The Medium is the Marketplace: Digital Systems and the Intensification of Consumption

Before desires can be translated into purchases, however, consumers have to be able to pay the price demanded. Faced with a good whose cost exceeds their available spending power, they have two choices. They can save until they can afford it, or they can borrow. Marx tackles the question of credit in the third volume of Capital, but focuses on the role of "productive consumption" in assembling the inputs needed to maintain the production system rather than the "final" consumption of individuals. He concedes that "an exhaustive analysis of the credit system and the instruments which it creates for its own use lies beyond our plan" (Marx, 1974, p. 401), but his general analysis of capital as a process, of value in motion, assigns it a central role as one of the key devices that "tear down every spatial barrier to ... exchange" and "reduce to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to another" (Marx, 1973, p. 539). Advertising lubricates this process, hastening circulation and the realization of value by stimulating desire and demand (Lebowitz, 1986). Credit similarly accelerates product turnover ([Harvey, David], 1990, p. 229). "The entire credit system," Marx (1973) writes, "rests on the necessity of expanding and leaping over the barrier to circulation and the sphere of exchange" (p. 416). Digital technologies are being mobilized to speed circulation not only as delivery platforms for advertisements, but also as instruments for mediating instant, credit-based purchases (Manzerolle & Kjøsen, 2012). Marx's (1973) perception that "[c]apital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier" and requires "the annihilation of space by time [as] an extraordinary necessity" (p. 524) has been enthusiastically endorsed by digital marketers (see McGuigan & Manzerolle, 2014). An executive from the branding consultancy Millward Brown translates it into the conventional industry wisdom, noting that, "[s]hopping used to be confined to the store and its store hours ... With mobile [devices], consumers could shop anywhere they wanted. Now the store experience can be accessed anywhere" (Bulik, 2013, n.p.). According to corporate analyst eMarketer, the ubiquitous connectivity enabled by smartphones and mobile broadband access produces "always-on consumers," defined by a pervasive "shopping state of mind," being "rarely more than a tap away from jumping from a physical store to a virtual store, or from one online merchant to another" (Elkin, 2013, p. 10). This increasing convergence has been facilitated by recent developments in mobile commerce, payment processing, and the ongoing integration of digital technologies into retail spaces (Turow, McGuigan, & Maris, 2015). Despite these powerful control apparatuses, Intel continues to claim that in the digital age, the balance of power has shifted away from businesses, putting "the consumer in the driver's seat" (Intel, 2012, p. 1). To counter this alleged loss of certainty and predictability, the company has introduced its "Intelligent Sales Assistant," a Hybrid Tablet equipped with a host of marketing applications, including the capacity to allow managers and sales associates to see "where customers are congregating and for how long" (Intel, 2012, p. 3). With help from companies like Intel, retailers are embedding microprocessors in everyday objects and using sensors to track all movements in commercial spaces (Andrejevic & Burdon, 2015). This data-driven marketing strategy-what some call "physical" or "interior" analytics-is an intensification of a longstanding drive for control. Efforts to direct how customers move through retail spaces date back to at least 1916 when Clarence Saunders opened his Piggly Wiggly store, the first self-service supermarket, which "was explicitly designed to process people past merchandise" ([Beniger, James], 1986, p. 334).

Publication: 
Canadian Journal of Communication
Author: 
McGuigan, Lee; Murdock, Graham
Document Type: 
Research
Paywall: 
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