Although there is some debate about the exact definition, hyperreality is generally defined as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins. It is a postmodern philosophy that deals in part with semiotics, or the study of the signs that surround people in everyday life and what they actually mean. French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard researched hyperreality to note how humans were starting to accept simulated versions of reality. As the line between what is real and what is an altered representation became blurred, he questioned if anything was truly real in the age of mass media.
To understand how something real can be blended with that which is imagined, the example of a royal crown can be used. The king's crown symbolizes his title and power; the crown itself is meaningless, but it has come to take on the meaning that society has given it as a representation of the monarchy. The reality of the crown and the hyperreality of what it stands for — wealth, power, fame — are inextricably interwoven.
In the modern world, much of "reality" is mediated in some way. Information is edited and packaged into news programs, so what is real is often processed and shaped to fit a particular narrative structure. In hyperreality, the copy becomes more valuable than the real thing, and what something symbolizes is more important than what the thing actually is. How the use of money has changed is a useful example of this, as what was once an exchange of two things with similar value — the barter of two objects of equal value, for example, or the exchange of precious metals for goods — has become the trading of digital ones and zeros with a credit or debit card for goods, the price of which may have little connection to their actual value.
Hyperreality can also take the form of reality by proxy, in which a person takes someone else's version of reality on board as his or her own. Some people who watch soap operas for a long time develop a view of interpersonal relationships that is skewed by how the soap opera writers depict the characters, for example. Some people start to relate to these extreme dramatic relationships as being real, and begin to judge social relationships and situations by this heightened lens of reality.
Some theorists argue that more and more people in modern culture exist in a state of hyperreality, often becoming more engaged with the hyperreal world than with the real world. Media images, the Internet, computer games, and virtual worlds are taking people out of the real world more often and for longer periods of time than ever before. As a result, their connection with the real world becomes blurred with the unreal, and it may become more important to take on the symbols than to achieve the reality; some people, for example, may believe that they can be rock stars or celebrities just by acting as if they are.
Hyperreality is exploited in advertising for almost everything, using a pseudo-world to enable people to be the characters they wish to be. Advertising sells the public through strong, desirable images, and many consumers buy into the brand's point of view and products. If the consumer wants to be seen as a sex icon, he or she should buy the most expensive jeans as worn or designed by his or her favorite celebrity. Although the clothing itself has limited actual value, they symbolize a state of being that some consumers want.
Every time a person enters a large shopping area with a certain theme, he or she may be entering a hyperreal world. Theme parks such as Disneyworld® or the casinos in Las Vegas are hyperrealities in which a person can get lost for as long as his or her money lasts. There is no reality in these places, only a construct that is designed to represent reality, allowing the person to exist temporarily in a world outside of what is real.