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Updated 11:00 AM October 9, 2006
 

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Teen ridicule shapes consumer behavior and brand awareness

Students learn the three R's in school, but there's a fourth one as well—ridicule, says a professor at the Ross School of Business.

In a new study appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, David Wooten, assistant professor of marketing, explores the impact of adolescent ridicule on consumer behavior and brand consciousness.

Ridicule, he says, helps teach teenagers what brands and styles of clothes and shoes to wear and which ones to avoid if they want acceptance from their peers. These pressures also play a major role in thefts and violence by teens who covet expensive symbols of belonging, but who cannot afford to buy them.

"Although teaching is seldom the motive of teasers, learning is often a byproduct of teasing," Wooten says. "I find that the practice of ridicule both reflects and affects adolescents' perceptions of belongingness, the content of ridicule conveys information about the consumption norms and values of peer groups, and the experience of ridicule influences the acquisition, use and disposition of possessions."

Wooten's study involved interviews with 43 older adolescents and young adults (ages 18-23), who discussed their teasing experiences as teenagers. Younger teens were not included because of the hurtful nature of discussing possibly painful teasing experiences, he says. African American males made up most of the sample.

Ridicule fell into generally three areas: ostracism, in which the teaser flexes individual and group muscle at the expense of lower-status others (bully vs. victim); hazing, in which the teaser assumes a leadership role and teaches target how to gain membership (mentor vs. apprentice); and admonishment, in which the teaser polices group members and detains and embarrasses those who violate norms (police vs. delinquent).

Students who are teased and those who observe teasing learn stereotypes about "avoidance" groups, consumption norms of the "in" groups, the use of possessions to communicate social links and to achieve acceptance goals and social consequences of nonconformity, Wooten says.

"As a result, many targets and observers of ridicule alter their perceptions, acquisition, use and disposition of objects in order to avoid unwanted attention," he says.

Wooten's findings support a policy of mandatory school uniforms, which may reduce the psychological and social pressures for teens to wear expensive brands and the financial burden on parents who buy them. On the other hand, if uniforms only are optional, they might eventually become stigma symbols, especially if the option to buy them is exercised only by strict parents and low-income families, he says.

For a copy of the study go to www.journals.uchicago.edu/JCR/journal/issues/v33n2/332005/332005.web.pdf .

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