Fictional Subjects in Consumer Research

William D. Wells, University of Minnesota
Kendra L. Gale, University of Minnesota
ABSTRACT - This paper proposes a new source of data for consumer research. The source is network television. The data are the characters, events and artifacts in television programs. To illustrate the pros and cons of this approach, it "replicates" a previous study among real consumers.
[ to cite ]:
William D. Wells and Kendra L. Gale (1995) ,"Fictional Subjects in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 306-310.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 306-310


William D. Wells, University of Minnesota

Kendra L. Gale, University of Minnesota


This paper proposes a new source of data for consumer research. The source is network television. The data are the characters, events and artifacts in television programs. To illustrate the pros and cons of this approach, it "replicates" a previous study among real consumers.


In the very first volume of Advances in Consumer Research a paper on "Consumer Perceptions of Product Warranties" noted that conclusions were "tentative" "due to its small sample size [and] the peculiar characteristics of the sample." (Lehmann and Ostlund 1974, 61-62). In the very first issue of the Journal of Consumer Research an article on "Marital Roles in Decision Processes" noted that conclusions were "limited" due to the "small body of data" (Davis and Rigaux, 1974, 59).

These perils are still with us. Despite warnings from methodologists (Jacoby 1976, Ferber 1977, Sears 1986, Monroe 1992), consumer researchers have continued to base "tentative" "limited" final comprehensive conclusions on MBA students and college sophomores.

This paper proposes a new source of data for consumer research. The source is network television. The new data are the characters, events, and artifacts in television programs. To illustrate the pros and cons of this approach, it "replicates" a recent Journal of Consumer Research (JCR) article.


As research subjects, television characters have much to recommend them. They use high involvement products and low involvement products, and a wide range of services. They appear in naturalistic settings. They do not know that they are being studied. Their behavior is public and permanent. Anyone can reexamine it.

Last but not least, they are economical. Compared with real respondents, they are substantially more accessible.


Of course these assets carry liabilities. Most important, television characters are not real people. We will discuss the implications of that fact later. For the moment we assert thatCin certain ways and for certain purposesCthey are "realer" than MBA students and college sophomores.

Researchers cannot ask them questions. One must infer knowledge, personality, attitudes and motives. This drawback leaves important information permanently in limbo.

Settings are not real either. They are created for effect, and cannot be considered typical. Obviously, fiction is not a perfect surrogate.

The end question is, do the pros outweigh the cons? Can television charactersCand by extension characters in short stories, novels, theatrical productions and motion picturesC tell us anything about the real behavior of real consumers?


To provide a partial answer to that question, we "replicated" a JCR article. The article is "Gift Selection for Easy and Difficult Recipients: A Social Roles Interpretation," by Cele Otnes, Tina M. Lowrey and Young Chan Kim (1993), JCR 20, (September) 229-244. Here (and again later) we emphasize that we are not critiquing that investigation. We are exploring the pros and cons of using television characters as research subjects. We selected the Otnes et al. report because it met the standards of a selective journal, and because gifts appear in many television narratives.

Data Sources

Otnes et al. (1993) recruited informants by placing ads in newspapers "in a midwestern city." The ads explained that the researchers "wished to conduct two in-depth interviews with each informant, accompany them on two Christmas shopping trips, and hold a brief follow-up interview in January" (Otnes et al. 1993, 230). The ads offered a $30 incentive.

After interviews and shopping trips with 15 informants, Otnes et al. transcribed the audio tapes and field notes. This procedure produced "almost 400 pages of text" (230).

Our procedure was of course quite different. In TV Guide, we found gift-content programs scheduled to appear on CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX during the 1993 Christmas season. Our frame included series and prime-time specialsCnot feature films, variety shows, news, or television tabloids.

The final sample included 41 programs. When edited to eliminate non-gift sequences, these programs provided five and one half hours of in-context gift exchanges. In these exchanges, 116 givers gave 200 gifts to 136 recipients.


Using standard ethnographic concepts and methods, Otnes et al. "constructed" the meaning of their 400 pages. When disagreements surfaced, they "negotiated agreement" among individual interpretations (Otnes et al. 1993, 230).

Their analysis produced six "social roles:" the Pleaser, the Provider, the Compensator, the Socializer, the Acknowledger, and the Avoider. Each social role conveyed a role-specific message. Figure 1 (page 5) shows the roles and messages. The original article provides much more detailed information.

Otnes et al. described the gift-selection strategies associated with the roles, and classified recipients as "easy" or "difficult." One key finding was that gift-givers show "chameleon-like behavior:" they "change colors" to fit the gift occasion (Otnes et al. 1993, 231).

Our research questions were:

! Will the six roles in Figure 1 resurface in the TV stories?

! If so, will TV gift-givers use the same selection strategies?

! Will TV gift-givers show "chameleon-like" behavior?

! Can TV gift recipients be classified as "easy" or "difficult"?

Thus, we attempted a "fictional replication."

Our analysis paralleled Otnes et al. in some respects but not in others. Of course we started with entirely different data. Instead of 400 pages of text, we started with five and one-half hours of video tape. Instead of interviews and observations, we started with in-context gift exchanges.

On the first pass through the tape, we coded the gifts, the genders of the givers and the receivers, and the family (or other) relationships among them. We also assigned one of the six roles in Figure 1, and noted ideas for further investigation. In later passes through the tape, we added depth and nuance, and weighed the pros and cons of fictional consumers.



In conducting this analysis, we found our in-context record especially helpful. We did not depend on field notes. We returned again and again to the original. In early passes through the tape, we missed or (even worse) misperceived important implications. In later passes, we made corrections.


In analyzing the gift exchanges, we were at the mercy of actors, script-writers and producers. We could not prescribe agendas, or make sure that topics were completely covered. We could not ask the characters why they did what they did, or stop the interview and probe for motives.

These data problems forced us to abandon one of our research objectives. Because we could not control content or ask direct questions, we could not classify recipients as "easy" or "difficult."

On the other hand, we easily confirmed Otnes et al.'s "chameleon" observation. In the Christmas episode of Frasier, for instance, Frasier was a Pleaser when he bought gifts for his son, an Acknowledger when he exchanged gifts with his co-workers, and an Avoider when he refused to celebrate with his father. In Dave's World, Sheldon was an Acknowledger when he bought gifts for his adult friends, and a Pleaser to his daughter, Carlie. In television stories, as in real life, gift-givers change colors to fit the situation.

The Six Roles

Our main question was, will the six roles in Figure 1 resurface in television fiction? The answer to that question was yes. All six roles were clearly evident. In Dave's World, for instance, Dave and Beth were Pleasers. They spent two episodes searching for a Cannibal Caveman, the only gift their son wanted. In Grace Under Fire, Grace was a Compensator for an Avoider father. In Coach, Hayden was a meta-Acknowledger. He recycled a "Karoke Junior" from Dauber into an impromptu gift for his boss, Howard. All six of Otnes et al.'s gift-giver roles advanced these tales in multiple manifestations.

Expanding the Definition of "Gift"

Our analysis led us to conclude that one common definition of "gift"Ca physical objectCinvites researchers to ignore important gift exchanges. In the stories, many of the most salient gifts were ritual presentations of time, ideas, or achievementsCa touching solo at a church service, a conferral of god motherhood, an announcement of a pregnancy, for instance. In two stories, givers offered themselves as "gifts" to be "unwrapped" by receivers.

Gifts of this sort were so poignantCand so clearly within the ordinary meaning of the word "gift"Cthat no study of gift exchanges should leave home without them. This observation agrees with similar comments by Belk and Coon (1993) and Sherry (1983).

Additional Social Roles

We also found that Otnes et al.'s six roles did not cover all of our "field data." To account for the TV gift exchanges, we needed new roles and additional subdivisions.

In part, this need to tamper with the constructs may have been personal. Roles can be partitioned indefinitely, and where one stops is ultimately one's own decision. But the range of gifts, gift-givers, and gift-giving situations was so great that (we believe) the original investigators would have found more roles if their data had been more heterogeneous. Here we emphasize again that we are not critiquing the Otnes et al. study. We are illustrating some possible advantages of TV stories as data sources.

The TV gift exchanges led us to divide Pleasers into "Agapic Pleasers" and "Utilitarian Pleasers." "Agapic Pleasers" are selfless givers. "Utilitarian Pleasers" have ulterior motives. We believe that this distinction is meaningful and important. Recent research supports this contention (Belk and Coon 1993).

The fictional exchanges encouraged further subdivision. For instance, we divided Agapic Pleasers into Effective and Inept. Effective Agapic Pleasers gave gifts that strengthened relationships. Inept Agapic Pleasers gave gifts that signaled innocent incompetence. One sent a "dribble glass" to a pen pal in a drought-stricken country. Another gave embarrassing "elf pajamas" to pre-adolescent grandchildren. This is not a trivial distinction. In the world of gift exchanges, it is not only the thought that counts. The consequences of being Effective and Inept are very different.

The stories also split Utilitarian Pleasers. The most important segments were: Self-givers, who gave gifts to themselves; Selfish Givers, who gave gifts they could co-enjoy; Apologizers, who tried to compensate for wrongs they had committed; and Bargainers, who intended to create obligations. At least one of those segmentsCSelf-GiversChas been the subject of several recent gift-giving investigations (Mick and DeMoss 1990, Olshavsky and Lee 1993, Faure and Mick 1993).

These observations suggest that TV stories might serve as "20-20 foresight" in research with real consumers. Researchers who use TV stories as test sites can develop more incisive expectations.

Additional Strategies

Otnes et al. linked gift-giving roles with gift-giving strategies. In Otnes et al.'s terminology, a role is an intended message; a strategy is an enactment.

As was the case with roles, we needed new strategies. One of the most interesting new strategies embraced two roles, one in keeping with the season, the other more devious. In Hearts Afire for instance, Mavis gave her daughter a drum set to annoy her ex-husband. In Fresh Prince, Vivian conferred god motherhood on her butler to chastise her petty sisters. These duel strategies add new elements to Otnes' (1994) observations.

Another common and important strategy might be called "exchange in kind." In Phenom, for example, Angela heard that her boyfriend had visited three stores at the mall: Tiffany's, Eddie Bauer and Captain Jack's Novelty. Her conclusion was, "I'm either getting jewelry, a parka, or fake vomit." Her response was to purchase three giftsCan ID. bracelet, a Swiss Army knife, and a pair of Santa boxer shortsCso that her gift would match his in spirit. Other investigators (Belk 1979, Belk and Coon 1993, Wolfinbarger 1990) have also noted the decisive nature of expected balance.

Gender Differences

Because the fictional sample contained both males and females, we could examine gender differences. Like much previous research, the TV data suggest that women manage emotional relationships (Hochschild 1989). When the men in the stories went Christmas-shopping, women orchestrated much of the activity; and when situations were at all subtle, many of the men "just didn't get it." Moreover, almost all the self-givers were men. This observation parallels Fisher and Arnold (1990).

Prediction of Receiver Roles

Unlike Otnes et al.'s sample, the fictional sample included receivers as well as givers. This feature allowed us to predict the social roles that others will find when they focus on the receiver side of the gift exchange equation. We know we will be sorry we did this.

One reason we will be sorry is that the receiver data were thinner than the giver data. Because the TV stories were broadcast (and almost all set) in the few weeks before Christmas, they included more givers and preparations than receivers and consequences. As far as TV is concerned, when Christmas is over, it is over.

However, our data do suggest that receiver roles do not mirror giver roles, as we had at first expected. Instead, the receivers fell into two broad groups: receivers who accepted, and receivers who rejected, the givers' messages. For the most part, receivers who rejected the message rejected the gift. However, some receivers who rejected the message accepted the gift and ignored it, or accepted the gift and employed it for purposes not intended.

In the Christmas episode of Roseanne, for instance, Roseanne and Dan gave Becky money for college. Rejecting their Socializer message, Becky gave the money to her unapproved new husband. In gift exchanges, unaccepting acceptance parallels the distinction between sentiment and substance proposed by Sherry, McGrath and Levy (1992).


The key question, of course, is: "Where do these observations represent, and where do they misrepresent, the real behavior of real consumers? This question applies to fictional data in the same way it applies to experiments, surveys, real-life ethnographic studies and other more traditional sources.

Although we do not have a complete answer to that question we do have some thoughts that may be useful. First and possibly most important, an investigator who uses fictional subjects must remember that the events in the stories are not real events, and the characters in the stories are not real people. If that is a trivial observation, it is an important trivial observation because the events are familiar and the characters are vivid. In many cases the events are so familiar that they seem real, and the characters are so vivid that they seem to be personal acquaintances.

Our present thinking places fictional data on three levels: (1) Props, (2) Characters and Storylines, and (3) Myths. Each level has a different mode of contact with reality.


Props (objects, dress, and environment) are pretty close to everyday experience. This is not to say they are exact duplicates. They're not. They are constructed artifacts, and probably oversample middle and upper class environments.

But props must conform to expectations. Viewers expect that a Christmas party hosted by wealthy Alex Halsey of Sisters will be more lavish in all respects than a Christmas party hosted by blue-collar Roseanne Conner. Something would seem very wrong if that did not happen. In comedy and drama, a sense of verisimilitude is an artistic and economic asset, and producers strive mightily to attain it (Barker 1988, Mayerle 1991).

So at the prop levelCthe level where consumer products are most commonCartistic and economic considerations foster realism. Here, television stories are likely to include literal depictions of real objects (Solomon and Greenberg 1993), and reproduce real-world behavior.

Characters and Storylines

By contrast, characters are often stereotyped, and storylines are often formulaic exaggerations (Cantor 1992, Feuer 1992, Gerbner and Gross 1976, Vande Berg and Streckfuss 1992). There can be no doubt that television misrepresents at this level.

But, taken for what they are, even stereotypes and exaggerations can be informative. In the normal course of events, the interactions, customs and motives that govern everyday life are so implicit, so intricate, so common and so taken for granted that they are almost invisible. When caricatured for comedic or dramatic effect, they become a lot more evident (Hirschman 1988, McCracken 1988).


At the myth level, TV stories are visible idealizations of mainstream practices and values (Jhally and Lewis 1992; Hirschman 1988, 1992; Kottak 1991). Almost all the plots portrayed Christmas as a time for love and sharing, and resolved conflicts in favor of family togetherness. Even characters who were deeply cynical at the onset learned compassionate Christmas lessons by the time the play was over. In one guise or another, many of the sequences revived basic themes of Dickens' (1843) Christmas Carol.

So, at the prop level, TV stories are more or less accurate representations of the real world. At the character and storyline level, they are more or less inaccurate representations of the real world. At the myth level, they translate commonplace gestures and artifacts into idealized manifestations of dominant cultural phenomena.


Our purpose was to explore the assets and liabilities of television stories as sources of consumer data. On the asset side we found that the huge variance among characters and situations, and the permanence and repeatability of the "original behavior," were especially valuable. Using these advantages, we replicated findings from several studies of real gift behavior.

We also found that the normal research definition of "gift" omits important intangibles, and that first-hand ethnographic methods are liable to underestimate the more devious aspects of gift exchanges. These findings suggest that TV stories can provide "20-20 foresight" in many kinds of research situations.

On the liability side we found that inability to control coverage or ask direct questions prevented us from meeting one of our research objectives. We also found that means and variances of personality traits, attitudes and strategies are virtually certain to be unrepresentative. This insidious hazard should not be underestimated.

We assume that further work along these lines will reveal more pros and more cons. However, we believe that the pros are valuable enough, and the cons controllable enough, to recommend fictional "informants." We extend this recommendationCand all of the accompanying cautionsCto cross-cultural and historical consumer research, and to fictional informants from short stories, novels, theatrical productions and motion pictures (Goodwin 1992, Holbrook and Grayson 1986).


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