Many see themselves as a David fighting the Goliath (Kozinets & Handelman, 2004). 'Evil' is a common terms used to describe either the practices of corporations or corporations themselves or ends to which consumers use their money. Consumers are generally seen as being "unreflective, unaware, and amoral or immoral" (Kozinets & Handelman, 2004, p.698) and "incapable or disinclined to reflect on their own consumer behaviors from a systemic point-of-view and to insert social and moral criteria into their purchase decisions (ibid.). Some activists consider consumers to be dehumanized, and others see them (an extreme view) as being 'wicked' or' (more commonly) selfish'. What we have here, on the whole, is a black -- and white perspective of a 'good vs. evil' outlook. According to this perspective and returning to our third characteristic, it is no longer the corporation that is the adversary, as it was in consumer activism's early days, but rather the consumer who opposes the ideology and Weltanschauung of the activists. Or the activist might have two enemies: the consumption system on the one hand and the willful and embedded consumers on the other. Activists want consumers to practice more self-discipline and restraint in their purchases. In the words of Kozinets and Handelman (1998), they seek to sacralize or "ensoul" individual and collective consumption judgments. Hedonism, they claim, should be replaced by a greater forethought on collective welfare and, only towards that end can a greater utopian society exist.
The findings of Kozinets and Handelman (2004) may not be so diametrically different to the postulations of Zavestoski (2002) as they appear on first blush. Zavestoski (2002) maintains that anti-consumption biases are motivated by underlying social-psychological stress related to living in a consumer frenetic society where a person's value and 'greatness' is evaluated according to how much he earns and how much she spends, or, in other words, according to the amount of 'toys' that he or she has acquired in this world. The anti-consumptionists whom Zavestoski (2002) interviewed generally corroborated his assumption that their attitude was inspired by a frustration with the endlessness and meaninglessness of hedonistic foraging. Many of those whom he interviewed had themselves been led on a process of self-inquiry triggered by the hankering of self-authenticity and by the inability of consumption to satisfy these feelings. In this way, the spirituality evidenced by Kozinets and Handelman's (2004) studied population and the quest for authenticity indicated by Zavestoski's (2002) survey are closely bound. Inability to find the answer through consumption many lead many on to spiritual goals and from thence, to anti-consumerism activities where they may feel that their life's goal lies in reforming society so that they spend less, and/or spend more wisely. It is in this way that researchers end up being confounded about their goals unsure whether their 'adversary' is the corporation or consumer, because, perhaps, the activists (or, at least, most of them) are unsure about their goals themselves. They may see themselves as playing a heroic apocryphal act in history's unfolding drama to the end of days where it is 'good' pitted against 'evil', and the evil may be both corporations and customers in turn, or it may be both intertwined in the form of a capitalist, hedonistic, consumer-maniac society.
Specific illustrations of the "spirituality" of consumer activists in practice
Now that we have an idea of their underlying form, we can better understand how this is evidenced in reality.
In 2005, 'Commercial Alert' one of the better-known consumer activist groups urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate "buzz marketing" practices and to issue guidelines on word-of-mouth marketing. Their concern was that too much word-of-mouth and "buzz' marketing involves stealthy practices such as influencing minors to participate in "focus groups" which then attempt to "sell them products' on the condition that they then "sell" these same products to their friends (Winston & Straen, 2005).
Another example: In 2000, a consumer activist group urged U.S. regulators to halt the garlic campaign that advertised garlic supplements as effective in lowering blood cholesterol levels. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest cited a report published in October by researchers with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that stated that garlic supplements do not lower cholesterol levels long enough to help the user and they, therefore, urged advertisers to stop using these claims (FoodNavigator.com., 2000).
In similar cases one with vitamins and the other with folic acid in relation to pregnancy, consumer activists have waged tireless wars against so-called functional foods where marketing claims certain foods to be advantageous for one's health and/or for longevity. These claims are often scurrilous or partially true, and a misinformed public spends exorbitant money (that some can least afford) to acquire these foods.
Consumer activism may have tendencies towards religious evangelism, as, too, they may exaggerate the 'evil' of consumers and the 'wickedness' of corporations, but their claims should not be overlooked. Their underlying agenda is rightful and praiseworthy, for they impede a profit-attached market from going overboard in exaggerating and, sometimes, in perverting their marketing claims. Marketing recommendations, consequently, would be to ensure that agency's products have been scientifically, reliably, and objectively tested before they are marketed. It might be to their advantage, furthermore, that they provide evidence by authoritative sources that they have done so. The marketing procedures should, themselves, be conducted in an above-board and ethical manner. This need not detract from their creativity. Businesses want to protect themselves. Collision with consumer activists can be costly, time-consuming and deleterious to one's reputation. Understanding the psychological composition of activists and seeing examples of some of their actions may help corporations adapt strategies that will help them avoid run-ins with anti-consumer idealistic individuals.
One practical and very business-oriented way that this can be done, it seems to me, is to employ this very "buzz marketing" system that activists condemn to spread a certain reputation that denotes that they are not only concerned for the consumer's welfare, but are also environmentally concerned and intent on achieving greater, more idealistic purposes. In other words, that they are not the 'selfish' entrepreneurs that consumer activists may tend to see them as, but are rather altruistic and concerned for a greater good.
This can be achieved via consumer- generated media (CGM) which is the online phenomena whereby consumers, actively and voluntary participating in online communication, exchange their opinions about a particular product, company, corporation, and so forth, via message boards, social networking links such as FaceBook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, corporate sites, and online communities and blogs. Marketers are already employing this consumer activism in order to solicit consumer feedback or endorsement, to facilitate word-of-mouth recommendations, and to encourage consumers to try the product.
Although consumer activists would have cause for complaint with all the above agendas, consumer-generated media can be instrumentally and gainfully employed by having consumers promote positive feedback about their products and about their treatment towards client, and by having consumers staunch negative sentiments in order to protect their reputations and brand.
Consumer activists are every much a part of modern day life. On the one hand, they attack corporations for deceiving and perverting a simple-minded public, on the other hand they denounce consumers for their attachment to a frivolous and insipid ceaselessness of materialism. Materialism, they claim, corrupts society. In order to provide marketing recommendations about how to deal with and get on the 'good side' of these consumer activists (for they can be quite powerful) this essay commenced by evaluating the organization according to the three dimensions outlined by Touraine (1977, 1981) and found, as per Kozinets and Handelman's (2004) research, that they are heavily religious in origin as well as having evangelical-inspired goals. That this is so can be seen from many (although not all) of their campaigns in the past. Nonetheless, despite their exaggerations and hyperbolic meanderings, consumer activists do present much good in restraining consumers from being deceived by fraudulent marketing claims and in impeding marketing from unethical practices. To this end, my marketing recommendations are the following: (i) that corporations should carefully, thoroughly, and reliably assess and test their products before marketing them, (ii) that advertisements should proceed along ethical channels, and (iii) that consumer-generated media can be used to protect the company's reputation by spreading a positive "buzz-word" image.
Campbell, C. (1999). Consuming Goods and the Good of Consuming. In Consumer Society in American History, ed. Lawrence B. Glickman, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 19 -- 32.
FoodNavigator.com. (2000). Consumer group attacks garlic health claim www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Consumer-group
Friedman, M. (1999), Consumer Boycotts, New York: Routledge.