Consumerism defines American culture today. Consumerism by definition is simply the continuing consumption of more goods and services. It encompasses everything from food to clothing to tickets to a concert. In modern times, however, consumerism and popular culture have become entangled. They seem now to go hand-in-hand. Movies contain brand name products that are prominently featured on the screen and athletes wear brands like Microsoft on their uniforms. In particular, advertising has consumed popular culture. Modern day advertisements use popular culture to advocate for consumerism and have become part of popular culture themselves.One of the first big impacts on consumerism and American culture was cars. Car culture quickly became consumerism culture, as advertisers sought out motorists. Cars themselves became part of popular culture. They were symbols of wealth and status, both in life and in places like movies, magazines and television. Advertisers seized on this, seeing that “roadsides offered new advertising space to merchants” (“Consumerism,” 39). As cars became a dominant force in popular culture, advertising used and featured them more and more. Beyond just advertising to motorists, the advertisements became about motorists in order to appeal to American popular culture at the time. We can still see this today. Every year during the Super Bowl a slew of car commercials are released. They are part of the event. We know we will see a Lexus commercial around Christmas and the Super Bowl that features a car with a giant red bow. In that way, the commercial itself has also become part of popular culture. It is an icon in and of itself, even while it is still advertising to people and trying to get them to buy more cars. In this, it is evident how consumerism has melded with popular culture and become inseparable.
It is not only cars that have mixed popular culture and consumerism. Nearly everything is a salable commodity now: movies, music, television, even fitness. Popular culture itself is an economic entity, as “advertising links producers directly to consumers, and popular culture is saleable and purchasable entertainment” (Fowels, 48). Fowels links advertising, popular culture and entertainment in what he calls the “advertising/popular culture/media complex.” He sees all three as a single entity that is constantly working to promote consumerism. At all times, advertising and popular culture are working together for economic gain.
Fowels notes the importance of pictures for this mixing of popular culture and advertising. Starting in the early 1900s, pictures became more and more prevalent in all parts of people’s lives. Newspapers, which before had had only words, not had photographs as well. Movies started to become available, first as silent films and later with audio. Advertisements, as well, started to offer images. At first these were simple images of just the product itself, but the images quickly came to symbolize an entire way of life. Rather than showing just a vacuum, the advertisement would show the type of woman and type of family and type of home that would use the vacuum. Advertisements started to shape popular culture; they started to define who Americans were. More than just showing consumers what a vacuum looked like, advertisers began to show them images of “what a higher-status household looked like, of what a successful husband looked like, of what contented children looked like” (Fowels, 44). In doing this, advertisers created culture. They created the good housewife who later featured prominently on television. They created the good husband who Americans saw in magazines. They created the obedient children who Americans watched in movies. Entertainment and advertising were linked and could not be separated.
Advertising has become more subtle even as it has gotten more pervasive. Today, we have things like “reality TV stars,” who can advertise a product simply by posting a picture of themselves holding a can of Coke on Twitter. They are not really advertising the Coke, though. Just like with the example above where a vacuum could advertise high status, the reality TV personality is actually advertising a lifestyle of consumerism. They are showing how happy, high status and attractive they are and displaying the product as a means for others to achieve this same status. The Kardashian family can’t actually make Coke taste any better or worse than it ever has, but they can link a product to a popular culture icon and make the two seem like a unified concept. They are not saying, “Buy Coke,” but rather, “Buy Coke to be like me.” The culture of consumerism makes people believe that consuming more goods will change their lifestyle and perhaps even grant them a higher status in society.
This sort of subtle advertising is exactly what advertisers and companies want. They want to “advertise without having people actually know they’re being marketed to” (Maasik, 175). When a celebrity “happens” to post a picture of them drinking a certain brand of soda or wearing a certain brand of clothing on social media, consumers do not always know that this is a deliberate attempt by advertisers to get them to buy those products. They instead just see a personality that they know from television and movies. They see someone they admire and respect. They do not see an advertisement. However, there is a subtle message being conveyed – buy this to have this. Buy this product to have this lifestyle. In a culture of consumerism the idea that purchasing certain goods can elevate one’s life is so ingrained that it never needs to be explicitly said. Instead, advertisers can have popular culture icons simply use their products and the message will get across to customers. These customers don’t believe they are looking at advertising. They think they are looking at popular culture, at a celebrity of some sort whom they want to emulate.
However, it is not just celebrity endorsements that get products sold. Advertisements and companies can also become popular culture in and of themselves. With no celebrity endorsement, some brands have made themselves into features of American popular culture that consumers seek out for the familiarity of a brand that they trust and know, a brand that has almost become a friendly presence in their lives.
An example of this is fast food chains. Even if a person has never eaten at McDonald’s, they likely know the golden arches. They know the symbol. They know Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar and all the other characters invented by McDonald’s. They don’t need to ever eat at McDonald’s to feel its presence in their life. That is because McDonald’s itself, formerly just a place to buy food, has transformed over the decades into a popular culture icon itself. And it is not just McDonald’s. All the fast food chains have attempted it. Still, McDonald’s is by far the best at this melding of product and culture. They transformed what it means to sell fast food by turning “hamburgers into signs of all that was desirable in American life.” And while other chains tried to emulate that strategy, “no company approaches McDonald’s transformation into a symbol of American culture” (Maasik 546). McDonald’s itself is part of popular culture. It is not a mere burger chain and its advertisements are not mere advertisements. It is an important popular culture icon in and of itself, independently of what it is selling. This, moreover, is the strategy that all brands have adopted and that all advertisers seek to copy. McDonald’s has effectively achieved the pinnacle of advertising potential by becoming identical, inseparable and inextricably intertwined with popular culture. You can not separate America and McDonald’s.
Advertisements quickly transformed from simple ways for producers to reach out to consumers to an element of popular culture in and of themselves. Today, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to tell what is advertising and what is popular culture. The two have intentionally become linked in order to promote consumerism. When people living in a consumerist culture don’t even realize they are being advertised to, the advertisers have achieved their goal. Things like reality TV stars and fast food chain have become both advertisers and popular culture. There is no longer any difference between our culture and our consumerism.

You're lucky! Use promo "samples20"
and get a custom paper on
"Popular Culture and Consumerism"
with 20% discount!
Order Now

  • “Consumerism.” Dictionary of American History. 2003, Mary Rizzo, “Consumerism.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008, “consumerism.” The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. 2009, and “consumerism.” World Encyclopedia. 2005. “Consumerism.” HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 2003. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. .
  • Fowles, Jib. Advertising and Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996. Print.
    Maasik, Sonia, and J. Fisher Solomon. Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Boston: Bedford of St. Martin’s, 1994. Print.