Practicing Existential Consumption: the Lived Meaning of Sexuality in Advertising

Richard Elliott, Lancaster University UK
Mark Ritson, Lancaster University UK
ABSTRACT - The extent to which mundane consumption choices can be viewed as the exercising of existential freedom is explored through phenomenological interviews with one member of a small social group of young women. The portrayal of overt sexuality in an advertising campaign was adapted into the social practices of the group. This is discussed in relation to consumption-related symbolic creativity operating through the concept of "grounded aesthetics" being used in the creation and maintenance of social identity. Representations of sexuality in advertising may allow women to speak more easily of their desires through the consumption of advertising meaning and its use as a cultural commodity.
[ to cite ]:
Richard Elliott and Mark Ritson (1995) ,"Practicing Existential Consumption: the Lived Meaning of Sexuality in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 740-745.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995       Pages 740-745


Richard Elliott, Lancaster University UK

Mark Ritson, Lancaster University UK


The extent to which mundane consumption choices can be viewed as the exercising of existential freedom is explored through phenomenological interviews with one member of a small social group of young women. The portrayal of overt sexuality in an advertising campaign was adapted into the social practices of the group. This is discussed in relation to consumption-related symbolic creativity operating through the concept of "grounded aesthetics" being used in the creation and maintenance of social identity. Representations of sexuality in advertising may allow women to speak more easily of their desires through the consumption of advertising meaning and its use as a cultural commodity.


More than a decade ago, Lannon & Cooper (1983) proposed a humanistic approach to advertising that instead of asking what advertising does to people, turns the question on its head and asks "what do people do with advertising ?" More recently this perspective has been developed into a meaning-based model of advertising that focuses on the subjective lived experience of advertising (Mick & Buhl, 1992). This model is based on an existential-phenomenological interpretation of meaning as actualized through life themes and life projects (Thompson, Locander & Pollio, 1989). A key element in existential thought is a focus on freedom and choice, as it is only through the exercise of freedom and decision that we become truly human (Sartre, 1956). Even the mundane consumer choices made in the course of everyday life can shape how consumers understand themselves and the lives they lead (Thompson, Locander & Pollio, 1990).

The ability of consumers to resist the influence of advertising and thereby exercise freedom has been minimized by the Marxist analysis of its central role in the maintenance of capitalism which operates through the creation of "ideological hegemony" (Goldman, 1992). Marxists have also portrayed advertising as a "magic system" (Williams, 1962) of magical inducements and satisfactions which validates consumption, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings and thus transforms goods which had rational use-value into irrational symbols. This focus on the power of the symbolic is further developed by Williamson (1978) who argues that advertisements function at an unconscious level at which the consumer is unable to resist latent meaning transfer. More recent post-Marxist analyses have weakened their deterministic stance and recognised that "the meanings and uses of products cannot be entirely controlled" (Williamson, 1986). However, hegemony still exists, but now depends on affective gratifications provided by mass-mediated popular culture where "everyday life in amusement society proceeds within a dialectic of enfeeblement and empowerment" (Langman, 1992).

From a post-structuralist perspective limited freedom is allowed to the individual through consumption choices "for most members of contemporary society individual freedom, if available at all, comes in the form of consumer freedom" through which the individual must take responsibility to invent and consciously create a self-identity (Bauman, 1988). Through the "new existentialism" (Laermans, 1993) consumers can exercise the freedom to create new meanings for goods through their own idiosyncratic performance of everyday life (de Certeau, 1988). This freedom can be used for collective and individual resistance against the imposed meanings of the dominant cultural categories, particularly through the choice of style and the use of "bricolage" tactics (Hebdige, 1979; Fiske, 1989). A sustained argument for the active exercise of freedom through consumption is developed by Willis (1990) who characterizes the consumption choices of the young as the behaviour of "practical existentialists". The young are seen as exercising choice through consumption-related symbolic creativity which operates via the concept of "grounded aesthetics", a process which builds higher-level symbolic meaning structures from the mundane concrete experiences of everyday life. This allows the young a small creative space for making the received social world, to some extent, controllable by them. This process is very similar to the marginal "tactics" (de Certeau, 1984) by which the powerless make sense of consumption, and in relation to advertising would allow some control over the meaning of a text, but not control over the agenda within which the text is constructed (Morley and Silverstone, 1990). This is a limited freedom where we "make our own spaces within the place of the other" (Fiske, 1990) but yet it is potentially liberating in that to escape from dominant meanings is to construct our own subjectivity (Condit, 1989). Advertisements can be seen as cultural products in their own right, and young people consume them independently of the products and have a creative symbolic relationship with them. Although Willis (1990) sees advertising as manipulative to some extent, he emphasises the scope for individual choice and creativity in meaning and identity construction, as individuals use advertising images as personal and social resources. These are invested with specific meanings anchored in everyday life, via the process of grounded aesthetics, which are then used to construct or maintain personal and social identities.

The construction of social identity through "styles of consumption" is referred to in terms of lifestyle membership of "neo-tribes" by Bauman (1990), where one may join the tribe by buying and displaying tribe-specific paraphernalia. The neo-tribe is informal, without authority and only requires acceptance of the obligation to take on the identity-symbols of the tribe. The consumer may thus exercise the freedom to choose social groupings through existential consumption. The exercise of choice through consumption now flows across national boundaries in a global cultural economy through the operation of advertising "mediascapes" which are image-centred strips of reality which offer the consumer a series of elements "out of which scripts can be formed of imagined lives, their own as well as those of others living in other places" (Appadurai, 1990).

If aspects of advertising imagery can be appropriated at will by "practical existentialists" then they may, as Baudrillard (1983) suggested, "live everywhere already in an 'aesthetic' hallucination of reality," in which the real and the simulated are indistinguishable. However, the extent to which in a "mediacratic" age, advertising reflects reality or actually creates it is problematic. Are the "practical existentialists" using advertising or is it really using them? Schudson (1984) suggests that advertising is "capitalist realist art" and that although it does not have a monopoly of the symbolic marketplace, different social groups are differentially vulnerable especially during transitional states of their lives. This form of art idealizes the consumer and portrays as normative, special moments of satisfaction. It "reminds us of beautiful moments in our own lives or it pictures magical moments we would like to experience" (Schudson, 1984). This suggests that young people in particular, who are at a transitional state in their lives, may be subject to excessive influence by "buying-in" to advertising's depiction of a false reality. In contrast, young people may be exercising (limited) freedom in their use of advertising as a cultural commodity for "even as the market makes its profits, it supplies some of the materials for alternative or oppositional symbolic work" (Willis, 1990). This dichotomy between creativity and constraint (Moores, 1993) is, of course, an aspect of the structure/agency debate in social theory which in the media context is represented by the problematic of hegemony, which sets parameters on the freedom to construct meaning (Ang, 1990). Hegemony does not dominate from outside but is a "thick texture" which interlaces resistance and submission, opposition and complicity (Martin-Barbero, 1988) and which therefore poses difficult problems for ethnographic analysis to unpick. Structuration theory (Giddens, 1984) offers a solution to the dualism of structure versus agency, by positing that the "structural properties of social systems are both medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organize". Thus the consumption of advertising can be both an active and creative practice yet is carried out within constraints imposed by material situation and ideological hegemony.


During the fieldwork for a study of consumer responses to advertisements using images of overt sexuality, (Elliott et al., forthcoming) one of the respondents mentioned that she knew of a group of young women who seemed to have incorporated into their lives some of the aspects of the advertising for Haagen-Dazs ice-cream (see Exhibit). This advertising features images of couples apparently using the product as an artifact during sexual activity. This overt use of sexuality in advertising has been termed commercial pornography (Stern, 1991), and been widely condemned in the British journalistic press. This serendipitous opportunity to explore the extent to which a small group of young people had exercised the freedom to create new meanings through their own idiosyncratic uses of consumer goods and to 'live-out' imagery from advertising prompted this research.


The contact with the group was subsequently followed up, one of the group - Jessica - was identified and with great difficulty persuaded to agree to be interviewed. A group of five women university students, aged between 19 and 22 years, had formed a close friendship and shared accommodation in two rented houses in the city over a two-year period. But now the other four were currently in various European countries pursuing language studies and unavailable for interview. Therefore this study uses one respondent as both the subject of phenomenological interviews, and as a "key informant" (Phillips, 1981) on the behaviour of a social group. Although a single respondent study takes the call for increased use of personal interviews in advertising research (e.g. Mick & Buhl, 1992) to the extreme, single informants have proved useful in providing insight into unusual aspects of consumer behaviour (e.g. Pollay, 1987). Three depth interviews were carried out over a period of 4 weeks, following the guide-lines for phenomenological interviewing given by Thompson, Locander & Pollio (1989), where the focus was on obtaining subjective descriptions of lived experience. The interviews were audio-taped, transcribed, and analysed through the interpretive group method (Thompson et al., 1989). Excerpts from the interviews are reported at some length in order to best capture the subjective descriptions of experience.


Jessica described a typical day involving Haagen-Dazs ice-cream which developed into a "package" which was grounded in their quotidian behaviour involving music and conversations about sex:

Well, you normally arranged it the night before when we were going out drinking, and we'd say, come back, get up about 1 or 2 [pm], go straight round to their house, go into town, go to our favourite cafe, sit down put some music on, get some Haagen-Dazs and basically the whole conversation would be around Haagen-Dazs ice-cream, how much we enjoyed it, how much we liked the ice-cream and the ideas around the ice-cream and we'd talk about things other than the ice-cream but we associated it with the ice-cream like sex, and we'd talk about sex and how the music was associated with Haagen-Dazs and it would make a little package that we don't usually talk about.

Initially, all the women were not equally involved in the behaviour but it soon became a shared social practice which enabled them to define themselves as a group by adopting identity-symbols:

Some were more open than others. Some were very uhmmm... just went along and agreed and others initiated it a lot more. They were like the leaders of the Haagen-Dazs kind of thing. Like they'd collect all their pots [ice-cream containers] and they'd expose us to the advertising because they'd find the adverts then they would show us, and it became sort of a trendy thing to be, to have a pot in your room, an empty pot or something which said Haagen-Dazs on it perhaps, and when we found little spoons with Haagen-Dazs on we'd collect them as well.

Individuals differed in the extent to which they were prepared to practice actual sexual activities with the ice-cream and some exercised their freedom to ground the aesthetic of the brand in thinking about sex rather than doing it:

Somebody always initiated it, there was always one person who said "lets go and do it" [consume ice-cream] because she was the one who was really into her Haagen-Dazs and we just sort of went along with it, but got involved and then it became equal again. At the end of all this we were all equal. We were initiated and we said "lets go and out and do this...wouldn't it be nice if we could get some now" and others like... I think we were all on the same level really. 'Cos we were all really good friends and we had things in common we could speak openly anyway with each other so we all decided that this is what Haagen-Dazs is and this is what it means. We're all agreed on this. There's some more prepared to use it than others...with the sexual act than others. Others are more prepared to just think about it than do it.

Jessica described the "package" and its sexual meanings and function in allowing them to talk more easily about sex:

Basically its just the whole sexiness of the whole package. We talk about things that we'd like to do, yes? And how the ice-cream and the music and the talking would make us feel. We'd talk about that. I think on the whole, say, we spent about an hour and a half in there, we wouldn't talk about anything else but the ice-cream, the music and the sex and men, you know and just all...dominated by, and it was the Haagen-Dazs that triggered it off because otherwise we wouldn't do that and if we did talk about sex we'd always say "Oh wouldn't it be good if we had some Haagen-Dazs and got the music and make a little kind of package together again", which made it an event. It allowed us to talk about it [sex]. It triggered it off. It sort of gave us an excuse to talk about it.


Jessica described the development of an association between sex and Haagen-Dazs through advertising, which suggests that there was both a conscious acceptance of the sexual meanings and an exercise of symbolic creativity which developed the product into a sign which was grounded in the concrete social life of the group. This allowed them to share knowledge of sexual activity whilst denying that knowledge to outsiders:

I think it must have was very nice ice-cream, we really enjoyed the ice-cream and the advertising had a lot of sexual connotations in it and I think we basically liked the connotations of the ads and we liked the idea of that and we believed the idea that Haagen-Dazs was sexy because the ads told us it was sexy, so when we had the ice-cream in front of us we felt that the pot was very sexy, a sexy pot.

Basically, sometimes it was because we were bored and we wanted something to do...or if we'd been talking about sex and we'd go down and to just top it off we'd go down and get some Haagen-Dazs, sit in a cafe and continue the conversation, just things like that really. If a girl brought a boy back they would always go out and get some Haagen-Dazs and that would indicate what was going on. We'd all smile as she went into her room. It was like a secret thing. We knew but we didn't want other people to know. If we saw one of our friends going out getting a pot of Haagen-Dazs and bringing a boy back we knew exactly what was going to happen next, we had an idea what was going on but other people didn't. They just thought we were going to get some ice-cream.

The magazine advertising was eagerly consumed as a cultural product, but the group felt that they were in control of the meanings which they viewed as reflecting their lived experience not controlling it. They were in control because the aesthetics derived from the advertising were grounded firmly in their own social world:

Well, someone would come and say "Look what I've got" and then they'd just open up a magazine or they'd rip it out of a magazine and they'd pass it round and go "that's really nice." They'd discuss the ad and what it means and what they're trying to show in the ad and then we would stick it up on the wall along with the pots.

It didn't,... it wasn't separate from my ideas about, it was within our ideas of what we thought of Haagen-Dazs. It was just right to have that type of advertising. We would have said "Yes we want those kind of adverts" if we had to do it so that was our idea of how they should have...the whole thing about Haagen-Dazs, that's how it should have been portrayed and they did it correctly, we were quite pleased with their advertising, so it sort of like switched round. We felt we were the experts not them.

The group reflected a little on their behaviour but seemed unable to separate the influence of the consumption imagery on their representations of men as sex objects:

I think what we did was, we analyzed what we were doing, we never questioned, we never said "this is wrong, or why is this right?" We just thought it was right at the time,... but we analyzed it like. We took things apart. You know we associated certain things with things. The connection between Haagen-Dazs and sex...well it would be a part of sex, be used with sex. It would be added. It would be something, an added extra to sex.

I think we used to see men very much in sexual terms anyway and so it just increased our outlook, you know the way we used to see men. It just made it...cruder perhaps because we did see them as sexual objects a lot of the time and I think this was just a way of...this just came along with it, you know. We didn't think twice about what we were doing, making men into sexual objects. I mean we did stop and think "Oh my God this is really horrible," but we'd just laugh it off.

Jessica reflected on her own involvement in the group behaviour and seems to acknowledge the influence of the advertising, however she maintains that she adopted the meanings consciously and deliberately rather than unconsciously:

Sometimes I thought "what's the big deal about Haagen-Dazs?" and then I thought, well that was too serious for me to think "what am I doing?" Just go along with it. I just thought you know just...not go along with it for the sake of it but go along with it because I was enjoying eating my ice-cream anyway. It wasn't as if I was doing something I was forced to do...but I could stop and think sometimes, how can you know...what's this big thing about Haagen-Dazs....because sometimes it would annoy me when they'd go on and on about it.

Although the group is now dispersed in different countries, the meaning still persists for Jessica who defended her use of the advertising as a conscious and willing exercise of choice which she will continue to practice:

I still have the same beliefs but I just don't practice them as much as I did when they were around.. you know. So that's the only way... its changed in a way because now that I've analysed it, it sounds a bit silly but it only sounds silly because I have got to tell people but inside I still believe the same things and I know its just like consumerism and...their advertising's worked on me and everything but if I enjoy the product I'd still let the advertising work on me.


The young women certainly seem to have been "doing things with advertising" in that they had built on the ambiguous sexual meanings suggested in the advertising and incorporated them into the social practices and sexual activities of their small group. The "magic system" seems to have succeeded in "bringing the good things to life" (Williams, 1980), but not as the unconscious process suggested by Williamson (1978). This is a conscious exercise of freedom by a deliberate choice to accept and adapt the meanings of advertising through practical existentialism and symbolic creativity. They "ransack immediate experience for grounded aesthetics" (Willis, 1990) which use the advertisements and the product as resources with which to construct and maintain their group identity. In doing this they use and display the neo-tribe-specific paraphernalia, and construct social reality from the scripts derived from the "mediascape".

But to what extent is this the conscious exercise of freedom as idealized by existentialism? Certainly there are limits to the freedom contained in consumption choices due to individuals having unequal access to the necessary resources. However, the lived experience described by Jessica conveys a strong sense of Sartre's "engagement" even if not at the level of decisional seriousness discussed by Kierkegaard (Macquarrie, 1972). Marxists may dismiss Jessica's claim to be making conscious choices about consumption as "false consciousness" but this is to deny the meaningfulness of everyday consumer experiences (Thompson, Locander and Pollio, 1990). The freedom of practical existentialism is real, even if it is constrained by inequalities in the economic system and by ideological hegemony. However, the fact that the group used only the advertised brand of ice-cream and did not exercise the freedom to transfer sexual meanings onto ice-cream per se suggests that the influence of ideological hegemony is difficult to escape. Sartre was able to reconcile existential freedom with the determinism of Marxist historical materialism through the recursivity of the progressive-regressive method (Poster, 1979) which allows some freedom to the individual through creativity. The creativity exercised by these young women is not the "semiotic democracy" celebrated by Fiske (1987) in which people freely construct their own meanings from texts, but is constrained to the tactical "poaching" of meaning described by de Certeau (1984). There are limits to the freedom of choice, and indeed it is only these limits which make freedom valuable. But each small act of existential choice, even if practiced through mundane consumption, can help us to play a part in constructing both our subjectivity and our social worlds.


The public language of advertising may be giving meaning to sexuality in a way that may act against the possibility that women "almost never speak of their sexual needs and desires as women" (Irigary, 1991). By articulating representations of sexuality in the mass media these manifestations of consumer culture may be allowing women to speak more easily of their desires through consumption choices. This may not be the "remodelling of existing language so as to give rise to a sexuate culture" that Irigary (1991) calls for, but advertising may be assisting women to achieve an "independence not just of sex, but with sex" (Davidson, 1992). However, the resulting discourse may be distorted with consumerist imagery and may thus impede consideration of the deeper nature of sexuality. Existential consumption provides an opportunity for the exercise of freedom through the consumption of advertising meaning and its use as a cultural commodity, but it may not necessarily lead to desirable social change.


Ang, Ien (1990), "Culture and Communication: Toward an Ethnographic Critique of Media Consumption in the Transnational Media System," European Journal of Communication, 5, 239-260.

Appadurai, Arjun (1990), "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy," Public Culture 2, 2, 1-24.

Baudrillard, Jean (1983), Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e).

Bauman, Zygmunt (1988), Freedom, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1990), Thinking Sociologically, Oxford: Blackwell.

Condit, Celeste (1989), "The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy," Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 6, 103-122.

Davidson, Martin (1992), The Consumerist Manifesto: Advertising in Postmodern Times. London: Routledge.

de Certeau, Michel (1988), The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Elliott, Richard, Abbey Jones, Andrew Benfield and Matt Barlow (forthcoming), "Overt Sexuality in Advertising: A Discourse Analysis of Gender Responses," Journal of Consumer Policy, in press.

Fiske, John (1987), Television Culture. London: Routledge.

Fiske, John (1989), Reading the Popular, London: Routledge.

Fiske, John (1990), "Ethnosemiotics: Some Personal and Theoretical Reflections," Cultural Studies, 4, 1, 85-99.

Giddens, Anthony (1984), The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goldman, Robert (1992), Reading Ads Socially, London: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.

Irigary, Luce (1991), "The Three Genres," in M. Whitford (ed.), The Irigary Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Laermans, Rudi (1993), "Bringing the Consumer Back In," Theory, Culture & Society, 10, 153-161.

Langman, Lauren (1992), "Neon Cages: Shopping for Subjectivity," in Rob Shields (ed.), Lifestyle Shopping: The Subject of Consumption, London: Routledge.

Lannon, Judy and Peter Cooper (1983), "Humanistic Advertising," International Journal of Advertising, 2, 195-213.

Macquarrie, John (1972), Existentialism. Harmondsworth: Pelican Books.

Martin-Barbero, Jesus (1988), "Communication from Culture: The Crisis of the National and the Emergence of the Popular," Media, Culture, & Society, 10 (4), 447-465.

Mick, David Glen and Claus Buhl (1992), "A Meaning-based Model of Advertising," Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 317-338.

Morley, David and Roger Silverstone (1990), "Domestic Communications: Technologies and Meanings," Media, Culture, & Society, 12 (1), 31-35.

Moores, Sean (1993), Interpreting Audiences: The Ethnography of Media Consumption. London: Sage Publications.

Phillips, Lynn(1981), "Assessing Measurement Error in Key Informant Reports: A Methodological Note on Organizational Analysis in Marketing," Journal of Marketing Research, 18, 395-415.

Pollay, Richard (1987), "It's the Thought That Counts: A Case Study in Xmas Excess," Advances in Consumer Research, 14, 140-143.

Poster, Mark (1979), Sartre's Marxism. London: Pluto Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956), Being and Nothingness, New York: Washington Square.

Schudson, Michael (1984), Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society. London: Routledge.

Stern, Barbara (1991), "Two Pornographies: A Feminist View of Sex in Advertising," Advances in Consumer Research, 18, 384-391.

Thompson, Craig, William Locander and Howard Pollio (1989), "Putting Consumer Experience Back into Consumer Research: The Philosophy and Method of Existential-Phenomenology," Journal of Consumer Research, 16, 133-146.

Thompson, Craig (1990), "The Lived Meaning of Free Choice: An Existential-Phenomenological Description of Everyday Consumer Experiences of Contemporary Married Women, Journal of Consumer Research, 17, 346-361.

Williams, Raymond (1980), Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: Verso.

Williamson, Judith (1978), Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

Williamson, Judith (1986), Consuming Passions: The Dynamics of Popular Culture. London: Marion Boyars.

Willis, Paul (1990), Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.