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Consumerism and the American Culture

General information regarding what consumerism means

Thesis statement: The purpose of this paper is to examine the various elements of America’s consumer culture, including how it affects the way we work, play and view the world around us.

The problem of time

Whether Americans need more time to spend in the stores by changing the work week.

Shopping as an American cultural value

How Americans have come to identify themselves by what they buy and what they own.

The Mall as American cultural mecca

How designers have deliberately manipulated the American psyche to encourage them to continue buying.

Consumer Credit

A definition of what consumer credit is and how it has helped to shape the culture.

The tendency to ignore unpleasant subjects

The American treats debt as he does death, as if it is something that only happens to the other guy, and spends all his time trying to avoid thoughts of it.

The erosion of values

Working on this sense of ignoring the unpleasant and identifying through purchases, many of America’s oldest and most spiritual traditions are now cheapened and made shallow by the incursion of consumer culture into the celebration.


What it is and how it has helped to shape and continues to shape consumer culture.

National debt

How recent events have refocused attention on the national debt and what effect this has on consumer awareness.


The concept of America’s consumer culture builds upon the belief of many Americans that the buyer defines herself through the things that she buys while the things that she buys helps to shape and determine what will be made available in the future. This leads to the idea that the perceived built world that we live in has become more real to us as consumers than the actual real world that exists outside of our created spaces. Essentially, the term consumerism is used to refer to a general belief that the purchase of products will lead inevitably to a sense of happiness and fulfillment in life. According to Kanner, “It’s the meta-message that you can solve all of life’s problems by purchasing the right products” (Kersting, 2004). It is a concept that remains ingrained in society based on individual needs for belonging combined with deliberate reinforcement on the part of advertisers and designers.

Because purchases are made on perceived correctness for the prescribed “perfect” life displayed in the media, which has replaced individual social circles as the measure by which one is judged, individual identities are subjugated to the common ideal and little thought is given to what is required to fit the likes and dislikes of the individual’s actual personality and interests. Today we see that mass consumerism exists all around us. The flames of consumerism are spreading faster with the advertisements closely addressing and associating with consumer identities so that one is compelled to relate with the products advertised. Big corporations view the consumer not as a human being but as an object that exists only to consume and hence he or she becomes bait for marketing. When these products don’t serve to satisfy the consumer’s cravings for the fulfillment, those subscribing to the consumer culture run out to purchase more items they’ve seen on television rather than searching their personalities for what is important to them. Companies want consumers to buy more and more, leading people to buy goods and services that far exceed their requirements, but they are forced to go for them in order to feel accepted in society.

It is common knowledge that in the current times of recession it is extremely difficult for consumers to make both ends meet but still they are forced and tempted to purchase goods such as fancy cars and plasma televisions “’Objects are now carrying the status weight that blood and religion and pigment used to carry.’ Which is to say that Americans not only ‘buy up’ but wear their wealth on their sleeve — or chest … labels no longer hid discreetly inside the collar. Today, Tommy Hilfiger’s prized name can take up most of the shirt” (Kulman, 2004). When a consumer begins to perceive this failing and starts falling out of the perceived ‘norm’, they are brought back into the fold with carefully contrived media blitzes targeted to their variant group. It is also common knowledge that several thousands of people are ingrained in deep credit card debts primarily because they have ended up purchasing more than they need. Surely this kind of consumerism does not bring happiness. In essence, consumerism is associated with equating personal happiness with the act of purchasing goods and services. The purpose of this paper is to examine the various elements of America’s consumer culture, including how it affects the way we work, play, and view the world around us.

Whether it occurs in the world of shopping or in the world of maintaining all the systems that make shopping possible, a necessary evil is the concept of work. Someone must be there to man the store, someone else to ship the products, someone available to produce those products, and someone to purchase them. Without work, the entire system shuts down. The primary question is how to balance the time? In order for the system to work, it must maintain a steady pace which is facilitated by experienced employees. Employee retention is contingent on employee satisfaction. According to surveys conducted in 2004, though, more than half of all Americans are unhappy with their jobs, a figure that is up from the 40 percent who expressed dissatisfaction only a decade ago (Franco, 2005).

According to the study, there are a number of factors contributing to the decline that can be seen across all income levels. These factors include constantly changing technological requirements, rising productivity demands, and changing workplace expectations on one side and a changing view of the role of work in the lives of incoming workers on the other (Franco, 2005). Research conducted through Purdue University to help improve productivity and customer satisfaction has revealed a direct link between employee happiness and customer satisfaction as well as overall profitability (Childers, 2005). One of the suggestions proposed to keep employees happy is to reduce the length of the workweek. By shortening the workweek to four 10-hour days, employees could be expected to work the same amount of time overall but gain a perception of increased freedom in the additional day free of work.

It is believed that consumer spending rejuvenates and boosts the economy. The US is an economy that is consumer-driven and in being an economic powerhouse, people associate a sense of nationalistic pride in maintaining the status, which has come to become more of cultural practice within the country. This cultural practice dates back to the 1950s and 1960s when optimism after the war gained ground and the economic boom enabled the availability of huge disposable incomes to buy goods and services. Shoppers have become very choosy and specific in regard to the products they buy and the retailers too have changed their strategies in meeting the aspirations of consumers in order to make shopping a very pleasurable experience, which the Americans seek while shopping, in believing that they shop for a perfect self. Within the act of shopping is also ingrained the inherent tendency of American culture for shoppers to find a community where interaction and social contacts are promoted.

This concept was becoming increasingly important in modern society as consumers slowly began to stay at home rather than go out to shop. A Consumer Pulse Survey conducted by Kurt Salmon Associates of New York in 1998 (Fost, 1998) indicated that more and more people are feeling stressed in their increasingly busy lifestyles, complaining of having much less free time than they used to have and becoming much less willing to spend this time shopping. For most, shopping for any type of apparel was considered to be a nuisance they worked to avoid as much as possible. However, the concept of shopping as entertainment, offering more than just the simple shopping experience, once again gave Americans an excuse to hit the stores. Nike caught on to the idea of the branding/architecture/design connection early in working to build their brand and maintain an appeal for these overstressed shoppers-who-would-rather-be-home. “Many in the industry note an increasing trend to create a memorable and enjoyable shopping experience.

They’re giving it names – entertailing, shoppertainment, eatertainment – even though few can agree on what, exactly, constitutes entertainment” (Fost, 1998: 36). The main idea behind this entertainment/retail/museum approach is to provide customers with a more comfortable place in which to do their shopping, a destination in which all members of the family might find something to attract their attention and a means of highlighting the important role the brand has played in the development of their individual identities. “It’s a perfect marriage between construction and marketing. Using a building’s structure and amenities to help market a product line – retail is receiving a high approval rating from the television generation – a consumer base is being mesmerized by sports, animation and the glamour of Hollywood” (Vangen, 1998: 64). In developing this atmosphere, retail outlets must evaluate themselves through the context of the experience offered and how that experience works to support the strength and message of the brand.

Jon Goss illustrates in his article “The ‘Magic of the Mall’: An Analysis of Form, Function, and Meaning in the Contemporary Retail Environment” (1993), how shopping center developers have learned and implemented strategies that tend to manipulate shoppers to make them purchase more thus revealing important elements of the American consumer culture. This includes the way that the space is organized in order to facilitate the shopping experience and the study of how to display products in such a way as to encourage shoppers to purchase them. Within this scheme, the consumer emerges as “passive, sensual, and vulnerable victims of the ‘force field which they don’t understand,’ just as the designers’ discourse is both manifestly elitist and gendered – from ‘market penetration analysis’ to the persistent tropes of seduction, stimulation, and physical manipulation” (19).

He indicates that the consumer culture is partially constructed through the deliberate machinations of the developers when he says “developers have sought to assuage this collective guilt over conspicuous consumption by designing into the retail built environment the means for a fantasized dissociation from the act of shopping” (19). The collective guilt he is referring to is described in the opening paragraphs as being the guilt of the shopper who feels it is somehow sinful to participate or lose oneself in the concepts of mass consumption. This is a widespread sentiment among the population and, if retailers wish to continue raking in the profits, developers must find ways of relieving the guilt. They do so by providing alternative activities within the space in order to provide the illusion that consumers might be engaged in other activities while on the premises. For most, this has translated into the concept of theme shopping or shopping as entertainment. This concept of the mall has thus evolved into a mall as a community gathering space and is actively marketed as such.

The social geography of shopping and consumer attitudes have changed the way people shop in America. American culture too has been considerably changed by newer shopping experiences as provided by shopping malls. Culture has now become linked with consumption, and middle-class culture has made shopping hubs out of middle-class favorite places such as Wal-Mart which has primarily originated from the cultural domains as represented by American society. Wal-Mart has had a significant impact in positively addressing the aspirations of the consumer in small towns of America, while Woolworth’s and Neiman-Marcus have done so in impacting the major cities in the country (Steve Mills, 2009). Such places represent low culture consumption patterns but have become immensely popular in view of the value and convenience offered to middle-class families.

They are conveniently located on the outskirts and in suburbs and represent the cultural, social, and economic demographics and characteristics of shoppers. The shopping malls have developed in keeping with consumer mentality and values and as part of the shopping experience, provide knowledge about the products even though the purchase need not be affected. Zukin has rightly said in this regard that “Ultimately, a new culture depends not just on the production of consumer goods but on the production of consumers” (Sharon Zukin, 2007). The transformation of shopping has had an immense effect on American culture. But it has been more influenced by American culture especially in matters relating to attitudes, race, and e-commerce. A typical example in this regard is the case of a young dark man who, upon entering a luxury shopping mall, is followed by security personnel. This not only indicates how shopping has impacted race in American culture but also how culturally established norms have begun to influence shopping. This does indicate that to shop in a shopping mall one has to be careful about how he or she dresses and behaves. One of the important elements of being able to participate in this great ‘mall’ society is the ability to purchase goods being offered at that mall which requires access to the funds necessary to make this happen.

Because many people do not actually make the money they need to keep up with current expectations, the idea of consumer credit was born as a means of meeting the challenge. Officially, consumer credit is a term that means “a debt contracted for the purpose of increasing present consumption” (Townsend, 2004). Because this process enables the consumer to make a purchase immediately even if they don’t yet have the funds to pay for it, many American consumers have extended their debt by tremendous amounts in order to purchase ‘needed’ objects such as houses, cars, clothing, food, medical attention, and other objects. Because it is not limited to paying for just those things an individual might actually need, such as medicine, shelter, and sustenance, consumers have extended credit to ensure they are able to keep up appearances at the mall, proving by their purchases that they are as well-off as the next guy even when they’re not. However, as Townsend points out, most of the purchases made on consumer credit are not things that will contribute to the necessary funds required to get rid of that debt, forcing yet more credit taken by the consumer just to keep afloat. Eventually, all of these bills must be paid, decreasing the capital available to purchase actually needed goods and gaining very little sympathy from the surrounding culture whose attitude is to simply take out more credit. As more and more Americans wake up to the concept that eventually they will need to pay back all the money they have borrowed, plus interest, they begin to move away from the concepts of consumer credit as a means of protecting themselves to a greater degree from the harmful effects of living beyond one’s means.

For many consumers, debt is treated in the same light as death – thoughts of both are avoided at all costs, yet neither is avoidable. Consumers generally don’t stop to consider the effects of their tremendous spending habits, both on a psychological and on a financial level, until they are older. Reknowed psychologist Erik Erikson characterizes the older adult as an individual who must resolve the ego integrity vs. despair crisis (Niolon, 2006). During this phase of life, individuals either learn how to accept their perceived failures and successes in life to develop a sense of wisdom and satisfaction in self or determine not to accept these elements of their life thus far and end up developing a sense of dread and despair regarding their eventual death (Niolon, 2006). According to Troll (1984), the older a consumer becomes the more restricted in his or her abilities and capabilities he or she is perceived to be.

While younger consumers are perceived as having a wide variety of potential characteristics and attitudes that can be exploited by the large marketing firms, the older consumer is associated with only a few possible identities. “The most detrimental aspect of bias is that the objects of that bias share the attitudes of the other members of their society, tending to stereotype, distort and look down upon themselves” (Troll, 1984, p. 1). Thus, stereotypes of older consumers are shared by the older consumers themselves which have served to maintain a relatively constant perception of old age and death as being relatively synonymous. This stereotype is reinforced by statistical data that suggests that most people who live below the poverty line are women over the age of 65 and practical knowledge that indicates younger generations often have more education, or more up-to-date education, than older generations. Thus, the ability to keep up, in terms of technology and/or spending habits, has become a measure of a person’s viability within the greater culture while images of death and decay are abhorred and rejected. As long as one remains a viable consumer, one is still alive.

The equation of identity with the values identified by the commercial culture has led to an overall reduction of traditional values as they become overwhelmed by the messages being sent out by the marketers. This is becoming recognized on a widespread basis, but the cries against merchandise are dim compared to the hawksters of the present day. This is demonstrated as mainstream media writers overtly refer to the process in derogatory terms, but no one stops their spending spree long enough to listen. “The malls are clogged, newspapers are fat, and some of the houses I drive past have been lit up since the day after Thanksgiving. We are in the midst of Consumptionfest, the year’s most magical season. We are all called upon to pay alms to the profits and to decorate our homes in green and red, colors that signify the expenditure of cash that bleeds us dry” (Large, 2003).

In celebrating special holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the number of gifts distributed and the value of those gifts are not recognized as valuable in themselves but rather taken to symbolize the degree to which the giver holds the receiver in esteem. A cheap gift given in passing sends the message of being held in low esteem while more expensive gifts wrapped in the professional paper indicate higher esteem and personal value. Other holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day, are driven almost completely by the retail industry, insisting that expensive jewelry, new vehicles, or other expensive commodities must be exchanged as the only means by which we might adequately express the depth of our love for one another. More esoteric forms of expression, such as doing nice things for one another, caring about one another’s welfare, are no longer the standard by which we base our opinions and beliefs. As a result, we are quickly and easily fooled by the empty words of marketing while we fail to recognize true expressions of affection when they occur.

Consumer culture influences the celebration of holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day is serving as a tale of morality for the country and its people which encourages more and more people to emulate. Shopping during such festivals is radiated as an act of good citizenship in opening up the sluggishness of the economy so that it gets out of the doldrums. The mall becomes a chosen place and venue for the celebration of all rituals relating to the respective festivities. It is a characteristic of American culture that the marketplace apparently serves as a prime area for preparing, observing, and enthralling at a central location for commemorating and promoting the highest and most sought-after aspirations in regard to the respective celebrations (Schmidt, 1995). Consumer culture always exerts a seminal authority on the way different holidays and celebrations are looked forward to in America. During Christmas there is a marked irony in regard to the pursuit of commercial objectives whereby the poignant touch pervades the motive of profitability at a time which relates to the advent of Jesus (Schmidt, 1992). In America, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day which are linked to sentiments have also become rituals that have significant attachment to consumer culture.

As Americans respond like moths to a flame whenever a sale sign goes up, it is important to consider how the economic policies of the past have contributed to the development and current state of the consumer culture. Mercantilism is essentially the theory that nations become wealthy by limiting the number of imports and encouraging the number of exports (LaHaye, 2008). Mercantilism also refers to the economic theory which propagates that the success of a country depends on the available resources of capital while assuming that the global quantity of international trade is a constant. It was a popular concept in the 1600s-1800s when nations sought to build central strength coming out of feudalism and had a need to fund numerous wars with hard metals like gold and silver. Essentially, this policy encouraged the exploitation of weaker countries and people as a means of acquiring raw materials as imports and then exploiting these same people again as the finished products of these materials were exported back at significantly increased prices (LaHaye, 2008). This worked well to generate wealth for the stronger country, but served to foster resentment and rebellion among the exploited, as Americans especially should remember.

Within this structure, the focus is placed upon production rather than consumption which seems to be the exact opposite of America’s present system in which consumption is the primary name of the game among individual citizens. However, mercantilism, in the form of protectionism, is still alive and well in today’s American economy. It is these principles that have given rise to the nation’s larger monopoly industries found in banking, automotives and computer industries to name a few. While the American citizen is under the impression that they’re operating in a consumer economy that circulates for the benefit of the many, the reality of the situation, as current economic events have demonstrated, is that the mercantile system continues to protect the wealthy few at the expense of outsiders.

The economic wealth of the nation is ascertained on the basis of the gold, silver and trade values in possession of the country which can be increased only by way of achieving a positive balance of trade position with other countries. Mercantilism entails that the state must achieve such goals by assuming the role of a protector of the economy in enhancing exports and reducing imports by using trade barriers such as subsidies and tariffs. America has been a free economy and the government has always encouraged consumerism so that consumers get the best products at the most competitive prices. Especially in the last few decades the American economy has been characterized by trading practices that do not impose any controls on the variety of products that can be imported.

Recent events in the economy have caused more and more Americans to take note not only of their own finances, but also of the finances of the country. New awareness of the national debt, including its increasing size, has coupled with the recent recession to create a situation in which most consumers can no longer conveniently ignore the price of their spending habits. Like the inevitable quality of death, debt has caught up to America and we’re feeling the pinch. “We are reverting from a ‘borrow and buy’ economy to the ‘cash and carry’ model of our grandparents” (Gross, 2008) as we realize the danger of debt today against income that may or may not be there tomorrow. As Gross points out, “students returning to college are finding that student loans have vanished.

Retailers who freely extended credit to any customer with a pulse are deploying bean counters armed with sophisticated software to sniff out potential deadbeats” (2008). Following the collapse of the housing market, however, consumers began to think more seriously about their spending and borrowing habits, particularly as lending institutions began to fail and people began losing their jobs and houses. The instinct to pull back into protectionism (neo-mercantilism), though, will only contribute to the growing problem. As economists from Adam Smith forward have suggested, the only way to pull out of the current economic slump is to continue to invest in trade and exchange. For example, it is pointed out that “buying Chinese and Japanese goods also provides the central banks of those countries with the money they need in order to buy the bonds that fund our national debt” (Young, 2007) while leaving the door open for America to rebuild from its current state. Without this outside interest, the country would not have this opportunity to recover.

It is undeniable that today’s consumer culture is heavily swayed by the advertisers and marketers that deliberately manipulate human nature to play upon our ideas of identity and value. Americans define themselves not by their inner virtues or their traditional values but by the items they’ve collected and their ability to keep up with the latest trends and styles seen on the media. To do this even when these styles exceed our own means, we’ve turned to the almighty credit card rather than admit we cannot manage the constant competition or attempt to find something more meaningful within. However, we cannot blame this culture completely on the media without taking some responsibility ourselves. As consumers, we help define the culture we live in.

Buying into the concept of having to keep up with outer appearances rather than developing inner values is reinforced by us as we overspend for Christmas in order to prove to impressionable children that we love them. As a result, they have no choice but to continue equating love with the money one spends on you and the need to purchase in order to express emotion. Having constructed a culture in which inner personal nature and emotion are defined by the products we consume and exchange, it is difficult to redefine values just because the economy has shifted. A falling economy and a rapidly rising national debt have many paying more attention to their spending habits, but will it be enough to really bring about change? If it is, will it be the kind of change we need? The tendency in this culture when times get tough is to adopt a protectionist attitude in which we pledge to support only each other, but this is not the approach we need to rescue the future. Instead, we need to refocus our value systems to the traditional values of inner worth and sincere emotion at the same time that we continue to engage in international trade.


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