&Quot;What's in a Name?&Quot;: Aristotelian Criticism and Drama Research Abstract -

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University
[ to cite ]:
Barbara B. Stern (1992) ,"&Quot;What's in a Name?&Quot;: Aristotelian Criticism and Drama Research Abstract -", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 452-454.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 452-454



Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University

[This paper is an abstract of the presentation for Special Session 6.4.]

One genre may generate another....Or one genre might supplant and replace another as the historically or situationally dominant form of "social metacommentary" (to use Geertz's illuminating term). New communicative techniques and media may make possible wholly unprecedented genres of cultural performance and thus new modes of self-understanding (Turner 1981, p. 155).

Advertising as a form of cultural performance (Levitt 1970; Schudson 1984; Spitzer 1962) has generic affiliations with the textual family known as drama, one of the three major genres of literature (the others are poetry and the novel). The term "drama" has come into widespread use to describe a variety of marketing, advertising, and consumer behavior phenomena, perhaps as a sign of the importance of "the drama of consumer satisfaction" in marketing strategy (Leiss, Kline, and Jhally 1986, p. 232). Since recent research on products, consumers, sales encounters, and advertisements uses "drama" to refer to things, people, and text, a problem arises in terms of what the concept means in varied research streams. Better communication among researchers might be facilitated by adoption of an accepted vocabulary for discussing drama, for at present no common set of definitions prevails. The purpose of this paper is to alleviate that situation by introducing a vocabulary based on terminology and concepts from Aristotle's Poetics (Fergusson 1961). Our aim is to disseminate a clear technical language so that researchers coming from different perspectives can be sure that they are discussing the same phenomena.

Because drama is an umbrella term for a large genre of works, it is first necessary to clarify the species to which researchers refer. Ordinarily, when advertisements are labeled "dramas," the reference is to the theatre of realism, rather than to the "theatre of the absurd" (but see Stern 1990). In this regard, advertising dramas have been termed "capitalist realist art" (Schudson 1984), "tractor realism" (Berman 1981), "slice of life" (Ogilvy 1985), and cinema veritT (Rossiter 1987). Perhaps because the categorization of advertising as realistic drama rests on the assumption that everyone knows what drama is, some important pre-questions have gone unasked. These are, "What is an advertising drama?" "What are its component parts?" And, "How can we analyze or explicate (Stern 1989) the elements in individual advertisements?" These questions can be addressed by turning to Aristotelian criticism as the most accessible source of the technical vocabulary of drama. The concepts and definitions are familiar to anyone who has taken a college English course, read a theatre review, or glanced through a playbill.

This paper begins to answer the definitional questions first by identifying the basic elements of drama and next by analyzing a sample advertisement as text. Since our purpose is limited to setting forth a language for conducting multidisciplinary research, we do not venture beyond the definitional issues that emerge in close examination of the stimulus. The link between dramatic stimuli and consumer responses is the province of the other presentations in the session, notably those of Boller and Olson and Deighton.


Drama is the literary form designed for theatrical performance, in which actors take the roles of characters, characters perform the actions, and characters utter the written dialogue (Abrams 1988). It is composed of separate but connected elements, much as a product is composed of distinct but related attributes. Aristotle's framework defines drama in terms of six basic elements: plot, character, theme, diction (choice of words), "spectacle" (visual aspects such as settings, costume, make-up and hair-styles), and "music" (the sounds of words as well as songs/musical compositions). The terminology has been refined over the centuries to fit ever-changing notions of what constitutes theatrical performance, and adaptation of this vocabulary to advertisements represents but one more instance where one genre generates another (Turner 1981).


Most of what the critical tradition has handed down about plot comes from Aristotle's Poetics (Martin 1986), where its essence is identified as "imitation of action." "Imitation" refers to the art of "showing" characters in action that distinguishes dramatic performance from narrative "storytelling" (see Martin 1986; Wells 1989). "Action" refers to a series of related events (Brooks and Warren 1959) with a unified meaning, in that the arrangement of events (Fergusson 1961) answers the question, "what happened?" (Holman 1980).

A plot imposes order on the raw material of events (Frye 1973) by following a set of conventions (or rules) for their arrangement. In dramas, the purpose of the actions is to enable characters to display their personality traits, behavioral modes, and moral nature. Realistic plots imitate the action of life by following temporal chronological order -- they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. However, even realistic drama lends structure to life's shapelessness by arranging the incidents into a unified and meaningful whole. Plot progression involves both chronology and causation, for plots provide not only a record of what happens, but also the reason why things happen.

Some key terms used to describe various aspects of the plot are conflict, complication, crisis, suspense, surprise, and solution. Many plots contain conflict, defined as an oppositional relationship between two characters or forces. A complication occurs when the conflict works itself out in one or more crises, often arousing suspense when there is uncertainty about what is going to happen (Abrams 1988). A solution is reached when the crisis is resolved, frequently by means of a surprise ending. In its negative sense, a surprise ending is one in which the author resolves the plot without adequate earlier grounds in characterization or action. The solution is manipulated by the introduction of a forced or improbable coincidence -- a deus ex machina or god descending on stage. In its positive sense, a surprise ending is realistic when it turns out, in retrospect, to have been grounded in what has gone before (Abrams 1988).


Aristotle's second principle of drama is character, defined as the imaginary person(s) created by the author (Holman 1980) and presented in a dramatic work. Characters are endowed with moral, dispositional, and emotional qualities that are expressed in what they say (dialogue) and what they do (action). A character's personality is revealed by his/her words, deeds, and gestures; the words and deeds of others in relation to him/her; and the settings (Barnet 1985). The basis for speech and action that are rooted in a character's temperament, desires, and moral values constitute his/her motivation. The chief character in a work is called the protagonist (alternatively, the hero or heroine), and if s/he is pitted against an important opponent, that character is called the antagonist (Abrams 1988).


Theme describes the underlying idea of a text, its view of life, and its gestalt meaning (Barnet 1985). It refers to a general claim, or doctrine, whether implicit or asserted, which an imaginative work is designed to incorporate and to make persuasive to the reader (Barnet 1985). It is, in brief, what a drama is about.


Dramatic language or diction includes everything that the words mean, encompassing not only denotation (literal dictionary definitions) and connotation (associations and imagery), but also grammatical structure, length, and complexity of syntax. The language of drama is no longer considered limited to dialogue (Esslin 1969), for it also refers to deeds, facial expressions, and body movement associated with a stage performance (Barnet 1985).


This is the composite bundle of indicators that signify place and circumstances: the physical background described or shown, consisting of geographical location, occupation and lifestyle of characters, time of action, and general socio-economic environment (Barnet 1985; Holman 1980). The setting of a dramatic work includes everything about the locale -- the historical time, physical surroundings, and social circumstances -- of the action. It denotes the visible or picturable items on stage in a theatrical production, also called dTcor or mise en scFne, terms denoting the scenery and the properties or movable objects ("props"). Nearly everything on stage falls under the rubric of setting, for the purpose of visibilia is to reveal character. Setting also includes the positions of actors in a scene (Abrams 1988), because their entrances, exits, and on-stage movements occur in relation to scenery, props, and costumes.


Music refers to the sound of words -- the rhythm and rhyme patterns as well as to the songs and/or musical compositions incorporated in a performance. Its importance in advertising lies in its connection to the chorus, a group of characters in classical drama who sang or chanted verse and engaged in dancelike movements. As drama evolved, it abandoned music and dance, and the choral group developed into a single choral character who served as the author's spokesperson. The "choral character" now refers to any character within the play itself who stands apart from the action and by his/her comments provides the spectators with a perspective for viewing the characters in action (Abrams 1988). This character may also represent the author, a communal point of view, or the perspective of group norms, since his/her function is to provide the point of reference by which the audience can judge the play.

While music in its own right (Scott 1990) serves rhetorical purposes in advertising, the modern manifestation of a choral character represents an important link between advertising drama and its classical antecedents. In classical drama, direct authorial commentary was considered intrusive and amateurish -- Aristotle evaluated an author's skill in terms of his ability to present action without resorting to explanatory comments. However, in advertising drama, some narration is considered necessary (see Deighton, Romer, and McQueen 1989; Stern 1991) to direct attention to the sponsor's message. In this regard, the choral character may be viewed as an ancestor of the advertising announcer, for just as the chorus emphasized the author's point of view, so too does the announcer emphasize the sponsor's point of view. The need to ensure audience comprehension by guiding attention to the intended meaning suggests that interpolation of commentary into modern commercial messages resembles earlier instances of the hybridization of narrative and dramatic techniques.

The tradition of a choral character seems to underlie advertising's blend of show and tell, for few examples of dramas that "show" all but "tell" nothing can be found (Stern 1991). Rather, advertisements more often begin with "a word from the sponsor" and end with a sponsorial reminder to purchase the product (the action close). In sum, while we can define the basic elements in drama by turning to Aristotelian concepts, we can expect advertising to tailor genre conventions to suit its own needs. The genre has historically been flexible enough to move in multiple directions, and the value of learning its lineage and its language lies in increased awareness of the longevity and power of dramatic art. Jameson's comment (1975, p. 157) reinforces our view of commercial drama as a new tributary of an ancient stream:

So generic affiliations and the systematic deviation from them, provide clues which lead us back to the concrete historical situation of the individual text itself, and allows us to read its structure as ideology, as a socially symbolic act, as a protoypical response to a historical dilemma.


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