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The willingness of consumers to take part in consumer resistance in times of Web 2.0

Masterarbeit 2010 109 Seiten

BWL - Offline-Marketing und Online-Marketing

Leseprobe

Table of contents

Abstract

Introduction

1. The era of postmodernism: blessing and curse for consumers
1.1 In favour of the consumer - from universalism to individualism
1.1.1 Liberation from cultural authorities
1.1.2 Postmodernism – the extension or improvement of modernism
1.2 Characteristics of postmodernism
1.3. Postmodern consumer culture – blessing or curse?
1.3.1 Postmodernism – a new era of consumption begins
1.3.2 Postmodernism – an increasing burden for consumers

2. A conceptualization of resistance
2.1 What people resist against – how consumers’ patience is strained
2.2 What makes consumers finally become active?
2.3 Enough is enough – how to resist ruthless business practices

3. Immersion in the online world – new opportunities for consumers
3.1. Deeper insights into the term “Internet”
3.1.1 How everything began – from a military project to the WWW
3.1.2 The Internet and its revolutionary development
3.2 A new type of consumer is born
3.2.1 Web 2.0 technologies – powerful tools
3.2.2 Anti-brand sites – a contribution to keep others informed
3.2.2.1 Communities – collectively gaining power
3.2.2.1 A conceptualization of anti-brand sites

4. Empirical studies – How it looks in reality
4.1 Findings on anti-brand sites
4.2 Consumer behavior in the times of Web 2.0

Conclusion

Attachment

Bibliography

Monographies and Articles:

Internet Sources:

Abstract

This thesis offers an overview of developments in consumer resistance. For a better understanding of what has changed in terms of consumer culture compared to the era of modernity, postmodernity is explained in detail. This is the starting point for the investigation on consumer resistance. In this sense, it is shown why people develop critical attitudes and what finally makes them willing to participate. On the basis of these findings, different forms of resistance were considered. The extent to which the Internet has an influence on consumer behavior and resistance was investigated as well. After presenting how conditions for consumers have improved especially in the times of Web 2.0, the extent to which they are more willing to actively take part in consumer resistance was examined with the help of investigations based on real findings.

Introduction

The central topic of this master’s thesis is the growing power of consumers along with the associated likelihood of their resistance. Though in the past the manufacture controlled market activity, a shifting towards the consumer can be detected nowadays. Due to ongoing developments in the online world, it can be assumed that consumers will become even more powerful in the future. In other words, consumers are incrementally gaining importance so that through resistance they will become strong enough in influencing business decisions. Thus, in the long run the possibility of achieving a balance between consumers and producers is given. In this sense, the Internet is an especially important tool for increasing the power of people. While consumers have the possibility of accessing an unlimited amount of information, they are also able to be connected on a global level which makes the exchange of information easier. According to an estimation by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) there were 1.542 billion Internet users worldwide in 2008 which represents approximately a quarter of the world’s population. Taking into consideration that the amount of users has more than doubled within 5 years – compared to 721 million users in 2003, it can be assumed that the number of people with access to the Internet will also continue to grow in the future (http://itu.int/). Moreover, new applications which have arisen in the wake of Web 2.0 especially support the development towards more powerful consumers. Thanks to the permanently growing popularity of social media incorporating social networks such as Twitter, the trade of information and data between like-minded people is much easier and quicker. Theoretically, everybody can be informed about business practices of a certain company anywhere in the world. Consequently, global companies no longer have the possibility to hide any kind of information so the whole world becomes more transparent.

Looking at consumption behaviour in postmodern times it can be realized that people are starting to consume more consciously. Out of the huge amount of highly diversified goods available consumers can choose those commodities which are most suitable for representing their identity. This means that they decide in reference to their personal selection criteria which brands they will consume. Hence, in order to better evaluate goods, information is sought before consumption. Especially anti-brand sites, also known as corporate hate sites – web pages, in which the practices of a company and the quality of its brand are critically examined, yield a vast amount of information. Today, it can be seen that more and more consumers create their own web sites with the aim of expressing their opinions and collecting each kind of critical information about a brand in order to exchange their experiences of consumption with each other. Has there been only one corporate hate site in 1995, nine years later already more than 10,500 pages are circulating on the Internet. That is why, according to a survey of the mi2g Intelligence Unit, corporate hate sites are the biggest digital risk problem nowadays among CEOs of major global brands (http://mi2g.net). Due to the power of ‘word-of-mouth’ and the fact that especially negative news is gaining consumers’ attention, companies have to be completely aware of their behaviour. Thus, it is obvious what influence those pages might have on a company’s performance. Consequently, the problem in the main focus is how dangerous those pages truly are and how companies have to deal with them. As already indicated above, it is the consumer who can accomplish his personal interests in business processes through rejecting certain unwanted company practices. Additionally, it is also him who can force multinational enterprises to act in a positive, responsible way. In the end, thanks to these new technologies it is this transparency which permanently keeps up the threat of bad publicity. In order to establish a better image and to avoid becoming the target of such anti-brand sites, companies even start to take environmental and social issues into consideration. Thus, corporate sustainability is one of the factors determining corporate practices.

Out of this current situation the overall aim of this thesis is to investigate if there is any relation between the ongoing spread of the Internet and the growing resistance among consumers. Thus, the research question is: “Does the Internet have a significant impact on consumers’ willingness to participate in consumer resistance?” During this investigation the emphasis will be put on two different aspects: Why are consumers increasingly critical and why are they more likely to resist? This in turn requires an examination of what opportunities the Internet provides and how these tight anti-brand communities operate.

At the end of this research it shall be verified whether the following assumptions are right or not:

- The internet is a tool which helps to enhance consumer power so that the domination of the market can consequently be broken down. (H1)
- Members of anti-brand communities are dissatisfied consumers who can be regained when required improvements are executed. (H2)
- Brands which are consistently highly ranked in ‘Most powerful brand lists’ and which have a high brand value are more likely to be targeted by anti-brand sites. (H3)
- The higher the interactivity in brand communities is, the stronger the member’s feeling of belonging becomes so that the probability of consumers’ engagement rises. (H4)
- Understanding the underlying motivations for anti-brand sites is a chance for corporations to better perform in the future. (H5)

The theory of postmodernism will help to explain how the consumer culture has generally changed. Therefore, it has to be investigated what new conditions accordingly underlie present times. Those new conditions are necessary to understand why an eventual rising resistance among consumers occurs. Hence, while postmodernism can be understood as a blessing for consumers, it can be seen as a curse at the same time. After giving a short overview of motives and different forms of resistance, the focus should be especially placed on anti-brand sites; one way for consumers to express resistance. The second part of this research picks up on this point. In this sense, it will be first explained what new opportunities exist thanks to the Internet. In the second step, a description of what technologies and applications are particularly used will be explored. After this brief introduction a deeper look will be taken at the theory of tribes and online brand communities. Here, the intention is to show how these tight communities work and how it is possible that people with similar interests start to unite even though the whole interaction remains anonymous and virtual. Finally, it shall become clear what the underlying incentives for the creation of anti-brand sites are, how people there are organized and why these sites pose such a threat to corporations.

This theoretical part is followed by empirical studies. In order to check if the assumptions are applicable in reality, an investigation including case studies and monitoring will be carried out for examining what trends can be deducted from anti-brand sites of some global corporations. The aim of this investigation is also to see how those pages are designed, what their content is and who the operators of these pages are. In order to get deeper inside the way of thinking of consumers a survey among potential buyers will be conducted. After getting some general information about their online habits, the intention is also to find out what makes them to resist and what their attitudes towards anti-brand sites are. All the findings of these empirical studies will finally serve to validate the hypothesis. Thus, at the end of the master’s thesis the question of how influential the Internet is on consumers’ likelihood of resistance shall be answered. Depending on the final conclusion, it will be possible to give a preview of how corporations have to deal with anti-brand sites in future.

1. The era of postmodernism: blessing and curse for consumers

1.1 In favour of the consumer - from universalism to individualism

Before discussing postmodernism as such it is necessary to examine the previously existing conditions in society. Only through comprehending the irregularities and problems of the former period can it be understood why this new postmodern era finally emerged. Looking at those times of modernity, in which rationalism was the dominating aspect in life, it quickly becomes obvious that there was no chance for consumers to create an individual lifestyle. Hence, the peculiarity of postmodernism, in which the consumer as an individual human being is in the centre, is best expressed. In this sense, a short overview of the modern consumer culture shall be given. This is followed by the comparison of modernism and postmodernism. Keeping in mind the differences between both, the full concentration is to be put on postmodernism in order to understand why a growing consumer resistance is emerging.

1.1.1 Liberation from cultural authorities

By analyzing patterns of consumption the term ‘consumer culture’ seems to be of high importance. Depending on its characteristics, it is determined how people understand the offerings of the market and how they interact with them. Thus, the prevalent mode of consumption is also to be specified. With the help of marketing activities firms have had the unique ability to structure this mode for a very long time. In this way, consumer desires have been shaped. Thus, the way of feeling and thinking of people was organized by marketers – so called cultural engineers who influenced consumers through branded commercial products and the corresponding commodified meanings. That is why pleasures and identities specified by those ‘engineers’ could be only accessed through their brands. Once the cultural authority of marketers was accepted and the consumer culture internalized, people gave firms the permission to organize their tastes (Holt 2002: 71 et seq.). Following Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s idea on ‘culture industries’, the period of mass culture industries which especially came into bloom after World War II was characterized by the striving for the satisfaction of identical needs with identical goods. In the logic of culture industry, products for standardized consumer needs were required due to the fact that many people participated in it. Segmentation was only based on organizing, labelling, and classifying consumers differently. By providing something for all, taking some slight distinctions such as quality into consideration, each single target group was reached. In the end, according to the indexed level in reference to income groups, the category of mass product had to be chosen. Thus, for consumers there was only the choice from a small range of faintly differentiated goods. Consequently, standardisation and mass production were dominant. Moreover, it meant that the corporations with the greatest economic power had control over society as well (1972: 121 et sqq.). At this time mass marketing did not allow any possibility of producing a personal style, nor a different way of interpretation. There was even no space for any kind of risk taking. Therefore, marketing could be basically seen as a totalitarian system which was trying to form consumers en masse. If at all, only a small amount of people knew how to resist successfully (Holt 2002: 71 et seq.).

Next, a deeper look should be taken into this small group. As Ozanne and Murray point out such people no longer wanted to consume goods due to essential human needs or any reason of utility. In their eyes consumption was as a matter of culture which was necessary for differentiation and the creation of a social structure (1995: 522). By giving a more particularized sense to commodities and by using goods idiosyncratically they could finally take control of meanings and the uses of products. That is why through individual consumption practices, marketers can be outflanked. To be able to act in such a way, it was in turn necessary to understand the code of consumption. Therefore, people had to be primarily aware of the fact that consumption is not only the pure act of consuming goods but also a certain way of communication and conversation. Thus, referring to Baudrillard, the term “code of consumption” can be also comprehended as a language consisting of codes, signs and signifiers. Accordingly, goods are consumed due to their signs and their meanings; the value of commodity is no longer the determining aspect. In the long run, a conscious consumption thus requires the capability of understanding the code. In other words, this code the market was using for labelling goods was at the same time very well representing the existing consumer culture. Without understanding these signs, it was still the marketer who organized the code and who was controlling the exchange of information. Taking all these previously mentioned aspects into consideration, it becomes perfectly obvious that marketing consequently represents a form of distorted communication. Accordingly, in a situation of dissymmetrical speech consumers therefore had no other choice but to participate (Holt 2002: 71 et seq.; Ritzer 1998: 6 et sqq.).

The question which arises at this point is what those characteristics are which are finally necessary to successfully oppose the imposed social meanings. According to Ozanne and Murray consumers must have the ability to reflect on how marketing works in order to understand the code of consumption. That is why, as a prerequisite for making those rational choices informed and educated consumers are needed. Through education people have the ability to understand when a communication is distorted. Hence, as a result, it would almost be possible to approach a situation of ideal speech because people no longer accept taking part in unequal discourses (1995: 519 et sqq.). Finally, in reference to Habermas’ idea of ideal speech (1994), all the social actors would have the same chance to express their opinion freely in such a situation. Thus factors such as power, rules of experts or authority and ideology would no longer distort communication and exchange (Heng, de Moor 2003: 335). Nevertheless for evaluating goods differently and for choosing a product out of different alternatives, sign values still have an important impact. Through the process of socialization during life, those values which represent a certain consumption code are finally internalized. Given that the permanent interpretation of sign values is a must for creating one’s own place in society, the necessity of educated and informed consumers becomes even more obvious. At this point it can be understood that conscious acquisition and consumption, so-called acts of productive activity, are in the long run crucial for social integration as well as the development of a proper self and a personal identity. In this sense, the use of information such as consumer reports for evaluating alternatives accordingly already represents participation in consumer culture. Thus, it makes people become active, critical consumers: ‘The informed consumer is critical within the bounds of the existing society’ (Ozanne, Murray 1995: 521).

Consumers which do not want to accept the social domination at all have to refuse the consumption code. In contrast to that, looking for different styles of consumption is in turn another form of resistance. Consequently, the more those potential buyers are finally informed, the more they will reflect on their marketplace relationship. In this way, the possibility for completely dissociating themselves from consumption patterns is given as well. This kind of person who consciously pursues such behaviour is generally called a reflexively defiant consumer. Thanks to their independence from the consumption code and their capability of disentangling the marketer’s artifice being put on the product, they have the ability to define themselves which makes them even more powerful – powerful in such a way that they as individual citizens have the influence to determine the understanding and the expression of need. Of course, they are still consuming goods but in a manner that opposition is expressed through altering the sign value. In order to remain resistant and to affront the appropriation of oppositional signs on the part of the management, it is necessary that critical consumption takes place in subcultures. In this sense, through the development of a certain distance from the code, consumption is finally refused. Thus, an own culture is established. For keeping in turn the critical force permanently alive, the signifier has to be changed as soon as a specific symbol is taken by the market (Ibid: 522 et seq.).

1.1.2 Postmodernism – the extension or improvement of modernism

In order to better comprehend the tremendous changes which are subject to the consumers it is necessary to understand how postmodernism is distinguished from modernism. Looking at the definitions of the Random House Dictionnary it becomes clear that postmodernism emerged as a critique of modernism. While modernism is defined as ‘a deliberate philosophical and practical estrangement or divergence from the past in the arts and literature occurring especially in the course of the 20th century and taking form in any of various innovative movements and styles’ (http://dictionary.reference.com), postmodernism is seen as ‘any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity’ (http://dictionary.reference.com). For the explanation of the enormous change in society and the transition from modernism to postmodernism Habermas refers in his book “Die Moderne – ein unvollendetes Projekt” to Bell. Following him the clash between the spreading cultural modernity and the rigid economic and administrative system is the reason for the emergence of postmodernism. Hence, with the release of hedonistic desires and the striving for individuality, a rational life style can no longer be maintained (1994: 37).

Referring to Firat and Venkatesh, several conditions can be finally associated with modernism. Among others there is the establishment of rational order, the rise of science or realism as well as the unity of purpose. All these conditions are similar in that they are characterized through a certain functional and rational pragmatism. In order to be able to experience the richness of human life, postmodernism has consequently emerged as a reaction to the limitations of modernism. While culture, expressions and meanings are central in postmodernism, they are subordinated to science, analytical constructs and concrete objectifications in modernism. Here, according to processes, the main interest is on continuity, harmony and stable order. In turn, from a postmodern view these processes are only fictional. Consequently, for better defining the human condition everyday life such as chaos, discontinuities or constant changes has to be investigated. In this sense, even the legitimation for different theories contradicting each other and existing alongside is given. Additionally, the postmodern subject is no longer seen as a human being guided by rational thought. From now on, other profiles such as human beings who are guided by language, become possible as well. Therefore, the signification of culture within contemporary lives is basically in postmodernists’ centre of interest. Due to the fact that knowledge is rather a construct out of discourse and language in their eyes, they perceive many modernist narratives as historical and cultural constructions bound by time. That is why it is postmodernity which offers alternative visions of the world (1995: 240 et sqq.). In this sense, even the consumer as such has to be conceived differently. Accordingly, consumption is no longer the pure act of destroying socially produced useful value. Understanding this process as an active appropriation of signs and not as the destruction of objects, the social act of consuming symbolic meanings results in the reproduction and determination of the social code. That is why something new such as an image is created through consumption as well. In the long run, the consumption of a symbol thus serves to express a special meaning. Hence, each act of consumption is an act of production at the same time (Ibid: 245 et sqq.; Poster 1975: 8 et seq.).

Furthermore, new groups of consumers emerge thanks to postmodernism. This can be explained, amongst others, by an extraordinary improvement of the existing situation in family life. As a result, women are no longer passive suburban but active post-suburban consumers. Even though women, assigned to the private domain, were already responsible for activities related to consumption in modern times, they had no real chance to influence decisions. The reason for this is that this domain was neither private, nor did the women have any kind of private life. In contrast, it was the public domain and its products and practices which especially determined life. This domain in which something of value for humans was created was in turn associated with men. As a consequence, women were dependent on their husbands’ permission so that no individual life was possible. Ultimately, it was the postmodern culture that made a contribution to overcome the force of social dictate. In addition to that, this new culture also contributed generally to a different interpretation of the organization and constitution of ‘families’. Accordingly, not only women are liberated from the former social restrictions; as a result of the recognition of differences as well as the development of a certain tolerance, people such as homosexual couples have become to be respected as well. Another change occurring in connection with postmodernism is the aspect that production and consumption no longer have to be considered in relationship with each other. For a very long time it was regarded as secondary to production, whereas the process of consumption can now be evaluated on its own without being put in the logic of production in the sense of scientific thinking for example. That is why the former dependency on products’ values and functions which were claimed to be unique and universal diminishes. Accordingly, consumers are from now on able to engage actively in life experience aesthetics. Hence, in the sense of a liberatory process of consumption, it is now possible to combine the real and the imaginary so that things within the environment become more or less simulations of each other. Due to the fact that objects become simulations, it is no longer the value but the represented image which is finally consumed. That is why instead of the value or function a good represents, it is its meaning in the sense of a symbol which is put in the centre of interest. As a result, the society becomes increasingly a spectacle (Firat, Venkatesh 1995: 240 et sqq.).

Regarding the modern times with its focus on rationalism and realism, it was the economy and the striving for resource efficiency which could be understood as the engine of modern society. With the help of scientific technologies it was consequently intended to produce a higher quantity of better products in order to improve human lives. Considering in turn postmodernity, the clear focus is put on culture and pluralism. In this way, through concentrating on different aspects of everyday life, it is possible to understand consumption in the long run. Accordingly, once the function of culture as well as symbolic modes and practices are accepted as the principle for comprehending consumption, it is necessary to find cultural spaces where those practices arise (Ibid: 1995: 248 et seq.). In this context, Douglas and Isherwood pointed out that ‘no human exists except steeped in the culture of his time and place’ (1979: 63). Consequently, it is obvious that there is a close relationship between consumption and culture. Understanding goods accordingly as the visible part of culture, it can be seen that they belong to cultural processes as well. In this sense, it is possible to express a certain belonging and classification through goods and consumption. That is why humans try to define themselves through consumption within given cultural frameworks (Douglas, Isherwood 1996: 44 et seq.).

A short comparison of all the differences between modernism and postmodernism is provided in more depth in Appendix 1.

1.2 Characteristics of postmodernism

As indicated in the previous chapter, postmodernism is the result of the limitations of modernism. Thus, following the idea of Bauman postmodernism can be also understood as the further development of the former era. By recognising that features of the modernist time such as universalism, homogeneity or monotony did not bring the wanted success, postmodernism has developed itself on the basis of this wrong awareness. Accordingly, Bauman describes this term as a modernism which is aware of its true nature. In other words, in postmodernism a lesson was taken from the mistakes of the modernist era (1995: 222).

Looking at the origins of postmodernism there is no special event which can be seen as the trigger. Rather, its tendencies became visible at different points in time within specific fields. While those trends could be first seen in architecture, it was later noticed in politics where a turning away from neoclassical liberalism could be observed. Finally, the convergence of those different tendencies over time resulted in a loose collective so that postmodernism started to become a major movement in which symbolic and linguistic aspects of human life and subjective experiences were the focus (Venkatesh 1999: 154). Accordingly, the perception of consumption and marketing is nowadays influenced by the following conditions:

- Hyperreality
- Particularism
- Fragmentation
- Symbolic behaviours/Sign system

Hyperreality especially contributes to the emergence of a wealth of opportunities for consumers. Considering the fact that it is no longer necessary to construct the real in accordance with the objective reality, it becomes clear that humans can design a world full of individual simulations. Again, the underlying original function of a product is no longer important. Now it is its meaning that matters. In this sense, depending on their fantasies, imaginations or pragmatic needs, consumers are able to construct their own realities. That is why following the idea of Baudrillard, simulations and hyperreality serve for the construction of the world. Accordingly, not only images of reality are consumed. In addition, the images themselves are also considered as reality. Taking into consideration that the exchange of signs is part of consumption, it can be noticed that the pure use value and materiality are finally replaced by those images and signs. In this sense, pure functionality represents a sign at the same time. Accordingly, current consumer culture is determined by hyperreality. Due to the fact that images of consumption are represented through signs, this culture can be also seen as a visual one. While the real is everything that is momentarily experienced, the hyperreal emerges from its intensification. That is why it is essential that members of this culture are willing to realize and live the simulation. As soon as the imagination of a community is captured by this chain of endless significations, the simulation is authenticated through the behaviour of its members. Thus, those simulations which are represented through ideas, images or sensations and which have no unified meaning become the social reality of the people living in a community. Even though there is no common centre, those simulations can nonetheless provoke certain cognitive reactions. Hence, due to the fact that the significations start seeping increasingly into consumers’ senses, their experience of life is constituted at the same time. In the long run, the possibility of creating several dimensions of reason finally results in the enchantment of life. However, in this context it should be in particular noted that nowadays advertising and marketing dominate everyday life. As a result of this dominance, the expression ‘marketing culture’ has prevailed. Accordingly, cultural forms are systematically created through advertising and marketing. Consequently, a commodity is transformed from a natural object into a linguistic sign. Thus, it is the sign which is marketed so that images and past signs are continuously rehabilitated in postmodern culture (Comp. Firat, Venkatesh 1995: 251 et sqq.; Venkatesh 1999: 155).

By referring to particularism this term can be understood as the result of different cultures. Despite the fact that the human imagination is free of natural limitations - cultural as well as social constructions are also free of real limits; a same set of needs can be, due to cultural differences in worldviews, perceived in another way. Synergies in terms of consuming goods such as daily consumable products are in turn imaginable. In this sense it can be understood that processes of mutual interactions and learning from each other can consequently contribute to the approach of different cultures (Comp. Venkatesh 1999: 155).

Whilst discussing the condition of fragmentation it has to be kept in mind that the multilayeredness of images determines the sensitivity and sensibility of humans. In this regard, following the idea that consumers construct their personal identity, individuals redefine their selves through relationships with people and products. That is why they are not in a specific centre. Accordingly, metanarratives of society, life and experience are fragmented which in turn results in the acceptance of indifferences. As a result, a unique all-embracing truth no longer exists. In this sense, thanks to the existence of multiple realities which are all legitimated, the fragmented individual has the ability to experience the freedom of movement in a large space. That is why even things excluding each other can be done. Consequently, the subject has the opportunity to savor each moment the way it wants without any limitations. Moreover, the necessity to commit to a particular sense of being comes to an end. That is why the environment of shifting images makes it possible to fully enjoy the magic of human life at the same time. Instead of using goods in a purpose-oriented way for the satisfaction of consumer needs, people strive for a self-determined consumption in order to gain simultaneous multiple experiences. Nevertheless, it also has to be taken into account that the subject is more or less the result of the practices in which it is embedded. Following this idea, products increasingly determine procedures of consumption activities. That is why objects start to control consumers so that humans finally follow the instructions of products (Firat, Venkatesh 1995: 253 et seq.; Venkatesh 1999: 155). As a result, ‘[...] individuals, [...], are defined by their role that aids the market in achieving its economic goals, rather than the market and its products being the instruments of consumer welfare’. In this sense, TV which is increasingly reorganizing the life of humans, perfectly represents how market products can be become active agents (Firat, Venkatesh 1995: 254).

However, taking into consideration that people usually decide on goods due to the symbolic meaning they offer, it can be seen to what extent families, cultural groups or media have an impact on influencing an individual’s consumption behaviour. In this context, it is spoken of symbolic behaviours. While meanings are created through symbols which are given to them by the environment, those meanings in turn are used by consumers for determining consumption processes. Due to the fact that meanings are not rigid, consumption practices change at the same time as soon as those significations alter. Consequently, individuals negotiate and determine meanings with the help of their cultural affiliations (Comp. Venkatesh 1999: 156). In this context, the condition of sign-system has to be mentioned as well. At this stage, it is especially striking that the individual is exposed to constant communication. In order to provide the communication with a specific meaning, symbols and signs are in turn used. Included here are not only signs in the sense of written language but also in the sense of visual images. Due to the fact that signs can have many different meanings, its importance in advertising can be detected at the same time. Accordingly, reality can be determined and transformed in several ways (Comp. Ibid: 154).

Considering all the presented characteristics of postmodernism, it can be deducted that in addition to hyperreality including the conditions of symbolic behaviours and sign-system fragmentation especially offers a lot of new opportunities. Thanks to those conditions the break with universalism was advanced so that it is nowadays possible to juxtapose different styles which were opposing each other in modernist times. Finally, this results in the need to redefine the conditions for consumption. Considering the opportunities which are emerging for consumers, it is understandable why a redefinition is necessary (Comp. Firat, Venkatesh 1995: 254 et seq.). In this sense, referring to Wilson, the liberating character of postmodernism even makes it possible for things to be suspect and acceptable at the same time. That is why only inequalities and not differences are recognized. Moreover, there are never conflicts but only fragments (1989: 208 et seq.). Despite all the countless possibilities which are developing thanks to postmodernism, the overall aim for consumers is still to reproduce their life in the best possible way with the help of commodities. That is why goods in the sense of symbolic and material resources primarily serve to construct a unique identity, to express the belonging to a certain cultural community and to signify differences of cultural and social nature between groups. In addition to that, commodities can be also understood as status symbols which have the function to create attraction as well as to express social literacy or wealth (Lee 1993: Preface xi).

Looking at postmodernism from a sociological point of view the main focus is on the subject and its living space (habitat). In this living space the subject has the liberty to use all the existing resources for all possible operations. Within this living space, the freedom and the dependency of the individual is constituted. Accordingly, the living space represents everyday life. Thus, it neither determines the subject’s way of behaviour nor its meaning. For that reason its only function is to provide a space in which all operations take place. Consequently, the habitat is a complex system which is unpredictable to the extent that controlling it with the help of statistical significant factors becomes impossible. Despite the fact that the subjects’ actions are partly dependent from each other, there is no dominating source monitoring the activities taking place therein. As a consequence, subjects are able to act autonomously. That is why the whole living space can be described as an accumulation of possibilities and problems which have to be solved. For defining the existing conditions the subject has to incorporate personal actions as well. Accordingly, it is impossible to consider a situation objectively. In the long run, through incorporating its experiences the subject continuously creates a personal identity. Nevertheless, this process of self-constitution does not represent a special determination so that there is no stable, predefined direction which is given. The only purpose of this process is to cultivate the individual’s body and to maintain its capability through activities such as jogging or slimming. At the same time the autonomously controlled identity of the subject has to resist seductions. Other subjects within the living space especially have an influence on self-constitution so that the individual human is thus permanently provided with new orientations. In order to express self-proclaimed loyalty with chosen subjects and to show the belonging to a group, symbolic signs are used. The availability of these signs is the only element which restricts the freedom of choice according to group membership. Usually, under normal conditions those groups can be accessed or left at any time without asking for any permission. In turn, visibility - more precisely the belief in the usefulness of the signs for constructing the self as well as its material presence determines the availability of signs. That is why visibility has to be understood as the capability of signs to create a self-identity which satisfies the individual. As soon as symbolic signs are accepted by experts, they are thus adopted by the individual. Accordingly, it is the expertise of authorities which determines the acceptance. Moreover, it is the agreement of a bigger group which is of importance for accepting signs. That is why expertise and following others are necessary elements in generating satisfaction within the individual. Accordingly, in the process of striving for self-affirmation people look for reliable points of orientation. In contrast to that, the accessibility of signs depends in turn on the resources a human being possesses. In this sense, it is especially knowledge which is of high importance because it influences the number of patterns an individual can create. Finally it is this number of choices which determines the freedom of the subject (Bauman 1995: 225 et sqq.).

At this stage it can be seen how the characteristics of postmodernism are interacting with each other. Moreover, a first insight into the working of tribes and communities is given. In addition to that it is also understandable how the Internet contributes to the generation of knowledge. Thus, its importance for the creation of individuality is simultaneously presented.

1.3. Postmodern consumer culture – blessing or curse?

Comparing the opportunities of consumers nowadays with those conditions which existed in the first decades after World War II (see: chapter 1.1.1), it can be realized that the process of consumption as such has diversified a lot. Especially since the beginning of the 1980s the general inception of a new epoch could be felt. This was also accompanied by other tremendous changes. On a political level there was, for instance, the disintegration of the communist system in Eastern Europe. Looking from a technological or social perspective the introduction of micro-computer technologies or the emergence of new social groups such as the faction of career woman can be listed. Those entire changes in turn have taken place at a time in which a postmodern lifestyle was simultaneously more and more advancing. In particular fragmentation and hypereality, some of the characteristics of postmodernism, have had an exceptional supporting effect on the changes in culture and society (Comp. Lee 1993: Preface ix et seq.). Referring to that, Lee has stated that he has had the impression ‘[...] that at the centre of all these developments was consumption’ (1993: Preface x). Following him, these changes in terms of consumption can be generally speaking ascribed to the crisis of Fordism beginning in the late 1960s and extending through to the 1970s. Though in the beginning, in the 1950s and 1960s, the task of advertising was to make ordinary people become modern consumers[1], the households of advanced capitalist countries started to participate increasingly in mass consumption so that they arrived soon at the average standard of living. As a consequence, due to saturated markets, profit rates as well as productivity were more and more in decline. In turn, in order to maintain those previous rates on a high level, the prices of goods were raised. This became necessary because workers did not accept lower wages. However, this development finally resulted in inflation. Furthermore, Fordism proved to be inflexible according to restructure the processes of basic labour so that multinationals increasingly started to expand their production overseas in order to exploit new markets as well as to profit from cheap labour-power abroad. In this way, the weakness of the sick domestic markets was compensated for (Comp. 1993: 92; 101 et sqq.). Following Jameson especially this step can be seen as the beginning of postmodernism. It is him who is of the opinion that for every industrial era there is also a dominant culture aesthetic which corresponds accordingly. In this sense, while modernism is the equivalent of monopoly capitalism, multinational capitalism corresponds to postmodernism (1984: 78). Looking at society it can be noticed that during this time young people adapted best to the new ethic of mass-consumption. In this sense, they were used to live out their hedonistic interests. Accordingly, the symbolic and material resources were incorporated. In addition to that, due to the expansion in public education, the youth also developed a certain social and political literacy so that new insights could be collected at the same time (Lee 1993 106 et seq.; Bell 1976: 66).

The combination of a radical political consciousness and the easy availability of teenage consumer goods, ripe for use as symbolic markers of a new subcultural status, supplied for youth as a whole a powerful means by which they could establish a critical social distance from, […], the values that were espoused by their parent culture […]. (Lee 1993: 107)

In response to the inflexibility of Fordism a new economy, the so-called Post-Fordism, has finally emerged. In there a flexible specialization was in the focus. As a consequence the former mass production and economy of scale were replaced with product differentiation and economies of scope so that any modifications to the needs of production could be met without any problems. In this sense, niche and segmented markets, developed as a strategy of manufacturers for surviving the economic crisis, rose at the same time. In addition, the emergence of a striking number of technological innovations was also associated with the developments towards specialization. Consequently, new forms of surveillance, construction and perception of consumption and markets developed as well. In order to closely coordinate for instance the activities in the supply and demand-side, a flexible distribution and production system supported by advanced technology was elaborated (Comp. Lee 1993: 109 et sqq). In summary it can be said that Post-Fordism is particularly characterized by the use of flexible machinery, production in smaller quantities, the use of multiskilled workforces, the rise of small company unions replacing mass trade unions, the establishment of specialized and flexible communities, a generally decentralized bargaining, and fragmented niche markets. Moreover, the alignment towards strategies of human relation management was also a characteristic describing Post-Fordism (Bagguley 1991: 156 et sqq.). Looking in more detail at the specialized niche markets, it can be seen that the fragmentation of the market into interconnected segments also resulted in the improvement of the current broadcast networks as well as the creation of diversified specialist journals. This was necessary in view of the fact that it was the only possibility for advertising to meet the segmented and divergent needs and tastes of the marketplace (Lee 1993: 115). Considering the transition to Post-Fordism as a result of the crisis in Fordism, it can be seen that the basis for production respecting fragmentation as well as the individuality of the consumer was provided. Due to the specialization which is emerging along with, further goods are created as well. In order to guarantee a connection between these different segments, ever more improved networks have developed.

Out of the consumer’s perspective the advantages and disadvantages emerging in connection with postmodernism will be investigated in the next step.

1.3.1 Postmodernism – a new era of consumption begins

Taking into consideration that with the beginning of the postmodern era the clear focus is on the individual and thus the consumer, it becomes obvious that unprecedented opportunities arise. In this sense, due to the fact that the consumer is regarded in a decentred context, it is possible to fragment real life. In turn this gives rise to different contemporary lifestyles. Was it the pure functionality which was previously in the focus, individual consumers now have the choice out of a huge amount of new options created in reference with different tastes. Thus, in the long run, multiple experiences in consumption can be made (Firat, Venkatesh 1995: 255). With this in mind, it can be realized that the form of commodity has transformed as well in order to adapt to new types of flexible consumption and modern production. Consequently, in the eyes of consumers those goods which are best adjusted towards the fluidisation of everyday life are considered as key commodities. Accordingly, it is required that they stand out due to their special features. With the help of new micro-technologies for instance, it is nowadays possible to produce smaller goods. In this way, extra physical capacity is gained which reduces the dependency on space and time. Thus, goods such as camcorders or video recorders can be used in a more flexible way. Moreover, commodities like microwave food products which help to reduce the consumption time have to be mentioned as well. Furthermore, there are compound commodities considering different needs and use-values of consumers at the same time. The creation of a body shower gel which simultaneously contains a shampoo so that it is ultimately superfluous to use both products separately from each other, is a good example for this kind of commodity. In addition, there is also the trend towards the reduction of lifecycle. In this way, the possibility of making new experiences of consumption is raised. Thus, the consumers’ striving for new products is better satisfied. Along with all these new forms of consumption, it can also be noticed that an exceptional transformation of the physical setting has taken place as well. On that occasion especially the construction of huge consumer centres and shopping malls replacing the traditional shopping facilities is striking. Moreover, specialized shops, putting the emphasis on quality and diversity of a product, started to spread increasingly. Consequently, it is possible to better take into account the different needs and preferences of people. In turn, new forms of marketing and advertising targeting profitable market segments have developed as well. As a result of the comeback of mail-order retailing or the introduction of teleshopping, methods for reaching the consumer have also improved. Simultaneously new forms of payment such as the credit card system were introduced in order to enhance the economic exchange and selling. Searching for the underlying motivation for all those actions described above, it becomes soon clear that the main intention was to make acts of purchase more flexible (Comp. Lee 1993: 133 et sqq.).

All in all, it can be easily understood that only with the help of those changes which were occurring in relation to postmodernism, consumers are now able to create their own personal patterns of consumption. Accordingly, through the unrestricted usage of commodities they can express an individual lifestyle. Speaking of a so-called ‘cult of the individual’, consumption is no longer used for the pure expression of a particular status. In contrast to that, it is the personal striving for pleasure and fulfilment which is now the centre of attention. In this sense, consumers of present times are neither upper nor middle class. They are simply hybrids consuming goods which can be associated with different social classes at the same time (Comp. Sculley 1989: 87, Lee 1993: 136 et seq.). Thus, referring to Firat and Venkatesh, a new type of human being can be accordingly produced (1995: 254).

1.3.2 Postmodernism – an increasing burden for consumers

While the fragmentation of the market in favour of the individual as well as the consequently resulting enormous range of products can be seen as a blessing for humans, it is a curse at the same time. In this sense, due to the consideration of sensibilities of postmodern consumers which is expressed through the production of highly differentiated goods, people have to increasingly deal with stress situations. Striving for the creation of an individual image, consumers want to gain several consumption experiences. That is why they have to buy and consume more goods even though those commodities are similar to each other. Consequently, the permanent looking for the perfect personal identity results in the fact that consumers are never committed to any specific item. Moreover, those goods are consumed by a lot of other people at the same time so that the admired uniqueness is lost. Accordingly, they have to deal with conflicting emotions as well. Another problem is that products are autonomous from each other. In this sense, the increased specialization of a good limits the way of using the commodity so that only a single purpose is given. In turn, due to the fact that these products are produced in high quantities, the amount of specialized products is also increasing. Moreover, it can be also felt that only a particular consumer segment is targeted. Taking the example of shopping in a supermarket in order to buy cooking ingredients for example, it can be seen that consumers need more time to find those different goods which are spread all over the shop. On the shelf itself only same ingredients of several brands are grouped together. Considering the importance of culture in setting certain guidelines, it can be seen that the use of an object is thus limited as well. As a logical consequence, the growing specialization of products makes the consumer buy more products in order to be able to deal with different tasks (Firat, Venakatesh 1995: 255 et seq.). In addition to situations in which consumers have to choose a product out of a wide range of goods, they also have to deal with the endless offerings of marketers. Pursuing the intention of attracting more consumers, the competition among corporations and its brands becomes more aggressive. Generally, the overall aim is to give more value to brands. Accordingly, the reason for the emergence of new branding techniques is especially the striving for authenticity. This can be considered as the only way to establish a brand as a cultural resource. Nevertheless, despite these improved techniques, consumers increasingly start to doubt a corporation’s credibility. This is finally a consequence of the fact that every brand claims to be the most authentic one. That is why it is in particular the observation that a company’s real corporate activity is completely different from its espoused ideals which results in the growth of skepticism among consumers. Thus, while constructing a sovereign identity, consumers also have to take care to not get lost in the plethora of brands and product offerings. Taking all the previously mentioned aspects into consideration, it becomes obvious that the permanently growing product portfolio and the inundation of new advertising images as well as messages results in the overstimulation of the individual. As a consequence, the designing of an individual identity would become increasingly time-consuming under those conditions. Major reasons which are provoking resistance among consumers are therefore the growing discrepancies between the ideal and reality in particular. In this sense, consumers criticize companies for their behavior of claiming to be authentic while they primarily have the intention of making profit (Holt 2002: 80 et sqq.). Despite all the advantages for individuals arising thanks to postmodernism, the reasons for the growing opposition among customers can be also found in the postmodern conditions. As a result of this era, these are contemporary advertising practices which are in the centre of criticism.

Accordingly, in the next chapter a deeper insight into the triggers, forms and consequences of resistance will be taken. Here, the underlying aim is to offer a conceptualization of this term.

2. A conceptualization of resistance

Before expanding on the existing forms of resistance, it is first of all crucial to define what this term exactly means. Here, it is suitable to refer to Poster. Following him, resistance can be understood as the interplay between activities of the resisters and structures of domination which are in turn constituted through consumption. If consumption was formerly characterized by waste and passivity, actions of active re-creation as well as moments of production can be now increasingly recognized. Thus, this can be understood as an answer to domination (Comp. Poster 1992: 1 et sqq.; Comp. Penaloza, Price 1993: 123). Accordingly, it is possible to see consumer resistance from another perspective as well. At this point, Peneloza and Price who started to give an overview on forms of resistance, have to be mentioned. By defining consumer resistance as an immediate answer to the actions of institutions and marketing agents in the sense of a never-ending interaction, they present new types of opposition which have never been in the focus before. In this sense, several characteristics were determined. Looking from an ‘organizational’ perspective for instance, individual and collective action can be differentiated between. Individual acts of resistance, for instance, incorporate negative ‘word of mouth’, exit strategies or complaining behaviour. Moreover, converting purchase activities into production as well as personalizing mass produced goods so that they become highly individuated possessions also belong to this group. Thus, out of these findings, it can be deduced that the individual’s focus of resistance is primarily on mass-produced meanings as well as the dominating culture of consumption. In turn, commonly organized boycotts which are a powerful tool for changing the composition of the marketing mix, or the joint creation of alternative services and goods in opposition to present marketing practices, are examples for collective action. In terms of alternative services, cooperatives led by consumers who pursue a special target can be mentioned. In addition to that, it is also possible to distinguish according to ‘goals’ on a range from radical to reformist. While radical signifies changing things completely within a short time, reformist rather represents a long-term oriented improvement of something. In turn, referring to ‘tactics of resistance’, actions which strive for altering a product’s meaning in the sense of using a good differently to its intended function and others which serve for the purpose of changing the marketing mix, e.g. to fight against certain TV ads, can be distinguished between. Moreover, distinctions in reference to the ‘relationship of a consumer to agents and marketing institutions’ can be made. Besides appropriating marketing institutions as a tool of resistance, another alternative could be to leave the market completely. Accordingly, the belief in non-marketing institutions, as a symbol for change, would be another possibility for coping with dissatisfaction (Penaloza, Price 1993: 123). In order to better understand the whole topic of resistance, its triggers have to be examined more closely in the next step.

2.1 What people resist against – how consumers’ patience is strained

As already suggested in chapter 1.3.2, the over stimulation of the consumer associated with the creation of hardly grantable expectations is one of the core reasons for the emergence of resistance. In this context, it must be taken into consideration that it is the corporations’ profit seeking which has caused the current development in the market in particular. That is why the involvement in extremely intense competition can ultimately lead to the emergence of a vicious circle.

In order to be able to distinguish itself from other competitors, a high degree of innovativeness is a crucial prerequisite. For that reason, it is only the permanent development of new products, created for satisfying consumer needs, which contributes to the maintenance of an advanced position. Consequently, the degree of innovation influences the generation of profits. In this sense, as soon as a corporation is no longer able to launch up-to-date products which are socially accepted, it is left behind the top leaders of a special market. As a result, people will immediately look for substitutes for this brand. Finally, once being forgotten it is difficult to generate sufficient revenues. Thus, it is almost impossible for a company to recover and regain market share. To counteract this risk in advance it is necessary, among others, to create new branding techniques in order to call consumers’ attention on specific products of a corporation which were recently released. That is why in addition to the burden of having to deal with a vast amount of new offers, it can be also observed that challenges in consumer culture are growing.

In reference to Holt the term consumer culture can be generally understood as ‘the ideological infrastructure that undergirds what and how people consume and sets the ground rules for marketers’ branding activities’ (2002: 80). In opposition to that, there is the branding paradigm what he defines as ‘the set of principles that structures how firms seek to build their brands’ (ibid.). If it was originally consumer culture which determined those principles, it is easy to notice that the branding paradigm has nowadays increasingly developed its own dynamics. That is why discrepancies between consumers and marketers have emerged. While anger was generated by acts of cultural engineering in modernism - the intended domination of consumers through corporations’ representatives who praised goods as a must have for an ideal life[2], anti-branding critics are nowadays directed towards corporations’ dishonest authenticity claims. In this sense, consumers blame companies for making consciously false promises in order to attract more individuals with the intention of improving their economic performance in the long run. As a consequence of the postmodern branding paradigm which is based on the assumption that brands have to represent a cultural resource for being considered as valuable, the striving for authenticity originally developed. From the regard of consumers, this feeling of authenticity, free of any economic interest, as well as consumption, were necessary for the construction of an individual identity. For that reason, more and more techniques have developed in the course of time. The function of these techniques was to enforce the impression that, thanks to brands, consumers are provided with original cultural resources (Holt 2002: 80 et sqq.). Based on Holt’s insights and findings, some of those techniques as well as the corresponding criticism will be presented subsequently (Comp. ibid.: 84 et sqq.):

Ironic, reflexive brand persona: reflexive acknowledgement and irony were used in order to get out of the conventional advertising mainstream. In this sense, the design of an anti-authoritarian image, for instance in the form of Nike’s ‘Just do it’ slogan, served to establish a brand as being different compared to the crowd. Nevertheless, due to the fact that other companies started to imitate and implement this technique as well, consumers had to realize soon that the real underlying motivation for creating the image of ‘being different’ was still of a commercial nature.

[...]


[1] As a result of the fact that cultural transformation required time and the provision of the means for mass consumption did not automatically increase the will to consume, Lee considered advertising to be an important intermediary agency which was linking industrial processes with everyday life (1993: 88 et sqq.).

[2] Consumers started to seek for alternatives to cultural engineering because they no longer wanted to accept the programming of their minds. This was even contradicting the freedom of consumption which is asserted by capitalism (Holt 2002: 82).

Details

Seiten
109
Erscheinungsform
Originalausgabe
Jahr
2010
ISBN (eBook)
9783842823686
Dateigröße
2.4 MB
Sprache
Englisch
Katalognummer
v228733
Institution / Hochschule
Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder) – Wirtschaftswissenschaften, Marketing
Note
1,0
Schlagworte
online marketing consumer resistance konsumentenwiderstand social media

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Titel: The willingness of consumers to take part in consumer resistance in times of Web 2.0