Consumer capitalism describes a theoretical economic and cultural condition in which consumer demand is manipulated, in a deliberate and coordinated way, on a very large scale, through mass-marketing techniques, to the advantage of sellers.
The phrase is controversial. It suggests manipulation of consumer demand so potent that it has a coercive effect, amounts to a departure from free-market capitalism, and has an adverse effect on society in general. Some use the phrase as shorthand for the broader idea that the interests of other entities (governments, religions, the military, educational institutions) are intertwined with corporate interests, and that those entities also participate in the management of social expectations through mass media.
The origins of consumer capitalism are found in the development of American department stores in the 1850s, notably the advertising and marketing innovations at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia. Leach argues there was indeed a deliberate and coordinated effort among American 'captains of industry' to detach consumer demand from 'necessity' (which can be satisfied) to 'desire' (which can never be satisfied).
In 1919 Edward Bernays began his career as the 'father of public relations' and successfully applied the developing principles of psychology, sociology and motivational research to manipulate public opinion in favor of products like cigarettes, soap, and Calvin Coolidge. (Bernays was later dismayed to find his work Crystallizing Public Opinion was a direct inspiration for Joseph Goebbels' propaganda campaigns.) New techniques of mechanical reproduction developed in these decades improved the channels of mass-market communication and its manipulative power. This development was described as early as the 1920s by Walter Benjamin and related members of the Frankfurt School, who foresaw the commercial, societal and political implications.
In business history, the mid-1920s saw Alfred P. Sloan stimulating increased demand for General Motors products by instituting the annual model year change and planned obsolescence, a move that changed the dynamics of the largest industrial enterprise in the world, away from technological innovation and towards satisfying market expectations.
Critics of the theory of consumer capitalism hold that advertising is neither coersive nor probably effective, that the 1958 Edsel catastrophe is proof that even the powerful automobile industry cannot successfully manipulate public opinion, and that allegations of a coordinated effort to manipulate public opinion are nothing more than a conspiracy theory.
An important contribution to the critique of consumer capitalism has been made by the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, but very little of this has been translated into English. Stiegler argues that capitalism today is governed not by production but by consumption, and that the techniques used to create consumer behavior amount to the destruction of psychic and collective individuation. The diversion of libidinal energy toward the consumption of consumer products, he argues, results in an addictive cycle, leading to hyperconsumption, the exhaustion of desire, and the reign of symbolic misery.