To comprehend contemporary cultures and practices of consumption, it is vital to understand the form in which ‘social actors’ define, perceive and govern their relationship with commodities (Sassatelli, 2007). The concept and dynamics of self-identity, the symbolic meaning of goods, and the role played by brands are key determinants for marketer’s understanding of post-modern consumption (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998). Aldridge (2003) proposes a classification of images of consumers, concerned with the social construction of consumers in Western discourse about consumption. The classification analyses that discourse and examines what it tells us about the ways we construct our society and ourselves. This involves four different images of consumers: the rational actor, communicator, victim and dupe.
With origins in economics, the rational actor combines an ordered approach to the decision-making process and self-interest motivation (Jack et al, 2010). Economics disciplines assume that consumers behave rationally in pursuit of their self-interest. The ‘economic man’ is calculative and selfish, however, the glory of free market capitalism allows people to be free, creative and prosperous because society runs on self-interest, not altruism. Although the economist’s rational choice approach focuses on the consumer as a rational actor, it can deal fairly well with two of the remaining three types. First, it recognises victims, who make poor choices because they behave irrationally, lack objective information, and can be swindled. Second, the rational choice approach can embrace the consumer and communicator. Luxury goods, for example, are not a problem for rational choice theory (Aldridge, 2003).
The communicator characterises its origins in sociology and anthropology, it is represented as using consumption as means of achieving symbolic exchange (Jack et al, 2010). The focus on communication reflects the dominant concerns in sociology and cultural studies. It is a vivid illustration of what Campbell (1995) has called ‘the communicative act paradigm’. Consumption is interpreted as the exchange of symbols between actors who convey messages about their lifestyle and identity. Here, instrumentality does not exist since we never buy things simply because they are useful. The communicator consumes as an activity to convey symbolic messages to others and themselves. Material objects serve as meanings, such as social status (Simmel, 1957).
Victims are consumers who have made poor decisions, are subject to scams, or have been incorrectly informed (Greener et al, 2009). They are victims of the “system” in the sense that they have suffered loss or disadvantage through consumption (Jack et al, 2010). Examples include purchasing unwitting forgeries or stolen goods, making unwise investments, or mis-sold financial products by reputable banks. According to Aldridge (2003), rational choice theory “celebrates success rather than failure, and has a disposition to blame the victim, as in the principle of caveat emptor”. On this view, victims are rightly condemned for their foolishness and should not be compensated for it.
Finally, the dupe is subject to control and surveillance though consumption (Jack et al, 2010), and manipulated from ‘real needs’ (Marcuse, 1964). This is because marketers are cultural engineers that manage how people think and feel through branded commercial products. The notion of the dupe can be illustrated through analysis of the cultural practice of eating in restaurants (Finkelstein, 1989). According to Finkelstein (1989), consumers are misguided when they think of eating out as convenient and enjoyable, because the structural reality is artificial and controlled.