To this day, high-end automobile companies make cars by hand for the luxury market, and those vehicles still are demarcations of status.
The increased complexity of modern consumer society reflects the increased complexity of our social strata. We are no longer characterized in broad categories of nobility, bourgeoisie, workers and peasants. Our society today has a near infinite number of strata. This has taken consumption as a marker of status to near-absurd levels. Comparisons of products are endless. We compare the square footage of our houses, the engine power of our cars, the number of DVDs in our collection and the size of our television screens. Each slight improvement is another increase in our status. This shift has taken us from a society with only a handful of social strata to one in which the social hierarchy is a continuous progression. This in turn fuels near-continuous consumption in order to further differentiate us from the denizens of the strata below.
Several changes in the past century have contributed to this increased complexity. Retailing experienced a significant shift in the early years of the 20th century. For most of history, shopping filled two roles. One was the acquisition of goods. The other was a social function, as evidenced by the rise in coffeeshops and teahouses. In the early part of the 20th century, store owners began to market shopping as a form of entertainment. The trend is believed to have begun in London, which was and still is one of the world's largest and wealthiest cities. Selfridge's turned the annual spring sales at the department stores in London's west end into a social function. Finding a bargain was important, but the sale was an event even if it was not successful on any other level. With an increasing number of society's members possessed of sufficient wealth, desire for status and desire to fill free time, the concept was an instant hit and diffused rapidly throughout retailers. The Bon Marche began to encourage browsing, which took the concept of shopping as entertainment to a new level - one no longer needed to have a reason to go shopping. Over time, the concept extended from urban commercial shopping districts to suburban shopping malls and eventually to the Internet.
In addition to these societal shifts, the development of modern consumerism has also been driven by profound technological shifts. Rapid development and diffusion of production technology democratized consumption. More products were becoming available to more people. Technological developments also changed products. A wealth of new kitchen appliances, for example, changed cooking habits to the point where it was reasonable for a cake to be baked from a Betty Crocker mix in a box.
Betty Crocker represents another component to the development of modern consumerism - improvements in advertising. Improvements in communication allowed for marketers to reach broader audiences. Additionally, they could communicate better with each other, to diffuse knowledge about successful marketing practices more successfully. Betty Crocker was one of the earlier examples of a successful advertising icon. The success derived from the fact that many consumers thought Betty was real, but the more important lesson marketers learned is that if their message was sufficiently credible, they could change consumer behavior is a significant way. This resulted in a paradigm shift for marketers; instead of responding to consumer demand, they sought to create it. Contrast this with the definition of marketing success at the turn of the 20th century, when Pears was one of the first companies to strongly associate a brand with an image. Today, marketers routinely attempt to create demand seemingly from thin air.
Modern consumer culture is the culmination of many significant factors. The increased complexity of our social structure demands that we constantly exhibit our status, with consumption being one of the most important ways to do so throughout the course of human history. Rapid improvements in technology and marketing have facilitated this dramatic increase in the complexity of our social structure. Lastly, we have also seen consumption become entertainment rather than necessity. These factors have shaped the last 150 years of development in consumer culture, and there is every indication that they will continue to drive further changes to our consumer culture over the next century as…