Postmodern Consumption: Architecture, Art, and Consumer Behavior

ABSTRACT - We live in a period of transition from modernism to postmodernism. Postmodern elements can be traced in architecture, art, and consumer behavior. Postmodernism is a era without a dominant ideology but with a pluralism of styles. Social and technical changes create four dominant postmodern conditions related to fragmentation of markets and experiences, hyperreality of products and services, value realization later in the consumption cycle, and paradoxical juxtapositions of opposites.


W. Fred Van Raaij (1993) ,"Postmodern Consumption: Architecture, Art, and Consumer Behavior", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 550-558.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 550-558


W. Fred Van Raaij, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands


We live in a period of transition from modernism to postmodernism. Postmodern elements can be traced in architecture, art, and consumer behavior. Postmodernism is a era without a dominant ideology but with a pluralism of styles. Social and technical changes create four dominant postmodern conditions related to fragmentation of markets and experiences, hyperreality of products and services, value realization later in the consumption cycle, and paradoxical juxtapositions of opposites.


'It is the emptiness that fascinates me. People collect altars, statues, paintings, chairs, carpets, and books, and then comes a time of joyful relief and they throw it all out like so much refuse from yesterday's dinner table'

Milan Kundera (1984)

Western societies are in a process of 'modernization' or better 'postmodernization.' According to sociological theory, three independent trends can be observed: societal differentiation, secularization, and individualization (Naumann and Hufner, 1985). Taken to its extreme, these trends lead to societal fragmentation, loss of identities and social structures. These processes are not characteristic for the modern era, as some sociologists would argue, but for postmodernism.

It is extremely difficult to observe trends and trend disruptures of the present period. It is much easier to overlook the past and to discern past trends and fashions. Nevertheless, many signs tell us that we pass from the modern into the postmodern era. The modern era was the period of industrialization, factory workers, ideology, nationalism, and mass culture. It brought us wars and material well-being, and sharp economic distinctions between classes and nations.

The postmodern era is the period of information, office workers, differentiated structures, globalism, and fragmented culture. It is also the era of the 'lost fathers'; the end of dominant ideologies. It is a time of incessant choosing. No orthodoxy can be adopted without self-consciousness and irony. All traditions seem to have some validity. Pluralism is both a great problem and a great opportunity. Many persons in the West became liberated from oppressing ideologies and became cosmopolites. Pragmatic political parties with acceptable solutions to societal problems, such as D'66 in The Netherlands, gain voters' shares, whereas traditional ideology-based political parties tend to lose voters' interest.

The information explosion, the advent of organised knowledge, involves world communication. Once a world communication system and forms of cybernetic production have been established, they create their own necessities and they are irreversible. Communication networks create a 'global village,' as McLuhan (1964) used to call it.

The challenge of the postmodern person and consumer is an 'embarras de richesses' and an 'embarras des choix', to choose among traditions, styles, products, and services from the past and the present. Eclecticism and pragmatism are the keywords.

The concept of postmodernism was first used by the Spanish author Federico de Onis in 1934 and then by Arnold Toynbee in his A Study of History, written in 1938 and published after the war in 1947. For Toynbee postmodernism was a new historical cycle with the end of western dominance, the decline of individualism, capitalism, and Christianity, and the rise of power of non-western cultures. He and his contemporaries were negative about this development. They criticised the lack of a new style and ideology, and the return of former styles and traditions in an eclectic manner.

Ihab Hassan (1980) became the self-proclaimed spokesman of postmodernism and he tied this label to the ideas of experimentation in the arts, architecture, and technology. For Hassan, postmodernism is 'discontinuity, indeterminancy, immanence.'

For many philosophers, a rejection of logical positivism makes one a postmodern thinker. For many consumer researchers, nonconventional research approaches and alternative ways of knowing are labeled postmodern (Sherry, 1991). Postmodernism encourages pluralism, sensitivity to differences and tolerance of the incommensurable (Lyotard, 1984[1979]).


Alvin Toffler (1980) was one of the first to popularise three waves or periods in the history of civilization: the agricultural, industrial, and informational revolution. We are now on the edge of the third wave with its demassification or fragmentation of production, media, styles, ideologies, and even societies.

The pre-modern period is characterised by its local and agricultural orientation. Hunting tribes settled down and engaged in agriculture. The ruling class consisted of kings, warlords, and priests. Most people worked in agriculture, often not owning the land they work on. The culture was aristocratic. Ordinary people had no time, education, and opportunity to participate in cultural events, except for the church and local fairs (table 1).

During the modern period (circa 1450-1960) industrial production developed. In the nineteenth century, the work became more and more concentrated in factories, and the method became mass production under a strict division of work and a strict separation of the capitalist owners and the working class. These distinctions created their political ideologies of liberalism and socialism. As a 'religious ideology' Christianity kept its important role in Western society.

The modern period is a period of mass production and consumption. It is also a period of utopism and the 'grand ideologies.' In the Western world, the ideology of progress and welfare through material goods and the nuclear family as the cornerstone of society is dominant. In the Communist world, the idea of the 'socialist man' and the collectivization of work, living and free time are promoted, actually separating the parents from their children by giving their education in the hands of specialists, and employing both parents in the development of the socialist society.

In 1956 for the first time in the USA the number of white collar workers outnumbered blue collar workers, and by the late seventies America had made the shift to an information society with relatively few people (13 percent) involved in the manufacture of goods. Most workers (60 percent) are engaged in the 'manufacture' of information. Whereas a modern, industrialised society depends on the mass-production of objects in a factory, the postmodern society, to exaggerate the contrast, depends on the segmented production of ideas and images in an office.

The transition from the modern to the postmodern period was and is not without turbulence. During the second part of the sixties student revolts and protest, such as in Paris in May 1968 and in other cities, were a sign of a 'cultural shift' from materialistic to postmaterialistic values (Inglehart, 1977, 1989). Materialistic values of the older generation emphasize the possession of material goods, law and order, authority, a strong defense, and the fight against criminality. Postmaterialistic values of the younger generation are related to freedom of speech, self-expression, experiences, tolerance, and harmony. Postmaterialistic values fit well into the postmodern world of pluralism and tolerance. The transition from modernism to postmodernism is a gradual one: For some persons and in some domain this shift is more prominent than for other segments and domains. The year 1960 is thus only an indication of the time of this transition.



In the postmodern world, there is a revolutionary growth of jobs to create, transform and disseminate information. The proletariat of factory workers is almost replaced by the cognitariat of office workers. These workers are working, lower nor middle class, but rather para-class. Most of them are clerks, secretaries, teachers, students, managers, researchers, advertising people, writers, bureaucrats, technicians, bankers, insurance people, stockbrokers, accountants, lawyers, programmers, all handling information.

Jean-Frantois Lyotard (1984) is mostly concerned with knowledge in this scientific age, in particular the way knowledge is legitimized through the 'grand narratives,' such as liberation of humanity, equality, progress, the emancipation of the proletariat, and increased power. These grand narratives, such as religion, nation-state, and the destiny of the west, have largely become non-credible. In his 'Postmodern Condition' he states: 'The object of this study is the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies. I have decided to use the word postmodern to describe that condition ... I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives ... Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the post-industrial age, and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age' (Lyotard, 1984).

First, the dominant ideologies of the modern era will be discussed with emphasis on their relevance to postmodernism. Then, some general characteristics of the postmodern era will be discussed especially in architecture and art. We will apply these characteristics to consumption in a later section of this paper.


In the course of history, kings, warlords, priests, and other authorities reigned over ordinary people. This was accepted during the pre-modern and modern eras as a 'natural rule' in society. During the modern era, this natural rule became to be criticised by ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism, fascism, and feminism. Except for communism and fascism, these ideologies will be briefly discussed (Van Gennep, 1990).

Liberalism is the ideology of the free citizens, the bourgeoisie that gained power from the nobelty and the state. The emancipation of the citizens started during the renaissance. Liberalism is the ideology of the American revolution (1775). Freedom, equality, and brotherhood is the credo of the French revolution (1789). Rationalism, tolerance, abolition of slavery, constitutional government, and an economic 'laissez faire' are the keywords. The economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo advocated the 'invisible hand' of competition. The laws of supply and demand will create the equilibrium of optimal benefits for both parties. Although the abstract principles of liberalism were favorable for society, during the second part of the nineteenth centery, liberalism degenerated into extreme capitalism with the negative consequences for the workers. The liberal notions of freedom, tolerance and equality of men are kept in the postmodern period.

The works of Charles Dickens, 'Les MisTrables' of Victor Hugo, and 'Das Kapital' of Karl Marx described the conditions of the poor working class. Socialism became the ideology of the working class, against the oppression of the capitalists. The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels (1848) gave a theoretical foundation to socialism and communism. It stated the necessity of the class struggle and revolution. The realization of socialism and elimination of private property in Eastern Europe brought bureaucracy, stagnation, corruption, and an oppressive state power (Stalin). In the Western democracies it created basic social security for the unemployed, disabled, and retired workers. In the postmodern era, socialism tend to elicit the guilt feeling and responsibility for the poor and the handicapped, ven for those who do not follow the socialist ideology.

Anarchism originated during the French revolution. It is opposed to hierarchy and institutionalization. The anarchists advocate 'workers' councils' and 'sovjets' as governing principles. Except for the Commune of Paris (1871), the Council Republic of Munich (1919), and the Spartacus Revolt (1914-1919), anarchism did not materialise in actually functioning governments. Proudhon and Bakoenin were the main anarchist philosophers. From Proudhon is the famous statement: 'Property is theft.' Postmodernism inherited some anarchist ideas such as independence and an anti-authoritarian attitude.

Feminism had its roots in Enlightenment, just as the other ideologies, is comparable to a political ideology as it promotes equality of power of men and women, designs strategies of liberation for women and others, and accuses the 'masculine' suppression of women and nature. In Western societies, feminism had its second wave in the sixties. The feminist movement benefitted from the trend to smaller households and individualization. Feminism is postmodern in the sense that it emphasises equality, tolerance, and independence for both sexes.

To some extent, these ideologies seem to have become outdated. Some elements are kept, such as the emphasis in the feministic and liberal ideologies on individual and non-sexist responsibilities. Some authors claim the 'end of history' in postmodern times and state that a dominant liberal-democratic model has become the dominant model in Western societies. Most fascist and communist totalitarian states collapsed and a liberal form of capitalism survived. If these liberal democracies guarantee human rights, dignity, freedom, a certain equality, a satisfactory consumption level and avoid military wars (but allow economic wars), the stable situation of the 'end of history' has been reached (Fukuyama, 1992). The train does not continue any more. Let's enjoy civilization as it is. We cannot expect significant changes in the future.

The end of ideology does not mean the end of styles. On the contrary, the ideological freedom creates a large variety of styles and genres. First, postmodern developments in architecture and art will be discussed. Similar developments in literature and music will not be discussed, in order not to make this paper too long. Then, I will try to describe the postmodern impact on advertising and consumer behavior, as relevant for marketing and consumer policy.


Modernist architectural styles are characterized by their ideology. They have a massage to the world. The dominant idea might be minimalism, functionalism, aestheticism, constructivism, or even elitism or dogmatism. Often, a technical solution is given to social problems. 'Garden cities,' such as the Bijlmer in South-East Amsterdam, are designed to separate pedestrians from car traffic, and to create a park environment around immense apartment buildings. Modernist architects, such as Le Corbusier, were popular in the communist countries and were imitated by Soviet architects. Le Corbusier's largest building is the Tsentrosojuz building, the Central Union of Consumer Cooperations at Moscow, built in 1936. The Soviet architect Nikolaj Kuzmin, for instance, had explicit ideas about the 'new man.' The population should be divided into age categories, and men, women and children should be housed separately. No family life was planned. Private rooms were not planned either; six people of the same sex living in communities slept in sleeping rooms and met in recreation rooms. At ten in the evening, lights would be turned off and at six in the morning, people awake to have their communal breakfast and to go to their factory or office work. Kuzmin even planned how many minutes were needed for exercise, shower, breakfast, etc. The communist paradise was obviously very similar to jail. Modernist architects were the 'executives' of the socialist ideology. Modernist style fits very well in the collectivization and urbanization approaches, reducing the differences between the city and the countryside, until recently employed in Ceaucescu's Romania.

A specific style, such as De Stijl or Bauhaus, dictates their followers in their design and restricts their freedom of designs. Pure aestheticism is a 'l'art pour l'art' in architecture. The International Style of concrete, glass and steel is the dominating style of the late modernism. This is still a popular style, e.g., the Nationale Nederlanden and Unilever headquarters close to the Rotterdam Central Railway Station. It is a rather alienating for those who live and work in these buildings.

Modernist architects and designers, such as Le Corbusier, Raymond Loewy, and Mies van der Rohe, holds the values of 'truth to materials,' 'logical consistency,' straightforwardness,' and 'simplicity.' Late modernist buildings, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and its follower the General Library at Rotterdam, communicate the ultimate functionalism of truth to materials and construction. They emphasize structure, circulation, open space, industrial detailing, and abstraction. A disadvantage of most modern architecture is that it does not communicate these values with its users and the public in general.

Postmodernism started in architecture. Most postmodern architects have their education and roots in modernism. There is no sudden disrupture. Postmodernism is both the continuation and the transcendence of modernism. Charles Jencks (1987, p. 14) defines postmodernism as: 'Double coding: the combination of modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects'. Double coding, irony, parody, lost innocence, and hybrid language are the key words.

Double coding means establishing links of the present with the past, of new techniques with old patterns, of the elite with the popular. It has always been the task of architecture to fit new buildings into old structures and thus relating the present with the past. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown integrated Franklin's house at Philadelphia with other buildings and 'ghosted' this house in a stainless steel construction on Franklin Square.

An excellent example is James Stirling's addition to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. Stirling wants to communicate different values to different publics. Impressive masonry hanged on a steel skeleton, as if the buildings says 'Beautiful like the Acropolis or Pantheon, but based on concrete technology and deceit.' Modernist steel canopies a la De Stijl tell the public where to walk in. But this is collaged to a traditional background. Modernists and classicists would be surprised, if not offended. There is not the simple harmony of one style, one language, or one ideology. Stirling is saying through a hybrid language and uneasy confrontations that we live in a complex world where we cannot deny the past and conventional beauty, neither the present and current technological and social reality.

The architecture of buildings we live and work in, are part of our daily consumption. We partly adapt our behavior to the built environment. The built environment facilitates or inhibits well-being and behavioral expressions. The head office of NMB bank in Amsterdam is a good example. It is a very varied and complicated building with unexpected corners, windows, and see-throughs. People who work there are enthousiastic. The apartment building of architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in Vienna may be mentioned. All appartments are different from the outside (and certainly from the inside too). The windows have different sizes and do not show a regular pattern. The masonry varies showing different patterns. Ceramic tiles are used for decoration, especially of the pillars and chimneys. Trees grow on the roofs.

Postmodernism started as a set of plural departures from modernism. Essential are the pluralism in philosophy and style and a dialectical or critical relation to pre-existing ideology. There is no single postmodern style in architecture, although there is a dominating classicism. Jencks (1980) distinguishes six basic traditions in postmodern architecture.


Many of the points made for architecture, could be made for art as well. The modern painter Pablo Picasso became history, inspiring admiration like Rembrandt but no opposition any more. The linear style of the painter Mondriaan is still admired, but history as well. Since 1960, a number of departures from modernism are named: pop art, hyperrealism, photo realism, allegorical and political realism, new image painting, 'La Transavanguardia,' 'die neue Wilde' (the New Savages), and neo-expressionism. The international media and the art market exerted a pressure to produce new labels and schools. Pop artists in the sixties, such as Andy Warhol, claimed that they were lending respectability to the images they borrowed from mass culture through an artistic revision (Honnef, 1988). There remains a distinction between art and mass culture, but a painted Campbell soup tin or Coca Cola bottles became works of art. Traditional art used images from the past, from religion, the ancient Greeks, and from nature. Avantgardism still maintained these values to some extent. Transavantgardism, originating in Italy, found elements of mass culture suitable means to express their emotions.

Postmodern art, transavantgardism or neo-expressionism, is influenced by the 'global village' (McLuhan, 1964) and shows an ironic cosmopolitism. The Italian postmodernist painters Carlo Maria Mariani, Sandro Chia, and Mimmo Paladino are both Italian and international. Their 'Italianness' is between quotation marks. They live in the U.S. and borrow freely from Mediterranean traditions to create secondary meanings. Postmodern artists are not only painters, but painters and performers, photographers, architects, designers, and sculptors. Transavantgarde art adds up to a multimedia-display.

Postmodern art is characterized by its layers of meanings. The surface may be classicistic. It can be enjoyed by different publics for different reasons. It is enigmatic and poses questions to the audience. Mythology, allegory, and narrative are characteristic of postmodern art. There is more concern for content, subject matter, symbolism, and meaning. While late-modernists emphasized the aesthetic dimension, postmodernists emphasize semantics. Ron Kitaj's 'If not, not' is an example. Survivors of war crawl through the desert to an oasis; survivors of civilization are engaged in quizzical acts. A lamb, palm tree and a Toscan landscape are reminiscant of a classical culture. But the Auschwitz Birkenau 'gate of death' can be seen in the upper-left corner. The consequences of broken promises and fragmented culture are the content of this gripping drama.

Postmodern art shows an unrestrained use of colour, forms, shapes and styles, a wealth of imagination, and a carelessness towards orthodox artistic conformity. Elements of 'higher art' are freely intermingled with lesser forms of art. It gives the impression of a stylistic hotchpotch, a artistic supermarket, a collage or pastiche. Playfulness exists with cynism. Attitudes range from irony to sarcasm. 'Lack of respect toward any convention' may be the best way of describing the attitude of transavantgarde artists.

According to Andreas Huyssen contemporary art is currently in the midst of a transition: 'Postmodern art of the eighties is marked by tension between tradition and innovation, conservatism and progressiveness, mass culture and serious culture. However, the latter is no longer given a privileged position over the former, and the old dichotomies and categories no longer function in the same old reliable way, e.g., progress vs reaction, left vs right, rationalism vs the irrational, future vs past, modernism vs realism, abstraction vs representation, avant-garde vs cheap rubbish' (Honnef, 1988).


Although architecture, art, literature, and music are 'consumed' by people, and are thus examples of consumer behavior, we will now turn to the consumption of other products and services in the marketplace.

The main characteristics of the postmodern wave according to Toffler (1970) are: demassification, fragmentation, individualization, and an increasing speed of change. Firat (1992) discerns five categories of the postmodern condition: hyperreality, fragmentation, reversal of production and consumption, decentering of the subject, and paradoxical juxtapositions of opposites. Some of Firat's categories will be followed but given a somewhat different meaning and some new categories will be added. It is obvious that these characteristics of postmodernity are an attempt to chart the recent cultural developments. Others may observe other trends or evaluate these trends differently. A postmodern attitude of pluralism and tolerance is really needed here.

The major causes of postmodern change are social and technical. As social changes may be mentioned: individualization, fragmentation, and paradoxical juxtapositions. As technical changes will be discussed: hyperreality, complexity, and value realization.

Social change

Individualization is a major trend. The 'postmodern household' has fewer members and the proportion of one-person households is increasing. More consumers will decide for their own consumption and more products will be used individually. Advertising has to follow the changed role patterns of the working woman and the househusband. Two-car families are no exception any more. Radios have become a personal medium: the walkman and the car stereo as examples. Many children possess their own hifi and television sets in their rooms.

Another social change is fragmentation with its many meanings. First, as dominant ideologies and value systems tend to disappear and are replaced by a plurality of values and norms, market segmentation can no longer be based on lifestyles that are valid over a number product categories. Fragmentation also refers to the disjointed experiences with each product, television program, commercial, performance and meeting, without an integration at the individual level. In postmodern terms, this leads to more acceptance of strange combinations, paradoxical juxtapositions of opposites.



Technical change

New developments in electronic information processing and satellite transmission create possibilities for long-distance news films, simulation of reality on the computer and in the IMAX theater. News and events from the other side of the world reaches us in almost real time. Media provide us with phantasy, fiction and non-fiction as entertainment and background. The hyperreality of the media and the simulations partly replace the 'actual reality' (whatever this may be).

Products become more complex. Video cassette recorders possess many functions. Personal computers and word processing programs require training courses to use them effectively. Cooking and heating food with the magnetron oven requires other skills. Although consumers have higher education levels than before, they often feel being the servants of their products by 'following the instructions.' In postmodern terms, this is called the decentering of the subject.

Finally, the emphasis shifts from the technical production to the usage of goods. Not until consumers use products they acquire the meanings and values of them. Postmodernists call this the reversal of production and consumption (Firat, 1992). The impressive or expressive values are not produced with the purchase but with the consumption of the product. Toffler (1970) states that production and consumption coincide: prosumption. Value is produced only when consumers add effort to the products they bought, just as a dinner at home is only produced with the purchased ingredients and the time, effort and skills of the consumer.


Whereas in modern times centralised authority is common, the postmodern era is the time of a decentralised pluralism and fragmentation. The lack of a central ideology or a small set of ideologies leads to a variety of norms, values and lifestyles adhered by more and more 'individualistic individuals.' Some media seem to have adapted to this pluralism by offering fragmented experiences and brief flashes of music, information and entertainment. MTV's program 'Postmodern' is a case in point. Some companies offer a variety of types and 'personalised versions' of their products and services as well. The fragmentation is thus not only on the demand but also on the supply side.

The grand religious and political values and narratives lost their credibility. Authorities connected to these narratives lost their authority as well. The postmodern era is the time of secularization, scepticism and irony, disenchantment (as Max Weber called this) and a plurality of beliefs.

As the single ideology lost its dominance, so did the single lifestyle. Consumers adopt a certain lifestyle depending on the product domain (Van Raaij and Verhallen, 1992). Some authors even go further and state that consumers live by the moment, by their state-of-mind and mood, and should be segmented according to their momentary state ('market sentimentation').

In fact, postmodernism allows almost all styles. No central authority dictates the style for the next season. No Parisian haute couture, but a variety of designers in London, Milan, New York, Paris and Tokyo propose their designs. Especially subcultures have an important impact on new and old trends. Fashion specialists have a hard time explaining which is the dominant style and which will be the dominant styles for the next season. Sometimes this is explained as a 'fin de siFcle' phenomenon, with the expectation that a new dominant style will develop during the next century. Pluralism will, however, not be temporary but is a permanenet characteristic of postmodernism.

The transition is from few styles to many genres. Not long ago, only one or two styles were dominant at a time. Either you were for Gothic revival or a hopeless pagan. Fashions, moral arguments, and conventions forced you in one camp or another. Scepticism replaced dogmatism. The velocity of change is now much faster. Almost any style can be revived. Eclecticism is the buzzword. Superabundant choice and widespread pluralism force us to reassert a freedom of choice and comparative judgment. Combinations and oppositions create new alternative genres.

Disjointed experiences

The fragmentation of the information supply is mirrored in the fragmentation of experiences. Products, services and brands represent disconnected experiences, without linkages, contexts and historical roots (decontextualization). Postmodern consumers are encouraged by marketing messages and images to play a game of image-switching. The play the roles of the caring mother, the efficient manager, the loving partner, and the gourmet cook. Self-monitoring is on the increase (Snyder, 1987). Postmodern consumers do not possess one self-image but have many self-images adapted to the requirements of the situation. The 'real self' is hidden behind many situational, role-played selves, if there still exists a real self at all.

The hyperrealistic collage leads to disjointed experiences and moments of excitement. But these experiences are basically 'light and empty' (Kundera, 1984). No central meaning, historical or contextual connection provides integration and background. The Balinese culture became disconnected from its Hindu religious background and became a marketable commodity and a tourist spectacle. Many tourists, alienated from their religious background, visit churches as tourist attractions without understanding the meaning of the paintings and symbols. Beauty is a world betrayed. In the world of pastiche and collage, immediate sensory gratification is greatly enjoyed. Consumers watch short commercials, see flashes of billboards, numerous brands in the supermarket and department store, advertorials and infomercials. One wonders how consumers process these flashes, let alone integrate these.

Postmodernism means a freedom from constraints and conventions. Brand loyalty may decrease. Attention to stimuli is not warranted. Each communication must attract attention for its own sake, must be exciting to the senses to be effective. Interest, attention and retention cannot be expected on the basis of relevance, context, linkages, or connected representations.

Segmented production

In the modern era, mass production meant an endless repetition of the same products. Economies of scale are reached by producing more of the same. In the postmodern era, mass-production is not necessarily producing more of the same, but more of different varieties and 'personalized versions' of a product. A Ford Sierra has now so many varieties in colors, accessories, engine types that one will seldom see two identical cars. The system can even be reversed: the buying decision comes before the production. Rather than producing and stocking a large variety of automobiles, customers may compose their own car (with engine types, accessories, colours, and interiors) on a computer screen, and then order it as they like it. It will then be mass-produced upon customer's specification.

Similarly, a variety of print media, radio and television stations cater to the different 'taste cultures' (a term coined by the sociologist Herbert Gans).

Products become isolated from their contexts and even from their original functions. Consumers, however, may attribute values and meanings to them independently of their original functions. This may may go as far as 'sacralization' of products, such as collectors' items, dolls, automobiles, antiques, and 'cult items' (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry, 1989). Marketing practice is to glorify products and brands, and to represent them as independent representations of images. The 'Just do it!' ad for Nike shoes promotes liberation from traditional patterns. The brand is the image and the product user is the hero. Benetton became famous, and for some others notorious, for its anti-traditional and anti-racist advertising, promoting world harmony and tolerance. Benetton advertising became more and more detached from its clothing products.

The postmodern era is characterised by individualization, first of all individualization of inequality (Naumann and Hufner, 1985). Traditional social organizations of inequality, such as the family, social class, and trade union, may finally vanish. The father figure as the representative of social roles and conventions is lost. Individuals become their own 'identity managers' in the decisions to work or to study, to marry or to stay single, to take children or not, to adopt one or another lifestyle. As a consequence, there is a continuous search for styles and genres, for personal and collective identities (Harvey, 1990; Korthals, 1991).

Traditional values and norms are based on principles about society and men's relation to God. Postmodern values are less or non-principled. The new values seem to be: irreverence, nonconformity, noncommitment, detachment, difference, pragmatism, eclecticism, and tolerance.

Segmented media

Mass media are products of the modern era. Newspapers, magazines, and television channels are losing their large audiences. In 1973 U.S. newspapers reached their peak with a circulation of 63 million copies daily. Since then, the newspapers are gradually losing their readership, not only to television, but also to local and specialised dailies and weeklies. Newspapers with a political ideology are most severely hit. Major general interest magazines, Life, Look, and Saturday Evening Post, each went to its grave, and returned later in a more segmented version (Toffler, 1980).

At the same time, we witness a growth of special interest magazines, related to sports, hobbies, geography, gossip, health and fitness. For target groups as diverse as teenagers, retired people, hunters, scuba divers, and minorities. The number of radio and television channels is increasing as well, for local communities and for specific segments in society. Between 1950 and 1970 the number of radio stations in the U.S. doubled, whereas the population increased by 35 percent. Instead of one station for each 65,000 American, there is now a station for each 38,000. Broadcasting becomes narrowcasting. The segments in spciety receive different information from their own media. A diversity of media means a diversity of opinions and probably less consensus.

But the media are not perfectly segmented. We receive a diversity of often contradictory information. An exhaustive synthesis seems to be untenable. At best we receive 'video clips' of shattered information. Rather than receiving organised strings of information, we receive short, modular 'blips': ads, commands, theories, opinions, news flashes, that not easily fall in pre-set categories and schemas. The postmodern man digests a 90-second news clip with a 30-second commercial, a headline, a cartoon, part of a song (Toffler, 1980, p. 166), and it is up to the receiver to make sense out of this, to connect and to categorise this overload of fragmented information. Journalists and advertisers alike have to attract the attention of consumers by providing 'exciting' and 'senzational' stimulation in a clutter of others with similar stimulation. Madonna is a good example. She provokes, elicits protests, gets admiration, but remains a postmodern goddess with a detached attitude. In her film 'Truth or Dare' she says: 'I do not endorse any lifestyle, I only describe one.'


Simulations of the reality or hypes may become 'hyperreality.' According to semiotic analysis, simulations are signifiers referring to a signified reality (Eco, 1986). A documentary movie is a hyperreality, as it is referring to the 'objective' reality. Fiction may be called hyperreality, because there exists no corresponding reality. Signifiers may become detached from their signified reality and may become 'free floating.' Meaning structure analysis may explain the same phenomenon. Toothpaste is originally connected with the mundane reality of brushing your teeth. Brushing with a certain brand of toothpaste leads to the consequence of having white teeth, fresh breath, and finally to values such as attractiveness, sexiness, self-esteem, security and happiness. These values may be added to the brand over time through advertising. These new meanings (images) signify a new reality. This reality, when believed by the users of the brand feeling more sexy, secure and happy, becomes a hyperreality for them. In postmodern terms, the image does not only represent the product, but the product represents the image.

The reality thus created is 'hyper,' because it is beyond what is the utilitarian and economic reality in modern times. It is a psychological and social reality for the brand users who feel this reality, communicate it to others through their usage behavior, and are judged by others in terms of this reality. Advertising is a powerful tool to add hyperreality to mundane products and brands. Advertising becomes part of the hyperreality. Advertising may be even influence the experience of brand usage. Through advertising After Eight acquired the hyperreality of a 'upper-class' mint chocolate. People may even judge the quality of After Eight higher than other mint chocolates, although there may be no objective product differences.

As advertising adds hyperreality to products and services, it is difficult to define the concept of misleading advertising any more. The benefits of the product are not only physical/functional but psychosocial as well. Advertising is not only information about the product. Transformational advertising is 'potential experience' as part of the product. The 'augmented product' cannot exist without the hyperreality created and reinforced by advertising. The truthfulness of advertising can only be assessed after the experience of the product, in which the consumer is an important part of the experience. If the consumer believes the hyperreality of the advertising, the suggested reality may become self-fulfilling and thus 'true' (Postman, 1985).

Postmodernists often mention show business, Las Vegas, the IMAX theater, Disneyland or EuroDisney and other phantasy and magic worlds as examples of hyperreality. Many vacation and recreation parks possess hyperrealistic elements and non-authentic attractions, e.g., the 'tropical swimming park' with palm trees while it is freezing outside. The spectacle and the spectacular often are hyperreal. 'Escape' magazines, such as Playboy, and movies, such as James Bond, produce a hyperreality for their watchers and readers. Numbers of tourists visit the IMAX theater as they visit the Grand Canyon to 'really experience the Canyon.' Cities renovate the wharf and city center as images of the past. The 'Boston tea party' is almost daily simulated for tourists. Sound and light shows conjure up the past and create a hyperreality. In these examples a 'virtual reality' is created or enhanced with help of media and theater, in order to provide the desired experiences to the audience. Computer simulation such as Cyberspace creates a virtual reality of buildings and scenery that may be used by architects and town planners to 'walk' through a not yet created built environment. Flight simulators are just a first step into cyberspace. The futuristic idea in the movie 'Total Recall' may become true. A travel agency delivers a dream tour, realized in cyberspace without transporting the tourist over long distances. Media experiences compete with real experiences.

In the near future, it may be expected that 'virtual reality' will become a new and exciting product/service. Through computer simulation, virtual realities may be created for the visual, auditory and even kinesthetic senses. How does it feel to fly at sound speed or to raft on a wild river? People no longer have to travel to distant sightseeing objects, but may experience being at the Chinese wall or Amazone river, actually being at their local 'Omniversum.'

Although hyperreality may have started as a 'rich and thick' meaning structure, the meaning may have become detached from the object ('free floating' as semioticians would say) and become only 'surface without substance.' Implications of hyperreality are thus: lack of context and loss of history. Hyperreality may thus become a set of disjointed experiences. Examples are seen on television: news flashes, videoclips, superimposed images, animations, and 10-seconds commercials create a visual image, pastiche and collage. Younger generations are more accustomed to television and movies than to print media, and thus more to visual rather than to textual information processing. The print media have become more pictorial and thus visual. Through media sponsorship and the merging of the editorial and advertising content of media brand names become an important part of this collage. Voyeuristic exposure to the spectacle seems to have become the cultural passtime. The duality of the appearance (surface) and the essence (substance) is largely dead in postmodernity. The surface is the essence and the medium is the massage (McLuhan, 1964).


It is traditional rhetoric that value is created in the production of goods and destroyed in consumption. Later economists stated that value is created in the exchange of goods. Jean Baudrillard (1975, 1981) argues that value is sign-value, created during consumption. During consumption the image belonging to the product or brand is recreated as a benefit for the consumer. Marketing, emphasizing the satisfaction of needs, has always been postmodern in defending that consumption is the end of production, both in the sense of the goal and the final state. But marketing is often focussed on the act of purchase rather than usage. Personal identity is created and recreated on the basis of usage rather than on the basis of production or purchase. Consumption becomes more important. Many people identify themselves by their consumptive activities, their sports, hobbies or music preferences rather than their jobs.

In modern times, the image represents the product. But value is no longer a property of the product, but a property of the image. The product represents the image and the image is the reason of the consumer to buy and to use the product.

Confusion of subject and object

Toffler (1980) predicts the rise of the prosumer, a combination of producer and consumer. This is not a new phenomenon, because almost all services and products require an active input and participation of the consumer to enjoy the benefits. What is a restaurant dinner without the good humour and positive participation of the customers? The benefits of a novel are only enjoyed by reading it. A dinner at home requires ingredients from the marketplace and a lot of household production of preparing and cooking to obtain the pleasure of the meal. Do-it-yourself home maintenance, medical self-care, and 'distance education' are prosumptive activities on the increase.

In traditional rhetoric, the subject is the agent that acts through objects and situations to produce certain benefits and value realizations. Knowledge and independent behavior is possible through the Cartesian idea of the separation of mind and body. Persons are able to distance themselves from the experience of 'being' (the state most animals are in) to observe themselves and to develop a state of 'knowing.' The products of modernity are thus under the control and in the service of consumers in order to create benefits for themselves. Products are there to allow the achievement of human goals.

In postmodernism, a decentering of the subject may be observed. Production and consumption are parts of the same cycle. Consumption choices and experiences tend to determine one's taste, values, lifestyle, skills and ability for future behavior. Traditionally, individuals are the producers of benefits with help of products as commodities. In postmodern terms, commodities seem to become the producers of benefits for individuals who follow the instructions correctly. There is a confusion of the subject and the object who is in control (Hassan, 1987). The objects seem to determine the conditions and procedures of consumption. Consumers have to follow instructions in order to obtain the benefits and to avoid problems. Imagine the joy of the 'possessor' of a new telefax machine or personal computer after a troublesome series of trials and tribulations: 'It works!' Mastering of some products is only realised after a trial and training period. In an ironic way, one could state that consumers are there to allow products to achieve their functions.

'Being in control' is a major goal of postmodern consumers realising that their hifi equipment, their fax and washing machines, VCRs, and personal computers, are often too complex to be mastered completely. Consumers often only use a limited set of the possible product functions, feel uneasy about the latent options and happy with at least the functions they actively master.

The confusion of subject and object is also present in the 'self-marketing' of individuals. Consumers may perceive themselves as marketable items and manage their images as perceived by others, both in the job and in the social environment. This is described by the concept of self-monitoring (Snyder, 1987). Fashion becomes the metaphor for culture. Objectification and commodification of one's own body and self allows one 'to be consumed' by others, just like a product fulfilling a function in the marketplace. Individuals such as hostesses, receptionists and television presenters become objects in expositions, offices, and shows. This commodification of selves leads to beauty contests and, in the extreme case, to prostitution.


The major characteristic of postmodern culture is its paradoxical nature. Anything may be combined with and juxtaposed to anything else. Creativity defined as the original combination of elements is very postmodern. Even oppositional and contradictory emotions (love with hate) and cognitions (reverence with ridicule) can be expected. Irony and double meaning can be observed in art, architecture, music, products, and advertising. In the U.K., a brand of cigarettes became popular in a black package with a skull and the brand name Death. All warnings are clearly printed on the package including the message: '10% Percent of profits donated to Cancer Research.'

Postmodern advertising is shocking for some and liberating for others. Ads show a newborn baby or a dying Aids patient with the United Colors of Benetton. Many ads show no product at all but attract attention with a bizarre combination of visuals and impressions. The pastiche of flashes seems to be basically unrelated to the product or the brand, although the ads may elicit positive senzations and emotions without an deep meaning.

The modern era was a time of consistency; the postmodern era requires a kaleidoscopic sensibility and tolerance. The postmodern era brings a taste for variety, incongruity, heterogeneity, irony, double meaning, and paradox. Daily newspapers bring us a strange variety of 'news.' Newsstands are overloaded with special interest magazines. In the films of Federico Fellini, a mad competition of opposite tastes create hilarious misunderstandings and sadness. Not everyone likes this kaleidoscope of pluralism. Most people make their choice and restrict themselves to one or two genres. This loyalism makes the plurality work coherently. But even if everybody is limited to a few minority taste cultures, there remains a residual taste for pluralism.

As a dominant ideology or style is absent, there is a sensibility in the public sphere for lifestyle and identity information. People and media provide information and demonstrations how to behave, how to talk, and what should be done and avoided. People, television programs, popular magazines, and advertising tell us what is 'in' and what is 'absolutely impossible.' Television is very appropriate for communication on lifestyle. It tells intimate stories how people give sense to their lives and solve life problems. Behavior and language of actors and pop singers can easily be imitated.

Most characteristic of the postmodern era is the openness. We are informed about conflicts, viewpoints, styles, and opinions from all over the world. Emancipation of women and homosexuals created a pluralism accepted by many. A cosmopolitan attitude leads to more acceptance of differences. From exclusion to inclusion. Benetton and Coca Cola advertisements show a multi-colored world and acceptance of other races and cultures. In the postmodern era we look to the past and to other cultures with irony and displacement. We may return to 'modern times,' if we want or if we need. Previous conditions are included in the present, postmodern condition.

Anything is at once acceptable and suspect. On the one hand postmodernism is liberating, on the other hand it is frustrating for persons seeking radical transformation of society, since nothing is sufficiently credible to merit commitment. In a fragmented culture, organized action for political and social change is almost impossible. This renders the market to be the dominant domain of legitimation. Anything can be tried and dropped. No emotional or cognitive commitment beyond a single purchase or trial is needed. Consumers are immersed in a sea of impressions and experiences but are not taken seriously if they oppose this immersion. The market becomes the great assimilator (Firat, 1992). The market absorbs all kinds of protest and rebellion. Punk protest becomes emptied and commodified as a fashion.

The media become dominated by the 'market.' Editors agree that their articles are sponsored by advertisers. The newsworthiness of events is determined by the market. News programs on commercial television, the covers and articles of magazines are designed to attract audiences and buyers. Voters become buyers of carefully 'designed' political candidates rather than political programs. The American presidential elections are built on, often commercial, campaign funds, advertising, and the 'right' issues at the 'right' time. Poll taking and market research have very similar functions. The roles of citizen and consumer become similar and seem to merge. Marketing becomes an imperialistic art and science, dominating western culture and society at the 'end of history' (Fukuyama, 1992).


Postmodernism is not a single cultural style but an increasing pluralism of styles and genres. The absence of a dominant ideology is liberating on the one side but creates insecurity and an 'embarras des choix' on the other side. This pluralism is reflected in architecture, art, literature, music, advertising, and consumption. In this paper, the major postmodern conditions in consumption are: fragmentation, hyperreality, value realization later in the consumption cycle, and paradoxical juxtapositions of opposites.

The consequences for consumer research and marketing are manifold. In the liberal-democratic postmodern societies, marketing may play a key role in giving meaning to life through consumption. Is marketing with its value realization replacing ideologies and religion? And is this a good thing for mankind? Value realization through consumption may be practical and utilitarian. In this sense it is not replacing ideology. Value realization may be hedonic and momentary and is thus often superficial and ego-centered. Self-marketing is mostly self-centered, as it is concerned with improving one's own position and welfare among others. Although marketing may induce people to donate money to 'good causes,' such as the Red Cross and Greenpeace, by appealing to their guilt feelings, it is certainly not enough to give 'real' meaning to one's life.


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W. Fred Van Raaij, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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