Confessions of a Shopaholic

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Existential consumption and irrational desire
Richard Elliott
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
If marketing is truly the “ultimate social practice of postmodern consumer culture” (Firat, 1993) then it carries the heavy burden of “determining the conditions and meanings of life for the future” (Firat and Venkatesh, 1993). Certainly, social theory is now focusing on consumption as playing a central role in the way the social world is constructed, and it can be argued that marketing is too important just to be left to marketers as it plays a “key role in giving meaning to life through consumption” (van Raaij, 1993). Marketing has been criticized from within as being a “technique” without moral regard for the consequences of its actions, and there is no shortage of critics of its most public face: advertising. This paper aims at identifying some of the issues raised by postmodern and poststructuralist accounts of consumption. In particular, it is argued that consumption can be conceptualized from cultural, social and psychological perspectives as being a prime site for the negotiation of conflicting themes of freedom and control. It is proposed here that in postmodernity the consumption of symbolic meaning, particularly through the use of advertising as a cultural commodity, provides the individual with the opportunity to construct, maintain and communicate identity and social meanings. This use of consumption as a resource for meaning creation and social transactions is a process that involves the making of choices that are sufficiently important to be considered as existential. This is not an attempt at rehabilitating the practice of marketing, but is intended to demonstrate that the consumer is far from being a passive victim but is an active agent in the construction of meaning. In part this can be seen as a response to Ölander’s call for “consumer research for the consumer’s sake” (Ölander, 1993), but also as providing theoretical underpinning for concepts such as “advertising literacy” (Ritson and Elliott, 1995a) which attempt to build new socially located and meaning-based-models of advertising. Exploring some consumption dialectics As a heuristic device to help unpack some of the complexity of the consumption experience, five dialectics will be explored and their (sometimes polar) tensions used as analytical frames for reviewing competing discourses on the meanings of consumption: My thanks to Geoff Easton and Rolland Munro for discussions which improved the ideas in this paper, some of which have been explored in Elliott and Ritson (1995).

Existential consumption and irrational desire 285

European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 31 No. 3/4, 1997, pp. 285-296. © MCB University Press, 0309-0566

European Journal of Marketing 31,3/4 286

(1) the material versus the symbolic; (2) the social versus the self; (3) desire versus satisfaction; (4) rationality versus irrationality; and (5) creativity versus constraint. It is acknowledged that binary oppositions are essentially structuralist and thus in danger of betraying the complexity of the poststructuralist accounts they are being used to elucidate here, and that they are inevitably reductionist. However, postmodernism is riven with contradictions, even Baudrillard’s account of postmodernity is itself a totalizing “meta-narrative” (Hebdige, 1989), so we must learn to participate in the “tolerance of incompatible alternatives” (Lyotard, 1984) and “the juxtaposition of opposites and contradictions” (Foster, 1983) called for by postmodern theorists in the hope that it can develop our understanding(s) of the meaning(s) of these complex ideas. As a heuristic device, these bipolar oppositions should not be read as posited structures but merely as aids to coming to grips with the sometimes mind-numbing interrelations between what are often incommensurable concepts. The binary opposition is false and should, of course, be allowed to “melt into air” (Berman, 1983). The...
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