Methodological Diversity in Consumer Esthetics Research

Ruth Ann Smith, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
[ to cite ]:
Ruth Ann Smith (1991) ,"Methodological Diversity in Consumer Esthetics Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 379-380.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 379-380


Ruth Ann Smith, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

My initial inclination as discussant for this session was to try to make some summary statements about the collective implications of the papers by Scott, Langmeyer and Walker, and Cooper-Martin for consumer esthetics, which is the topic of the session. Perhaps reflecting my own limited creativity, however, I found the papers to be only peripherally related to that subject. Consequently, I am unable to offer any stunning insights about their meaning in that context.

What I did find striking about the work of these authors, however, was the relationship between the research questions that were posed and the research methods used to address these questions. Although pertaining to two diverse subjects (meaning transfer and experiential products), the research questions seem to me to be largely interpretive. That is, the process by which meaning becomes associated with celebrity endorsers and transferred to products appears to be one that is highly idiosyncratic and likely to defy precise quantification. Similarly, consumers' selection and evaluation of experiential products like movies, music, or art also seems to require interpretation rather than quantification. I was impressed by the authors' creatively in developing these questions, and believe their interest in these subjects is evidence of a substantial broadening in our perceptions about the domain of consumer research.

The research methods used to address these questions, however, seem to me to be more in the positivist tradition of empirical hypothesis testing. Langmeyer and Walker (1991), for example, describe the process of developing a measure of meaning transfer and use it to test hypotheses about the meanings of celebrity endorsers and the products they promote. Cooper-Martin's (1991) study is designed to test hypotheses about the attributes used to select experiential products. The objective of both studies seems to be to discover generalizations about the phenomena under investigation.

Scott (1991) did employ an interpretive method, historical analysis, in developing part of her argument about celebrity endorsements as an active, rather than a passive, process. Her use of this method, however, was to demonstrate that the transfer of meaning from people to objects is a phenomenon that has persisted across a variety of cultures and time periods. I suspect this application of history to demonstrate continuity would be surprising to an historian who would likely view the strength of historical analysis as its ability to explain the causes of change, or discontinuity, rather than continuity.

Given this interesting match between interpretive questions and traditional methodologies (or interpretive methods used conservatively in the case of Scott), I would suggest that the major contribution of these papers is conceptual. That is, these authors have posed for our consideration some very unique and unusual issues about consumer behavior that force us to stretch our definitions about the domain of the discipline. I believe the methodological contribution of the papers is smaller in that the authors seem to have been less innovative in their choices of research approaches to address these questions. Consequently, I would like to focus my remarks on the subject of methodological diversity in consumer research.


Broadening our research horizons with respect to the kinds of questions we ask about consumer behavior is, I believe, certainly a sign of maturity in our discipline and I applaud these authors for the creativity in this regard. It is, however, equally important to broaden our methodological repertoire so we can select the methods most appropriate to the research Questions we address. I cannot claim to be the first to suggest the benefits of methodological diversity in consumer research, and I doubt that I will be the last. In his 1988 ACR Presidential Address, for example, Lutz (1989) argued that:

At minimum, each of us needs to understand the current dominant paradigm in consumer research. Then, we need to learn more about the alternatives to positivism. Just as consumers search for information in order to make informed purchases, we owe it to ourselves to make informed choices about how we seek knowledge (p. 6, emphasis added).

Failure to diversify our methodological bag of tricks risks imposing two limitations on our research. First is the risk that we will restrict our attention only to those questions that are compatible with the methods with which we are comfortable. Second is the risk that even if we ask innovative questions, we may develop incomplete or even misleading answers if we select methods that are poorly suited to these questions. I would like to suggest that in addition to the unique research questions posed in these papers, there is a multitude of other fascinating questions about meaning transfer and experiential products that might be investigated. And, to do so will require using some methods that are unconventional, at least in the context of consumer research. However, in order to fully understand these phenomena, we need to ask the questions and we need to master these, and other methods.


Meaning Transfer

A variety of issues pertaining to meaning transfer seem to focus on questions of change through time. For instance, Scott (1991) suggests that the source of the meaning transferred to goods has changed over time from the giver of the goods, to gods and military heroes, to film and rock stars. Why and how did this change come about? Another question pertains to the change in the meanings embodied by currently popular celebrity endorsers. Cher, who was the focus of the study by Langmeyer and Walker (1991), began her career in the 1960's as a counter-culture singer. After her initial success with Sonny Bono, she became essentially a co-opted rocker when she "sold out" for the security and material benefits of a prime time TV variety show and an aggressively sexual Bob Mackie wardrobe. How and why did the (probably negative) meanings associated with her at that time change to the tough-minded, tough-bodied, independent woman who now functions so successfully as a health spa endorser?

Investigating processes of change such as these is difficult using the positivist methods that have dominated consumer behavior research in the past. Historical method, however, is uniquely suited to explaining- the causes of change through time, and is therefore an ideal tool to examine questions pertaining to changing meanings, or changes in the sources of those meanings.

Experiential Products

Consumption of products that are experienced, as opposed to used in a utilitarian sense, also poses some intriguing research questions. How and why consumers' tastes for experiential products like movies and music change through time is one example. Although it is tempting to suggest that such changes are dictated by marketers, one only has to think about product failures like the Edsel and the midi-skirt to realize that consumers' tastes are not easily dictated or simply explained. Historical analysis is an ideal approach to explain the complex causes underlying these changes.

Other questions pertaining to experiential products concern consumers' feelings and evaluations during and after consumption. For example, is one's satisfaction with an experiential product a function of the type of feeling it evokes (e.g. happiness, fear, satiation) or the intensity of the feeling? Also, what is the effect of others' presence when an experiential product is consumed? Is the experience better or worse if shared with others as opposed to experiencing the product alone? Questions such as these could potentially be examined through an ethnographic study in which a descriptive anthropology of consumers of experiential products (like movie buffs or wine connoisseurs) is developed.


As a discipline, consumer behavior has made enormous progress toward recognizing that the research questions deserving our attention go far beyond those suggested by the traditional paradigms of information processing, economics, and behaviorism. The research presented by Scott, Langmeyer and Walker, and Cooper-Martin are tangible evidence of this progress. Asking these questions, however, is only the first step. The next, and perhaps more difficult, step is to acquire the methodological tools that are best suited to examine these new questions.


Cooper-Martin, Elizabeth (1991), "Consumers and Movies: Some Findings on Experiential Products," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, eds., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, in press.

Langmeyer, Lynn and Mary Walker (1991), "A First Step to Identify the Meaning in Celebrity Endorsers," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, eds., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, in press.

Lutz, Richard J. (1989), "Positivism, Naturalism and Pluralism in Consumer Research: Paradigms in Paradise," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 16, Thomas K. Srull, ed., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, p. 1-8.

Scott, Linda M. (1991), "The Troupe: Celebrities as Dramatic Personae in Advertisements, in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, eds., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, in press.