Seven Routes to Facilitating the Semiological Interpretation of Consumption Symbolism and Marketing Imagery in Works of Art: Some Tips For Wildcats

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University
ABSTRACT - This paper reviews the emerging role of semiotics in consumer research and, especially, in research on esthetic consumption. It distinguishes between positivistic and interpretive approaches to the semiotics of artistic objects and focuses on the latter orientation toward the semiological interpretation of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery in works of art. The paper presents an attempt to render the hermeneutics of artistic consumption less perilous by distilling seven lessons from the author's own experience with this kind of interpretive approach. These reflections -suggest the following seven routes to interpretation: (1) Focus on consumption; (2) Interpret consumption broadly; (3) Hope for inspiration; (4) Try watching the video alone; (5) Look for differences and contrasts; (6) Search for points of departure; and (7) Regard the text itself as evidence. The paper illustrates each route to interpretation with an example drawn from one of the dramatic, narrative, or representational arts.
[ to cite ]:
Morris B. Holbrook (1989) ,"Seven Routes to Facilitating the Semiological Interpretation of Consumption Symbolism and Marketing Imagery in Works of Art: Some Tips For Wildcats", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 420-425.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 420-425

SEVEN ROUTES TO FACILITATING THE SEMIOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF CONSUMPTION SYMBOLISM AND MARKETING IMAGERY IN WORKS OF ART: SOME TIPS FOR WILDCATS

Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

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

ABSTRACT -

This paper reviews the emerging role of semiotics in consumer research and, especially, in research on esthetic consumption. It distinguishes between positivistic and interpretive approaches to the semiotics of artistic objects and focuses on the latter orientation toward the semiological interpretation of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery in works of art. The paper presents an attempt to render the hermeneutics of artistic consumption less perilous by distilling seven lessons from the author's own experience with this kind of interpretive approach. These reflections -suggest the following seven routes to interpretation: (1) Focus on consumption; (2) Interpret consumption broadly; (3) Hope for inspiration; (4) Try watching the video alone; (5) Look for differences and contrasts; (6) Search for points of departure; and (7) Regard the text itself as evidence. The paper illustrates each route to interpretation with an example drawn from one of the dramatic, narrative, or representational arts.

INTRODUCTION

Creeping In

In recent years, semiotics or the study of signs has begun to creep with catlike tread into the alleys of consumer research. While occasionally chasing an imaginary prey into a dark comer or a cul de sac, semiotics has also begun to sneak into the main avenues in our field of inquiry (Mick 1986, 1988). Thus, a view of products as symbols carries immediate relevance for such conventional topics as brand imagery or competitive positioning strategy, price as a cue for quality, intangible aspects of the shopping experience, and the multilayered meanings of advertising copy. Semiotics fits quite comfortably into these conventional areas of concern and has therefore won favor with even the most traditional marketing-oriented consumer researchers. However, the study of signs also shows considerable prowess for prowling around the edges of our usual territory. At the fringes, it encounters such topics as consumer esthetics -- an issue that it seems particularly well designed by its nature to pounce upon and to devour (Holbrook 1988b).

Two Orientations

As with other aspects of consumer research, esthetic semiotics shows two sides or, perhaps more accurately, a continuum between two extremes. We might characterize these, respectively, as the positivistic and the interpretive orientations. On the one hand, many studies of consumer esthetics cling closely to the conventional norms of logical empiricism -- designing careful experimental manipulations of artistic features, proposing hypotheses about their effects, and testing rigorously for the support of these hypotheses. I wish to emphasize that such positivistic studies have much to offer. Indeed, much of my own empirical work lies in this direction. However, a competing approach follows more post-positivistic norms by placing a greater weight on interpretation (Hudson and Ozanne 1987). It accepts the meaningfulness of the researcher's subjective judgments and compensates for what it surrenders in the way of positivistic rigor by extending our field of inquiry into the hermeneutic exploration of various concerns that characterize the human condition. Indeed, it opens up areas of scholarship such as the humanities that might otherwise be excluded from our view of science more narrowly conceived. In this, it invites us to consider the meanings of artworks at levels not accessible to the experimental researcher equipped with verbal rating scales and psychophysiological measures. It thereby invokes the researcher's personal, subjective, and introspective inputs; it relies for much of its effect on stories, images, and metaphors; it finds its tropes in songs, pictures, and poetry (Hirschman 1985; Mitroff and Kilmann 1978).

The distinction between these two approaches to the study of signs deserves a name. In one paper I called the former "semiotics" and the latter "semiology" (Holbrook 1988b). But this terminology was not well received by my friends in the basic discipline, many of whom believe that the term "semiotics" covers everything related to the study of signs. Hence, I still lack a name for the more positivistic side of semiotics. Perhaps we might coin a new word such as "semionomy," "semioscience," or "semiometrics." I shudder to imagine the lexical possibilities that unfold before us. Meanwhile, however, few appear to object to my use of the term "semiology" to refer specifically to the more postpositivistic, interpretive, hermeneutic, humanistic side of semiotics.

I might add that, as far as consumer research is concerned, semiology is also by far the more neglected of the two divergent approaches to semiotics. A few consumer researchers have dipped their paws into the stream of semiological investigation. For example, Belk (1986) has interpreted artworks as sources of information about consumption patterns. Hirschman (1988) has performed structural analyses of myths and symbols in popular movies. O'Guinn, Lee, and Faber (1986) have examined films and television as agents of acculturation. Hudson and Ozanne (1987) have argued for the interpretive approach to science in consumer research from the viewpoint of hermeneutics. Meanwhile, I have pursued a somewhat different direction of inquiry, asking not what semiology can do for marketing and consumer research, but rather what marketing and consumer research can do for semiology (Holbrook 1987b). Specifically, I have explored the use of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery to convey meaning in dramatic, narrative, and representational works of art (Holbrook 1988a; Holbrook and Grayson 1986). Thus, I have advocated a close reading of films, plays, novels, paintings, and sculpture for what the consumption-related aspects of their texts tell us about the interpretation of art. (For further discussion and a review, see Mick 1988.)

Dangers and Difficulties

While advocating this hermeneutic approach to the semiology of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery in works of art, I have also felt the need to warn other consumer researchers about the dangers of following my example. Briefly, this semiological approach to consumer research is hard -in the sense that it is both dangerous and difficult. These two considerations militate against my ability to recommend the pursuit of consumption semiology as a career path.

First, the semiological analysis of consumption symbolism in art is dangerous because it departs from the two most cherished tenets of the reviewers who dominate the journals in our field: logical empiricism and managerial relevance. Hence, however inappropriate these positivistic and pragmatic criteria may eventually turn out to be, semiological research runs the risk of rejection. As a veteran of some bloody wars fought over this issue, I can only report that the semiological field of battle is one where sadomasochism in the review process wages some of its most ferocious assaults.

Second, as a factor that I have not previously emphasized, the semiological interpretation of consumption symbolism in works of art is difficult. Somewhat ironically, most of us know how to design and execute studies in accord with the conventional hypothetico-deductive method used to test the effects of various marketing variables. We might occasionally run into trouble on such issues as the nonrepresentativeness of samples, the failure to rule out alternative explanations, or threats to real-world generalizability. But, usually, we know a set of fairly clear-cut rules that we can follow if we want to play the hypothetico-deductive game. By contrast, all such rules evaporate in the context of the semiological study of market signs and consumption symbols. Semioticians cannot even agree amongst themselves on whether interpretation should focus on the intention of the author, the text itself, the work in its sociohistorical context, or the reader's response. Hence, we lack clear guidelines for what we regard as a valid close reading. Thus cast adrift, we must explore whatever routes we can find into the meaning of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery in the artistic text. Such explorations generally require hard-won insights or muse-like inspirations that cannot be programmed and that do not come easily.

All this means that, in contrast to our usual application of the terms "hard" and "soft," a consideration of its dangers and difficulties suggests that the semiology of consumption in art is the true hard science while more positivistic approaches are relatively soft by comparison. To repeat, this realization has led to my warning against the interpretive, hermeneutic, humanistic approach to consumer research as a career path. But, to my delight, a few consumer researchers (including those mentioned earlier) are so devoted to the stubborn pursuit of what they regard as truth, that even such pessimistic cautions cannot dissuade them.

Wildcats

Earlier, at the start of this paper, I compared such intrepid semioticians to cats. Indeed, we might honor the famous BCG matrix by claiming the status of wildcat (or problem child) for semiotics in the consumer-research portfolio -- with choice studies, multiattribute attitude models, and consulting applications viewed as stars, cash cows, and dogs, respectively (see table 1).

Anyone familiar with the feline temperament knows that you cannot tell a cat, much less a wildcat, what to do. Hence, I can warn against the dangers and difficulties of semiotics in general and semiology in particular until I am blue in the face without the slightest fear of discouraging the true believer. The true believer looks at Morris, recognizes immediately that Morris is a cat too, and cheerfully ignores all the cautions that Morris can muster. This is why Morris loves the true believer.

Preview

My obligation, then, is to stop issuing unheeded warnings to the problem children or wildcats of consumer research and to search instead for ways of providing assistance. I propose to offer such assistance by describing seven routes to the interpretation of artistic texts in terms of their consumption symbolism and marketing imagery. I choose seven such aids to interpretation because this is the magical number that George Miller tells us we can remember without excessive strain on our cognitive systems. I would not want to strain our cognitive systems because we need those systems as inputs into other more general psychological processes such as those involved in emotion. Indeed, emotional sensitivity and appreciative responses to the meanings of consumption symbolism appear to be primary requisites for the interpretation of artistic texts. Hence, my seven proposed routes to interpretation have emerged from intensely subjective, personal, and introspective experiences with interpreting works of art. Accordingly, in discussing each route to interpretation, I shall provide an example of how it manifested itself in my own encounters with esthetic appreciation. I intend such examples not as proofs nor even as arguments, but merely as illustrations of how the interpretive principles have worked in the life of one consumer researcher concerned with artistic consumption. By thus revealing themselves, they may help to suggest some tips for wildcats.

TABLE 1

THE CONSUMER-RESEARCH PORTFOLIO

SEVEN ROUTES TO INTERPRETATION

1. Focus on Consumption

Obviously, one,mig It "read" a play, a movie, a novel, a painting, or any other artwork from a variety of perspectives. One might focus primarily on its visual composition, its dialogue, its physical actions, its musical soundtrack, its shape, its colors, or any one of many other inter-related components that could be isolated for purposes of analysis. I suggest that, from the viewpoint of consumer research, one fruitful approach involves the subordination of all such perspectives to a singleminded focus on what these various sights and sounds reveal about consumption. Often, much of an artwork's meaning is carried by a subtext that emerges in its use of consumption symbolism.

One example appears in the movie Gremlins. On the surface, this film presents a rather conventional action-adventure story about a courageous boy who conquers some evil monsters, rescues his loved ones, and saves his hometown. Further, it develops a tender relationship between this brave lad and his sweet little girlfriend from down the block. But, if one attends to the movie's use of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery, one quickly discovers an important subtext -- namely, a powerful, sustained thematic attack on the evils of materialism. Throughout the film, the gremlins provide a vehicle for revealing the spiritual disasters potentially inherent in a consumer culture gone to extremes. Ultimately, the monsters become a hideous reflection of the profligacies latent in a consumption-oriented society that surrenders itself to excess. In the scene in which the gremlins take over the movie house and enact their hideous parody of a theater audience, we suddenly recognize that the gremlins represent ourselves as viewers of the film.

2. Interpret Consumption Broadly

As I have argued elsewhere, consumption involves much more than just the purchase of goods or services (Holbrook 198 c). Briefly, it includes any form of acquisition, usage, or disposition directed toward consummation in the satisfaction of needs and wants. This means that consumption encompasses any behavior that confers value and that thereby reflects the influence of underlying motivations. Hence, by its reflection of motivating needs and wants, consumption mirrors a dramatic character's personality and helps to trace the development of that personality.

One illustration concerns the clothing worn by Judy during her three scenes in John Patrick Shanley's play entitled Women of Manhattan. In the first scene, Judy wears a man-like outfit that instantiates the repression of her buried femininity. As her sexual awakening occurs, Judy next appears in a restaurant with Duke, wearing a voluptuous, low-cut evening gown that prefigures the carnal ecstasies soon to follow. Finally, Judy's third appearance conveys her newly won mental equilibrium by means of a fashionable dress that reflects a precarious compromise between modesty and sexiness.

3. Hope for Inspiration

I believe that semiological interpretation of artworks usually depends on some degree of inspiration, some serendipitous insight or some sudden afflatus. Unfortunately, one cannot control such magic events. One can only wait for one's muse to sing or hope that one's daemon will speak. Needless to say, when such an inspiration occurs, one must be ready to follow the wind, wherever it blows.

Something like this happened to me in connection with some self-reflective work I recently completed on the subject of my own art collection. While visiting me in Pennsylvania, my friends on the Consumer Behavior Odyssey had inquired about our extraordinary number of artistic objects representing birds and other animals. This serendipitous insight planted a seed in my head that grew there for several months until I happened to attend a seminar on the psychoanalytic interpretation of art. The latter experience caused me to reflect on my own earlier period of psychoanalysis and to recall some childhood memories and an old phobia that seemed to account for the art collection as the embodiment of a wish to avoid castration (by symbolically protecting birds and other phallic objects from attack by the father figure in the form of a wolf). Such connections sprang into consciousness one day when I looked up from my desk in New York and suddenly found myself confronted by a wolf staring at me from the opposite wall. My resulting shock of recognition led to the realization that, figuratively, I have mastered the wolf's menacing implications by turning him into a comic, brightly colored caricature in the form of a lithograph by Karel Appel called I Am an Animal. AN this poured out of me onto paper in something like the stream-of-consciousness of a trance-like state. Though I have subsequently revised my first draft (many times) for style, accuracy, and consistency, its essential content emerged altogether as one holistic Gestalt.

4. Try Watching the Video Alone

My next recommendation grew out of another piece of serendipity that may generalize to other interpretive situations. Specifically, I suspect that one may often gain enriched insights into the consumption symbolism of a film (or, conceivably, a play) if one first watches it without sound, attending to the video portion alone. The reason for this speculation is simply that the dialogue, music, and sound effects often refer to action sequences or interpersonal relationships not directly connected with the consumer behavior of interest. The audio message may thereby distract us from relevant aspects of the consumption symbolism.

My serendipitous discovery of this principle occurred on my- first viewing of Gremlins. I had flipped through several television channels in search of something to amuse me while I rode my exercise bike. Finding nothing of interest, I put on some music instead. But, having started pedalling, I realized that I had left the TV turned on with the sound off. This accident exposed me to some key scenes through my eyes alone. One such scene occurs when the boy puts a Santa Claus hat on his pet mogwa and shows it to itself in a small mirror. The tiny creature displays obvious horror and dives into a wastebasket. Thus, the visual aspects of this scene convey one of the film's major themes -- namely, indignation over the spiritual decadence of yuletide materialism. Yet, the impact of this symbolic gesture diminishes with the addition of its verbal accompaniment. The latter information concerns the mogwa's fear of light and actually distracts us from the important consumption symbolism associated with Santa Claus.

5. Look for Differences and Contrasts

One of the fundamental tenets of structuralism - an approach to interpretation descended from Saussure (ed. 1966) and practiced by people like Levi Strauss (1963, 1985) -- concerns the significance associated with differences among signifiers. Clearly, the varying meanings of words such as dog, dig, dim, dam, bam, bat, cat, car, tar, tan, ton, et cetera, depend on minor contrasts between one feature in the two members of each pair. Similarly, if only by loose analogy, I would argue that systematic differences in consumption symbolism within a work of art often provide key insights into contrasts essential to the development of plot, character, or theme.

Illustrations of this structural principle appear in two plays by Tina Howe entitled Coastal Disturbances and Painting Churches. The first play (written later) depends in part on clear contrasts in consumption styles within three pairs of characters. Specifically, Coastal Disturbances uses consumption symbolism to depict the lives of two young mothers (who represent fertility and barren desiccation, respectively); an elderly couple (who stand for artistic vision versus mundane cynicism); and a pair of young lovers (whose consumption behavior reflects instability as opposed to mastery). The second play (written earlier) relies on an even more complex scheme of differences in consumer behavior. Specifically, Painting Churches portrays a father, mother, and daughter in terms of the thematic contrasts between the (a) negative and (b) positive aspects of their (1) trivial and (2) artistic consumption. This structure establishes a four-fold set of homologous distinctions for each character separately as well as for the interactions among all three. The resulting pattern of parallel contrasts leads to a rather complex interpretation based on the analysis of a table with sixteen cells.

6. Search For Points of Departure

By contrast with the top-down structural approach just described, an entire interpretive analysis of an artwork sometimes unfolds from just one crucial passage or scene or detail that, like a DNA molecule or a hologram, seems to contain a code-for the meaning that extends through the remaining work of art. Thus, a small specimen can provide a point of departure for the interpretation of the rest of the text. Indeed, such a point of departure or Ansatzpunkt (Auerbach 1969) can radiate outward, shedding light on the overall work, in a way that helps to anchor the so-called Hermeneutic Circle based on the interaction between the parts and the whole. Auerbach (1953), among others, demonstrated over and over the value of interpretive work that moves in this manner.

One clear instance of such an Ansatzpunkt appears in the film entitled Two For the Road. Here, in one especially vivid scene, Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) attracts her future lover Mark (Albert Finney) by imitating a traffic-sign. On the one hand, like the moving and flashing semaphore itself, Joanna is brightly colored, blinking, animated, gay, beautiful, and alluring (especially to the heart of an Audrey Hepburn fan). On the other, like the road sign, Joanna's movements demand an interpretation as a warning signal advising her fellow traveler Mark to proceed with caution. Indeed, this duality of meaning perfectly captures the ambivalence of Mark and Joanna's developing relationship. Further, the telling ambiguity of the semaphore adumbrates a network of automotive imagery that extends throughout the rest of the movie. Hence, my interpretive analysis of automotive signs in Two For the Road (i.e., the film's use of travel symbolism and transportation imagery) focuses entirely on this one type of consumption- and market-related meaning.

7. Regard the Text Itself As Evidence

Finally, we must inquire about the question of validity in semiological interpretation. Here, frightened by the apparent self-fulfillment of the Hermeneutic Circle or the occasional solipsism of the New Criticism, we might be tempted to surrender our claims to validity and to succumb to a sort of positivistic angst (Calder and Tybout 1987). One way to avoid this tragic impasse involves regarding the close reading of a text as a kind of empirical verification in which the evidence appears in the text itself (Hirsch 1967; Ricoeur 1976). As argued elsewhere, this interpretive strategy conforms to an inferential process that Charles Peirce called abduction (Eco and Sebeok 1983; Holbrook 1988b; Mick 1986). Abductive inference involves bringing rules from different contexts (e.g., elite people drive expensive cars) to bear on results found in the work of art (e.g., Mary drives a Cadillac) to infer something about cases at intermediate levels of generality (e.g., Mary is elite). The latter inferential abductions then supply hypotheses in need of support from further portions of the text. Hence, the text plus an understanding of its context provides the grounds for the validation of its own interpretation.

An illustration of this latter claim appeared in the movie Out of Africa. Here, a-cuckoo clock unpacked by Karen Blixen early in the film, symbolizes the extreme gulf that separates the Western European and African cultures. Immediately, Karen's manservant Farah regards this foreign object with an expression of utter amazement. Soon, the Kikuyu children watch it with an attitude of eager anticipation and subsequent astonishment. These two brief scenes provided the core point of departure or Ansatzpunkt into an interpretation of the film's consumption symbolism. Only much later -- indeed, too late for inclusion in the original article -- did I spot a validating detail toward the end of the film. Specifically, as Karen tries to prepare Farah for her imminent return to Denmark, she puts a tag on the cuckoo clock to ready it for disposal in her yard sale. The conclusion of this sad task is marked by her request that Farah take the timepiece outside to be sold. Ultimately, the camera focuses on the forlorn cuckoo clock as the visible emblem of Karen's return to Western Civilization and abandonment of her African home. In effect, European patterns of consumption have once again driven their wedge between the two cultures.

CONCLUSION

This paper has reviewed the emerging role of semiotics in consumer research and, especially, in research on esthetic consumption. It has distinguished between positivistic and interpretive approaches to the semiotics of artistic objects and has focused on the latter orientation toward the semiological interpretation of consumption symbolism and marketing imagery in works of art. It has warned against the dangers and difficulties of this "hard" style of research, but has anticipated that the "wildcats" who inhabit this cell of the consumer-research portfolio will display their feline tendencies by stubbornly refusing to listen to such cautionary advice.

The paper therefore presents my attempt to render the hermeneutics of artistic consumption less perilous by distilling seven lessons from my own experience with this kind of interpretive approach. These reflections suggest the following seven routes to interpretation:

1. Focus on consumption

2. Interpret consumption broadly

3. Hope for inspiration

4. Try watching the video alone

5. Look for differences and contrasts

6. Search for points of departure

7. Regard the text itself as evidence

The paper illustrates each route to interpretation with an example drawn from one of the dramatic, narrative, or representational arts. I hope that these illustrated principles will be seen as something more than just seven isolated pieces of advice. I hope that they will be viewed as an interconnected set of considerations that bear on one problem -- namely, the problem of interpretation -and that thereby begin to suggest ways of reading an artistic text through the analysis of its consumption symbolism and marketing imagery. In sum, I hope that through such an approach we can grope our way toward a view of art that might one day emerge as a perspective more powerful than just some tips for wildcats.

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