How Do the Unemployed Maintain Their Identity in a Culture of Consumption?

Richard Elliott, University of Oxford
ABSTRACT - The long-term unemployed become marginalised in society and alienated from it, and through their relative poverty their alienation may be deepened by their exclusion from the consumption culture which surrounds them. Advertising could have unintended consequences on the unemployed by instilling a sense of inadequacy and self-denigration through the presentation of unattainable, idealized images which may magnify their alienation, lower their feelings of self-esteem and damage their sense of identity. This study explores the responses of long-term unemployed people to images of luxury and wealth portrayed in a selection of magazine advertisements. Three Focus Group interviews were carried out with men and women attending a community centre for the long-term unemployed in the North-West of England. Major interpretive themes relate to the construction of meaning frameworks which enable the elusion of threats to self-esteem and identity posed by images of luxury and wealth in advertising.
[ to cite ]:
Richard Elliott (1995) ,"How Do the Unemployed Maintain Their Identity in a Culture of Consumption?", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 273-276.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 273-276

HOW DO THE UNEMPLOYED MAINTAIN THEIR IDENTITY IN A CULTURE OF CONSUMPTION?

Richard Elliott, University of Oxford

ABSTRACT -

The long-term unemployed become marginalised in society and alienated from it, and through their relative poverty their alienation may be deepened by their exclusion from the consumption culture which surrounds them. Advertising could have unintended consequences on the unemployed by instilling a sense of inadequacy and self-denigration through the presentation of unattainable, idealized images which may magnify their alienation, lower their feelings of self-esteem and damage their sense of identity. This study explores the responses of long-term unemployed people to images of luxury and wealth portrayed in a selection of magazine advertisements. Three Focus Group interviews were carried out with men and women attending a community centre for the long-term unemployed in the North-West of England. Major interpretive themes relate to the construction of meaning frameworks which enable the elusion of threats to self-esteem and identity posed by images of luxury and wealth in advertising.

The growth of structural unemployment in developed economies is giving rise to a new 'underclass' who are denied a share in the material aspects of a consumer society, as their income falls further behind that of the majority of society. But as Beveridge (1944) suggested, "the greatest evil of unemployment is not physical but moral, not the want that it may bring but the hatred and fear which it breeds". The unemployed become marginalised in society and alienated from it (Allen and Waton, 1986), and through their relative poverty their alienation may be deepened by their exclusion from the consumption culture which surrounds them and which it "is difficult, if not, impossible to avoid" (Bocock, 1993). The financial worries and difficulties which are associated with unemployment are strongly associated with the anxiety and depression experienced by the long-term unemployed (Payne and Hartley, 1987).

Current approaches to understanding the broad psycho-social effects of unemployment have drawn on the literature on transitional change (e.g. Adams, Hayes and Hopson, 1976) as a general model of the domain. Early work carried out during the depression of the 1930's described a transitional cycle of shock, quickly followed by optimistic action, this stage is followed by pessimism and anxiety, and then ultimately by fatalism, resignation and a broken attitude (Eisenberg and Lazarsfeld, 1938). More recent studies all tend to agree on these broad stages (Hayes and Nutman, 1981; Allan et al., 1986) and all seem to find only one significant difference with the more general model of the transitional change cycle. Where Adams, Hays and Hopson (1976) suggest that in the final stage of the cycle the individual's self-esteem totally recovers, the specific work on unemployment suggests that although individuals may come to terms with joblessness as a way of life, their self-esteem is still lower than that of the employed (Hayes and Nutman, 1981). Studies of adaptation to unemployment suggest that a significant minority (33%) adapt to the situation with low levels of stress, a majority (54%) manage to cope but experience high levels of stress, whilst 13% exhibit dysfunctional adaptive behaviour (Jones, 1989).

The poverty associated with long-term unemployment has direct implications for consumption, which is greatly reduced in scope and frequency (Townsend, 1979). But rather than an absolute definition of poverty, it is the concept of relative deprivation from socially defined necessities, involving exclusion from the components of a 'normal' lifestyle (Ringen, 1988), which may be most useful for understanding the consumer behaviour of the unemployed. 'Lifestyle deprivation' suffered by the unemployed, involving not just basic necessities but also items such as an annual holiday, a car, and presents to give to friends, has been shown to be associated with increased levels of psychological stress (Whelen, 1992).

Although it has been suggested that through the process of alienation the unemployed may lose the desire and capacity even to dream of consumption (Bocock, 1993) consumption responses to unemployment may involve a temporary increase in consumption behaviour as individuals attempt to restore their damaged self identity through symbolic consumption (Wicklund and Gollwitzer, 1982). There is some tentative evidence of this form of temporary extreme consumption reaction to sudden unemployment, together with denial and a turning inwards away from social networks, in a case study of two newly-unemployed steelworkers in the USA (Roberts, 1991). The young unemployed lack the financial resources for the consumption of leisure activities which offer their employed peers the opportunity to engage in the cultural practices of 'symbolic creativity' which have been suggested as the 'necessary work' of everyday life (Willis, 1990). However, an Australian study found that 80% of unemployed young people visited the shopping mall at least once a week and nearly 100% of unemployed women were regular visitors (Presdee, 1986). They were practicing 'proletarian shopping,' that is, window shopping with no intention to buy. They were consuming images and space instead of commodities as they engaged in the 'oppositional cultural practice' of offending 'real' consumers (Fiske, 1989). At a more mundane level, changes in life status have been shown to impact upon stress, lifestyle, brand preference and purchase satisfaction (Andreasen, 1984) while transitions in social roles have been shown to involve the disposition of possessions to facilitate or validate role or status change (Young, 1991).

Consumption plays a central role in the construction and maintenance of self-identity, as the very concept of the self has become 'commodified', where the development of the self is translated into the pursuit of desired possessions or of a 'packaged lifestyle' (Giddens, 1991). Bauman (1989) suggests that it is inevitable failure in this self-defeating pursuit of possessions which drives the market which "feeds on the unhappiness it generates: the fears, anxieties and the sufferings of personal inadequacy it induces release the consumer behaviour indispensable to its continuation." We may have reached the point "where consumption has grasped the whole of life; where all activities .....have become mixed, massaged, climate controlled, and domesticated into the simple activity of perpetual shopping" (Baudrillard, 1988).

Advertising may have unintended consequences on the unemployed by instilling the same sense of inadequacy and self-denigration through the presentation of unattainable, idealized images that it is accused of instilling in the population at large (Pollay, 1986). Experimental evidence suggests that exposure to idealized advertising images of beauty can lower women's level of satisfaction with their own attractiveness (Richens, 1991), and the self-esteem of both men and women (Murphy and Grogan, 1993). After exposure to television advertisements featuring a slim, attractive female model, women with high levels of eating problems had more negative emotions and lower levels of perceived control over their behaviour, compared with women with few eating problems (Dittmar and Blayney, 1994). The body image of non-eating-disordered women with less healthy eating attitudes was negatively effected after exposure to photographs of female models used in articles and advertisements in mass-circulation fashion magazines, suggesting that media representations may maintain or even worsen existing problems (Waller et al., 1992). 'Psychoactive' advertisements, which arouse strong emotional responses, may cause viewers to feel anxious or to feel a loss of esteem and therefore raise significant ethical issues (Hyman and Tansey, 1990). The portrayals in advertising of idealized consumption life-styles through images of luxury and wealth may be 'psychoactive' for the long-term unemployed and may magnify their alienation, lower their feelings of self-esteem and damage their sense of identity.

However, when faced with threats to their self-esteem and sense of identity, individuals are motivated by a 'conservation impulse', which is a drive to preserve conceptual structures of interpretation and ensure continuity of meaning with past experience (Marris, 1974). This process of maintaining continuity is crucial to successful adaptation to change and loss:

'the impulses of conservatism - to ignore or avoid events which do not match our understanding, to control deviation from expected behaviour, to isolate innovation and sustain the segregation of different aspects of life - are all means to defend our ability to make sense of life' (Marris, 1974, p.11).

The unemployed may be expected to deny aspects of their situation and to construct meaning frameworks which are resilient to environmental threats to their identity and self-esteem. Threats to the self can create anxiety and depression (Higgins, 1987) and individuals may seek to escape from this anxiety through the process of 'cognitive deconstruction', which involves the attempted rejection of meaningful, integrative thought (Baumeister, 1990). Behaviour can be identified at different levels of meaning and of self-awareness and through a process of 'cognitive narrowing' individuals may focus on concrete, low-level thinking, with a concentration on the immediate present. In this deconstructed state of mind they may avoid higher levels of meaning related to the self and identity, and thus escape from negative emotional states through passive acceptance of the here and now.

This study explores the responses of a sample of long-term unemployed people to images of luxury and wealth portrayed in a selection of colour magazine advertisements, and examines their interpretations of consumption meanings in the context of their deprived economic condition.

METHODOLOGY

Subjects in the study were 24 men and women attending a community centre for the long-term unemployed in the North-west of England. All subjects had been unemployed for more than 12 months. Three Focus Group interviews were carried out with mixed-sex groups of 8 individuals. No claims can be made for the generality or representativeness of the sample, and the findings should be considered as reflecting the exploratory nature of the research.

The advertisements used as stimulus materials were selected from a range of colour magazines with a reader profile across all social-economic and age groups. A wide range of advertisements were pre-tested for their ability to reflect images of luxury and wealth, and a set of 5 ads were utilized in the study. These were for expensive clothes from Harrods, a holiday on the Orient Express, a stereo television system, a car, and a house. The ads were presented in a random order during the course of the interviews.

Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and analysed for interpretive themes, relationships and assumptions using pattern-coding methods (Miles and Huberman, 1984).

INTERPRETIVE THEMES

Constrained Consumption Behaviour

Economic constraints on consumption were very evident, all informants described having strict controls on their spending and having to focus on essentials. Many described limiting their visits to shops as one way of coping with lack of funds. Yet other seemed able to participate in shopping behaviour by exerting self-control:

"I shop when I have to, I enjoy it but I only really buy things like food." (Female, 23 years)

"Just essential things and the odd tape now and again." (Male, 32 years)

"I like to go in shops, but I don't like shopping." (Male, 58 years)

"I actually like shopping, I'll go. I find it quite a leisure activity, so I enjoy just going shopping and seeing what there is in the shops. But I do have to control my spending." (Female, 33 years)

Despite the shortage of funds for purchasing luxury items, informants occasionally used an impulse purchase as a source of comfort:

"Sometimes I do buy on impulse. Yeah, I think that I'll treat myself to make me feel better. It's never anything big just things like tapes or some new make-up." (Female, 33 years)

Living With Advertising

Advertising was used as an information vehicle both in terms of obtaining details of price and availability, particularly special offers on food, and also in order to remain connected with mainstream society by gaining knowledge about new products and new trends. But the amount of attention given to advertising is controlled:

"I take the most notice of ads for things like food, the extras that you need, like where you'd get the cheapest jar of coffee from." (Male, 38 years)

"I think everyone takes so much notice of advertising, you've got to, haven't you, because otherwise you wouldn't know what's going on." (Male, 58 years)

"I like to know what new stuff's coming out but I wouldn't spend too long looking at it. Just glance at the picture and read the main text, that's about it." (Male, 27 years)

Despite the acknowledged utility of advertising, many informants expressed strong dislike of particular advertisements and expressed distrust of advertisers. The exceptions to this negative view were beer advertisements which were liked for their humour and were seen as entertainment rather than as brand advertising:

"Adverts lie a lot, camera trickery to make you buy something, some of them lie to you, like the washing powder." (Male, 22 years)

"At least you can have a laugh at them [beer ads] some of the adverts are stupid, like the ones for cleaning stuff. I don't believe them, I don't think many people do. All that stuff about: this gets your floor cleaner and shinier, it's rubbish." (Female, 23 years)

"The people are too happy and perfect, like the Oxo adverts, they've got the perfect family, most people in real life haven't got that. What with divorce and stuff." (Female, 28 years)

A major means of coping with the unattainable images of advertising was to define themselves as outsiders, not being targeted by the advertisers. This seemed to allow informants to dismiss the meaning in the advertisements as not being relevant to them and thereby evade negative emotions. This was accompanied by low-levels of involvement with the ads and reading behaviour like merely 'flicking through' magazines:

"They're not aimed at us, so I'm not really that interested in them. I'd look but I'd just turn the page over." (Male, 39 years)

"They're not aimed at me, definitely not. It's fine to look at them, but they're not aimed at me so in the main I just pass over them." (Female, 32 years)

"When you see the words 'Second home' and things you know it's just not relevant to you. The car as well, I know I couldn't afford that so I wouldn't take much notice of it." (Female, 28 years)

"It's just a natural reaction to flick past them. So in a way I suppose I do avoid them but it's not because they depress me. I just don't look at them because they are not relevant to me." (Female, 23 years)

However, there was some suggestion that informants might allow their imaginations to fantasize from time to time about the experience of possessing luxury goods:

"If I had the money I'd be more tempted with something like that (Stereo TV system) and I'd probably pause for longer on the adverts working out what it is and just fantasizing over having one so I could impress my friends. It does depress me a bit because I'll never have it, but the thought's nice." (Female, 32 years)

Bolstering The Value of 'Voluntary' Simplicity

A second major coping mechanism was a denial of the value of luxury goods. Informants seemed to be arguing for the merits of a life of 'voluntary' simplicity which avoided the excesses of materialism:

"They're just luxuries aren't they, you can live without them, they're not absolutely essential. There's no point in paying ,1000's when you can get a second-hand thing that will probably last longer." (Male, 19 years)

"That stereo system there, it echoes around the room, all you need is a few amplifiers that's cheaper and they do the same thing." (Male, 32 years)

"I could never afford it but even if I could I don't think I would. It's not necessary to have it really is it? I don't have any of this stuff and I manage alright." (Female, 23 years)

Passive Acceptance of Economic Conditions

Informants only rarely admitted to experiencing negative emotional reactions to the images of luxury in advertisements. The overwhelming impression is one of passive acceptance of their economic conditions:

"It doesn't really bother me that much. It'd be nice if I could have it but I'm not bothered. There might be the odd time that I'd see something and it might really hit me that I'd want it and know that I couldn't afford it, that might get to me. But in general it wouldn't bother me." (Female, 32 years)

"You get used to not being able to afford everything that you want. Especially these things because they are so far out of my reach. When I look at some of them I may say that I'd like it but it's just like a fantasy." (Female, 28 years)

"There's no point in worrying about it, no point in getting depressed because you can't afford them. If you haven't got the money you just haven't and that's it. I'd look but I'd just forget about it because I couldn't afford any of the stuff." (Female, 19 years)

"It doesn't really depress me because I already know I can't afford things. I know they exist but I can't afford them, that's how it is." (Male, 28 years)

DISCUSSION

These unemployed people do seem to define themselves as marginalised in a consumer society, which through not being in the target group of much of the advertising for consumer goods they are. However, some of them are able to maintain a connection with the mainstream of consumer culture by gaining knowledge about new products and fashion trends from advertising, but only a minority of the informants seem to be sustaining the desire and dreams that fuel much of modern consumption (Bocock, 1993). The portrayals in advertising of idealized consumption life-styles through images of luxury and wealth do not appear to magnify the alienation of the long-term unemployed, lower their feelings of self-esteem or damage their sense of identity. Instead, they seem able to cope with their constrained economic situation, to resist the appeals to materialism and to protect themselves from threats to their emotional equilibrium.

This is achieved in part by the operation of the 'conservation impulse' through which they construct definitions of the self which place the person outside the culture of consumption yet still preserve their self-esteem. By bolstering the value of a simple way of life, which they maintain to be a voluntary action, they construct a meaning framework within which their current experience of lifestyle deprivation can be construed as rational and sensible behaviour. However, it must be acknowledged that the direction of causality is unclear, in that the adoption of this value system may itself contribute to their continued unemployment.

The threats to their self-identity and of the possibility of negative emotional responses are managed by the deconstruction of events and a concentration on low levels of meaning. These low levels of meaning and self-awareness focus on narrow and immediate aspects of experience and avoid broader time-spans and broader implications. These informants seem to focus very much on the immediate present, with little, if any, consideration of the longer-term. Their behaviour in relation to advertising was to experience it through a 'flick through' mode of reading, which did not admit to any involvement with the images or construction of meaning-relations with their own lives. This is very different to the level of engagement described by Mick and Buhl (1992) where individuals negotiated their lives in part through the meanings constructed from advertisements. This 'cognitive narrowing' onto the 'here and now' together with a passive acceptance of their situation seem to enable individuals to elude the threats to their self-esteem and identity posed by images of luxury and wealth in advertising.

CONCLUSIONS

These long-term unemployed informants are apparently able to maintain a coherent self-identity with little use of the symbolic meanings of consumption posited as all-pervasive by cultural theory (e.g. Fiske, 1989). They may be engaging in a different form of 'oppositional cultural practice' from the young unemployed 'shopping-mall walkers' observed in Australia. Instead of acting in opposition to 'real' consumers by unorthodox but essentially similar shopping behaviour, they are defining themselves as being in a different cultural category with a different value system which assigns materialism to a lower status. Thus their passive acceptance of lifestyle deprivation is accompanied by an active reconstruction of meaning frameworks to protect their self-identity by providing their lives with a meaning not based on consumption. In this they are engaging in a form of symbolic creativity which allows them to re-interpret their situation into one which is invested with its own source of self-esteem. They are not the 'vulnerable consumers', whose disadvantaged situation makes them 'unusually vulnerable to advertising', as described by Schudson (1984). These consumers, despite being deprived of most of the trappings of a consumer lifestyle, are successfully coping by consuming some advertisements as entertaining cultural products, but not consuming the intended symbolic meaning of the products. But signification through actual behavioural experience is far more potent then signification through the media (Elliott et al., 1993) and as the long-term unemployed become an ever greater proportion of the population, the gap between their everyday lived world and advertising imagery may demand more active and robust responses than passive acceptance.

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