Is Free Choice an Illusion?

I am sometimes asked questions like: What is so wonderful about the free market? My answer is that the free market is about choice. You choose what you want to buy. The choices you make send signals through the market to huge numbers of people involved in retailing, manufacturing and production of raw materials. A lot of these people live in different parts of the world. They don’t even know each other – they are just responding to market opportunities. It is inspiring to think that this whole system responds to individual choice.

However, some people argue that free choice is just an illusion. These people include some famous economists, such a J K Galbraith, who wrote ‘The Affluent Society’ in the 1950s. He argued that your choices are manipulated by advertisers, who sell you things that you may not really need. Others argue that modern economies are geared to selling things that are bad for us – food full of fat and sugar; fuel guzzling cars; new fashions in clothes that serve no obvious purpose – often funded with credit that consumers have difficulty repaying.

How has the economics profession responded to this challenge? Over most of the last 50 or so years I think it is fair to say that the profession has largely ignored the challenge. That was easy to do because there was never any serious suggestion that advertising should be banned. Advertising of some addictive products that are harmful to health has been restricted and there has been some regulation to shield children from exposure. Everyone agrees, however, that it would be silly to discourage informational advertising about store locations, products sold and prices. As for more subtle forms of advertising, it is difficult to define activities that should be discouraged without infringing the rights of individuals to engage in persuasive communication with each other.

Much of the economic research that has been undertaken on the effects of advertising has suggested that they are small and do not last long. However, such findings raise more questions than they have answered. Why would firms spend large amounts on advertising if it has little effect on sales?

The findings of some recent studies on the evolution of brand preferences are consistent with Israel Kirzner’s view that it is the entrepreneur’s function not only to make the product available, but also to ensure that the consumer’s attention is attracted to the opportunities that the product provides (‘Perception, Opportunity and Profit’, 1983, p 10). These studies have shown that:
• brand loyalty tends to be a very important factor – many people prefer to buy a leading brand product, even though a less expensive product is indistinguishable when packaging is not visible;
• the first brand that becomes established in a market tends to maintain a substantial advantage over those that come later; and
• this advantage is greatest for products that are heavily advertised.
(For example, see “The marmite effect’, ‘The Economist’, Sept. 23 2010 and Bart Bronnenburg, Jean-Pierre Dubé and Matthew Gentzkow, ‘The evolution of brand preferences’, NBER Working Paper 16267.)

Marketing experts have a great deal to say about how brand loyalty is established. Conventional branding models assume that the purpose of advertising is to influence consumer perceptions about the brand (e.g., associations tied to quality, benefits, personality, and aspirational user imagery). In cultural branding, however, advertisers seek to establish a story about the kind of people who buy the product they are selling and how it fits into their lives. The product is simply a conduit through which customers can experience the stories that the brand tells. (see: Douglas Holt, ‘How Brands Become Icons’, chapter 2). Some people identify strongly with the brand’s story, some may see it as saying something relevant to themselves, others see it as irrelevant.

One of the most interesting marketing exercises in Australia is the advertising of Victoria Bitter. For a long time the story was about ‘Vic’ as a reward for a hard days work – the ‘hard-earned thirst’. It was the working man’s beer. Over the last couple of years the advertising has moved up market. Last year, the story suggested that VB was every man’s beer. The most recent advertising seems to be aimed at young me who sees themselves as a ‘authentic Aussie blokes’. (The latest ad is here). If you buy the story, you buy the product and you make a statement about how you see yourself and how you want to be seen by others.

How can an understanding of marketing be incorporated into economics? There is a relatively new brand of economics developed by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton that is helpful. Identity economics recognizes that people gain satisfaction from acting in accordance with their identity – how they perceive themselves – as well from the goods and services they consume. This explains why some people would prefer to buy the branded product they usually buy rather another product that is a lot cheaper and is indistinguishable in all respects when taken out of its packaging. They get satisfaction from being the kinds of people who use that brand. The satisfaction they get from acting in accordance with their identity – the story associated with the brand – may exceed the satisfaction they would get from paying a lower price.

Summing up then, advertising does not make consumer choice an illusion. Advertisers are often trying to sell you a story. If you don’t identify with the story they are telling, you don’t buy their product. It’s your choice.

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