The Characteristics of a Consumer Society in the UK by Zygmunt Bauman and Sharon Zukin

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From around the 1970’s and 1980’s, the society in the UK shifted their economy from one focused on industrial, mass production and consumption to a more services-based society characterised by what it consumed. Since then, society has become defined not only by what it consumes but also by what it makes or does. However, some argue that a consumer society is as much about social constraint as individual choice. This essay aims to describe such argument by drawing on the works of Zygmunt Bauman (1988) and Sharon Zukin (Zukin, 2004) looking at firstly, how we became a consumer society; secondly, how and why people consume and finally, whether or not our purchases are influenced by social constraint and how. 

Some historians have argued that the characteristics of a consumer society in the UK could already be seen around the eighteenth century. However, back then items were purchased with a specific purpose other than their initial use. They were used to convey to others the owner’s status and perhaps newly acquired wealth, be it a big house and its quality furniture or other items bought for display around the house. ‘Conspicuous consumption’ was a term coined by Thorstein Veblen to explain such behaviour.

Around the 70’s and 80’s, social scientists started talking about a post-industrial society in which consumption became part of society. Consumption has become a part of daily life and people make purchases for various reasons such as giving them a sense of belonging, acceptance, membership and status within society; a way to express their creativity and give them a sense of self-worth, and expressing their preferred lifestyle. Material goods have also been seen as an extension of the self, giving more greater meaning to the person’s identity and sense of uniqueness. Sometimes, people will purchase items because of the message attached to it, and the message that the purchase will send others about their owner, rather than just their use or practicality.

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However, the unequally distributed economic and social resources – or life chances, mean that not everyone within society consumes the same way. Zygmunt Bauman (1988), a commentator on contemporary social change, argues that society is no longer based on social class but on what and how people consume, or not, and to explain that, he put forward a theory that divides society into two groups: the ‘seduced’ and the ‘repressed’. In other words, those who can consume - generally people with a positive identity, secure jobs and disposable income or that can easily access cheap credit; and those who cannot afford it – the unemployed or in casual employment, migrants, the disabled or those with chronical illnesses. 

Even within the latter, the ways in which people are able to consume can differ: someone with little disposable income may be able to participate in some form of basic consumption compared to a disabled person in a wheelchair, as priorities may be different. Therefore, Bauman argues that whilst the ‘seduced’ are seen as those able to consume effectively, the ‘repressed’ are seen not only as social outcasts but also with having their identity devalued as their inability to consume lowers their self-esteem and increases hopelessness.

Despite this, Bauman believes that the power of seduction does not come solely from people’s wants and desires, but it also requires suggestion and incentive from external sources. Sharon Zukin claims that ‘’consumption is at one and the same time ‘our most creative and controlled behaviour’’. In other words, although external sources are required to offer consumers the idea of things such as happiness, love, power, improved lifestyle or status , this would not work without the consumer imagining the benefits of buying said products. 

These techniques and strategies come in many different guises such as advertising on TV, magazines, newspapers and the internet or the music played in physical stores. In the 1950’s, advertising agencies employed psychologists such as Ernest Dichter (1947) and started tapping into people’s subconscious by advertising and selling the products that fulfilled their specific wants and desires, the idea of power, being sexy and wanted, uniqueness, individuality or independence, rather than just a practical or useful product. Psychologists such as Dichter understood that people could also get positive emotions from buying products such as increased confidence, a feeling of uniqueness or a boost in self-esteem.

The use of bright colours and easily recognisable shapes by companies make logos quickly recognisable even if the individual has never bought a single product from said company. Based on your search history, companies can now create adverts on banner ads that are specifically tailored for you, encouraging the purchase of products you may have looked for. There is even a higher chance of you clicking on the banner if it contains video and/or audios (secondary in text citation?). In addition, there is the idea of ‘mere exposure effect’ which means that you are more likely to have positive feelings towards a product the more you ‘see it’. One last example of such techniques and strategies used to entice us into consuming is in the atmosphere and ambience. 

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