Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Consumerism in the Digital Age

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Consumerism in the Digital Age

Article excerpt

This paper discusses "digital consumerism," which is the application of traditional concepts of consumerism to consumer vulnerabilities in digital markets. The relationship of digital consumerism to paradigms of consumer empowerment and consumer vulnerabilities is discussed using examples from the relevant literature. The findings of this literature survey identify new aspects of consumerism in digital markets that have the potential to enhance consumer well-being. The literature survey also revealed that consumer vulnerabilities have grown in complexity faster than regulative efforts. Therefore, there is a need for a reconceptualization of consumerism in order to improve consumer protections and to develop better functioning and healthier digital markets.


If we were able to add a "right to healthy food" to the 1960s conceptualization of consumerism, would we have less obesity and fewer health problems in society today? If we were able to embed a "right to financial protection" in the same consumerism concept, would we have had the financial crises and instability of the last few years? If we had anticipated the privacy issues before the Internet became ubiquitous and added "a right to online privacy" to our concept of consumerism, would we now have fewer identity theft problems? The opinions on these questions would clearly vary from person to person, situation to situation, market to market, and culture to culture. However, it is still easy to imagine that we would have fewer of these problems if we had a better understanding of these issues and their potential for affecting our lives. An answer to these questions is evident in the consumerism concept itself. Consumerism propounds the creation of consumer protection by raising market awareness of the vulnerabilities of consumers, market inequalities, and the subsequent regulation of business misbehaviors, deceptions, and marketing malpractices with legislative support (Aaker and Day 1982; Cohen 2010; Day and Aaker 1970; Rotfeld 2010). The major goal of consumerism is to "seek to establish a more equitable and socially responsible capitalist democracy ' (Cohen 2010, 235). Recent technological advances, loosely referred to as the Internet, provide us with opportunities to achieve more equitable and socially responsible market structures (Kucuk 2009; Kucuk and Krishnamurthy 2007).

Although the phenomenal transformations produced by online markets reduced the historical dominance of companies and equalized market structures in favor of consumers, dynamically evolving digital markets also changed the nature and sources of consumer vulnerabilities (Kucuk 2009). One example is the rise in the number of identity theft and financial damage cases. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) recently reported receiving its 3 millionth complaint. The total dollar loss claimed since the establishment of the IC3 now exceeds $2 billion. (1)

An additional difficulty for both consumers and companies is that not everybody can easily access digital markets or market information. As a result, there are serious inequality problems. Those consumers who can access digital markets frequently encounter unreliable, deceptive, and misleading information. This misinformation increases consumer confusion and vulnerability. Finally, although consumer voices can be enhanced through the Internet, some companies deceptively post in consumer networks (aka "paid-bloggers") or try to override the free speech rights of consumers by asserting ownership rights.

In this context, defining and exploring systematic consumer vulnerabilities and reconceptualizing consumerism for digital markets is indispensable to improving our social welfare. Unfortunately, there is currently a limited amount of research focused on how the digital revolution is transforming consumerism. The major questions are: "What new problems do consumers face in digital markets? …

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