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Consuming Passions: Consumer Behavior is Popular Culture is Consumer Behavior

By  Aug 30, 2008

Topics: Marketing, Ideas, Advertising

Computer mediated environments like Second Life are not only a new marketing opportunity for corporations, but also a new horizon for educators, policymakers, and non-profits.  Do the promises of these virtual worlds outweigh the pitfalls?


What if you could design a whole new body for yourself, perhaps with a shape and face that would make Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt green with envy?  Or, you could make yourself green as well.  What if you could walk, fly, or even teleport at will – and for free – to enchanted realms where you could befriend others from around the world, and learn about any topic from Greek history to acid jazz?  Many people are doing that while you’re reading this – they create avatars that play, work and learn in virtual worlds like Second Life, There.com and even MTV’s Virtual Pimp My Ride.  These computer-mediated environments (CMEs) are perched on the tipping point of mainstream culture – when hit TV shows like CSI:NY, Law & Order and The Office all air recent episodes that takes place in Second Life, we know something is up.

If a text-based chat room married a high-powered videogame, its offspring would look like a CME.  These worlds allow anyone – rich or poor, ambulatory or disabled – to roam at will in a brightly colored, three-dimensional world offering  stores, beaches, golf courses, bars, ski areas, high-rise office buildings, medieval role-playing regions, and yes, sex clubs and presidential campaign speeches.

Predictably, big corporations are starting to figure out how to market to us in virtual worlds (or at least to our avatars). But CMEs are not just about a new way to deliver ads. They also are a new horizon for educators, policymakers, and non-profits. Indeed, numerous universities already have a presence in Second Life, including the virtual Saint Joseph’s University campus we have opened.

Unfortunately, we’re encountering naysayers in first life – including some fellow educators who claim that CMEs are “only a fad” that can’t substitute for good old-fashioned physical classrooms. It’s not hard to remember similar comments about this new fad called the Internet only a decade ago.  The research firm eMarketer estimates that 24% of the 34.3 million child and teen Internet users in the U.S. visit a  virtual world at least once a month -- and 53% of them will do so by 2011. These critics may not be hanging out in places like Second Life, but at least half of their kids are – and most likely all of their grandchildren will.The grumblers also point out – and correctly – that when the inmates control the asylum the result inevitably mirrors what people create in the “meat world” such as pornography, gambling, vandalism and even terrorism. Yes, all is not innocence and light in these virtual worlds.  But, unlike the real world it’s possible to block access to undesirable neighborhoods and even easier to control who visits yours.    

Warts and all, virtual worlds offer tremendous promises that far outweigh the pitfalls:          

Efficiency and resource conservation.   IBM employees routinely conduct business in-world instead of traveling by plane. Think of the benefits both to the bottom line and to IBM’s carbon footprint. 

Scope of experiences.  It’s one thing for students to watch a video about a polymer or about Polynesia, and quite another to walk around the cells or swim to an exotic island. 

Go where the brave dare not go.  Boeing takes avatar passengers on a virtual plane ride; the plane catches fire in mid-flight so engineers can study how people react to an aviation crisis. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hosts an island where visitors stand on a beach to experience the effects of a tsunami. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention educated kids about the importance of proper inoculations by unleashing a virtual flu virus on more than 10,000 young visitors to its island.

Access granted. A new world opens for the physically or psychologically disabled.  A wheelchair-bound person can walk – or fly – at will.  A shy student who hides in the back of a lecture hall magically sprouts wings and challenges his professor’s ideas. All can benefit from real-time access to others they would never encounter otherwise; students in Belgium can work on a group project with their peers in Baltimore, Bali, or both.

Push the envelope.  Today’s students have access to amazing digital tools that let them stretch their intellectual and artistic muscles.  A white pupil can decide he that today he wants his avatar to look like a member of a minority group. He might learn a powerful real life lesson if others avatars treat him differently as a result.

We’re experiencing the birth of an entirely new way to communicate – and to learn.  The naysayers need to get a second life.    

For more information on attracting and keeping profitable customers, read my book, The Truth About What Customers Want.