Hyper reality in action
Dr Margaret-Anne Lawlor takes a reality check on the Second Life phenomenon
Postmodernism is a compelling but unfathomable term. Its influence has been felt in art, architecture and fashion, yet its meaning can be hard to exact. In marketing, the postmodern consumer is providing both opportunities and challenges as many of them happily thrust themselves into a world of fragmented media and markets.
Postmodernism is concerned with consumer choice, continuous change relating to consumption patterns and product availability, along with marketing practices that challenge the status quo.
Postmodern consumers buy and use commodities and fashions that allow them adopt multiple, temporary self-images.
The practice recognises a mischievous type of consumer who prides oneself on resisting traditional marketing courtship and brand boasts. Instead, the consumer tends to favour brands that appear to lack a unique selling proposition (USP).
Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty found the going tough on Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother. But the reality was that the racism row sparked a ratings increase of almost 30 per cent, with one weekly share figure up 18 per cent to 4.5 million viewers.
Examples include Sprite’s tagline ‘Thirst is everything, image is nothing’ or Coca-Cola’s former slogan, ‘Coke is it’. Postmodern consumers tend to have contradictions. At one level, they will show irony and irritation at the status quo, such as the long-running tradition of soap operas and the phenomenon of reality shows. But at another level, witness the strong viewing patterns of these genres of entertainment. Another characteristic of postmodern consumerism is the attraction to hyper-reality, in other words a simulated reality.
Eating healthily is a topic of conversation but look at the growth in smoothie consumption in Ireland. Market leader Innocent has about a 64 per cent share of the Irish market and enjoyed 100 per cent in annual growth in the UK.
While many consumers will pay for such a product, would it not be much cheaper and more satisfying - albeit less convenient - to make one’s own smoothie? Therein, lies the contradiction of the post-modern consumer. We want a reality - namely health - but are happy to buy the hyper-reality offered by the creative marketer.
A current manifestation of post-modernism is the emergence of the virtual world, Second Life (www.secondlife.com). Developed by Linden Lab in San Francisco, Second Life is a concept and a reality, or more correctly a hyper reality.
The idea is that residents of this world can meet other people, develop social networks, buy virtual land and property and ‘attend’ store openings. It has about five million ‘residents’, namely any registered user who has logged on in the last 60 days.
Buying and selling is helped by the Linden dollar at a rate of US$1=$267 Lindens. One attraction of this site is that the user can create his/her persona known as an avatar. The website allows the user to customise their persona with choices pertaining to body shape, skin colour, make-up and clothes.
If a human persona is not satisfactory, the user can assume the persona of say, an alien or a fictional action hero. Again, witness the facility of transitory self-images that a website such as Second Life offers to the postmodern consumer.
Marketers in the US are looking with interest at Second Life but many are perplexed about its possible strategic role. Nike and Adidas have a presence in this virtual world, allowing avatars to customise their own running shoes in-store.
Starwood Hotels have a presence while Reuters news agency appointed a journalist to report on all Second Life news. But does a marketing presence within Second Life increase sales or is it only a branding exercise?
American Apparel (AA) has opened a store in Second Life. The company has admitted that sales of virtual T-shirts that avatars could wear are low. The staple item of clothing is a best-seller in AA stores but is seen as being boring in a virtual reality.
AA plans to overhaul its virtual store image to appeal more to its Second Life customers. It highlights the transitory nature of the Second Life residents, often not behaving as they would in reality. What about promoting sales and profits?
The Nutella website (www.mynutella.com) is not used by Ferrero for overtly commercial reasons, but instead is a social platform for Nutella consumers to interact online and exchange views, photos and recipes for the chocolate hazelnut spread.
The exercise promotes Nutella consumers to brand ambassadors by allowing them dictate the content held on the site, within reason, as opposed to the site being company-driven. Attracted to new concepts within these media, they also enjoy the accompanying facility for anonymity and can creatively express themselves.
The one remaining question is whether the defining characteristics of post-modernism, such as hyper-reality, the continuous turnover of products and strong media presence, make life easier for the postmodern consumer, or rather more difficult. After all, choice can be both exhilarating and exhausting.
Dr Margaret-Anne Lawlor is a lecturer in marketing communications at the faculty of business in DIT
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