Consumerism and the Commodification of People (And Horses)

In Graphic Design and Illustration, there is this ever-present idea of the “simplification” of a shape, the transformation of a three-dimensional object into a flattened silhouette to make it memorable. An apple is a circle, a person is an odd combination of cylinders and rectangles, and a horse is…complicated. I can’t draw horses, so I wouldn’t know. Late-stage capitalism is particularly preoccupied with simplification, with making products organic and, as a result, ubiquitous. So simple that you cannot help asking yourself if you weren’t born using it, cannot help making it a part of yourself, which makes consuming it an intense need. The surge of celebrities as a concept does not evade the phenomenon, with its ubiquitous tropes and archetypes. Most people can’t pinpoint where the “girl next door” began but can name at least one celebrity under the umbrella. In that way, artists are often simplified, commodified, and sold as a product or as a product's vehicle.

Symbolic consumption and the "child star"

A concept that plays heavily into celebrity culture is “symbolic consumption”, where any given product is sold as a symbol of identity or a greater experience. For example, let’s say you buy a horse as a pet instead of as a tool to fulfil a need. What you’re buying isn’t a horse, per se, but the experience of having a horse.

Similarly, let’s say you buy a poster of Megan Thee Stallion. There is no real-life problem a Megan Thee Stallion poster could solve, except for maybe the problem of its absence. What you’re purchasing is a symbol of your identity as a Megan Thee Stallion fan.

While there is nothing inherently malicious in the process—it can be argued that it is inevitable in present-day capitalism—it can quickly snowball into an unhealthy dynamic. Once a person is a vehicle of symbols, the audience consumes them as an ideal instead of a three-dimensional individual. The marketing of any celebrity is focused on maintaining a consistent, easily digestible brand image that is immediately recognizable. The main problem here is that when someone is marketed as a product, their identity will be consumed as one, and any product has its lifespan. People, however, were not meant to have their personalities experienced within the limits of a consumer's buying cycle. Differently from a product, a person will at some point tire of the two-dimensional idea that they are supposed to symbolize. A good example of this is the continuous cycle of child starts trying to break out of a certain public image by sexualizing themselves. The shock these celebrities are trying to cause is more of a plea for the public to be allowed to grow and evolve as any human being would.

Consumerism dictates we need a new product immediately following the death of an old one. So we are presented with another child star immediately after—or even during—the maturing of an old one. This never-ending cycle inevitably makes the public dehumanize the artist, clearly presented as replaceable. The dehumanization of celebrities caused by this overwhelming supply of them creates entitlement within the public.

Parasocial relationships and capitalism: a conclusion

A clear consequence of this commodification is the discussion surrounding “parasocial relationships”, which has become incredibly layered within the last year. With the lockdowns following Covid-19, there has been loneliness that capitalism has been eager to pray upon. While the audience is partially responsible for their expectations of creators, the point needs to be made that this illusion of intimacy wouldn’t be so pervasive if entertainment weren't sold to us as friends. Consumerism inherently preys upon vulnerability, and a preoccupation with making an artist “relatable” may quickly evolve into a need to manufacture closeness in response to the public's loneliness. I am more likely to buy a horse if I am told it loves me. The public thinks they are close to a person, but they are close to a symbol. We want to feel close to someone without having to understand them, so it is easier to present them enveloped in an archetype. There is a presence of righteous anger when the “product” does not behave or appear as it should. Social media has become an extension of tabloid magazines and paparazzi in their constant surveillance of the “product” and their judgment of its quality. There is a fabricated need to consume more symbols, more of this simplified person, and to add your adoration of it to your own identity.

There are always going to be celebrities. Pop culture is a big part of everyday life, and it brings great joy to many people. I suppose what can be argued against and changed is the commodification of human life in the pool of consumerism. The consumption of people as a product—and a commercially simplified version of them at that—is not an intrinsic need. A celebrity can be a symbol of an idea, an archetype, or a lifestyle, but as this person changes, the things they stand for will change as well, and it benefits the public to be aware and sympathetic. The pleasure that can be gained from consuming will never be greater or more long-lasting than the pleasure that can be gained from understanding.