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Representing consumers – from fridges to mobile phones

Mika Pantzar

My commentary focuses on the changing representations and images of consumers. In post-war Finland domestic appliance marketers took their user representations directly from the sphere of managerialistic rationalization movement. The discourse around the home computer, almost 40 years later, repeated exactly the same arguments based on the industrial mindset.

"They have them in the States, they even have them in Europe. I wonder when they will appear in Finland? That is, home computers, those marvelous devices, in front of which kids do their homework, housewives plan their budgets and food recipes... A housewife planning the day's meals. First she asks the computer about the ideal nutritional composition of the day's meals, and about alternative meal models to reach it. Next, she checks in the meal program of the week what kind of meals the family has recently had, and what meals are in turn to be made. She still needs to check the status of the refrigerator: what ingredients or ready-made meals should be used up first. Among the recommendations suggested by the computer, she selects the one she prefers the most, prepares the meal and sets it to cook under the computer's control. Now she asks the computer about discounts at the shops, and makes the computer order her shopping from the computer terminals in the shops. A game? On the opposite: it is a natural development." (Rakennuspuusepänteollisuus r.y. 40 vuotta/Construction carpentry industry, 40th anniversary book,1983).

At the same time it was mobile phones that started to manifest another kind of cultural landscape. Nokia, for example, has witnessed in its history a shift from technology-oriented products and company towards design, fashion and lifestyle. It seems that simultaneously the images of "snowboard kids" are gaining space from "businessmen" as general representations of the future users of hi-tech appliances. "Snowboarding" should be taken as a metaphor for adventure, freedom and self-realization. One might want to ask to what extent snowboard kids are better representatives for us than business managers?

Mika Pantzar is senior researcher at the Finnish Academy and director of the research project Constructing the Consumer at Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration (HSEBA). His published books include Kuinka teknologia kesytetään (The domestication of technology, 1996) and Tulevaisuuden koti. Arjen tarpeita keksimässä (Future home - inventing everyday needs, 2000).