The term consumer culture is used to describe an economy that is defined by the spending habits of its consumers. It is closely connected to capitalism since money drives it. There is, however, a major difference between consumer culture and capitalism. Consumer culture focuses on the happiness that is gained through buying and owning items whereas capitalism focuses on the power of money. The most outstanding feature of consumer culture is purchasing power.
The theory behind consumer culture is that people are greatly influenced by consumerism, that the foundation of economic and social cultures is the purchasing of goods and services and that all social behavior stems from the desire for those goods.
The most important aspect of consumer culture is that people are identified and characterized by the things they possess and by the services they purchase. Perception has become more important than deeds. There is a perceived association between the things people accumulate and the degree of happiness those things bring to the person. Great emphasis is placed on leisure time and how people spend their free time. These things are closely linked to free market politics that emphasize the rights of individuals to choose the products they purchase and which manufacturer will benefit from their money. Businesses try to attract customers through advertising.
There are positive and negative aspects to consumer culture. Those in favor claim that people are happier, more content and more productive when they have what they need and want; one way to achieve that end is by owning products that they want. The opposing view feels that consumerism is totally wasteful, encourages unnecessary consumption and breeds greed and jealousy in people. Critics also contend that consumerism drives people not just to meet their needs but also to acquire status symbols. People purchase items whose primary intent is to show off the owner's ability to afford them. Consumer culture pursues everything superficial and external instead of fulfilling spiritual desires. Critics feel that consumerism causes class divisions. All, however, agree that consumerism is the father of economic freedom and that consumer culture lies at the heart of the American Dream.
Consumer culture was originally limited to the United States and other powerful Western European countries that had the economic power and resources to develop industries. With the advent of global communication and the need for countries to export their products, consumer culture began to spread around the globe. It is not known how much traditional culture , such as in China, has been watered down due to consumerism.
Consumer culture thrives when a country's economy is strong. The laws of supply and demand play themselves out naturally, and purchases lead to more purchases. Consumerism, not the manufacturer, determines which products are going to sell, and which products will not sell. A product cannot exist if free-thinking consumers will not buy it.
Children are afforded their share in consumer culture through toys, commercials and television programs that they watch. Most children will spend the first part of the day before school starts and the last part of the day, after school has ended, with their friends and other children their age. They will admire each other's T-shirts, lunchboxes and other items containing their favorite film or TV characters. By wearing these characters on their shirts or on their hats and carrying them on everything they own, they are making a statement about their consumer culture -- namely videos, films and television programs.
Children are influenced by the commercials on those TV programs and feel the need to have those items in order to be competitive. Even though parents may disapprove of their children's desires, often they are out of their control. Many parents view the popular children's television programs and toys as an alien culture, and they look down on them. Children sometimes feel that their knowledge of their consumer culture is a sign of power -- something they know a lot about and adults know very little about or nothing at all.
Children do not create the objects of their consumer culture; rather professional adults design the toys and create the shows when their market research shows they will be appealing to children. Children are very creative in their use of consumer goods and create their own meanings from the symbols of consumer culture.