Consumerism is a concept that has been increasing throughout society and continues to get bigger. Defined as ‘the theory that progressively greater consumption of goods is economically beneficial,’ consumerism is a ravenous force in our world. It is a broad area and centres mainly on the modern economically developed countries. These are otherwise known as consumer societies, which can be defined as ‘those which choice and credit are readily available, in which social value is defined in terms of purchasing power and material possessions, and in which there is a desire above all, for that which is new, modern, exciting, and fashionable’ (John Benson, 1994)
Studies of consumerism have mainly focused upon how new patterns of acquisition arose and how they related to other cultural and economic developments from proto-industrialization to early Romanticism. But there remain some areas of consumerism, which have yet to be fully determined. Products present to the consumer a symbolic significance, which Fromm (1976) suggests ‘is used in the search for the meaning of existence.’ Bauman (1988) suggests that ‘for most members of contemporary society, individual freedom….comes in the form of consumer freedom’, thus highlighting the importance of individual consumer choices.
Characteristics of consumerism are hard to pin down. But one point that can be defined about consumerism is that people begin to appreciate the time spent looking for consumer items as a valuable part of life and not simply as a necessary evil in a struggle for survival. Window-shopping is a prime example. The focus of this essay looks at the growth of consumerism and why many products are promoted for the female consumer rather than all consumers. It also looks at whether this approach has changed in recent years. Early researchers into consumer behaviour have argued that gender-related aspects of consumption are frequently often understated or neglected (Fischer, 1991).
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A short advert for a product leaves little time within which to impart essential information about a product, and thus, the advertiser must rely on what already exists in the minds of the target audience. This explains why gender is such a prominent feature of product promotion. Due to Europe’s role in world trade and an increasing array of manufacturing goods, growing prosperity provides the framework for the first consumerist society. It explains why the demand for goods may have suddenly increased. There was a growing openness to fashion and dependence on acquisition from this point.
The second focus of consumerism involving purchases for home and family points in the same direction. But it was not until the second phase of consumerism began, around about the late 19th century and early 20th century, that consumerism took off, with the specification of gender targeting. Previously, traditional cultural values and long-established past times stood in the way of this growing phase. Nevertheless, women have done and continue to play a significant role in the aspect of consumerism. They are used to promote and advertise many products and be the object of many marketing campaigns. Effectively a woman is “a saleswoman and wares in one” (Walter Benjamin, 1978).
From the early 1900s, it was pretty clear that women were a significant target for consumer orientation. However, it was Veblen (1899), an essential critique of social and cultural dimensions of mass consumerism, that first realized and put the idea forward that women in the 19th and 20th centuries had a dual, contradictory role regarding consumerism. Women were inscribed as “consumer and commodity, purchaser and purchase, buyer and bought” (Roberts, 1998). In the light of this, Zola (1883) explained that women were targeted because ‘shops provided too much temptation as they consumed women like a disease.’
The early part of the 20th century saw the explosion of pornographic images of women in non-elite forms of culture, which went against the law and tried to police female sexuality. People soon began to realize that images of sexy women would sell products. The prostitute as command of the early 19th-century porn was made solely to be desired and consumed. This was the first time women were represented as an image, not as an image representing a woman.
Due to such a rise in products centred on the needs and desires of women, there became an increasing rise in crime with emphasis upon women who stole obsessively known as kleptomaniacs. But, the irony was that many of the women were predominantly bourgeois and from aristocratic backgrounds. According to Zola (1902), these women “stole from a pervasive desire, a new sort of nervous affection…. proving the results of the temptation provided by the big shops.”
As cultural types, the kleptomaniac and the prostitute image portrayed a particular set of anxieties concerning the growth of consumerism and the commodification of modern life. These two stereotypes also encapsulated the relation women held towards the new consumer culture. Many studies exist which try to explain why women were taking over as consumers. Some historians have put it down to their social status. Victoria De Grazia (1996) describes consumerism as “a force to which women are more vulnerable than men because of their subordinate social, economic and cultural position.”
This point was backed up by Aulander (1979), who said, “Bourgeois women had not only to produce themselves but also needed to acquire goods for representing the family’s social position.” Veblen took a slightly different approach and believed that women went out and consumed increasingly in order “to provide tangible proof of her husband’s wealth through her self-ornamentation and vicarious leisure.” This regards women as representing what the husband earns and that the wife also demonstrates “her status as property.” Veblen, in this case, is saying that the husband treated his wife like another item of consumerism to show off his wealth.
This view was dramatically changed, when in 1918, women were given the vote in England, enabling them to represent not only their family and class but also themselves. This made little difference, though, to women’s consumption of goods and simply sparked new ideas for manufacturers. Advertisers linked low-cut dresses and short haircuts of women to the era of wartime liberation and freedom from constraint. After this point, advertising towards women started to change. Rather than using women as an erotic image, they were being portrayed more like a pure image, and one that has the freedom to go out and enjoy herself.
Lears (1994) explained that “women were pushed off the stage of visual culture and transfigured into the giddy women-as-consumer.” Loeb (1987) also tends towards this argument and suggests that the twentieth-century female consumer “exercised choice and the pursuit of pleasure…” and agreed that women were a strong influence on the way advertisers tried to sell their product. Many historians shared this view. “Historically, women acted as rational consumers,” says Blaszczyk(1989). “They found ways to resist the dominant culture while helping to reshape the material world. Producers paid attention to women’s choices and changed product designs to meet women’s expectations.
After the war, there was a sudden burst in technology with the initiation of many household appliances onto the market. This included electricity, a refrigerator and the washing machine. This meant the average housewife had more free time and was not as held back. But, of course, advertisers still tried to focus much of their attention on women. It was a confusing time as “women were portrayed either as mighty consumers with advertisers at their beck and call or as pathetic victims of male expertise and control (Roberts, 1998). As housewives increasingly relied on their husbands to purchase appliances and on scientific experts to operate them, “the real decision making power…shifted out of the woman’s immediate sphere of control.” (Ross, 1996).
It was the introduction of the motor vehicle that started to separate gender categories in advertising. Ross argues “that the automobile as a cultural symbol shaped a new notion of masculinity.” This sparked new forms of advertising, and it was perhaps some of the first bits of marketing, which was centred mainly to attract the male rather than the female. This use of advertising was also very much through film, where cars were often used as a “symbol of social opportunity” and new male independence. Advertising that was used, which would be very controversial today, was by Renault, who dubbed the car “the man’s friend,” while other household appliance companies answered to this by saying they were “the woman’s friends.”
Advertising and consumer marketing have changed by gender since the mid-twentieth century. The concentration of products towards men has increased no end, and many companies realize that marketing goods towards men is highly worthwhile. Another fundamental factor has been the changing role of women. Many women are now in full-time or part-time employment, which leaves them little time to consume, as well as increased independence. However, it seems that advertising of products has not caught up to the same level as the equality of men and women. Many adverts still portray women as sex objects in order to sell the product to men.
Some examples of this are Citroen, which uses a naked model to drive their cars. This is to a lesser extent nowadays, but it still means that the car is perhaps not the main object of the advert, even though it is the product being promoted. Adverts that promote women’s products also use a stereotypical image of a woman with a good figure to emphasize the best effect of the beauty product. But once again, the image of the beautiful woman is the focus of the promotion, rather than the aspect of the merchandise itself. Adverts are usually in line with traditional gender role stereotypes, where men are portrayed typically as authority figures and women are shown predominantly in domestic situations (Goffman, 1979).
Goffman’s much-quoted work ‘Gender Advertisements’ has provided the foundation upon which most of the evaluation of gender roles in advertising has been based. The evolution of adverts would seem to have reflected the changing roles of men and women. For example, Skelly and Lundstrom (1981) suggest that today men are portrayed as more ‘decorative’ and less authoritarian. However, other authors, such as Courtney and Whipple (1983), suggest that advertisers have been slow to update the archaic role portrayals of women in general.
Fragrance and beauty products are now increasingly available for men. However, the promotion for these kinds of products, often also uses the aspect of getting a woman, in order to encourage the use of the product. These often take a lighthearted look at getting closer to the opposite sex, and how by using the product this will happen. Such an example is Lynx, who produces body products exclusively for men. They portray their products almost as an aphrodisiac and as a way to get closer to women. Clearly, this is not true, but companies believe that the average male consumer would like to believe this.
In recent years, gender has become increasingly specialized, with many advertising campaigns appearing in different places, and at different times, depending upon the audience that will see them. For example, new technology has meant that advertising can be used between football matches. Clearly, the majority of spectators are male, so marketing campaigns focus on products, which will appeal to men almost exclusively. Also, the introduction of gender-based magazines, such as For Him Magazine, or Women’s Own, has meant that specific campaigns can be placed in specific gender reading material. The Internet has also sprouted specialized advertising campaigns, with certain adverts appearing on male or female-based websites for example.
Overall, it is clear that consumerism by both genders is very important, and occurs throughout life without any boundaries. Elliott (1995) proposes that consumerism and the consumption of products is a vehicle for meaning creation and social transaction. He suggests that for this reason, consumption choices are sufficiently important to the self-concept of an individual as to be considered ‘existential’. Consumers consume the symbolic meaning of products in order to construct a social identity, as a way of participating in social life and even as a way of securing social relationships (Lunt and Livingstone, 1992).
Not only does the consumer buy the product, but they also often buy social respect, health and beauty to control their environment. However, men and women aspire to frequently dissimilar social groupings, hold opposed concepts of reality and have conflicting views. Therefore, it would be unwise for the marketer of a product to assume that reactions to signs are the same for both sexes. Gender is a major factor in consumerism, and it seems that the focus of many advertising campaigns is still focused on the female gender, even though, this may be an outdated analysis. More general products still seem to concentrate on attracting women as the consumer, even though the item may be purchased for a man or a woman.
Obviously, specific items for males and females are kept separate, but for many products, this simply isn’t true. The adverts themselves portray an outdated image too. Content analysis by authors such as Goffman (1979) has demonstrated that in advertisements women and men are frequently portrayed in stereotypical roles; the former occupying the submissive, reliant position and the latter being dominant and purposive. The emphasis upon the growth of consumerism throughout the twentieth century focuses mainly on the inherent attraction of consumption by the female gender.
It was clear that from an early stage that, women were the primary consumers in society with men taking a more background role. This view has changed in more recent decades, but marketing and promotion for products have not quite caught up to this stage yet. Whether the attitude of companies to develop marketing strategies not centred on gender-based ideals will change, remains to be seen. But gender is an important and influential factor within consumerism, and it is only when you really start to look, do you notice how much products are centred around the female or male consumer.
- Stearns, P, (1997), Stages of Consumerism: Recent Work on the Issues of Periodization, The Journal of Modern History, March pp102-117
- Roberts, M, (1998), Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture, American Historical Review, June pp 817-844
- Benson, J, (1994), The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain, 1880-1980
- Benjamin, W, (1978), Theory of Modernity and the Dialectics of Seeing
- Veblen, T, (1972), The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.
- De Grazia, V, (1996), The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective
- Lears, J, (1994), Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America
- Loeb, (1987), Consuming Angels: The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism.
- Ross, K, (1995), Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonisation and the Reordering of French Culture
- Goffman, (1979), Gender Advertisements