Special Session Summary Consuming Desire and Desirous Consumption: Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Social Construction of Consumer Wants and the Nature of Consumption Symbolism

Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin at Madison
Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University
[ to cite ]:
Craig J. Thompson and Douglas B. Holt (1997) ,"Special Session Summary Consuming Desire and Desirous Consumption: Toward a Deeper Understanding of the Social Construction of Consumer Wants and the Nature of Consumption Symbolism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 22-23.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997     Pages 22-23



Craig J. Thompson, University of Wisconsin at Madison

Douglas B. Holt, Penn State University

The social construction of consumer desire has played a pivotal role in the emergence of the modern consumer economy (Campbell 1987; Falk 1994; Forty 1984; Leach 1993). However, the consumer research literature has scarcely addressed this construct in any systematic way. The three studies presented in this special session sought to bridge this gap by drawing from historical research, cultural analyses, and poststructural theories to analyze the construct of desire. The three presentations respectively addressed cross-cultural differences in consumer desire, the symbolic expression of desire through sexually evocative advertising, and the role of desire in forming and maintaining consumer lifestyles.


An important historical work that provided a conceptual linkage across the three presentations was Campbell’s (1987) The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. While Campbell does address institutional factorsCsuch as mass production and transformations in the socio-economic orderChis analysis of consumer desire has a decided experiential focus. In brief, Campbell contends that consumer culture has emerged from a Romantic orientation that he describes as modern hedonism. Whereas the traditional hedonist sought immediate gratification, Campbell argues that the modern hedonist revels in an imaginative longing for consumption experiences that are not readily attainable. Rather than affording experiences of frustration, however, the delay of gratification heightens desire and provides a context for pleasurable states of reverie. Campbell further argues that these rich consumptive fantasies have the paradxical outcome of "rendering real consumption as a disillusioning experience" (Campbell 1987, p.89). From this perspective, the modern phenomenon of seemingly inexhaustible consumer "wants" is portrayed as a cycle of anticipatory desire and experienced disappointment in which consumers constantly desire yet-to-be possessed products toward which they can direct new dreams and fantasies.

Campbell’s historical analysis of consumer desire offers an intriguing thesis by positing a triadic linkage between consumer fantasy and dreams, the self-generation of desire, and the symbolic manifestations of these desires in coveted material goods. The papers in this session developed this implication by investigating the manifestation of consumer desire across a number of different consumption contexts and by bringing to bear three distinct research perspectives.


Belk, Ger, and Askegaard investigated whether the nature and focus of consumer desires differs across cultures. Projective fantasy measures were used to the tap the deep psychological dimensions of the construct. Using collages, story-telling, sentence completion, and word associations, they found that, while desire is similarly regarded as an intense emotional state in the United States, Turkey, and Denmark, its expression and focus differ across these cultures and by gender. Across cultures, however, the urgency and intense emotional nature of consumer desire were found to be remarkably similar. They contrasted this finding to more typical and prosaic depictions of consumers’ demand for goods and services. By utilizing projective measures, a rich fantasy laden realm of consumption aspirations was revealed that had gone largely undetected in the majority of consumer research. They discussed cultural and gender differences that harbor social and political issues about how and what people want. These issues were outlined and an agenda for further research was described.

Elliott employed a poststructuralist perspective to analyze the relationship between advertising imagery, language, and the construction of consumer desire. Drawing from the work of Lacan (1977), he argued that desire emerges in the void between that which can be expressed in language and the flux of bodily emotions and unconscious impulses. From this perspective, consumption practices may function as a language of desire by symbolically representing unconscious wishes that may be expressed more easily once they have been portrayed. Elliott proposed that this symbolic function is particularly relevant to the psychological effects generated by the sexualization of many consumer goods through advertising. He further suggested that the symbolic function of advertising is particularly important to younger consumers (i.e., adolescents and young adults) who are in the process of negotiating psychological conflicts related to identity and sexuality. To highlight some of these discourses of desire, a number of advertisements targeted at younger consumers were deconstructed using a Lacanian framework. The analysis revealed several standard image formats used to evoke a sexualized reading of the advertisement and to ascribe the advertised product in a nexus of desirous, sexualized meanings.

Holt and Thompson analyzed the relationship between desire, lifestyle, and community. They first discussed a genre of social theory contending that the traditional bonds of community have been eroded by the conditions of modernity and, hence, individuals face increasing difficulty in forging and sustaining a viable sense of collective identity (Bellah et al 1985; Gergen 1991; Morris 1996). Holt and Thompson contended that the very notion of a traditional, socially integrated, and emotionally bound community is a mythical construct. They proposed that this mythic ideal generates consumer desires that can only be realized symbolically and that require consumers to engag in complex interpretive activities to insulate their symbolically constructed lifestyle enclaves from the challenges wrought by everyday experience. Their analysis showed that consumers’ appropriation of this Utopian image of the close-knit traditional community, and its corresponding desires, provided a potent principle of social affiliation and a foundation for the consumption meanings that characterize the "new traditionalist" lifestyle.

Tom O’Guinn served as the session synthesizer. He drew from his own research on symbolic consumption and the effects of mass media on consumer perceptions to synthesize the various perspectives offered on consumer desire and to moderate the ensuing discussion of the presentations.

In sum, a good time was had by all.


Bellah, Robert, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swindler, and Steven Tipton (1985), Habits of the Heart, New York: Harper & Row.

Campbell, Colin (1987) The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Romantic Consumerism, Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Falk, Pasi (1994), The Consuming Body, London: Sage.

Forty, Adrian (1986), Objects of Desire,

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1991), The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lacan, Jacques (1977), Ecrits: A Selection, London; Tavistock.

Leach, William (1993), Land of Desire, New York: Pantheon.

McCracken, Grant (1988), Culture and Consumption, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Morris, Paul (1996), "Community Beyond Tradition," in Detraditionalization, eds. Paul Heelas, Scott Lash, and Paul Morris, London: Blackwell, 223-249.