Part IV A – Consumers
Chapter 5: The Danish Consumers
5.2 From Postmodern to Hypermodern Consumer
Before diving into these concepts, we find it necessary to mention that we are aware that neither society, nor consumers can be seen as a giant mass changing from one paradigm to the other overnight. This is a fundamental transformation in various levels of society, which is an on-going transition that can take years, even decades. Thus, we agree with Huyssen’s notion of this matter:
“What appears on one level as the latest fad, advertising pitch and hollow spectacle is part of a slowly cultural transformation in Western societies, a challenge of sensibility, of which the term “Postmodern” is actually, at least for now, wholly adequate. The nature and depth of that transformation are debatable, but transformation it is. I don’t want to be misunderstood as claiming that there is a wholesale paradigm shift of the cultural, social, and economic orders;
any such claim would be clearly overblown. But in an important sector of our culture there is a notable shift in sensibility, practices and Discourse formations, which distinguishes a Postmodern set of assumptions, experiences and propositions form that of a preceding period.” (Huyssen, 1984, p. 8).
Many scholars have throughout the years investigated the Postmodern consumer and now literature about the emerging Hypermodern consumer has started to get foothold. We have chosen to utilize the scholar Gilles Lipovetsky’s viewpoints, as he has investigated both the Postmodern and the Hypermodern consumer and distinguishes between the modern, Postmodern, and Hypermodern periods, creating a good overview. Moreover, he argues that the Hypermodern consumer is the consumer of the future (Lipovetsky, 2005). In his book “Le Bonheur Paradoxal: Essai sur la Société d’Hyperconsommation” from 2006, he divides history of modern consumption into three interconnected phases:
46 5.2.1. Phase 1 (from the 1880s to the First World War)
Phase 1 was characterized by the beginning of mass production, which was possible due to the creation of modern infrastructure and new technologies. Moreover, this was the period, where brand names, packaging, and advertising gained significance, making people into consumers and altering consumption itself (Lipovetsky, 2006). This period is also referred to as Modernism (Harvey, 1989), which celebrated homogeneity, order, and assimilation (ibid).
5.2.2. Phase 2 (1950s – 1980s)
Lipovetsky argues that the beginning of second phase evolves around the emergence of a new society; influenced by higher disposable incomes, higher living standards, and constant growth, thus he calls it “the affluent society” (ibid). Mass consumption became reality and was also democratized, giving all consumers the possibility of material comfort. Consuming products was associated with happiness and the stimulation of desires became an important factor, as all consumers now had access to luxurious products, once only available to the wealthiest people. At that time, seduction, hedonism, and spending were replacing coercion, duty, and saving, and what is more, liberation replaced repression (ibid). This period is known as Postmodernism.
Individualism became a human right and was also expressed through consumption. Harvey saw this as positive, as Postmodernism allowed complexity, difference, minority, and plurality, which were all neglected in many Modern practices (Harvey, 1989).
In time, the consumers got used to the fact that they could always get what they wanted, thus the material gratification was not enough, resulting in the rise of the experience economy. The arguments of functionality became obsolete, as experiential differentiation was now the key to commercial success. In addition to this, consumers started buying products in order to shape their identity, or their aspired identity, to show society who they were and where they fitted in. In other words; what was consumed were images and culturally available representations (fashion, media images, etc.) (Baudrillard in Caldwell, 2008), forming and displaying the individual. Thus, product attributes must enhance two things for the consumer: product experience and social status. Especially the social status, or maybe even generating envy, was important to consumers and was obtained through the symbolic meaning of the goods purchased and then used to communicate the owner’s identity (Lipovetsky, 2006), which is also argued by Belk, who states that products are an extended part of the self (Belk, 1988).
47 Studies verify that social “reality” is created through structures that are determined by the material (products), which is mediated by the symbolic (brand, image; what the product stands for) (Harvey, 1989). Therefore, the Postmodern consumer culture was based on attaining a personal sovereignty through brands (Holt, 2002), e.g. to show that they are cooler, they buy Nike shoes, to show they are socially better connected they visit the trendiest nightclub, purchasing single-malt whiskey shows they are better informed, owning CSR certified fashion make them morally superior, buying a BMW shows that they are rich etc.
Much consumption is done to show superiority.
5.2.3 Phase 3 (1990s - 2006)
By the 1990s, consumption replaced antagonistic culture and became an omnipresent part of social behaviour, even when it comes to family, religion, politics etc. (Lipovetsky, 2006). The goals of consumption had also changed; where the Postmodern consumer was chasing high social status and identity through consumption, the new type of consumption is even more about experience and a new way of consuming saw the daylight, namely emotional consumption. This is what Lipovetsky, Charles, and Brown call Hypermodernism (Lipovetsky et al, 2005). In this new phase, consumers purchase in order to live better lives, enjoy pleasures, and to feel good about themselves, which was done by consuming for the sake of oneself (Lipovetsky, 2006). As Lipovetsky argues:
“We want objects to live with, not to display them; we do not buy commodities because they enable us to show off and establish our social status, but because they gratify us emotionally, physically, sensually, and because they entertain us. We expect the commodities we buy to enable us to be more independent, more mobile, to have new sensuous experiences, to improve our quality of life, to keep us young and healthy.” (ibid, p. 38).
It is however necessary to mention that although consumption is done for the individual’s own sake, there are still Reference Groups, who are taken into account before consuming.
However, these groups have changed; the Reference Groups are now founded on consumption opposed to a more feudal society where heritage and profession played a large role in forming identity (Lipovetsky, 2005). This is also in line with what scholars Østergaard
48 and Jantzen argue in “Shifting Perspectives in Consumer Research: From Buyer Behaviour to Consumption Studies” (2000). Through the study of the evolvement of last decades’
consumer, they find that today’s consumer is a tribe member, meaning that the individual has different Reference Groups such as family, friends etc. They are believed to be of great importance in the decision-making process of consumption, i.e. consumers have become less interested in the products and brands and more interested in the social links and identity creation (Østergaard et al, 2000).
The consumer has become spoiled due to technological advances and an ever-increasing service level; they can have whatever they want at any time of the day, as both media and companies work very hard to give it to them. Moreover, the market has been flooded with items enabling them to instantly gratifying their needs and desires, e.g. iPods, microwaves, smart phones, Internet access everywhere etc., also help them structure their life in a more individual way. According to Aubert, who has also written about Hypermodernism, the emergence of urgency, intensity, instantaneity, and particularly excess are some of the negative effects of today’s Hypermodern society (Aubert in Gottschalk, 2009). By excess, he does not only mean excess in consumption, but also information, communication, crises, risks, individualism, acceleration etc., which have resulted in a decreasing trust in authorities and experts, leading people to depression, because they are constantly reminded that their ultimate freedom give them the sole responsibility if they make the “wrong” choice (ibid), which is also in line with Sestoft’s argument for Interpellation (cf. 4.1.5 Interpellation).
Lipovetsky also argues that Hypermodernism has a negative side to it: that these ever-expanding, accelerating advances created by humans have generated a homogeneous world society where the difference between classes and groups increase (Lipovetsky et al, 2005).
However, he argues that it in turn has created a positive revitalization of values e.g. in some cases, excessive consumption has been replaced with recycling or downsizing, as the individual has begun to think about the future. We argue that this somewhat new awareness of human-caused climate problems, which are now addressed on the global agenda, force consumers to think about the future by creating a “memento mori”4 in their mindset. Thus, morals, sociability, and humanism are in focus. This value-revitalization is only possible due to globalization, higher standards of living, expanding wealth, medical, and technological advances etc., resulting in individuals’ ability to feel that the possibilities of life no longer
2 Memento Mori is a Latin phrase translated as ”Remember your mortality”.
49 have any boundaries (ibid), giving them the opportunity to actualize themselves through consumption.