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How Insulated Are American Consumers?
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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The American economy has definitely seen better days. The Great Recession is stubbornly on its way out (hopefully) and consumer confidence has been on a roller-coaster ride, while those 8.2% of Americans who don't have a job have to hear news stories about Corporate America sitting on billions of cash.

In the meantime, AdLand is commissioned to attract consumers to those businesses and organizations that can help them during these difficult times. Messages of stability, growth, and savings fill the airwaves. Messages of self-worth and empowerment become themes for creative departments. But what about responsibility, conservation, or being a part of something bigger? Is there something more that Americans can do?

Patrick Byers of The Responsible Marketing Blog raised a question that we haven't paid much attention to. Do American consumers really have to play victims? Sure, many U.S. consumers cannot be blamed for the financial collapse, but we would agree with Byers that demand for energy-conscious products and services is in the market's control. His latest post talks about why consumers in emerging markets are more responsible than Americans, and with findings from Edelman Public Relations, he builds a strong argument.

Byers pointed out five conclusions the Edelman PR research came to, and some are pretty self-explanatory, while others were not. First, with the U.S. population's age rising, they saw that spending more to support a cause isn't worth it. Older consumers that have fixed incomes especially weren't moved to pay that extra buck. Second, those emerging markets will likely be forced to adhere to stricter environmental standards. It's politics; those developing countries that need IMF funding will get the money, but strings will come attached. A superpower like the U.S. (for now) is not likely to be subjected to such regulation. Third, the study notes that consumers in developed worlds are not happy with their corporate kin, and they are trying to go against the grain. Fourth, and most obviously, recessions make consumers shrink back and become more selfish. Why spend more to help others when you are trying to hold on to your own? It makes sense.

The fifth conclusion was the one we found most interesting. That one (listed second in the article) was that the emerging market consumers will be closer to the problems they are trying to solve, while the American consumer is insulated from many of the problems.

We're not too sure that's the case. Education, healthcare, city pollution, food costs, and equality in the workplace are all issues that are very much in the faces of consumers. We think that it is not that consumers are insulated from the problems; it's that the media and watchdogs (including advertising) are not shifting to these topics to keep them relevant. The consumers can take some blame, but the Fourth Estate and AdLand need to put some skin in the game as well.

Yes, people are disillusioned, and there are problems in Corporate America. People have lost faith in the market, and with the kind of bad business and speculation going on, it's hard to blame them. But instead of calling the consumer insulated, let's use AdLand's power get consumers closer to the problems and help the market decide how we can fix them.

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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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