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Consumer Culture Theory
Research in Consumer Behavior, Volume 11, 297–318
Copyright © 2007 by Elsevier Ltd.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 0885-2111/doi:10.1016/S0885-2111(06)11024-8


Eugene Halton and Joseph D. Rumbo


Advertising treats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments.

Thomas Merton

Much has been written about the various strategies that marketers use to target variously situated consumers in contemporary society. The more sophisticated of these strategies rest upon the notion that each consumer, as a self, represents a site of contestation over the very definition of his/her selfhood. Whereas the marketers’ objective is to create selling messages designed to colonize each and every self in accordance with the desires of their corporate clients, such messages may be at odds with the development of a healthy, uncorporatized self.

Marketers use widely varied demographic and psychographic (lifestyle) techniques to group consumers into narrowly defined and purportedly unique market segments. Celebrants of advertising and consumer culture tend to argue that the sphere of consumption offers consumers untold liberating possibilities for constructing identities and projecting unique, highly personalized images of self (Firat & Venkatesh, 1995). We contend that all of these purportedly unique constructions of selfhood are nothing more than permutations of what we call the consumer-incorporated self, a self compromised by marketing ideology and brand affiliations in which consumption practices displace self-autonomy.

Unsurprisingly, the myriad strategies that marketers have developed for reaching different consumers typically derive from the predominant model of the self found in college-level textbooks on marketing management. Across the pages of these touchstones of marketing wisdom unfolds the template for the consumer-incorporated self, an idealized model of self that renders the consumer in largely behaviorist and cognitivist terms, subject to manipulation. Sprinkling marketing theory with influences culled from motivational psychology and neoclassical economics, this dehumanizing notion of self reduces the consumer to a combination of rational calculator and passive recipient of marketer manipulation.

One widely influential book that has impacted the thinking of countless college business majors and practicing marketing professionals is Philip Kotler’s (2003) popular college text Marketing Management.1 An examination of this text is presented in this inquiry to serve as a cultural indicator of the marketer’s conception of self. Kotler succinctly describes this conception in a section entitled ‘‘personality and self-concept:’’

Each person has personality characteristics that influence his or her buying behavior. By personality, we mean a set of distinguishing human psychological traits that lead to relatively consistent and enduring responses to environmental stimuli … Personality can be a useful variable in analyzing consumer brand choices. The idea is that brands also have personalities, and that consumers are likely to choose brands whose personalities match their own. We define brand personality as the specific mix of human traits that may be attributed to a particular brand. (p. 193, emphasis added)

In the highly segmented world of narrowly defined ‘‘clusters’’ of consumers, marketers try to develop brand personalities that ‘‘will attract consumers with the same self-concept’’ (p. 195).

For Kotler (2003), ‘‘the marketer’s task is to understand what happens in the buyer’s consciousness between the arrival of outside stimuli and the purchase decisions’’ (p. 183, emphasis added). Yet the marketer is only concerned with understanding the consumer’s consciousness insofar as it informs his/her ‘‘buying behavior,’’ which is ‘‘influenced by cultural, social, personal, and psychological factors’’ (p. 183). Consequently, differences in the consumer’s most individuated and innately felt attributes, such as attitudes, beliefs, and opinions, are measured as a function of certain personal/ psychological and social/cultural variables. Clearly, such a model of self has profound implications for how marketers target consumers with their selling messages, and we will turn to Kotler’s text in more detail later to explore the implications of this consumer-incorporated self. But first, let us outline the theoretical background for this inquiry and introduce some key terms.


We argue that advertising operates from a model of a ‘‘stimulus-response self’’ for whom material acts of consumption bring rewards of symbolized social relations incarnated in commodities. Successful advertising involves an ideal of a consumer-incorporated self, responsive to marketing stimuli. But to achieve this, advertising, and marketing more broadly, must first breach what we will term the membrane of the self, that boundary organ of communication through which the self (1) qualitatively attunes itself to its environment; (2) selectively attends to and filters out various aspects of its environment; and (3) enacts its purposes in transaction with its environment. We will describe how corporate marketing culture attempts to colonize and replace the self with its consumptive model, and how the membrane of the self can help to resist these incursions.

On the corporate side, the explicit function of advertising is to make a profit for the advertiser by developing effective mixes of promotional campaigns for its clients. It can be argued that the implicit function of advertising, however, is to envelop consumers in a matrix of selling messages designed to provide them with low-grade, adrenylated ‘‘experience’’ in micro-melodramas whose form depicts one’s pre-consumption self as inadequate and one’s post-consumption self as invulnerable. Both depictions are dehumanizing: the former reduces the self to an addictive-like impulsivity requiring consumption for closure; the latter reduces the self to the commodity sign, to an omnipotent amalgamation of materialized corporate logos.

As the amount of selling messages that the average consumer ‘‘experiences’’ has increased dramatically over the past two decades, the struggle to breach or disable the membrane of the self and target consumers has intensified. One estimate states that the average consumer was exposed to 3,600 selling messages (TV ads, radio ads, internet banners, logos, product placements, outdoor ads, etc.) per day in 1996, as compared with 1,500 per day in 1984 (Jhally, 1998). Subsequent estimates of the American consumer’s average daily regimen of advertising exposure range anywhere from 2,500 selling messages per day to well over 5,000 (Pappas, 2000). Faced with an increasingly fast-paced world in which consumers have less free time and more ads vying for their attention, marketers are relying more on shock value to reach consumers. As a result, the content of ads is secondary to their melodramatic form, and tends toward attention-seeking techniques. When viewed cumulatively, these ads produce conditioned sleepwalkers, seemingly content with the constantly intruding distractions and their soul-numbing message of inadequacy bought out by material nirvana. The mantra-like repetition of omnipresent ads forms a calculus of anxiety and jovial conformity, which are key ingredients of the conditioned stimulus-response self.

As Georg Simmel (1950) pointed out, the increasingly quantitative ordering of life in the modern metropolis involves an intensification of both the rational or ‘‘calculating character’’ of consciousness and also of everyday stimuli pouring in on the self. Hence the metropolitan must create a protective organ of rational indifference in order to be free to pursue his or her interests. An individual must develop what he called the ‘‘blase´ attitude,’’ a shield of indifference, to avoid over-stimulation: in short, a protective membrane of self, calibrated to urban life.

And in today’s televised, wired and wireless world, this metropolitan mindset is no longer bounded by the city, but has become the accepted norm of Megatechnic America. Only worse: the blase´ attitude itself has become the focus of marketers, who must find new ways to penetrate its indifference and attract its attention. Within a consumer culture marked by heightened degrees of ‘‘advertising clutter,’’ a premium is placed upon a marketer’s ability to create stimuli that can even break through the marketer-matrix to produce a consumptive response (see Rumbo, 2002). They must produce a self whose blase´ attitude will shield it from its very own deepest needs for self-originated experience, while yet open to the seductions of marketing. This means that marketing must produce a controllable stimulus-response self, which it will then consume, a consumer-incorporated self.

By stimulus-response self, we mean a model of self based on externally stimulated conditioned responses. In the model of the 19th century reflex arc that dominated behaviorist psychology, a stimulus produces a response and that stimulus can be modified in various ways to condition a response. The self, in this outlook, is a conditioned response. By analogy, one can view this self as a dyadic conditioned response to psychological stimuli, to neuro-brain matrices – ‘‘wired-in’’ or not, to socialization, to cultural conventions, etc. But the flip side of the traditional marketing view of the self are the various postmodern views in which the self is simply an arbitrary or conventional social construction, constructed by the conventions of its culture or its contingent activities, both individual and relational. Perhaps we can call this the ‘‘post-stimulus-response self.’’ In these views the self is a function of that which determines it, and the possibility of purposive self-determination is generally excluded. Such views typically ignore the human body itself, that extraordinary organic basis of the self and its sign-making abilities, which remains very much present in human communication and culture. The human self involves developmental natural constructions, which yet require social constructions. To be a self is to be a social construction worker, actively engaged in meaning-making.

By self-originated experience, we mean that the self, though conditionable and though developed through habits of conduct, involves a spontaneous, sensing reasonableness not reducible to its habits and conditioning, one whose purport is self-determination. This self requires the bodily involvement in the moment and the availability of feelings, needs, desires, and goals to make sense of that moment. It requires the awareness needed to continue to be itself in the moment, that is, to determine itself in its environment as a socially autonomous being. It is through the capacity for self-originated experience that we find our freedom (see Halton, 2000, 2005).

Consumer culture, in contrast, promises that the self will find freedom in discarding self-originated experience, in becoming a stimulus-response self. As such, it represents the modern myth of the machine, of the idea that machines will progressively bring freedom. Only here the machine is the marketing system-induced stimulus-response self. Entranced by the magical advertised fetishism of commodities, which target our capacity for self-originated experience, our inner wildness, the stimulus-response self is literally the machine-made flesh.

The living self involves a triadic social transaction with its environment, not a dyadic stimulus response. That transaction with the environment is mediated by what we term the ‘‘membrane of the self,’’ that boundary organ of communication through which the self (1) qualitatively attunes itself to its environment; (2) selectively attends to and filters out various aspects of its environment; and (3) enacts its purposes in transaction with its environment.2 Allow us to briefly illustrate each of these functions.

(1) Qualitative Attunement: Just how does the self qualitatively attune itself to its environment? Consider the example of an Amazonian Amahuaca man, hunting the tinamou bird. He describes the dangers of using birdcalls to capture the tinamou bird:

I backed up between the buttresses of a big tree where the ground could be seen for a good distance in front of me, and I started calling the birds to me. You know that it is dangerous to call the tinamou without the protection of a big tree. The jaguar sometimes comes in to answer the call! The tinamou is also his favorite bird. (Abram, 1996, p. 143)

He needed to become the tinamou sound while also not becoming a tinamou sounding prey for the jaguar. This man’s attunement was literally the tune, the birdcall, the sign, which related his self to the tinamou. Like an advertiser, he had to create a stimulus whose response would put the bird in his hands. The responding tinamou walking within range of his arrow was the interpretation of his bird-call sign. But the possible responding jaguar stalking him was also a potential interpretation, one requiring him to back up between the buttresses of a tree, creating a literal defensive ‘‘membrane,’’ which was also part of his attunement.

In this example we see the significance of empathic intelligence in qualitative attunement to the environment, and how the loss of such an ability could spell the difference between life and death. A ‘‘culture of narcissism,’’ as Lasch (1991) has characterized consumer culture, involves precisely the loss of empathic intelligence as an organ of the membrane of self. This mode of the membrane involves qualitative signification, not reducible to conventional signification. Oddly, many qualitative approaches often appeal to cognitivist and post-structuralist theories which cannot account for qualitative signification, including what Charles Peirce termed ‘‘iconic signs.’’

(2) Selective Attention: Life would be a booming, buzzing confusion – as William James characterized the newborn’s world – if we could not selectively attend to the inpouring information from the environment, including the inner environment of mind. Processing an experience involves more than mechanically recording perceptions like a seismograph, for that is the world of consumption-induced autism. As James (1890) put it:

But the moment one thinks of the matter, one sees how false a notion of experience that is which would make it tantamount to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order. Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind – without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. (p. 402)

One can view the Amahuaca man again from the viewpoint of selective attention, and realize that his concentration on tinamous, jaguars, and protective tree shields involves a transaction that filters out information not relevant to this particular hunt. The same man in the same place on another occasion might select a quite different focus of attention. He might be seeing the food plants or medicinal herbs he needs to consume, and so his attention – and attunement – will require a different transaction. In effect, his membrane of self will put him in a different place while he remains in the same physical space. The ability to pay attention is crucial to autonomy, as attention-deficit disorder (ADD) demonstrates.

(3) Goals of Transactions: If the self were no more than that which attends ‘‘to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order,’’ it would resemble the model of the stimulus-response self we have criticized. But the self is also capable of self-determination, of enacting its purposes in transaction with its environment. We carry purposive habits of conduct into situations, habits that combine cultural values, personal experience and deep-rooted needs, purposive habits to be bodied forth. This third modality of the membrane of the self involves how goals of the self meet a given situation, that is, are realized or revised in a situation, whose larger context is the good life.

Given that we are all immersed in cultural conventions with competing goals, the question is: whose goals are good goals? In the transactional model we are arguing for, those goals which allow self-determination within the context of a good social life provide a basis for an authentic self. Such goals should culminate in a freely acting self, able to be itself with its empathic, spontaneous, and critical intelligence available.

On the other hand, consumer culture offers pseudo-relationships in a pseudo-society of commodities with ‘‘brands whose personalities match (the consumers’) own,’’ as Kotler (2003) asserts. The stimulus-response model of the self follows utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s (1948) dictum that ‘‘nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.’’ That is, individual sensations determine the goal of life in the stimulus-response model, which does not qualify the sources of sensations and is focused on the consumption moment as goal. In contrast, the chief goal of the free self is something more. It is happiness, as opposed to pleasure, and happiness is basically social, deriving primarily from the way we love our family, friends, and neighbors. Pleasure (or pain) is a dyadic individual response, but happiness is a triadic social relation, inherently relating individual to the social realities of the good life.

And the good life ultimately involves more than a good family life, or neighborhood, or city, or society. It involves a felt-connectedness to the community of life of which we remain a part, on which we depend, and whose filaments reach deeply into the very way our human, primate, mammalian bodies are made. That is, a truly sustainable and interconnected happiness entails relation to and respect for ‘‘the others’’ of the living environment that we are consuming and therefore are responsible to (Shepard, 1996; Halton, 2006). We contend that such a self, intrinsically embedded in social relations, is capable of self-originated experience and real selfhood.


We now turn to a critical analysis of Kotler’s (2003) Marketing Management3 that will illustrate how applications of a corporate model of self have informed marketers’ strategies. Kotler lucidly outlines this model in a chapter entitled ‘‘Analyzing Consumer Markets and Buyer Behavior’’ (pp. 182–214). Specifically, the ‘‘model of buyer behavior’’ that unfolds in this chapter hinges upon the relationship between stimuli (whether from marketing or other sources) and the consumer’s response (pp. 183–184). Here response refers to the buyer’s actual purchases, which are linked to outside stimuli by the two main components of what Kotler calls ‘‘the buyer’s consciousness:’’ the consumer’s various sociocultural and personal ‘‘characteristics,’’ and his/her purchase-driven ‘‘decision process.’’

This is not to suggest that decision processes are consistent across all consumers and all products. Kotler notes that consumer buying behavior varies according to the degree of differentiation among brands in a certain product class and the degree of involvement typically required of the consumer for that product (pp. 200–202). Goods that are more expensive, durable, self-expressive, infrequently purchased, and/or whose purchase involves greater risk are more likely to warrant ‘‘high involvement’’ in the buying process, while cheaper and more frequently purchased items tend toward ‘‘low involvement’’ (see Assael, 1987). Buying behaviors are then divided according to whether there are significant differences between brands in a given product class.

Especially for lower involvement items in which there are fewer differences between brands, the composite sketch of the consumer is that of a passive recipient of marketer-controlled stimuli designed to condition her/ him to ‘‘behave’’ accordingly through the successive stages of the buying decision process. In order, these stages are ‘‘problem recognition,’’ ‘‘information search,’’ ‘‘evaluation of alternatives,’’ ‘‘purchase decision,’’ and lastly ‘‘post-purchase behavior’’ (p. 204).

Marketers specialize in creating specific selling messages whose stimuli are designed to prompt consumers to move forward through the first three of these stages. Although Kotler notes that the recognition of a consumer problem or need ‘‘can be triggered by internal or external stimuli’’ (p. 204), advertising messages that prey upon our inadequacies, anxieties, and/or insecurities have a rich history of ‘‘triggering a particular need.’’ As they meticulously craft representations of consumers that portray the self as a deficient social atom to be completed through specific acts of consumption, marketers provide the external impetus for converting shortcomings into problems (e.g., a lack of sexual drive becomes a ‘‘dysfunction’’ to be treated with Viagra), and wants into needs. Consuming to remedy such ‘‘problems’’ and meet such ‘‘needs’’ frequently creates socially legitimized norms. Consequently, goods that were formerly considered luxuries (like cell phones, DVD players, or palm pilots) become ‘‘must-have’’ accessories for today’s technologically savvy consumer.

In the succeeding ‘‘information search’’ stage, Kotler allows for the more deliberative components of the ‘‘buyer’s consciousness.’’ Despite this, he maintains that the marketer’s primary task is to develop strategies (stimuli) to impact consumers’ purchase decisions (responses). Depending on the amount and types of information sought for a given product, the hypothetical consumer narrows his/her choices from an ‘‘awareness set,’’ to a ‘‘consideration set,’’ to a ‘‘choice set’’ from which the final purchase decision is made (p. 205). Marketers design selling messages in order to ensure that consumers will: (1) become aware of their product; (2) consider purchasing their product; and (3) prefer their product above other competing alternatives. These messages resemble the three modalities of the membrane of the self; with specific marketing stimuli prompting the consumer to (1) qualitatively attune to a perceived problem in social relations; (2) selectively filter out competing products; and (3) enact the marketer’s desired purpose, which is to imprint and habituate the preferred or chosen product as part of the consumer’s own values and image of self.

For Kotler, once consumers have narrowed their alternatives to a ‘‘choice set,’’ they must evaluate the alternatives within that set by calculating the salience and importance of various product attributes (p. 205). Again, the marketer is there to ‘‘assist’’ the consumer throughout the evaluation process with advertisements that highlight a product’s attributes in order to alert the consumer to their benefits (pp. 205–206). For example, a car that features a more powerful engine delivers the benefits of increased acceleration, greater maneuverability through traffic, and the projection of a ‘‘sporty’’ image for the driver. Marketers also influence the evaluation process by developing marketing campaigns designed to inculcate a positive ‘‘set of brand beliefs’’ or ‘‘brand image’’ in the consumer’s mind (p. 206). With diminished consumer attention spans and increased competition from competing advertisers, the cultivation of brand images is ultimately cumulative, involving repetitive, long-term exposure to a brand’s ads, logos, and other selling messages.

The better the marketing mix that urges consumers through these steps in the decision process, the greater likelihood that more consumers will eventually decide to purchase a given product. Once the consumer passes through the two intervening factors between intent and actual purchase (‘‘attitudes of others’’ and ‘‘unanticipated situational factors’’) to arrive at a purchase decision, the marketer has met his/her ultimate explicit objective of inducing purchase (p. 207), and the consumer responds by buying say, a Toyota, a Pepsi, some Nikes, or a Big Mac.


Although the relationship between marketing stimuli and consumer response would suggest that the marketer-matrix is a fairly reliable and proven system for inducing consumers to purchase sponsored goods and services, recent changes in society and its intensified marketing communications environment suggest otherwise. A consumer socialization process involving exposure to an ever-increasing gauntlet of selling messages has prompted seasoned and wary consumers to develop a plethora of ‘‘ad avoidance’’ strategies to evade marketer colonization (Speck & Elliott, 1997; Rumbo, 2002). Amidst heightened competition and greater advertising clutter, marketers have had to confront the fact that today’s jaded consumer is more likely to circumvent, abandon, and/or avoid each stage of the buyer decision process. Having grown weary from having to manage excess marketing stimuli, such a consumer is markedly more evasive and difficult for marketers to reach.

Marketer strategies have evolved in response to this consumer’s more ‘‘blase´ attitude’’ toward advertising. Consider the words of Mark Gobe´ (2001) who appropriates the critical term ‘‘branding,’’ transforming it from a negative description of consumers habituated to brand names to a desirable goal of the advertiser:

Regardless of the medium, from the perspective of Emotional Branding it is essential to start any advertising endeavor with the acknowledgment that there is a new and savvy and marketing-tefloned consumer out there who is ready to act as a tough interlocutor. In your face visibility and brand dominance was a very nineties idea, but consumers in the new millennium expect more sensitivity and honesty from the brands they like and will appreciate those that will respect their spiritual and physical environment. (p. 222)

Gobe´ calls this ‘‘a new sincerity,’’ but it is just the marketer-matrix’s response of increased calculation to the stimulus of blase´-fied consumers. Dullness to ‘‘in your face visibility,’’ not awareness of it, was the apparent problem marketers needed to address, even as they disguise it from themselves as ‘‘sensitivity and honesty.’’ In our view it was simply the increased complexity of the stimulus-field presented by emergent electronic media and by increased competition between marketers themselves.

Marketers are thus faced with the reality that consumers are more likely to resist their efforts on numerous fronts. Kotler alludes to some of these resistance efforts in his section on ‘‘learning,’’ which ‘‘involves changes in an individual’s behavior arising from experience’’ (p. 197). According to Kotler, through cumulative experiences of sifting through largely superfluous and unsolicited marketing information, the consumer learns to develop strategies for filtering out unwanted selling messages and, in our estimation, for protecting the self against corporate colonization. For example, consumers have learned to use their remote controls to ‘‘zap’’ particular ads, whether by changing channels, pressing ‘‘mute,’’ or, for videotaped programs, hitting the ‘‘fast-forward’’ button. In these and other ‘‘ad avoidance’’ strategies (e.g., throwing away junk mail or deleting internet ‘‘pop-up’’ ads), experience gained by responding to marketing stimuli supplants self-originated experience.

In response to this, marketers have refined their matrix by developing more manipulative and captivating strategies for reaching consumers with their selling messages, such as the use of perceptual cues ‘‘that determine when, where, and how a person responds’’ (p. 197). In turn, these strategies have informed a more nuanced reformulation of the corporate model of self. In responding to the rapidly proliferating stimuli from today’s marketing landscape, this model views the self as being marginally engaged in the management of his/her protective membrane.

Kotler’s discussion of ‘‘perception’’ (p. 197) further illustrates the obstacles that a cluttered marketing environment poses for marketers trying to reach today’s consumer. In it, he identifies three reasons why different people may not come to perceive the same stimulus object consistently: ‘‘selective attention,’’ ‘‘selective distortion,’’ and ‘‘selective retention.’’ The first of these, ‘‘selective attention,’’ is comparable to our second modality of the membrane of the self. Echoing James (1890), this principle simply states that each consumer tends to notice certain types of stimuli, such as those that he/she anticipates, or that relate to a consumer’s current need. Again, marketers must ensure that the stimuli in their selling messages stand out amidst ad clutter and cut through the blase´ attitude of their targeted message recipients, thus giving each ad a greater likelihood of penetrating the membrane’s selective filtering process.

Next, Kotler’s notion of ‘‘selective distortion’’ refers to ‘‘the tendency to twist information into personal meanings and interpret information in a way that will fit our preconceptions’’ (p. 197). This obviously poses problems for marketers who depend heavily on an undiluted transference of their intended selling message to consumers. Even when a message successfully eludes the membrane of the self, it can still be altered by its recipient. Although Kotler concedes that selective distortion is beyond marketer control (p. 197), many ads convey meanings that are either impossible to misinterpret or intentionally vague, ensuring that most consumers’ interpretations neither overshadow nor dilute the ad’s central message.

Lastly, Kotler’s notion of ‘‘selective retention’’ concedes that a message may be forgotten by the consumer once it is successfully delivered. To alleviate this, marketers frequently rely on ‘‘drama and repetition in sending messages to their target markets’’ (p. 197). Additionally, violence, shocking or odd subject matter, fast-paced imagery, and loud music – which also seek the consumer’s ‘‘selective attention’’ – are formulaic elements used increasingly by marketers to raise the likelihood that an ad will make an enduring impression in the minds and bodies of its targeted recipients.

The use of these devices to target the impulsive openings of the self demonstrates how cutting-edge marketing strategies extend beyond rational cognition and stimulus-response manipulation to the realm of affect and emotion. Whether used to trigger positive attitudes toward a particular product or negative reactions toward a competing alternative, these strategies attempt to simulate an affective state or touch an emotional chord. In so doing, they seek out impulsive openings in the habituated consumer-incorporated self. Moreover, the use of more visceral avenues for manipulating the consumer’s sense of perception extends to other biosocially rooted aspects of the self, as evidenced by marketers who study the ‘‘facial response system’’ in order to elicit desired bodily sensations (Cacioppo, Losch, Tassinary, & Petty, 1986).

Having thus refined their model of the consumer into a ‘‘consumer-incorporated’’ self, today’s marketers systematically navigate the self’s psychological and biophysical components as integrated pathways for the delivery of selling messages. Ironically, the many deft constructions of the expanding marketer-matrix ape the real self to produce substitute ‘‘gut reactions’’ for their targeted recipients. As this matrix continues to adapt and ‘‘evolve,’’ the dynamic struggle over selfhood between consumers and marketers has intensified. The following section examines ‘‘lifestyle marketing’’ as a contemporary arena in which this struggle is currently being contested.


To reiterate, the reception of marketing communication is mediated by the membrane of the self, that boundary that lies between the real self and the idealized ‘‘consumer-incorporated’’ self. Everyday attempts to resist corporate colonization dictate that the membrane of the self is an ongoing site of contestation; a site wherein the self’s in-tempered psychological and bio-physical aspects meet the seductive allure of incorporeal images of self represented in ads and in commodities. For in this space between the real self and consumer-incorporated self lay vigorously and perpetually renegotiated sites of struggle over meaning, and ultimately, over definitions of self.

Consumers struggling to protect the sanctity of their selfhood against the relentless incursions of marketers must nurture this protective membrane, constantly adapting it to remedy perceptual gaps that are exposed by new marketing strategies. Nurturing this membrane requires the advent of filters for weeding out superfluous and unwanted selling messages. These filters constitute the membrane’s innermost layer of defense against corporate colonization, a boundary that, much like Kotler’s ‘‘buyer’s consciousness,’’ is situated between marketing (and other external) stimuli and the consumer’s purchase decisions (pp. 183–184).

As the corporate players struggle to colonize consumers, marketers are rewarded on the basis of their ability to successfully evade the filtering membrane of the self in order to deliver a selling message to targeted recipients. For a selling message to get through these filters, it must locate points of entry at which the ad’s depicted lifestyle practices resonate closely with the consumer’s innermost desires and consumptive preferences. Having safely passed through the membrane’s filters, the good or service that a selling message promotes can be intricately woven into the consumer’s lifestyle practices and ‘‘identity constructions’’ and, consequently, into his/her idealized image of self. To the extent that the self’s identity is bound up with consumer culture, the membrane itself is compromised, no longer serving the autonomous needs of the self but increasingly attuned to the means of consumption as the basis for experience.

The idea that the membrane of the self contains ‘‘points of entry’’ for corporate selling messages follows from the notion that, as consumers, each of us has certain lifestyle-based preferences that implicate us squarely within the sphere of mass-marketed consumption. Evidencing a twentieth century shift in marketing practices away from the predominance of demographic categories and toward more individuated ‘‘taste cultures,’’ locating various points of entry has largely become the purview of ‘‘lifestyle marketing’’ or psychographics (Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1997). To take the example of the auto, a point of entry emerges (and filters are penetrated) when a marketing message persuades the consumer that a certain brand or class of autos is most congruent with his/her lifestyle and image of self. Accordingly, a yuppie corporate climber prefers BMWs, a teenage girl seeking her first car wants a Geo Prizm, an assimilated rebel from the 1970s covets a new VW beetle, a ‘‘soccer mom’’ housewife desires a minivan, a young musician gravitates toward a cool new Pontiac Vibe, and a rugged outdoorsman just has to have a Ford Expedition sport-utility vehicle (SUV).4

Advertising the commodity as though it were made for your unique lifestyle, corporate culture further differentiates the ‘‘Sloanism,’’ the replication of the American class system through automobiles developed in the 1950s by longtime General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan. Paradoxically, while Americans do not like to admit the existence of class, a ‘‘unique’’ lifestyle is a badge of honor and status, even when it is associated with a mass-produced brand of auto. Individuals are expected to own automobiles in America, and every auto is both a statement of self and a vulnerable zone for the membrane of self. The very term ‘‘automobile’’ means self-moving, and the auto is a commodity that too easily lends itself to use as an externally projected image of self. Ironically, the auto informs marketing constructions designed to ‘‘move’’ the consumer to incorporate the automobile as a necessary part of his/her identity and image of self.

Lifestyle marketers mine the latest trends in fashion and culture in order to target different market clusters. These clusters are grouped according to psychographic classification systems, including the popular VALS (values and lifestyle systems) typology and the ‘‘technographics’’ framework (see Kotler, p. 194). Reflecting the zeitgeist of contemporary marketing thought, both of these systems view consumer resources as a function of knowledge and income. VALS divides consumers into eight basic categories according to whether one has high or low resources, and whether one is principle-, status-, or action-oriented, while technographics segments technology markets into nine consumer groups on the basis of affluence, optimism versus pessimism, and whether consumers are more career-, family-, or entertainment-oriented (pp. 192–194). A more variegated typology is the PRIZM system, which consists of 62 clusters divided into 15 socioeconomic groupings (Weiss, 2000, pp. 11–13). The increased differentiation in psychographic typologies gives testimony both to the purported fragmentation of consumer society into more particularistic lifestyle-based clusters, and to the abilities of the all-devouring consumption complex to find, target, and assimilate the citizenry to its ‘‘consumer-incorporated’’ model of self.

Exemplifying trends toward the increased individuation of consumers and the personalization of strategies used to reach them, Kotler defines the consumer’s lifestyle as ‘‘the person’s pattern of living in the world as expressed in the person’s activities, interests, and opinions’’ (p. 191). More significantly, Kotler’s assertion that ‘‘Lifestyle portrays the ‘whole person’ interacting with his or her environment’’ (pp. 191–192) assumes that the quantifiable consumer genuinely exhibits the whole person. We contend that this assumption further illustrates the mechanized, dehumanizing pathos of consumer culture.

Once the membrane’s filters are eluded and the self has been colonized, the consumer-incorporated self tends to ‘‘interact’’ passively with the marketing environment in lieu of cultivating purposeful transactions with natural and social environments. Having had its filters penetrated, new vulnerabilities in the membrane of the self are exposed. This exposure weakens boundaries between the real self and the consumer-incorporated self to enable a more efficient and thorough colonization.

This corporate model of self seems closer to Gergen’s (1991) ‘‘saturated self,’’ which is a malleable product of social construction (see Halton, 2004). Lifestyle marketers seize upon the consumer’s desire to ‘‘construct’’ multiple, situation-specific subjectivities to locate points of entry for ‘‘identity marketing’’ strategies (Klein, 1999). This pseudo-personalization constitutes nothing less than the ‘‘branding’’ of selfhood, which is a cumulative process of corporate logo indoctrination that begins with the targeting of young children and a socializing process that merges the real biosocial needs of the pre-consumption self with those of the marketer-matrix.

Lifestyle marketers forge this merger by skillfully combining an admixture of scholarly research efforts (ranging from psychology, demography, sociology, and physiology to psychoanalysis, literary criticism, and cultural studies) in order to blur people’s perceptual boundaries and obfuscate the social and environmental consequences of consumption culture. As core architects of the marketer-matrix, their relentless onslaught of selling messages animates the lifeless world of corporate goods with a certain spectatorial pseudo-reverence that numbs the self’s critical faculties and bodily reactions. The end result is that Megatechnic America produces drone-like consumption-based identities that are at odds with the active citizenry required by a democracy.

However, we hold that the ultimate goal of lifestyle marketers’ slickly packaged formulae is to install consumption-based identities that desire pleasure and comfort while eschewing self-originated experience and happiness. Consequently, authentic and purposive experiences are supplanted in favor of the conditioned consumptive experiences of the stimulus-response self. The following transcript of a televised ad for Ford’s line of SUVs and an imagined consumer’s commentary on it are presented to provide an example of how lifestyle marketers’ stimuli seek to condition consumers to cultivate identities through lifestyle-based consumption and, ultimately, to supplant self-originated experience.



A lush green canopy of trees … a breathtaking view of a green valley set against a snowcapped mountainous backdrop … a rugged middle-aged fisherman baits his hook and casts his line into the water … a wistful mountain crooner wails over slow, mournful guitar chords … as a Ford Expedition SUV appears by the river, the fisherman confides: ‘‘To me, this isn’t a hobby … or even a sport. It’s an obsession. So if I can’t get out to this exact spot, at this exact time of year, I may as well be bowling.’’ A Ford Expedition rambles through lush off-road countryside … then the entire line of Ford SUVs darts across the majestic landscape … ‘‘Get out there! In Expedition, from your Ford Outfitter – outfitting you with the most far-reaching sport-utilities on earth. Ford Outfitters: no boundaries.’’ Lastly, the fisherman releases a trout into the river.

Response of Armchair Ad Critic: Joe Sixpack’s Revelation

Would you get a load of this ad? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like nature and all. But what is this ad trying to sell me, in the middle of my sports watching weekend? It seems to be the idea that I can easily ‘‘get out there’’ if I would only go and visit my local Ford Outfitter. But I’m a city guy, a burned-out weekend couch potato who is sick and tired of all these ads. And I could care less about this fisherman and his ‘‘obsession.’’ Hell, I’ve got my own obsessions. Fantasy Football. Porn. Beer. Pizza. (Just to name a few.)

But what’s up with this guy and his fishing obsession? Why does he need to ‘‘get out there’’ into the wild frontier? Judging by the looks of him, I wonder how this fat old guy even gets out of the house. Boundaries? I’ve got boundaries for ya, pal. Why don’t you put a padlock on your fridge? Or your snack cupboard?

And while I’m on the subject, what is up with this campfire music? It does seem a bit out of place, especially when they show that manly fisherman. Peter, Paul, and Mary meet Grizzly Adams? And finally, am I really supposed to believe this guy just catches fish so that he can release them back into the river? Obviously it doesn’t look like he’s missed a meal in a long time. Why the sudden change of heart?

That’s it. This ad is probably about that shit I keep hearing in the news. About SUVs polluting the environment, and how car companies keep on making them and consumers like me keep on buying them, even though tree-hugger groups keep on protesting against them. Maybe Ford thinks that if their ad shows some fisherman putting a fish back into the river, then their customers will think that buying a Ford SUV is good for the environment.

I don’t know, but then again I don’t really care. After all, there are too many car ads anyway, and many of them are even worse than this one. And this stuff about global warming and spotted owls isn’t my problem. I’m just one consumer among billions. I just want them to get back to the playoffs so that I don’t have to sit through all these ads. Because in the end, all I need to know is the score of my ballgame, not what Ford SUVs look like. Oh yeah, I forgot, I’m gonna have to tape this game. My wife’s at the in-laws this weekend, and I’ve got to hop in my Jeep and take the kids to their soccer game. Oh well, happy viewing! And if you’re shopping for an SUV, happy consuming, and happy polluting too! Gas away, if you can pay for it! Tell the next tree hugger you see out there protesting that Ford sent ya.

(Fade from the Living Room …)

As our armchair ad critic illustrates, the stylistic elements in this thirty-second network television spot are readily observable: accompanied by campfire-like guitar and emotive tenor vocals, shots of our rogue fishing protagonist are woven into an exhilarating sequence of natural settings. The juxtaposition of the SUV with nature is another common formulaic device found in SUV ads. The main narrative that emerges is that the ‘‘far reaching’’ Ford Expedition makes it possible for the driver to forage deeper into the wilderness. In so doing, this ad symbolically obliterates geographical boundaries separating consumers from nature.

However, what is most illuminating is the extent to which the ad uses the language of necessity to forge a deep connection between the Ford Expedition and the fisherman’s self-image, a connection that obliterates the boundaries between his real and consumer-incorporated selves. Spurred by burgeoning SUV sales and the widespread popularity of outdoor leisure pursuits, Ford adopted the moniker ‘‘outfitters’’ to position their line of SUVs as another logical extension to the ‘‘outfitting’’ of recreating consumers. In this ad, the fisherman’s ‘‘far reaching’’ SUV constitutes the mechanized conduit to nature that enables him to ‘‘get out there’’ and pursue his recreational drug of choice, fishing. Accordingly, our fisherman readily concedes that, for him, fishing is ‘‘an obsession,’’ a lifestyle pursuit upon which his consumption-based identity is predicated. The language of addiction here is more than arbitrary or unmotivated; it evidences a merging of the fisherman’s needs to the promotional needs of the advertiser. Having undergone this merger, the fisherman’s life would be utterly meaningless without his Ford Expedition and the annual rendezvous with his favorite fishing hole that it makes possible: ‘‘So if I can’t get out to this exact spot, at this exact time of year, I may as well be bowling.’’

Perhaps no other advertising genre better exemplifies the many intersecting boundary problematics in the struggle for selfhood in consumer culture than ads for big sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). As the autonomous social self struggles to breathe under the weight of the marketer-matrix and its consumptive trappings, nature becomes a nameless, faceless, and voiceless ‘‘other’’ that exists merely to provide humans with entertainment and to fuel the production of consumer goods. As a result, the autonomous self becomes further alienated from its real biosocial sources, even as it is blitzed with ersatz images of them.


Consumer culture’s marketer-matrix has colonized American public space to such an extent that it is an invisible opiate: people do not complain that they pay to see a movie, and then are subjected to paid commercials in the movie theater; educators willingly install the means of commercial seduction in schools, as though ‘‘free,’’ so that children can be conditioned to McBurgermind in the classroom. People do not see this as the child pornography it is, nor do they see advertising as the soul-sucking it is. Would that Joe Sixpack could respond with the revelation we depicted earlier.

Advertising is the opiate of the people, and corporate arm of a vast megamachine system that would reduce the live self to stimulus-response closure. It is a cultural form of electro-chemical indoctrination, feeding the self with virtual emotions, with effects on the self similar to that of biochemical dependencies (see Halton, 2000). Yet the human self is far more than a servo-mechanism, a meat computer.

How could the dehumanized conception of the self taught to marketers and used in making the advertising propaganda machine be reformed to better accord with democratic values and the relatively autonomous selves democracy requires? In our view they probably cannot be internally reformed. The American marketing machine is a virtual pitbull, which needs to be muzzled from without. Show it an emotional view of the self, and it targets it for manipulation. Show it human needs for empathy and common decency in social relations, and it makes of them the stuff to sell stuff. Show it the argument for self-originated experience we are making here, and it would simply incorporate the idea in the service of selling an ersatz version of it back to people, further separating them from themselves.

Instead, we need to create marketing muzzles, advertising leashes, means of protecting citizens from being brain-rinsed (the soft form of brain-washing that is advertising) into becoming consumer-incorporated selves. How to do this? By limiting the infiltration of ads into schools, by reversing the ever-increased amount of time given to television advertising per hour, by creating ‘‘advertising-free’’ environments modeled after ‘‘smoke-free’’ ones, by placing severe constraints on the form and content of children’s advertising. In short, by promoting institutional membranes which serve the needs of the autonomous self.

Advertising for children should be treated as a direct assault on the indigenous developmental needs of the growing child. It should be treated as virtual child pornography. The former president of the Kids-R-Us clothing store once famously said, ‘‘If you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, ‘Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger.’’’ Such attitudes need to be muzzled by democratic sanctions to protect the sacrosanct developing self. And if it means no financial support for children’s television programming, then public promotion of shows should enlarge, or the shows, and the sugarizing and fast food industries which sponsor them, should bow out. Either way means that the citizenry needs to step up to the plate to protect its youth from the culture that would consume them.

A society of ‘‘owned’’ consumers, programmed to consume, is the death of democracy. And it is precisely the society we are in the final stages of perfecting today. The great enemy of America is not the outer terrorist, but the inner automaton, corporately conditioned to respond to commercial stimuli, and to ignore non-commercial basics of everyday life, the arts and crafts of domestic and civic life. It knows how to buy, but has forgotten how to live. America today is the dream of invulnerability. Americans are scrambling to find the equivalent of ‘‘security’’ through material and technical invulnerability, through the pseudo-choice world of consumption: McMore is McBetter. The problem is that material invulnerability is the equivalent of the zombie, who has defected from living, from being vulnerable to life. The truly invulnerable humans are the living dead, imprisoned within a false consumer-incorporated membrane of self. ‘‘To change for the better’’ demands vulnerability, the capability of being moved, of empathy, of criticism: all capacities of the autonomous self. Democracy demands both awareness and vulnerability, as a life in common. Yet Megatechnic America seems bent on dimming or eradicating both.

Against the great propaganda apparatus that fuels Megatechnic America, matrix-like, with the virtual batteries of consumer-incorporated selves, stands a great potential adversary: the living human body-mind, manifest in the developmental needs and capacities of the autonomous self. That self, when allowed to develop, finds the capacity for empathy in the crucial bonding and separation from the mother between the ages of about one and half and three. It finds bases for emotional sensing, imaginative awareness, self-originated experience, and autonomy when reared in nurturing conditions. Those conditions require a vulnerability to the child’s surrounds, one that cannot be allowed to be exploited by marketing socialization. And a truly autonomous adult self is one engaged in, and vulnerable to, its surrounds, to loved ones, to everyday life.

In the great battle for the soul of the self that is the site of consumer culture, the autonomous social self, rooted deeply in our evolutionary past, is virtually an endangered ‘‘species,’’ apparently overpowered by ‘‘consumer incorporated’’ and the automatic culture of ‘‘invulnerability’’ it represents. Yet it remains our greatest resource. The autonomous self is one capable of qualitative awareness, of selective attention, of self-determining its goals and of revising them when needed: all aspects of what we have called the membrane of self, through which we mediate our contact with the world without and within. The autonomous self is one capable of consuming, and of taking joy in consuming, without being itself consumed.


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  1. Kotler is a world-renowned marketing authority and professor of International Marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
  2. An earlier variation of this three-fold distinction was developed in Chapter 7 of Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981). See Rochberg-Halton (1986) for a discussion of Peirce’s three-fold semiotic distinctions.
  3. All unnamed page citations and mentions of Kotler in the following sections refer to Kotler (2003).
  4. As B. Joseph Pine, a business consultant and author of the forthcoming book, Authenticity: The New Consumer Sensibility, earnestly put it in an interview with The New York Times concerning vintage brands, ‘‘Authenticity is becoming the new buying criterion. If people remember them from their youth, they perceive them as authentic. That’s when they formed much of their own self-image. Their identity matches the product’s identity’’ (LaFerla, 2006).