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Consumer capitalism is a theoretical economic and social political 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.
This theory 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. According to one source, the power of such 'manipulation' is not straightforward. It depends upon a new kind of individualism - projective individualism, where persons use consumer capitalism to project the kind of person who they want to be.
Some use the phrase as shorthand for the broader idea that the interests of other non-business entities (governments, religions, the military, educational institutions) are intertwined with corporate business 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. Author William Leach describes a deliberate, coordinated effort among American 'captains of industry' to detach consumer demand from 'needs' (which can be satisfied) to 'wants' (which may remain unsatisfied). This cultural shift represented by the department store is also explored in Émile Zola's 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames, which describes the workings and the appeal of a fictionalized version of Le Bon Marché.
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.
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