consumer society

Quick Reference

The organized pursuit of getting and spending on a mass scale: a social and economic phenomenon that expanded continuously throughout the 20th century. The United Nations reports that world consumption expanded at an unprecedented pace over the 20th century, with private and public consumption expenditures reaching $24 trillion in 1998, twice the level of 1975 and six times that of 1950. In 1900 real consumption expenditure was $1.5 trillion.

Prior to the 20th century, consumerism as a lifestyle activity was confined to social elites. For the mass of the people, buying was based on necessities. Cultures and religions were not favourable to consumer society. Many Christian denominations frowned upon ‘luxury’ and encouraged frugality. Gradually, some religions and belief systems promoted some limited, careful consumption for all and protested disparities in consumption between rich and poor. Excessive or conspicuous consumption, particularly by the rich, was often recognized and criticized in pre-industrial societies.

The rise in mass consumerism that started in the late 19th century and continued throughout the 20th was caused by over-production of goods by new technologies without enough people to buy them. Resources were scarce prior to systematic and mass production of goods. However, technological advances and innovations in production changed the situation from dearth to one of abundance. Raw materials and resources become more accessible than ever before. These advances were supplemented by the expansion of new trade routes with modern transport, military conquest, the growth of urban centres, and the wealthier nation states experiencing second waves of industrialization.

Convincing people to buy more goods beyond those needed to sustain them, by generating a new ideology of pleasure and leisure, was part of the birth of modern marketing. Active consumption was encouraged. The barriers to a consumer society were gradually removed; there were changes in attitude and lifestyle, higher standards of living, a new approach to international commerce, as well as changes in the law, and, notably, higher wages and the extension of mass credit. The effect of this credit was to increase consumer debt, while creating mass markets for consumer goods that stimulated economic growth.

The role of marketing was to promote the idea that those goods that were previously regarded as luxuries of the rich, were now necessities for everyone. (For example, see appendix 2—Luxury Goods, the case on De Beer's A Diamond is Forever campaign.) This was a trend that has continued, fuelled by marketing, up to the present day. Conspicuous consumption became the hallmark of wealthy countries and their citizens.

One of the early engines of mass consumer society was the department store. Department stores were created to constantly display goods on a scale never previously imagined and to encourage people to buy them. There were also developments in the concept and practice of ‘customer service’—where people who bought in department stores were flattered with levels of service hitherto reserved for the social elite. The shopping malls that succeeded the department store, and the hypermarkets that succeeded the supermarket, are carefully designed to create appropriate moods to indirectly encourage buying. Also, as home ownership rose, the home and the family became a focus of mass consumption. Shopping was done increasingly from the home—through catalogues, by mail, by telephone, by television, and latterly over the Internet.


Subjects: Marketing.

Reference entries