New contemporary codes are incorporated into advertising campaigns, promoting a reduction of excess

by Renata Barcellos cover Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol translated by Pronoia Tradutória

The concept of lowsumerism aims to develop responsible consumption: only purchase what is necessary, and only after having exhausted all possibilities for exchange and repair. Redefining consumer behavior based on these principles and implementing them day to day can improve quality of life by reducing the unchecked compulsion to buy things and the anxiety generated by this vicious cycle, as well as slowing consumption of the world’s natural resources.

To rethink consumption, it is important to differentiate it from consumerism. Placing them as equivalent is the same as saying that a person who drinks socially is an alcoholic. Consumption is cultural: the industry advertises the use of a product in order to arouse interest and desire among the consumer audience, based on their understanding of its meaning. Advertising, as a sales promotion strategy, is responsible for linking two points: production and consumption.

Discussions on this topic often focus on the negative influence of advertisements on our lives. But it is worth looking closely at advertising to identify this compulsory condition: is it really the great villain responsible for unleashing the consumerism that is ravaging people and the planet? The answer is not so simple. Consumption, advertising and their symbolic meanings can be approached from another perspective.

Sources of consumption

In the sixteenth century, production and consumption in traditional social groups were centered in the household. Food was produced at home, as were clothing and other goods. At that time, social status determined consumption rather than individual choices, as is the case today.

The behavior of the nobility, for example, was determined by sumptuary laws, which sought to establish customs and methods of consumption within their social sphere, with the aim of maintaining the class hierarchy. During this period, consumption of patina predominated, because goods and material objects (furniture, for example) were inherited, passed down from generation to generation, meaning there was no need to buy them. There was also no mass media, so there was no advertising to encourage consumption.

With the consolidation of historical movements such as the establishment of the bourgeoisie and later, the First Industrial Revolution, commercial activities began to guide societal values. This led to the start of fashion consumption between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, which remains dominant until today. Consumers started to gain autonomy regarding what goods they could choose to consume and how they could personalize their choices. There was a realization that through consumption, it was possible to exert a form of individualism.

Propaganda de corset do século XIX
Nineteenth century corset advert

After the invention of the radio in the early twentieth century, the need to finance and operationalize the broadcasting process became clear. Brands saw an opportunity to encourage consumption and to reach many people simultaneously. Advertising functioned as a means of exchange: large companies paid radios to promote their products. Initially, this effort was enough to support the production level reached after the Second Industrial Revolution. However, competitors began to emerge, motivated by the booming consumer environment. It was no longer enough to promote products, since this did not necessarily translate into sales. Brands had to go further, persuading consumers to buy their products, convincing them that they were practically or symbolically indispensable.

Advertising and symbolic meaning

Advertising makes use of something that goes beyond the consumer’s needs, motivating them to purchase material goods based on something that exceeds the monetary value of the product (value X price). If a person wants a car or an item of clothing, and is convinced to buy more than one thing on more than one occasion, it is partly due to the symbolic meaning of the item. Consumers do not buy products solely for their intended purpose, but also for what they represent — whether in terms of status, acceptance, individuality, etc. Thus, advertising propagates existing cultural codes and creates narratives for consumption to provide access to the values that we hold dear.

Michaël Borremans
Michaël Borremans

There are techniques used by advertising to promote consumption, and one of their objectives is to generate brand awareness and sales. One such technique is the exploitation of cultural codes. Through an engaging narrative, advertising portrays situations of use, addresses issues related to social relationships, and promotes feelings that invariably present a story ending in resolution, satisfaction, and contentment. Advertising functions as the link between the finished product and its consumption.

Culture of care

The concept of lowsumerism arose from the perception of the harm caused by excessive consumerism. Based on concern about the negative impacts of excess on humans and the environment, there emerged a culture of care, a demand for responsibility and a wake up call to abandon the automatic desire to buy things. It encourages people to look inside themselves and reflect on their motivations for compulsive buying and the accumulation of excess, about which we will feel a great shame in the very near future.

The importance of this new way of thinking about our relationship with consumption will gain strength collectively as soon as it starts making sense individually.

Although it is not yet widespread, we can see the emergence of responsible consumption movements. For many decades, we have been programmed to consume, which shows how necessary it is to develop awareness that although consumption responds to needs, it does not fill existential gaps, voids, or cracks.

An important part of this awareness movement lies with media professionals, who by understanding and engaging with this purpose, can begin to propose advertising campaigns that spread this idea.

After all, Lowsumerism does not mean stopping consumption, but reshaping desires and reducing excess. Embracing these values genuinely is an invitation to reflect. If advertising’s power of visibility and persuasion has the potential to generate benefits for society, why restrict it to a business?

Advertising by REI, a sporting goods brand, in line with new perspectives on consumption

Patagonia encouraged customers not to buy goods on Black Friday

Restaurant chain Chipotle’s Mexican Grill criticizes the industrialization of food and shares their values through animations

Brands engaged in lowsumerism contribute to the building of a better, more humane and sustainable world, without degrading the environment or disrespecting people. Products and brands aim to serve consumers and facilitate creative processes and well-being. It is the consumers who are – and always have been – in control. Part of the responsibility for keeping the production chain alive belongs to the consumer. However, lowsumer awareness creates another understanding of how this chain should function.

Advertising has always grounded itself in the values that are relevant to society. Look around: there is no alternative. It’s time to talk to consumers with respect about this new concept of consumption, and to convey messages that are consistent with this conscious behavior.

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