The Dramatic Side of Consumer Research: the Semiology of Consumption Symbolism in the Arts

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
ABSTRACT - This paper comments on the problems facing work in consumer research that draws on the humanities. It argues the case for such humanistic research and, as one illustration, proposes the thesis that consumption symbolism in a movie, play, or other dramatic text may do much to convey that artwork's meaning. It supports this interpretive claim with three examples from Out of Africa, Painting Churches, and Gremlins. It justifies these interpretations as a type of abductive inference and concludes that such semiological analysis of the dramatic arts plays a potentially valuable role in consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook (1987) ,"The Dramatic Side of Consumer Research: the Semiology of Consumption Symbolism in the Arts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 237-240.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 237-240


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

[The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund.]

The essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense.... Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing, and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty.

--Mary Douglas (1979), The World of Goods, p. 62


This paper comments on the problems facing work in consumer research that draws on the humanities. It argues the case for such humanistic research and, as one illustration, proposes the thesis that consumption symbolism in a movie, play, or other dramatic text may do much to convey that artwork's meaning. It supports this interpretive claim with three examples from Out of Africa, Painting Churches, and Gremlins. It justifies these interpretations as a type of abductive inference and concludes that such semiological analysis of the dramatic arts plays a potentially valuable role in consumer research.


The field of consumer research has long claimed to be an interdisciplinary area of inquiry. Implicitly, however, we have defined "interdisciplinary" as if it meant borrowing from the social sciences without regard for the potential contributions of other knowledge sources. Thus, we have welcomed inputs from psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and even biology. Yet, we have drawn relatively little on philosophy, history, literature, linguistics, the arts, and other fields generally associated with humanistic studies. In short, in an attempt to be scientific, we have overspecialized on a narrow range of knowledge. We have ignored most of the liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular.

Recently, several consumer researchers who are by now winning a reputation for being "weird" have begun to call with increasing insistence for a greater receptivity in our field to contributions from the humanities or from other spheres of humanistic thinking. I refer especially to the writings of Beth Hirschman and Russ Belk, as well as to some of my own efforts, though additional contributions in this direction have come from many other sources too numerous to mention in full (e.g., Durgee, Faber, Fennell, Hudson, Kassarjian, Bevy, McCracken, O'Guinn, Ozanne, Pollay, Semenik). This burgeoning of interest in humanistic studies gives me some hope that the humanities may one day take their place as part of a truly interdisciplinary field of consumer research. The present paper is dedicated to advancing that cause.


Before going much farther, I should probably clarify what I mean by "humanism" and "the humanities." My copy of Webster's defines humanism as "devotion to the humanities" and then defines the humanities as "the branches of learning (as philosophy, languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as physics or chemistry)." Such meanings of humanism as "humanitarianism" (concern for human welfare) and "a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests" (various philosophies that stress humane values and individual dignity) are regarded as secondary. Beth Hirschman has recently added what we might view as a tertiary meaning In her excellent article on "Humanistic Inquiry in Marketing Research," she offers no real definition of "humanism," but rather delineates "humanistic inquiry" by comparing it with what it is not -- namely, positivistic In this sense, her treatment of humanism corresponds fairly closely to what Lincoln and Guba call "postpositivism " It emphasizes knowledge gained from the researcher's "direct personal experience," thereby opening the door to introspective, subjective, and phenomenological perspectives

In this paper, I shall stress the first dictionary definition of "humanism" as "devotion to the humanities," while still recognizing the importance of such related concepts as "humanitarianism," "humane values," "human dignity," and "humanistic inquiry " I believe that consumer research has much to gain from incorporating humanism thus defined and, indeed, that such a broadening of our field is a necessary precondition to the evolution of a truly interdisciplinary study of consumption phenomena In my view, we can only benefit from embracing all forms of knowledge Many consumer researchers already recognize this near-truism Yet some place barriers in the way of progress toward a real interdisciplinary perspective These barriers frighten me They threaten the whole enterprise For this reason, they constitute a major theme of this paper


As my friend Beth Hirschman has commented, it was relatively easy a few years ago to write and to publish grand, iconoclastic position papers calling for new kinds of consumer research on such topics as hedonic consumption, consuming experiences, esthetic appreciation, emotional responses, right-brained thinking, and other "weird" topics Almost everybody recognized that such issues had been neglected in our field Many acknowledged the need for research that would move in these directions Hence, journals willingly published overviews and review articles that put the required research into perspective, that tied what needed doing to what had already been done, and that emphasized the continuity of the new with the old

Bigger problems have awaited those who have actually tried to do what we might, for convenience, call the new-wave research Naturally, such studies deviate from the preestablished canons that have guided our field through its first 25 years of development Yet, too often, the new-wave efforts have been judged by those very old-wave criteria from which they attempt to depart The all too predictable result has been disappointment, criticism, and (worst of all) rejection from publication

I know of several masterful papers by friends and colleagues that have suffered from this kind of discrimination Not surprisingly, I have gotten myself involved in such situations and can therefore speak from personal experience about some of the threats and obstacles that confront anyone who takes my advice and tries to bring the humanities into the study of consumer research I shall address these barriers briefly before moving on to my main thesis


The Shibboleth of Managerial Relevance

For whatever coincidental set of reasons, the sorts of people who try to incorporate humanistic elements in their work seem to be exactly the same folks who believe that managerial relevance is at best irrelevant and at worst inimical to the advancement of consumer research For what it's worth, my own position is that, whereas market research ought properly to strive for practical applicability, the issue of managerial relevance should be regarded as irrelevant to consumer research so that attempts to apply the standard of usefulness so dear to marketing practitioners can only cause damage by distorting the focus of the research and deflecting it from its proper central concern with the consumer (Here, I use "proper" in its proper sense )

Of course, I recognize that this point merits debate and have had fun discussing it publicly with some who vehemently disagree with me My point here, however, is that those who do agree with me have tended to find themselves in the camp of the humanists and have therefore tended to court the rejection of humanism by those who subscribe to the managerial shibboleth

A logical connection between humanism and independence from managerial concerns does seem to exist Someone who feels that a study of consumer behavior matters because of the light it sheds on the nature of the human condition appears unlikely to care very such about whether it will also contribute directly to the incomes of the capitalists who hold shares of stock in business corporations An apparent difference in temperaments characterizes the two points of view By this, I do not mean to imply that it is impossible to imagine practical-minded humanists Writing a poem to earn money for a children's hospital provides an obvious counter-example. All we need is one such counterexample to show forever that humanism and managerial relevance are not conceptually distinct However, I do suggest that, empirically, the drift toward humanism and the thrust toward managerial relevance just happen to occur in roughly inverse proportions among the people I know who have chosen consumer research as their main line of work When fate decrees that my managerially inclined friends pass judgment on my more humanistic buddies, their critical evaluations are predictably negative The heroes of humanism tend to create work that gets rejected by the minions of management

The Positivistic Backlash

It also happens that the established order, the old-wave in consumer research, has clung very tightly to the positivistic tenets of logical empiricism Among the most cherished of these tenets are the beliefs in the objectivity of the research process, the detachment of the observer, and the value-free nature of the observations The humanist, of course, cheerfully throws all this out the window The humanist subscribes to the postpositivistic acceptance of subjectivity, involvement, and value-laden interaction with one's data This acceptance is "cheerful" because the humanist realizes that all perception involves a subjective component, that observers always affect what they observe, and that no inquiry can be value-free so that to pretend otherwise is simply a scam

No humanist that I know about wants to throw away data or eliminate empiricism Again, for what it's worth, I deeply value the testing of theory by means of empirical data (in the contest of justification) Even sore, however, I value the use of subjective, impressionistic, and introspective sources toward the development of theory (in the context of discovery) The role of humanism in consumer research has seldom moved past the creation of concepts It is simply too early to apply the usual standards of empirical validation to contributions that remain embryonic or are, at most, still in their infancy

Nevertheless, many of our reviewers viciously chop down studies that attempt to draw on the humanities because they do not satisfy the canons of positivism Here, they raise method above aims and concepts They rule out studies whose measures and tests have not yet caught up with their reach and scope They thereby constrict and cheapen our field even while they guard its roots and protect its vested interests

Fear of the Unknown

The protection of vested interests translates into a political problem familiar to all concerned with the sociology of science Those in power want to stay there and, I believe, react with some fear to the possibility that things might change When you are already at the top, any change is likely to be for the worse

Thus, I have actually seen reviewers argue for the rejection of a manuscript that drew on the humanities on the grounds that, if we publish this sort of thing, then everyone might start doing it Imagine the same logic applied to Einstein If we encourage Albert, then everybody might start thinking that E = MC2 Of course, in the case of humanism, the truth is that everyone would not suddenly turn to applications of the humanities in consumer research Most lack the necessary background, sensibilities, and interests

Yet suppose that the publication of a few humanistic pieces did encourage many researchers to incorporate the humanities in their work Would this be so bad? I would argue no, for at least three reasons First, such consensual validation would suggest that some kind of truth lurks within this new-wave approach Second, a sudden infusion of humanism into our field would make most of the papers that we have to wade through a lot more interesting Third, a greater reference to the humanities would move our field closer to its claim for a truly interdisciplinary status

With such persuasive reasons for an increase in the role of humanism in consumer research, its opponents must resort to some pretty tricky tactics to keep it out These range from the ridiculous to the sublime At the former extreme, we find the gesture of one editor who told me that to quote some lines from a poet who has been dead for 300 years, I would need the permission of the author and publisher At the latter extreme, we find the ploy of simply defining the problem out of existence

The Definitional Ploy

This most insidious tactic threatens us most dangerously because it forms such a basic premise that it may easily be overlooked and thereby remain unexamined amidst all the confusion over the possible contribution of humanism I refer to our definition of what constitutes consumer research in the first place This lies at the heart of what I want to challenge

many leaders in our field and most of the scholars who review journal submissions implicitly define consumer research as including only that which already gets published -- namely, studies of buyer behavior From this point of view, it may well be true that the humanities have little to contribute to consumer research However, I believe that the definition itself is wrong Carefully scrutinized, it falls. And, with it, falls everything for which it stands

In my view, consumer research studies all forms and all aspects of consumption, which includes anything having to do with the acquisition, usage, and disposition of goods, services, and ideas Hence, consumer research embraces the study of any phenomenon related to consumption True, such phenomena could relate to people's buying decisions, but they could just as easily relate to their appreciative responses in wing a product or to the meaning that their consumption activities have for others

The theme of this special topic session helps me provide a concrete example of what I mean This example is fairly extreme because it departs widely from our conventional view of consumer research I suggest that it indicates the range of exploration opened to a broader definition of our field of inquiry As one illustration of what this broadened conceptualization implies, it develops a central thesis to which I now turn


Briefly stated, drawing on the viewpoints heretofore expressed, I propose that we may regard consumption phenomena found in a work of art as one viable avenue for exploring the meaning of that artwork In other words, an analysis of consumption symbolism in a film, a play, a novel, or some other dramatic or narrative form may help us interpret the significance of such artistic expressions It follows that our understanding of symbolic consumer behavior as found in works of art may reveal much to us about the meanings contained therein

To me, this point seems blindingly obvious once it has been stated in such bald terms Yet, experience has taught me that it tends to meet with critical resistance I shall therefore bolster it by means of three clarifying examples.


Out of Africa

In a recent paper with Mark Grayson, we emphasize the role of minor uses of consumption imagery to develop plot and character in the film Out of Africa One case in point concerns this movie's use of consumer products to convey its sustained treatment of the clash between the European and African cultures that surround Karen Blixen's household Karen, as played by Meryl Streep, struggles to retain her Western identity even as she sinks her roots further and further into the African soil Her own conflict is mirrored by the effect that her incongruous possessions have on those around her

This use of consumption imagery appears in the response of utter amazement with which Karen's otherwise unflappable manservant Farah greets her cuckoo clock Later, the Kikuyu children watch the clock intently until the little bird pops out and they run out of the house giggling with surprise and delight

A similar clash of cultures appears in Karen's attempts to get her houseboy Juma to wear white gloves while on duty At first, he dangles his hands in the air in a gesture of mock helplessness Later, when he tries to pour the wine, the bottle slips through his fingers and crashes onto the table Ultimately, Karen removes the gloves and admits that "this wasn't a very good idea."

Karen's chef Kamante has similar difficulty adapting to her Western ways In one scene, she visits the kitchen and tries to show him how to use a rotary eggbeater But, the moment she leaves, he abandons her notion of efficiency and reverts to using the spoon with which he is more comfortable

A comic parallel to this treatment of cultural conflict substitutes animals for people When Karen and her lover Denys (Robert Redford) take their gramophone into the jungle, a group of curious monkeys clusters around it with great interest Ultimately, the monkeys jar the tone arm and have to be chased away Thus, the Westerners bring Mozart into the African wilderness with mixed success How fortunate, the film buff might note, that they did not try their luck with Salieri

Painting Churches

Tina Howe's play entitled Painting Churches recently appeared in a filmed version on public television Again, this play uses symbolic consumer behavior to advance many aspects of its character development Particularly effective, in my view, is the manner in which consumption imagery conveys the tendency of the play's three central characters to talk past one another For example, in one striking scene, Mags tries to tell her parents (Gardner and Fanny) about some wonderful news concerning her forthcoming one-woman show at a New York gallery Her excitement is completely undercut by the counterdialogue between her mother and father as they enthusiastically consume a box of saltines (emblem of WASP blandness) while scarcely paying any attention to what their daughter is saying (which turns out to be the story of her life)

HAGS I'm starving I've got to get something to eat before I collapse! (She exits towards the kitchen ) (returns, eating saltines out of the box)

GARDNER (reaching for the saltines) Hey, Mags, could I have a couple of those?

HAGS (tosses him the box) Sure!

GARDNER Thanks (He starts munching on a handful ) (mouth full) Mmmmm, I'd forgotten just how delicious saltines are! (offering the box of saltines to FANNY) You really ought to try some of these, Fan, they're absolutely delicious!

FANNY (taking a few) Why, thank you These are good!

GARDNER Here, dig in Take some more

HAGS I have some wonderful news amazing news! I wanted to wait til I got here to tell you (They eat their saltines, passing the box back and forth as MAGS speaks )

FANNY (reaching for the box of saltines) More, more

GARDNER (swallowing his own mouthful) I told you they were good


Consumption symbolism assumes even more sinister proportions in the sustained thematic treatment of antimaterialism that appears in the movie Gremlins One example occurs in the film's use of household appliances to convey its antimaterialistic message

At first, kitchen appliances merely cause minor inconvenience and waste An egg cracker makes a mess and puts the eggs everywhere but in the mixing bowl An automatic juicer throws gook all over the place A coffee machine produces undrinkable black goo. A "bathroom buddy" squirts toothpaste on its inventor's shirt

But soon, the appliances are explicitly associated, by contiguity, with the evil little monsters that threaten to take over the town During one dramatic encounter in the kitchen, the appliances are used to destroy two of the gremlins One is ground up in a mixing machine (which, predictably, sprays him around the room) Another is cooked in the microwave (where, equally predictably, he explodes in a disgusting mess just before the timing bell sounds and the door swings open to indicate, I suppose, that he's ready for consumption)

From here, it is only a short step to the stage at which the gremlins, as symbols of consumption gone awry, turn the household appliances back on their creators In the ultimate chase scene through a department store, all decorated for the Christmas Season, the most evil gremlin pursues Billy with everything from saw blades to a baseball-pitching machine to a dart gun to a chain saw to a real pistol Here, consumer goods serve as weapons against the society that has created them In this perverse consumption imagery, the movie's central message emerges for all to see It says, rather directly, that if we are not careful our materialism will destroy us


This approach to interpreting artworks through a consideration of their consumption symbolism shares much with the tradition of semiology that stemmed from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and developed in the studies of such latter-day exponents --- Roland Barthes Since I have argued this point - t recent paper for the Conference on Semiotics and Marketing at Northwestern, I shall treat it only brief_ ere, simply pausing long enough to remark that the semiological tradition lends some legitimacy to the analysis of symbolic consumer behavior in interpreting works of art (high culture) and entertainment (popular culture)

The type of reasoning employed in such interpretations was referred to by Charles Peirce as "abduction" and considered by him as a valid form of inference In this view, deduction reasons from a rule and a case to a result; induction reasons from a case and a result to a rule; abduction reasons from a rule and result to a case For example, suppose we know the general rule that people high in social status drive expensive cars - Suppose also that, in a particular work of art, we learn the result that Mary drives a Cadillac We may then infer abductively the case that Mary is high in social status This inference remains only an hypothesis until supported by further ewidence .

An engaging book called The Sign of Three, edited by Umberto Eco and Thomas Sebeok, has established abduction as the type of inference employed by great detectives in solving crimes or by brilliant doctors in diagnosing illnesses When we interpret a text by means of analyzing its consumption symbolism, in effect, we play Sherlock Holmes and ask what these clues tell us about the meaning of the artwork Clearly, this should not be regarded as idle speculation The validity of our interpretation rests on ewidence This ewidence appears in the work of art itself Our inferences depend on a close reading of the text In essence, this is an empirical enterprise

It follows that any interpretation which proceeds in the manner I have suggested will seek its justification in the body of the text at hand As ewidence for the validity of its claims, it will tend to offer quotes or excerpts or paraphrases Readers should repress their temptation toward impatience with such detailed documentation In this context, the use of quotations is not superfluous or unnecessarily pedantic, any more than are the use of F-statistics in analyzing the results of an experimental design or LISREL coefficients in testing a structural model Those who attempt to deal with materials drawn from the humanities need their close readings of the text because that is the type of empirical ewidence that they bring to bear


If this paper has convinced even one consumer researcher that the humanities have a useful role to play in our field as illustrated by the semiological interpretation of consumption symbolism in the arts, it will have served its purpose When we look around us, we see a shining array of films, plays, television productions, novels, and other dramatic or narrative art forms, all of which draw upon consumption imagery to develop the meanings that their creators wish to convey These sources are far too rich for us to ignore without doing ourselves a grave injustice more than that, we may hope to use our knowledge of consumer behavior to shed some light on the meanings of artworks To a humanist, that goal seems eminently worth pursuing for its own sake.