Responsible Consumption and Production

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Mass Market and the Rise of Consumption

  • Leonardo Freire de MelloEmail author
  • Sara Aparecida de Paula
Living reference work entry


The word mass in this text is related to the idea of something that is generally widespread through society. On the other hand, market concept here is embedded in huge social, political, and economic processes where production, distribution, and consumption are integrated as a whole system. In other words, market is based on economic processes and dynamics that influence political, public, corporate, and individual decisions, causing deep social impacts on people’s daily lives.

The market as a social mechanism for the exchange of goods and services among individuals and institutions, generally can be subdivided into niche market and mass market. The first one is a specialized type, focused on some groups and individuals with special needs and demands. The second one, as the word definition suggests, intends to attend a wider and more general public, general tastes, reaching every type of consumer, which is the most important topic discussed in this work.

Mass Market: Emergence and Rise

When writing about the concept of mass market, it is important to contextualize that it is something relatively recent in most societies and is also a major component of the so-called Consumption Society as defined by authors as, for instance, Zygmunt Bauman and Jean Baudrillard. It is essential to keep in mind that consumption is inherent to life itself, which obviously includes human life, and regarding this, it is important to highlight that during the early days of our species, consumption was completely related to survival and life maintenance based on subsistence, hunting, and gathering food.

Still, even keeping its basic subsistence characteristic, the idea of consumption had a huge turnaround after the advent of the first Industrial Revolution, which occurred in some countries during the second half of the eighteenth century. The invention, development, and propagation of a series of scientific advances, as well as of new and modern industrial techniques and technologies, allowed the productive processes to become faster, more efficient, and cheaper than before, resulting in a greater variety of products to be consumed by society. However, during this period the production was somehow still focused on small elite groups, turning consumption into social status and bringing a cultural mindset and identity factor to it, spreading ideas like fashion throughout the developed world in a first moment and all over the world some time later.

Throughout the centuries, consumption became an element of social standardization, eventually influencing values and behaviors. Although the transformations took place for centuries, the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution produced effects in great speed and proportion, reaching different spheres such as economic, social, political, among others as never seen before.

One of the first authors to consider consumption as an element of social analysis was Veblen (2007/1899), founder of the theory about the so-called conspicuous consumption and the Leisure Class. The author deals with the idea that production and its consequences alter the aspects of differentiation between classes and also their behavior. In that context, goods were expensive and the vast majority of consumers were from the upper classes.

The author defines conspicuous consumption as the practice of buying and possessing material goods with the objective of indicating or enhancing someone’s social prestige among the others either in an ostentatious or in a more subtle way. The Leisure Class members use the exaggerated display of external signs of social status to indicate their superior position, showing off that they possess so much that they can afford to waste money or goods on a huge scale, unlike the disadvantaged groups or social classes members.

Nevertheless, this behavior may be observed among individuals of other social classes that use conspicuous consumption to bring attention to themselves and to try to enhance their social position by connecting them, at least in the symbolic perspective of external appearance, to the elite members.

It is particularly important when fashion is brought into discussion. In most of contemporary societies, even the poorest and less developed ones, to buy and use famous clothing labels or to own certain brands of watches, electronics, or automobiles as fashion consumption often has nothing to do with the real possible uses for which a particular good was produced, but with systems and scales of social ranking and prestige (Hine 2002; Holt 2003). These concepts and ideas are fundamental to properly analyze and comprehend mass market and consumption contemporarily (Hodder 1990; Craik 1994) .

Cohen (2004) affirms that Consumer Society turned into a Mass Market (or Mass Consumption) during the 1920s, especially with the advent of the automobile industry, propaganda and advertisements used to show the benefits of the car, not only to make transportation easier but also for allowing the increase of the employment and economic growth, still though it reached much more social classes and groups mainly only after World War II.

To better understand this point, it is important to bring to discussion the contributions of authors such as Jean Baudrillard (1990, 1998), that published the first version of his worldwide famous book “The Consumer Society” in the 1970s, emphasizing the importance of consumption, especially considering the changes arising from it during that time.

The period after World War II, especially the 1950s and 1960s, is strongly marked by the predominance of public and private policies to rebuild infrastructure and public services like education, health, transportation, communications, construction, industrial production, capabilities and modernization in the conflict-torn countries. One of the most well-known actions of this period was the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program (ERP), institutionalized by the USA for the reconstruction of West Europe and Japan, mainly their industrial sectors which were destroyed during the conflict.

These actions and policies created what is called Welfare State which advocated the tendency observed among most of developed countries governments to shift to a more keynesian approach into their national economies at that moment. This means that during that historical period, most of the nations started to believe that they should invest substantial shares of their financial resources on building and modernizing infrastructures and public services like education, health, housing, transportation, communications, and industry, to create the conditions that would allow people to increase their purchase power and quality of life.

The Welfare State measures were the response to the traumas of previous years’ regimes as well as the fear of instability caused by the Cold War, Lisabeth Cohen says that many economic groups had fear of a great depression as it occurred right after World War I. In (the) light of these factors, Keynesianism gained space by placing the role of the state in infrastructure investments, ensuring full employment, and in the well-being of society, mainly aided by the Marshall Plan as previously mentioned. These three elements combined are part of a scenario of high rates of economic growth (Eichengreen 2008).

The transition to the Consumption Society, in which Mass Market is a fundamental feature, is highly associated to the never seen before increase in the use of fossil fuels since the beginning of the twentieth century and the advance of automotive industry and of automobility connected to the urbanization sprawl, which made possible to bring substantial innovations to transportation systems, connecting the world and allowing the efficient and fast circulation of commodities and goods all over the planet.

The main difference between the Industrial Revolution and this period is that during the first one the production was focused on more specific and selected social groups (especially the upper classes with luxury items) and despite the innovation of the products such as clothes, the importance of goods like sugar, coffee, and cotton may be highlighted; during the second one, it became more general and wide, increasing the variety of available goods to different groups (Bourdieu 1984) who had the same desires and demands as the more affluent classes.

Another important aspect highlighted by Cohen is that the transition from war to peace required changes on the popular mindset and to increase people’s confidence on governments. Thereby, consumption was systematically transformed into propaganda of this new historical period of welfare, prosperity, and peace later known as the Golden Age of Capitalism. To propagate consumption as a success derived from such costly obtained peace, it was necessary to increasingly expand the market, “its critical partner in delivering prosperity was the mass consumer market” according to the author (Cohen 2004).

The advertisement and propaganda function at this period may be seen at Adorno and Horkheimer (2002) analysis about what they called culture industry. The authors described that, after World War II, there was a significant transformation in production trends. Before the war, the focus of the process was based on the means of production and on the production processes as a whole. After the war, the focus was moved to consumers, in an attempt to create a universal identity and consumption profile or, in other words, mass consumers constantly and relentlessly supplied by a mass market.

Therefore, consumption was not only present in the objects consumed by people but also in the arts, culture, and entertainment in general (Miller 1998; Windham 2000) . An essential example in reference to this is the huge and unquestionable influence in a first moment of cinema and later of television over people’s consumption habits and patterns all over the world. Through the consumption of films as a mass entertainment media, the most varied societies from the most diverse places in the world began to get integrated into and through a whole universe of images, gestures, words and dress codes and standards. This is the universality explained by the authors, in which advertisement and propaganda consider that people are widely connected with what is consumed, for through it is created the sensation and the idea that happiness, fun, and success can be achieved through mass consumption and mass market is always totally available to grant access to all of it.

In this sense, mass consumption and the mass market become the most important social standardizing tool, deeply transforming desires, demands, and ways of life to fit a carefully planned pattern. Through what is taught by advertisement industry, society starts to follow new and modern patterns about the way of dressing, to appropriately behave, and also which objects and goods to have and to consume for everyday life, satisfaction, happiness, and wellbeing. A paradigmatic example may be the case of automobility advertizing and the Fordist production mode where the proeminent idea was that people should work to have money enough to buy automobiles and, therefore, be happy with the comfort and freedom provided by the use and consumption of the automobile.

Cohen argues that the emergence of mass market supported by the advertising industry is also linked to the role played by magazines and department stores catalogs, like Sears Roebuck, to spread the idea that, by consuming and helping to create a mass market, society would be providing itself full employment, for instance. It became even more intense, wider, and greater with the advent of television.

Such variety of products influenced the creation of shopping malls and department stores, huge places where people could find different things, and also have leisure moments. The first shopping malls appeared in the 1950s in the United States as an attempt to gather as many stores as possible in the same place, creating what is until nowadays a mass market symbol, although facing a significant public and revenue crisis more recently.

In the beginning of the 1970s, the oil crises produced an intense economic crisis making the golden age of the capitalism finally meet its end and bringing together a new era, the neoliberal one. During the 1970s and 1980s, the paradigms of free market spread out the planet, starting the processes that would kick off the financialization of markets and societies, bringing up the popularization of credit cards and virtual transactions as well as other important technologies, and changing the focus from production-consumption as source of wealth and development to the accumulation phase, where financial speculation in a global connected system is much more attractive to banks and investors as well as to other institutions and individuals. It is important to understand that, in that moment, consumption was passing through a reformulation, i.e., society was living multiple economic and social crisis, for that reason, industries, companies and stores should innovate themselves in a faster way to keep people consuming.

In other words, it was a new and revolutionary way of producing, distributing, and finally consuming, linking consumption to quality of life. At these moments, as pointed out by Baudrillard, the products assumed a new characteristic as long as people started feeling the objects as part of their lives and this is an important mechanism for mass market success, i.e., everyone wants to take part of the process because those objects bring feelings, sensations, and status and with the rise of ample variety, different kinds of groups inside society were possible.

It is relevant to say that the mass market needs to innovate itself to be alive, for that reason, mainly since the 1970s, strategies known as “Planned Obsolescence” and “Perceived Obsolescence” were created and used; the first means creating products with a limited lifetime mostly for immediate use, so after some time objects will be discarded because the industry is always creating and designing something new, more modern, and with a more advanced technology compared to the previous ones; the second strategy is how corporations innovate and propagate ideas, by this way after some time, society perceive what they consume as old or not fashion, in other words, people perceive they need to consume something new. These strategies gained even more power with the advent and the rise of cinema, propaganda, and social media in recent times, they have always been strategies to stimulate the mass market.

Characterizing the mass market stimulation made by social media is important to mention the work of Bauman (2000). He affirms that, since the 1980s, the world has been passing through a technological and informational process, in which the speed of information and transportation are central, in what is generally known as globalization. Considering this aspect, there was a transition from fordism to post-fordism, meaning that the industry used to be more “solid” and now it is more “fluid” with ample fluxes of trades and commodities and cultural changes (which is essential for the consumption mindset).

In this scenario, capital is flexible enough to adapt to the new social dynamics considering the consumer as the most important part of the system. For this reason, mass market increased its size and importance even more to face this reality and respond to different and specific tastes presented by individual and groups of consumers.

Social media plays its central role in the processes, while it works as a tool for getting people to know new trends and brands used by other people considered by the public eye as celebrities and digital influencers, for example. There are no more physical frontiers or limits for mass market consumption because it is possible to buy goods from other countries with fast shipment or either implement new styles and designs. In the modern era, everything seems possible for mass market which is constantly innovating and invigorating itself in a increasingly faster way.

Another fundamental author and theory to add to this discussion is Lipovetsky (2006) and the Paradoxical Happiness concept. By his point of view, it is possible to observe that there is a political and economic logic behind choices that lead to mass market and all characteristics included on that. According to Lipovetsky, it occurs because, behind the mass market, there is the advertising industry affirming and reaffirming to the public on a daily basis that consumption brings happiness, comfort, and pleasure, as well as having an emotional connection to society. In the modern stage of mass market, Lipovetsky points out that it is mainly based on hyperconsumption and symbolic connection between society and mass market behavior.

Considering what has been stated above, it is essential to highlight that writing about mass market does not only mean the consumption of material products but also cultural symbols (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Appadurai 1986) such as images and patterns included in what Adorno and Horkheimer (2002) called Culture Industry.

Another important consideration is put by Trentmann (2006), when he states that contemporary consumption is the representation of the people’s mechanism of wealth and interest; thus, it is quite present in discourses and politics.

However, as the current debate highlights, it is important to understand that consumers are not an automatic response to the rise of mass market, actually they are constructed by the marketing and the sociopolitical dynamics of each context and spatial locus, considering that there are several conceptions of market and its consumers, in relation to gender and generation, for example.

In addition, it should be understood that the relationship of mass market and consumers is not strictly linear in an unconscious process, because although the market influences the construction of individual and collective identities, the consumer purchaser also has the capacity to influence the mass market dynamics.

Finally, given its breadth and flexibility, the concept of mass market as well as its deep connection with the construction of consumer society must be analyzed through different and diverse perspectives, either political, economic, anthropological, or cultural (Douglas and Isherwood 1979; Becker 1982; Hodder 1990; Dant 1999; Windham 2000). What they all carry is the fact that mass market politics has transformed the world and the way civil society is embedded in such a scenario.

Consumption Versus Consumerism

As stated at the beginning of the text, the act of consuming is inherent to life. It is indisputable, for example, the real need to consume nutrients for the maintenance of human life or the use of clothing for both protection against low temperatures or ultraviolet rays. And these are just a few of the thousands of examples one can give when analyzing the development of different societies. In this sense, as presented previously, one can see the transformations by which the consumption process and, consequently, the mass market have been through, constantly moving between what is really necessary to consume and what would be superfluous.

In this way, consumption would or should be a conscious action based mainly on its relation with the satisfaction of real and concrete needs. However, these changes in the context in which consumption becomes an element of social status, especially when the upper classes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century begin to consume luxury items demonstrating their economic and social power to the rest of society, as described by Thorstein Veblen and his concept of conspicuous consumption.

It is from this contextualization that the concept of consumerism is born, since it takes the form of an overconsumption or hyperconsumption (as proposed by Lipovetsky), in which the unconscious action of an exaggerated and superfluous consumption prevails, adding in its core, feelings and sensations related to the products. It is also an institutionalized policy, in which society is induced to a consumer way of life, which needs to be invigorated in an ever faster way to survive, so this type of consumption is largely related to planned obsolescence, as mentioned before.

According to Stearns (2001), consumerism would be a way of life in which people have as their main objectives the purchase of consumer goods in amounts and variety, as well as sophistication, way beyond the enough to satisfy all their basic needs, namely, it is much more related with the feelings and identities that are acquired, sensed, or constructed by and from the consumption of these new, superfluous, and sophisticated goods.

In this way, consumerism attributes to the consumed good much broader objectives and functionalities, such as the satisfaction of a desire, the construction of an ideal of happiness, and the exhibition of the individual personality to the society, so it brings a whole new aspect to consumption based on culturalities.

According to Evans (2018), in reviewing Warde’s analysis, sociological consumption aspects can be divided into three main phases: 1. Acquisition (it is, in short, the process of production, distribution, and access to consumption, which is done through political and economic decisions), 2. Appropriation (concerns what people do with the good they have acquired. At this stage it is important to consider the marketing role and the construction of ideals and meanings of consumer goods for society’s daily life), and 3. Appreciation (the third stage is based on how people relate to the acquired good, i.e., the feelings, sensations, perceptions, and emotions involved in this relationship).

Through this discussion, it is observed that there is a transformation in the process that involves the act of consuming. In other words, what shows the transition from a consumer society to a consumerist society is the fact that in the first one, consumption was much more specific and the industry was characterized by a limited variety of goods.

The consumer society is deeply associated with the evolution of marketing and the consolidation of mass market. Therefore, phases 2 and 3 are central to the maintenance of consumption as a key element of the contemporary economic model. In addition, Evans highlights in his analysis the 3’Ds (Devaluation, Divestment, and Disposal), which in short, characterizes this system as fluid, causing consumption and re-consumption rounds, as well as losses of economic, symbolic, and cultural value.

Mass market and consumption have also undergone significant changes during the analyzed historical period. However, consumerism of the modern era derives from a fairly recent context of history, settling in the twentieth century, especially during post-World War II. This fact is deeply connected with public and corporate policies aimed to boost economic growth, production planning aimed at programmed obsolescence, and the innovations developed in the areas of marketing and advertising, in the sense that in modern mass market, the advertisement industry does not only show and promote the consumption of the product itself, but also an apparatus that promotes the sale, consumption, and insertion of personal ideas, experiences, and symbols (Molotch 2003).

In all this discussion, it is important to consider that consumption and its modern mode of consumerist expansion go through constant challenges to reinvent themselves, expanding, and consolidating a global mass market. In this way, it is noticed that there is always an increasing demand for new and already not exploited markets (McCracken 1988; Featherstone 1991).

Reports from the Worldwatch Institute point out that – no matter how – richer societies consume significantly more than the poorest, the world is now experiencing an expanding trend of mass market towards developing countries that gather a large number of promising and greedy consumers. Many of these countries already have a large population and also high demographic growth rates like India and some African countries.

These agglomerations of people eager to embrace mass market and consumption\consumerism Western lifestyles constitute, as stated by Gardner, Assadourian, and Sarin (2004), the “Global Consumer Class,” formed by people that live all over the world but have more than US$ 7,000.00 per year of purchasing parity power as well as, typically, having television sets, smartphones, and fast internet access, enthusiastically embracing culture and ideas that these products and global mass market convey. This class of consumer adds up to about 1.7 billion people – more than a quarter of the world population.

To have an idea of the dimension of the global mass market “explosion” that awaits the planet, the United States has about 330 million inhabitants, of which, according to the Worldwatch Institute, 84% – or 277.2 million people – are part of the Global Consumer Class, which leaves a range of market expansion of only 16%, or something around 53 million new consumers to be conquered is hugely higher in developing countries and economies, especially the big ones, such as China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Year 2004 data showed that China has only 19% of its population (239.8 million people at that moment) in the class mentioned above. Therefore, the potential for market expansion in this country – considering the current figures – is 81%, which is equivalent to more than one billion potential new consumers. The numbers for India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Brazil are quite similar in scale, even considering the huge social and economic inequalities that deeply mark these societies.

However, given this scenario, the question that arises is: does the planet account for sustaining such a volume of consumption supplied by an increasing global mass market? Put in another way, if all people currently living on Earth become part of the Global Consumer Class, will the planet be able to provide the resources demanded to satisfy them all? And how will the regeneration capacity of ecosystems and planetary life support systems be?

Another issue that is fundamental to analyze and comprehend mass market contemporarily is the spatial distribution of population (Kates 2000), as well as land use and cover patterns, that are also strongly related to consumption, since the pre-mass market era of the earliest stages of the process of human sedentarization and urbanization of societies, when cities were founded in areas rich in resources such as water, hunting, fishing, minerals, or timber until today, in times of globally connected mass market, when this correlation with the physical proximity of resource sources is no longer so clear or decisive.

The predominant urban land use and cover pattern today (dispersed and with low intensity land occupation, also known as urban sprawl) paradigmatically represented by the suburbs in the United States, relates in an even more profound and complex way with the question of mass market and consumption (Zukin 1995).

Today we consume space like any other product, good, or commodity (Lash and Urry 1994). This encourages the development and widespread of a speculative real estate industry in which location and quality of the place plays a strategic role. As Gardner et al. state, spacious suburban homes have helped fuel the mass market and consumption of a wide range of durable consumer goods, including refrigerators, televisions, furniture, washing machines, and automobiles and low-intensity real estate projects consume about 2.5 times more feedstock, raw material, energy, and commodities than high-density ventures.

All this overconsumption derived from the widespread global mass market leads to an increasing production of waste, which can be understood as all expenditure for which no real value is produced (Gardner et al. 2004), which materializes in the form of a complex series externalities, which, in turn, increase in the socio-environmental risks that increase the vulnerabilities of societies and\or the unwanted or unintentional by-products such as violence, obesity and related diseases, environmental contamination, congestion, stress, and the reduction of the time available for personal life.

The Royal Society Science Policy Centre (2012) states that Humankind and Earth have reached a critical moment as our population and its production and consumption patterns produce the most significant impacts on the planet’s life sustaining systems. This is particularly worrying when one takes into account the enormous degree of concentration of income – and consequently of potential consumption – and of inequality to wellbeing access between societies and also between individuals.

As the referred report points out, if the almost eight billion people alive at this time embrace the same consumption levels of the richest societies, the available planetary resources would not be able to fulfill these demands, generating a global collapse. On the other hand, it is well known that there are at least 1.3 billion people all over the planet living in terrible and unacceptable conditions that, somehow, will need to have more access to the benefits arising from the consumption of goods and services in order to get away and to overcome the risks and challenges to survival and wellbeing presented by extreme poverty.

The report states that to reduce or eliminate this threat to human species survival, it is urgent and fundamental to (1) reduce global poverty and inequalities, (2) to reduce unsustainable consumption patterns in developed societies as well as in the developing countries, substituting economic and development models based on continuous and untiring growth, decoupling wellbeing and social success from irresponsible and predatory production and consumption patterns, and (3) to slow the pace of global population growth by no coercive policies that include universal access to education because population size is not the whole problem, but it surely is an important component – together with affluence and technology – of the complex equation that measures the environmental impacts of human activities.


The concept of mass market is very widespread nowadays to discuss and to understand how the economic dynamic of modern capitalism is. This concept either brings a variety of meanings and understandings as, for example, it can be understood as an institutionalized political decision which causes economic and social transformations and consequences or it can also be understood as a cultural element and thus, prominent in the construction of individual and collective identities. Furthermore, the mass market plays a primordial role in the expansion and the contemporary economic growth, being quite present in the political discourses in confluence with the consumption and its constant innovation demands.

Inside the debate, it is noticeable that mass market has passed through changes since its advent in the Industrial Revolution period in the eighteenth century. The consumption over history turned from mostly a niche market (directed to small groups as the upper classes) to a mass market (variety of social and economic groups and classes with different desires and tastes). Given these transformations, it is necessary to highlight that mass market is a huge and wide systemic process that integrates and articulates production, distribution, and consumption processes and systems. The third dimension – consumption processes and systems – is the central driving force to increase, to sustain, and to improve mass market.

Considering the centrality of consumption for the discussion, analysis, and understanding of the mass market (and vice versa), it is noted in the discussion that the Industrial Revolution is one of the starting points for their comprehension, since in that scenario inventions and technical and technological innovations allowed the industrial production and distribution processes to become cheaper, faster, as well as more varied in terms of the offered goods.

However, it is necessary to understand that modern consumption, in its beginnings was directed, mainly, to small groups formed by the elites, thus representing certain social status. This characteristic changed when consumption became a social and economic policy from the turn of the century and especially after World War II.

Through such policies (first in developed countries and later in emerging countries), society came to see itself and to be seen as part of the economic development system, since as consumers they had the potential to circulate the economy and generate jobs, for example. In this sense, it is possible to conclude that through the spread and consolidation of mass market as a cultural identification connected and strongly dependent on consumption was constructed, in addition to the rise of the idea of welfare linked to consumption.

In this work, it is also understood that the different phases of modern consumption led it to become a hyperconsumption, thus characterizing a consumer/consumerist society, and also, a form of ideology, where the mass market today is marked, above all, by unconscious consumers and actions, since the rationality and use value of goods are no longer predominant, but rather the feelings, sensations, and status involved in the consumption of goods and services offered by mass market, as well as by the niche markets. Thus, the implementation of a mass market based on the planned obsolescence and fluidity of the relationship between the consumer and the acquired/appropriated good was, and still is, paramount.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leonardo Freire de Mello
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sara Aparecida de Paula
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Engineering, Modelling and Applied Social Sciences, Territorial Planning DepartmentFederal University of ABC São Bernardo do CampoBrazil
  2. 2.Centre for Engineering, Modelling and Applied Social Sciences, Post Graduate Programme in World Political Economy Federal University of ABC São Bernardo do CampoBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Leonardo Sta. Romana
    • 1
  1. 1.Senior Economic Consultant (Independent); EmergingFrontierMarkets.comManilaPhilippines