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The Postmodern Problematic

In “Working Consumers: the next step in marketing theory,” Bernard Cova and Daniele Dalli write (in Marketing Theory, Volume 9(3) 2009):

According to sociological studies, the aestheticization of everyday life and, thus, the aestheticization of consumption are possibly the strongest characteristics of post-modern European societies (Featherstone 1991). Post-modern individuals are on a never-ending identity quest; a quest to define the meaning of their lives. Consumers go to markets to produce their identity—specifically their self-images (Firat and Dholakia 1998). Consumers produce their identities despite a resistant/antagonist stance: they resist the market, may refuse to consume or, at other times, indicate refusal by consuming in a different way. Indeed, this resistance to traditional marketing practices explains consumers’ willingness to participate in the market process, even if it is in critical and transformative ways. However, this willingness to participate would be pointless without creative abilities. In effect, consumers’ creative abilities have not only increased due to their growing “professionalism,” but the threshold to creativity has also been lowered by the spread of technologies that ordinary people can employ

What Cova and Dalli point out is that the traditional notion that manufactures produce products and that consumers buy these products is simplistic and doesn’t consider how consumers think and behave in postmodern societies. In postmodern societies, there is an element of tribalism that has developed about certain brands (such as Apple) and many consumers, as I discussed in an earlier chapter, see brands as integral to their sense of self and personal identity.

Postmodernism refers to the period since around the 1960s when there was a cultural rupture from the modernist period of approximately 1900 to 1960. We can get an idea of how cultures change from a passage written by Virginia Woolf, which described the coming of modernism to England. She writes in her lecture given in 1924 (“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”):

On or about December, 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not like that. But a change there was, nevertheless, and since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910... .When human relations change, there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.

She argued that after December 1910 (or around then), life in England had changed in major ways—a change that she noticed in the relationships

between husbands and wives, masters and servants, children and parents,

and the kind of literature that was being written.

We can say the same thing about postmodernism. Ifshe were alive now, Woolf would write “On or about December 1960 everything changed in remarkable ways.” In postmodern societies, the mass media are all-important and there is an explosive growth in consumer cultures or, as some describe the phenomenon, “consumer capitalism.” As I explain in my book The Portable Postmodernist (where I discuss Gary Barmossy, Soren Askegaard and Michael Solomon’s Consumer Behaviour: A European Perspective (2003: 79):

On the basis of articles by various researchers who have done work on the impact of postmodernism on consumer behavior, our authors list six key features of postmodernism as it relates to marketing. These are fragmentation, dedifferentiation, hyperreality, chronology, pastiche, and antifounda- tiionalism. One or more of these elements can be found in many contemporary advertising campaigns. If people have a postmodern sensibility, it only makes sense to create advertising campaigns in print and electronic media that resonate with this sensibility. This is done by reflecting and using various characteristics of postmodernism.

Thus we find hyperspecialization or fragmentation in many shopping malls, where stores often only carry one product range, such as teas, and we find dedifferentiation in some television campaigns where it becomes difficult to separate the commercials from the programs. The authors point out that marketing may be one of the main contributors to the development of hyperreality since the main purpose of advertising is to create a simulated reality. Pastiche, they suggest, involves the blending and mixing of categories and self-referentiality—referring to oneself—which might take the form of an advertisement pointing out that it is an advertisement or dealing with the process of its own creation.

Postmodernist theorists point out that while people may “see through” advertisements, that does not mean they are not affected by them. There is, postmodernist theorists add, an aesthetization of everyday life means that people are very interested in style and in marking their everyday lives like a work of art. People want to become their own brands and use fashion and style—in their clothes, their cars, their mates-to develop this brand.

Modernists believed that there were objective and universal truths that people could use to guide their lives. Postmodernists reject this notion, which means that marketers have to deal with people with a different sensibility than they found when dealing with people with a modernist mindset. In postmodern restaurants, one eats fusion foods and one dresses with clothes that modernists would describe as incompatible. The pastiche is the postmodern art form—made up of bits and pieces of this and that. De-differentiation is basic to postmodernism, which minimizes, if it doesn’t erase, the difference between popular culture and elite culture and between producers of products and users of those products.

These feelings of identification with products lead to the creation of brand advocates (or Apple proselytizers), like many of my friends who are Apple products users and who have spent a great deal of time, with something reassembling religious fervor, trying to convert me to the Apple tribe. Apple isn’t a religion (though some people think it is a cult) but the feelings people have toward their iPhones and other Apple has a religious tone to it. Steve Jobs is seen as a kind of technological Christ figure and the iPhone and other Apple products are seen as approaching the miraculous. It is remarkable but a considerable number of my friends have told me “I love my iPhone.”

Postmodern millennials have been described as having decentered selves, as being “fragmented,” as not accepting any master narratives (such as progress), as living image-saturated lives where simulacra and imitations are as important as the real things they imitate. This means that people in postmodern societies form moving targets that, in principle, are hard for marketers to understand and reach.

But their addiction to the web by postmodernists means there are ways to reach them, if marketers can learn how to fashion the right messages. Because they often switch their identities, they need clothes and gear to support each of their changing identities, so, in a sense, they are ripe for exploitation and form an important part of consumer cultures all over the world. Postmodern, whatever else it might mean, doesn’t mean postconsumer or postmaterialist.

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