Advertising: Meaning Or Information

Grant McCracken, University of Guelph
ABSTRACT - This paper examines two models that have been used in the study of advertising: the information-based model and the meaning-based model. It argues that the information-based model has two theoretical insufficiencies and seeks to characterize their nature and origins.
[ to cite ]:
Grant McCracken (1987) ,"Advertising: Meaning Or Information", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 121-124.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987       Pages 121-124


Grant McCracken, University of Guelph

[The author wishes to thank Montrose Sommers and Keith Humphrey for their advice.]

[Assistant Professor, Department of Consumer Studies, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1.]

"Why do consumers read or view advertising? Well, they must expect some benefit. Perhaps they receive some information " (Shugan 1982, p. 118).


This paper examines two models that have been used in the study of advertising: the information-based model and the meaning-based model. It argues that the information-based model has two theoretical insufficiencies and seeks to characterize their nature and origins.


The prevailing paradigm in consumer research conceives of the consumer as someone who is information-centered. This model defines the consumer as someone constantly seeking out and manipulating information in order to make choices between consumer goods and services. Much of the model building rehearsed in consumer behavior texts is designed precisely to give a systematic account of this information and the manner in which it reaches, and is then manipulated, by the consumer. Much of the research reported in the field uses this paradigm to identify the important questions and data. For some of us in the field of consumer research, an information-based model on the consumer has become the foundation of inquiry.

Plainly this model has served us well and plainly it will continue to do so. This model has achieved such preeminence, however, that it is easy for us to forget that it is only one of several alternatives with which we can make sense of consumer behavior and undertake consumer research. The purpose of this paper is to consider one of these alternatives. The paradigm recited here treats the consumer as someone who is meaning-centered. It will attempt to ask what happens to our vision of the consumer and, more particularly, to our vision of advertising, when we adopt this rather different perspective. It is hoped this meaning-based model will prove an illuminating and useful addition to the theoretical armory now at the disposal of the scholar engaged in consumer research.

A useful way of thinking about this discussion is provided by T.S. Kuhn's concept of competing scientific paradigm (1962). I do not wish to evoke the whole of this model, but it is useful to observe that the information based and the meaning based approaches are in some respects very like competing paradigms. They begin from different assumptions, they work towards different conclusions, they capture different kinds of data. These are fundamental differences, not a simple division of academic labor. These two paradigms construe the world quite differently. The differences between them can be as marked as those between different cultures.

The Kuhnian perspective, interestingly, has a polemical value for both paradigms. It encourages us to see that the following criticism of the information processing model is bound to accuse it falsely. My criticism will resort to assumptions, techniques and data that the information based model is not designed to accommodate. Virtually all of my criticisms can be met with the counter-criticism: "but our model was never designed to do what you say it does not do." In the words of Kuhn, much of my criticism will "read through" the information paradigm and therefore fail to come to grips with its proclaimed purposes and projects. This I grant readily.

But the Kuhnian approach can also be used to support the cause of criticism. It tells us that prevailing paradigms are well advised to take account of the seditious mutterings of the kind that are made against it here. It is, after all, from just such mutterings as these that new paradigms rise to overturn the old order. Kuhn's perspective suggests that it is, when is possible, better to accommodate mutterings than to exile them.


Let me briefly characterize the meaning based model and then outline the approach it takes to advertising. This model says that the consumer is an individual in a cultural context engaged in a cultural project. Both the context and the protect are culturally constituted. The context consists of the culturally specified ideas of person, object, activity, time and space in which the culture consists. I have dealt with this elsewhere in some detail and will not elaborate it here (McCracken 1986a).

The project is an ongoing enterprise by which the individual concepts of the self, of the family, of status, of nation, of world. This project consists in the selection of key notions from a range of alternatives and the more or less thorough and harmonious enactment, refinement and integration of these notions in a single life (Hirschman 1986, McCracken 1986b, 1986c). In this scheme, the self and a life are "always in production, in process" (Bruner 1984, p. 3). Indeed what Bakhtin (1981, p. 270) says of language applies equally well to the self:

A unitary language is not something given but is always in essence posited--and in every moment of its linguistic life it is opposed to the realities of heteroglossia. But at the same time it makes its real essence felt as a force for overcoming this heteroglossia, imposing specific limits to it, guaranteeing a certain mutual understanding and crystallizing into a real, although still relative, unity...

The protect is a continual one in two senses. It is, first of all, intensely processual, so that its objective, the construction of a life, is realized not with a single operation, or a series of operations, but through the act itself. The project toes not have a beginning and an end; the project is fulfilled as it is undertaken. Second, it is constantly changing as the individual is driven to change by circumstance, preference, and the life cycle. New projects become necessary as the individual ages, as some projects prove impractible, as some of them are completed and as the world around the individual changes. All of these factors call for new projects. It is for both of these reasons perpetual.

The model of consumption that follows from this perspective says that the world of goods is a wholly cultural construction and that culture is constantly being played out in goods. The ideational and material aspects of the world are intimately linked in ways that we understand and in ways we are only beginning to understand. Cultural meanings, those in goods and those outside of them, make up the cultural context of consumption.

Consumer goods are also essential to the project by which our lives our constructed. Consumer goods, in their anticipation, choice, purchase and possession, are an important source of the meanings with which we construct our lives. They are also an important instrument by which we capture, experiment with, and organize the meanings which we construct our lives.


Advertising plays an interesting role in the context and the projects of consumption. As I have tried to suggest elsewhere advertising is one of the ways in which we get into goods (McCracken 1986a). It Is the conduit through which meanings are constantly transferred from the culturally constituted world to the consumer good. Ads are what (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, p. 213) would call a "diecasting mechanism." Lotman and Uspensky devised this term for language and its "transformation of the "open" world of realia into a "closed" world of names" (1978, p. 213). But it applies equally well to advertising, especially in a culture like our own that is constantly opening up the world of sensation and signification to novel elements and configurations. Advertising helps to capture these old and new cultural meanings and invest them in consumer goods where they become accessible to the consumer. A process of constant experimentation is taking place here in which meanings are suggested and revised, combined and recombined. Advertising puts at the disposal of modern culture an area of play, experimentation and innovation with which to fashion new cultural meanings and reorganize and reassign old ones. It is where culture does its diecasting.

In a more mundane manner, advertising serves as a kind of dictionary constantly keeping us apprised of new consumer signified and signifiers. We cannot read the cultural context without this source of instruction. In this capacity, advertising makes an important contribution to the context of consumption.

But let us now consider the contribution that advertising makes to the consumer's project. Martin Silverman (1971) speaks of the intense interest that the Banagan people of the Pacific paid to the newspapers and magazines in a time of astonishing dislocation and stress. He wondered what they were looking for there and concluded finally that they were looking for some thinkable, actionable vision of themselves. Modern consumers, untouched by crisis but subject nevertheless to change, examine advertisements for a similar reason. They are searching out meaning there.

They are looking for something they can use in their construction of new versions of the self, of the family, of a community. They are looking for meaning, not in that hackneyed existential sense, the one that refers to meaning, capital "M", as an ultimate sense of purpose. What they are looking for is small meanings, concepts of what it is to be a man or a woman, concepts of what it is to be middle aged, concepts of what it is to be a parent, concepts of what a child is and what a child is becoming, concepts of what it is to be a member of a community and a country. These are the projects that preoccupy us on a continual basis, these are our preoccupations in a time and place that has given the individual astonishing liberties in matters of self definition. Indeed, what were once liberties are now a necessity. We turn, in part, to the meaning of goods, and our source of instruction and experimentation here is the advertisement. When the consumer looks at ads he or she is looking for symbolic resources, new ideas and better concrete versions of old ideas with which to advance their project. Meaning moves from culture to us through goods.


Well, this notion of the consumer, of consumption and of advertising, is not new to us. Versions of this concept have been floating around in anthropology and consumer research for more than a decade (cf. Belk 1982, Hirschman and Holbrook 1981, Homan 1980, Sherry 1985, Williamson 1978). But we have not yet fully contemplated the implications of this model for the information based concept of advertising. We have yet to take these ideas into the lion's den. This paper suggests only a first pass in this effort, a quick dash across the arena, as it were. More detailed criticism may be forthcoming from braver souls.

From the meaning based point of view, the information model's treatment of advertisement is unsatisfactory because it gives a satisfactory account of neither of the principle components of the meaning based approach as it has been described here. This model is prepared to come to terms with neither the cultural context of consumption nor the cultural proSect in which the Consumer is engaged. The remainder of this paper will detail these problems with the model and specify the theoretical implications and origins of their difficulties.


The information processing approach ignores the cultural context of consumption. It provides no way of observing that the individual who is processing information is embedded in a highly structured and meaningfully constituted environment. It gives no way of permitting us to see that the individual is the recipient not just of information but also of meaning. As a member of a culture the individual sees his or her world through an interpretive frame. This frame is culturally constituted. It is fashioned according to the specifications of the culture. The world he or she perceives is itself culturally constituted according to the specifications of culture. Everything that is perceived by the individual is therefore doubly mediated by culture. Culture constitutes both the world and the means by which it is apprehended.

The information processing model divorces the individual from this cultural context. It fails to see that the individual is embedded in a meaningfully constituted world, that has been divided up and organized by the beliefs of a culture. and it fails to see that the individual cannot apprehend this world except through a lens that is also the work of culture.

Certainly the existing models of decision process motels sometimes have boxes market "social influences" and arrows connect these boxes to boxes market-belief, attitudes "memory" and so on, but the nature of the relationship is rarely specified in a manner that captures the cultural meanings according to which consumption is organized. The absence of this specification means that the really important part of the model is all of the stuff that takes place within the individual's head. But the model gives no way of including in this heat all of the collective meanings and conventions on which it draws and on which it operates. The effect of context and the profoundly collective nature of meaning is largely left out of account. For this paradigm the individual does not live in a culturally constituted world. Even the more recent work on schemata and scripts and their active synthesis of the world toes not fully capture the perfectly cultural, collective, supra-individual nature of this meaning. This criticism of an essentially psychological model for the study of social behavior has been made convincingly within the field itself (Harre and Secord 1972).

These limitations of the model make the full treatment of advertising problematical. When individuals regard advertisements or any other form of stimuli, they are looking at material that has been culturally constituted and they are interpreting it according to cultural conventions. These conventions specify perceptual acts at the most simple level and the highest order appreciations, such as rhetorical rules. This is highly coded, regulated material that the individual cannot handle at all unless they bring to bear the interpretive frame that culture puts at their disposal.

Still more problematically, the model cannot show how the individual mind participates in the meaning manufacture process in which advertising consists. Advertisements are very deliberate attempts to put meaning into goods. This process depends upon the observer of the at, for it is this observer who is the final agent of the process of transference. In this understanding of advertising, the individual's mind is not merely drawing information from the ad, which it will then store in memory and variously grate and manipulate at the moment of decision. It is participating in the assignation of meaning to consumer Roots.

When the information based model takes no account of the cultural context, it reproduce one of the cardinal sins of the field of psychology. As Shweder (1984) put it, it has been one of the chief "research heuristics" for the psychological sciences that "what's really real is inside the skin; the individual person is the sole unit of analysis" (1984, p. 3). This narrow focus excludes from consideration the collective and the supra-individual, and it makes the individual the locus of all that need be taken into account to understand social behavior. Indeed the information processing model commits itself to something very like methodological individualism (Lukes 1968, 1973b). It makes the individual the only locus of meaning and significance,and supposes that within the teeming neurons of an individual brain one can discover and capture all of the essential ingredients and logics of the decision making process. But as Durkheim argued long ago, social facts cannot be accounted for by individual ones (Lukes 1973a, p. 20).

All of this is to say that the information processing model restricts analytic attention to the individual. It eliminates from consideration the cultural context from which the individual draws his or her information, the cultural context which supplies the process by which this information is apprehended and manipulated, and the cultural context in which the individual enters into the advertising process to help manufacture certain kinds of consumer knowledge and signification. There is evidence that the field of psychology is now preparing to take account of the role of culture and shared information in information processing but the completion of this undertaking is a long way off (Murphy and Medin 1985; Harre and Secord 1972).


The information processing approach also ignores the cultural projects of consumption. It provides no way of understanding how the individual who is processing information is engaged in several formal and informal projects of self and world construction. It gives no way of permitting us to see that the individual is not just the recipient of meaning but also active in its construction. As a member of a culture the individual is engaged in fashioning ideas of the self, the family, and the nation. These cultural activities are used to "perform" or "enact" these ideas and give them legitimacy, substance, credibility.

One of the chief ways in which both the individuals and collectivities of this culture perform and enact their ideas of self and world is through their consumer goods. Consumer goods, charged with cultural significance, serve as dramatic props and meaning sources. They provide ideas of gender, class, age, lifestyle to individuals and help them make these ideas a tangible reality.

The information processing model makes no provision for these cultural processes. This model assumes that what the individual wishes to draw from consumer goods are "benefits." The individual's "project" from this point of view is to survey the market place until he or she is able to determine which product will best "satisfy" his or her "needs." This formulation makes no provision for the creative manipulation of this meaning in the construction of notions of the self and world. I do not wish to dispute that consumers to seek information in the pursuit of interest and benefits, but to suggest that this is all that is taking place is to very substantially underspecify the project in which the consumer is engaged.

The information processing model tends instead to see the individual as a rational individual who is maximizing interest through the pursuit of calculable benefits. In this model the individual is not constructing a concept and a reality of his or her world. He or she is seen instead to be calculating the surest way to satisfy needs.

This aspect of the theory also has certain disadvantages in the study of the nature of advertisements. First of all and most obviously it makes ever so slightly mysterious the fact that so much of advertising has to do not with lists of information and descriptions of products benefits but with evocative images and text that appears to supply no obvious basis for rational product choice. From a strict benefits point of view it is not clear why advertisements should employ images of leafy neighborhood, or the deck of a sun drenched sail boat. How to we get these things into the motel? What happens to them once in the model? Can the model comprehend them in the literal or figurative sense? Are these "benefits", can they be calculated, toes the individual take these symbols to be information for product choice? This is where the paradigm finds itself in the presence of endless amounts of anomalous data. I would say in opposition that individuals are constantly examining advertisements for material they can use in their construction proJects. Certainly they to find some information here, but it is also true that this is one of their key sources of meaning.

Here too it would appear that the information processing model is reproducing one of the cardinal sins of one of its founding disciplines. This time the offender is not psychology, but economics. What we see being smuggled into the paradigm when it makes the benefits the objective of information processing and product choice is the economic man notion of human conduct. Both Sahlins (1976) and Douglas and Isherwood (1978) have complained about this tendency to the social sciences to attribute a market place rationality to social actors. Sahlins has gone so far as to suggest that even our market place behavior springs from concerns both more complicated and more cultural. Hirschman (1977) notes that the notion of "interest" is a historically created and limited one, and that there was once a time when the term referred to the "totality of human aspirations" (1977, p. 32). The ideas that consumer research has borrowed from economics contain certain limitations that are reproduced even in theoretical elaborations as late and as distant as the information processing model.


As Marshall Sahlins (1976) puts it "every theory makes a bargain with reality." Every theory trades certain kinds of knowledge at the expense of other kinds of knowledge. Or, to put this more forcefully, every piece of knowledge comes at the cost of a certain kind of blindness. This paper has observed that the information processing model is unable successfully to content with the cultural context and project of consumption. It must be noted however that the meaning-based model is just as unable to content with certain aspects of the individual's response to the stimuli of advertising. It cannot pretend to do everything that the information based model toes for us and more besides. This would be an especially fraudulent advertising claim.

The point I wish to make here is only that there are crucial aspects of the consumption and advertising process that are not satisfactorily treated by the information based model. Moreover, there would appear to be something in the very nature of the model that prohibits it from incorporating this material. If this is so, no mere tinkering with the model will save it from its insufficiencies. Now, if it is also true that the meaning based model cannot serve as a replacement, what is-required is a ground-up construction of new models. The great virtue of this undertaking, aside from the new insight it would give us into consumption, is that it would help make the field of consumer research the producer of its own models. We have been traditionally the clients of other fields, heir to their models and, as I have tried to suggest here, heir sometimes to the limitations of these models. The integration of information based and meaning based models is a project that can take place within the consumer research tradition. It is one of the projects by which we can begin to make ourselves the center of our own theory development.


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