On March 28, 2017, the Institute for International Communication and the Division of Mass Communication at St. John’s University hosted an academic symposium on “Consumer Identities & Digital Culture”. The symposium gathered scholars across disciplines to examine notions of identity in consumer culture. Speakers presented a range of research from historical perspectives to industry practices, from policy questions to race, gender and global diversity, across film, television and social media.
After giving insight into their research, the scholars discussed three main subjects in panels throughout the day: “Agency, Activism and Power”, “Consumer Identities and Industry Communication”, and “Fandom, Feelings and Gratifications”. Finally, Dr. Paul Booth, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, addressed “Historicizing Fandom: The PushmiPullu of Corporatized Fans” in his in-depth and inspiring keynote presentation. Dr. Booth researches fandom, new media, games, technology, popular culture, and cultural studies. He is the author of “Digital Fandom: New Media Studies”, which examines fans of cult television programs.
I personally was especially impressed by the presentations given and issues raised in the second panel, as scholars critically discussed the responsibility and power that companies hold nowadays, to define and form consumer identities and values through their brand communication. Advertising case studies showed that companies – from Lego, over American Eagle, to REI and Apple – form consumers’ perceptions of how a child should behave and consume, what society considers sexy in women, and what it means to be a sustainable, anti-consumerist outdoor gear customer. The question arose weather these companies are qualified to define such concepts and to what extend they handle this identity formation responsibly and ethically. No matter what kind of social campaigns corporations start – promoting body positivity, creativity and self-belief or acting anti-consumerist and connecting with nature – behind all these efforts there will always remain business principles, capitalism and a striving for profit. Ethical questions are often not taken into consideration when designing campaigns to raise sales. For instance, as a consequence of Aerie’s call to upload naturally sexy self-images using the campaign hashtag #aerieReal, thousands of teenage girls portrayed themselves in under- or swimwear on social media, to spread their body positivity message. Do consumers, especially children, today need to be better protected from industry communication like this? At what age are consumers in need of protection and at what age are they responsible enough to be critical consumers themselves? What could be possible forms of industry governance?
We thank Dr. Candice D. Roberts, St. John’s University, and Myles Ethan Lascity, Chestnut Hill College, who organized this insightful and educational event.
Special thanks go to the panelists, who traveled across town, country and world to make the symposium a success:
- Sanne Jansen, Columbia Law School
- Chris Odinet, Southern University Law Center
- Rukimini Pande, University of Western Australia
- Emily West, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
- Kimon Keramidas, New York University
- Dara Murray, Manhattanville College
- Laura Seroka, Bowling Green State University
- Joseph Giunta, New York University
- David Blanke, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi
- John Donegan, Boston University
- Nicole NeSmith, University of Illinois, Chicago
- Ashley Pattwell, Rowan University