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.
The century started with the Fordist Deal, a far-reaching social arrangement which married mass production with mass consumption, inspired by Henry Ford’s deal to his employees -- quiescent, monotonous work in exchange for unimagined consumer delights, comforts and riches. Of course, Ford's outrageous arrogance towards the customer "You can have any color you wish, so long as it is black" gave way to a far more deferential attitude, where pleasing customers, pampering to their every whim and offering them choices became de rigeur.
Today's organizations as well as Western societies are dominated by the cult of the consumer – the consumer is not longer an outsider to the world of organizations, but a palpable presence, whose desires and tastes dominate what goes on in most workplaces. Nor is the consumer absent from the world of public sector organizations, hospitals, universities, schools and even government bureaucracies, as they increasingly address their constituents as customers, seeking to offer them excitement, pleasure and choice. Our society is gradually dominated by what Ritzer calls cathedrals of consumption, settings which "allow, encourage, and even compel us to consume so many of those goods and services." (Ritzer, 1999, p. 2). These settings include theme parks, cruise ships, casinos, tourist resorts, hotels, restaurants and above all shopping malls. The idea of cathedrals of consumption suggests their quasi-religious, enchanted qualities of spiritual renewal, accomplished in spaces where children and adults can allow fantasy to run free, to become reality.
Which is the 'real' cathedral?
Contemporary management has redefined itself in a major way – shifting its attention from the toiling worker to the fantasizing consumer. What management does is to furnish, in a highly rationalized manner, an endless stream of consumable fantasies linked to specific products, inviting consumers to pick and choose. Thus the grey, rational and impersonal world of modernity becomes re-enchanted in post-modernity, through mass festivals, riotous colour, wild flights of imagination and a pandemonium of temptations. In the new cathedrals of consumption, consumption is constantly advocated promoted, enhanced and controlled, not so much through direct advertising, as through indirect means such as spatial arrangements, uses of language, festivals, simulations and extravaganzas, as well as the cross-fertilization ('implosion') of products and images. Thus consumption gradually colonizes every public and private domain of social life, which become saturated with fantasizing, spending and discarding opportunities. If Henry Ford was the manager who epitomized mass production, Walt Disney has posthumously become the emblematic figure of our time – the manager redefined from agent of rationalized production to orchestrator of mass fantasies.
Yet, as the as the consumer assumes centre-stage in contemporary societies, his/her image becomes less distinct, his/her desires less comprehensible and his/her thinking less predictable. Like those furtive images caught by surveillance cameras, the face of the consumer is indistinct and his/her motives opaque. Many claim their consumer as their turf -- economists, sociologists, social psychologists, cultural critics, postmodernists, advertisers, journalists, pop-semioticians, marketers and marketeers, historians of ideas, environmentalists and activists. Yet, each of these groups all come up with their 'own' visions and images of who the consumer is, and what he stands for and there is little agreement about it. In my own work with Tim Lang (Gabriel & Lang, 2006, 2008), we identified various conflicting images of contemporary consumers, each highlighting different features and disguising others.
Dominant among them are
- 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.
These are by no means the only conflicting images of the consumer that we can observe, though they suffice to suggest that the consumer has become a hotly contested terrain, the point where so many contradictions of contemporary society converge. Many claim to understand the consumer, speak on his behalf or address his needs and desires, yet the picture that emerges is fuzzy, self-contradictory and ultimately unsatisfactory.
Of course, much hinges on the consumer, whether for example, he or she is seen as sovereign (requiring no self-appointed spokespeople to defend his or her interests) or victim (easily manipulated and outwitted by the apparatuses of capital), explorer (thirsting after new experiences and meanings) or activist (campaigning on behalf of collective rights), communicator (using objects as bridges to relate to fellow humans) or rebel (using objects to express rejection and rage), identity-seeker (trying to find a real self in the objects which he or she consumes) or hedonist (concerned above all with personal pleasure). These are all attempts to frame the consumer, and, more often than not, to sell particular self-views to the consumers themselves, either by flattery, by cajoling, by moralizing, by seduction or by straight manipulation.
But while all these battles are raging above and around the heads and wallets of the consumer, people get on with their everyday lives, trying to make the best of them, whatever their lot, and also to make sense of them. It would be plausible and attractive to envisage consumers in this way, i.e. as oblivious to the consternation they are causing to the chattering classes and discourse makers. At a stroke, this analysis would halt any systematic attempt to understand people's behaviour as reflexive, self-conscious consumers, leaving the terrain to those who have an interest in defining them in particular ways. However, consumers themselves would be unwilling to allow themselves to be talked about, without voices of their own. For better or for worse, many of us think of ourselves, at least part of the time, as consumers. Whether reading the consumer pages of newspapers, listening to exhortations from politicians or consumer organizations, visiting theme parks and supermarkets, or trying to stretch the family budget at the end of a week, we unavoidably have to confront ourselves as consumers, and make decisions as consumers. Why else do individuals become so pre-occupied with what they buy, give and eat? Why do they seek advice, turning to consumer agony aunts which fill the media? One cannot opt out of being a consumer, living in a non-consumer fashion, in a non-consumer landscape. Consumerism has become part of our daily reality.
But consumers themselves are divided up and set against each other. Inequalities among them are already sharp, leaving substantial numbers of them window-shopping with only restricted opportunities to make a purchase and many, in the Third World, without even windows to window-shop. This is contributing to the fragmentation of consumers' experiences. It accounts, at least in part, for the diversity of images of the consumer pursued by intellectuals and cultural commentators. While some consumers, in the First as well as in the Third Worlds, may spend inordinate amounts of time deliberating whether to invest in a new swimming-pool, a new yacht or a second home abroad, others have to choose between feeding their children or buying them a new pair of shoes. Given such social chasms, it is difficult to talk about all consumption and all consumers as coming under the same ethos or constraints, i.e. as being uniform entities or acting as a unified force. We can now see why the fragmentation of images of consumption is itself a symptom of the malaise of contemporary consumerism. Under the accelerating influence of environmental factors, growing Third World anger, and increasing social fragmentation within the West's own backyard this malaise is likely to get worse.
The same fragmentation of the consumer may keep academics busy, since each tradition can claim the consumer for itself, exaggerating those features which fit its arguments, while blatantly disregarding the rest. But this stops them from recognizing the overall historical trend. Just as most Marxists were censorious about consumption, many cultural theorists have tended to celebrate it. Neither is adequate. We recognize that the fragmentation of consumption is itself a feature of contemporary society. But the matter does not rest there. The weakening of the Fordist Deal suggests that Western consumerism as we have known it may have entered a twilight phase. During the high noon of consumerism, its Golden Age, the face of the consumer was clear, as was the significance of his or her every movement. The pursuit of happiness through consumption seemed a plausible, if morally questionable, social and personal project. Today, this is far more problematic. The economic conditions have become fraught, the social inequalities have once again widened, insecurity is experienced across social classes, poverty and homelessness have resurfaced on a massive scale. Cultural fatigue threatens to overcome even the well-off. The brashness has been knocked off the consumer society. To many, experimenting with drugs may be more exciting than the wares of the fashion industry. Downshifting and a move against brands and logos cannot be ignored. (Klein, 2000; Schor, 1998) Proponents of consumerism live in the belief that tomorrow will see another bright day. This vision may well be the product of wishful thinking, at least for the West.
A more realistic picture is that casualization of work will be accompanied by casualization of consumption. Consumers will lead precarious and uneven existences, one day enjoying unexpected boons and the next sinking to bare subsistence. Precariousness, unevenness and fragmentation are likely to become more pronounced for ever increasing sections of Western populations. Marginality will paradoxically become central.
In a world where everyone claims the consumer for her or him self, the consumer must now be deemed unmanageable, claimed by many, but controlled by few, least of all by consumers themselves. The notion of unmanageability seems to be entirely appropriate for an era where the capacity to plan must give way to opportunism. In a world where future labour is exhorted to be flexible, multi-skilled, taking each day as it comes, what calculations can consumers make about the day after?
To retailers and producers of goods and services, this may not be a terminal difficulty. We are not for one minute suggesting that people will cease to consume, that they will stop furnishing their houses, clothing their children and enjoying themselves. We do, however, think that such consumption will become increasingly spasmodic, ad hoc and reversible. So long as a certain proportion of the population at any one time is in a position to consume with energy and gusto, there will be markets for the most unusual of goods. To increasing numbers of consumers, however, a future based on mortgages, careful husbanding of resources and long-term financial commitments will become problematic. Opportunism will feature on an ever increasing scale.
Unmanageable consumers behave in arbitrary, unpredictable and inconsistent ways. They may reject what seems sensible, alluring and rewarding for what appears inferior, decrepit and second-rate. They may be ridiculously amoral one minute and overwhelmed with moral considerations the next. The may seek comfort while they claim to desire excitement, may seek solace in the familiar or look for the dangerous. To producers, advertisers and marketers they represent quite simply a chaotic environment, an environment in which connections between causes and effects melt away or become increasingly ad hoc and unpredictable. An off the cuff remark, like that made by Gerald Ratner, may bring down a company, just as a bunch of disenchanted petrol consumers may threaten the stability of a government. Within highly complex environment, successes and failures cease to be explicable – they become chance outcomes of the endlessly rotating wheel of fortune. Any attempt to play the game by rational rules and calculations become doomed. Uncertainty becomes endemic.
One thing is certain, the consumer of tomorrow will not be the same as the consumer of today. The endlessly mutating meanings of 'the consumer' - now destroyer, now generator of waste, now creator - suggest that for all we know the consumer may vanish altogether.
Gabriel, Y., & Lang, T. 2006. The Unmanageable Consumer. London: Sage.
Gabriel, Y., & Lang, T. 2008. New faces and new masks of today's consumer. Journal of Consumer Culture 8(3): 321-340.
Klein, N. 2000. No logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies. London: Flamingo.
Maffesoli, M. 1995. The time of tribes: The decline of individualism in mass society. London: Sage.
McCracken, G. 1988. Culture and Consumpton: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Pountain, D., & Robins, D. 2000. Cool rules: Anatomy of an attitude. London: Reaktion Books.
Ritzer, G. 1999. Enchanting a disenchanted world: Revolutionizing the means of consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Pine Forge Press.
Schor, J. B. 1998. The overspent American: Upscaling, downshifting and the new consumer. New York: HarperCollins.