I don’t have the power: cultural consumers and their wallets

As consumers, we should have a lot of power. It’s our money that companies want, that marketing strategies are devised for, to help us to part with our cash for things we either want, or didn’t realise we wanted. Audiences are turned into commodities, entities with profiles and habits towards which companies can tailor their marketing campaigns to achieve maximum efficiency, which 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.

A tool of power ?

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 to 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 of course have to please as wide a spectrum of viewers as they can, and what is enjoyable to one is dross to another.

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.

One thought on “I don’t have the power: cultural consumers and their wallets”

  1. I wouldn’t harbour too many fond illusions about how good the supermarkets are. Loyalty cards have generated a huge volume of data over the years since they’ve been introduced. They have also generated a lot of, well, loyalty – I’m sure that they do prompt people to return to their usual supermarket. But it has proved extremely hard to mine that huge quantity of data for actionable ideas. The quality of tailoring of special offers to individual customers has been very patchy indeed.

    Secondly, what people enjoy and what people will pay for are two different things. This is particularly so in classical music, where there’s a large audience that enjoys all kinds of music when it hears it, but will only buy a concert ticket if the programme includes Mozart or Beethoven (or a select few others). This leads to all kinds of programming anomalies, most notably the celebrated practice of slipping a new work into a programme of otherwise mainstream material. Audiences are diverse, split between those who want a cultural experience well in their comfort zone (which is probably where most of the money is) and those who are really out to get the very best.

    Thirdly, I’m not sure that you can rely on the critics as a barometer. Inevitably, critics reflect the views of the most experienced and knowledgeable 0.001% of the population. Depending on the quality of the critic’s writing and how jaded they are from years of overexposure to culture, what they write is more or less interesting – but either way, you can’t expect it to be a good representation of what mass audiences will think.

    Most importantly, perhaps, the process of guessing what will be popular is just, plain hard. The rock’n’roll world is awash with stories of bands who went through years of rejection by everybody and then “got a break” on some obscure radio station – the one that springs to mind most clearly is Dire Straits, who had years of commercial dreadfulness before it all went right for them. It ain’t gonna be any easier in classical!

    David Karlin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *