The Role of Photography and Cinema in the Rise of Mass Consumer Culture in the Early Twentieth Century

Essay, 2006

26 Pages, Grade: High Distinction


Table of Contents


1. The Rise of Consumer Culture and the Making of the Individual

2. The Shaping of the Modern Consumer Culture

3. Creating a Life-Style: “Born to Buy”

4. Psychology in Advertising: Establishing and Maintaining the Social Self

5. The Role of Photography in Advertising

6. The Role of Cinema in Advertising

7. Celebrity Endorsement Advertising

8. Branding as a Marketing Strategy

9. Ideology in Advertising




The Industrial Revolution, from the nineteenth century onwards, was characterized by two intrinsically linked social phenomena – each of unprecedented concentration and tremendous influence. Firstly, a social shift in the transformation of a traditionally agricultural society into an industrial and increasingly urban mass society; secondly, a technological shift resulting in the virtual explosion of the mass production of consumer goods. Towards the end of the century these two events, large-scale changes in social structure, mass society and mass production, were the basis for the rise of consumer capitalism, where the production of objects – the commodities – and the sale of these commodities to other ‘objects’ – the consumers – became the primary goal.

This newly generated consumer market was made possible by a steady increase in mass production, characterized by large numbers of diversified goods, often with a built-in obsolescence, which stimulated the process of ongoing consumption. The need for a frequent replacement of commodities, in combination with the striving of urbanised individuals to fill the gaping void within his or her existence that resulted from the demotion of labour productivity in the framework of modern society, gave rise to consumer culture.

Consumerism, understood as a cultural phenomenon that uses various media channels to promote the consumption of goods, assumed an overwhelming significance in modern life by engaging with people who could afford to participate in the market. The call was to establish and maintain one’s social status through the reinvention and recreation of identity, at least in relation to one’s appearances, and in order to position oneself within the social hierarchy. The possession of goods promised a sense of security that surpassed their mere utilitarian value; the suggestion was that buying the right product was essential for establishing a sense of self and marking one’s social status: the acquisition of goods on the one hand expressed the desire to distinguish oneself from other social groups; on the other hand, it aimed at gaining a sense of belonging within one’s peer group.

Capitalism, in control of the mass media, which encompassed the technological means of printing, photography and the film industry, promoted a perfect ideological solution for this quest: the prevalence of advertising messages appealed to the imagination of consumers, producing subjects who became profoundly dependent on unceasing pursuit and acquisition of new consumer goods; thus, incessant consumption became the prime activity in the new consumer culture.

In order to stimulate, and then further increase consumption, a new agency emerged: the advertising industry, which employed all forms of mass media for product promotion. Advertising sought to establish product brand distinctions as guidelines for consumer classes. This new industry, always ready to inform about novelties and to assist purchase decisions, succeeded in matching consumer needs, but was even more imperative in its objectives of stimulating dreams of consumption.[1] Advertisers used artist illustrations, photographic images and later motion pictures to induce desire for the manufactured goods.

For consumer identification, the advertising industry perpetuated stereotyped gender roles and traditional family values as appropriate models in their marketing strategies. Another approach was to foreground the exclusivity of a product through its connection to and promotion by film stars and celebrities. The imaginary link between glamorous, enviable lifestyles and product use created expectations of an achievable equality in the consumer, simply by purchasing products that were endorsed by well-known faces. Photography and cinema provided the images that created fantasies in, and supported the idealizations of, the individual who, in marketing terms, was simply an object, a particle in a mass audience. The commodification of fantasy formed a core component in the new culture of consumption, a culture which encouraged people to identify themselves with the products they consumed. Advertising photography – meaning photography used to illustrate products – and the growing film industry held an ideological function as part of the bourgeois hegemony in a capitalist society that promised democracy to all citizens through the act of consumption.

1. The Rise of Consumer Culture and the Making of the Individual

At the end of the nineteenth century, a new commodity culture emerged, one which compensated for the loss of self-determination and alienation within the vastness and anonymity of the metropolis: “From roughly 1900 to the mid 1920s the market economy became reconstituted as a corporate economy and society became reorganized as a ‘capitalist’ society – i.e., a society configured as much around market relations as community relations.”[2] Rural, closely bound communities had traditionally determined the identity of an individual, but in the new urban setting, the uprooted individual, devoid of strong social relationships, felt insecure and isolated from the larger social context of rural production. In the context of mass production, workers found themselves in the position of exchangeable units within the modern manufacturing process; centred in the growing cities, he or she was “reduced to the function of a cog”[3], the tender of a machine that made only one small part of the whole article.

Modern advertising came as a direct response to the needs of mass industrial capitalism. Social relationships became determined by the presence of products, which gained a status beyond their mere utility function; they became magic objects with symbolic qualities: “Fetishism attaches itself to the products of labour, as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”[4] Advertising offered itself as a means of efficiently creating consumers and as a way to appeal to consumers with the message that consumption equals freedom and that it was therefore possible for free individuals to experience consumption as an ongoing project of forming, and expressing, identity.

The commodity was situated within its own cluster of images in an autonomous world of consumption with its own aesthetic representations. Although advertising "does not give a false meaning per se to commodities, [it] provides meaning to a domain which has been emptied of meaning. People need meaning in their interaction with goods."[5] Karl Marx considered the desire to consume as a social need, induced by capitalism, and he coined the mystification of exchange-value in the relationship between people and things “fetishism”. Commodity fetishism consists of things that seem to have an inherent value but at the same time, it obfuscates the fact that humans produce value. The ubiquity and repetition of advertising messages reinforced a perception of a "natural connection" between commodified objects and consumer needs. Commodity fetishism substituted for the lack of human relations in linking products, often sold with added imaginary value achieved through endorsement by public figures, with the promise of psychological fulfilment through the possession of these products. To create consumers efficiently, the advertising industry developed universal notions of what could make people respond: advertising messages affected people’s aspirations and by appealing to human nature they sought to induce people to buy a product.[6]

2. The Shaping of the Modern Consumer Culture

The 1920s witnessed a rapid increase in the availability of mass-produced commodities. Commercial photography played an important role for the dissemination of advertising messages in the market for consumer products. "Consumer culture" refers to a culture characterized by omnipresent advertising and the penetration of advertising techniques into all realms of human life, including peoples’ self-images and identities. For the first time more people, with more money, had time to browse the abundance of products: “City dwellers were people with coins in their pockets and time on their hands. The majority of the population enjoyed a modicum of leisure.”[7] On top of buying the mere necessities to sustain life, more people could spend some money on luxuries and novelties and the opportunity for instalment buying further encouraged consumption.


[1] Although I concur with Helen Irving's view that is difficult to distinguish between true and false needs, or even to define what constitutes an authentic or legitimate need, my argumentation in this essay rests on the ability of advertising to reflect desire and to address the wish for social conformity. It is certainly true, as Irving points out, that "much of the discussion of advertising and its impact is speculative, based in most cases on an intuitive (and often literal-minded) assessment and an a priori conviction that advertising is manipulative and dangerous.” However, my aim in this essay is to show the interrelationship of media developments and the modern advertising industry and its impact on society in the early twentieth century.

[2] Robert Goldman, “Contradictions in a Political Economy of Sign Value,” in Current Perspectives in Social Theory 14 (1994): 183-211, online n.p.

[3] Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1967) 173.

[4] Arthur Asa Berger, Cultural Criticism – A Primer of Key Concepts (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995) 52.

[5] Sut Jhally, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society, 1987 (New York and London: Routledge, 1990) 51-52.

[6] Stuart Ewen, "Advertising as Social Production" in Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976). Ewen argued that advertising for mass consumerism was not only aimed at increasing markets for goods but also at shifting the locus of discontent from people’s work to arenas that advertisers could promise would be satisfied by consumption. By giving incentives to work harder, frustrations and unhappiness could be directed towards buying rather than political protest against working conditions or other elements of industrial society.

[7] Jib Fowles, “Mass Media and the Star System,” in Communication in History, eds. David Crowley and Paul Heyer (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003) 194-201, 195.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


The Role of Photography and Cinema in the Rise of Mass Consumer Culture in the Early Twentieth Century
James Cook University  (James Cook University)
History of Communication
High Distinction
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
595 KB
Marker's comment: wonderfully sophisticated, well researched and argued essay.
consumer culture, mass society, mass production, commodities, consumption, mass media, photography, cinema, film industry, capitalism, advertising, marketing, product promotion, urban society, social self, exchange value, modernity, fetishism, celebrity, film stars, electricity, gender roles, life-style
Quote paper
Dr. Sabine Mercer (Author), 2006, The Role of Photography and Cinema in the Rise of Mass Consumer Culture in the Early Twentieth Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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