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Journal of Marketing Management
For a Special Issue on
Autonomy and Marketing: History, Present and Future
23 January 2023
Autonomy and Marketing: History, Present and Future
Broadly, consumer autonomy is the ability to reflect on what one has good reasons to do in the marketplace, and to act accordingly. Consumer autonomy is a foundational principle of liberal democracy whereby marketers are granted license to influence consumers, provided they respect their autonomy (Anker, 2020). The precise nature of consumer autonomy, what it means to respect or undermine it, and why it is important is still subject to debate. Indeed, the increased reliance on technology in the contemporary marketplace has re-ignited scholarly and professional debate. This special issue on autonomy and marketing invites articles that explore any topic related to the history, present and future of autonomy in marketing.
Impact of marketing on consumer autonomy
Marketing studies of consumer autonomy has a long history. The modern debate kick-started with Crisp’s (1987) seminal article on persuasive advertising and autonomy. Crisp argued that persuasive advertising has a strong potential to undermine the development of personal autonomy, because it tends to induce sub-conscious desires that the consumer is therefore unable to reflect on. This argument has since been reinforced by Barrett (2000), Raley (2006), and Sneddon (2001). As such, persuasive advertising circumvents consumers’ ability to weigh the reasons for and against accepting a marketing offering and, thereby, undermines informed choice and autonomy. By contrast, Arrington (1982) and Cunningham (2003) argued that advertising to a large extent is compatible with consumer autonomy.
However, the main contributors to this “first generation” debate on autonomy and marketing had one thing in common: they disagreed over how serious a threat advertising is to autonomy, but fundamentally agreed that the relationship between marketing and autonomy would always be negative or neutral, never positive. Anker et al. (2010) since challenged the received wisdom by arguing that marketing can have a positive impact on consumer autonomy, for example by creating or intensifying effective motivation to do something the individual consumer values (e.g. eating healthier, exercising more), but finds hard to do without external motivation.
Increasingly, personal autonomy has come under investigation in the biological sciences. In marketing, Zheng and Alba (2021) have recently challenged the predominant assumption that consumers have free will, discretion and autonomy by demonstrating how biological underpinnings of consumer behaviour may significantly influence – perhaps even pre-determine – certain patterns of consumption.
The traditional debate has predominantly focused on the impact of advertising on consumer autonomy. We encourage further exploration of how other types, technologies or practices of marketing may impact on autonomy, for better or worse. We also welcome interdisciplinary reflections that challenge traditional views of consumer autonomy.
Critical marketing studies offer different perspectives on autonomy. On the one hand, the very idea of consumer autonomy is problematised as a delusional idea, either invented by the privileged elite, or as an auto-poetic concept that is necessary for capitalism to function as a social system (Arnould, 2007; Bauman, 1988; Baudrillard, 1998; Kozinets, 2002). While consumers perceive the formation of new habits as being a matter of free choice, their actual autonomy is undermined by economic market-forces that sub-consciously induce desires and preferences for new products and brands (Tadajewski, 2019). Anker (2020: 4) sums up the critique as follows: “Consumer autonomy is in effect a social ordering mechanism which classifies the majority of the population as free agents that can exercise power through choices of consumption, while in reality consumers are subject to exploitative power relations: autonomy is a social relation and specific artifact of Western market-driven economy, which the social system of capitalism needs to reproduce and sustain its existence.”
On the other, mainstream and certain strands of interpretive consumer research view consumer empowerment afforded by technological advances such as social media as tangible improvements to consumer agency and, by inference, to consumer autonomy (Labrecque et al., 2013; Labrecque et al., 2015; Wertenbroch et al., 2020). This is echoed by studies in consumer-dominance investigating how consumers can drive value-creation without firm or provider interaction, and take control of the semiotic processes in the marketplace by redefining the meaning of brand-mediated signifiers (Anker et al., 2015; Anker, 2014). Increasing consumer empowerment has also been demonstrated to enhance consumers’ capability for pro-social behaviours and self-organisation in community projects (e.g. consumer-driven initiatives to supply people with essential supplies during Covid-19 lockdowns) (Anker et al., 2021). However, it comes with a stark warning that enhanced consumer autonomy should not lead policymakers to individualise responsibility for areas (such as health, access to food and emergency services) that should be the responsibility of the state. Furthermore, the accommodation of self-interest and consumer-centric exchanges in social marketing can potentially inflate perceived consumer agency and autonomy, giving a false sense of freedom of choice in situations where options are constrained by the social context of the consumer (Tadajewski et al., 2014).
We encourage further investigation into the role of autonomy as a societal construct and welcome contributions from critical social marketing, critical marketing studies and macromarketing scrutinizing the role of autonomy in the functioning – or mal-functioning – of capitalistic economies.
Technology and consumer autonomy
The rapid technologization of the contemporary marketplace has transformed many aspects of marketing and consumer behaviour. This is fertile ground for new investigations of the role and importance of consumer autonomy (Wertenbroch et al., 2020). For example, traditional concepts of autonomy (or personal freedom) – such as the classic one developed by Hobbes in Leviathan – put the ability to act on and satisfy one’s desires and preferences at the core of what autonomy is. On such accounts, social media filter-bubbles and echo-chambers could be said to enhance perceived autonomy because of the increased exposure to content that speaks to the consumer’s immediate desires (Wertenbroch et al., 2020). However, scholars arguing that genuine autonomy involves critical reflection on what one has good reason to desire and then acting accordingly (Anker, 2020), may find social media to reinforce motivations and behaviours that consumers would have preferred not have. This raises the question: to what extent can the algorithms that are used to select and present content on social media platforms enhance or diminish consumer autonomy? The jury is very much still out!
Another area that deserves attention is the connection between autonomous technologies in consumer products and consumer autonomy (André et al., 2018). This area raises a raft of ethical questions at the centre of which we find the overarching problem: when do autonomisation of consumer products (e.g. self-driving cars, robotic lawnmowers. smart fridges that automatically stock up) transfer responsibility to the manufacturer and when is the end-user morally, legally and financially responsible (Gill, 2020; Novak, 2020)? Perhaps autonomous products can improve the enabling conditions of personal autonomy, for example by freeing the individual from undesirable chores (e.g. robotic hoovers and lawnmowers) or by offering new and hitherto impossible opportunities (like enabling blind and visually-impaired people to drive a car and thereby enhance freedom of movement)?
Finally, new technologies like augmented and virtual reality, and the emergence of immersive virtual worlds (e.g. the metaverse), reignites interest into “first generation” explorations of what consumer autonomy is and what role it should and can play in the marketplace.
We encourage speculative inquiries into how new technology can act as an enabling condition of autonomy, but also how it may threaten or undermine it. We also welcome studies of the relationship between autonomy, technology and consumer responsibility.
The full Call for Papers including references can be found at the JMM blog site: https://www.jmmnews.com/autonomy-and-marketing/
Authors should submit manuscripts of between 8,000–10,000 words (excluding tables, references, captions, footnotes and endnotes). All submissions must strictly follow the guidelines for the Journal of Marketing Management. Manuscripts should be submitted online using the Journal of Marketing Management ScholarOne Manuscripts site. New users should first create an account. Once a user is logged onto the site submissions should be made via the Author Centre. Authors should prepare and upload two versions of their manuscript. One should be a complete text, while in the second all document information identifying the author should be removed from the files to allow them to be sent anonymously to referees. When uploading files authors will then be able to define the non-anonymous version as “Complete paper with author details”, and the anonymous version as “Main document minus author information”. To submit your manuscript to the Special Issue choose “Special Issue Article” from the Manuscript Type list when you come to submit your paper. Also, when you come to the ‘Details and Comments’ page, answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Is this manuscript a candidate for a special issue’ and select the Special Issue Title of Autonomy and Marketing in the text field provided.
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