The Economy in Germany

Consumer culture: “A product can be just as subtly designed as work of sculpture”

Why do we enjoy buying things that we don’t really need?  Photo: Anastasia Pelikh © iStockphotoWhy do we enjoy buying things that we don’t really need?  Photo: Anastasia Pelikh © iStockphotoThe methods with which consumers are lured into spending their hard-earned money are becoming increasingly clever. How much control do we have over our own consumption? We talked with Wolfgang Ullrich, professor of Fine Arts and Media Theory as well as the author of “Habenwollen. Wie funktioniert die Konsumkultur?” (lit. Gotta have it. How does consumer culture work?).

Why do we enjoy buying things that we don’t really need?

Because so many things these days possess more than just their practical value. And they do add certain value to our lives. As a result, our own hopes and wishes are intentionally displayed in products. When we expect, for example, that water will clean out our system, then the mineral water bottle is designed as if it were a healing remedy. If we are looking for something refreshing, the product design will suggest that water also gives you energy. Basically, everyday products often provide powerful interpretations of phenomena and activities. They then take on meaning and we buy them with pleasure.

How important is product design with regard to the invisible or immaterial properties that the consumer connects with it?

Our own hopes and wishes are intentionally displayed in products  Photo: Grafissimo © iStockphotoThe design is key. These days there is no plain packaging anymore. Bottles, boxes, cans and tubes are often even multisensory and full of “meaning”. The shape and color of a shower gel bottle, for example, is important, just like the texture and the sound you hear when you open the cap. Not to mention of course the smell and feel of the gel itself. If the appealing sensory factors are right, the promise of the product itself is that much greater.

According to market research, most purchasing decisions are made subconsciously. How “free” are consumers really?

It would be asking too much of consumers to require that everything they do be the result of conscious decisions. A lot of what happens in our lives needs to be unconscious. Shopping is no different. But consumers are free if they have learned to understand the design of products and if they know their way around the categories in which the various manufacturers are active.

We often buy products for their supposed immaterial value. We promise ourselves beauty, youth and the power of appeal. Is there a connection between personality and consumption? As in: Tell me what you buy and I’ll tell you who you are?

The statement is correct in that there is such a wide variety of products within each product type, and that by making decisions between design and interpretation we are expressing some of our own individuality. But it misses the mark in that the consumer is ultimately forced to fit into the predefined image created by the manufacturer. When a company creates its products based on neurobiological criteria, consumers will be distinguished by their hormone levels, but social or psychological characteristics will still not be taken into account. That won’t be enough to paint an in-depth picture of the consumer in question.

Professor Wolfgang Ulrich  Photo: Michael HerdleinIn your book you write that when we shop we fight against the bad conscience of buying things that we don’t need. How does marketing manage to continually outmaneuver our best intentions?

Consumption either has to be so exaggerated that people feel they are part of a sophisticated culture – take luxury brand flagship stores, for example, where handbags and shoes are displayed like works of art in an exhibition. Or, it has to give consumers the feeling of “the more he spends the more he saves”. Discounters are set up so that when you go out to buy in bulk you feel like you’re saving loads of money and not really consuming at all.

Neuromarketing is based on the findings made in brain research: The desire to make a purchase should be inspired and increased by activating regions of the brain related to basic needs such as hunger or sexual desire. Does that frighten you?

No, because neuromarketing is just another method of studying the same stuff that has already been studied. The results are no better or clearer than the earlier approaches. It is simply used so that brain research can claim greater authority to sell marketing departments new wine in old bottles.

You claim analogously that consumption has taken over the role of education and art. But can material things really be as gratifying as creating something, or learning or understanding new concepts?

Most products are just bulk commodities  Photo: James Peragine © iStockphotoBasically, yes, because a product can be as subtly designed as a sculpture, a theater piece or a poem. In reality, however, most products are just bulk commodities and pretty simple. Yet they can “enrich” peoples’ lives just like the movies, TV or fiction books might.

“The fastest way to lose interest in something is to buy it,” said Alain de Bolton in a philosophical moment. He insinuates that once we possess something it loses its symbolic properties.

I’m not sure whether that statement is really true across the board. There are also products that we treasure more the longer we have them. Maybe they are connected with memories or they are the result of a very emotional experience that we can’t forget.


Wolfgang Ullrich:
Habenwollen. Wie funktioniert die Konsumkultur? (lit. Gotta have it. How does consumer culture work? - S. Fischer Verlag, 2008)

Jonny Rieder
conducted the interview. He is a freelance author living in Munich.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
April 2010

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