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The aestheticization of consumption: an exploration of 'brand.new' and 'Shopping'


Isabelle Szmigin Marketing Theory 2006 6: 107 DOI: 10.1177/1470593106061265 The online version of this article can be found at: http://mtq.sagepub.com/content/6/1/107

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Volume 6(1): 107118 Copyright 2006 SAGE www.sagepublications.com DOI: 10.1177/1470593106061265

articles

The aestheticization of consumption: An exploration of brand.new and Shopping


Isabelle Szmigin
The Birmingham Business School, UK

Abstract. This article explores the aestheticization of consumption through a study of two recent exhibitions in Britain. The collapse of many of the historical boundaries and distinctions between art and life have led to what Featherstone (1991) refers to as the aestheticization of everyday life. It is important for marketing theory to both explore the meaning of this and its implications. The article considers some of the issues to be addressed in examining the nature of aesthetics both in relation to art and consumption, suggesting that processes of de-differentiation (Lash, 1988) and integration (Holt, 1995) have effectively broken down aesthetic barriers. There follows a detailed examination of two exhibitions which it is argued exemplify this breakdown in aesthetic barriers; an exhibition at the V&A in 2000 entitled brand.new which was a celebration and critique of the brand in modern society, and Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture at the Tate Liverpool in 2003, which brought together numerous artists interpretations and responses to consumer culture. The article ends by assessing the nature of the convergence of art and consumption and considering some implications for marketing theory. Key Words aestheticization art artists brands consumption exhibitions

Introduction: art and consumption


It has been suggested that art has a uniquely privileged position derived from the artists right to create art. Art has the licence to go beyond the normal bounds of society where non-artistic expression would not be allowed (Julius, 2002). This aesthetic alibi (Julius, 2002: 26) allows artists to force the boundaries of what art is and in so doing they continually question the nature of the aesthetic experience. But while art has the ability to move and overturn boundaries, subvert historical assumptions and invent new aesthetic vehicles, this does not necessarily remove it from everyday experience. Art and commerce have a long and complex history

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where art as an object and symbol has been an important distinguisher of economic and cultural capital (Berger, 1972; Bourdieu, 1984). Increasingly we see areas where art and commerce co-habit; in product design, advertising, in stores that look like art galleries and art galleries that offer shopping opportunities. From the standpoint of marketing theory we may wish to track the history and development and even question the nature of this alliance. In the past researchers such as Hirschman (1983), Holbrook (1987), and Levy and Kotler (1969) have addressed the range of what may or may not be included within the marketing and consumption context. Some of the issues they raised in terms of where and how it is appropriate to broaden the marketing concept have been superseded by events; the Museum of Modern Art, the Chicago Art Institute or indeed the Tate Modern owe little to Levy and Kotlers description of museums as cold marble mausoleums (1969: 39) unattractive to visitors. Artists too have changed radically; one cannot equate the likes of Damian Hirst or Jeff Koons with Hirschmans description of the aesthetically driven artist for whom internal criteria and peer evaluations are more valued than the acclaim of the public and where commercial success may even be viewed negatively (Hirschman, 1983). Most importantly we have seen what Featherstone (1991) refers to as the aestheticization of everyday life and it is this process and its outcomes that have particular resonance for marketing theory and its relationship with art and aesthetics. If postmodernism implies a collapse of the boundaries and distinctions between art and life (Featherstone, 1991), investigating the implications of such a collapse is a legitimate area of study. Schroeder, for example, examines how Warhol utilized objects we consume on a daily basis to provide an easily recognizable and reproducible art form (1997: 477), while Millard (2001) describes an advertisement where a brand of beer presents a man floating in a glass case while a sheep stands nearby, which adroitly references Damien Hirsts Away from the Flock. Such use of art in advertising is no longer the simple reproduction of a famous painting to add authenticity; it reflects the target audience and connects with their aspirations, assuming they can read the visual rhetoric that links art and advertising (Scott, 1994). The blurring of boundaries between art and consumption has questioned the privileged position of art suggested by Julius. Increasingly we see a world where everyday banal reality comes under the sign of art (Baudrillard, 1998), while art happily engages with the commercial world. Marketing theory has a role to play in the examination of fluidity where once barriers existed, and in the exploration of the implications for producers and consumers alike in the process of the aestheticization of consumption. This article will seek to explore the aestheticization of consumption through two recent exhibitions, both devoted in different ways to the depiction and understanding of consumption. The definition of the aestheticization of consumption as used in this article is informed by Featherstone, in two key ways. First, that boundaries between art and consumption are in a process of effacement, and second, that art can be anywhere and anything (1991: 268); aesthetic enjoyment can be captured from consumption and consumption objects, just as art can imitate, reflect and critique consumption. The article will begin by considering the nature of the aesthetic experience and

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how the disengagement of Kantian aesthetics and autotelic notions of art for arts sake have been superseded by the project of turning life into art and the relevance of this way of thinking and seeing for, in particular, the integration dimension of consumption (Holt, 1995). Integration is essentially an instrumental act allowing consumers to acquire and manipulate object meanings. Holt uses the metaphor to explain how people develop and align their self identity but equally integration can refer to the alignment of meaning to different parts of our experience, be they consumption related or aesthetic in nature. Two exhibitions, brand.new (2000) and Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture (2002) are then described and their contribution to the aestheticization of consumption explored. Finally, implications from the discussion and the interpreted experience of the exhibitions will be drawn to identify implications for marketing theory.

The aesthetic principle and every day life


Arguments have been made for and against an aesthetic principle. Formalists at the beginning of the 20th century invoked Plato quoting from Philebus, that forms give pleasure free from desire. This disengagement from the world was fundamental; the aesthetic contemplation advocated by Schopenhauer (1883: 270) where the object is perceived in a form of disinterested reflection detached from other relations or connections. Schopenhauer distinguished the beautiful from the agreeable; pure contemplation is demanded by the beautiful in contrast to the agreeable which gratifies. Similarly Kant (1911) separated disinterested aesthetic contemplation from judgements built around sensual pleasure. He aimed to distinguish what pleases us from what gratifies us, here disinterestedness alone can guarantee the specific aesthetic quality of contemplation; the beautiful work of art is dependent on the reciprocal relation of its parts and has no value but its own end. The art for arts sake dictum and Kantian distancing were rejected by many in the 19th century. Baudelaire, Benjamin and Simmels experiences of modernit in the cities of the mid- to late-19th-century informed their view of aesthetics grounded in modern life, not separate from it. Similarly Bourdieus notion of aesthetic contemplation is neither pure nor disinterested, but rather a disposition which comes from affluence (Jenkins, 1992):
The detachment of the pure gaze cannot be dissociated from a general disposition towards the world which is the paradoxical product of conditioning by negative economic necessities a life of ease that tends to induce an active distance from necessity. (Bourdieu, 1984: 5)

In The Love of Art, Bourdieus critique of Kantian aesthetics is most explicit; here he presents the ability to perceive in a specifically aesthetic way as something learnt. That some of us are innately predisposed to reflect on art in a particular way is a myth and an illusion of a cultivated nature (Bourdieu et. al., 1991: 109). In contrast to Kantian disinterestedness, Bourdieus presentation of a popular aesthetic is based on an affirmation of the continuity between art and life, which

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implies the subordination of form to function (1984: 4). The audience of the work of art becomes involved with it; popular taste reduces art to the things of life. If, as Bourdieu suggests, the sacred frontier (1984: 6) which protects so-called legitimate culture as discrete and different is abolished, then we also do away with Kants basis of high aesthetics. This position is also supported by recent work in consumer research that critiques Kants elimination of all non-cognitive responses from an aesthetic experience (Joy and Sherry, 2003). The nature of aesthetic experience is, like the consumption experience, a discourse of change. Lashs contribution to this discourse (1988) is the concept of de-differentiation where the process of cultural differentiation involving the segregation of aesthetic forms from the real world is reversed such that sensation and immediacy are central to aesthetics. In consumption terms this de-differentiation is reflected in the metaphor of consuming-as-integration (Holt, 1995), where integration is an instrumental process facilitating the symbolic use of an object and breaking down distancing between the consumer and the consumption object. This article explores areas of de-differentiation and integration through the discussion of two relatively recent exhibitions. It is argued that these two examples reveal both the aestheticization of consumption practices and the dedifferentiation of aesthetics. The choice of exhibitions was based on identifying a point of union between the world of marketing and the world of art, converging as they did in the realm of consumption. Prior to these shows there had been other exhibitions principally within the design field such as the opening exhibition at the Design Museum in 1989 entitled Commerce and Culture. brand.new and Shopping were, however, amongst the first attempts in Europe to explore the aestheticization of consumption on the one hand from the perspective of the consumer brand and on the other from the perspective of the artist. Both shows were effectively showing works of art within the exhibition environment. As discrete events, exhibitions present objects, texts and other visual representations to create a complex but bounded system of representation. The museum has come to signify value and worth (Joy and Sherry, 2003); in the context of the museum we have come to expect to see works of art. The visitor constructs meaning from the individual exhibits, and the ordering and presentation of the exhibition (Lidchi, 1997). Both shows presented a wide-ranging collection of exhibits spanning space, time and cultural difference and calling on the visitor to integrate and dedifferentiate the displays with their existing understanding of both consumption and art. These exhibitions may be seen as two sides of a coin. brand.new was totally dedicated to the brand, its history, variation, proliferation and resistance, with the exhibition covering various products, locations and social practice as they fell within the matrix of what the organizers considered to be branding. Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture, was promoted as the first exhibition to make an in-depth investigation into the act of shopping as a dominant cultural phenomenon of the last 100 years. In doing this it aimed to examine the creative dialogue between art and commercial presentation (Grunenberg and Hollein, 2002: 8). While in brand.new the product and brand were usually displayed

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without artistic authorship, in Shopping the art works, which in some way all explored the theme of shopping, brands and consumption, were clearly designated by their makers. In one exhibition the brand as created by commercial organizations was explored as an art form and a social carrier of meaning, while the other brought together a range of artists interpretations and representations of the meaning of shopping and consumption. In the next part of this article, I will briefly explore my individual response to these two exhibitions in terms of how the elements of consumption and the aesthetic experience were conveyed within the exhibition arena.

brand.new: the ambiguity of consumption


Famous global brands were the major focus of this exhibition. Thus pride of place was given to the ubiquitous Levis, Coca-Cola and Nike. The history, controversy and undermining of many of these renowned brands and others was fully explored in the exhibits and commentary. The aesthetic experience was conveyed through the placing and focus given to objects that one would not normally see within an exhibition space. Whereas we might expect both physical and aesthetic distancing in a traditional gallery in front of oil paintings, our expectations of encountering a Nike trainer are framed by our consumption experiences. The object becomes reified in a completely novel way. We are encouraged just through its placing, to view it in a different manner, to question our assumptions about the product and the brand. The good provides the aesthetic and sensory response; colour, shape and size were used confrontationally with no concession to the traditions of exhibition space. Yet these items were clearly being exhibited, the onlooker was not encouraged to connect with the brand but to view it from a distance. Engagement was retained for the exhibition shop where large quantities of merchandise branded, jokey and subversive were for sale. Visitors were also encouraged to fill in a postcard to add to the Memory Board in the exhibition caf. They were asked to consider Which brands do you think are the most memorable? What do they mean to you? implying an aesthetic response of meaning for brands similar to what one might have for a favourite work of art (Joy and Sherry, 2003) and also questioning how we integrate brands into our lives (Holt, 1995). As a spectator, the process of encountering brands we see everyday in a new aesthetic light was a revealing experience. The exhibition organizers wanted to present the onlooker in concentrated form with the questions sociologists have been grappling with: is our consumption individualistic, or are we just part of a mass culture where our individual selves are lost? Are we manipulated by brands to believe we are authentic, or are we genuinely free-thinking creative individuals playing out our fantasies and personal explorations through consumption? Are we constructing ourselves, surfing, trying on personal identities like clothing or is the unfettered global, socially mobile traveller a myth of the post modern era? (Parvitt, 2000). As one of thousands passing through the exhibition, recognizing the same symbols and colours familiar the world over, the commodification of

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lifestyle became a stark reality. De Certeaus (1988) argument that as consumers we are also producers, creating meaning with the goods we buy, seemed less credible when faced with the careful shifting of meaning manipulated by the branding of Coca Cola. The exhibition made explicit that aestheticization of everyday life is implied in the choices we make in terms of goods, services and experiences. Whether this is through some disinterested gaze or a reflection of our own learned taste preferences, may depend on ones general philosophy faced with things created purely as art or for consumption. It does, however, imply an expansion of production and consumption in relation to style- and image-rich products, whether this is in the individualization of advertisements such as the 1999 series for Adidas Runners. Yeah, were different, and the ever present LOreal line Because Im worth it, or the choice of costly brands such as the Dualit toaster, which we may consider as stylish, smart and of significant social value (Parvitt, 2000). The brand as authentic and unique was another important theme of this exhibition, which again found congruence in traditional works of art. Advertisements for brands such as the IBM ThinkPad 600 (1999), the Nokia 8810 (1999) and the Apple iMac and iBook (2000) revealed powerful use made of the photographic image of the product to convey not only its style, but also the familiarity of the brand as something superior to the competition: unique, original and authentic. These advertisements rely almost totally on the visual image of the product; they need no written justification to convince the purchaser, their visual explanation is enough. In Scotts terms (1994: 255) these advertisements are contingent on a kind of reading, here the context sensitive manipulation is of the products as works of art. The anticipated consumer of these advertisements can read the rhetorical purpose of the image. Authenticity was also displayed in terms of the designers of products and advertising. The exhibition detailed how in the late 1990s, retailers like Target, K-mart and 711 took on celebrity designers such as Philippe Starck to imbue their products with a new form of authentic quality. Campari hired futurist Fortunato Despero and was transformed into a patron of the arts with its campaigns becoming major cultural events, the distinction of the artist giving new significance to the products. Marzano (2000) of Phillips Design confirmed that a successful brand needed not only authenticity in terms of reflecting the values of the company behind it, but also a consumption aesthetic, something that is distinctly Phillips. Antonelli (2000) made an artistic analogy of the value authenticity gives brands, saying that the signature of the designer brings a particular promise to the brand, a notable mark of distinction, just as in the world of art the authentic signature of the painter marks the painting out as authentic and therefore more valued. brand.new was an exhibition full of ambiguity; in the exhibition space individual brands were subtly explored, as well as being undermined either by the commentary or the critical stance of resisting agencies. This complexity in the production of the exhibition is perhaps a reflection of the problematic relationship between the aesthetic stance and that of a critical consumption perspective. Here the design, beauty and sensory appeal of the brand as an art object is under-

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stood and explored, but within the context of the brand as a production of commerce and a reflection of the consumer society beyond the aesthetic experience. That the brand is presented as an art object does not exclude it from the social processes and context of its understanding, just as with any art object the brand cannot be explained only with reference to aesthetic factors (Chaplin, 1994). Importantly, this exhibition reflected the conventions and understandings of a particular part of western culture and as such the producers of the exhibition had selected the visual rhetoric that will accord with their audiences expectations (Scott, 1994). As Chaplin notes, historically visual conventions have changed and so we might argue that a shared knowledge and acceptance of conventions may represent an aesthetic consensus. Such a consensus may be necessary for the aestheticization of everyday life; brands have become part of the world of our common experience, without the necessity to learn special codes (Mitchell, 1986). It could be argued that the processes of de-differentiation and integration are taking place just through the very idea and popularity of such an exhibition.

Shopping: I shop therefore I am


Shopping was an exhibition which explicitly explored the creative dialogue between art and commerce, accepting that many of the 20th-century artists on show and especially the Pop artists had not been averse to their own commodification. I shop therefore I am, Barbara Krugers work ironically misquoting Descartes, acted as a connecting link between brand.new and Shopping. Her work on show at Shopping dealt with the relationship between identity and consumerism and, sold as postcards, T-shirts and posters in the exhibition shop, gave consumers the opportunity of self-parody through art. Here was integration in action, as articulated by Januszczak (2002: 14), Krugers attack on the shopping impulse has itself metamorphosed into a best selling item. But it can be equally argued that Krugers piece is a signifier of the post modern existentialist experience. The first principle of existentialism is that Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself (Sartre, 1973: 28) and in todays world shopping is arguably one way we can try to create ourselves. We can read Krugers work both as a licence to shop and as a comment on the human condition in a world of consumption. The exhibit which caused most uproar in the press and most interest from consumers was from the consumption perspective the most common, the most immediately recognizable exhibit of all: a supermarket. Entering the exhibition, one was faced with a full-size recreation of a Tesco Metro Store; a working grocery shop as exhibit. The irony of Guillaume Bijls New Supermarket was encapsulated in the thanks given in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue to Tescos Store PLC for providing the fixtures and upkeep of the store, and in the looks of amazement and curiosity of all the visitors wandering around, investigating the cans and packets at arms length when a few hundred yards away they could touch feel, smell, pick and choose the real thing. Here the aesthetic experience was

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effectively turned on its head as we willingly accepted and marvelled at the site of purchase and consumption transformed into something approaching aesthetic distancing, unable to touch the exhibits as the familiar shopping ritual had been effectively aestheticized. This was a revealing experience, not only for the validation of the commonplace, but also because it made one look afresh at the everyday components of our consumption environment. The history of shopping was dealt with here as seriously as the history of art and museums. A number of significant installations including The American Supermarket (1964) and Hirsts Pharmacy (1992) had been recreated. Wall charts informed us that retail shopping was invented by the Lydians and that glazed shop windows were introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century. Similarities were drawn between the development of the retail store and that of the museum, and these were not lost on the visitor seeing both filled with desirable articles, often using glass to maintain a distance between the onlooker and the object. Key to the philosophy of this exhibition was how artists express themselves through consumption and the objects of consumption. Just as the postmodern consumer may be attracted less by the physical product than its projected content and use (Szmigin, 2003), so can the artist play and manipulate goods and transform them into objects of aesthetic value. Fundamentally this possibility lies in the creative dialogue between art and consumption and the notion that such a thing as consumer aesthetics exists (Hollein, 2002: 15). This was perhaps best displayed by the work of the American Pop Artists. Pop Art began by making the critical shift away from traditional concepts of what art should be about, exchanging beauty and exclusiveness for the banal and mass produced. The choice of everyday subjects and the production of multiples created an art movement which questioned the institutional and discursive context in which the production and reception of art was undertaken. Yet Warhols Campbells soup cans and Brillo boxes reflect a classical artistic kernel, chosen as much for their existence in large numbers as for their designs which had remained unchanged for years. In Shopping, the place of purchase, the shop, department store and supermarket became an artistic spectacle. Oldenburgs The Store (1961) explored the alienation of art from everyday life. The store held food, clothes and writing materials all made from painted plaster-covered muslin. Oldenburg was making a political and social statement here as well as an artistic one. He produced everything in the shop and sold it too, returning to the non-alienated craft mans existence of the pre-capitalist world, but as each thing was sold its price was transference into an art object. Similarly, the 1964 creation of The American Supermarket which first opened in East 78th Street in New York was reinvented in all its original glory. The store with its sign advertising Ballantine beer and piles of Campbells soup tins and boxes of fruit and vegetables again made fluid any boundaries between art and everyday life; real food mixed with fake sirloin steaks. The American Supermarket presented contemporary commodities as art and sold art like commodities (Grunenberg, 2002: 172). Here shopping and consumption were celebrated by artists who recognized and understood the aestheticization of consumption.

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The aestheticization of consumption and marketing theory


The two exhibitions discussed in this article were fundamentally concerned with the aestheticization of consumption, engaging the onlooker in both the aesthetic and consumption experience. While exhibitions of art from previous centuries have explored the realms of patronage and even business in the artists lives and works, these were the first exhibitions in Britain to investigate as their central theme the reciprocal relationship that can exist between art and consumption presented as an aesthetic experience. brand.new chronicled the rise and role of the brand both in our everyday lives and as part of a business phenomenon. It explored, dissected and critiqued branding, but at the same time introduced the audience to the aesthetics of the brand; how it can achieve authenticity and act as a vehicle for both cognitive and affective expression. By placing brands in a museum context, the visitor was encouraged to reflect on signs and images taken for granted in everyday life. Shopping on the other hand, subsumed the brand in its broader picture of consumer society. This was consumption seen through the many and varied lenses of the artists work. In this exhibition the brand had no individual manipulative power; the artist took over and was in charge of how the consumption experience was presented. What this exhibition did above all was make the visitor think in different ways about the tools and apparatus of consumption and see them through the eyes of the artists. The two exhibitions made worthy attempts to bring to a wider audience the synergy that exists in the 21st century between art and consumption and in so doing provided a visual argument for the aestheticization of everyday life as symbolized by the consumption object. The convergence of art and consumption exhibited here has important implications for both producer and consumer. The consumer is encouraged to integrate the consumption and aesthetic experience, to accept fluidity and the breakdown of any distancing between the two. Increasingly consumers have a shared visual and consumption vocabulary that allows them to glide between aesthetic and instrumental appreciation. Producers too will respond to the implications of the collapse of barriers between art and consumption; imagery and signs, so called high art and graphic design, can be melded in new and innovative ways acceptable to the market and willingly integrated into it. The convergence of art and commerce will impact on expectations in terms of communication, product design, and shopping spaces. Stephen Bayley, one time director of the UKs Design Museum, described how the British department store Selfridges had repositioned itself by a huge emphasis on visual seduction; not for sellings sake, but for aesthetics sake (Millard, 2001: 122). Art has already become integrated into marketing such that products and brands can gain from the attributes that art can instil. At the same time, the assimilation of art into advertising eases the problem that people might have with difficult art. Who could have a problem with a Gillian Wearing video when the same idea was used in a Volkswagen ad? (Millard, 2001: 26). The exhibitions discussed here raise the question of the continued relevance of an aesthetic of disinterestedness and distance in an era where aestheticization

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pervades everyday life, where art has become integrated with consumption and consumption with art. A problem for marketing theory is to understand how this integration and de-differentiation will impact on consumption and marketing. Will the consumer become ever better equipped to understand the rhetoric of marketing and join with marketers in playful and engaged responses to new ideas, products and shopping spaces, or will they turn in on themselves in some introverted existentialist cynicism? But if art can be an end in itself, consumption clearly can be also and this too raises important issues in terms of understanding consumption motivations in the 21st century. Kants aesthetics were parodied in Kierkegaards Either-Or (1959) where A and B represent the aesthetic and the ethical. While B follows a purposive life, for A the only life worth living is purposeless. The aesthete therefore faces the paradoxical task of purposively pursuing purposelessness (Taylor, 2002). A purposive purposelessness is translated as an existential version of Kants notion of beauty which Kant defined as purposiveness without purpose. Taylor suggests that Kierkegaards analysis of aesthetic existence anticipated todays world of shopping for shoppings sake, reflecting the existentialist sentiment of Krugers I shop therefore I am. When shopping is used to hold boredom at bay, it loses it purposiveness and acquires an aesthetic dimension. Like a beautiful work of art, shopping in this mode can be said to have no end other than itself. As such the circle has come around, the work of art is as much a commodity as a pair of shoes and the pair of shoes can embody an aesthetic dimension as much as the work of art. The blurring of boundaries and de-differentiation discussed here will inevitably bring both problems and opportunities; art is still an exclusive enterprise and consumers capacity to recognize and assimilate artists work into their own lives will affect how they see, accept and integrate an aestheticized marketplace. Similarly, marketing predictably constrained by target markets and segmentation opportunities will inevitably tread carefully in its adoption of the avant-garde, but as art increasingly becomes part of popular culture, many product categories and brands will be ripe for increased aestheticization.

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Isabelle Szmigin is Professor of Marketing working in the Business School at the University of Birmingham. Her main research interests lie in the conceptualization of consumer behaviour, which has included areas such as consumption by older people, ethical consumption and the consumption of artists lives. Her book, Understanding the Consumer, highlights issues and problems that marketing has with conceptualizing consumer behaviour. She is currently working on an ESRC-funded project that looks at branded consumption in relation to young peoples identities and alcohol. Address: The Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK. [email: i.t.szmigin@bham.ac.uk]

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