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Journal of Marketing Management

For a Special Issue on

Slave to the algorithm: Marketing’s coercive or liberatory future?

Manuscript deadline
04 November 2024

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Special Issue Editor(s)

Anita L. Zhao, Swansea University, UK
[email protected]

Philippa Ward, University of Gloucestershire, UK
[email protected]

Ruffin Relja, University of Gloucestershire, UK
[email protected]

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Slave to the algorithm: Marketing’s coercive or liberatory future?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is reshaping contemporary consumption practices whilst forming a provocative environment for consumers, technology providers, retailers, regulators, and advocates. In 2022, McKinsey and Company found in its international survey of around 1,500 respondents that eight of the ten most prevalent uses for AI in business were in marketing and service operations. The report also highlighted that ‘one thing that is concerningly consistent’ is the low level of risk mitigation that organisations report. What we face is considerable AI application without due attention to extenuation.

AI technology is the beating heart of Algorithmic Marketing (AM). With this, there arise concomitant concerns around low levels of risk mitigation at three levels: personal (e.g. privacy, equity), corporate (e.g. ethical responsibility, cyber security, regulatory compliance), and societal (e.g. market dependability, economic security, political stability). These risks are counterbalanced by the potential for betterment for corporations and individuals, given that AM is defined as “…the commercial use of complex mathematical algorithms based on AI techniques pivotal to driving improved marketing decisions for competitive differentiation among customers” (Galli, 2022, p.18).

AI, therefore, enables increasingly pervasive and inherently personalized marketing (Grewal et al., 2020). The outcomes can liberate some consumers with the knowledge and capability to make informed choices (André et al., 2018). However, AM constrains other consumers, and the potentially damaging behaviours they already have are maintained or amplified (Relja et al., 2023). Therefore, while AM can provide individual benefits, including greater accessibility and flexibility, it also displays consumption disadvantages, such as increased impulsive spending (Hermann, 2022), amplified financial vulnerability (Mogali et al., 2021), and poor market knowledge (Pasquale, 2015). These potentialities create divergent social and economic outcomes for different consumers (Pellandini-Simányi, 2023). Large numbers of whom may have “technological unconscious” (Thrift, 2005) of AM’s impact on their life choices and chances but are as embedded in the web of AM as those consumers who more readily comprehend the evolving AM landscape.

AM also affords varied corporate and professional consequences (Kozinets & Gretzel, 2021). It is heralded as the tool to liberate meaning from ever-expanding volumes of data, secure increased managerial decision-making effectiveness, and, thus, foster enhanced corporate performance (Volmar, 2022) across all aspects of marketing (Ngai & Wu, 2022). However, managers concurrently exhibit reticence, scepticism and voice ethical concerns concerning their job roles and the customer outcomes (Herhausen et al., 2024). Such practices establish what service academics have described as “outright manipulation and constrained self-determination” (Breidbach & Maglio, 2020, p.80). These challenges invariably create unsustainable practices and interactions with the varied AM actors, potentially precipitating transformed power and agency relationships.

This leads some researchers to refer to AM practices as consumer surveillance or even “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff, 2019). Such terms highlight potential biases engendered by the inferences produced and shaped by these systems at the societal level. They also foreground a potential societal narrative constructed through “algorithmic emplotment” (Jacobsen, 2022). This story is partly achieved by creating what those in cultural studies have termed “new algorithmic identities” (Cheney-Lippold, 2011). In this sense, the issue becomes whether what is fostered is choice or “choicelessness” (Dholakia et al., 2021). However, this is not to suggest that the “social conditions” should be overemphasized, as retailing researchers remind us that this would negate the culpability, or complicity, of the consumers themselves in this process, whose desires or simple inaction are a potent force (Coffin & Egan-Wyer, 2022).

These complexities create a challenging “space” for the varied actors – arguably changing the relationships between them and necessitating continued consideration of the evolving nature of AM (Relja et al., 2024). This attention includes the measures through which its potentially regressive outcomes (e.g. resource misintegration) can be curtailed (O’Loughlin et al., 2023) and its positive facets harnessed to foster enhanced mutual well-being for all. Therefore, the algorithmic engines of contemporary marketing are best understood as culturally created: “enacted by practices which do not heed a strong distinction between technical and non-technical concerns but blend them. In this view, algorithms are not singular technical objects that enter into many different cultural interactions but are rather unstable objects, culturally enacted by the practices people use to engage with them” (Seaver, 2017, p.5).

This special issue explores the potential ubiquity, profundity, and complexity of the diverse possibilities that emanate from AM. We, therefore, welcome novel insights to understand and investigate AM’s coercive or liberatory impact and address the contemporary outcomes that reverberate through society. These consequences and proximal possibilities can address myriad actors across multiple levels of aggregation. For the consumer, the outcomes may increase indebtedness or support more savvy budgeting, proliferate consumption, enable targeted buying, narrow knowledge horizons, or support superior awareness of marketing offers. Within the managerial and organisational orbit, AM may precipitate deskilling or the need for enhanced professional practice, generate customer insights, act as an interlocutor between customer and provider, and foster manipulation or redistribute power.

At the societal level, AM could spawn incongruence in resource integration between actors, drive mutual well-being, build choice or choicelessness, or foster structural in/equalities. These divergent and various propositions offer fertile terrain for novel research.

Authors planning to submit their manuscript to the special issue are encouraged to enter their work in progress for feedback to the ‘Slave to the algorithm: marketing’s coercive or liberatory future?’ workshop at the Academy of Marketing Annual Conference hosted by the Cardiff Business School in July 2024.

Suggested topics

We invite conceptual, methodological, and empirical contributions that explore AM applications, concerns or disparities for consumers, professional actors, the market, and society. We are interested in a wide range of topics related to this special issue, including (but not limited to):

  • Construction versus destruction of marketing systems: In a sociomaterial world, how does algorithmic marketing contribute to constructing and deconstructing marketing systems in different contexts (e.g. mature versus contemporary markets, national versus cross-cultural settings)?
  • Well-being versus ill-being within the marketing system: What are the outcomes (win, lose, neutral) of algorithmic marketing on various actors within the marketing system, including consumers, marketers, organisations, advocacy groups, policymakers, and society?
  • Formation versus deformation of consumer identities: What are the dynamic processes (e.g. “algorithmic emplotment”) and diverse outcomes (e.g. “algorithmic identities”) of algorithmic marketing on consumer identities at individual or group levels?
  • Inclusion versus exclusion of market actors in algorithmic spaces: Experiences of (vulnerable) individuals and groups who may be marginalized or underrepresented in algorithmic systems (including people with disabilities, older adults, and those who do not actively engage in hashtag communities such as #FinTok and #GayTok) or whose relationships with other market actors are being recast or reconfigured.
  • Technological conscious versus technological unconscious: How can algorithms be made more transparent and explainable to actors, particularly consumers, enabling them to understand how these systems frame decisions that affect their lives and empower them to make informed life choices?
  • Liberalism versus conservatism in algorithmic marketing: Should marketers, organisations, and institutions be held accountable for using algorithmic marketing technologies, and if so, how can necessary structures and processes be implemented to ensure accountability? What regulatory and ethical frameworks, if any, are needed to govern the development and use of algorithmic marketing technologies?
  • Utopian versus dystopian futures of algorithmic marketing: What are the emerging trends and challenges? How can individuals, organisations, and institutions navigate the complexities of this rapidly evolving field while maintaining ethical principles and responsible practices?
  • Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary exploration: We encourage researchers from various disciplines to bring their unique insights to the study of algorithmic marketing.
  • Novel methodologies: We are particularly interested in papers that employ creative and unconventional methodological approaches.

The full call for paper including references can be found at the JMM blog site

Submission Instructions

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. Please note the requirements to include a Summary Statement of Contribution, and to place figures and tables at their correct location within the text. Please also read the following guidelines prior to submitting your manuscript:

Use of images:
Use of third-party material:
Ethical guidelines:

Manuscripts should be submitted online using the T&F Submission Portal for Journal of Marketing Management. Authors should prepare and upload two versions of their manuscript (only use alpha-numeric characters or underscores in the filename). 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 be able to define the non-anonymous version as “Manuscript - with author details”, and the anonymous version as “Manuscript - Anonymous”. To submit your manuscript to the Special Issue choose “Research Article” from the Manuscript Type list in the Submission Portal. On the next screen (Manuscript Details), answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘Are you submitting your paper for a specific special issue or article collection?’. A drop down menu will then appear and you should select the Special Issue Title from this list.

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