For most people, the word “marketing” is a euphemism for manipulative advertising by wily corporations seeking to maximise profits. Yet, it could be argued that the philosophy behind consumer-led marketing has been one of the most fundamental shapers of the modern world.
The idea that producers should make what people want, not what they happen to make, is relatively new. It is an idea that fundamentally transfers power from institutions to individuals. Consumerism — the ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever increasing amounts — is the defining “ism” of
our time. It is an ideology that empowers us with choice, as much as it traps us by perpetuating ridiculous ideals (such as anorexic models). By examining the contradictory impetuses it provides, we may gain insight into the reactions of a fervently consumerist young Indian society to a state that tries to push an illiberal
First, a look at how consumer-led marketing has shaped the modern world. The Industrial Revolution enabled mass production. Only in the mid-20th century, as competition between manufacturers intensified, did the idea of understanding consumer needs gain traction. Today, we live surrounded by marketing messages. The money we spend on branded products and services is used by corporations to advertise, sponsor content and buy media outlets, giving them a disproportionate influence over popular culture.
Reformative and alternative movements have always been at the leading edge of understanding the evolving needs of “consumers” of religion. Sikhism, the Dalit movement, Periyar’s self-respect movement, the Protestant Reformation can all be seen as manifestations of consumer demand rising from below when confronted by an intransigent, oppressive “product”.
Democracy is the purest form of consumer-led marketing because every individual gets one vote. In a reversal of JFK’s famous line, today voters want to know what the country can do for them, not what they can do for the country. Few Indian leaders have understood this paradigm shift as well as the prime minister. Referring to himself as the pradhan sevak and reaching out to all kinds of audiences directly via social media, he runs a well-oiled marketing machine from Delhi.
Consumerism also comes with its own dubious impulses. It encourages narcissistic and endlessly acquisitive behaviour.
It forces on us the deplorable idea that the human face and body are our most important sources of self-worth. By obsessing over body image, over-emphasising sexual attractiveness, celebrating extroverted individualism and glorifying rigid beauty ideals, it perpetuates oppressive stereotypes, especially for women.
Yet, negative as these dynamics are, they are not going away anytime soon and are at least partially offset by the freedoms of choice and expression that consumerism engenders.
The conflict within consumerism is most visible when it comes face to face with the contradictions that it spawns. When the sexualised ideal celebrated by a consumerist society runs into cultural notions of modesty and morality, something is going to give. You can’t glorify beauty and romance in a culture where men and women are discouraged from enjoying their innate sensuality. Our reactions to Sunny Leone tell us more about our hypocrisies than about her. We want her to be desirable and virtuous at the same time. Instead of allowing her the opportunity to reinvent herself, self-appointed moral guardians want her arrested.
Elsewhere, a country like the US is one of the world’s most creative precisely because it encourages reinvention. No one cares about your past. All they care about is what you can do now. This is also the default instinct of the youth. India is an overwhelmingly young country where a new generation has come of age in a more meritocratic, IPL-like context, where backgrounds are irrelevant and only performance matters.
A consumerist culture is also quick to reject restrictions on freedom of choice. Efforts to ban beef, books, documentaries, obstruct NGOs, harass minorities, criminalise homosexuality fly in the face of the abundant choices that consumerism habituates us to. For better or for worse, consumerism pushes us towards a more individualistic, expressive, socially liberal space. It is these values, as much as the material pleasures on offer, that stoke aspiration in a consumerist society.
As ever more young Indians move to cities awash in consumer culture, as they work with and date people from other communities and parts of the country, as they revel in the choices and freedoms enabled by consumerism, they are less likely to accept being told what they can and cannot do. Our political class appears to believe that
it is desirable, and possible, to push an illiberal social agenda in a young country that has embraced consumerism. Good luck with that.
The writer is a Mumbai-based consumer researcher