Consumption and its role in the society have generated tremendous interest in the field of academic research in the last decade or so. This has been attributed to the ‘good times’ or growth years of the early 21st century (from 2001 till 2008). Author Clarke (2003; 5) states that, “consumption has always been an important part of the human society for centuries but there is no arguing that today consumption has reached an all-time high and there is no doubt that the western societies are ‘consumer societies’ with consumption playing a central role. Consumption is no longer an aspect of the society along with other aspects like values but has assumed the central role to such an extent that the chief reason of existence for many people has become consumption. He also states that consumerism has a particularly devastating effect in terms of social justice that is a few having a lot and unafraid in fact proud to display it”. Clarke (2003, 12) also states that, “capitalists societies need to be understood first and foremost as ‘consumer societies’ to grow and thrive”. Author Andersson (2009; 415)states that, “an individual’s consumption also depends on the consumption by his relevant others. The consumption among relevant others affects an individual’s consumption in two ways: The individual’s consumption (i) increases when the current consumption increases and (ii) decreases when the future permanent consumption by relevant others increases”. Here the author throws light at another very important aspect of the consumer society that breeds on greed. He suggests that people consume for not only personal reasons but also social reasons reflecting the ‘keeping up with the Jonses’ attitude where they want to possess more than those people that are relevant or matter to them.
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The main claims against the consumer society are as follows:
There is a thriving ‘me culture’ where everyone and everything is individualistic and there is very little concern about the common values and goals. As pointed out by many academics that people are perennially in search of the self-fulfilment and with the demise of communities and families possessions are being used to do this
The consumer society worships consumption and money and values like family values, strong character, nationalism have been side stepped
Seeking more and more goods for social status has become a norm in this consumerist society. As explained by O’Shaughnessy et al. (2010), “with goods, satisfaction arises from its scarcity and exclusiveness (Hirsch, 1977). Further Hirschman (1993) remarks that social meaning is attached closely to and is communicated largely through the possession of these commodities”
In the consumer society the people seek their identity through their goods, possessions and consumption which is together labelled as ‘lifestyle’. O’Shaughnessy et al. (2010; 524) argue that, “people take their social identity from possessions or atleast their social self (Belk, 1988; 139). This position is also defended by Dittmar (1992) who states that possiessions have become material symbols of identity, expressive symbols of identity and relcetions of identity”
Consumer society breeds social inequality and social injustice. As the consumer or capitalist society encourages people to show off their wealth the gap between have’s and have-not’s increases making those who do not possess the goods or the money a desire or temptation to have them.
Marketing and the role it is supposed to play
Marketing is defined by Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) as:
“The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably”
Troilo et al. (2009) comment about the role of marketing as follows, they state that, “literature on Marketing’s role within the firm (e.g., Moorman & Rust, 1999; 180), and literature on marketing capabilities (Day, 1994; Slater & Narver, 1995) contend that market-related decisions aim at facilitating the link between the firm and its customers by adding value to its goods and services”. According to Moorman & Rust, (1999) the role of marketing is threefold, it has to connect the consumer to the product or service offered by a firm, generate awareness and deliver excellent service to the customer. He also states that from the 90’s onwards marketing has changed fundamentally, it is no longer a function but a set of values and processes that every function should proactively indulge into. Marketing has become a duty of every employee of the firm. Authors Sheth and Sisodia (2005; 160) state that, “marketing’s first principle is the definition of success begins with doing right by the customer and ends with the achievement of a healthy bottom line. Marketing’s raison d’être is eminently noble; it alone has the power to align the interests of corporations and their customers directly (and, by extension, society as a whole). It can be the civilizing influence on the brute force of capitalism. The power of marketing to shape virtually every aspect of a society’s mores, attitudes, and culture should not be underestimated. Used wisely and with restraint, marketing can harness and channel the vast energies of the free market system for the good of consumers, corporations, and society as a whole. Used recklessly, it can cause significant harm to all those entities. Thus, marketing is like a potent drug with potentially serious side effects”. In conclusion it can be said that the value marketing is intended to bring to the people and organisations is as follows
Role of marketing in consumer society
The role of marketing in consumer society today is a very interesting and controversial topic amongst the academics and practitioners. There are different views expressed by both sides that is academics and practitioners or in other words people for and against marketing. Academics who are for marketing and believe that marketing has a positive role to play in consumer society today like for example Sheth and Sisodia (2005; 160) who make an interesting observation when they state that, “The interests of marketing and society are not, nor should they be, fundamentally at odds. Practiced with wisdom and restraint, marketing will stimulate economic growth and align the corporate activity with customer needs in mutually beneficial ways. Marketing academics can play an important role in steering marketing back toward a socially beneficial role.”
At the same time many academic scholars admit that there indeed exists a problem with the direction in which marketing is being perceived in the society today. Sheth and Sisodia (2005; 160) make a valid point when they sat that, “marketing is a vital and highly visible institution in free market societies around the world. However, it is suffering from significant problems with each of its major constituents; that is, there is a lack of respect within the corporation and a lack of trust by consumers. Taken together, these two major deficiencies have placed marketing in society’s doghouse as a shallow, wasteful, and polluting influence. If marketing continues on its present path, it will waste more resources, alienate more customers, and invite sweeping and emotionally reactive governmental restrictions.
Speaking about marketing and its role the author Clarke (2003; 7) says that, “marketing has forced the consumer by the heavy, ‘in-your-face’ advertising to make consumerism ‘the way of life”. This has always been the case but marketing has made it acceptable to flaunt the wealth in the face of the majority who don’t have it. It is the same in terms of physical beauty as it is for wealth. The advertisements showing for example beautiful people flaunting their wealth with expensive cars or holidays or clothes is a common sight on TV, magazines, internet and all the media today.
Marketing is creating or at least encouraging the consumer society to consume much more than its needs, in other words it is claimed that marketing is generating want in people. The role of marketing will be explained with the help of the remarks made about the consumer society.
It is claimed that in consumer society people seek their identity through their goods, possessions and consumption which is together labelled as ‘lifestyle’. Marketing is seen to encourage this view by enticing people into believing that somehow consuming the products will make them have the lifestyle they desire. Today many people want to live the life of rich and famous celebrities by copying what they wear, drive, eat etcetera and marketers use these celebrities to endorse their products to sell these to such celebrity worshippers. For example L’Orieal the cosmetics giant shows Hollywood actresses endorsing their product and telling people tag lines like ‘because you are worth it’
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Seeking more and more goods for social status has become a norm in this consumerist society. As stated by O’Shaughnessy et al. (2010;526;), “that advertising and marketing promotions stimulate this perversion of values by dramatizing the satisfactions of positional goods and status with an implicit claim that advertiser can soothe the discontent of the consumer through possession of the goods. Also they say that search for power and status is basic motive and even though marketing does not create these motives but it serves them and uses them to sell goods”. An example of this would be the advertisers of BMW cars advertising it as the ‘ultimate status symbol’ in executive cars, indicating that whoever own the BMW also owns the high status
Commodification of social like: As stated by O’Shaughnessy et al. (2010; 527), “marketing is extending its reach by more and more aspects of social life being commodified, that is offered for sale. Everything from religion to government services to health are presented as offerings to choose from”
Manipulating consumers to buy more. Critics argue that marketing has gone overboard with the amount of marketing messages and imagery (like for example banners) in exploiting and manipulating people. For example recently as an direct consequence of continuous bombardment of advertising to children affecting their impressionable minds governments in many Western countries have banned advertising targeted at children. As stated by O’Shaughnessy et al. (2010; 524), “the world is becoming message saturated today. The effects of constant mass consumer marketing messages and imagery are trying to stimulate self-indulgence to expand market share. Marketing communications stands accused of creating strong social pressure to consume” An example of this would be the pressure of owning an iPod or iPhone, teenagers and young adults are pressured by the consumer society so much that will not be seen without one of these.
Marketing and consumer society both encourage the people to be absorbed in the superficialities of life ignoring the deeper values like family, religious and cultural values. As stated by authors O’Shaughnessy et al. (2010; 524), “marketers and advertisers speak to the current ephemeral values and promote style over substance. Today the advertising is all about trying to be in control be it love, sex or life itself (things that are normally not entirely in human control and people who are shown to be doing it are advertised as ‘cool’) via he agency of product. Pollay (1986; 18) states that advertising can be described a s ‘distorted mirror’ as it reinforces only shallow values. This is not incidental but central to the advertising in order to make it effective”. An example of this would be the anti-ageing creams that are advertised heavily by many cosmetic companies, even though research has proven that these have minimal to nil effect they are shown to be ‘visibly effective’ and thus distorting the truth behind it.
Globalisation and marketing: Due to the advent of capitalism the consumer culture which has set in firmly in the Western countries like US and UK is now spreading world over and is getting propelled by the marketing mainly due to the synchoronised marketing programs of multinationals like Unilever and Procter and Gamble who sell multiple products globally. They are spreading the same status and desires that have been sold to mature economy consumers to the developing world. These global corporations are accused of creating powerful marketing campaigns that not only affect the impressionable minds but are also killing local traditions, industries and values to give way to the consumerist Western societies preaching people to consume more and more. For example in India until a few decades ago eating fast food was not encouraged as it is unhealthy, costs money and the home cooked fresh food is considered better, but with the advent of McDonald’s this perception has changed so much so that people now want to eat out.
Strategies to improve the role of Marketing in Consumer Society
Marketing has been blamed for promoting consumption to a level that is unhealthy for the society and as stated by academic scholars is losing its effectiveness, alienate customers and is breeding mistrust (for the products/services) it markets in the society. The academics are calling for a change that is necessary to make marketing an effective medium that will generate value for consumers and business alike. This can be done only when all the stakeholders actively participate in the process. The marketing managers probably play the most critical role in this. Sheth and Sisodia(2005; 160) state that, “currently, marketing is measured by its impact on the profit and loss statement and not on the balance sheet. It is also organized largely to support sales at many companies. Together, these two factors cause marketing to be driven primarily by short-term agendas. We believe that the best way to change this and force marketing to adopt a long-term perspective is to change it from a line function that is primarily concentrated at the business unit level to corporate and customer level”. The second most influential people are the academics who take the process of marketing forward by researching and showing the managers the way forward. Again Sheth and state that, “marketing academics should undertake funded, programmatic and newsworthy research rather than highly specialized, esoteric, and ad hoc research”.
This report tried to understand the basis of consumers society and the role marketing plays in it. The report showed that marketing in its present form has become distorted and as a result is losing its effectiveness on the one hand and is encouraging people to consume more and live the lifestyle of fantasy. Marketing needs to reinvent itself to become effective and bring value to both the consumers and businesses once again.
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