Exposure, the Ultimate Challenge in a Market Society

by Soonkwan Hong, Associate Professor of Marketing

We now are exposed, and will be again, to more biological, economic, and socio-politico-cultural unknowns. We will writhe with the current state of mortality for a more-extended period than we can collectively visualize on graphs and charts. Notwithstanding the absence of an acute and scrupulous future projection, the current agony reveals some inconvenient realities. Our initial exposure to the ominous bug has brought about other collateral exposures. There will surely be more, conceivably grimmer ones. 

As individuals, we are exposed mainly to the nothingness of the mundane to which we cling; humanity is exposed to an epochal transition between being human (BC: before coronavirus) and recognizing human (AC: after coronavirus). Leadership at all levels is exposed to the calamity and to the public that craves to point a colossal, atrocious finger at someone; democracy is exposed to a series of movements that simulate ochlocracy at best. The education system is exposed to a self-casted incantation, uttering, “Rigor, efficiency, and student experience,” whereas environmentalism is exposed to the unforeseen, yet ostensibly farcical, divide between green and clean (disinfected). Most gravely, the market is exposed to the unsolicited and unnerving hiatus of a critical human activity—consumption—which can only intensify all the aforementioned exposures. 

The market in modernity—with some inescapable shortcomings—had shown its capacity to integrate opposing views, distinctive expectations, multiple actors, a myriad of technologies, diverse cultures, and even different time and space into iconic brands and irresistible symbols for sale. It is still expected to perform the same role of creating, connecting, continuing, and congregating. At this accidental juncture in history, however, a non-human actor (virus) that has been nonexistent (or at least overlooked) enrolls into the market system (as a restless network). The corollary is an implosion wherein consumers—as the most attractive host for viral brands, trends, and products—have started underperforming (albeit unintentionally) for the market, and the market has become the greatest Petri dish to culture risk and fear. 

The perception of risks (physical, financial, performance, psychological, and social) associated with consumption choices and practices had always been a source of reservations that the market and marketers could together overcome because those risks were readily observable, easily traceable, fairly controllable, and even completely removable. This virus, however, possesses no such characteristic. When all the perceived risks eventually manifest into terror, spooked consumers in the AC market invoke two modus operandi: involuntary asceticism by the haves, and mandatory tightwadism by the have-nots. Predictably, this “coronated-consumption” will catalyze an overhaul of the prevalent value paradigm in the market. 

Consumers had been co-creating market value with marketers at the expense of what ought to be more valuable: health, freedom, equality, environment, and all the sine qua non that was taken for granted but seldom delivered by the mass market. When the “accursed share” (i.e., economic excess) can no longer be generated sufficiently due to the idiopathic (economic and clinical) depression, any remaining or to-be-created accursed share will be spent on the idea(l)s and principles the market society had mangled through rampant commodification. This reallocation will encourage some transformative consumption practices that nonetheless provide opportunities for current and future marketers. 

Neo-consumption, post-consumption, trans-consumption, or consumption 2.0 (whichever best suits the description) in this uncertain time may take forms similar to nostalgic marketing and hyper-personalization, but they can be palpably bleak and solipsistic. The shortage of entertainment from the “culture industry” that had offered movies, live concerts, sporting events, travel, and dining will further alienate consumers in the world of connectedness. Consumers will sense varied degrees of urgency to be re-connected. As a result, media consumption may skyrocket. However, it will inherit little, if any, properties from the culture industry that used to homogenize meanings and aesthetics and imperceptibly (but long-lastingly) intoxicate the public. Social media will become truly social in the sense that sensationalizing, playfulness, and bragging about food eaten, clothes worn, activities done, and places visited will have a very small place to be. In their stead, more intimate and individualized conversations will promote development of narrowcasted, meaningful interactions and communities on social media. Many consumers will try to recover from the toxic aftermath of feel-good media consumption and “re- enchant” the heartless and yet alluring media world. 

Civility in the AC era may no longer be the ability to situate oneself and behave within social norms. Rather, it is the conscious and responsible practice of limiting the number of occasions to be civil. It encompasses economic, environmental, and medical sensibility, as well as class consciousness, and will essentially renovate etiquettes. Classics such as Erasmus’ On Civility in Children may be revived and re-popularized as part of the new zeitgeist. Public education, higher education, and lifelong education may also demand new content and delivery methods for the new definition of homo socialis. Accordingly, the market will have to fill the void where contagious sociality used to prescribe the accustomed etiquettes. 

Together, mysophobia, haphephobia, anthropophobia, the pursuit of truly “connectable” and life-enhancing social media consumption, and reduced sociality call for localized consumption and lifestyles rather than the glamourized global. Consumers’ escalated desires for safety, connected individuality, and neo-tribal support may accelerate the ongoing shift from “the universal” to “the particular.” Being local will mean much more than just local produce, businesses, and communities. It will signify high-viscosity relationships and high-visibility identities in all human activities. This transformation in the AC market system will require marketers to recognize a new need, namely “becoming-other,” to live in a world of continuous changes as an individual. 

Exposure has provided some long-wanted, as well as some unsought, transparency, but that transparency may be realized as “obscenity.” When things become too real, too close, too immediate, and all-too exposing, they become obscene. Perhaps we all may be perverted, continuously monitoring the obscene and desperately wanting what is unacceptable or even proscribed. We must risk being obscene and perverted just to survive. In this new risk society, the new normal is distrust. Governments, systems, institutions, history, experts, and the market face an inestimable level of distrust. The BC market that once operated well by relying on its own momentum will become passé unless it can transcend its raison d'être to extract economic value from everything and anything. The AC market needs to re-positivize life in a market society by addressing conspiratorial discourses, ensuring accountability, neutralizing nihilism, supporting local community (physical and virtual) development, and, most importantly, helping to re-imagine the social. Such transcendence in a market society will be arduous but not unreasonable; it will require sacrifice, courage, keen insight, and, most essentially, an unparalleled level of tolerance.