I've not got the power: cultural consumers and our wallets

As consumers, we should have a lot of power. It’s our money that companies want, our money for which marketing strategies are devised, to help us to part with our cash for things we either want or didn’t realise we wanted. (And sometimes things we didn't want that we knew we didn't want but still had foisted upon us anyway: viz, the critical backlash against U2's latest album appearing as a free 'gift' to users of iTunes. Ouch). Audiences are turned into commodities, entities with profiles and habits towards which companies can tailor their marketing campaigns to achieve maximum efficiency, that supermarkets can index and target with specific adverts for products relevant to particular consumer groups. Products are matched with relevant consumers, with advertising crafted to appeal specifically to them alone.


The culture industries are no exception to this: as consumers of culture, we are also labelled, profiled and targeted: how often have you been asked to fill out a questionnaire that came with a CD, or sign up for promotional features by an arts organisation’s website, or been confronted by a pop-up survey on a website saying ‘your views are important to us ?’


The cost of producing a cultural commodity for popular consumption is balanced against consumer group spending power: cost-effectiveness is key.  Ticket prices for concerts and exhibitions, the number of dates on a performing tour, number of nights’ run on a show: all these are factors in off-setting production costs against income recovered. Competition for audiences in the cultural sector must be huge.


If, as consumers, we are so important to arts industries, if companies and organisations are so desperate to attract our custom, and hence our cash, why aren’t we wielding more power ? Why aren’t promoters offering us things that we do want to visit, to see or hear ? Why isn’t competition for audiences and for ticket-sales translating into a Golden Age of Artistic Production and consumption ?

The loyalty-card schemes run by supermarkets are a tool for helping them define customers in terms of the products they purchase regularly. A person who buys nappies and powdered formula milk is probably a good target for money-off vouchers for baby food and clothing; but it’s getting harder to divide consumers so easily across the wider spectrum when looking at their cultural consumption. It’s easier to run a list of products someone purchases from a supermarket, and ascertain what they purchase regularly and what related products might be of interest. It’s perhaps less easy to do this with someone’s cultural predilections (unless companies can access one’s browsing history, and assuming one does most of one’s reading and listening on-line).


As Nicholas Garnham writes, ‘’What analysis of the cultural industries does bring home to us is the need to take the question [...] of cultural resources seriously, together with the question of audiences – who they are, how they are formed, and how they can best be served’ (my italics) (from ‘Concepts of Culture – public policy and the cultural industries’, printed in Gray and McGuigan, Studying Culture, 1993: 60-61). That last part is crucial: as far as dis-empowering the spending power of cultural audiences is concerned, companies are more likely to prefer ‘how they can best be manipulated.’


Why are we often dissatisfied with what we are offered ? One only has to read the critics’ columns in the papers to read of another disappointing exhibition, an artist’s newly-released album that’s a let-down or another mindless summer action blockbuster film.


Perhaps it’s complicated by the plurality of society, both in terms of consumer group identities as well as the multiple streams by which culture can be created and consumed. Society is too diverse in its interests to be formed into meaningful or significant groups, easily able to be defined. With everything from medieval music to Muse, Botticelli to Bacon, Chaucer to Chomsky, it’s difficult to define individual consumer bases as having a specific taste that makes them a marketing consultant’s dream: the intellectual who reads Schopenhauer, listens to Slipknot and Webern, is vegetarian, likes Studio Ghibli films and paintings by Monet would be a marketing nightmare. Television schedules, similarly, of course have to please as wide a spectrum of viewers as they can, and what is enjoyable to one is dross to another. Programming choices are going to upset somebody somewhere; but why appeal to the lowest-common denominator, when there is scope to engage, challenge, educate and entertain audiences, all of whom pay the same licence fee ? Why should one person's love of contemporary music be sacrificed by the axing of new pieces from Proms re-broadcasts on BBC4 for the sake of someone else's love of prog-rock docs ?


I don’t have a simple answer to the question of why we, as cultural consumers, don’t have more power in our wallets. Perhaps the realisation that we ought to is enough to start with. It’s time to start using our power more effectively. How we begin to do that is another question.

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