A Framework For Critiquing the Dysfunctions of Advertising: the Base-Superstructure Metaphor

Renee G. Lee, Virginia Tech
Jeff B. Murray, University of Arkansas
ABSTRACT - It is widely acknowledged that advertising has potentially negative effects on individuals and society. However, these effects are relatively unexplored within consumer research, particularly the influence of advertising on consumers' constructions of reality. One of the reasons for this lack of attention is the need for a critical framework that is useful at the macro level of analysis. In this paper, the base-superstructure metaphor is discussed as a useful critical framework. First the framework is presented, then it is illustrated by discussing the role of advertising in society. The paper concludes by outlining the research implications of this framework.
[ to cite ]:
Renee G. Lee and Jeff B. Murray (1995) ,"A Framework For Critiquing the Dysfunctions of Advertising: the Base-Superstructure Metaphor", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 139-143.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 139-143


Renee G. Lee, Virginia Tech

Jeff B. Murray, University of Arkansas

[The authors would like to thank Julie L. Ozanne and Chris Toulouse for commenting on earlier drafts of this paper.]


It is widely acknowledged that advertising has potentially negative effects on individuals and society. However, these effects are relatively unexplored within consumer research, particularly the influence of advertising on consumers' constructions of reality. One of the reasons for this lack of attention is the need for a critical framework that is useful at the macro level of analysis. In this paper, the base-superstructure metaphor is discussed as a useful critical framework. First the framework is presented, then it is illustrated by discussing the role of advertising in society. The paper concludes by outlining the research implications of this framework.


If we accept the call to be more critical of advertising (e.g., Pollay 1986), what kind of analytic framework would be useful? Pollay's (1986) survey of critics of advertising includes psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, educators, communication specialists, philosophers, theologians, historians, and a number of other representatives of various traditions. Curiously, Pollay ignored an unorthodox Marxist perspective. [Pollay (1986, p. 19) states: "While this study excludes the European Marxist tradition, the research process is otherwise a survey rather than a sampling, with no authors knowingly excluded."] This is ironic since this perspective provides a useful defense to Holbrook's (1987) criticisms by: a) providing a critical view of advertising from a macro perspective; and b) recognizing that fundamentally advertising tends to reflect and reinforce the status quo. A common interpretation of this perspective or critical framework is often referred to as the base-superstructure metaphor.

The base-superstructure metaphor is associated with a critical-emancipatory sociology of knowledge. This view assumes that certain types of knowledge are selected and become dominant due to their consistency with existing social structures and relations. In other words, if ideas legitimate the existing power structure, they are more likely to be disseminated and therefore accepted. On the other hand, if ideas oppose the existing power structure, they are less likely to be disseminated and therefore will not be available for public debate.

The purpose of this paper is to present the base-superstructure metaphor in a way that is useful for analyzing the unintended consequences or dysfunctions of advertising. The paper also extends the work of researchers that have called for the critical assessment of ideology in our field (e.g., Anderson 1989; Belk 1986; Firat, Dholakia, and Bagozzi 1987; Hirschman 1993; Murray and Ozanne 1991, 1994a, 1994b; Murray, Ozanne, and Shapiro 1994).

This paper will first discuss the base-superstructure metaphor within the context of the sociology of knowledge. Second, the key dimensions of the metaphor will be described. This section includes discussion of the base, the superstructure, the connection between the base and superstructure, and the functions of this connection. Finally, the role of advertising in society will be discussed from this perspective. This section concludes with research implications of the base-superstructure metaphor.


The classical view of the sociology of knowledge assumes that all knowledge arises from a sociohistorical context. The sociologist of knowledge provides an account of the social construction of knowledge by investigating the relationship between knowledge and social influences. The sociohistorical context and knowledge are not considered reciprocal partners in this relationship but primacy is given to the concrete historical reality; the sociology of knowledge is "a theory of the relation of ideas and reality asserting the primacy of reality and the determination of ideas by reality" (Remmling 1973, p. xvii).

Karl Mannheim and Max Scheler are generally credited with the origination of the sociology of knowledge as a separate sub-discipline in 1924 (Remmling 1973). However, Karl Marx is often recognized as the intellectual precursor of these researchers. Remmling (1973, p. 135) refers to Marxism as the "storm center of the sociology of knowledge" since Marx was one of the first philosophers to assert the materialist position that ideas stem from the concrete reality of our lives.

Merton (1968) provides a useful framework for organizing and interpreting Marx's contribution to this field. According to Merton (1968), all approaches to the sociology of knowledge can be understood and compared by answering the following questions: What kinds of social and cultural factors exercise influence (i.e., the base)? What kinds of knowledge are open to sociological analysis (i.e., the superstructure)? What is the nature of the connections between knowledge and society? And what are the functions of these connections? (see Murray and Ozanne 1994b, p. 5).

In the next section we discuss an interpretation of Marx that provides answers to these questions. Together, these answers present an overview of the base-superstructure metaphor.


The edifice-like metaphor of base and superstructure is used by Marx to suggest that the means and the social relations of production brought together in the wage relation (i.e., the base) shape the nature of the state and popular culture (i.e., the superstructure) (Larrain 1983). Thus, the metaphor is used to discuss the relationship between three general dimensions of society, whereby the state and popular culture arise from the base. From this perspective, social consciousness that may seem to result from the consumption of popular culture (e.g., TV, popular novels, advertising) is really the result of a particular economic structure. In other words, advertising is reflecting the type of social consciousness that is necessary for contemporary capitalism to survive. Critiquing advertising without taking into account the social totality is misdirecting our energies since it stems from the relations of production. These ideas will be discussed further in the last section. For now, it is important to discuss each dimension of the metaphor.

The Base

A starting premise for Marx's sociology of knowledge is that "the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life" (The German Ideology Part I 1965; Tucker 1978, p. 154). In other words, knowledge originates from those activities that are essential for the survival of the community. For example, the dominant knowledge consisting within hunting and gathering cultures results from the need to coordinate the hunt (i.e., the relations of production), as well as the knowledge needed to manufacture the equipment that is necessary for this activity (i.e., the forces of production). The social consciousness resulting from this knowledge will lead to rituals, dance, and religion that reinforce this mode of production. Similarly, the dominant knowledge consisting within corporate capitalism results from the need to coordinate activities within the firm (i.e., the relations of production), as well as the knowledge needed to manufacture the capital that is necessary for production (i.e., the forces of production). The social consciousness resulting from this knowledge will lead to ideology which legitimates nine-to-five lifestyles, certain kinds of leisure activities, family structure, forms of education, advertising, and so forth.

In his well known preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Tucker 1965, p. 4), Marx (1904) introduces the idea that knowledge and consciousness stem from material existence:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This quotation illustrates the materialist position that human thought is integrally related to social structures and that the relations of production constitute the foundation for the superstructure of ideas. Further, Marx's contention that social existence determines consciousness suggests that individuals' thoughts are influenced by the worldview that dominates their sociohistorical milieu. Thus, from this perspective, the same worldview that has influenced advertising has also influenced every other institution. For example, it is not unusual to hear a teacher state that the purpose of education is so students can get a good job, make a lot of money, and be able to buy nice things. To suggest that social consciousness stems from advertising is to credit this institution with excessive influence. In other words, advertising is just one piece of the puzzle. If consumers find aspects of advertising offensive, it is not due to unethical ad agencies, it may be due to the demands of a particular form of capitalism.

In sum, the base constitutes the relations and forces of production found in contemporary corporate culture (i.e., corporate capitalism).

The Superstructure

The notion of superstructure is used to indicate two dependent societal dimensions: the state and social consciousness (Larrain 1983). Social consciousness, in this context, refers to the consciousness of a class. Thus, it is ideological in the sense that it not only includes values, interests, opinions, and lifestyles, but also illusions or distortions. A more contemporary interpretation of this social or class consciousness would be popular culture.

Advertising is therefore an exemplary form of superstructural knowledge. It communicates the values, interests, opinions, and lifestyles necessary to fuel a materialistic economy based on over-production, and at the same time distorts a clear picture of this society. Advertising presents a stereotypical view of the world (Holbrook 1987) by underrepresenting certain segments of society, neglecting important issues such as human suffering (McCracken and Pollay 1981, as cited by Holbrook 1987) and emphasizing beautiful sexy people living a life of conspicuous leisure. It is no wonder advertising encourages consumers to be happy ("celebrate the moments of your life"), to be in love ("so kiss a little longer"), to be materialistic ("the ultimate driving machine"), and to remain unpoliticized ("have a Coke and a smile").

Hamilton (1974, p. 35) has suggested that ideology can be most clearly understood as "systematically distorted knowledge"Cdistorted in that it represents and reinforces the current relations of production and therefore dominant groups. In other words, distortion does not mean a false reflection; it is distorted in the sense that the views of the dominant group are taken to be the general view.

Marx insists that class relationships form the basic axis upon which ideologies find general acceptance in society. Thus ideology is, in an important sense 'illusory:' not in the sense that the content of idea-systems is a mere 'reflection' of material life and therefore is irrelevant to the activity of the subject, but insofar as ideas which are thought to be of general or universal validity are in fact the expressions of sectional class interests (Giddens 1971, p. 213).

Ideologies thus often serve to benefit dominant groups because the presentation of distorted versions of reality has a profound influence on consumers' interpretations and social constructions of reality.

The Connection

Most critiques of Marxism assume that Marx was an economic determinist and attack the perspective on grounds of economic reductionism (Larrain 1983). Clearly, it is easy to think of many superstructural examples that do not reflect the interests of the current mode of production. It is more useful to think of the relationship between the base and superstructure as reciprocal.

This means that although the economic base is a dominant force, the superstructure is capable of exercising reciprocal influence. For example, a superstructural value that legitimates the current mode of production is unabashed materialism (thus advertising resonates with this value). However, this value also leads to the eventual destruction of the environment. Since the destruction of the environment would also lead to the demise of capitalism, we are beginning to see aspects of environmentalism embraced by those that control the current mode of production and thereby reflected in advertisements. Thus we find two contradictory values currently embraced by the advertising community (i.e., materialism and environmentalism). This contradiction may lead to changes in consumption habits (a superstructural change), or to a change in how we manufacture and dispose of products (a change in the economic base). In addition, due to the emancipatory interests of some marketing managers, it is easy to find oppositional ideologies in advertising (e.g., Ben and Jerry's, The Body Shop, and Bennetons to name a few) (see Murray and Ozanne 1991).

These progressive advertisements that endorse alternative forms of social organization present an anomaly to the "economic determinist" position. A reciprocal position however anticipates some degree of opposition in every institution. This perspective does not assume that institutions (including advertising) are well-ordered monoliths, but that institutions are pluralistic, contradictory, dynamic, and characterized by conflict.

The Function

The function of the connection between the base and superstructure is to divert attention away from alternative ways of organizing the base. If the base is made to seem objective and static rather than a historical product, then ideas which legitimate it seem unbiased. In this sense, the function is social control. Media vehicles that are perceived as unbiased carriers of the message have successfully masked all connections to social interests and context. This masking will benefit those aligned with powerful interests. In other words, if the human relations represented in advertisements seem "normal" then they have persuasive power.

In this sense, truth and social control are interconnected. The values necessary to legitimize and maintain the current relations of production must be viewed as accurate descriptors of human nature. Thus, the truth in advertising legislation, beginning around 1910, was not brought about by social critics but by the advertising industry itself (Ewen 1976).

Paul Nystrom, the consumer economist, noted approvingly in 1929 that 'the movement in the United States for truth in advertising has been sponsored by and promoted largely through advertising men' (Ewen 1976, p. 71).

Although the truth in advertising legislation made unlawful any claim which "contains any assertion, representation or statement of fact which is untrue, deceptive or misleading" (Ewen 1976, p. 71), it was equipped to deal only with denotated meaning. By not being able to confront connotated [Denotation refers to the explicit or direct meaning or set of meanings of a word or expression--the literal meaning of a signifier. Connotation refers to the associated or secondary meaning of a word or expression in addition to its explicit or primary meaning--the "cultural baggage" of the signifier (see Berger 1984).] meaning, these laws could not combat psychological manipulation. James Rorty attributed the following to the truth in advertising campaign: "Always tell the truth. Tell a lot of the truth. Tell a lot more of the truth than anybody expects you to tell. Never tell the whole truth" (as cited in Ewen 1976, p. 72). As Pollay (1986) makes clear, given that advertising is pervasive, persuasive, repetitive, developed by people very aware of issues surrounding attention and comprehension, and delivered to an audience that is born into a world saturated with it, it can be a powerful tool of manipulation.

In sum, the base consists of the relations and forces of production, the superstructure consists of the state and popular culture, the connection between the two is reciprocal, and the function of this connection is social control. The base-superstructure metaphor provides a useful framework for critiquing the role of advertising in American and international markets.


It is widely acknowledged that advertising has a potentially negative impact on individuals and society. Numerous consumer researchers have discussed the potential harmful consequences of advertising (c.f., Pollay 1986), but few have used a critical framework from which to develop a more conceptual argument. The base-superstructure metaphor represents one alternative. This framework can be used to examine the power of advertising ideology in the context of a particular political economy. Critics may be misdirecting their energies by taking advertising out of its social context for analysis. Criticism needs to focus on the social totality, the entire superstructure and the connections and functions with the base. In addition, the framework draws attention to contradictions and potential conflict between repressed and dominant groups.

Since young consumers are becoming increasingly detached from traditional sources of primary socialization (Pollay 1986) such as families, churches, and schools, advertising is emerging as a key vehicle for producing and reproducing ideology. Given that we are born into a world steeped in advertising, we tend to take the norms and values reflected in ads for granted.

We do not ordinarily recognize advertising as a sphere of ideology....[Analyzing ads permits us to] explore how ideological assumptions [are] present in the ordinary discourses of daily life and, most importantly, that ideology [is] not merely the product of conspiracy or a ministry of propagandaCthat, in fact, ideology is something we enter into and participate in (Goldman 1992, pp. 1, 9).

Goldman's passage underscores the argument that the dominant ideology communicated through advertising can have a profound influence on the construction of individual perceptions of reality. Although selective exposure (e.g., zapping and zipping) may decrease attention, from the base-superstructure perspective, the reason these companies are paying for particular TV shows is because they represent the same values as the commercials. From a postmodern perspective (e.g., Featherstone 1991; Turner 1991) zapping and zipping will only serve to further fragment the consumer, making them more vulnerable to ideology. Indeed, the most potent ads are rarely zapped, for example, Pepsi ads featuring Michael Jackson were zapped by only one to two percent of the audience (Kneale 1988).

The base-superstructure perspective suggests that advertising's power is analogous to the power Marx attributes to the ruling class, i.e., it exercises its power to influence the production and distribution of knowledge as a means of social control [It is recognized that the effect of advertising on individuals is not a uniform and unchanging phenomenon but a dynamic one, i.e., there are many who resist and contest advertising's social control function. However, while many will argue that they are personally immune to the effects of advertising, the pervasiveness of advertising makes it difficult to escape. In fact, Pollay (1986) suggests that immunity from advertising is a myth: "The myth of immunity from persuasion may do more to protect self-respect than accurately comprehend the subtleties and implication of influence" (p. 23).] Cin order to serve its own interests. The messages of advertising serve the interests of the sponsors by constructing and idealizing those images that are consistent with the products being advertised.

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it (Marx The German Ideology Part I 1965; Tucker 1978, p. 172-3).

Advertisements bombard consumers with the idea that acquisition can lead to a more desirable body, relationship, lifestyle, and so on. Ads construct and reinforce not only images, but values. Nowhere is the materialization of value more obvious than in the evolution of the desirable body.

It is here, in the complex tissues of biology, ideology, and consciousness, that the modern commodity aesthetic, and the incarnations of personal identity, uncomfortablyCat times pathologicallyCmesh (Ewen 1988, p. 176).

The bodies of men and women, as reflected through advertisements, track the changes in the economic base since the early years of the twentieth century. For example, around the turn of the century, the ideal body for women reflected the tangible biases of landed value (Ewen 1988). A well-fed body meant material seclusion from scarcity and hard labor. Just as the architecture of the time took on a heavy, ornamented appearance, the cultured body took on a heaviness, wrapped in ornamented fashion.

For womenCwhose object-value was intimately tied to their reproductive capacitiesCa heavy bosom and stout hips were conspicuous elements of beauty (Ewen 1988, p. 177).

By the end of the First World War, demographic, social, and economic changes were bringing women into metropolitan life. Value was shifting from the tangible agrarian lifestyle to abstract, market value. Value was now understood not in terms of land, but exchange value and a "floating" currency. Architecture started to emphasize space rather than ornament.

As the dominant system of profitability was coming to rest on a foundation of thin air, the female bodyCalong with other icons of the new orderCfollowed suit (Ewen 1988, p. 178).

Over time, this ideology of thinness has become so entrenched in our everyday lives it has become a norm of beauty. Consumers seek to achieve this ideal through the purchase and consumption of diet and fitness products and services. For men, the ideal body reflects instrumental values set by the modern work discipline, the machine, and conspicuous leisure. Thus men feel constrained to join the legion of Sly Stallone wanna-bes. They join the ranks at the Nautilus assembly line, sweat on their own in-home Soloflex, and learn the language of hard bodies (e.g., reps, sets, and programs used to shape biceps, triceps, deltoids, abs, etc.). This example illustrates Goldman's notion of how consumers "enter into and participate in" ideology. Although advertising reinforces and perpetuates this ideology, the base-superstructure framework encourages us to think about the critique in more macro terms.

If the function of superstructural ideology is social control, advertising should reinforce the status quo and therefore existing inequities. For example, there have been numerous criticisms of the portrayal of women in advertising, such as charges that women have been depicted in narrow social and occupational roles, as sex objects, as subservient to men, and as not involved in important work or decisions (c.f., Courtney and Whipple 1983). From the perspective of the base-superstructure metaphor, these portrayals reflect the need for low-cost labor. If women perceive themselves to be inferior, they might agree to a lower wage for equal work. Empirical research has shown that stereotypical female portrayals can lower women's self-confidence and independent judgement (Jennings Walstedt, Geis, and Brown 1980), inhibit women's achievement aspirations (Geis, Brown, Jennings Walstedt, and Porter 1984), reduce women's satisfaction with their physical attractiveness (Richins 1991), and ingrain children with more traditional (versus progressive or insurgent) attitudes toward women's societal roles (Pingree 1978).

Elderly people catch much of the brunt of the negative imagesCthey are often portrayed as senile, stupid, or ornery (just think of ads for Wendy's and Denny's). On those occasions when they are portrayed in a positive manner, it is typically in a manner that is quite unrealistic for a majority of elderly consumers (e.g., portrayals of the elderly engaging in activities such as biking, sailing, and dancing are pervasive, while portrayals of others who may be confined to homes or hospitals are nonexistent). Again, in this situation advertising is reflecting the interests of the dominant relations of production. The elderly have used up their most productive years, thus from the standpoint of a particular political economy, there may be little value placed in this specific group.

In all these examples, advertising reflects a very narrow, and therefore distorted interpretation of reality. In this sense, advertising reinforces certain lifestyles and self-conceptions and thereby acts as an agent of social control. A critique of advertising needs to go beyond an analysis of the values inherent in the text, and investigate the historical connections to the economic base. The base-superstructure metaphor provides a critical framework that makes this possible.


From the beginning, ACR-JCR culture has been tightly linked to the business community (see Murray and Ozanne 1994a for a historical overview of these ties). For example, the Institute of Scientific Information classifies JCR as a "business" journal. Lutz (1989) notes that "this perception is commensurate with historical reality, with the majority of JCR authors, articles, and reviewers associated with the Marketing discipline" (p. viii). Although these connections have been very important for our discipline, they may have discouraged a more critical stance taken toward advertising and marketing strategy in general. Pollay's (1986) overview of how other disciplines have dealt with the topic of advertising increases awareness as to how uncritical we have been. If we are to become more critical, frameworks that help organize and direct research programs are needed. The purpose of this paper was to present and illustrate such a framework: the base-superstructure metaphor.

This metaphor encourages research on the historical connection between the relations and forces of production and advertising ideology. It also draws attention to the relationship between advertising and other institutions making up the superstructure of society. Since advertising can have such a powerful influence on consumers' construction and interpretation of reality, we should not accept the impact of advertising as inevitable. As consumer researchers and educators we can have an important influence on how future generations of marketing executives think about advertising. It is time to turn our critical imaginations toward this important topic.


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