Social Psychology: The Seduction of Consumers

Social Psychology: The Seduction of Consumers

John G. Wilson (Assumption University, Thailand)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0525-9.ch010


In this chapter, we investigate the recent situation concerning the seduction of consumers by advertising and the media. A new plethora of media-organised conglomerates is attempting to monopolise our attention and steer our emotions, opinions and choices towards increased consumption through imposed wants in the interest of gross profits for a semi-invisiblised few. Herein we consider: the colonisation of public places (advertising), the work/spend cycle, increased work at the cost of leisure; impression management, status-conscious and conspicuous consumption, reflective versus pre-reflective thinking in consumer choices, the early recruitment of children, how human emotions can become the fuel of overconsumption, class-based emotions and fashion consumption, obsessions with body image, the evasion and silencing of criticism by the corporate media. The approach is one founded in critical theory - a perspective that describes the individual as reciprocally constituted by the society in which she lives, rather than as a passive entity existing prior to socialisation. It seeks to reveal the seduction of our subjectivities (running marketing strategies ‘from within') as contrasted with the value-free, ‘objective' approach of much contemporary social psychology. Contemporary theoreticians in sociology and consumer studies, including Pierre Bourdieu and Juliet Schor, are cited along with deeper philosophical perspectives from the earlier philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, complete with references from contemporary books and journals.
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Conflict is the original meaning of being-for-others. – Jean Paul Sartre



In this chapter we look at the seduction of consumers by the media, mostly advertising. The main argument here is that seduction is not simply a one-to-one phenomenon between localised individuals of wicked intent and unequal intelligence. But rather that on the mass level (in the sphere of social psychology) we are all subject to seduction through a plethora of media-organised conglomerates monopolising our attention and steering our emotions, opinions and choices in every public sphere.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century theorists made the assumption that consumer goods serve an essentially utilitarian purpose; i.e. the provision of all that is necessary for human welfare (Smith, 1776; Marx, 1867). This was the beginning of a ‘cultural studies’ approach where humans were regarded as objects, or recipients in a causal process of supply and demand, interacting with each other like natural forces. But this view needs reconsidering because most goods today are not necessary for human survival; many goods and services are marketed to elicit desire. Organisational structures seem to operate like authorless impersonal forces and are ubiquitous. Many contemporary wants have been researched, conceived and manufactured by these invisible marketing specialists within an advertising industry that seeks to expand their market sectors in the interests of prosperity for an oligarchical managerial culture, and massive profits—for a select and invisiblised few.

Much psychology is based on the liberal idea that the individual exists antecedently to the environment in which she lives and is subject to causal processes much as the above mechanistic model proposes (see McDonald & Wearing, 2003, pp 2-20). Yet, by contrast, the critical approach regards the individual as both a recipient and an instigator in social affairs. Originating in Germany in the Frankfurt School, critical theorists regard the individual as constituted by the society in which she lives and acts as a responsible agent in its production and maintenance: there is a constant interaction between self and society (Held, 1980). By way of example, some marketing theorists suggest, to some extent, that a brand’s assets are created by the consumers themselves (Bengtson & Östberg, 2004). Furthermore, critical theory considers consumer culture as a manufactured entity itself, the product and instigator of broadly self-protecting middle-class ideology, which, in turn, can be used to limit human freedom (Simons, 2006; Tyson, 2015). Critical theorists propose a form of self-reflective comprehension involving both common understanding of everyday issues plus a theoretical explanation which aims to reduce mystification and entrapment in systems of ideological domination or cognitive dependence. In our time, this is often linked to insincere and fabricated social relations perpetuated by us all: overseen by a manipulative and oligarchical media that creates slants to promote the interests of the proprietors, perpetuating conditions of social alienation for the less-successful, the emargination of the intellectually dissident, the muting of ethnic and cultural groups; all currently manifest as a general destruction of our sense of community involving increased isolation, employment precarity, dismay amongst peers, psychological distress - all of which can be happily ignored by the ‘objectivity’ of neo-liberal academics funded by the organisations that have an interest in keeping things exactly as they are. Social psychology prides itself on being ‘objective’ - a theoretical stance that requires no ethical standpoints or personal qualms about human suffering—positions that will glide over widening social inequalities and increased frustration in the contemporary workplace. More personally involved theoreticians, such as Juiet Schor (Shor, 1991, 1996), point out that our current consumption lifestyles are responsible for increased planetary degradation with a concurrent decline of community, and that we have exchanged our free leisure time for more work time to fund increased spending. Moreover, the critical approach will analyse proffered and (subsequently) self-imposed models of self-identity that so often prove inimical to human welfare by increasing local isolation, alienation exacerbated by the media-backed ‘skipping over’ of individual situatedness and local community welfare.

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