Few transformations during the twentieth century have reshaped the transatlantic world more profoundly than the rise of mass consumerism. Growing affluence, product innovations, and changes in market relations have made material consumption increasingly more central to personal self-identifications, social relations and discourses, and government policies. Historians of modern consumption emphasize the importance of the American model of consumption – with new consumption patterns, marketing strategies, and technical innovations – in reshaping global consumer expectations. Since the 1920s, American companies and advertising agencies aggressively sought out new markets for their goods, especially in Europe. In the wake of the Marshall Plan, exporting the “American Way of Life” became part of U.S. foreign policy.
As the entries in this section show, European immigrants often played crucial roles in shaping the “American” consumer culture that seemed to “Americanize” Europe. As designers, market researchers, or marketing experts, these migrants helped to transfer elements of European consumer culture to the United States as much as they helped to translate American innovations back to their countries of origin. They were part of a vibrant transnational debate over consumption styles and the quality of life that spanned the entire century. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, as a new era of globalization seemed to indicate the convergence of consumer lifestyles, this debate underscored the enduring transatlantic differences in the goods consumers chose and desired as well as in the role of consumption in everyday life.