Staging Political Consumption

Hans Rask Jensen, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark
ABSTRACT - The concept Athe political consumer@ turned up in the Danish mass media as part of their coverage of the so-called Brent Spar conflict in June 1995. In spite of the overwhelming public interest in the phenomenon, social research has only to a small extent been able to clarify what it is all about. This paper, therefore, tries to characterize the phenomenon through a discourse of the Brent Spar conflict as recast by the seven biggest daily national newspapers in Denmark. It seems as if these newspapers have been deeply involved in staging political consumption, and that the proverbial man in the street, depending on his sensory perception and everyday experience, has been easy game in this spectacle.
[ to cite ]:
Hans Rask Jensen (2001) ,"Staging Political Consumption", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 276-280.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 276-280

STAGING POLITICAL CONSUMPTION

Hans Rask Jensen, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

ABSTRACT -

The concept "the political consumer" turned up in the Danish mass media as part of their coverage of the so-called Brent Spar conflict in June 1995. In spite of the overwhelming public interest in the phenomenon, social research has only to a small extent been able to clarify what it is all about. This paper, therefore, tries to characterize the phenomenon through a discourse of the Brent Spar conflict as recast by the seven biggest daily national newspapers in Denmark. It seems as if these newspapers have been deeply involved in staging political consumption, and that the proverbial man in the street, depending on his sensory perception and everyday experience, has been easy game in this spectacle.

INTRODUCTION

The concept "the political consumer" was invented by the Danish mass media during the Brent Spar conflict in June 1995. It was used to characterize people who had been able to force Shell to give up the dumping of a worn-out oil-drilling platform in the North Atlantic by means of boycott actions. It soon got an almost ritual character in the environmental discourse as a metaphor for an omnipotent individual who is able to change undesirable social and political circumstances by means of his/her buying decisions.

The political consumer has not yet got much attention from social researchers in Denmark. Only five studies have been published (Jensen, 1998), and they are all descriptive and based on debatable theoretical constructs. It has therefore been considered as worthwhile to examine the concept in a new context in order to discover aspects of the phenomenon which have not yet been highlighted by social research.

This article is called "staging political consumption" because it seems as if the so-called political consumer to a large extent is a consequence of the way the Brent Spar discourse was recast by the Danish mass media. Therefore, it is probably a social phenomenon which can only be identified in situations similar to the Brent spar conflict.

Below, the Brent Spar case is presented. Then, the coverage of the Brent Spar conflict made by the seven biggest national daily newspapers in Denmark is analyzed by means of some characteristics of the environmental discourse which have been identified by Hajer (1995). Finally, it is shown how political consumption was staged by coalition partners and the Danish mass media.

SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL DISCOURSE

Here, discourse is defined as a specific ensemble of ideas, concepts and categorizations that are produced, reproduced and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities (Hajer, 1995, p. 44). Discursive interaction can create new meanings and new identities. It may alter cognitive patterns and create new cognitions and new positionings.

Therefore, discourse can be considered as constitutive of the realities of environmental politics. The environmental conflict does not appear primarily as a conflict over which sorts of action should be taken, or whether action should be taken, but more as a conflict over the meaning of physical and social phenomena.

The politics of environmental discourse is reflected as a struggle for discursive hegemony in which actors try to secure support for their definition of reality. The dynamics of this argumentative game is determined by three factors: Credibility, acceptability, and trust.

Credibility is required to make actors believe in the subject-positioning that a given discourse implies for them and to live by the structured positioning it implies. Acceptability requires that position to appear attractive and necessary. Trust refers to the fact that doubt might be suppressed and inherent uncertainties might be taken for granted if actors manage to secure confidence either in the author, whether that is an institute or a person, or in the practice through which a given definition of reality has been achieved.

Therefore, discursive dominance or hegemony can be considered a socio-cognitive product, whereby the social and the cognitive are seen as essentially intertwined. Hence, arguments can be convincing due to their propertiesBe.g. plausibilityBthat countervailing ideas lack, but one has to reckon that in such cases plausibility is the product of persuasion which is not a purely cognitive process. Once having taken up a particular position as one’s own, a person inevitably sees the world from the vantage point of that position and in terms of the particular images, metaphors, story-lines, and concepts (Davies & HarrT, 1990).

Story-lines are narratives on social reality through which elements from many different domains are combined and which provide actors with a set of symbolic references that suggest a common understanding (Hajer, 1995, p. 62). Thus, story-lines allow actors to draw upon various discursive categories to give meaning to specific physical or social phenomena. They suggest unity in the bewildering variety of separate discursive components parts of a problem. However, people do not draw on comprehensive discourse systems for their cognition. These are rather evoked through story-lines.

Story-lines are essential political devices that allow the overcoming of fragmentation and the achievement of discursive closure. The point of the story-line approach is that by uttering a specific element one effectively re-invokes the story-line as a whole. Thus, it essentially works a metaphor. First of all, story-lines have the functional role of faciitating the reduction of the discursive complexity of a problem and creating possibilities of problem closure. Secondly, as they are accepted and more and more actors start to use them, they get a ritual character and give a certain permanence to the debate. They become "tropes" or figures of speech that rationalize a specific approach to what seems to be a coherent problem. Thirdly, story-lines allow different actors to expand their own understanding and discursive competence of the phenomenon beyond their own discursive expertise or experience. In other words, a story-line provides the narrative that allows the scientist, environmentalist, politician, or whoever, to illustrate where his or her work fits into the jigsaw.

Story-lines, in other words, not only help to construct a problem. They also play an important part in the creation of a social and moral order in a given domain. Story-lines are devices through which actors are positioned, and through which specific ideas of "blame", "responsibility", "urgency" and "responsible behaviour" are attributed. Through story-lines actors can be positioned as victims of the environmental crisis, as environmental problem-solvers, as environmental perpetrators, as environmental scientists and experts, or as environmental scare-mongers.

THE BRENT SPAR CONFLICT

Brent Spar, an oil-drilling platform in the North Sea, stopped its activities in September 1991. Between 1992 and 1994 its owner, Shell, had examined different possibilities for its disposal and had come to the conclusion that dumping it in the sea would be the best solution on the grounds of reduced safety risk to the workforce, the insignificant environmental impact, and the total costs (Dickson & McCulloch, 1996).

In the Spring of 1994, Shell submitted its proposal to selected Scottish authorities and local fishery organizations, and in the autumn of 1994 it was sent to the British government. This proposal was accepted on February 16, 1995. Then, the British government informed the members of the North Atlantic OSPAR-Convention of the approval and fixed a dead-line of two months for objection. None of the Member Stated reacted.

What is known as the Brent Spar conflict started April 30, 1995, when Greenpeace occupied the oil-drilling platform. In the Middle of 1994, Greenpeace had heard about Shell’s plan and in December 1994, the organization approached the British authorities by protesting against dumping worn-out oil-drilling platforms at sea and by asking for a hearing on the decision. In the spring of 1995, Greenpeace repeated its protests but the organization did not succeed in creating a dialogue with the British authorities.

After Greenpeace’s occupation of Brent Spar which was shown in TV in several countries, protests against Shell’s plans started to come in to the British government from the Member States of OSPAR, especially from Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and Iceland. On May 18, the European Parliament adopted a resolution against the dumping of Brent Spar.

The political pressure against Shell reached its culmination during the North Sea-Conference in Esbjerg, Denmark, on June 8 and 9, 1995. The participating countries, except the UK and Norway, passed a recommendation not to dump Brent Spar and other worn-out off-shore installations in the sea. However, the political protests did not have any effect on Shell. Few days after the North Sea-Conference the company started to manoeuvre Brent Spar to the planned site of dumping in the Northeast Atlantic.

In the beginning of June 1995, Greenpeace and other environmental organizations had made demonstrations in front of 300 petrol-filling stations in Germany, and in the middle of June the sales of petrol had decreased more than 30%. The boycott spread to other countries, e.g. Denmark and the Netherlands, and public authorities as well as private firms joined the boycott by giving notice to terminate enterd agreements of delivery from Shell.

The political pressure, the boycott, and the intensified and critical media coverage made Shell change its plans on June 20, 1995. The company decided not to dump the oil-drilling platform, and at the same time declared that it would try to find a land-based and more acceptable solution to the problem.

In November 1996, Shell entered into a dialogue with selected organizations, including Greenpeace. This process was carried out in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany. In January 1998, Shell presented a new proposal to use Brent Spar as foundation for the enlargement of the harbour in Mekjarvik in Norway. The proposal was accepted by the British government in August 1998, and in Lisbon in July 1998, the OSPAR-Convention decided a general ban on the dumping of oil-drilling platforms in the Northeast Atlantic with a few, well-defined exceptions.

A CONTENT ANALYSIS OF THE DANISH MASS MEDIA’S COVERAGE OF THE BRENT SPAR CONFLICT

In order to understand how the Brent Spar conflict in fact was recast by the Danish mass media, microfilms of all relevant story-lines communicated by seven daily national newspapers during the month of June 1995 have been analysed. It was also the intention to include the news-programmes from the two national TV-channels, DR1 and TV2, as well as the National Radio Broadcasting Company, DR. However, it has not been possible to get access to the archives. Therefore, only the following national daily newspapers have been included in the study: Morgenavisen Jyllandsposten, Det Fri Aktuelt, Politiken, Berlingske Tidende, Information, B.T., and Ekstrabladet.

A DISCOURSE ANALYSIS OF THE BRENT SPAR CONFLICT AS RECAST BY THE DANISH MASS MEDIA.

Morgenavisen Jyllandsposten, Denmark’s biggest daily newspaper with a liberal political orientation, enters the Brent Spar discourse by presenting the agenda of Shell and the British Ministry of Environmental Affairs. One week later the agenda of Greenpeace is communicated, and in Mid-June, the story-lines are increasingly framed by Greenpeace and politicians who support the agenda of the interest organization. Now, Shell is mainly positioned as an environmental perpetrator, and Danish and foreign politicians as responsible environmental problem-solvers.

After Shell has given in to the Greenpeace action, to protests especially from Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands which was the headline on June 21, the conflict starts to get framed by the agenda of a new coalition constituted by the Consumers’ Council and some scientists from a private research institute. According to the president of the Consumers’ Council the individual consumer does not understand that Shell, after having earned a lot of money on oil, is not willing to clean up afterwards. She foresees that in the future the consumer will play a more important part when it comes to bringing firms on their right course. If other firms behave like Shell, they will be treated in the same way.

The discourse of the Brent Spar conflict as recast by Morgenavisen Jyllandsposten is concluded on June 25 by the story-line "the political attitude of the consumer will determine future shopping behaviour ". The Consumers’ Council emphasizes that the Danish industry acts in a stupid and short-sighted way by ignoring that an increasing number of buying decisions are based on environmental and political attitudes. The story-line is followed by the prediction that both the ecological trend and the consumers’ boycott of Shell are unmistakable examples which will be more numerous in the future. In continuation of this prediction two researchers from the private Institute of Futurology forecast that political signals of te consumers are warnings to the politicians that they have moved too far away from the people they represent (25.06.95).

Det Fri Aktuelt, which is Denmark’s sixth biggest daily newspaper with a Social Democratic political orientation, enters the Brent Spar discourse on June 17. Three days later, the Brent Spar conflict is unambiguously framed in the leading article which emphasizes that "the sea is no waste disposal site, and that Shell is the main problem because the organization is a bad example for the consumers and the business firms. Therefore, our urge is clear: Boycott Shell. The sooner the credit cards are returned, the easier it is for Shell to realize that they are on the wrong course".

The same day it is communicated that it is now up to the consumers to decide in the Brent Spar conflict. The readers are told that the political consumer is on her way, and this point of view is supported with statements from a researcher from the Copenhagen Business School.

The following day the newspaper brings a so-called analysis under the headline "Shell crushed by consumer power". The story-line maintains that even if a decisive document has turned up in London which demonstrates that Brent Spar should be beached, it is the consumer boycotts in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands that have resulted in a victory for the environment.

Politiken, which is Denmark’s fourth biggest daily newspaper with a centre-left political orientation enters the Brent Spar discourse June 17. Under the headline "Boycott campaign against Shell" the readers are told that an increasing number of customers are leaving Shell, and that both the Minister of Environmental Affair, the President of Danish Fisheries Association, and the general manager of the European Recycling Company Denmark urge for a boycott of Shell. In another article it is communicated that the sales of petrol from German Shell petrol-filling stations have declined by 30%. In continuation of this story-line the agenda of both Shell and Greenpeace is presented followed by the communication that Greenpeace intends to make Shell change its course.

On June 20, Politiken takes an unambiguous stand on the Brent Spar conflict in the leading article. "Even if the British government had informed all members of the OSPAR-Convention and no protests came in, there is good reason to fear a steel and chemical cemetery both in the Atlantic and the North Sea, if Shell’s plans set up a precedent. Some days ago we urged for a consumer reaction against the French government’s decision to resume the nuclear tests in the Pacific. Now we do it again in the Brent Spar conflict. The consumers are an enormous combat unity, and Shell is on a wrong course".

On June 21, it is communicated that Shell has given up the dumping, and four days later, Politiken ends its coverage of the Brent Spar conflict. Under the headline "David against Goliath" it is communicated that "the last occurrences demonstrate not only a victory for Greenpeace against the legendarily arrogant Shell. It is also an omen of a new and growing power of the people and the consumers, which firms and concerns have to respect. The consumers are voting to a larger extent by means of their purse. They make demand of firms before they buy their products".

Berlingske Tidende, Denmark’s third biggest daily newspaper with a conservative political orientation, enters the Brent Spar discourse on June 20. By telling the readers that Danish firms for the first time have given up a supplier because of environmental problems. Then, the Brent Spar conflict is characterized by an expert as "an epoch-making event with serious implications for the conceptualization of the environment in business".

In the leading article the stance of the newspaper is presented to the readers the same day. "Even if Shell has argued that the dumping of Brent Spar is the best solution, the arguments have had no effects. Most people intuitively feel that this solution is a folly. Therefore, Shell should reconsider its decision. On the other hand, the boycot activists should also reconsider their strategy. The individual consumer can decide in a sovereign way what and where she wants to buy. But something is wrong when public institutions start to boycott Shell. The public administration must not be controlled by affect. The government can protest officially, but neither the State nor the local authorities should alone let their business activities be based on other premises than the consideration for price and quality".

The following day, the leading article communicates the stance that "even if the popular indignation vis-a-vis the dumping has reinforced the powerful consumer protest which yesterday made Shell surrender, it is important to remember that the company in fact had obtained all necessary permissions from the British government. Therefore, it is worthwhile to ask the Danish government: Why did you not react until three months after the planned dumping of Brent Spar was known to you?".

An article framed by the headline "The political consumer" ends Berlingske Tidende’s coverage of the Brent Spar discourse on June 25. "NobodyBneither firms nor politiciansBcan disregard the new powerful factor in our societyBthe political consumerBwho votes by means of her buying expenditures". According to a researcher from the private Institute of Futurology she will define new rules for business and politics.

Information, Denmark’s seventh biggest daily newspaper with an independent-left political orientation, introduces on June 16, the first national political calls for boycott. This story-line is followed by the communication that prominent politicians in Germany and the Netherlands are urging for a boycott.

Three days later, the newspaper reveals its attitude to the conflict in the leading article by emphasizing that "one has to grant Shell that the Brent Spar conflict does not deal with the world’s biggest environmental problem. It is difficult not to be puzzled by the disproportion between the level of involvement and action in this conflict compared to the more pragmatic attitude, which is reflected in much more important matters where the oil-industry and the remaining fossil energy sector are involved. However, if the reactions to Shell’s scrap-heap reflects the beginning of a more eco-political era, then we have to admit that Brent Spar has been a useful platform".

On June 21, the readers are informed that Shell has decided not to dump Brent Spar in the Atlantic and instead to apply to the British government for a permission to deposit it at land. This decision is then characterized as "the great triumph of Greenpeace and the consumers". The newspaper’s coverage of the Brent Spar discourse is brought to an end the same day by a leading article which emphasizes that "Even if Greenpeace has gained the victory, the organization has not been able to prove the existence of an alarming threat to the environment, because the dumping of Brent Spar seen in isolation simply is no such threat".

B.T., Denmark’s fifth biggest newspaperBtabloidBpublished by the same company as Berlingske Tidende, enters the Brent Spar discourse on June 16 by passing on an unambiguous invitation from the Minister of Environmental Affairs to boycott Shell. This urge is supported by the permanent under-secretary, who informs the readers that he personally has stopped buying Shell-petrol. In the same article it is communicated that an inquiry from Germany shows that 85% of all car drivers are willing to boycott Shell. Also the Dutch Ministers of Environmental and Economic Affairs are quoted to state that they under no circumstances will buy petrol from Shell.

On June 20, B.T. reveals its attitude to the Brent Spar conflict in the leading article. "The worst thing is not that Shell is dumping the oil-drilling platform for the sake of convenience, but the psychological waves of shock which have been the consequences. Obviously, the company has misinterpreted the voice of the consumers. They do not want to be a laughing stock, and they have shown that they are able to communicate in a langage which should be understandable in Shell. ThereforeBShellBstop the dumping".

The next day it is communicated that the consumers have forced Shell to give up its plans to dump Brent Spar in the Atlantic. In continuation the Danish EU-Commissioner for Environmental Affairs is quoted to say that "protest actions like this will set the agenda for the future to a much larger extent than political resolutions".

Ekstrabladet, Denmark’s second biggest newspaperBtabloidBpublished by the same company as Politiken, enters the Brent Spar discourse on June 16 by informing the readers that Danish firms and several prominent Danish and foreign politicians have decided to boycott Shell.

Three days later, Ekstrabladet reveals its attitude to the conflict in the leading article by stating that "the boycott against Shell-products which has spread rapidly is the right remedy and the only language which is understandable in the Shell organization, because we here have to do with morals reflecting only one single valueBmoney. Never before have so many beautiful words been used about the environment, but when it comes to political action money is victorious".

Under the headline "Shell gave up", Ekstrabladet informs its readers on June 21 that "the massive protests waves from the people got so much power up through the political system that a multinational giant with more than 900 billion DKK in sales per year has fallen down. Greenpeace has managed to rouse the world opinion and to guide it towards the barricades by means of an extremely professional planning strategy. The important battle of information dissemination was fatal to Shell which is now defeated by Greenpeace".

On June 22, Ekstrabladet ends its coverage of the Brent Spar conflict. In an article framed by the headline "John Major angry at Shell" the readers are told that Shells’ latest decision has caused much dissatisfaction in the British government which has supported the dumping of Brent Spar. The British Minister of Energy informs that "Shell should not expect governmental support for a land-based solution, because the company has admitted that it does not want the second best solution. This is unfair business, because we agreed on the best solution".

STAGING POLITICAL CONSUMPTION

The concept "the political consumer" was invented by the Danish mass media during the Brent Spar conflict. In spite of the overwhelming public interest in the phenomenon social research has only to some extent been able to help clarifying what it is all about. Most studies are based on one-dimensional, general assumptions and context-free survey data (Jensen, 1998).

However, the story-lines recast by the Danish mass media during the month of June 1995 adds a new dimension to the phenomenon which has not yet been studied. It seems as if different actors have been involved in staging political consumption, and that the political consumer to a large extent is an outcome of the way the Brent Spar conflict was recast by the Danish mass media.

Even if the members of the OSPAR-Convention had the possibility to protest against the British government’s decision to accept the dumping of the oil-drilling platform, nobody did so. In fact, the politicians did not appear on the stage until Greenpeace had been able to set the agenda in the mass media. Because the official political system could not react at this stage of the conflict without saving face, it had to convince the proverbial man in the street that he should do so. By changing the agenda to a question about precedent for future dumping, and by appealing to a growing environmental consciousness in the Danish population, this was not a difficult task, and the mass media helped the coalition between Greenpeace, politicians, and firms fighting for a green image to reach its goal by communicating the needed urge for a boycott against Shel. Although nobody has been able to prove that Shell’s decision to dump the platform in fact was worse for the environment than a land-based solution, the company was unambiguously positioned as an environmental perpetrator by the mass media, and, therefore, it was not difficult for the consumers to solve the problem which the politicians had been indecisive to handle.

The so-called consumer boycott was initiated by people who primarily were politically active in quite another social role. Greenpeace activists, politicians, business men and ministers are, of course, also consumers, but in the Brent Spar conflict they were primarily environmental activists fighting for success, politicians under political pressure, business men fighting for a green image, and ministers taken by surprise. This coalition was supported by the ordinary consumer because the agenda was changed in order to get their support and because the mass media helped the coalition to convince the ordinary consumer that he/she had to boycott Shell products in order to save the environment. Therefore, the consumer acted the part of environmental problem-solver and responsible citizen, and was fully venerated afterwards by the mass media for his/her participation in the well-staged spectacle. Because the mass media had made the consumer one of the victors in the Brent Spar conflict, he/she was portrayed as an omnipotent person, and this person was named the political consumer. This positioning was understandably welcomed by the Consumers’ Council because it implies an improvement of the public regard for consumer policy and a widening of the field of consumer action. Also, it was understandably welcomed by scientists in a private institute, because it implies a growing market for research in political consumption.

In the Brent Spar conflict the consumer was confronted with a wide range of environmental views, with experts and counter-experts, with debates among scientists from different disciplines and different countries. Therefore, he/she probably realized that scientific controversy is an inherent element in the environmental discourse.

However, the social and political discourse of the Brent Spar conflict as recast by the Danish mass media has only to a small extent highlighted the question whether, in fact, there was an environmental crisis or not. It was much more a debate on its interpretation, because protecting the environment no longer connotes with a radical social critique but is part of a discourse which evokes sentiments that help to create and sustain a perception of a common global ecological crisis which implies shared values and common interests (Th°gersen & Andersen, 1996, Hansen & Schrader, 1997, Heiskanen & Pantzar, 1997). It seems as if the coalition, which set the agenda that was recast by the Danish mass media, has misused the environmental discourse in order to achieve results which, in fact, are of only peripheral value to the consumer. The proverbial man in the street, depending on his sensory perception and everyday experience, was easy game in this spectacle.

CONCLUSION

One of the main characteristics of the environmental discourse in the 90s is that it highlights problems which to a large extent are not the object of direct sensory perception like smoke, dirt, and smells. It takes what has become known as the global biosphere as its level of analysis, and it portrays problems which will often materialize in the distant future.

Consequently, a limited number of people have become increasingly influential concerning the definition of the key problems, the assessment of the urgency of one problem seen in relation to others, and the conceptualization of possible solutions to the problems which have been highlighted. Today, hard-core decision-making on global environmental problems requires an almost unprecedented degree of trust in experts and the political elite at the same time as this trust is continuously undermined by scientific controvrsies and political indecision.

The Brent Spar discourse has to be understood within this social and political framework. It explains why it was so easy to stage political consumption, and why Greenpeace, prominent politicians, private and public firms as well as the mass media were so successful in doing so. Because the political consumer had to solve problems which the politicians were unable to handle, it seems as if the environmental discourse has been misused in a well-prepared political spectacle in order to achieve this result, and that the Danish mass media have been deeply involved in this matter.

However, it is not only in Denmark but also in many other countries that the consumers increasingly are attributed a co-responsibility for solving environmental problems by changing their consumption practices. These attempts to involve the consumers in environmental politics represent a politicization of consumption which should be highlighted to a larger extent by political and consumer research. The addition of such a new socio-cultural dimension to the environmental problematic and to our ability to understand an important part of consumer behaviour will undoubtedly produce new and interesting answers to how the practical and discursive aspect of everyday life in fact is depending on what the mass media and informal personal sources of information and opinion bring into the households’ sphere of interests.

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