The twentieth century may rightly come to be known as the century of the consumer. It was the century which saw consumption change its meaning – from its associations with withering away and decay to a source of vibrancy, pleasure and life. Throughout the century, industrialized countries saw standards of living increasing, vast new ranges of products came into existence, and consumption moved constantly away from a mere survival activity into a pleasure activity, a meaning activity and an identity activity.
- Choice-maker versus habit-forming. Choice is possibly the biggest trademark of contemporary consumption. The profusion of choice confronting today's consumer is prodigious. Equally, when consumers are denied choice, for example by state organizations, private monopolies or occasionally other organizations, there are anguished howls of 'foul play'. No organization, private or public, can today appear to oppose consumer choice. Yet, choice is a double-edged sword. Too much choice is confusing and frustrating; choice between identical alternatives is easily perceived as meaningless; and choice without information is valueless. The cost of exercising choice is formidable; and like customers at a Chinese restaurant, many consumers give up trying to exercise choice and opt for ready-made combinations which alleviate the need for choice. They form habits, appearing to be displaying loyalty towards specific brands, when in fact they are only seeking refuge from the hailstorm of alternatives. Don't get me wrong. When alternatives are not available, consumers are the first to rebel.
- Conformist versus rebel. If choice is the trademark of contemporary consumption, cool is the ultimate objective for many of it practitioners. "Cool" is a beloved word of advertisers and traders. As Pountain and Robins argue, cool means living on edge, skirting with danger and disaster. "Cool is still in love with cigarettes, booze and drugs. It still loves the sharp clothes and haircuts, but has discovered a preference for winners over losers. It still loves the night, and flirts with living on the edge. … Everyone is a rebel now, no-one is ordinary, no-one wants to be a face in the crowd, everyone wants intense experiences: indeed everyone wants more intense experiences than their friends and neighbours" (Pountain & Robins, 2000). And yet, this rebel, this unique and obstinate individualist appears incapable of resisting the endlessly mutating trends of fashion, compulsively imitating his neighbours, those same Jones with their irritating habits of being a step ahead in their tastes of clothes, holiday destinations and even venues for children's parties. When is rebellion not rebellion and becomes merely following a crowd, all wearing identical badges reading 'rebels'?
- Individualist versus tribalist. Even if not a rebel, the consumer still will maintain that he is an individualist, possessing unique tastes, desires and styles. In short, the consumer according to many experts surrounds himself with objects which fashion his identity. Identity – that mark of uniqueness, individuality and continuity – is crafted through hard working of appropriating and intermingling commodities, discovering unique combinations which reflect what is a personal style. Yet, those same identities are derivative of those real or imaginary groups, referred to by Maffesoli (1995) as neo-tribes. Tribalism rather than individuality provides, in the view of many experts, the basis for identities which are too fragile, unstable and provisional to withstand the next wave of tribal upheavals.
- Sovereign versus dependent. The sovereignty of the consumer is taken for granted – the consumer is the only figure in contemporary societies free to exercise prejudice, bias and discrimination towards that which he likes and against that which he dislikes, without having to feel guilt or account for his prejudices. It is on this freedom that the success of capitalist economies is seen to be founded. The obliteration of the old Soviet economies offers proof evident that only markets can generate economic growth, reconcile demand and supply and generate innovation, creativity and progress. And markets rest on the absolute sovereignty of the capricious consumer. Yet, if the consumer is sovereign, why is he in constant need of support, help, education and protection? Why is there no shortage of advocates and spokespeople ready to take on his cause, defend his rights and act on his behalf? And what type of sovereignty is one founded on shopaholism, addiction, compulsion and ignorance? Why is every company seeking to discover a niche where dependent consumers may be cheerfully provided for?
- Meaning-seeker versus spectacle-devourer. The objects we use communicate meanings about their owners and users. This has always been a feature of consumption, yet never as prominent as today, when it is possible to make more inferences about a person from the brand of car they drive than from any amount of self-professed views and opinions. The views we profess can easily be lies, the objects which we use may mislead but they do not lie. Moreover, consumption has moved in a big way to fill the meaning-vacuum created by the decline of religious, political and other large-scale ideologies and meaning-systems. As McCracken (1988, p. 136) has argued goods are "both bulletin boards for internal messages and billboards for external ones." But how much meaning do such messages carry, when any codes needed to decipher them fragment and mutate daily? As Baudrillard has argued, the quest for meaning becomes futile in an era of flying signifiers, whose message are at best spasmodic, intermittent and fuzzy. Meaning-seeking, according to this view, represents a quaint relic of the days before the rise of the new cathedrals of consumption, which replace the search of meaning with the enjoyment of pure spectacle.
- Rational versus emotional. Rationality does not get a good press these days. Cold, constipated, masculinist and hopelessly old-fashioned, it yields the ground to the easy sway of emotion and its displays. Whim, caprice, gut feeling and cool emotion become the guiding forces of the consumer, according to these views. And yet, rational considerations of utility, value and economy are far from dead. One need look no further than the majority of press advertisements, the success of value-for-money mega-stores and the persisting consumer delight in obtaining more for less to realize that requiems to consumer rationality and parsimony are exaggerated and premature. Far from the hurly-burly of street spectacle and cathedral consumption, lurk armies of sober, quiet and methodical consumers counting pennies and comparing prices.
- Explorer versus comfort seeker. Whether seeking spectacle, meaning or value-for-money, contemporary consumers are portrayed as living on high adrenaline, seeking the excitement of the new. Malls, high streets, shops, magazines and internet locations, all become arenas for exploration, affording thrills akin to those of tourism and travel. This is the spice of consumer society. Consumer explorations frequently take the form of a quest of difference, which stands in direct opposition to the comforts of uniformity. Comfort calls for familiarity, sameness and absence of risk. "No surprises" proclaims the logo of a famous hotel chain, making plain the dilemma. Who wants to travel to far away places, visit different people and experience different cultures, and yet meet no surprises? Comfort-seekers, of course.