It matters how academics conceptualise consumer vulnerability, because paradigm shifts mirror shifts in policy responses to their protection. When the ‘socialization’ approach to childhood was in its heyday, for example, children were not viewed as having ‘rights’ so much as being incomplete beings on a developmental route towards adulthood. This literature focuses on the cognitive stages of development that children go through and, in terms of marketing, when they can be no longer be considered ‘vulnerable’ but rather ‘cognizant’ and ‘savvy’ of marketers’ ploys to get them to buy more stuff or eat more junk.
More recently, conceptualizations of childhood – via the ‘new sociology of childhood’ paradigm – have presented childhood as a social construction and not a standardized set of developmental goals. Adults are no longer seen as supreme and children are viewed as agentic beings playing an active part in the construction of their childhoods. One fallout from this is that the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) was set up to protect children’s rights as well as protecting them from harm. So academic thinking and publications really do matter.
But whereas thinking around the nature of childhood has progressed enormously since the early 1990s, these new concepts have not infiltrated the ‘consumer vulnerability’ literature. The models, frameworks and theories which emanate from the consumer vulnerability field tend to lean towards describing adults who feel powerless in the marketplace ; existing models simply don’t work when applied to children because children, let’s face it, are a special case.
The absolute latest models of consumer vulnerability were published in 2012 by Baker and Mason after that year’s Transformative Consumer Research conference. They critique previous taxonomic approaches to consumer vulnerability – those that judge an entire class of people as vulnerable because of demographic or environmental factors to which they are subject – and instead put forward two new approaches. Their ‘situational’ approach is described as ‘multi-dimensional’, taking in both structural and individual factors, but really it still locates the problematic of consumer vulnerability within the individual. This is problematic when it is clear that children particularly are more subject to the forces and structures of society than perhaps any other group. Their ‘community and context’ approach evolves a little further and suggests the route out of vulnerability for consumers is through their active voicing of their own risks and participation in their own route to freedom. But children’s voices are slippery, unreliable, highly culturally embedded and constrained, and it is a lot to ask of a child to recognize that they are vulnerable to, say, obesity or materialism, when their emotional response to the marketing they are offered (or bombarded with) is excitement at the prospect of another trip to McDonald’s or another new PlayStation game.
These models just don’t get the balance right between the true nature of childhood and its slippery position between and within structure and agency. Yes, children have agency, but it is structured differently than for others.
The ‘new sociology of childhood’ literature – at least the latest wave of this paradigm – presents childhood as neither something that can be viewed as strongly structured nor something in which children are purely agentic. It is both, and neither. Childhood is a fluid concept comprising a complex lattice or hybridization of nature and culture, i.e. an interdependent web of structure and agency. This approach, when applied to thinking about children as vulnerable consumers, opens up a new direction of thinking. It suggests that access points for understanding the vulnerability that children face as consumers should neither rely on their own perceptions nor rely solely on the judgments of others, but both, and should consider how each informs the other. It lends itself to an approach which uses discourse analysis to understand childhood, which grapples with more challenging philosophies of science and employs theories such as the ‘habitus’ and Structuration Theory which have attempted to overcome these dualities before. It suggests that policy responses, like the UNCRC, should both protect the whole class of children because being a child makes them inherently vulnerable in some situations, but also provide them with a right to be heard and to participate in the solutions which affect them. This approach strongly implies that trans-disciplinary approaches to understanding and treating children are the only sensible solution, however difficult to manage these might be.
This material originally appeared on the author’s personal blog as ‘The slippy nature of consumer vulnerability’
on 24 February 2015, and is reposted here with their permission.
Read the original research article: Spotswood, F. & Nairn, A. (2015). Children as vulnerable consumers: a first conceptualisation. Journal of Marketing Management. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2015.1107616
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