In general, markets and marketing are recognized as closely related to social welfare—sometimes with negative implications for the impact of marketing on consumer vulnerability. Indeed, the evolving concept and emerging articulation of consumer vulnerability suggest opportunities for new and potentially expansive perspectives. To reduce consumer vulnerability in communities and around the globe, it is necessary to build on the extant frameworks in ways that might inspire fresh thinking and appropriate policies and efficacious practices for intervention. Toward this end, the current essay provides an expanded conceptualization of vulnerability. Specifically, the authors define two key consumer characteristics related to vulnerability: knowledge of beneficial means–ends relationships (analogous to cultural capital) and access to beneficial means (analogous to economic capital). Cross-classifying the presence or absence of these two characteristics produces four main types of consumer vulnerability: doubly vulnerable, economically vulnerable, culturally vulnerable, and invulnerable (all regarded as temporary, situational, or potentially changeable in nature). The authors discuss each type and amplify them further by suggesting various ways marketing has been (mis)used to take advantage of economically, culturally, and doubly vulnerable consumers. All this indicates that (1) vulnerability is a relative term and exists along a continuum, with gray areas between its extremes; (2) there is a multiplicity of areas in which various degrees of vulnerability may occur, with differences among people such that any given person is likely to display low vulnerability in some areas but high vulnerability in others; (3) any given person’s vulnerability in some area may differ from one situation to the next; (4) everyone—young or old, healthy or ill, rich or poor, domestic or foreign—has found or will find themselves, at one time or another, in a position of vulnerability; (5) (in)vulnerability is in no way synonymous or commensurate with moral (im)propriety; and (6) vulnerability may reflect a dangerous zero-sum game that characterizes the U.S. socioeconomic system, such that Americans bask in pleasant consumption experiences while others around the world remain disenfranchised, exploited, and comparatively more vulnerable. Paradoxically, although marketing fuels the fires of vulnerability in ways too numerous to count, marketing also offers hope in reducing the damage caused by consumer vulnerability. Research on these issues and on potential solutions to the problems of consumer vulnerability is badly needed, as are collaborative efforts by marketers, policy makers, and consumer/citizen stakeholders to design and to manage sustainable, equitable, profitable marketing systems that address the relevant issues. Should the focus of marketers tilt toward such a grand challenge—that is, to create market systems that can reduce consumer vulnerability, locally and globally—the hand-wringing, attacks of conscience, and cris de coeur so often evinced by marketing scholars would mercifully melt away.
Clifford J. Shultz II (PhD, Columbia University) is a professor and Marley Foundation Chair at the Arizona State University, Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness. His research is largely oriented toward marketing and socioeconomic development; he is administering research projects and consultancies to improve market systems and to enhance life quality in several recovering economies, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Balkans. Dr. Shultz serves as president of the International Society of Markets and Development and editor of Journal of Macromarketing, and he serves on several editorial and policy boards; he has more than 100 scholarly publications in the forms of articles, books, chapters and proceedings. Dr. Shultz has served as a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam and Croatia and has received grants and awards for his scholarship and field projects; he has been invited to lecture or to make research presentations for companies, governments, nongovernmental organizations, universities and research institutes on five continents.
Morris B. Holbrook is W.T. Dillard Professor of Marketing in the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. Since 1975, he has taught courses at the Columbia Business School in areas such as marketing strategy, consumer behavior, and commercial communication in the culture of consumption. His research has covered a wide variety of topics, with a special focus on issues related to aesthetics, semiotics, hermeneutics, art, and entertainment. Recent books include Daytime Television Game Shows and the Celebration of Merchandise: The Price Is Right (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1993); The Semiotics of Consumption (with Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Mouton de Gruyter, 1993); Consumer Research (Sage Publications, 1995); and Consumer Value (edited, Routledge, 1999).
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2009
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