The new firm

In the production society, economic growth was dependent above all on investor confidence, or what John Maynard Keynes called animal spirits; today in the consumption society growth is determined more by consumer confidence, which in the 1990s became heavily influenced by the availability of consumer credit. Previously, corporations manufactured largely standardised products and competed with each other through the efficiency of their production processes, with phases including 'scientific management' (also known as Taylorisation) and mass production. Today, differentiation rather than standardisation characterises goods and services so that production decisions now respond to the enormously variegated and constantly changing demands of consumers. Marketing creativity has replaced production efficiency as the key to competitiveness and corporate success.

Whereas prices for standardised products were once the focus of both consumers and producers, for most goods and services today price is a secondary consideration. The cost of investing goods with often-intangible qualities that contribute nothing to their practical usefulness now frequently exceeds the cost of actually manufacturing the items. The emblematic case is the $200 pair of sneakers that costs only $20 to produce in China, with much of the difference made up by marketing expenses such as payments to sports stars and sponsorship of events. In the production society, marketing, including advertising, was a subsidiary aspect of business organisation; in today's consumption society marketing departments dominate production departments within firms.

Advertising long ago discarded the practice of selling a product on the merits of its useful features and began building symbolic associations between the product and the psychological states of potential consumers.2 The task of the advertising industry became to uncover the complex set of feelings that might be associated with particular products and to design marketing campaigns to appeal to those feelings. Thousands of the most creative individuals now devote their lives to helping corporations persuade people to buy more of their brand of car, margarine or running shoes at the expense of another corporation selling a product that is essentially the same. It is virtually impossible today to buy any product that is not invested with certain symbols of identity acquired by the buyer knowingly or otherwise.

While once the wealthy elite were alone preoccupied with consumption as a marker of status, in the 1990s luxury consumption broke out of the world of the rich to reach down to all consumer groups, a phenomenon known as 'luxury fever'.3 It led manufacturers of prestige products to put their brands on a broader range of items including 'entry-level products' accessible to all. Thus Gucci and Armani attached their brands to sunglasses bought by people who could not otherwise afford to buy clothes or accessories with such prestigious labels. Other brands tried to keep their prestige status while selling to ordinary consumers— the 'democratisation of luxury'—thereby providing the latter with the opportunity to emulate the lifestyles of the rich. Car-makers such as Mercedes now manufacture entry-level models that those on modest incomes can afford. The Mercedes A-Class, launched in 1997 and updated in 2004, was promoted to the masses by aging celebrity fashion designer Giorgio Armani, superannuated tennis champion Boris Becker and down-market pop singer Christina Aguilera. The tag-line linked to these icons of conventional culture was 'Learn the rules, and break them'.

Consumption today is now inseparable from profligacy. Bathrooms are no longer seen as functional places but new spaces for displays of excess, with computer-assisted design tools now used to create new taps, baths, showers and lighting. It is not unusual for American homes to have a bathroom attached to each bedroom. Nor is it unusual, even for households with modest incomes, to own five or six television sets, so that many family homes resemble a cluster of self-contained flats. In addition to having several bathrooms, each is more likely to sport two basins, perhaps with gold-plated fittings. While the cost of an average bath in the United Kingdom is around £300, luxury models retail for up to £8000. Whirlpool offers a gold-plated designer toilet seat—'A stunning addition to any bathroom, this toilet seat has been completely plated in a luxurious shade of gold to bring a touch of sparkle and splendour to your cloakroom or bathroom.' In the era of hyper-consumerism the urge to satisfy any desire has reached sublime levels. It is now possible to buy capsules filled with 24-carat gold leaf which, when swallowed, make your excrement sparkle. Created by New York designer Tobias Wong, the gold pills are promoted as a signifier of excess and a means of 'increasing your self-worth'—although presumably for only as long as the digestion process takes. At $425 each they are the ultimate confirmation of the ancient association, often noted by anthropologists, between gold and excrement, a conjugation reflected in a favourite piece of Latin American graffiti: 'If shit turned to gold, the poor would be born without arses.'

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