Culture As Commodity: the Marketing of Cultural Objects and Cultural Experiences

Robert F. Kelly, The University of British Columbia
ABSTRACT - There appears to have been a transformation, inpart, from a materialistic, market-driven status symbol system to one that is experiential in character. Objects are still involved since experiences, per se, are seldom visible; but the status symbols (objects) evolve because they connote a meaningful use of leisure or "reveal taste", not necessarily wealth. Cultural objects and cultural experiences play a major role in this taste-revealing process for all statused persons, but especially for those who are newly-statused: those who may be insecure about their ability to display taste without substantial assistance from sources where taste is indisputable (i.e., cultural institutions).
[ to cite ]:
Robert F. Kelly (1987) ,"Culture As Commodity: the Marketing of Cultural Objects and Cultural Experiences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 347-351.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 347-351


Robert F. Kelly, The University of British Columbia


There appears to have been a transformation, inpart, from a materialistic, market-driven status symbol system to one that is experiential in character. Objects are still involved since experiences, per se, are seldom visible; but the status symbols (objects) evolve because they connote a meaningful use of leisure or "reveal taste", not necessarily wealth. Cultural objects and cultural experiences play a major role in this taste-revealing process for all statused persons, but especially for those who are newly-statused: those who may be insecure about their ability to display taste without substantial assistance from sources where taste is indisputable (i.e., cultural institutions).

" . . . revealed taste is therefore as important to the consumer and to his audience as revealed income or wealth." (Roger S. Mason, 1981) (ConsPicuous Consumption)


The recognition that products and services have intangible, non-functional attributes is not new (Levy 1959: Engel et al 1978; Holbrook & Hirschman 1982). Neither is the recognition that products and services may have symbolic dimensions (McCracken 1986; Holman 1980; Hirschman 1980; Rook 1984) - even status-symbolic dimensions (Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Packard 1961). ["Status" is used in this paper in the sense that Max Weber (and, subsequently Veblen, Durkheim, Merton, Parsons and others) employed the term. That is, as a reflection of an honorific rather than a material-possession scheme for social stratification. (Lipset 1979)] Such recognition is reflected in advertising appeals and advertising context for a wide range of goods and services. And, up to a generation or so ago, status objects and status-signalling behaviors were well-documented by marketing researchers, social scientists, and social critics (c.f. Martineau 1958; Warner, Meeker and Eells 1949; Packard 1961). Perhaps less widely-recognized are the major changes that appear to have since occurred with respect to the set of goods and services that have status-symbolic significance as a consequence of the technological (or post-industrial) revolution, and the manner in which status-signalling occurs among those who possess or aspire to status in technologically-advanced social systems.

There has been a transformation, in essence, from a materialistic, market-driven status symbol system to one that is in large measure experiential. Objects are still involved since experiences per se are seldom visible (i.e., apparent after-the-fact to significant others), but new objects have evolved as status-signalling devices not because they are costly but because they are linked, by both signaller and "audience," to status-symbolic experience (i.e., possession of the object implies that one has had an experience of ritual significance). (McCracken 1986; Rook 1984; Levy 1959ff) The specific status symbols (objects) evolve because they connote a meaningful use of leisure or reveal "taste", not necessarily wealth (Mason 1981). Cultural objects and culture experiences ("high" cultural objects and experiences in the sense that Gans (1974) defined the term) play a major role in this taste-revealing process for all statused persons, but especially among those who are newly-statused, and who way be insecure about their ability to display taste without substantial assistance from sources where taste is virtually indisputable (e.g., cultural institutions). (Levy, Czepiel and Rook 1981).

The-major changes alluded to above are a consequence of the redistribution of wealth and the redistribution of leisure time. Documentation of those changes is much too involved to present here, but is discussed from a variety of perspectives in the social science and popular literatures (c.f., Blumberg 1974; Mason 1981; Kelly 1983 and 1986; Brooks 1981; Linder 1970; Lipset 1979).

Redistribution of wealth has made available to a majority of the population market objects that were previously only available to an economic elite, rendering the status symbol system based upon market value alone highly ambiguous. This exemplifies what Blumberg (1974) has termed a "Gresham's Law of social status symbols."

Leisure, in the sense that Veblen (1899) employed the concept, has not simply been redistributed but totally inverted. (Linder 1970) Owners and managers, because of the character of the new information-processing technology, must devote vast amounts of time to their occupational tasks. The traditional working class, by contrast, have a great deal of leisure time, even if they are fortunate enough to be employed. (Mason 1981; Brooks 1981; Lasch 1979) So, if leisure is to be an indicator of status (and evidence suggests it still is), it will be the quality rather than the quantity of leisure that matters.

This paper represents an examination of an evolving, experientially-based status symbol system and the role of cultural experiences and cultural objects in that process. While conceptual in focus and to some extent speculative,it is based upon five years research by the author in museums and galleries in North America and Western Europe, and on the work of others in areas including anthropology, sociology, museology, the performing arts, consumer behavior, cultural tourism, and social criticism. Presuming the status symbol systems evolving as suggested herein and the roles of cultural experiences and objects what they seem to be, there are major implications for the marketing of cultural goods and services - and, perhaps, for the broader area of consumer marketing as well.


No set of discretionary activities are so exclusively associated with the statused as cultural events. ["Cultural" events, for the purposes of this paper, include museum and gallery visiting, opera, symphony, ballet, and the legitimate theater; also included may be "cultural tourism" - destinations or destination activities that have a strong cultural component (e.g., Paris, for its vast array of cultural institutions or Indonesia, for its exotic burial rituals).] (Sexton and Britney 1980; Mason 1981) Regardless of the country or the cultural activity involved, it is primarily the social, intellectual, and economic elite who attend (Dimaggio, Useem and Brown 1977; Belk and Andreason 1980; Bourdieu 1984) Findings from three recent museum visitor studies in which the author participated (i.e., Vancouver and Ottawa, Canada, and Geneva) further reinforce this generalization. Visitors were, compared to the population at large, extremely well-educated and in occupations both highly-paid and highly-regarded. (Curtis and Scott, 1979) One suspects this is true in part as a residual of the Veblenian era when those who inherited wealth and status engaged in conspicuous consumPtion; that is, "...pragmatically useless forms of consumption requiring many years to learn," (Veblen 1899) and partially the consequence of those who have more recently acquired status and who are trying to live up to the stereotype i.e., to be status congruent), whether they have "learned" the form of conspicuous consumption or not.

A great deal of education and/or socialization is required to truly appreciate high culture. Whether artistic, or social, or cultural context is to be appreciated, some "academic" model is involved. Bourdieu and Passeton '1964) have gone so far as to observe that education and culture in France are a means to preserve or widen existing systems of social inequalities. Whatever the case, one cannot confront a cultural object "cold" and get much pleasure or meaning from it; one must already possess certain information to make the experience meaningful.

Major Segments of Cultural Consumers: Trads and Technos [These categories correspond roughly to "accorded status" (likely inherited) and "objective status " (attained, awarded based on behavior) described by Lipset (1979) in his excellent review article on social stratification in North America.]

Following from the distinctions described in the preceding section, two segments of cultural consumers are suggested. For convenience, those segments will be referred to as Trads and Technos. This is not a true dichotomy, of course, since most statused persons will possess at least some qualities characteristic of each group. Over time, many of those labeled Technos likely acquire by repeated exposure and/or study what they did not receive through socialization. And, among those given every opportunity to "inherit" a love for the arts, there are many who either have very superficial cultural experiences or avoid such experiences all together.

(1) Trads: Cultural objects and experiences have played a major status-symbolic role since well before the technological or post-industrial age. (Veblen 1899) Through socialization, those inheriting status have acquired "taste" (culturally defined) and a sense of proprietary obligation towards cultural institutions. (Farber 1971) They have also, by their patronage, defined participation in cultural activities as "meaningful leisure" (Csikzentmihalyi 1981) and as an appropriate public activity for persons enjoying status (Levy, Czepiel, Rook 1981). Almost all persons inheriting status are given the opportunity for higher education - often in the arts and humanities (i.e., lacking a job-related focus)

(2) Technos: Those who are newly- statused are much less likely than the Trads to have been either socialized or educated to enjoy high culture. While they have had equal or greater educational attainment, their areas of study were more likely designed to serve the technological revolution (e.g., engineering, the sciences) than arts or humanities where one say learn to enjoy the arts. (Kelly 1986: Mason 1981) After all, the newly-statused were awarded status by society precisely because they developed skills of value in the technological age. (Lipset 1979)

Both Trads and Technos are statused (accorded respect and rewarded by society) according to contemporary studies on social stratification (c.f., Felson, 1976; Kohn, 1977): and both types also are represented among the participants in cultural activities. Group 1, the traditionally statused, are ore likely to engage in cultural activities because they enjoy the activities. Group 2, the Technos, arc culture consumers because they feel the need to live up to the stereotype, to achieve status congruence - to have had certain status-symbolic experiences.

Trads and Technos both "usee cultural activities and the evidence of participation (objects/markers) as symbolic evidence of their status (MacCannell 1976). These objects are displayed on their persons, in their work places or their homes. They (symbolically) say to those WhO matter to the signaller, "this is what I have done," or "this is the sort of person I as", or "these (objects) gut representative of my level of sophistication (or taste). "The displayed objects connote rather than denote position the experience is status-conferring while the object is status-signalling. According to Carpenter (1973), the marker-object "...helps convert given reality into experienced reality." Not all experiences require markers, of course. Some cultural events are so highly visible - so widely reported through the media - that ones significant others are immediately aware if one has been a major participant.

From the perspective of anthropologists, engaging in cultural activities say constitute a form of transformation ritual (rite of passage) or pilgrimage. Moore (1980), for example, draws a very elaborate analogy between cultural tourism and a trip to Mecca. The objects or markers associated with that "ritual" constitute relics of a sort; they are very strongly associated with a given activity by bath an individual and his/her significant others and they signal changed status on the part of their possessor. The objects, called "marker" by MacCannell (1976), are much more than souvenirs; there are many potential souvenirs for any given sight/activity but very few objects that provide indisputable (and tasteful! evidence of having v. Objects such as a catalog from the Renoir Exhibit on clearly marked with the imprint of the Grand Palais And dated August, 1985, for example, are far more significant, symbolically, than a postcard featuring a photo of the Louvre.

Experience markers are not necessarily expensive in the sense that status symbols once were, although they may well represent tangible evidence of a major expenditure. Wealth may no longer be a sufficient condition for high status, but it is usually a concomitant one. (Felson 1976)

According to MacCannell (1976), and several studies based upon his notion of a sight/experience-marker quest, the objects that evolve as cultural experience markers may assume such symbolic importance that they overshadow the actual experience. One illustration of this is provided by the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg in the U.S. (Machlis and Burch 1983), where a fascinating electronic map of the battlefields designed to orient battlefields visitors has begun to supplant the battlefields as a destination (i.e., people now visit the map but not the battlefields.) Visitors carry ho e copies of the ap of the battlefields as they have always done but, for some, they are now markers of the marker, not the sight. The marker has become the sight.

The Gettysburg sap-as-marker was created inadvertently in the "packaging" of a sight. A ore deliberate case of focusing on a marker has been provided by the recent travelling Tutankhamen Exhibition. Wall and Knapper (1981) documented the Exhibition during its sixty days at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Tutankhamen deathmask was used prior to and during the Exhibition as a marker for the Exhibition as a whole, both in the general media publicity and in the material produced in the Gallery. As a consequence, crowds were always greatest in the vicinity of the deathmask and replicas of that object far outsold any other item in the Gallery shop for the Exhibition period - that included $2800 per day in molded chocolate deathmasks. Only one object was ever employed to symbolize the Exhibition, and that object came to represent the Exhibition both to Gallery visitors and the general public. Having once established the marker, it could be merchandized in many forms, including chocolate. That is "revealed taste" with a vengeance!

The Metropolitan of Art in New York have gone to greater lengths than most museums to select objects for their museum shop that are representative of the Museum, including the appointment of a committee of curators who assess such objects for their "authenticity". That tends to reinforce an already well-established perception - not always correct 3 that all objects acquired in museum shops are tasteful and "authentic" (i.e., a true copy of some art object or artifact). (Berger 1972) Their shop grossed approximately $34.5 million (U.S.) last year (Time, 19853, including a very large portion from catalogue sales, where one may now acquire evidence of having been without ever going.

Despite the MMOA experience just described and the possibilities of "passing" (i.e., pretending to have an experience one has not had), this is much less likely with an experience-based status symbol system than with the market driven system that was in force when Goffman (1951) and Blumberg (1974) discussed the issue. Experiences are much harder to fake than wealth. That is why the experiential system has been adopted by those who possess and wish to maintain social distance. (Farber 1971) Display provokes comments from one's significant others - and attempts by them to compare their experiences to one's own. If one has not actually had the experience in question, one must then either acknowledge that one has not had the experience, or risk being detected in a fraudulent claim. Either way, the purpose of acquiring the object has been frustrated.

Distinctions Between Trads and Technos

"Taste classifies and it classifies the classifier... " (Bourdieu, 1984)

If the only reason a person seeks an experience is to be able to claim one has had it, there is no reason to have it more than once. This suggests an important basis for differentiation between the Trad and Techno segments identified earlier: The former go to an experience because it is inherently attractive to them - they enjoy being there; they may, therefore, return many times to a given experience. Technos, by contrast, are expected to derive their symbolic benefits from having been - so being there does not necessarily provide pleasure and returning for a repeat experience is much less likely than with Trads.

The hypothetical distinctions between Trads and Technos include their markers as well as their experiences. Virtually the whole of the value of a marker/object for Technos may be derived from the status-symbolic significance of that object; if the speculation concerning Technos is valid, the intrinsic function, artistic quality, and cultural context of a marker may be of relatively minor significance. So long as it "reveals taste" in a manner perceived as appropriate to the social stratus with which the Techno associates, personal (i.e., private) perceptions about the tastefulness of an object can be of secondary importance. This is likely the case because Technos are aware they may lack tastes that society has defined as appropriate for them. They are afraid to trust their own judgement and, therefore, rely on the taste of others in whose judgement they have confidence - the curators or producers of cultural activities. This is analogous to the situation described by Rainwater, Coleman and Handel (1959) a generation ago when middle class women with mobility aspirations would either hire an interior decorator or go to a very expensive specialty store to acquire home furnishings rather than rely on their own taste. Curators appear to be the interior decorators of the eighties. Tutankhamen deathmasks are 'tasteful', even when made of chocolate, because they are indisputably associated with a major cultural event and were obtained from one of the absolute arbiters of taste (The Art Gallery of Ontario).

Bourdieu (1984) makes the following observation concerning the suppression of ones own tastes and the adoption of those of others:

"The denial of lower, course, vulgar, renal, servile - in a word, natural - enjoyment which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and culture consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences." (Intro.. D. 2)

Both Trads and Technos may seek out cultural experiences but, following the line of reasoning employed to this point, only Trads have the capacity to enjoy them fully. They, through socialization and appropriate educational experiences, are likely to have acquired the "language of the Curator" (Kelly, 1983) or what Bourdieu (1984) calls the "code." He observes:

"A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, the code, into which it is encoded. ...A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sights and sounds and rhythms, colors, and lines, without rhyme or reason." (p. 2 Intro.)

Because Trads and Technos, by definition, have differential capacities to enjoy cultural experiences, their behaviors will probably be quite different on those occasion when they both engage in a given activity. The following observations by the author will perhaps dramatize the differences.

I. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris (Beaubourg, also called the Pompidou Centre):

(A) One must wait several minutes for a table in the extensive restaurant area on the top floor of the complex;

(B) There are literally thousands of people milling about in the plaza fronting the museum, on the escalators, and in the foyer areas:

(C) One must "insert" ones body into the crowd to enter the museum shop area, view the items for sale between the heads and bodies of others, and wait in long queues to pay for shop items: and Yet

(D) There was only a handful of people (15 or 90) in the quite extensive gallery housing the principal exhibition in the museum.

II. (A) After three years of observations: thirty percent of the individuals who paid a substantial fee for a bus ride and admission to the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver (where I first became aware of this behavioral pattern) enter the lobby area, locate the museum shop, purchase some object representative of the museum or it's collection, and then return to their buses without ever entering the galleries.

(B) Subsequent investigation indicates that virtually all such persons are first time visitors, most are from out of the country, and most had the museum recommended to them by friends before leaving home.

At Beaubourg and at the Museum of Anthropology (MO^) the Trads might be expected to actually enter the galleries while the Technos would take part in other visitor activities that have meaning for them. The disparities in proportions between gallery visitors and others in the two institutions are likely due to the differences in the general character of the museums: MOA houses what many believe to be the best collection of Northwest Coast Indian art in the world - a very popular art form, while the Beaubourg exhibitions tend towards the contemporary end of the modern-to-contemporary continuum. On the day described above, the paintings on show at Beaubourg were huge, unrelieved grey rectangles, and all very similar in appearance. Also, the Museum of Anthropology is what one might call a traditional museum, even if the building is dramatic and contemporary. Beaubourg, as a museum and as a structure, is anything but traditional. Furthermore, Beaubourg was designed and is programmed to "democratize-art to attract people who do not ordinarily visit art galleries. And the people do come - more so than to any other museum in France. Jean Baudrillard (1982) maintains that the Beaubourg is actually a monument to the destruction of culture and "its success is no mystery: people go there just for that." Whatever else Beaubourg may be, it is the one museum I know where visitor amenities are given as much attention as the cultural objects on display. And, to the extent that number of persons in attendance is a criterion, Beaubourg has successfully marketed itself.

Factors Motivating Trads and Technos

The discussion to this point should have provided the reader with a basis for delineating the two major cultural experience/object segments concerning which I have speculated (Exhibit 1 summarizes Trad and Techno attributes. It may appear that these segments are essentially incompatible and that may indeed be the case with experiences as skewed towards one segment as Beaubourg. Yet, one suspects two such segments can be accommodated within most cultural institutions if a certain amount of discretion is exercised.

One should observe once again that many persons possess qualities characteristic of both proposed culture segments. Also, most museums, symphony orchestras, dance companies, and the like vary tremendously in their programming. Individuals who fit the Techno description say very well enjoy some programs presented by their symphony orchestra or local art gallery: Technos clearly respond well to the "block-buster"-type exhibition e.g., Tutankhamen, Picasso, Renoir) where the symbolic significance is so great that it overcomes an apparent aversion to the cultural content. .after all, Picasso is Picasso, even if his paintings and sculpture are "...things my small child might have done."

Trads are, by definition, loyal supporters of cultural Institutions. [In a recent study supervised by the author, [obligation to support ' was one of two discernible differences between those renewing and not renewing membership. The other difference: renewers were, such more frequently than nonrenewers, educated in the arts and humanities. (Hadley 1985)] They should not usually be expected to require incentives to seek cultural experiences (although they may he encouraged to be heavier "users" through marketing efforts. (Robbins and Robbins 1981) Technos appear to constitute the more vulnerable target segment for cultural marketing efforts. It seems especially appropriate to target Technos at present because, as defined, that segment is growing rapidly relative to the Trads (it is the Technological revolution).

This say turn out to be a very bitter pill for some professionals ln cultural institutions who even n<>w lament the "commoditization of culture" (O'Doherty, 1972), but society is changing and cultural institutions will likely have to change as well.




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