Marketing, the consumer society and hedonism

John O'ShaughnessyNicholas Jackson O'ShaughnessyEuropean Journal of MarketingBradford: 2002.Vol.36, Iss. 5/6;  pg. 524, 24 pgs

Selected Excerpts & Key-points:

Marketing is commonly assumed to be responsible for the consumer society with its hedonistic lifestyle and for undermining other cultures by its materialistic stance. This, for many critics, is the dark side of consumer marketing, undermining its ethical standing. This paper considers the connection between marketing, the consumer society, globalization and the hedonistic lifestyle, and whether marketing is guilty as charged.

 A consumer society is defined as one directed largely by the accumulation and consumption of material goods. The term "consumer society" is used in a pejorative sense, coming from the perception that such a society will inevitably be hedonistic. It is the search for instant gratification that we traditionally associate with hedonism….Phrases such as the "me-generation and "the culture of narcissism" have entered the language of popular discourse with individuals viewed as standing apart from their community obligations, less aware of any connectedness to the larger whole, beguiled by the ceaseless medley of consumer offerings.

 While many cultural forces - not least, Hollywood - have been indicted as having a role in this, the blame is frequently attributed to the supposed ingenuity and insistence of consumer marketing. When the term "marketing" is used by critics in this context, it is meant to cover all the ways used by marketing to tempt the consumer into buying, whether through product design, brand name, packaging or promotion. Yet this concept of marketing by critics rests on a purely outsider's view of marketing, not recognizing that the key decision areas of marketing embrace at least the following:

·        identifying actual/potential wants within a market or markets; segmenting the market into want categories and selecting market segments suited to the firm's thrust and core competencies;

·        determining the offering to match the want of each segment selected;

·        making the offering available;

·        informing and persuading those within the market segment or segments to buy or rebuy;

·        deciding on a continuous basis what offerings to add, subtract, modify and upgrade; and

·        cooperating with others to secure resources and support marketing plans.

These decisions have to be made by every company. They are not optional but need to be carefully considered, if a company is to be successful. A knowledge of marketing as a discipline provides useful approaches, concepts and findings that help in making these decisions. But there is no guarantee of success

The criticisms of marketing overwhelmingly refer to consumer marketing with next to nothing to say on business-to-business marketing. Not-for-profit marketing is similarly ignored. Advertising in particular is singled out as acclaiming acquisition and celebrating consumption at the expense of other values, with advertising being described as the most value-destroying activity of Western civilization

Hedonism, among critics of the consumer society is tied to popular usage since it is viewed as pleasure-seeking that is driven, and the notion of its compelling nature is contained in criticisms of consumerism. Hedonism is seen as something less than addiction, something more than ideology, something that victimizes consumers, even though they may understand its dysfunctional consequences at the detached intellectual level….we continue to "buy" expensive products, cheap slogans, corrupt candidates and (above all) the ideology of ceaseless consumption of material goods as a way of life ... Even when we know that it benefits corporations far more than ourselves, that every new acquisition generates disappointment, restlessness and another round of conspicuous (hence pointless) consumption ... To live in North America today is to endure more propaganda in 24 hours than our ancestors faced in a lifetime

 While we accept that humans, like all animals, seek pleasure and avoid pain, it is somewhat strained to argue that seeking pleasure/avoiding pain covers all motivations for buying. If every intentional action can be interpreted as driven by self-interest and self-interest is viewed as pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding, it is extremely reductionist. Even sacrificing one's life to save others becomes acting for purely selfish reasons.

At the heart of the debate about hedonism and marketing responsibility lies the question of social consequences and the role of marketing in creating "new" products and the culture of consumption. Phrases such as "shop till you drop" reflect popular appreciation of this phenomenon. The stimulation of consumption is the most tangible expression of attempts at marketing-directed hedonism. In making this connection, marketing is blamed for social consequences; parents, for example, seen as too concerned with earning money to pay for the goods that marketing promotes, spending too little time with their children but, instead, buying their affection. The consumer society embraces consumerism, not in the sense of protecting and advancing the interests of consumers, but in vigorously promoting a culture of consumption

 The accumulation and display of material possessions

Western societies are criticized for their materialistic orientation and focus on material possessions ... There is the claim that the orientation of modern capitalist societies is toward the marketing and consumption of goods with societal members extraordinarily concerned with the accumulation and display of material possessions. ..summming up this fever to accumulate possessions is the bumper sticker slogan: "Whoever dies with the most toys wins". Consumer lifestyles together with mass consumption are said to control the lives of ordinary citizens.

We would argue that the accumulation of material possessions is simply a consequence of wealth and has been throughout the ages, since one purpose of possessions and "conspicuous consumption" is to serve as a live information system to signal to others the owner's self-image, rank and values ……. Except that more people in society are able to indulge, there is nothing new about the display motive. While marketing facilitates the accumulation of goods and status emanating from their display, the basic motive is already there: people may not need many possessions but want them all the same. Without marketing, society would appear less materialistic but, without the opportunity to choose, there would be no merit in virtue.

Satisfying transitory appetites and created wants

It is argued that the primary motivation of those in a consumer society is satisfying the transitory appetites and wants created by advertising. … Moving to a relatively better house provides pleasure only for a short time, namely, until the new level of luxury seems routine or one's neighbor goes one better. The pleasure derived from owning any house or any other possession is tied to the status attached to owning such a house relative to those owned by neighbors. Frank uses the metaphor of the arms race to characterize conspicuous consumption, because it is motivated by a desire to keep up with the Joneses. He concludes that consumers in affluent societies would be more content, if less was spent on luxury goods, resulting in less of a need to work long hours and more time spent with families.

We agree. Pleasures, like all pleasurable emotions, tend to be short-lived. But whether satisfying transitory appetites is desirable or not depends on the context and a person's values. No one who claims to support a democratic society would deny people the right to make choices for themselves. But the real charge is against advertising with its assumed ability to create wants (see, for example, Galbraith, 1977). But wants cannot be created. There must be an underlying appetite for the product. Galbraith, like other economists before him, claimed that firms are less preoccupied with want-satisfying than with want-creating, which involves some element of manipulation. Galbraith sees corporations as a powerful force in shaping wants, arguing that the myth that holds that the great corporation is the puppet of the market, the powerless servant of the consumer, is one of the devices by which power is perpetuated.

Seeking positional goods for social status and social bonding

In a consumer society, consumers seek "positional" goods to demonstrate group membership, to identify themselves and mark their position. With positional goods, satisfaction arises in large part from a product's scarcity and social exclusiveness … It is argued that advertising stimulates this perversion of values by dramatizing the satisfactions of positional goods and status… such an ideology holds that social meaning is attached to and communicated by commodities. In line with this, it is argued that accumulation, consumption and disposal become the core of existence to give life meaning: advertising in the aggregate is seen as a proselytisation for this ideology. The search, purchase, using and discarding of products become the great aim of life and an alternative self-articulation. As the close bonds of communities wither away, people survive the new order of weak communities by a continuous re-expression of self to transient audiences. They dress up, now as skiers who never ski, now as pilots who cannot fly, now as soldiers who never see army life, in a search for the expression of individualism bound up in a fantasy status. They discover community through the community of shared brands: brands link consumers via promotion to similar others. Branding pulls things together into one tangible attractive symbol, while advertisements differentiate the brands. On this reading, the hedonistic need satisfied by marketing is dramaturgical; a need to self-present in the theater of life, and to refine our act. The hedonistic pleasure satisfied is a need to be socially admired and envied, and to maintain a sense of connection.

The continual process of search, purchase, savoring, using and finally replacing goods is seen as masking what is ultimately a search for social bonds covering social integration, the display of power or status, and the attainment of friendship. … social meaning is attached to and communicated by commodities.

We argue that consumers do desire to be accepted by their social milieu, but also desire visibility and social status and positional goods help in this. If the search for status and power are base motives, they are also basic motives, which are pervasive throughout the animal kingdom. People in affluent democracies, whatever the education system, seek the symbols of status and power in their purchases and there is no way of denying them this choice without abandoning democracy itself. Marketing does not create these motives but, in recognizing them, serves them.

Consumers take their identity from their possessions

A postmodernist claim is that self-identity is no longer a matter of social ascription but individual choice. It is a short step from this to arguing that people take their self-identity from their possessions or at least their social self …possessions are material symbols of identity; as expressive symbols of identity and as reflections of identity in terms of gender, and social-material status. This view of possessions and selfidentity connects to positional goods, as both are quoted to explain a move away from assembly-line mass production to niche marketing.

With regard to the claim that self-identity is now more a matter of individual choice than social ascription, this ignores the fact that self-identity is not developed in a vacuum but is very much influenced by how others view us in social interactions. Similarly with possessions, there is a limit to the extent that consumers can express a completely distinct self-identity. There is the matter of time and financial resources while consumers, non-conforming to societal norms, may be conformative to the norms of subcultural groups. Subcultural social pressures are likely to produce a strong family resemblance in possessions among the members of the subgroup.

More commodification of social life

It is claimed that the market is extending its reach with more and more aspects of social life becoming commodified, that is, offered for sale. Everything from religion to government services is presented and segmented as various offerings from which the public is to choose;

While there is truth in this, it is not clear how extensive it is…

Privileging ephemeral and superficial values

Critics see marketing as privileging the material surfaces of life ... the ideology of consumption as a way of life, supported by a set of value perspectives ... over the deeper things that dignify humanity. Self-identity, as we have seen, becomes the assemblage of possessions; signals to define status, social involvement and stylistic intelligence. An individual's intellect, wisdom, decency, erudition and personal accomplishment, it is claimed, do not figure in the advertising universe. Advertising concentrates on what we have, not what we are, in any profound sense.

Advertising speaks to current ephemeral values and the very latest in household knick-knacks that enunciate style over substance. In effect, advertising exhibits a cult of what is contemporary, the passing insubstantial style, the chic and the trendy, often clothed in a sort of pseudo-sophistication, a worldly know-knowingness. Certain personality characteristics are highlighted for approval such as being sexy, powerful, to be in control and, above all, "cool". Much advertising is about the loss and restoration of control (e.g. in love) via the agency of the product. Selfless deeds, dedication to community, sensitivity to the elderly and so on are conspicuous by their absence. Those human values which, it is claimed, advertising leaves out are as important as those which it leaves in. There are, for example, no references to religion, except humorously or satirically in the form of the genial sky pilot vicar, or to erudition, intellect, creativity - none of the corpus of human traits considered traditionally to ennoble mankind; nothing which reaches the higher octaves of spiritual and intellectual striving. On the other hand, bad habits are advocated with eloquence.

…advertising is a "distorted mirror"… study of 500 magazine advertisements in which couples were pictured. There are no old, poor, sick or unattractive couples in the advertisements.

We agree that advertising seeks to persuade. All ways of promoting a brand are meant to persuade. This is because advertising is advocacy of the brand designed to influence buying behavior. If the provision of lots of accurate information helps in this advocacy role or is needed to ensure successful use of the product, such information will be provided. Sometimes in fact all that needs to be done in advertising is to provide a compelling logic as to why the brand is best for the function being served. More commonly, however, in persuading the consumer, there is a need to get the consumer on to the "right wavelength", to have the right perspective. This changing of perspectives is never simply a matter of logic but of appeals to the imagination (e.g. to savor an experience with the product) and emotive words that resonate with the target audience. All persuaders need to put "their best foot forward" and advertising is simply doing this. What there should be, however, is a way of reinforcing the "will to be good" by ensuring that there are penalties for lying and misrepresentation.

Image-saturated environment pressing consumers to buy

Another focus by critics has been the sheer insistence and multiplication of marketing messages. To live in the West today, and increasingly in other parts of the world, is to inhabit a message-saturated environment. The claim is made that the aggregate effects of mass consumer messaging on this scale press consumers in a hedonistic direction. Some see advanced capitalist society as self-subverting, in effect needing to continually stimulate self-indulgence to expand market share and, in the process, undermining notions of self-discipline and self-denial that made advanced capitalism possible in the first place. What might appear threatening in a radical newspaper, left-wing poster or pornographic text is neutered by advertising, which has the ability to stylize and domesticate the perverse, bringing it into the cultural mainstream.

Marketing communications thus stand accused of creating strong social pressure to consume; that the icons of our age are manufactured by marketing's processes; that seductive images, designer labels, slick packaging, the product's self-proclamation as the gateway to a sophisticated lifestyle and so on constitute a live information system about what the elite have now become. By this argument, the social pressure to acquire is immense and, conversely, a marketing-arbitered social ecology, arousing envy among those who cannot purchase these things, and leading ultimately to increased criminality.

We agree that we live in a message-saturated environment concerned with exhortations to consume. But consumers are selective in what they perceive and tune out the vast majority of messages coming their way. Consumers attend to what concerns them. Advertising provides information and creates the initial awareness of innovative new products and services. If advertising were to disappear tomorrow, there would be a perception of loss, because, as with newspapers, advertising provides a sense of what is happening in the world, while many ads have intrinsic appeal, all of their own.

Globalization as transmitting the consumer society

Hedonistic marketing, according to critics, bleaches out the indigenous cultures of traditional societies, emptying them of content and filling the vacuum with sensually glazed materialism. The advertising promise is of a costless cornucopia, a sensual nirvana, and it is marketing's disguise of the true cost of earning the delights it proffers that encourages the association made between marketing and hedonism. …. LaFeber (1999) quotes the case of Nike and the way it used Michael Jordan's celebrity status and the seductiveness of US culture to influence everything from eating habits, clothes, TV viewing and even language to push its products around the world. According to LaFeber, this globalization of the consumer society has had the unintended consequence, not only of undermining other cultures, but of strengthening anti-US feeling around the globe.

…Thus the radical dynamism of global free markets is seen as sanitizing the authenticity of cultures and demolishing traditional authority structures, killing indigenous industries; the organizational form of this radical dynamism, the global corporation, is seen as an unchallenged extraterritorial force of immense power, switching manufacturing apparently at whim from country to country. And this is seen as being intimately connected with questions of equity, particularly the unfairness of the deal for poor countries.

If a nation's culture is its total way of life: its institutions, values, ideas, art, music, literature and all the other socially constructed aspects of society … then trade and all other interactions with foreign nations have always had an impact on culture. Without the export of technology, books and medicines from the industrialized West, countries around the world would be far more impoverished than they are today. Every nation benefits from the inventions and innovations of other nations. What is really at issue is a value judgment as to what is good for a nation and what is bad.

…Many countries look at the USA as a mirror of their own future and worry that it will not be the dynamism of the USA that will be adopted but rampant individualism

There are winners and losers in the wake of globalization. Some of those winners are the wretched of the earth. Globalization has also meant more freedom of information and its development could contribute to the sum of human freedom. Moreover, the displacement of cultures is not necessarily true: new artefacts, new product forms do not necessarily banish old cultures and their forms, but are merely absorbed by them, interpreted within the parameters of the particular culture.

Many of the criticisms of marketing-induced hedonism are exaggerated. The hedonism that permeates society, the culture of narcissism", is viewed low on a scale of values, but it is often not a question of worse but only of different values…hedonism will characterize any affluent society where there is freedom of choice…Unless we want to go the way of Iran, we shall not be able to return to the era of premarital chastity, low divorce, stay-at-home moms, pornography-free media and the closeting of homosexuals and adulterers ... But it would be more accurate to speak not of a cultural revolution but of a transformation in morals and manners resulting from diverse material factors that include changes in the nature of work, growing prosperity, advances in reproductive technology, increasing ethnic diversity and a communications revolution that has created a far better informed population.

The whole attack on marketing promotions rests on a passive/reactive view of the consumer: a more precise image of marketing's impact would be that of negotiated meaning or co-production, rather than a hypodermic or stimulus-response model. Consumers are hard to persuade. They have a great ability to filter out the siren voices that beckon. Materialism and sex were not invented by consumer marketing: societies were highly materialistic before its advent. Moreover, marketing, as a set of techniques, is open to everybody. Religious leaders who complain about shopping-malls on an epic scale and the "shop till you drop" culture have seized on the same techniques themselves to promote the gospel and have been equally accused of manipulation …..

Marketers often chose hedonistic appeals, but marketing in itself is simply an orientation and a set of tools that are value-neutral and can be used to proselytize any perspective. Critics of marketing-hedonism, such as media critics generally, are apt to take marketing imagery and messages literally, and techniques such as content analysis reinforce this literalness of interpretation. There is so much in marketing promotions - product-irony, self-parody, subversion - which eludes these techniques of analysis… What marketing often gives us is less a celebration of hedonism or an arousal of sensual and material passions that can be conscripted into the process of consumer stimulation, than something more complex, namely, the tongue-in-cheek invitation, the spoof, the bizarre and the anarchic. In fact the attitude to hedonism contained in most advertisements is at least ambivalent: not a rejection, but by no means an explicit, roaring endorsement either.

It is not clear what the alternative to the consumer society is when people become relatively affluent and seek freedom of choice. Bauman (1990) argues that a communist planned economy can only understand and cater to the logic of needs, not that of desires, and argues that the main reason for the collapse of the East European socialist states was the incompatibility of socialism with a modern society. Communist states could satisfy people's basic needs but could not contend with the more segmented and refined demands of consumers, as their discretionary incomes increased.

There are costs as well as benefits attached to every type of society and the consumer society is no exception. In the USA, the organization called "Buy Nothing Day" (BND) argues that over-consumption is wrecking the environment and dragging down the quality of life (The Economist, 2000a). The Economist points out that personal borrowings in the USA went up from 26 per cent of personal income in 1985 to 34 per cent in 2000 and the number of bankruptcies have quadrupled over the same period. Marketing communications are not entirely blameless for this.

However, marketing can in fact be used to reduce and not just increase consumption … There is much waste. We live in a "disposable society", wherein we dispose of perfectly serviceable products, simply because newer models have come along. ... Marketing promotes psychological obsolescence, where the new models become, through promotion, a celebration of the modern way. …. a number of studies show that.. material does not correlate with subjective wellbeing. … research indicates that excessive concern with financial success and material values is associated with less satisfaction with life. In fact excessive concern for material goals is a sign of dissatisfaction with life: people report being happier in life when they are actively involved with a challenging task and less happy when they are passively consuming goods or entertainment.

However, it is the consumer society which offers choices, convenience, the reduction in chores - and the excitement of contemplating buying of the new. Even the promotion of psychological obsolescence is the spur behind the innovation that, in particular, characterizes the US social scene.


Whatever influence marketing has had on the creation of a consumerism tied to the narrowest form of hedonism, it has been in the role more of facilitator than of manufacturer. If someone were to insist that we name a single culprit, it would be the development of a strong value orientation that puts unrestrained freedom to the forefront.

 Consumers, like people generally in Western societies, really do want to feel unrestrained by the social norms of the past and demand freedom to "do their own thing". …. the more people grow to love their freedom, so as to regard it as the defining feature of the life style, the more they come to view themselves as having no obligation to do other than self-indulge, as long as it is a self-regarding action. But consumer values can change, as can the weighting of values. It may be that society's current values will change but the change must come from people themselves, as coercion only achieves minimum compliance and is incompatible with the value of liberty and freedom of choice. Marketing seldom tries to change values altogether, though it may seek to change value judgements through changing perspectives as to what is in line with values. Marketing can be enlisted to oppose the habits and addictions it is accused of sustaining. The Economist (2000b) records the enormous success of a shock advertising campaign in reducing smoking among the young in California; the point is significant, since one of the gravest charges laid at marketing's door is its world-proselytization of nicotine addiction. As a medium it is quite a mercenary to anyone who can hire it.

The arguments denouncing hedonism-consumerism represent a gross simplification of complex issues. Marketing does not create or invent wants but merely surfaces them: materialism became part of the human condition long before the first advertising executive. Man has always been, in all societies, materialistic but, in former days, poverty meant the absence of ability and opportunity to indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle. The global economy underpinning material advance has existed in prototype form for centuries. Thousands of Roman artifacts have been discovered in India: the Phoenicians traded everywhere, and Japanese junks first visited South America in the early seventeenth century.

We said earlier that many of the assertions made by critics are matters of empirical inquiry. It follows that a limitation of this paper is the absence of relevant data. This would seemingly point to future research areas. But such research pre-supposes that many of the concepts used in the debate, like hedonism itself, are uncontroversial and easy to operationalize and measure. This is unlikely to be so. Similarly, there would be problems in obtaining relevant samples of consumers and seeking to gauge motivations and beliefs. On the other hand, as this paper shows, critics need not be answered by empty rhetoric but argument that draws on social science and our collective experience.