Consumer Self-Concept and Fantasy


Stories and fantasy represent an important aspect of consumer life and comprise a huge marketing enterprise within consumer entertainment. Each year, upwards of $82 billion is spent on books, games, and other fantasy industries in the United States alone. Likewise, fantasy has important implications for consumers’ sense of identity. In this dissertation, I explore both theoretical and practical implications of consumer engagement with fantasy. In particular, in this dissertation I examine the processes underlying consumer engagement with one of the most quintessential story elements: villains.Prior research asserts that in order to avoid threats to their sense of self, consumers tend to shy away from others who seem similar to themselves in some ways but undesirable in other ways (immoral, unstable, etc.). Chapter 1 explores the idea that consumers can feel drawn to, rather than repulsed, by story villains who resemble them. I demonstrate that fictional stories can mitigate feelings of threat at being associated with undesirable people, leading consumers to find similar villains more self-relevant and thus to feel drawn to them. I test this idea across eight studies, including seven experiments (N = 2702) as well as a large proprietary data set from a company with over 232,000 registered users. Some passages, figures, and tables from Chapter 1 are transcribed with permission from the paper that was published based on the work (Krause and Rucker 2020). In Chapter 2, I shift from consumer preference for similar over dissimilar villains to the preference for villains in general. Previous research, such as studies decrying the sadism of violent video game players, seems to suggest that it is those who have villainous real-world desires that prefer to play villains in games. Indeed, prior research has emphasized the motivation to engage with fantasy in order to simulate the achievement of real-world wishes – which I call upward fantasy. Yet, this explanation seems insufficient to explain the immense popularity of villain-centric games and media. I explore alternative potential motives that could lead non-villainous consumers to pursue villainous fantasy experiences. Specifically, I propose consumers often engage in fantasy for the purpose of temporarily escaping their real-world goals – a motivation I call outward fantasy.” Across four studies (N = 1003), I find evidence for outward fantasy motivation. Moreover, I demonstrate such fantasy does not stem from real-world villainous desires, but from a more benign motivation related to reducing psychological strain.

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