An American senator, Ben Sasse, stole my thunder. Well, okay, not really. But I’ve been observing the hashtag #adulting for a while now, and wondering what it really signified. While I mused in my head, Ben Sasse wrote a book about it.

I’ve just read that book “The Vanishing American Adult,” and while it really isn’t about that hashtag trend, he uses that example to kick off the book. As I read, I found myself thinking things like “exactly” and “hell, yeah” and “I wish I had done that with my kids.”  (The fact that I, as a liberal Canadian, was astonished to agree on many issues with a religiously observant, home-schooling, conservative Republican senator reflects on the deep assumptions of “us vs. them” in our culture right now… a topic for a later blog).

I disagreed with many things, but agreed with far more. My quick summary won’t do it justice (you should read it) but the gist of it is that by “saving” our kids from hard work, letting them primarily spend time with their own age group (both in-person and online), travelling with them as consumers/tourists vs. travellers, buying them too many things, and allowing them to go through life without reading important books, we are doing them a grave disservice that will negatively impact them, but more importantly, American society. I think in Canada as well, we need to better raise citizens, not consumers.

So, what does this have to do with consumption research? Back to the hashtag. What does the repeated use of the #adulting hashtag mean? Is this a continuing trend of infantilizing young adults to see themselves as less than full adults? If so, does this mean they continue to consume as adolescents, with all sorts of macro implications (short-term vs. long-term savings and spending patterns, home ownership, etc.)? Is it shorthand for “I am being ironically adult, and actually don’t intend to grow up at all?” I don’t know. Maybe I will study it more systematically… maybe you should. But at the least, you should read the book!

Failing to See

Okay, so it has been far too long since I’ve written in this space. I blame it on a busy administrative role, and, truth be told, obsessive Facebook use concerning the American election. Enough; back to thoughts.

I was jarred into actual novel new thoughts by reading a colleague’s paper recently. My next-door neighbor at the office, Tima Bansal, has published a new paper with her students Anna Kim and Michael Wood. It is called “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Importance of Scale on Organizational Attention to Issues,” and you can find the paper here.

In the paper, they ask important questions, such as why financial institutions simply missed the signals of the impending financial crisis altogether, or why many organizations fail to recognize the possible impacts of climate change on their operations. They propose that one important reason why organizations miss these sorts of issues is because the scope or extent to which organizations pay attention is disconnected from the scale at which processes, such as climate change, or the financial crisis, actually occur.

There are many other valuable insights in this critical-realist approach to studying organizational attention. But what caught my attention (pun intended) were the obvious parallels to how we study consumption and consumers. As marketers, and academics who study consumers and marketers, we too are “bombarded by numerous external and internal signals that give information about potential issues” (page 5). Big data anyone? But we can’t pay attention to all details all the time. So, if we focus on large macro cultural trends, which play out over a long temporal scale, we can fail to notice very serious signals happening at a much smaller scale within our consumer base. Or, if we focus on the micro signals thrown up by mass datasets of behavioural data, we certainly may fail to see larger social and cultural trends. We must understand that real events and trends are actually happening in the world, even if we fail to see them. A firm may not recognize a massive cultural shift that will have important marketing implications for them, but that lack of recognition doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Another implication of this work for me was a theoretical rationale for my own innate unease with generational analysis (millennials, boomers, etc). Focusing on that scale often leads to overlooking what seems (in hindsight) as obvious differences within the cohorts. But that is a topic for another day.

Read this paper; it is dense and difficult, but thought-provoking, as all good scholarship should be!


Paid Caregivers and the Family

When is a paid caregiver, for your elderly parents or your children, part of the family? When is s/he not a part of the family? Why?

These are the sorts of questions examined in recent research I published in the Journal of Marketing Management with Aimee Dinnin Huff and Michelle Barnhart.  We investigated this topic within families using individual caregivers (not daycares, or seniors homes) for childcare or elderly care. Our methods included in-depth interviews with formal family members, care recipients (elderly consumers) and paid caregivers.

Our research really makes three main points. First, we show that the traditional separation between production and consumption doesn’t always work for caregiving as a service. Second, we outline the very difficult position caregivers may end up in, stuck in a sort of no-man’s land between “family” and “not-family.” And finally, we show that the ways in which family members “do family” demonstrates and strengthens dominant cultural values. In addition, our findings strongly suggest that longevity in the family–caregiver relationship is a critical element in family well-being and caregiver job satisfaction.

We also put out a call to other researchers of family issues, namely:

…consumer researchers designing studies of family consumption should broaden their conceptualisation of family to account for the various, perhaps non-traditional constructions of family possible under the particular circumstances of interest.

The article is provided for free until July, so if you are interested, go ahead and download it from the link above; and happy reading! I’d be happy to hear what you think.

And by the way, the article’s unique identifier is: DOI:10.1080/0267257X.2014.933865

Consumer Engagement and Deception

I was struck suddenly by a disconcerting connection between two ideas I’ve been reading and thinking about lately. I am finally reading a book I’ve been meaning to for years (it was published in 2009) entitled “Deception in the Marketplace: The Psychology of Deception Persuasion and Consumer Self-Protection” by the always thoughtful and excellent academics David Boush, Marian Friestad, and Peter Wright. At the same time, I am working with a young research assistant on the topic of consumer trust and engagement with brands, particularly in the social media space.

Here’s how the connection happened. On the same day I was reading that when learning about products, consumers tend to pay more attention to objective reviews from outside their social group than reviews from their friends I was reading a discussion of the rise of new forms of deception, which followed the rise in online and other technological advances. I came across the following by Boush et al, page 189.:

“When a marketer uses a deception tactic in a new-to-the-consumer communication medium, the consumer may not initially be effective in detecting and coping with that tactic in this unfamiliar context, even if they have dealt well with it in a more familiar context.”

The authors go on to discuss an example of a consumer who may be wary and well-protected against experts depicted in TV ads, but who may be more gullible and less suspicious when encountering a self-identified expert online. That seems to me to be an argument against trusting online bloggers and product reviews, which seem to be the dominant way many consumers now assess products.

Personally, this resonates, and is a little disconcerting. For example, if I were to see a TV ad where the spokesperson said “I am an expert at baking, and I can tell you that this is the best bakeware I’ve ever used” I know I would indeed, have my persuasive defenses up. This tactic would trigger what Friestad and Wright call Persuasion Knowledge. But if I were to read a review showing the same text verbatim, from an Amazon.com rater/user, I think I would be more likely to trust that. That’s odd. And I am in no way a member of the younger, more digital generation. As their online engagement with brands is often (likely) higher, generally, where does that leave their skepticism? Is it higher, as they have greater online persuasion knowledge, or lower, as they haven’t yet learned to see a possible link between increasing engagement online and a higher capacity to be deceived by a marketer online?

This troubling line of thought may make it into my next research project. Let me know your thoughts, that is, if you trust me enough to engage!

Brands and Consumer Engagement

I’ve just finished a new HBR article by Doug Holt, entitled “Branding in the Age of Social Media.” It’s excellent, and I won’t rehash it here; you should read it. But the reason I mention it now is because Holt is grappling with something I’ve been thinking about as well: why brands have been very bad, generally, at building engagement on social media. There are some obvious reasons. As he points out “What works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox. The idea that consumers could possibly to talk about Corona or Coors in the same way that they debate the talents of Ronaldo and Messi is silly.” Well, actually I personally could talk a lot more about beer than I can about soccer stars or celebrities, but point taken.

Consumers in general don’t take to Facebook and Twitter to discuss brands. Well, unless they are vociferously complaining about those brands. And while they may watch a brand-sponsored video, they share them less, generally, and discuss them less. This isn’t to say that content such as brand advertisements isn’t shared quite a lot, it can be. But far more consumers go to sites and social channels to talk about things they like to do, watch, etc. and far less to sites where they can discuss laundry brands, soft-drinks, etc. But isn’t this as it should be? Do marketers actually expect to attract even avid brand fans to the company’s social sites as part of their lives? Holt gives plenty of examples that seem to demonstrate that marketers do indeed expect that. But that search for the holy consumer engagement grail has never really made much sense to me.

In the offline world, I may talk with family and friends about comedy I like, books I like, music I hate, the fact that I don’t get visual art, politics, how our kids are doing in school. I may even ask or give recommendations on brands in those, or any other, product-market space. We don’t spend a ton of time chatting about products and brands. Okay, so maybe we talk about beer brands… But in my personal time online, why would it be surprising that I spend most of my time “talking” with family, friends, and the wider world about books, music, politics, and children, and very little, if any time, about brands. I mean, I drink Coke Zero, but it never occurred to me, ever, to visit the Coke social sphere online. I watch John Oliver on his Youtube channel, but watching Youtube content from a product brand doesn’t occur to me unless I need examples for class. This seems to me to be as one would expect, which is also Holt’s point. So, how do we advise marketers? Should we be the one to break it to them that their investments in a brand-focused social world for consumers likely won’t work? Shouldn’t they already know this?

Consumer Behaviour Symposium

Last Friday I hosted consumer behavior researchers from local universities (generally, from University of Michigan to Queen’s University, and all points between) at our annual Consumer Behavior Symposium. It’s the 9th year Ivey has hosted this group, and its continued vibrancy is a wonderful thing. In the heart of winter, it’s always gratifying to take a mental break and treat my brain to the cutting edge ideas of other researchers. It’s also fun to see the breadth of our field on display in the same room, at the same time. From predicting market behavior with neural activity with Carolyn Yoon, to studying the political and market forces influencing multiculturalism policy with Ela Veresiu, there was indeed something for everyone.

We had an “outside” guest this year, in “friend of Ivey” Nelson Amaral from American University in D.C. His work on luxury and counterfeiting was really interesting, and shed some light of how consumers think about the tricky concepts of “fake” and “real.”

We also were treated to three presentations that broadly dealt with consumer interactions, and their influence with, and on, other consumers. Sean Hingston taught us about inferred contagion, something I hadn’t really considered before. Matthew Philp talked to us about how consumers can “gift” an identity when choosing presents for others, which can actually change how people identify themselves. And Cindy Chan showed us data that demonstrated that consumers are more likely to rely on other consumers’ reviews for products (material purchases) than for experiences.

Finally, Ivey was well represented by the broad, policy-based presentation on saving and spending money by Rod Duclos, and the fascinating work of Peter Nguyen and Shane Wang on partitioned product categories and their influence on consumer judgment.

Towards the end of the day, we all made the quick walk over to the Psychology department, where we participated in a sort of keynote address by Sheldon Solomon, who was visiting Western from Skidmore College. Consumer researchers have adopted his Terror Management Theory, and so it was interesting to hear his broad talk on the genesis of these interesting ideas. Solomon’s style, which is part liberal arts lecture and part Dennis Miller style stand-up comedy (full hour, no notes, no slides) was a hilarious and informative way to end a day of thoughts, sharing, and researcher camaraderie.

And then most of us went to dinner, but I never report on those shenanigans…

Consuming Fiction

My husband and I both read a couple of novels over the recent holidays. Turns out, the fact that we both read some novels, and routinely do, makes us unusual. Well, it makes him, especially, unusual. I just finished reading John Irving’s “Avenue of Mysteries.” The main character, a novelist, talks about women being the main readers of novels, something I hadn’t really thought about before. So I did a little digging, and found that this isn’t really a new insight, but something I just hadn’t come across, or at least recalled hearing about, in the past.

In 2005, Ian McEwan wrote: “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” A 2010 Harris Poll reported a gender gap in fiction reading too, with 84% of US women who read books (at least one in the past year) reporting reading a fiction book, versus 73% of the US men who read books. You can read about that survey here. But why do women consume more fiction than men do?

In 2000, Steven J. Tepper reported that some of the gap between male and female reading incidence, of any material, can be explained by parental encouragement (with females more likely than males to be encouraged to read as children). Pertaining to fiction reading only, he found that the gender gap disappears once childhood socialization into the arts more generally was accounted for. I found some other findings fascinating here too; for example, Tepper reports that reading skill actually inflates the gender differences in reading at higher levels of reading proficiency. And finally, he reports that the gap isn’t just due to more free time (less full-time work), because when work status is kept constant, the gender gap for fiction are drops just a little bit. He concludes the story is a socialization and gender stereotype one: men who crossed gender boundaries in other aspects of leisure, and were encouraged to do so by parents, were more likely to become readers of fiction later. The gap hasn’t really shrunk much: a 2014 study found that 69% of U.S. men reported reading at least one book in the last 12 months, versus 82% of U.S. women. Fiction reading, as an activity, seems to be gendered. Hhhmmm.

Which brings me to the consumption of fiction and marketing to those consumers. (I won’t discuss the extensive coverage of the quality of fiction, and the role of author gender in literary awards; that is a huge ongoing debate). Although dated now, this NYTimes article is characteristic of the coverage of the fiction market, with its conclusion that fiction must appeal to women readers to sell well, and publishers and literary agents are quite aware of this. These commentators argue that not only do the novel’s themes need to appeal to female fiction readers, and that female authors have a large advantage, but also that successful novels must have strong female characters in order to be marketable. But this seems curious to me, as all the data I’ve found so far seems to indicate that the gender readership gap in fiction, with women reading far more fiction than men, has been around for more than a century, or more. And 100 years ago, women fiction readers could not have only been reading female authors and books with strong female characters, because there were fewer of those then.

I am certainly not against strong female characters, and my favorite authors include men and women, but I enjoy good stories, well-written, regardless of the sex of the characters. I think the data point to a much larger cultural shift at play in fiction marketing, which seems at odds with cultural shifts in other domains. As we so rightly “de-gender” toy departments and McDonald’s Happy Meals (a friend recently asked for the “boy toy” only to be told there are no such things in Happy Meals anymore) we seem to be deliberately gendering fiction, to boost sales. What’s going on?

Inaugural Consumption Blog

This is an inaugural missive of what I hope will become a regular commentary on consumption and marketing issues. (Some of you know I’ve been using this domain for family travel blogs for the last year or so. Those are still here, just filed away).

For this first entry, I’d like to reflect on being a professor of marketing, while simultaneously being a person who believes strongly we should consume less. It’s a conundrum, for certain. This conundrum will flavor this blog.

Sometimes I introduce myself as “the anti-marketing marketing professor.” But that’s a joke. I honestly believe that teaching and learning the art and science of marketing is a worthy endeavor, and that organizations that get marketing right are much better off than those who do not. That marketing helps companies, but also helps our economic system to flourish, and that marketing, done well, should inform and help consumers too.

While perhaps not as obviously, I think we would all be better off learning to be better consumers. What does better mean in this context? I don’t just mean smarter deal shoppers, although that is part of it. I don’t just mean being more aware of contextual influences on our purchasing behavior, although that is part of it. I don’t just mean being reflexive consumers, stopping to wonder whether we truly have a need, although that is part of it too. And I don’t just mean being cognizant of the social and cultural system at play that influences our consumption in direct and indirect ways, although that is part of it too. I mean all of it. At once. And the difficulties inherent in trying to do that. All the time.

So, expect this blog to be more about consumption and consumers than anything else. I hope to fashion a mix of research insight, commentary on current marketing and consumption trends and happenings, and maybe even some consumption-related advice. We’ll see as it evolves. Feel free to comment, to vent, to argue, and of course, to share!

June's take on Consumption and Marketing