Tell Me What You Consume; I'll Tell You Who You Are
By Nicolas Riou
Libération, Monday 31 October 2005
Objects and products, chosen more and more as a function of the psychic benefits they bring, compensate for identity deficits. Whether we like it or not, the consumption society is changing. The desire to consume is still there, but the motors of desire are no longer the same as those that marked the preceding decades.
The sixties were the first age of the consumption society, in which products corresponded to tangible needs. People bought them because their use added value, for the function they fulfilled - which often improved their standard of living. Examples include the refrigerator (10f the population had one in 1958, 75n 1969), the washing machine (10n 1958, 66n 1974), the television, the car, disposable diapers, dishwashers, and many others. By the acquisition of more and more material goods, consumption allowed the transformation of our way of life and was associated with the notion of progress. In 1963, Edgar Morin wrote in le Monde about the entry into a new era of civilization, "of well-being, comfort, consumption, and rationalization."
The nineteen-eighties incarnated the apogee of the second age of consumption, the one in which the value of the image substituted for the value of usage. During the age of individualist dynamics, objects no longer answered collective needs, but personalized themselves. They essentially aimed at differentiating their users. Consumption organized itself according to symbolic logic. Symbols of success or of belonging to a given social group. A car, brand-name clothing, a well-equipped house acted above all as social markers. They no longer simply answered a need, but were chosen for immaterial reasons, the imaginary world they incarnated, often constructed through advertising.
Too often, analysts as well as critics stop there. However, we have entered a new stage in the consumption society. Objects no longer simply answer needs: we generally don't need a new car or dishwasher. A new motor has been added to the logics of price arbitrage and social symbolism, one of a psychological order. More and more we choose products or brands for the psychic benefit they bring us. And that benefit is often unconscious. How can we make a rational choice when there are 22,000 products to choose from in one hypermarket?
The logic of desire is always articulated around the notion of a lack. But this lack has become psychological. Objects and brands fulfill emotional needs. With its famous "Because I deserve it" slogan, L'Oréal plays on narcissistic satisfaction and helps women to feel more beautiful. It stimulates their self-confidence and helps them to feel desirable, all the while conveying the idea of control, of mastery of oneself and one's own image. The present success of luxury brands is based on a similar mechanism, that of luxury "for oneself," rather than as a status symbol.
By the multiplication of objects and messages, consumption guards against a breakdown in enjoyment. There's no longer any down time: that's filled with objects that have a new function as identity crutches. By identifying the model of "compensatory consumption," Anglo-Saxon researchers emphasize the degree to which everyday objects compensate for identity deficits. They become a part of ourselves, or of who we dream of being. The paradoxical choice of an SUV when one is driving in an urban environment aims above all at expressing a personality, at identifying oneself with a style of life one dreams of. In a white collar society, people feel more free in Levi's, more virile on a Harley Davidson! A woman feels like a better mother when she uses brand-name diapers. One masters one's body and image by using a new shampoo with a strong technology component. In the same way, one is more feminine wearing Chanel. Cultic brands develop an emotional added-value.
In an aging society that has no common reference points or collective mission, consumption becomes real therapy. Food brands' health discourse, automobile brands' security arguments reassure an anxious society that is not very self-confident. Objects console us, confirm us in our existence, or furnish the void that confronts us. From now on, we must approach the consumption society with a new solution key, in which their emotional value wins out over their function.