A Profile of the Political Consumer

ABSTRACT - In the middle of the 90s the concept A the political consumer@ turned up in the Danish mass media. In spite of the overwhelming public interest in the phenomenon, research has only to some extent been able to help clarifying what it is all about. This paper therefore aims at characterizing the political consumer based on all relevant studies which have been published so far in Denmark. A life-style profile of the political consumer is outlined followed by a discussion of his/her field of responsibility.



Citation:

Hans Rask Jensen (1998) ,"A Profile of the Political Consumer", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Kineta Hung and Kent B. Monroe, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 126-130.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 126-130

A PROFILE OF THE POLITICAL CONSUMER

Hans Rask Jensen, Southern Denmark Business School, Denmark

ABSTRACT -

In the middle of the 90s the concept " the political consumer" turned up in the Danish mass media. In spite of the overwhelming public interest in the phenomenon, research has only to some extent been able to help clarifying what it is all about. This paper therefore aims at characterizing the political consumer based on all relevant studies which have been published so far in Denmark. A life-style profile of the political consumer is outlined followed by a discussion of his/her field of responsibility.

INTRODUCTION

Seen in a historical perspective there has been a tendency to look at the consumers and their problems from the outside. This is largely true for business administration, where consumer studies often serve as "the missing link" in normative prescriptions for producer action.

There has also been a tendency to focus on the consumers in their role as demanders of goods and services and to analyze consumer behaviour in relation to producer interests in supplying this demand. This is largely true for marketing and for micro economics where the demand of individual households is studied on the basis of some debatable assumptions about the rationality of consumer decision-making. It is also true for macro economics, where demand theory plays a central role as a prerequisite for th different normative prescriptions made in economic policy.

However, the consumers are not just objects. They are also subjects who are active in many different ways in addition to being buyers, and they have a much broader and sometimes very different sphere of interests than what is typically highlighted within the different disciplines of business administration. This is reflected, e.g. by the many contributions to consumer action research which are published in the Journal of Consumer Policy.

In the middle of the 90s the concept "the political consumer" turned up in the Danish mass media. In spite of the overwhelming public interest in the phenomenon, research has only to some extent been able to help clarifying what it is all about. It has therefore been considered worthwhile to explore in further detail who the political consumer in fact is. This knowledge is relevant not only for consumer organizations and politicians, but also for firms operating in markets which apparently have reacted more politically during the 90s.

This will be done by characterizing the political consumer based on all relevant research which has been published so far in Denmark. This profile is outlined within a consumer action framework which is first presented below. Finally, it is discussed to what extent the political consumer should be given more social and political responsibility.

2. INDIVIDUAL AND ORGANIZED CONSUMER ACTION

When consumers recognize a problem related to the acquisition of products and services from the private or public sector, they can be said to solve them by means of exit, voice or loyalty (Hirschmann, 1970, p. 10). If they are satisfied they are inclined to routinize their everyday activities by means of loyalty. Variety-seeking, however, is an example which demonstrates that even satisfied consumers do not necessarily remain loyal. If they are dissatisfied they break their everyday routines and try to find new partners or new consumption alternatives at the market. Voice reflects the consumers’ inclination to externalize both satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The consequences of voice are among other things a continuation or a break with everyday routines.

If more actors try to solve a smaller or larger extract of the problems which the individual consumer has not been able to solve by means of exit and voice, we are talking about organized consumer action (Jensen, 1986). Organized consumer action cannot form part of the production and marketing activities. However, this does not exclude that in practice consumer marketing can be a more or less important part of organized consumer action. In Co-op Denmark, e.g. consumer marketing is a very essential part of organized consumer action (Jensen, 1989), in contrast to the Consumer Council and Danish Local Consumer Groups (Jensen, 1986). Examples of organized consumer action which does not at all include consumer marketing can hardly be found in practice.

A considerable part of organized consumer action in Denmark is planned and carried out by public institutions which have been authorized by legislation to do so. This applies to the Consumer Ombudsman, the Danish Consumer Complaint Board, and the Danish Government Home Economic Council which have shared a secretariat in the Danish Consumer Administration since 1988. According to German literature this kind of consumer action represents an external organization of the consumers’ interests (Kuhlmann, 1990, p.78). If consumer action instead is planned and carried out by the consumers themselves, it represents a self-organization of their interests (ibid, p. 78). Examples of this kind of consumer action are the Danish household organizations, the Danish Housewives’ Association, and Danish Local Consumer Groups (Jensen, 1986).

In practice organized consumer action in Denmark is more or less comprehensive. In the Federation of Danish Motorists and Danis National Tenants’ Association only consumer problems which are related to a specific and well-defined demand area are solved. For the so-called household organizations consumer information and advice are used as the basic strategy in contrast to the Consumer Council which primarily is involved in different kinds of consumer policy (Jensen, 1986).

3. THE POLITICAL CONSUMER

In the middle of the 90s the concept "the political consumer" turned up in the Danish mass media in relation to Shell’s plan to sink the oil-drilling platform "Brent Spar" in the Atlantic, and the French Government’s decision to resume the nuclear tests in the Pacific (Svendsen, 1995). Even if the concept has not yet got a precise meaning, it is typically used as a blanket term for consumers who make political, social, and ethical reflections when they are shopping (MM, 1995, p. 12). If the phenomenon is analyzed more in detail it appears that it represents something which is both well-known and new in the Danish political scenary.

The well-known aspect of the phenomenon is that the political consumer to some extent tries to improve his/her conditions of life as a consumer. Danish history can in fact offer many examples of this kind of activity.

Behind the foundation of the household organizations at the beginning of this century were several prominent women who wanted to give the consumers better prerequisites for making "rational" decisions to the benefit for themselves and for society at large by means of "neutral" information and advice. It was, therefore, such a consumer policy which particularly influenced the foundation of the Danish Government Home Economic Council in 1936.

At the beginning of the 70s the average Dane became conscious of his/her special problems and potential lines of action as a consumer. This consciousness was decisive for the establishment of the Government Consumer Commission, the passing of the Marketing Law, and the foundation of the Consumer Ombudsman and the Danish Consumer Complaints Board in 1975. In this period the consumers wanted not only to be informed, educated, represented, and heard. Now they also insisted on being protected against the more powerful actors in the production system.

The new aspect of the phenomenon is that it is not anymore necessarily the consumer and his/her conditions of life which are at stake when the shopping trolley is used as a strategy to change undesirable circumstances at the market, in the Danish society, or beyond the frontiers of the country. It is also the citizen and his/her general political situation which is at the agenda when well-known consumer action measures are used, e.g. to change dictatorships into being democracies, or to improve human rights in certain countries. Creative Danes have simply realized that their participation in the market economy can be used also to achieve general political goals which, strictly speaking, is not an unknown phenomenon.

The political consumer should therefore be regarded as a hybrid between a political and a consumer activist. However, social research has not yet been able to demonstrate to what extent the perspective and ambitions of the former are most influential, even if it is a fact that the interest of the population to participate in organized political action has decreased, and that the activities of the average Dane today to a larger extent than before are reflecting desires to practice more individual choice and to achieve practical results in closer social relationships (Halkier, 1994).

3.1 Research into political consumption

The political consumer has not yet received much attention from social researchers in Denmark. However, four studies have been published which make it possible to characterize selected aspects of his/her socio-economy, life style, decision-making, andbehaviour.

According to IFF (1996) the political consumer is an individual who has boycotted products during the last year and who always or often attaches importance to political affairs when he/she makes buying decisions. Based on such a conceptualization the political consumers make up 30% of the Danish population. If also the so-called favouring consumers who always or often base their buying decisions on political matters, but who have not yet boycotted products during the last year, are included, the percentage increases to 55.

A study made by the Danish weekly "Monday Morning" and AIM-Nielsen Research Institute shows that between 30% and 35% of the Danes are prepared to include political, social, and ethical matters in their buying decisions (MM, 1995, p.12). Approximately 50% of the Danes are uninvolved but they would probably prefer ecological, environmental compatible or "green" products, if price and quality did correspond to what they want and are used to. Only 10% of the Danish population is reluctant towards political consumption.

Research based on the RISC-model which was used by AIM-Nielsen until 1996 in order to classify the Danish population by means of, e.g. values, attitudes, and patterns of consumption, shows that the political consumers belong primarily to the so-called green and pink segments (MM, 1995, p. 14).

The green segment which represents 25% of Danish consumers includes idealistic individuals who to a large extent are characterized by modern values and attitudes. They are aware of several aspects of contemporary living conditions, and they are highly motivated for self-actualization together with other people. Moreover, they are well-educated and well-informed of what happens in their surroundings. Party-politically their affiliations are to the left.

The pink segment which represents 18,5% of the Danish consumers includes individuals who also have an idealistic and social attitude towards life. They are, however, characterized by more traditional values than the consumers in the green segment, and they have a lower level of education. Typically the family is perceived as a very important social framework, and the considerable price consciousness which can be found here is based on both habit and necessity.

A study carried out in 1996 by the Institute of Market Trends Analysis shows that 29% of the Danes in June this year had avoided to buy certain products because they were against a country or a firm for political reasons (Thulstrup, 1997). A similar study carried out three months later shows that the percentage had decreased to 17. This indicates that the interest in political consumption is not constant, and that it probably is very sensitive to what the mass media put on the agenda. The interest in ecology and "green" consumption is more steady. In June 1996 55% of the Danes were able to confirm that they had bought ecological dairy products, pork, beef, chicken, eggs and/or vegetables during the last week. This percentage did not change from June until September.

Thulstrup (1997) also demonstrates that the political consumers are different from the population in general. Women between 30 and 49, with political affiliations to the left, with more than average economic resources, living in bigger cities, and with employment in the public sector, are overrepresented.

3.1.1 A Life-Style Profile of the Political Consumer

AIM-Nielsen (1997) makes it possible to elaborate a more detailed and precise profile of the political consumer by highlighting selected interview data and analyzing them in relation to the two dimensions of a value map (Figure 1). The vertical dimension (modern-traditional) explains 40% of the variation in the data material. The horizontal (idealistic-pragmatic) explains 14%. These dimensions are explained in further detail in Dahl (1997).

By doing this it turns out that the political consumer belongs primarily to the so-called north-eastern corner which is characterized by a mdern and idealistic approach to different aspects of contemporary conditions of life in Denmark. AIM-Nielsen (1997) and Dahl (1997) also makes it possible to find some important explanations for this membership.

In this corner we find Danes who have a problematic relationship to society at large which, in their opinion, does not function in an optimal way. Capitalism, the growth ideology, the concentration of business activity, the hierarchical power structures, and the environmental consequences of the prevailing mode of production are perceived as important societal problems which demand both individual and collective action. The feeling of solidarity with people less fortunate than the Danes also brings foreign societies and regimes into their political sphere of interest. Their basic idealistic values combined with a critical attitude to contemporary conditions of life are decisive for the fact that the individual citizen in their opinion should behave politically in everyday decision-making. However, in their opinion, it is not possible to change undesirable social circumstances by means of individual action alone. The political system has to function in such a way that the conditions for individual choice are improved, and it is an obligation for the individual to be involved in the achievement of such goals.

In the north-eastern corner consumption decisions should therefore be used not only to provide the family with good, healthy, tasty, environmentally, ethically and politically justifiable products which they are willing to pay for. They should also be used as elements in a political strategy of everyday life, because it is perceived as the duty of the individual to advance consumer influence. Consumer policy, however, has to improve the conditions for using the shopping trolley as a political tool. It is therefore hardly a coincidence that especially the socialist party SF has tried to put consumer policy at the political agenda. This party has a special appeal to the Danes in the north-eastern corner.

FIGURE 1

A LIFE-STYLE PROFILE OF THE POLITICAL CONSUMER

The 56% of the Danes who are able to confirm that they sometimes avoid buying products because of ethical or moral problems in the country of origin or the producing firm belong mainly to the north-eastern corner. This behaviour reflectsBbesides a very serious and political approach to consumptionBalso that they do not want their life-style to be mixed up with what characterizes the western part of the value map, where it is both legitimate and useful to show success in business and society by means of conspicuous consumption.

However, the goal-oriented and rather uncompromising attitude to the social, political, and ethical aspects of consumption is also reflected in several other ways.

In the north-eastern corner consumers generally attach importance to where products are produced in contrast to their so-called relatives in the south-eastern corner who only do this in relation to a few items.

The 9% who fully agree that it is important to be involved in environmental issues, even if it is combined with a sacrifice, also belong to the north-eastern corner, and this attitude is closely related to such values as active environmental consciousness, cultural liberalism, broad-mindedness, and political environmental orientation which are explained in further detail in Dahl (1997). This is valid, too, for the 21% who agree that more farmers should produce ecological products, even if this implies that the consumers have to pay more. This attitude, too, is closely related to such values as active environmental consciousness and political environmental orientation.

Also the 25% of the Danes who have confirmed that it is important that consumer goods are not produced in a way which is harmful to animals, plants, and the environment, even if it implies higher prices, can unambiguously be placed in the north-eastern corner. This attitude is primarily linked to such values as active environmental consciousness, consideration for others, responsibility, and political environmental orientation. Their so-called relatives in the south-eastern corner do not nearly as much approve this idea which hardy is due to the fact that they do not love nature and animals, but more that they have more scarce economic resources which do not allow increasing consumption expenditures.

It is almost exclusively in the north-eastern corner that the consumers find that there is not enough ecological products in the shops (14% of the Danes), and that the shelves often are empty when they have decided to buy such products (8% of the Danes).

The north-eastern corner is also characterized by the biggest inclination not to buy products because of specific problems in the country of origin, and it is primarily the lack of respect for human rights and bad observance of international agreements which have caused such a behaviour within the last month. Decisions not to buy because of problems in the producing firm are primarily based on the environmental policy of the firm, specific ethical problems within the firm, or the ethical policy of the firm.

Buying ecological food products because of health and taste reasons is a northern phenomenon. For consumers in the north-eastern corner the external environment and animal ethics play a decisive role too.

However, to some extent it is also possible to find political consumers in the south-eastern corner where people in general are rather satisfied with the way society is functioning. Political consumption should therefore not be used to change things too much. The consumer should behave as a responsible buyer to such an extent that society can remain a safe place to live in, and that the suppliers will continue producing good products at fair prices in an ethically justifiable way. In this part of the value map it is primarily the consideration for other people, the good will, joy at nature, an urge to preserve the original, the interests of the family, and a desire for law and order which motivate political consumption. It is therefore hardly a coincidence that the majority of the consumers in this corner have strong political affiliations to the Social Democratic Party. They perceive consumer policy as relevant, but consumer action measures should not be used to change well-known and appreciated social structures, especially if it implies higher prices.

The traditional attitude to the state of things is reflected in several ways in the south-eastern corner. The 10% of the Danes who completely disagree that farmers should produce more ecological products, even if it means higher prices, are to some extent found here. It is here also rather difficult to get support to the point of view that the supply of ecological products in the retail shops is too small, and that ecological products often are out of stock when they are needed. Finally, the south-eastern corner is not especially inclined to use consumption expenditures to improve human rights, to change dictatorships, or to get more respect for international agreements in certain countries. Political consumption should at most be used in exceptional cases in order to influence firms to behave more ethically correct and to secure the supply of appreciated products to fair prices.

4. A DISCUSSION OF THE POLITICAL CONSUMER’S FIELD OF RESPONSIBILITY

The Danish Minister of Labour advocated in January 1997 that the consumers should not only make demands of quality to the products and services which are offered to them. They should also shop in stores characterized by equal pay and a good working environment (MJ, 1997, p. 1). The director of the Consumer Council approved this request, because information of equal pay and the personal management of firms in her opinion is relevant to the political consumer (ibid, p. 1).

In order to assess such a request it is worthwhile to remember that societal problems are equivalent to consumer problems only if they in some way or another reflect barriers to the goal achievement of individual or organized consumer action. Hence it follows that consumer problems can only include a smaller or arger extract of the problems that the citizen is confronted with in his everyday life, and that they cannot be classified unambiguously within the established party political categories. Essential societal problems are therefore not necessarily consumer problems. But even if they were, one cannot be sure that a politically motivated purchase necessarily reflects that the consumers in this way want to solve problems related to, e.g. equal pay or the working environment. Social research has not yet been able to demonstrate to what extent the political consumers’ many different modes of expression can be considered as consumer or political action. According to Halkier (1994) all kinds of "green" consumption which political consumption in many respects can be compared to are integrated parts of the interaction processes of everyday life, but they do not for that reason reflect political action. A study published by the Danish Institute for Futurology seems to show that many of the consumers who have chosen products based on political motives to a lesser extent perceive their consumption activities as something which is closely connected with political participation (IFF, 1996, p. 8).

It is also worth noticing that political consumption manifests itself in rather impulsive, emotional, unstable, individual, and rather uncoordinated reactions to what is highlighted by the mass media (MM, 1995). The political consumers have not yet been able to make organized decisions based on impartial or "objective" criteria. Consequently, many of their manifestations are in the danger of missing their proper aims and of impeding the social and political developments which they probably are in favour of. It was hardly the best solution seen from an environmental point of view to leave "Brent Spar" in a Norwegian fiord. It would probably have been much better to sink it in the Atlantic.

Finally, it is not insignificant to call in mind that the political consumers in Denmark and probably also in many other countries are different from the population in general. It would therefore not be democratic to leave it to them to solve the societal problems which the politicians have not been able or willing to solve. It is not fair to use the doctrine of consumer sovereignty neither to prevent the consumers from exerting the social an political influence they are entitled to, nor to entrust them the solution of societal problems which hardly belong to their field of responsibility.

5. CONCLUSION

It is a matter of fact that suppliers usually both want and are able to take care of the consumers’ interests. If not for other reasons then because competition in target markets forces them to do so to a smaller or larger extent. However, commercially identified needs and wants are normally only satisfied, if the skills and resources in supplying firms materially are able to further this outcome, and if these needs and wants represent purchasing power to such an extent that it is considered to be profitable to do so within a given perspective of time.

One therefore has to take for granted the existence of consumer problems which suppliers are not necessarily willing or able to identify and solve. This recognition justifies that consumers in a market economy try to influence production and society at large in order to improve their conditions of life, and it is an advantage to all of us, if they are helped both individually and jointly to get the best prerequisites for doing so.

However, it should not be left neither to consumer nor to political action to solve problems which rightfully belong to the producers’ or the politicians’ field of responsibility. In any case it cannot be regarded as fair to pass the buck to the political consumers who until now have made themselves known primarily by releasing impulsive, emotional, unstable, individual, and rather uncoordinated reactions to what the mass media have chosen to put on the agenda. Nor can it be rgarded as responsible to name at discretion difficult and unpleasant societal problems consumer problems in order to pass the solution of them to people who only to some extent can be considered as consumer activists.

REFERENCES

AIM-Nielsen (1997). Danskernes g°remsl, holdninger og vrdiopfattelse. Minerva 1996. (Activities, Attitudes, and Values of the Danes. Minerva 1996). K°benhavn: AIM-Nielsen A/S.

Dahl, Henrik (1997). Hvis din nabo var en bil. (If your neighbour were a car). K°benhavn: Akademisk Forlag.

Halkier, Bente (1994). Gr°nt forbrugBpolitik? Politiske aktiviteter. (Green ConsumptionBPolitics? Political Activities). GRUS, Nr. 44, 1994.

Hirschmann, Albert O. (1970). Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

IFF (1996). Den politiske forbrugerBen holdningsunders°gelse. (The Political ConsumerBA Study of Attitudes). K°benhavn: Instituttet for Fremtidsforskning i samarbejde med Greens Analyseinstitut.

Jensen, Hans Rask (1986). The Relevance of Alternative Paradigms as Guidelines for Consumer Policy and Organized Consumer Action. Journal of Consumer Policy, 9, 389-405.

Jensen, Hans Rask (1989). Consumer Policy in Co-op Denmark Perceived by the Member Representatives. Journal of Consumer Policy, 12, 465-483.

Kuhlmann, Eberhard (1990). Verbraucherpolitik: Grundznge Ihrer Theorie und Praxis. Consumer Policy: Basic Features of its Theory and Practice). Mnnchen: Verlag Frantz Vahlen.

MJ (1997). Morgenavisen Jyllandsposten, p. 1, onsdag den 15. januar 1997.

MM (1995). AIM-analyse: En trediedel af forbrugerne vil handle politisk. (AIM-study: One Third of Danish Consumers are Prepared to Act Politically). Ugebrevet Mandag Morgen, nr. 26, 7. august 1995.

Svendsen, Steen (1995). Den politiske forbruger. (The Political Consumer). Fremtidsorientering, nr. 4, september 1995, 32-35.

Thulstrup, J°rn (1997). Danskerne 1997, Holdninger, adfrd, planer og forventninger. (The Danes 1997. Attitudes, Behaviour, Intentions and Expectations). K°benhavn: Institut for Konjunktur-Analyse.

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Authors

Hans Rask Jensen, Southern Denmark Business School, Denmark



Volume

AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998



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