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Consumer capitalism is a theoretical economic and social political condition in which consumer demand is manipulated in a deliberate and coordinated way on a very large scale through mass-marketing techniques, to the advantage of sellers.
This theory is controversial. It suggests manipulation of consumer demand so potent that it has a coercive effect, amounts to a departure from free-market capitalism, and has an adverse effect on society in general. According to one source, the power of such 'manipulation' is not straightforward. It depends upon a new kind of individualism - projective individualism, where persons use consumer capitalism to project the kind of person who they want to be.
Some use the phrase as shorthand for the broader idea that the interests of other non-business entities (governments, religions, the military, educational institutions) are intertwined with corporate business interests, and that those entities also participate in the management of social expectations through mass media.
The origins of consumer capitalism are found in the development of American department stores from the mid 19th Century, notably the advertising and marketing innovations at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia. Author William Leach describes a deliberate, coordinated effort among American 'captains of industry' to detach consumer demand from 'needs' (which can be satisfied) to 'wants' (which may remain unsatisfied). This cultural shift represented by the department store is also explored in Émile Zola's 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames, which describes the workings and the appeal of a fictionalized version of Le Bon Marché.
In 1919 Edward Bernays began his career as the 'father of public relations' and successfully applied the developing principles of psychology, sociology and motivational research to manipulate public opinion in favor of products like cigarettes, soap, and Calvin Coolidge. New techniques of mechanical reproduction developed in these decades improved the channels of mass-market communication and its manipulative power. This development was described as early as the 1920s by Walter Benjamin and related members of the Frankfurt School, who foresaw the commercial, societal and political implications.
In business history, the mid-1920s saw Alfred P. Sloan stimulating increased demand for General Motors products by instituting the annual model year change and planned obsolescence, a move that changed the dynamics of the largest industrial enterprise in the world, away from technological innovation and towards satisfying market expectations.
Probably the most obvious example of consumer capital tactics in the United States' history occurred during the first world war. During which the United States' government put out several campaigns and advertisements aimed to gain support for engaging in the war. At this time the government's involvement in the economy was known as propaganda. Advertisements, posters and campaigns were found everywhere, encouraging the public to add to the economy and consume more. Many of these public attempts encouraged mass consumption of domestic food to help put back into the economy and support the war. In her book, Celia Malone Kingsbury even discusses how during the war the government manipulated the economy in such a way that the consumption of domestic food was made into a "powerful weapon." The government manipulated the public by turning commercialism into a sort of nationalism, pride and support of one's country.
An important contribution to the critique of consumer capitalism has been made by the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, but very little of this has been translated into English. Stiegler argues that capitalism today is governed not by production but by consumption, and that the techniques used to create consumer behavior amount to the destruction of psychic and collective individuation. The diversion of libidinal energy toward the consumption of consumer products, he argues, results in an addictive cycle, leading to hyperconsumption, the exhaustion of desire, and the reign of symbolic misery.
In light of the economic hardships the United States is today experiencing as a result of radical wealth inequalities, and perhaps a strong dependence on oil, consumer capitalist tactics have turned to credit as a means to maintaining a high level of expenditures in the form of consumer demand. Some of these tactics, to cite one extremely peripheral example, include government incentives to buy eco-friendly 'green' products, such as tax deductions for energy conserving home improvements or the purchasing of hybrid cars. These tactics, however, are not without critics. James Gustave Speth, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, does not believe the United States government should implement such tactics. Instead Gustave believes in more direct approaches to repair or avoid environmental damage. Rather than focusing on re-boosting the distressed economy, treat the problem.