Special Session Summary Market Formations: Three Empirical Investigations on the Construction of Consumer Representations

Detlev Zwick, American University
Julien Cayla, University of Colorado
Mark Koops-Elson, University of Chicago
[ to cite ]:
Detlev Zwick, Julien Cayla, and Mark Koops-Elson (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Market Formations: Three Empirical Investigations on the Construction of Consumer Representations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 158-161.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 158-161



Detlev Zwick, American University

Julien Cayla, University of Colorado

Mark Koops-Elson, University of Chicago

National governments are busy deregulating industries and liberalizing markets, increasingly transferring political power to supra-national entities and economic control to corporate "global players" such as multinational companies, NGOs and international regulatory organizations (Sassen, 1996). As markets triumph (Gagnier, 1997), consumers and companies around the world find themselves faced with new choices and challenges. The proposed session looks at some of the strategies and techniques companies and consumers employ to make sense of these new market realities they themselves help to bring about. We foreground the importance of different types of mediating agenciesCranging from advertising and insurance agencies to financial brokerages and mediaCthat create the ever-shifting terrain on which people and products come into contact.

Consumers increasingly must learn to act in markets that hitherto either simply did not exist (as for example under state-regulated insurance, telecommunication, or utility monopolies) or did not seem relevant to them before (such as global consumer and financial markets) (McCormally, 1999; Probyn, 1998; Wilk, 1995). Conversely, globally operating companies must learn to access and develop local markets, thereby negotiating the need for cost-efficient standardization against the particularities of local cultures and the competitive advantage of incumbent competitors (Levitt, 1983; Ramaswamy, Gatignon, & Reibstein, 1994; Rawwas, Rajendran, & Wuehrer, 1996).

In our session, we foreground the role of mediating agencies in the construction of consumer identities, consumer behavior, and markets. As the papers collectively contend, mediators such as ad agencies, insurance agents, and brokerage houses do not simply communicate with already existing consumers, they actively construct them. Similarly, MNCs do not merely adapt to local markets, they employ market mediators to produce markets that fit their needs.

Markets are no friction-free and culture-free spaces of exchange but are formed by complex constellations of actors. In our session we propose to discuss the workings of mediating agencies in both the making of markets and the production of consumer subjectivities and identities. The respective analyses provide a more inclusive conception of consumption practices and, in doing so, present important implications for our understanding of consumer agency.


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Detlev Zwick, American University

Nikhilesh Dholakia, University of Rhode Island

Historian Thomas Haskell argues with the case of the abolitionist movement of the late 18th and early 19th century that the rise of capitalism effected a real transformation in moral sensibility brought about by "changes the market wrought in perception and cognitive style. And it was primarily a change in cognitive styleBspecifically a change in perception of causal connection and consequently a shift in the conventions of moral responsibilityBthat underlay the new constellation of attitudes and activities that we call humanitarianism" (1985, p. 342, italics in the original). By illuminating the role the market played in the abolition of slavery in America, Haskell links the capitalist market directly to the emergence of a new humanitarian sensibility. He concludes that "the expansion of the market, the intensification of market discipline, and the penetration of that discipline into spheres of life previously untouched by it [] inculcate altered perceptions of causation in human affairs" (1985, p. 342, italics in the original).

In addition, Haskell points out that new technologies play an important part in what individuals think is caused by our actions and what is not. He suggests, that "new technologyBusing that word broadly to refer to all means of accomlishing our ends, including new institutions and political organizations that enable us to attain ends otherwise out of reachBcan change the moral universe in which we live" (Haskell, 1985, p. 356). What Haskell refers to is the possibility of acting at a distance and influencing future events even when they take place on the opposite side of the globe. Thus, not only the extension of markets to circumscribe the entire globe would necessarily lead to a possibility for a better attribution of responsibility and eventually to a revolution in human sensibility, but also its accompany, information and communication technologies (ICT), could be expected to add to this real progress. The new moral universe would be one of more transparency and greater reach.

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) play a particular role in our investigation since all of our informants are online traders. ICTs have no doubt changed the face of markets and are leading what some call a revolution in marketing practice and consumer experience (Achrol & Kotler, 1999; Dholakia & Dholakia, 1999; Dholakia, 1998; Hoffman & Novak, 1996). Economists and marketers credit ICTs for empowering consumers and providing them with a strong sense of agency in the marketspace (e.g.,. Bakos, 1997; Brynjolfsson & Kahin, 2000; Hoffman & Novak, 1997; Quelch & Klein, 1996) On the downside, the celebratory rhetoric surrounding the new information and communication technologies has made it difficult for criticism to be heard. Especially in the United States where "neo-liberal technotopianism" (Cubitt, 1999, p. 127) dominates the debate, criticism of ICTs potential risks is sparse. Such criticism points out that the increasing speed of communication and information can just as easily turn out to be a threat to consumer enlightenment and ethical behavior tout court. (Breen, 1997; Virilio, 1996)

As the numbers of individuals who use the Internet to invest in the stock market has been increasing dramatically, the question that arises is what kind of humanitarian sensibility telepresent and globally networked financial markets are likely to produce? Does the participation in the stock market alter investors’ perceptions of cause-effect relationships, and if so, in what way? In particular, do investors feel an increased sense of agency when stock market discipline enters into their lives for the first time? To answer this question, we will make judicious use of data gathered from 15 interviews with individual online investors in Germany. Based on our analysis we argue that the experience of online investing produces investor subjectivities with conflicting notions of their agency in the market. On the one hand they experience unprecedented control over their own market activities but on the other, they feel that their actions cannot and should not have any effect beyond the accumulation of private wealth (such as moral or social responsibility). We argue that ICTs such as television and the Internet allow for both to happen, knowledge and disappearance of knowledge, investor empowerment and investor ignorance with important implications for individual’s investment choices.


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Cubitt, S. (1999). Virilio and New Media. Theory, Culture and Society, 16(5-6), 127-142.

Dholakia, N., & Dholakia, R. R. (1999). Markets and Marketing in the Information Age. In W. Fritz (Ed.), Internet Marketing (pp. 21-37). Stuttgart: Schaeffer-Poeschel Verlag.

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Haskell, T. L. (1985). Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1. American Historical Review, 90 (April), 339-361.

Hoffman, D. L., & Novak, T. P. (1996). Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations. Journal of Marketing (July), 50-68.

Hoffman, D. L., & Novak, T. P. (1997). A New Marketing Paradigm for Electronic Commerce. The Information Society(13), 43-54.

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Julien Cayla, University of Colorado

Lisa PeĀ±aloza, University of Colorado

As a cultural broker helping multinational companies enter the Indian market, the advertising agency serves as an important agent of market development. The role of the advertising agency goes beyond attaching goods to meaningful cultural categories (McCracken 1988; Applbaum and Jordt 1996). Rather, we suggest that agencies work with multinational companies in developing local markets for foreign products, as they both represent and actively construct notions of the Indian consumers. In this sense, international advertising is viewed as a negotiation of representations of the local markets as they are co-constructed by the agency and its foreign client. Based on ethnographic work in an Indian advertising agency, this paper illuminates how such negotiation of the local and the global leads to the cultural production of consumer identities and the social construction of market segments.

Furthermore, we argue that these market representations are deeply embedded in the socio-cultural context of India as a postcolonial nation (Mankekar 1999; Costa 1998; Venkatesh 1995). As marketing professionals actively and creatively interweave notions of modernity, tradition, Indian-ness and Western-ness, they are able to assemble new and meaningful consumer subjectivities such as the " indulgent mother," "the contemporary woman" or the "duty bound daughter in law" that become material significations of local markets (Rawwas et al. 1996; Shohat and Stam 1994). These representations may be seen as a modification of what Harper (1987) termed working knowledge that agencies and foreign firms together negotiate when planning a campaign.

Interestingly, however, as in the case of other popular cultural producs, Indian advertising production is just as likely to draw upon colonial themes of modernity as it is to contest them (Williams and Chrisman 1994). While Indian advertising heavily borrows from Western notions of modernity, it also contests colonial history by relying on patriotic themes and the construction of what it means to be Indian, situating itself in a "zone of continuous engagement with the colonial, simultaneously drawing upon and contesting colonial discourses and practices" (Mankekar 1999: 48).

In uncovering the construction of market representations, we draw upon eight months of ethnographic work during which the first author participated in the everyday activities of one of Mumbai’s advertising agencies. We focus on the development of campaigns for one of the agency’s clients, an American manufacturer of processed foods. This case study, along with other campaigns, provides a rich opportunity to study the production of representations of the Indian consumer as a type of working knowledge that is always open to revision as new data becomes available. Most importantly, by drawing from rich ethnographic data and interviews with advertising and marketing executives in India we culturally and historically contextualize advertising production in India’s postcolonial consumptionscape (Appadurai 1993; Ger and Belk 1996). In doing so, this work extends previous research in advertising which has mainly relied on the information processing paradigm (e.g. Petty and Cacioppo 1983) and semiotic analyses (e.g. Mick and Buhl 1992). Only if we examine advertising production and reception in India against the dual backdrop of economic liberalization and postcolonial global relations can we unearth the dialectic of local cultural brokers and global corporations in the production of market representations.


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Mark Koops-Elson, University of Chicago

Arjun Appadurai, University of Chicago

In December 1999, after years of heated debate, the Indian government opened the national insurance market to joint-ventures between domestic and multinational companies, exposing the erstwhile state monopolies to an emergent field of competition. Based on one year of ethnographic research in Mumbai, this paper will examine key dynamics in the social and cultural production of the insurance market in urban India in the post-privatization context. We will explore consumers’ culturally-mediated risk-hedging and investment strategies (Raheja 1988; Douglas 1992/1982, Bourdieu 1977), and the processes through which insurance companies design and market policies to articulate with these strategies. In particular, then, we are concerned with mediators between companies and consumers, mediators who represent companies to consumers and consumers to companies: insurance agents first and foremost, but also market research firms and advertising agencies. We will compare the manner in which two sets of insurance companies B government-affiliated corporations and joint-ventures between multinational corporations and Indian financial institutionsBinteract with consumers through these mediating entities in Mumbai, India’s largest urban market.

Insurance companies in India as elsewhere statistically classify populations into segments with different risk-profiles, and calculate premiums and sums-assured based upon these classifications. Within this highly quantitative, probabilistic rationality of risk, neither the question nor the answer of what causes particular events arises directly; rather, the focus is on probabilities of particular events occurring in the future (Hacking 1975, Ewald 1991). Insurance agents comprehend and view the world through this logic in greatly varying degrees. Most of the 500,000 agents of India’s government companies are part-time, receive little official training, and often sell insurance through "community" and caste networks. Experienced insurance agents "translate" and indexically embed (Silverstein 1998, Goffman 1979) their understandings of insurance into modes of discourse and socio-cultural contexts shared by their customers (Appadurai 1999/1996), potentially changing these contexts in the process (Sahlins 1985, Whorf 1941, Beck 1992).

The new entrants to the Indian insurance marketBjoint-ventures between multinational corporations and Indian financial institutions B must bridge an even greater socio-cultural distance from consumers. As discussed in the paper by Cayla an Penaloza, multinational corporations operating outside of their country of origin often struggle to associate their brands with modern international best practices while also attempting to appeal to potential customers in local "indigenous" terms (Watson 1997). To find the right balance for different market segments, MNC joint-ventures in the Indian insurance market rely heavily on market research and advertising agencies. At the same time, their agents are trained to emphasize their own "professional" credentials more than the agents at government companies. While this strategy may be culturally compelling to consumers from some upper market segments, it gives agents less flexibility to creatively represent their company and its products.

Our argument is that as both cultural-brokers and market makers, insurance agents, in conjunction with advertising agencies and market research firms, create the contexts in which companies and consumers meet, necessarily imposing their own socio-cultural mark upon these spaces. The strongest marketing channel strategies (Coughlan & Stern 2001) accept and exploit this "on the ground" reality, rather than fight against it.


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