duane Elgin in the 1980s, have been adapted by the mass media and business. In the 1970s the Stanford Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that offers corporate clients advice on emerging trends, estimated that almost 75 million Americans had "simple" sympathies that business should utilize (Kleiner, 1996). Still, many people advocate voluntary simplicity as necessary to limit the negative environmental impact of a consumer-driven economy, which produces huge amounts of waste and uses resources at an ever-quickening pace.

Another central critique of consumerism is related to globalization. Multinational corporations are cited for destroying local and indigenous resources and cultures in order to make way for their products. The term McDonaldization has been coined to describe the phenomenon of local cultures being stamped out by multinational corporations spreading a homogenous Western (usually American) culture. However, scholars dispute the effects of McDonaldization. While many see local cultures being destroyed by the forces of globalizing popular culture, others assert that local cultures incorporate and adapt these forces, creating a syncretized culture. Still, either side must acknowledge the uneven power relationships that exist between a cultural behemoth like the United States and Third World markets.


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Mary Rizzo

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