Consumerism as the Simulation of Identity

Facebook has 1.5 billion active profiles, Instagram has 400 million monthly users, and Twitter has 316 million. In the United States and Canada, 229.7 million people went to the cinema in 2014, while a recent Nielsen study found that 75% of the American population actively consume music. As for the fashion industry, it’s worth $1.7 trillion dollars globally, with 19 billion items of clothing being purchased in the US alone during 2013.

In other words, that’s an impressive amount of consumption. It’s impressive, not solely in terms of numbers or dollars, but in terms of what it means on a personal, human level. Taken together, these figures for social media use and entertainment/fashion sales describe how people in the 21st Century are increasingly experiencing themselves through the prism of the consumer good.

By extension, these stats offer a window into how advanced capitalism has monopolized the self. They point towards a capitalism typified by its ownership of the means by which selves are constructed, and also typified by its chief product: selfhood. Even if there may still be other (less commoditized and inauthentic) ways of developing a sense of self and individuality in today’s world, the growth of social media websites and the continued march of commercial progress represent an economic regime in which identity is consumed rather than lived, in which ‘difference’ is played out via Facebook timelines and music streams rather than by how people actually work, think, play, and live.

But if that weren’t bad enough, this essay will also argue that, at least in its present form, the very notion of ‘self’ or ‘individuality’ is largely a product of late capitalism. By surveying the current state of branding and advertising, this piece will assert that in many cases ‘identity’ is a marketing gimmick, a ruse intended to motivate consumers to purchase products in the belief that said products will confer a special distinction or status upon them. Instead, iPhones, Whoppers and other haloed commodities achieve the opposite, miring them in the homogeneous narcissism of small differences, and even supplanting any urge to significantly differentiate themselves through an active engagement with politics, ethics, philosophy, nature, culture, or life itself.

Facebook and the Consumption of Self

That said, people do not ‘consume’ commodities or products. No, what they consume is themselves. That is, the use of a product turns into consumption precisely at the point where the user believes he is differentiating and distinguishing himself from other people by using it. Put differently, consumption is the process of harnessing products to construct a sense of identity and individuality. Correspondingly, a consumerist society is one in which individuation has been displaced from the social (or political) to the commercial realm.

This is why the use of ‘social’ media qualifies as consumption, even if little or no money changes hands between, say, Facebook and their users (although it certainly changes hands between Facebook and all the third parties to which the Zuckerberg Co. sells your data). For example, Facebookers add photos of themselves to their timelines, they link their profiles to content ‘liked’ elsewhere on the web, and they post messages that can be viewed by their ‘friends’. All of these activities help the average user of the site to present a selective image of themselves to the rest of the world, an image which in turn reinforces and validates their preferred self-conception. By doing this, by associating their profile mostly with content that reflects favorably on themselves, they effectively consume themselves. They return again and again to Facebook because they enjoy the idealized concepts of themselves these sites allow them to forge. What’s more, they enjoy seeing other people ‘like’ their posts and their photos, thereby providing their carefully curated profile with acceptance and approbation, which permits them to indulge in the digitized fantasy of their virtual self with ever greater conviction and enjoyment.

Admittedly, this is a contentious view, but while there are few if any surveys in which respondents explicitly attest to using Facebook in order to ‘nurture and consume a (partial or romanticized) self-image’, there are several empirical studies which suggest that self-presentation and egotism are prime drivers of social media use. For example, a research article published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal in 2011 stated that “Facebook users tend to be more extraverted and narcissistic” (Ryan & Xenos, 2011). Similarly, a 2014 paper in Personality and Individual Differences observed that, for those users classed as ‘neurotic’ (rather than extroverted or narcissistic), their neuroticism is “positively associated with the expression of ideal and hidden self-aspects” (Seidman, 2013). Lastly, a 2015 study in Social Influence disclosed that subjects “who did not receive feedback on their updates” reported lower levels of self-esteem (Tobin et al,, 2015).

Of course, social media users also rely on their favored sites for a sense of belonging and connection (Nadkarni & Hofmann, 2012), even if it’s arguable that ‘belonging’ is predicated on the acceptance of one’s persona by the group to which one is said to belong. Nonetheless, despite the importance of social inclusion as a motivating factor in Facebook use, it’s apparent from the various investigations conducted hitherto that the fabrication, exhibition and appreciation of self is also a very strong component in our gravitation towards social media. These researches indicate that we’ve been drawn towards Facebook et al. because they permit us to control, manage and select our public images with an unprecedented degree of freedom, and because we take pleasure in the identities which result.

Consumer Items as Purchasable Self

Or, to reduce this to the present essay’s central premise, they indicate that we’ve been pulled in by social media because it enables us to consume our selves. Yet once again, the consumption of self is what all consumption is, including the more ‘traditional’ consumption of Rolex watches, Nike trainers and Beatles albums. Regardless of the use value such objects may possess, these products exist predominantly as signs, having been conferred by a range of associations with a social meaning. Thanks to advertising, branding and actual use within society, they denote and connote numerous socioeconomic properties, including wealth, status, youth, education, and culturalization. As such, they grant the consumer the ability to construct a profile, persona or identity (call it whatever you will), by allowing her to associate herself with the various social properties they signify. They imply she’s a certain kind of person with certain kinds of characteristics, and it’s precisely this implication she’s moved and gratified by when she purchases a new watch, pair of shoes, or CD.

Again, the comforting and pleasurable ability to conceive of ourselves as particular kinds of selves is not the only thing spurring us to shop on and offline, but it’s still one of its principal instigators. To cite a few more examples, researchers documenting a series of interviews in the Journal of Consumer Behavior stated that “the clothes choices made by young people are closely bound to their self-concept” (Piacentini & Mailer, 2004). Corresponding to this, a classic 1967 review of contemporary literature in the Journal of Marketing concluded that “role of the image an individual has of himself [is] a motivator of human behavior in the marketplace”, and that “[e]nhancement of the self-concept can occur through an intra-action process whereby an individual communicates with himself through the medium of goods-symbols” (Grubb & Grathwohl, 1967). Lastly, a survey of Pennsylvanian residents published in the Journal of Consumer Research discovered that “consumption patterns do vary by cultural capital across a variety of dimensions” (Holt, 1998, p. 19), illustrating that consumers affirm their desired or actual socio-cultural class — and ipso facto their desired or actual identity — when they consume. Moreover, this paper noted that respondents classified as having ‘high cultural capital’ “place tremendous stock in self-actualizing experiences”, underlining that consumption is very often driven by the appeal of identity construction.

Given that people do purchase goods in accordance with how they perceive/class and want to perceive/class themselves, it’s not a massive leap to the conclusion that the gratification they derive from purchased goods broadly consists in the gratification of believing that they belong to a particular group and have a particular identity. Inasmuch as this is the case, it might be more penetrating to insist that what they are consuming when they purchase product x is a self, an identity, or at least part of a self. Yes, they buy “goods-symbols” in order to ‘express themselves’ and ‘affirm their identity’, but in many cases what’s being expressed and affirmed are selves and identities that didn’t exist prior to the purchase of these goods-symbols, which are often used to create such selfhood and identity from all-but nothing.

Individualism and the Fall of the Social

Speaking of nothing, the very idea of self or identity is today generally the instrument of corporations and their marketing arms, and even with the concept’s historical roots in philosophy and politics, its 21st-Century variant has been emptied of much of its prior content and re-shaped to suit the interests of business. To provide an extremely brief elaboration, ‘self’ was usually equated with consciousness in the 17th and 18th centuries: it was either the consciousness flowing from a stable essence à la Descartes or the consciousness fragmented into a ‘bundle of sensations’ à la David Hume. Moving forwards in time, ‘identity’ denoted one’s membership in a particular group with particular values and aims, such as the working classes who battled for their rights in the 19th Century (E.P. Thompson, 1963) or the feminists who battled for theirs in the 20th (Taylor & Whittier, 1992). Here, identity was a function of social and political engagement, culminating in such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in 1948 conferred individuality and individual rights on those people who were recognized as populating a new global community of united nations.

It’s this sociopolitical model of identity and self which is key here, since it forms the basis of the newborn, quasi- ‘individuality’ that predominates in the 21st Century. The thing is, even though it is a paradigm for today’s way of framing identity, today’s updated version has disembowelled it of its sociopolitical content. Instead of referring to the individual’s ties and allegiances to political parties, cultural organizations, ethnic demographies, local communities, and nations, ‘identity’ and ‘individuality’ now refer to the absence of such ties and allegiances. As a result of the individualism (see Oyserman et al., 2002; Twenge et al., 2012; also David Marquand, 2013) and materialism (see Twenge & Kasser, 2013) now sweeping many developed states, these terms have begun to signify a lone, atomized individual whose standing apart from her social environment is the greatest possible good. Any attempts to curtail her excesses as she competes against her fellows for economic and hierarchical gain is regarded as anathema, and in tandem with the elite politico-economic classes that have fostered her rise, she adamantly resists any attempt to balance her egotism with a greater sensitivity to the needs of the people, groups and communities from which it separates her.

This separation is facilitated and helped by consumerism, which via the mediation of symbolically encoded consumer goods and comparably encoded branding, provides illusory replacements for absent social institutions, activities and connections. It promises the consumer that she can compensate for their disappearance — i.e. the disappearance of those things once responsible for bestowing identity on her — with the appearance of consumables that conjure the facade of identity.

Rephrased, consumerism furnishes (a simulated) identity in a world where the institutions that previously furnished it have waned into obscurity or nonexistence. That they have so waned is supported by a healthy stock of evidence, although for the purposes of this essay it will serve to highlight only the most significant indicators. For instance, the two major political parties in the UK (the Conservatives and Labour) respectively had 2.9m and 876,000 members in 1951. In 2011, these totals had dribbled down to 177,000 and 190,000, underlining the British population’s disengagement from politics and national life. In parallel, trade union involvement had diminished, with the number of trade unionists in the UK dropping from a peak of 12.2m in 1980 to 5.98m in 2012. As before, this dramatic fall betrays a significant detachment of British citizens from the country, institutions and fellow citizens around them, one which is compensated for and facilitated by the correlated growth in consumerism.

Other indices of this withdrawal from the public realm and into the private self are available. In America, the General Social Survey has indicated that the trust its citizens have in other Americans has dipped from 46% in 1972 to 33% in 2012. Across the pond, the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2015 related that 47% of Brits were suspicious of strangers, while the World Values Survey detailed how trust between them had sunk from 59% in 1959 to 30% in 1998 (Hosking, 2010). The British have also witnessed a considerable decline in religiosity, with the proportion of declared Anglicans plunging from 40% in 1983 to 17% in 2014, with commensurate troughs evident for Catholicism in France, and for religion in general in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

As a whole, these changes are an impressive token of how social cohesion and investment has decreased over the past few decades, of how the ‘individual’ is someone constituted less by his involvement in various social groups and activities, and more by his occupancy of an isolated, money-seeking void.

Selling You a Place in Nowhere and Nothing

It’s into this void, this absence of collectivism, contact and identity, that consumerism has entered. Even if corporations, brands and advertisers can’t be charged with launching a conspiracy to disconnect people from each other, they’ve nonetheless capitalized on such disconnection, preying on the consumer’s need to create a sense of identity and individuality now that it’s no longer forthcoming from her nation, its public bodies or her social milieu. Just by looking at their marketing strategies, by their use of logos and slogans, it’s possible to discern them stoking and stimulating this need, seducing the consumer with the mirage of a self that doesn’t require any appreciable commitment, action, enterprise or struggle to be constructed.

As far as the theory and empirical work informing such seduction is concerned, the vulnerability of the identity-starved consumer is solidly established. Research papers have probed it inside out: a 2005 article in the Sport Marketing Quarterly journal summarized a test of three “loyalty models” of sport-spectator behavior and judged that, “[f]rom a marketing perspective, the results indicated that it is critical to facilitate self-esteem responses to engender conative loyalty and thus attendance at future games and purchasing of team merchandise” (Trail et al., 2005). Continuing on from this, a qualitative study of 100 British adolescents in Psychology & Marketing in 2012 decreed that the interviews they gave “highlighted the central role of consumption and material goods in self-esteem formation and maintenance” (Isaksen & Roper, 2012). Yet most striking of all, a 1997 article in the Academy of Marketing Science on “self-congruence” (the extent to which a brand or product image coincides with the consumer’s actual or desired self-image) commented on the concept’s efficacy in predicting consumption patterns, proclaiming that “[o]ver the last 25 years […] marketing scholars have used the notion of self-image congruence to explain and predict […] product use, product ownership, brand attitude, purchase motivation, purchase intention, brand choice, brand adoption, store preference, store loyalty, and so on” (Sirgy et al., 1997).

So the academic research and knowledge attesting to consumption’s key role in self-construction is definitely there, but how is it manifested in practice? Well, it’s manifested in the “Where do you want to go today?” tagline of Microsoft’s late-Nineties ad campaign and the “Have it your way” Burger King catch phrase from the Seventies, not to mention the “Be your way” dictum that replaced it last year. These are slogans which wield the second-person possessive pronoun to goad and coax the consumer’s sense of self, to provoke the vague impression that such a self might be accentuated or nurtured by the consumption of the goods they peddle. Perhaps even more effective and manipulative are those ads which incorporate first-person singular pronouns into their spiel, such as MTV’s “I want my MTV” rallying cry from 1984 and McDonald’s delightful “I’m Lovin’ It“, or those occasional products which embed the very idea and promise of selfhood into their name, including iPhones (and the rest of the Apple family.), Myspace and the recently inaugurated My Burberry line of colognes.

Whether explicitly or not, these phrases and goods insinuate that the consumer can develop their individuality and identity by consuming them. To call an item an “iPad” is to say it can be calibrated or modified to suit her personality, that it can reflect her self-conception (whether grounded or not in reality) and thereby strengthen it via such a reflection. Consequently, this kind of marketing seduces the customer with the suggestion that she can become a richer, fuller and more singular person by stumping up money for smartphones and eau de toilette. Or, to condense the message even further, it seduces the customer into thinking that purchasing products is the same thing as purchasing self. Or again, what it sells above everything else is self.

And it’s not simply clever buzz-lines and buzz-names that corporations use to dupe us into believing consumption is a viable substitute for personal development. In fact, their efforts at branding themselves as identity-providers sink much deeper, with the likes of German e-commerce retailer Zalando launching a recent “Share Your Style” drive, which encourages the public to share pictures of themselves attired in their favorite outfits and therefore to perpetuate the assumption that clothing alone is enough to distinguish members of the herd from each other. Other companies are getting in on this kind of action as well, such as the outdoor gear specialists The North Face, who towards the end of 2014 appropriately enough released an ad called “Your Land“, dispatched a “#SeeForYourself taxi” that roamed NYC looking for people to take on tours through surrounding rural areas, and unsurprisingly urged their customers to tweet about ‘themselves’ in the great outdoors using the same hashtag. Finally, neither are such social-media heavy marketing ventures restricted to America or Europe: in September 2015 Manulife Philippines began a “Start Your Story” offensive that would involve “online contests and community-based initiatives.”

In all of these cases, the emphasis is distinctly on the “you” or the “your” part of the equation, with all the brands involved essentially positioning themselves as midwives of the consumer’s self, as a gateway into the prized worlds of identity and selfhood. Almost everything they do marketing-wise presents them and their commodities as benevolent and wholesome nurturers of the individual hiding within all of us, and yet at the same time there’s something profoundly unwholesome and anti-benevolent in their assertion that individuality can be bought, that the only condition of ‘starting your story’, ‘seeing for yourself’ or ‘sharing your style’ is the exchange of money.

This is because, through such assertions, they’ve transformed the concept of individuality from a powerful tool that people can use to excel themselves, escape detrimental circumstances, and pursue a better life, to a powerful tool that businesses can use to fool people into buying a hat. Under the jurisdiction of these businesses, ‘individuality’ has become little more than a register of our consumption, an index of our investment in and contributions to the capitalist system, and as such it achieves nothing in the way of making this system any less harmful to any other kind of individuality we might still possess. Hence, there is indeed something deeply unwholesome and anti-benevolent about the corporate world’s approach to identity and selfhood.

The Opium of the Masses

As unwholesome and anti-benevolent as it might be, it is nonetheless a defining and prevalent element of consumerism, which if nothing else has emerged as a means of simulating identity in a world where capitalism has dismantled the social ties, groups and activities that once imparted identity, individuality and belonging to people. It’s perhaps because of its seemingly innocuous ubiquity that we’ve learnt to turn a blind eye to it and its potentially deleterious effects, yet if we stopped to consider the latter for more than a second they might reveal themselves in all their insidiousness.

In closing, the present essay can only speculate on these ramifications. Nevertheless, irrespective of our powerlessness to predict the future, it’s quite apparent that one of consumerism’s main functions is to enable people to superficially tolerate a life of isolation, alienation (Weakliem & Borch, 2006), insignificance and impotence (Glennie & Gottfried, 2014) without actually doing anything to resolve such issues. Consumerism reassures consumers that they continue to exist and have a social identity even if they aren’t especially social, even if they do nothing but consume and are cut off from other people, from their communities, and from politics. Furthermore, it’s this last estrangement that’s possibly the most troubling, since even though their attraction towards consumption was caused in part by a breakdown of faith in politics, it’s conceivable that consumerism might do just enough to prevent them from ever wanting or trying to regain this faith in the future. It might supply them with just enough short-term gratification and symbolic selfhood to prevent them from forming the desire to involve themselves with politics once again and to take control of their lives. If so, it’s a dangerous weapon, and needs to be watched very carefully. Otherwise it might disable us while the more knowing run off with all the spoils.

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