Searching consumers: If brains are like computers

In consumer research, a long standing set of assumptions about what people do and how they make decisions has been influenced by computer science. Mid-century researchers like James Bettman explicitly tried to model the processes that went on inside a consumer’s brain when they made a purchase decision. A key concept here was memory. It was argued that marketing communications helps to provide information about products and brands which consumers store in their memories and recall when making a purchase. Although these ideas have been heavily criticised, they continue to influence consumer researchers.

Ironically, though, more contemporary consumer research pay less attention to computer science. As anyone who uses dropbox will know, computers increasingly don’t store information. They access information stored “in the cloud”. Reading Lovink (2012) it became clear to me that this relationship between PCs and clouds is  or much current consumer behaviour. As Carr argues, we leave in a culture increasingly dominated by searching not memorising. We don’t have to remember much nowadays because we can search for it on a great big external memory – the web. Isn’t this the same for consumption. For many consumers purchase decisions involve searching for not recalling information.

What might this mean for marketers? Well it could mean that they increasing focus on making their products and brands findable. This requires them to understand how and when people search and how the  for product information direct their decision. eg, give one consumer Google and another Bing, will they find the same information. Short answer: no. Indeed, give the same person Google and Bing and they won’t find the same information.

If someone would like to provide me with funding, I will happily investigate this for you.


more civilised than discontent: what consumer research can offer psychoanalysis

much of freud’s work aims to explain how someone becomes unwell. but freud was never moralist about psychological illnesses. he did not believe that the hysteric, obsessive, neurotic, fetishist were worse than others. if he used terms like “normal” and “deviant” it was not, i think, to stigmatise the deviant at the expense of the normal. for freud, the deviant is only unacceptable to their social context.

indeed, freud repeatedly says that what seems mad is usually the most logical solution to someone’s problems. symptoms of mental illnesses are, he might say, reaction formations. in other words, they form as a response to something much worse. because of this freud spends much of his time not writing about people who are in need of treatment at all.

I would argue that Freud seeks to answer two questions across his work:

1. what makes someone mentally unwell and how can be help them to readjust to their social context given that illness;

2. what stops adjusted people from becoming mentally ill.

the former question is one that psychoanalysts and analysands work to answer on a daily basis. the latter is one that psychosocial studies works towards answering. tellingly, though, consumption practices, and the influence of marketing on consumption practices, is rarely discussed here. this is something of an oversight. along with a series of research colleagues, i would argue that the social function of consumption is to provide acceptable (normal/unquestioned) ways for us to satisfy our instinctual desires in a way that supports civilisation more than its discontents. unfortunately, consumer research itself is currently way to civilised to admit this.

the irony here is that a Freudian would argue that this kind of knowledge needs to be something we all know but, strangely, don’t seem willing to admit to. otherwise, we would see that the man behind the curtain booming “consume… buy the new iPhone … look like taylor swift” is really just each of us.

so what to do? one thing could be for us to develop more sustained and facilitative consumer research which does not take consumers answers at face value but works over time with a group of consumers to dig into their motivations. hmm.

One for the academics: The rise of the strawmen (and women).

Last week the Association of Business School published its latest “journal quality guide“. I’ve long been making public complaints about this guide… to no effect.

Fortunately, the ABS has put the new guide behind a registration wall – making it much harder to consult the guide and, as result, people don’t seem that bothered by it. As my old music teacher said, don’t put the instrument in the case. It’s one barrier to getting it out and practicing. (Of course it doesn’t help that the ABS Guide was not very accurate in predicting the REF outcome – which, despite what the ABS says, is pretty much the only reason it gets used by anyone).

In place of all this, there’s a growing suspicion that citation metrics will be the way forward. Google’s search engine is built on citation metrics so it might be useful to look at “search studies” to think about the possible consequences of moving to citation as the key indicator of academic success.

The media theorist Lovink makes an important point about Google: it assumes that any mention (link) is positive. The same is true of most citation metrics. To understand the implications of this consider these two examples:

“Cluley (2000) has produced an authoritative theory of everything. Everyone should read it”.

“Cluley (2000) is wrong in every way. No one should read it”.

Each sentence has one citation to the same paper (Cluley (2000) but one is saying that the paper is amazing, the other says it is bullshit – or, in the language of the UK academic and university administrator, the first is 4* and the second 0*.

Now, I would assume that any right-thinking human would say these are not equal evaluations of Cluley (2000). One says the paper has made a positive contribution to knowledge; the other says it hasn’t. If you were looking to allocate research funding on the basis of these two statements, the first suggests the paper should be funded/supported/rewarded and the second doesn’t.

Yet, most citation metrics treat these two sentences the same. Both add one citation to your total. On Google’s search engine the result of this has been the meme-ification of the internet. Everyone wants to produce what I call “sharebait“. That is to say, the goal is not to say anything important or interesting but to say something in a way that will encourage people to share it. In YouTube videos this usually involves flamed conversations and simple, short clips, preferably with nude celebrities.

Academic research can’t really do this – yet. But what I think could happen is that citation metrics will encourage people to produce work that will be shared by academics. That is to say, strong arguments that are wrong! Remember it’s much easy to say something stupid than it is to say something ground-breaking and intelligent – this is why we have research evaluation exercise in the first place. Each mention will add to your worth by increasing your citations.

In the age of big data and sentiment analysis is it not possible to distinguish these?

If not, get ready for the rise of the strawmen (and women).