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Understanding that consumerism through advertising and branding is very much about what the product says about you, and your status in the community not necessarily about what it does or how well it does it. It is important to look at how this affects your sense of self or self-concept, the answer to the question ‘who am I ?’. Belk (1988) brought together a large body of literature to support the thesis that consumers use key possessions to extend, expand, and strengthen their sense of self (Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Halton, Eugene. 1981), (Prelinger, E. 1959), (Morse, S., Gergen, K., & Mcguire, William J. 1970), (Sennett, R., 2002). He investigates the relationship that consumers and material possessions share to understand our consumer society but also our broader existence as human beings. (Belk, 1988) “ A key to understanding what possessions mean is recognizing that, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as parts of ourselves.” Tuan argues that ‘Our fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by having and possessing things because, to a large degree, we are what we have and possess’ (Tuan, Yi-Fu.1980. p. 472).

The function of possessions in human development is identified through four stages: (1) the infant distinguishes self from environment, (2) the infant distinguishes self from others, (3) possessions help adolescents and adults manage their identities, and (4) possessions help the old achieve a sense of continuity and preparation for death. Finally, the role of possessions in creating or maintaining a sense of the past is considered. It is not one brand or a single product representing the complex identities of individuals, it is a complete ensemble of consumption objects that will show one’s diverse extended self. (Belk,1988) (Rochberg-Halton, Eugene (1984, p. 335), states that: “Valued material possessions… act as a sign of the self that are essential in their own right for its continued cultivation, and hence the world of meaning that we create for ourselves, and that creates ourselves, extends literally into the objective surroundings.” It is not only material possessions that make up our extended self, (Prelinger, E. 1959) invited five judges to separate 160 items into three groups: those that are predominantly under the control of people, those that primarily control or affect people, and those that are predominantly neutral in both regards. I am solely focusing on possessions and productions that ranked 4th. 4. Possessions and productions (e.g., watch, perspiration, toilet articles), 1.57; These findings suggest that both being possessed and possessing objects integrate further into your extended self therefore surrounding yourself with objects both good and bad aspects are seen to attach to us through physical contact or proximity. “ That is, we may impose our identities on possessions and possessions may impose their identities on us.” (Belk,1988)

The importance of possession in defining who we are, who we want to be, and how we are perceived by others is essential. Hence the effect that consumerism has on your extended self is very important for forming and maintaining a coherent sense of self. This is difficult within our consumer society with the amount of choice we experience through consumerism being overwhelming and difficult to direct, consequently driving consumerism through the search for one’s self. (Lasch Christopher 1979, Barth G, Sennett 1977). “Consumers run a certain risk in making a decision based on present information because this imperfect information does not enable them to predict exactly which product will procure the maximum satisfaction sought nor which brand has the qualities desired..” (DEEPA, I.R., 2013. P. ) However, we must look at how this can affect us as an adult we find it hard to make decisions about brands and products this can be linked with exposure to consumerism at a young age.

Children are engrossed through material messaging in many aspects of their lives, consumer traits are indoctrinated and this creates problems with identity formation and development which all affect their self-image. Their self is now being defined by their capacity to consume, Girls especially are being sold the ideal of what they will ‘need’ to have to become a woman. Boys on the other hand being sold the image of toxic masculinity (highest suicide rates in males 20-40) “There is mounting evidence to suggest that the structure of childhood is eroding and children are suffering from serious physical, emotional, and social deficits directly related to consumption. “ (Hill, J.A., 2011, pp.347-362.)

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Under the justification of ‘empowerment,’ corporations were able to market to pre-schoolers attracting them to ‘cradle to grave’ brand loyalty From such a young age their ideology is to constantly meet the demands of the industry so that the industry can push the ‘demands of the consumers’. This is unsustainable for our planet and harmful to the development of their identity, moving them into adulthood sooner, thus making them believe that they stand for individual independence, whereas in reality corporations have linked empowerment by associating ‘choice’ with the consumption of heavily sponsored goods. (Cook, D. 2007). “Western European consumers are particularly critical of ads targeted at children — 85% believe advertisers persuade children to buy unnecessary items. And 79% believe advertisers exaggerate health benefits.” (BY, T.P.,1995) Even though the majority of consumers are aware of the effects advertisements can have on children this begs the question of why perhaps are there not more restrictions in place to protect our youth. With the ever-growing consumer society in the West and with it being ingrained into our way of life from such a young age, it’s very hard to resist and reject those aspects of consumerism that are less essential. (Barber BR ,2007, p167) defined: “Branded lifestyles are not merely superficial veneers on deeper identities but have to some degree become substitute identities – forms of acquired character that have the potential to go all the way down to the core. They displace traditional ethnic and cultural traits and overwhelm the voluntary aspects of identity we chose for ourselves.” However, I believe one of the great aspects of this is that individuals can choose whoever they want to be and the lifestyle they want to live but it is paramount that is a free choice.

Still ‘Branded lifestyles’ contribute to the illusion of free agency among both children and adults unable to realize the degree to which consumerism affects them, even if they think they know. Therefore self-reflection is key, however, most children are unable to engage in self-reflection so by the time they reach adulthood the consumer’s philosophy is well recognized as a basis of their identity. (Hill, J.A., 2011) Looking more closely at how specifically this can affect one’s identity I am going to focus on how the Barbie Doll was affecting young females in the late fifties. Barbie was created by an American Businesswomen Ruth Handler and was first launched in 1959 where it has been a part of the doll market for more the 50 years. The out-of-proportioned body type that the Barbie doll has, researchers calculated Barbie would lack the necessary body fat to menstruate in 1963 even came to a book titled How to lose weight with the recommendation ‘Don’t Eat’, even though barbies body type is unattainable. (Rössner, S., 2014.) A study was carried out on 37 four to seven-year-old girls testing whether early exposure to sexualized images, in this case, the Barbie doll, could impact their choices on future selves.

Some of the girls were experienced to 5 minutes with Barbie then asked out of ten different professions which they (girls) could do in the future and how many a boy could do. The girls stated that the boys could do significantly more professions, the study then compared these findings against 5 minutes with Mrs. Potato Head, this time the girls stated a much smaller difference between future professions for themselves as compared to boys. (Sherman, A.M. and Zurbriggen, E.L., 2014) What this study shows is how possession can have a huge effect on one future self and how one perceives the world when all aspects of a product are not considered. However in 2015, Barbie promoted the fact that girls can be anything with a brilliant advert tearing down the stereotypes, this is a great example of how one product initially considered to be harmful to one’s self-identity can now aid in the development of young girls. This speaks a lot about the times and how we are more aware of the effects today than we were 50 years ago. (need a reference from current Barbie ad) With hindsight it is easy to see whether or not a product has been successful or harmful, We as designers must also look at the whole life cycle of a product as well as its effect on identity and our sense of self, it is paramount that designer aid in the quality of consumers lives and not hindered them. It therefore is very important to surround yourself with objects and possessions that aid and solidify your identity through youth and into adulthood.

The importance of this is shown with the concept of the empty self. “This general orientation, in which much contemporary consumption is a process of identity construction, gives rise to two major discourses: postmodern fragmented multiple selves and the empty self.” (Ahuvia, A.C, 2005,p172) There is a worry that the constant over-consumption of commodities, and the constant reaffirming or changing of identity can potentially lead to lower self-concept clarity, lower self-esteem, greater boredom proneness, a loss of shared community and meaning, isolation, depression, and poor relationship with others. Individuals try to counter this with the consumption of more nonessential goods. No longer is our identity based on the life we have lived but rather the products we use and consume. Through the understanding of why we consume, we can find solutions to these problems with consumerism. (Cushman, P.,1990),( Reeves, R.A., Baker, G.A. and Truluck, C.S., 2012)( McCutcheon, L.E., Lange, R., & Houran, J. 2002) 

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