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Consumerism and the Unconscious Mind:

The Impact of Consumerism on Individuals Personal Decisions in Contemporary Society

Phillip Zaphiropoulos (6803131)

SOC3138A
Joseph E. Sawan
University of Ottawa

Monday, November 30, 2015

Introduction
This research paper applies various psychoanalytic concepts to the analysis of
consumption, the unconscious mind and self-identity. Based on theories from psychoanalysts
such as Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm, and others, as well as the father of public
relations, Edward Bernays, this paper aims to identify the power and ideology of consumerism in
modern societies, the impact it has on the individual psyche and self, and how it shapes social
interactions and consumer habits. These theories will be collected and analyzed from various
research papers, articles, books, online resources, classical literatures and works dating back to
the 1900s and moving forward to contemporary times. This analysis will determine how
influential and powerful propaganda and consumerism are in society, as well as the role they play
in controlling individuals and their self-identity. This analysis will be based on the underlying
question:
According to Sigmund Freuds and Edward Bernays psychoanalytic theories of identity
and the unconscious mind, how does consumerism in modern society influence
individuals personal interactions and market consumption?
Consumption, the practical everyday routine buying activity of individual consumers, is
part of an intricate scheme in contemporary society which is the main driver for self-identity and
unconscious purchasing decisions. Further analysis will focus on revealing the impacts of
consumerism in everyday life, as well as some of the unconscious, stimulating, and fundamental
life processes that drive, create and maintain subjective identity and consumerism (Demir, 2013).

Contemporary Society
According to Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang (2006), consumerism has at least five
distinct connotations. It is a moral doctrine, a means for establishing social status, a vehicle for
economic development, a public policy, and a social movement. Consumerism can be defined as
the collection of behaviours, attitudes, and values that are associated with the consumption of
material goods. There are many different definitions and perceptions of what exactly the term
consumerism encompasses; however, in contemporary consumer society, the consumption of
goods, or the activity or it, is something that is becoming more and more inseparable and
correlated to identity of the self and an individuals sense of meaningfulness. This can be
connected to consumer culture in postmodern society, which may be defined as the daily changes
in consumer behaviour, which is driven through conscious and unconscious decisions. The term
consumer culture refers to cultures in which mass consumption and production both drive the
economy and shape perceptions, values, desires, and constructions of personal identity, or the
self. Social class, gender, ethnicity, and age all affect definitions of consumer (self) identity and
the way in which consumers adjust and construct their lifestyle (Singh, 2011). In the theory of
marketing and buyer behaviour, the concept of social class is considered the basic factor of
consumption behaviour in modern society, especially in North America. In fact, among
behavioural scientists, there was a consensus that market behaviour of individuals is closely
related to their social class (Slocum & Mathews, 1970).
Yannis Stavrakakis (2006) recognizes the consumerism and advertising in contemporary
societies, and what it means for individual behaviour and social structure:

Indeed, in capitalist - especially late capitalist - societies it is the role of consumption and
consumerism and the function of advertising, public relations and branding, that offer
perhaps the best example of how new interpellations and commands can re-shape social
structure by imposing their hegemonic grip on individual and group identifications and
behaviour. (p. 84, para. 1)
This is just another realization of modern societies being ruled by the notion that consumption
drives individuals. It almost allows consumers to behave in a certain way in order to feel a sense
of belongingness and meaningfulness in life. The mind of the consumer is so easily swayed by
advertising and branding in contemporary markets that people feel compelled to consume and
take part in the routine activity that is consumerism; all because the power of the minority (the
marketers) have the ability to control the unconscious mind of the majority (the consumers).
Psychoanalytic Theories of Consumerism and Identity
Humans have an intricate and complex set of mental variables that affect their
conditions of existence. This set of variables, defined in previous literature as habitus, will
identify how these conditions not only affect ones lifestyle, but also consumer choices and
practices (Henry, 2005). Dating back to the Classical Freudian era, psychoanalysts established
various points of view about the mind of the consumer, and whether or not these mental
variables, or habitus, really do affect purchasing decisions and self-identity. Additionally, these
psychoanalytic theories aimed to identify how capitalism in modern society, including
advertising, mass media, and materialism, have controlled or attempted to control the
unconscious mind of individuals.

Sigmund Freud did not exactly invent the idea of the conscious versus unconscious mind,
but he did have a large influence in bringing the topic to light and making it more popular. This
concept was one of his main contributions to psychology and psychoanalytic studies. Freud
believed that this newly discovered unconscious mind posed a threat to society, since consumers
and individuals could not fully control it, and the thoughts and decisions were not yet made
aware to the individual, which could lead to a harmful environment. Upon the realization of the
importance of the unconscious mind, Freud developed a topographical model of the mind as a
whole, whereby he described the features of the minds structure and function. Freud used the
analogy of an iceberg to describe the three levels of the mind in simple terms (McLeod, 2013).
On the surface, or the tip of the iceberg, is consciousness, which consists of those
thoughts that are the focus of our attention now; all the mental processes of which we are aware.
For example, someone may be feeling hungry at this moment and decide to get some food.
The preconscious, which lies just below the level of consciousness, consists of all the
thoughts and feelings that a person is not currently aware of, but which can easily be retrieved
from memory and brought to consciousness. For example, someone may not be thinking about
their house address, but once it is mentioned they can recall that information with ease, as it is
part of their preconscious mind; a mental waiting room, where thoughts wait to be called upon
(Freud, 1940).
The third and most significant region is the unconscious. Here lie the processes that are
the real cause of most behaviour. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part
you cannot see. The unconscious mind acts as a repository of desires and urges that are kept at
bay and mediated by the preconscious mind. It was in this part of the mind that Freud believed

was the key to unlocking a consumers deep desires and thoughts that would drive them to make
certain decisions based on thoughts and patterns that are not visible to themselves or advertisers.
Freuds primary theory was that the unconscious mind governs behaviour to a greater
degree than people suspect. Essentially, the goal of psychoanalysis in contemporary society and
advertising is to make the unconscious conscious. This means marketers and advertisers are
largely interested in uncovering the consumers unconscious thoughts and desires in order to get
a conscious image of what it is the consumer wants most, and how they can succeed in
manipulating those conscious minds. This manipulation and influence of advertisers can be
linked to the stimuli that consumers are faced with on a daily basis; stimuli of which they are
unaware,

also

called

subliminal

stimuli.

However,

Freud,

Charles

Darwin,

and

evolutionary biologists alike, thought of the unconscious much more in terms of unintentional
actions rather than unawareness of stimuli. This is the basis that gives advertisers in
contemporary societies the ability to influence consumers (through subliminal messages and
exaggerated marketing schemes) and persuade the unconscious mind into performing actions
(perhaps unintentional) that individuals were initially unaware of, or unresponsive to.
The first person to put Freuds ideas into action was Edward Bernays, the founder of
public relations in the 1920s, and Freuds nephew. He showed American corporations how they
could make people want things that they did not necessarily need, just by systematically linking
mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires, a concept that Freud first introduced. Bernays
was essentially the main player in architecting the modern techniques of mass-consumer
persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts,
to eroticizing the motorcar. Bernays took his uncles concepts of the unconscious mind and selfidentity as a way of selling consumer goods and understanding how to control the masses.
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However, Freud pointed out, or rather hypothesized, that replacing unconscious desires
by conscious impulses is when the real danger of the mind is exposed. It lies in the risk of
imitation, which would quickly lead to the dissolution of the community (Freud, 1912). Although
Freud believed the unconscious mind was a threat, corporations soon realized that this new self
was not a threat but their greatest opportunity. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that Freud
had identified, and making the unconscious conscious, individuals could be made happy and thus
obedient in the competitive and controlling society in which they live in. It was the start of the
all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world (Curtis, 2002). Thanks to Edward
Bernays, contemporary consumers have been trained to interact with others based on external
stimuli and those around them, and participate in routine market consumption just to satisfy their
irrational unconscious desires, often without knowledge or awareness of such control (Bargh &
Williams, 2006).
With support from Edward Bernays (1928) book, Propaganda, it is evident that
contemporary societies are subjected to mass-marketing and materialistic ideals, with the sole
purpose of manipulating consumers minds and contributing to the larger functioning society that
is structured by the self or identity. Bernays supports this view when he writes, We are
governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have
never heard of. This statement, although written in 1928, has held strong throughout the past 87
years, maintaining the concept of consumerism and identity even in todays societies. Bernays
suggests that these individuals, the minority, who understand the mental processes and social
patterns of the masses, are critical members of the invisible government that ensure the orderly
functioning of group life. Without these invisible governors providing guidance and choices
when it comes down to market decisions, economic life would become hopelessly jammed, as
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contemporary consumers would have no sense of direction, practicality, or interest in markets for
consumption (Bernays, 1928). Therefore, society consents to have its mind controlled, relying
on propaganda and leaders to make informed decisions about what the best products are, what
the best food to eat is, and what all of these mean for someone who seeks value and meaning in
consumption. Individuals live in a market of free competition, meaning they have many options
available to them when it comes to making a final purchasing decision. However, what drives
these individuals to buying one product over another is not just the difference in price, location,
or style, but rather the value and meaning that this one particular object brings them. Whether it
is the feeling of power amongst social groups, self-confidence in public, or just the desire or
pleasure of the purchasing activity, consumers will always have a sense of identity in the object
they are purchasing. This can be attributed to the advertising and promotions related to an item,
and how that object is portrayed for the different demographics and consumers around. Bernays
(1928) basically summarizes his ideas of the unconscious mind and consumer into two
sentences:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the
masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen
mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power
of our country.
Some additional psychoanalytic theories of this unseen mechanism (unconscious mind)
and consumerism affecting social society can be seen in the works of Walter Lippmann, Erik
Erikson, and Erich Fromm. Firstly, Walter Lippmann compared the masses of individuals in
society as a bewildered herd that required guidance and leadership from for a governing class.
He understood the large influence that mass media and propaganda had on social groups and
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individuals, and believed they were tools to control the public. He reinforces this observation
based on what he calls Manufacture of consent, where the manipulation of the public mind is
accepted by the masses as a means of easier living and decision making. This Manufacture of
consent shows that individuals have given consent to accepting the advertisers and elites
agenda, which essentially creates a lifestyle for consumers for follow (The Vigilant Citizen,
2010).
In addition to these past theories and explanations of consumerism and the unconscious
mind in developing modern societies, one can also examine how the effects of consumerism and
the exposure of mass media impacts the future generations and minds of consumers in relation to
a certain aura, as depicted by Walter Benjamin (2013). The masses contribute to the loss of
aura by seeking constantly to bring things closer. They create reproducible realities and hence
destroy uniqueness. Benjamin analyzed the developing modern day consumers from a different
perspective by using this mentioned aura to determine the behaviour of individuals in relation
to the environment and the effects of art that surround them in time and space. Originally,
consumers and individuals interacted with the aura and experienced the traditional work of art
through distanced contemplation, but in modern society people are being distracted by the mass
media, forms of technology, and propaganda around them. Benjamin argues that distraction
became an alternative to contemplation. He ultimately notes that distraction is fundamentally
social. It replaces the viewers thoughts by moving images, stopping the viewer from thinking
(Robinson, 2013). Benjamin states, The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. This
provides extra support to the realization that contemporary consumers and individuals act on
behalf of their unconscious minds of irrational reason and desire. They are absent-minded in
reality while being blinded by the distractions in front of them, which restrict them from viewing
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the true aura that surrounds them. Instead of contemplation, they seek shortcuts through
consumerism and propaganda, focusing on the wrong focus points in life and being led astray.
Benjamin is in agreement with many others on this matter, as he realizes that media exposure
reduces attention spans and may even produce stimulus overload (Robinson, 2013). Due to the
amount of subliminal and external stimuli that individuals are subjected to today, people are
feeling overwhelmed at times, while others have forgotten what it means to interpret true
meanings of objects, such as art, which Walter Benjamin refers to.
A more modern perspective of the Classical Freudian psychoanalytic theories are seen in
Media Studies: A Reader, where Sue Thornham (2000) describes how mass media continues to
strongly influence the minds of contemporary consumers and how our society is becoming
increasingly based on material goods that are forced into the lives of consumers, thanks to
modern advertising and modern capitalist societies. In one passage, Thornham writes, We are in
the phase of a relatively rapid distribution of what are called consumer goods, and advertising,
with its emphasis on bringing the good things of life, is taken as central for this reason. This
realization of the modern society of consumers is a vital understanding of how individuals
interact in the market, how they make purchasing decisions, and what it all means for them.
Bringing the good things of life is just another way of saying that the true purpose behind
consumerism today is to provide the social meanings, values and ideals for consumers in their
everyday lives so that this capitalist society can function in a structured and systematic fashion.
Social Interactions and Consumer Habits
This idea of being controlled by advertising and through a materialistic culture stems
from many roots, but can be derived in particular from the automatic perception-behaviour link

in human nature which results in default tendencies to act in the same way as those around us
(Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001). Accordingly, this is related to the notion that contemporary
consumers act and behave according to the way their peers do, or based on what they see on
television and mass media. These default tendencies and their unconscious and unintentional
actions have been demonstrated several times in human adults in the research of Chartrand and
colleagues (Chartrand, Maddux, & Lakin, 2005), which is made evident in the quote by Bargh
and Morsella (2008):
Not only do people tend to adopt the physical behaviour (posture, facial gestures, arm and
hand movements) of strangers with whom they interact, without intending to or being
aware they are doing so, but this unconscious imitation also tends to increase liking and
bonding between the individuals, serving as a kind of natural social glue.
This tendency to adopt surrounding behaviours is closely linked to the purchasing
behaviours and interactions that consumers have in the market. For example, someone might
decide to purchase a big screen TV only to match the status of ownership that their neighbour
has, or only because advertisements have made that item look extremely desirable and required
to live a normal life. This decision to fit in to modern society is what drives consumers today to
behave a certain way, and interact with others the way that they do, which includes looking down
on those that do not have the same class of products as them, or those that do not have as much
money as them. This idea of unnecessary consumption, only to satisfy the unaware, unconscious
mind, is part of the consumerism in the daily lives of contemporary individuals that dictates how
they should be living in order to fulfil the status quo and be a part of the larger system; the
invisible hand that governs their society. This is reinforced by a quote from William Feather
(n.d.), where he says, A budget tells us what we cant afford, but it doesnt keep us from buying
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it. This is essentially supporting modern day consumer decisions that sink people into thousands
of dollars of debt only to satisfy their infeasible desires and hold their social status in high regard
and confidence. Contemporary consumers fail to provide the logic behind many of their
purchases, and will often fabricate some farfetched excuse as to why a purchase was made.
However, this argument can also be fought through the concept of making purchases for the sole
purpose of self-identification and personal meaningfulness. In this scenario, consumers justify
their consumption activities as fulfilling a certain gap that exists in their life, and that the
consumption that they partake in is strictly to provide value and meaning in an otherwise empty
and dull life.
It is evident that the unconscious mind can easily be persuaded to purchase objects and
materialize ones life through the advertising and the behaviour of others that surround them.
This is evident through multiple examples in todays society of never-ending consumption and
the lasting effects that the activity has on individuals. Based on modern scenarios, it is
undeniable that todays society has turned towards consumption and waste as an everyday way of
living. Contemporary consumers purchase goods just to match the personal and social status of
their peers, neighbours, or social groups, only to dispose of that good once a new and improved
version is released into the market. This has led to a throw-away society driven by propaganda of
products that are pushed down consumers throats until they swallow the idea that what they are
seeing or purchasing is the only option they have.
Some classical observations and analyses of this evolution of society are written in
Eclipse of Reason (1947), by Max Horkheimer. This text is a predictor of what comes to develop
in contemporary societies, which leads to the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where
consumers today have allowed their minds to be controlled even though they have been made
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aware of these concepts and theories for decades. This idea of unconscious control and selfpreservation is outlined in Horkheimers Eclipse of Reason (1947), where he gives a concrete
example of consumer minds being driven by what is around them rather than what is truly in
their minds, or what they believe to be controlling:
the automobile is faster and more efficient, requires less care, and is perhaps more
manageable. However, the accretion of freedom has brought about a change in the
character of freedom. It is as if the innumerable laws, regulations, and directions with
which we must comply were driving the car, not we. There are speed limits, warnings to
drive slowly, to stop, to stay within certain lanes, and even diagrams showing the shape
of the curve ahead Our spontaneity has been replaced by a frame of mind which
compels us to discard every emotion or idea that might impair our alertness to the
impersonal demands assailing us. (p. 98, para. 1)
This reinforces the fact that the modern system holds a controlling factor in society, and that
signs have a certain power over the human mind, controlling it unconsciously while also giving
individuals the feeling that they are in control. This power behind street signs relates back to
signs of corporations, product promotions and propaganda. Whether it was the creation of neon
signs, the placement of massive advertising panels on the side of the road, or posters plastered all
over the city, one thing is for sure: contemporary society is becoming increasingly smothered by
intricate marketing schemes and manipulative methods of persuasion, all to satisfy the bottom
line of corporations, and give consumers the false sense of control about how they live out their
lives.

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These controlled behaviours and habits of consumers do not only stem from the
propaganda and signs that surround them, but also largely from the social groups and social
statuses that separate consumers in modern society. As clearly stated by Horkenheim (1947),
Irrationality still molds the fate of men, which is closely tied to the modern day consumerism
that drives groups to making purchasing decisions based on where they stand in society, whether
it be in terms of income, age, gender, or place of living. This fate of individuals today lies within
the abstract concept of social status, which gives individuals their identity and mental
preservation, and is driven by the consumption of goods and materialistic items. Additionally, the
influence of social groups today continues to increase with the rise of social media and the
growing emphasis on the idea of belongingness. It could definitely be argued that making
purchasing decisions based on social status and surrounding social groups is not impulsive and
irrational; however, it is continuously seen in contemporary society that consumers purchase
goods in order to match the status of those around them or gain a visible social advantage by
owning a more prestigious item. This is all due to the image that one aims to preserve in society
while also believing that what they are purchasing defines them and contributes to their identity.
This thought process is, however, not justified with the idea of self-identity, since it is obvious
that many purchases today are due to impulsive thinking and unconscious desires taking over the
mind. Under the present form of industrialism, the other side of rationality has become apparent
through its increasing suppressionthe role of nonconforming thoughts in the shaping of social
life, of the spontaneity of the individual, and of their opposition to pre-made patterns of
behaviour and habit (Horkheimer, 1947).
The exposure that contemporary consumers unconscious minds receive from
consumerism and propaganda today has led to a society that is stuck in a four step cycle:
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consume, satisfy, dispose, and repeat. This cycle is a simple model of the current lifestyle that
many consumers today are living, both consciously and unconsciously. As individuals are
subjected to the never-ending ideas of belongingness, meaningfulness and values, the
unconscious mind of consumers is stimulated and activated, causing individuals to feel the
obligation to consume only because they feel it is necessary, it brings them joy and meaning in
life, or just because they have the sudden urge to make a purchase.
In Horkheimers Eclipse of Reason (1947), he gives a deeper insight to social behaviour
and the interaction of humans, essentially linking individual interaction to mimicry, something
that humans develop and incorporate into their behaviours from an early childhood age. As
previously mentioned, human behaviour is heavily linked to those surrounding us. This is an
obvious indicator that is expressed in consumers today, as the personal interaction that exists in
social groups and social settings is closely linked to the idea of reflecting actions or mimicry.
As consumerism evolves, the minorities (advertisers and corporations) learn to understand
behavioural patterns and ways in which individuals mimic each other unconsciously. This
observation of consumers is implemented into existing propaganda in hopes of influencing
consumers everyday actions and unconscious thought processes. By advertising, whether it is
with commercials, signs, internet, etc., corporations can display acts of imitation in order to
encourage consumption and personal interaction in the marketplace.
For example, Canadian Tire might release a commercial that shows a man purchasing a
brand new Master Chef Barbeque for a large party that he is hosting this weekend. His neighbour
sees him installing this chrome masterpiece, and watches as he fires up his grill for the first time
to cook a juicy, AAA-grade steak while enjoying a refreshing drink. All the neighbour thinks to
himself is, Hes so cool. A week passes, and as the neighbour is passing through Canadian Tire
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he has the sudden urge to purchase a similar barbeque just because he needs a new item to make
him feel more manly and high-class, like his neighbour. This type of advertising consciously
attempts at persuading consumers and viewers that purchasing something in order to match your
neighbour is acceptable and recommended, but also provides the unconscious notion of selfidentity through consumption. Although viewers may initially think the commercial is absurd
and totally irrational, they are unconsciously affected, holding that ideal deep inside until the
time comes where they are faced with a similar scenario of imitation, not realizing that they are
actually partaking in this act of mimicry. This is attributed to the concept of automaticity,
which focuses largely on social perceptionthe degree to which people's impressions of others
are driven by automatic biases (Bargh & Williams, 2006). In fact, Bargh and Williams give a
clear explanation to this concept in one of their manuscripts:
Indeed, most automatic effects on social life are mediated by the nonconscious activation
of social representationseither preconsciously through direct activation by strongly associated
stimuli in the environment (as in racial stereotyping effects) or postconsciously through recent,
conscious use in an unrelated context (as in most category-priming effects).
Presently, taking everything into consideration, it all comes down to the struggle for
existence of humans in modern society; maintaining a steady job, possibly getting married and
having kids, being a part of multiple social groups, owning expensive items, and the list goes on
and on. In human society, both the affective and the intellectual life grow complex with the
formation of the individual and the development of the self and unconscious mind. As
economic compulsion teaches individuals to distinguish between their own thoughts and feelings
and those of others, a distinction emerges between outer and inner, the possibility of detachment
and of identification, self-consciousness and conscience. More precise reflection is required in
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order to fully understand and predict human behaviour, human desires, and the power of
consumerism on the self in contemporary societies (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002).
In conclusion, the masses are being controlled by their own human nature, and there is
nothing that the contemporary mind or consumer will do to change that because of the
comfortable and pre-determined life that they are living (or think they are living) thanks to the
invisible hand. Consumers are being duped into believing that they have full control over their
minds and actions, that they have the free will to act on their own power, and that they live in a
free-country of capitalism and democracy. The truth is, in contemporary society everything
comes at a cost. Consumers and individuals are free to act and behave how they choose in
return for their money, their time, and their unconscious minds.

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Date

Zaphiropoulos, Phillip
Last Name (print), First Name (print)

6803131
Student Number