CONSUMPTION SYMBOLISM: A CONSUMER SOCIALIZATION PERSPECTIVE
Denise D. Schoenbachler, Northern Illinois University
Douglas J. Ayers, Northern Illinois University
Geoffrey L. Gordon, Northern Illinois University
This paper draws on social learning and consumer socialization theory to propose socialization agents and social structural variables responsible for the development of consumption symbolism in young people. Specifically, age, social class and sex are social structural variables which are likely to influence the development of consumption symbolism in adolescents. Peers, the family and the mass media are socialization agents which influence young people's ability to view products as symbols. Research propositions are presented which outline theoretical relationships between the socialization and social structural agents and the development of consumption symbolism with adolescents.
Teenagers spend roughly $89 billion a year--$57 billion from their own earnings and $32 billion from allowances (Tully 1994). In addition, they exert influence over approximately $200 billion in family purchases each year (Zinn 1994). In terms of numbers alone, the teen market is expected to reach an all time high in the next decade, growing at close to twice the rate of the overall population. By 2010, this demographic "bulge" will top the Baby Boom teen market of the 1960's and 1970's in terms of both size and duration (Zinn 1994). As teens' purchasing power, market size, and family influence increase, it becomes vital for marketers to understand this unique market. Understanding the teenage market includes examining consumption symbolism, since this phenomenon peaks in adolescence and influences teens' choice behavior as well as potentially influencing prejudice and stereotyping (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982). Consumption symbolism evident in young people may also carry over into adulthood, leading to increased stereotyping and prejudicial behavior by adults (Moschis 1987; Ward 1974; Churchill and Moschis 1979). Because of the influence consumption symbolism has on teens' choice and the possibility of the negative consequences (e.g., stereotyping and prejudice), it is important to understand how this phenomenon develops in young people. The purpose of this paper is to examine consumption symbolism from a consumer socialization perspective. Using this approach requires identification of the specific social structural variables and socialization agents which affect the development of consumption symbolism in adolescents. CONSUMPTION SYMBOLISM
The social and economic environment which has developed in the United States since 1900 has encouraged and rewarded conspicuous consumption (Mason 1981; Belk and Pollay 1985). Individuals attempt to communicate something about themselves through the products they own (Belk, Mayer and Bahn 1981; Mason 1981). In order for conspicuous consumption to be rewarded and thus maintained in society, individuals must attach symbolic meaning to products which infer something about their owner. This tendency to attach meaning to products is referred to as consumption symbolism (Belk, Bahn and Mayer 1982; Belk, Mayer and Driscoll 1983). A:\95sma070.htm Page 1 of 10
Consumption symbolism, unlike related constructs such as materialism and possessiveness, involves an encoder and a decoder. The owner of a product is the encoder. The encoder is trying to communicate something about him/her self through a specific product, but the communication is incomplete unless a decoder attaches symbolic meaning to the product as well (Belk, Mayer and Bahn 1981). Materialism and possessiveness involve only the encoder in that they refer to the owner's perception of the importance of the product (Belk 1985; Belk 1988). Consumption symbolism on the part of the encoder is easily confounded by materialism, thus most research has focused on the decoder...
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