For years, advertisers have portrayed happy and successful lifestyles using images of consumption. The measure of success has been marked with status symbols of cars, electronics, clothing – anything and everything that can be slapped with a label. As a result, many people have developed a need to identify with brand image and conform to the influence of advertisers in order to gain the acceptance of their mass peer audience – both familiar and perceived; searching for a stable sense of self, consumers base purchases more on the trends of their peer group or the guidance of illusory advertising and less on information and research.
It has been no secret that for years advertisers have used twisted imagery and messages to sell their products. In the 1950’s, Marshall McLuhan made much reference to the advertising industry and how outlandish their tactics had become even at that time. Even with the advent of new technology and media streams, we seem even further today from the truth; even with every new campaign for soap or motor oil. Kim and Choi (2007) stress that new technology, such as the internet, especially cause consumers to revert to society and the environment as the bases for their choices.
Kim and Choi (2007) also point out that the images and data portrayed by global media corporations regarding certain products would simply be pieces of information and knowledge to a completely rational consumer. However, if the consumer is a human being influenced by habit, these images then become potential means of control over them. The habit that takes over consumers are based on social conventions. It is the conformity to social conventions that forms the foundations of the choice of consumers.
Consumers are then slowly stripped of their individuality. If the choices of consumers are manipulated by global media corporations via social conventions, there is little that a person can do to avoid purchasing commodities based on conformity. It is clear then that when discussing concepts such as consumer self-control, preference and rationality, one cannot leave out the much weightier factor of social conventions. (Kim and Choi, 2007)
Are people, then, even aware of what they are buying these days and of why they are? How often do people really research the products they buy? Or as McLuhan (1967) himself asked, “If it takes a lot of money to conform in this way, does conformity become an ideal to strive for?”
Consumer research studies have examined the need some people have for enhancing their image in the opinion of friends and close peers through the purchase of specific brands or products. The consumer is an individual who lives in a social setting. It is inevitable that he or she expects those around him or her to formulate opinions about his or her purchases. Thus their consumer choices are rendered different from those they would have originally made without consideration of public scrutiny. The individual, thusly, has to find equilibrium between his or her individual goals and the goals of the public around him or her. This compromise is done even when personal satisfaction with the purchase may be lessened. (Mourali, Laroche, and Pons, 2005)
The strength of a group and of social conventions on an individual’s purchasing choice is evident when this individual’s choice changes with the absence of the group. Research has shown that individuals who tend to agree with a group about the merits of a certain product may not necessarily stand by their word when left alone to choose to buy that product. (Derussy, 2004) Conformity is not something that comes automatically to an individual. Only when the individual wishes to be accepted by the group in question will conformity play a large part in a consumer’s decision. Otherwise, there will be conflicting interests. The consumer will take into a greater consideration the personal preferences he or she has.
The consumers are also, at times, influenced by what they perceive to be the opinion of a peer group of people they don’t know – those who they only see in the media but identify with in some way. Thus conformity is not only limited to a tendency to follow the norms of those the consumer comes directly in contact with but, in fact, with the entirety of society in general. The consumers overall willingness to conform to the purchase decisions of others is labeled as interpersonal influence, and there is much reason to believe that this blind faith is the driving force behind many of the fads and trends of consumerism (Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel, 1989).
While interpersonal influence and social conventions may be a major factor with fads and purchase decisions that catch on with the mass audience, it still does not account for the initial reasons a brand receives so much attention. Advertising, however, does account for much of this attention. The key to understanding the conformity resorted to by a majority of consumers may be in the characteristics of advertising campaigns.
There are many valuable points about marketing in general and about advertising in particular that provide insight into consumer behavior. If a product campaign depicts a happy and successful man driving a certain Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), a man who purchases that SUV may automatically feel a sense of pride in ownership. He can identify with the character in the advertisement, so the ad has brought more value to the vehicle for that particular owner. Owning the same commodity as the character in the advertisement allows the purchaser to identify not only in terms of similarity of purchase but also allows him to identify with other idealized characteristics of the character such as level of physical attractiveness or social likeability. Understanding this, more advertisers are designing ads that people are more likely to identify with in terms of the product, the character in the advertisement and the over-all advertisement in a positive way.
On the other hand, someone might just want an SUV that is solid, handles well for hauling heavy loads, and can carry three dogs comfortably; having no belief that the SUV will make a happy and successful person like the one in the advertisement. To that individual, the advertisement adds no perceivable value to the vehicle. That consumer is making efforts to research the product she wishes to buy and is less dependent on the image created by owning the product. Since “advertising is specifically designed to modify the beliefs and values of the members of society” (Shaffer, 1964), is it possible for an informed consumer to make a purchase without some influence from advertising?
Advertising, although a means of influencing the consumers is one of the key sources of knowledge a consumer has at his or her disposal. It is also one of the main mechanisms by which conformity comes into play in consumers’ choices. The more advertisements a brand has, the more it enters the consumers’ awareness. The more aware a consumer is about a given product, the more he or she will have a tendency to purchase that item. This is conformity at work because the ways by which advertisements present a product are inclined towards presenting social ideals and social conventions that can be related to a product. You will not, for example find an advertisement portraying cigarettes as cancer-causing products. Instead, it will be portrayed as a product used by attractive models who are able to gain social acceptance and recognition because of their smoking habit. As a result, most consumers will tend to conform and accept this image of cigarettes making them more likely to purchase such products.
Advertisements are also able to influence a consumer’s choice via the mechanism of interpersonal relations. Advertisements provide the individual with the peer group they are able to identify with and on whom they base the totality of their purchases. They place the standards of their purchase against the behavior of those portrayed in the advertisement. The characters in the advertisement are the public domain indicated by Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel (1989) to have an influence on the consumer’s decision. Also, advertisements are most often portrayed in a group setting enabling a greater degree of conformity in the consumer. (Derussy, 2004)
The sources of information regarding consumers’ products are anything but first hand. Is it then not likely that influence is a result of interpersonal relationships, social convention and advertising? The vast availability of so many products makes it virtually impossible to research all products first hand; so much is left up to the guidance of other people. Even if those informing the consumers’ decisions are not advertisers, there is no way to guarantee that the informers have not been influenced by the campaign of some corporate advertisement. The information guides are therefore as much a part of the interpersonal influence as the peer group with which the consumer hopes to identify (Lascu, Zinkhan, 1999).
A world filled with advertising campaigns aimed to lead the masses to specific brands that will improve our self-image leaves little room for individuality. Further contributing influences by peer groups and interpersonal relationships with those who aim to guide via objective opinion take even more away from anyone’s ability to identify what they truly want, and what product is specifically appropriate for them. As consumers are drawn into the spread of media, they are exposed to an even greater number of biased advertisements and opinions. It seems frightening, but likely, that we will not have much room to make many personally informed decisions about major brands in the future as advertisers continue to capitalize on the projections of a mass happy and successful audience.
Bearden, W.O., Netemeyer, R.G., and Teel, J.E. (1989) Measurement of Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15(4), 473-481.
Derussy, Christie L. (2004). The Relationship Between Conformity and Consumer Purchasing Decisions. Retrieved February 2, 2008 from http://clearinghouse.missouriwestern.edu/manuscripts/509.asp
Kim, Sae W., and Choi, Chong J. (2007) Habits, self-control and social conventions: the role of global media and corporations. Journal of Business Ethics, 76, 147-154. Retrived 28 March 2008 from Platinum Full Text Periodicals database. (Document ID: 1372594981)
Lascu, Dana-Nicoleta and Zinkhan, George. (1999). Consumer conformity: Review and applications for marketing theory and practice. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 7(3), 1-12. Retrieved February 2, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Global database. (Document ID: 47524368).
McLuhan, Marshall. (1967). The Mechanical Bride : Folklore of Industrial Man. Boston : Beacon Publishing.
Mourali, Mehdi, Laroche, Michel, and Pons, Frank. (2005) Individualistic orientation and consumer susceptibility to interpersonal influence. The Journal of Services Marketing, 19(3),164-173 Retrieved 28 March 2008 from Discovery database (Document ID: 875490831)
Shaffer, James D. (1964) Advertising in Social Perspective. Journal of Farm Economics, 46(2), 387-397.