Danger and Excitement: an Example of Paired Opposites in Advertising

Eleonora Curlo, Baruch College
Dawn Lerman, Baruch College
ABSTRACT - Leisure danger is an increasingly common theme in advertising, fostered by the popularity of extreme sports. This paper argues that it draws meaning from the dual opposition between the extremes of rashness and fear. A leisure-danger theme may allow ads to make a contribution to consumers in a specific target market by elaborating on their cultural conflicts. This paper first applies content analysis and then interprets respondents’ written comments about ads to detect and describe the paired opposition that seems to underlie leisure danger in advertising.
[ to cite ]:
Eleonora Curlo and Dawn Lerman (1999) ,"Danger and Excitement: an Example of Paired Opposites in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 300-305.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 300-305


Eleonora Curlo, Baruch College

Dawn Lerman, Baruch College


Leisure danger is an increasingly common theme in advertising, fostered by the popularity of extreme sports. This paper argues that it draws meaning from the dual opposition between the extremes of rashness and fear. A leisure-danger theme may allow ads to make a contribution to consumers in a specific target market by elaborating on their cultural conflicts. This paper first applies content analysis and then interprets respondents’ written comments about ads to detect and describe the paired opposition that seems to underlie leisure danger in advertising.


Leisure activities involving danger, or "leisure danger," enjoy unprecedented popularity (Arnould and Price 1993; Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993). Individual pursuit of danger has been explained as a psychological or biosocial need to attain an optimal level of stress (Zuckerman 1979) and even as a genetic disposition (cf., Koerner 1997). The real or imaginary pursuit of danger inspires sophisticated psychological and cultural expressions (Klausner 1968); participants in expeditions or in risky sports, for example, report experiencing unusually deep and authentic social interactions during these pursuits (Arnould and Price 1993; Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993; Lindkvist and Snow 1986).

Ads for sports gear, perfumes, vehicles, shoes, clothes, alcohol and soft drinks have used the adventure-and-danger theme as part of their appeal (Barboza 1997; Koerner 1997). Most audiences of danger-inspired ads, however, enjoy danger images, rather than danger itself. According to Celsi, Rose and Leigh (1993), practitioners of dangerous sports enact a dramatic script of tension, revelation and release which is a fundamental theme of Western culture. Advertising images, however, typically freeze the script and withhold release by depicting dangerous activities at the point when disaster may strike rather than at the moment of achievement. It seems that an emphasis on danger’s negative potential contributes to its symbolic content, even as it evokes divergent readings by consumers with different social and existential values (Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993; Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

This paper employs a Derridian conception of paired opposites to investigate how ads engage the emotions connected with leisure danger (Derrida ([1968] 1981). Paired opposites are conflicting and competing categories that people use in thinking about certain phenomena. A range of authors in semiotics (Kim 1996), structuralism (Levy 1981; LTvi-Strauss [1964] 1969; Kurtzweil 1980), poststructuralism and deconstructionism (Derrida [1968] 1981; Norris 1987; Stern 1996) have found it useful to analyze thinking and culture in terms of paired opposites. But the role of paired opposites in understanding responses to danger can be traced back to at least Aristotle.

The opposition between fear and rashness is discussed in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics as a fundamental issue of character. In Aristotle, courage is the golden mean and a goal for those of noble character, while the extremes of fear and rashness, or daring, are taken as the norm of proper conduct by the "coward" and the "hothead", respectively (Broadie 1991). The virtue of courage defines the fear-daring opposition as a locus of multiple contrasts (Pears 1980), since fear and daring cannot be reduced to a single dimension, either logically (Pears 1980) or psychologically (Arnold 1960).

As is generally the case for paired oppositions (Derrida ([1968] 1981), the extremes of fear and daring are not culturally neutral. One of them tends to dominate and acquire positive implications, while the other crystallizes into "the other," providing the marginal and negative figure of contrast. As words, 'fear’ and 'daring’ have acquired stable emotional connotations (Arnold 1960; Shaver et al. 1987), but the underlying duality is far from settled. Leisure danger can be described as an uplifting challenge through which individuals prove themselves (Arnould and Price 1993; Klausner 1968) or as a pointless and nihilistic pursuit of thrills (Klausner 1968).

We shall indicate the extremes of this duality with the terms of 'danger’ and 'excitement’, which are less psychologically loaded than 'fear’ and 'daring’. But the duality spans more than a particular pair of words, be it 'risk’ and 'safety’, 'danger’ and 'excitement’, or 'fear’ and 'daring’. The multiplicity of menings that coagulates at each extreme is precisely what makes leisure danger a locus of oppositions (Derrida ([1968] 1981). It is this multiplicity, as deployed in relation to advertising, which is discussed in this paper.


The aim of this analysis is to detect divergent interpretations of an ad. Typically, content analysis is used to summarize and interpret a set of multiple texts. Content analysis has been applied and continues to be used in media and marketing applications (c.f., Spiggle 1986).

Content analysis involves parsing a text’s components according to pre-established, mutually exclusive and exhaustive, interpretive categories (Hughes and Garrett 1990; Kolbe and Burnett 1991). The method performs best with simpler and fewer categories, while semantically complex texts tend to yield weaker results in terms of replicability and reliability (AndrTn 1981). The conflicts and relations underlying paired oppositions may also undermine the process of categorizing responses to an ad. Nevertheless, the coding process can itself become a source of useful empirical evidence about a paired opposition. Coding disagreements may indicate a semantic conflict (instead of methodological problems like inadequate coding instructions or training) by following recognizable patterns.


Each of 273 respondents, in groups of 20 to 40, was exposed to one of three color ads for Nordica ski boots. Respondents were senior and graduate business students, who received credit for participating in the study. The ad was available to respondents as they answered an open-ended question about the ad, as well as a set of ad and brand attitude scales employed in a different study. Respondents were asked to evaluate both ad and brand from a consumer perspective. The usable responses were 254, of which 27 were reserved for training the coders and 227 were included in the final analysis. On average, respondents were 27 years old and over half of them were women. Non-skiers accounted for 61% of the respondents.

The ads were three modified versions of a single ad for specialized ski glasses taken from a skiing magazine. Product category and brand were changed to limit the effects of perceived product strangeness (for non-skiers), and prior ad exposure (for skiers). The three versions were obtained by varying the claim to emphasize challenge, safety, or facility in skiing. The overall layout and the focal picture of a skier on an extreme mountain slope were kept constant across the three versions.



Two coders coded respondents’ written thoughts independently. Coders divided each respondent’s page of comments into separate thoughts, and assigned a three-component code to each thought. Two of these components are relevant for this study: evaluative codes, indicating a thought’s overall valence (positive, negative, or neutral), and semantic codes, indicating the thought’s dominant meaning. The semantic codes spun 20 categories, subsequently collapsed, for simplicity, into 6 groups according to similarity (Holsti 1969), as subjectively judged by the authors. This analysis focuses on two semantic codes: Safety/Danger and Excitement. To make the aggregation transparent to readers, the names of the Safety/Danger category and Excitement category have been formulated in Table 1 (col. 1) to include terms that formed the original codes. The entries in Table 1 indicate the number of thoughts that were assigned to a given code; since most respondents contributed several thoughts, most respondents are represented by more than one entry in Table 1.

We propose that respondents (and coders) read danger images dualistically by "taking sides," i.e., by emphasizing one opposit against the other. For example, fun may be emphasized over the possibility of accidents. A similar effect should be observed in coders. Properly instructed coders encounter relatively few arbitrary disagreements. Semantic ambiguities in a respondent’s reaction to the ad, however, are likely to be adjudicated by coders according to their dominant interpretation (Arnold and Fischer 1994; Berelson 1952; Sepstrup 1981). If the original ambiguity is rooted in duality, coding disagreements are likely to be expressed by fairly simple, binary patterns of codes.

While the aggregation of codes may have altered the original pattern of disagreements, its advantages in terms of expository and analytical efficiency seemed to exceed this disadvantage. Note that the largest disagreement rates in Table 1 occur in three situations: when the category of Other is involved, when the two focal codes, Safety/Danger and Excitement co-occur, or when Brand codes co-occur with Safety/Danger codes. Since the category of Other was defined as residual, its role in disagreements cannot be interpreted. The other two instances of large disagreements both involve Safety/Danger judgments by coder 1. Thus, it is possible that they both stem from the duality being discussed here. We decided, however, to focus only on one pair of co-occurring codes (Safety/Danger and Excitement) and assume that the systematic co-occurrence of Safety/Danger codes with Brand codes is irrelevant. This is a conservative choice that allowed us to avoid over-interpreting brand-related codes.

Divergent readings should reflect multiple associations evoked by the dual opposition, particularly those rooted in cultural and social identity (Holt 1997; Schouten and McAlexander 1995). For example, coders of different genders might (but need not) have different perspectives on danger (Cox 1967). It is possible that interpretive conflict be brought about by other variables as well, such as expertise (Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993). This study relies on two coders who, although both skiers and in their twenties, are of different genders: coder 1 is a female while coder 2 is a male. This choice may have provided favorable conditions for emphasizing conflicts related to the target paired-opposition. The focus of this study, however, is to identify the opposition, rather than examine its gender links.


The raw agreement rate between the two coders was 0.76 for the evaluative codes, and 0.69 for the semantic codes; the high number of categories (Holsti 1969) negatively affected the latter rate. Krippendorff (1980) suggests evaluating the degree to which the observed agreement exceeds chance by calculating an index a. The index is equal to 0 for chance levels of agreements and 1 for perfect agreement. For the semantic codes used in this study, a=0.60, which signals an excellent level of agreement above chance.

For both coders the two most common categories (apart from Other) are those referring to brand quality or information and ad appearance; the least frequent category refers to Expertise and Performance (Table 1). On average, the two categories of Excitement and Safety/Danger each account for slightly more than 10% of coded thoughts. The Other category is uninterpretable here and will not be discussed further.

Funkhouser and Parker (1968) proposed a method for distinguishing between random (RE) and systematic error (SE) in coding, where "error" indicates the occurrence of disagreements in the attribution of codes. Random errors in coding mostly result from vague code definition or application (Kolbe and Burnett 1991). Systematic errors arise when coders are differently biased in favor of particular codes (Funkhouser and Parker 1968). This may happen in response to a dual opposition. If the text hints at two conflicting aspects of a concept, coders’ disagreements should concentrate on those codes that are relevant to the conflict.

One procedure fo distinguishing between RE and SE outlined by Funkhouser and Parker (1968) consists of calculating the Random-Systematic Error (RSE) coefficient, a random variable for which they provide a distribution table (p<.01). The RSE coefficient compares the incidence of large disagreements in few cells with the incidence of small disagreement across numerous cells, weighted by the number of cells (net of agreements). It ranges between 0 and 1, where 1 indicates that disagreement is perfectly systematic.

Here the analysis of systematic errors involves calculating three coefficients, two marginal RSEs, calculated for each coder independently of the other, and a cell RSE, corresponding to disagreements across all individual cells (a sort of table-wide average of systematic disagreements). A high marginal RSE suggests a coder was overusing at least one code relative to the other coder. A high cell RSE indicates a disagreement on specific code pairs. The two marginal RSEs were 0.33 and 0.21 for coder 1 and 2 respectively, and the cell RSE was 0.18, all significant at the .01 level, indicating that disagreements had a systematic component.

Specifically, of the 107 thoughts that coder 1 read as related to Safety/Danger, 19 (18%) were considered as related to Excitement by coder 2 (Table 1). The reverse occurred in less than 2% of the cases. Coders also seemed to disagree about the number of concepts relevant for interpreting danger-related thoughts. Coder 2’s varied judgments, spanning Excitement, Brand Quality or Expertise, collapse in a single judgement for coder 1, Safety/Danger. While women have been found to make more detailed use of interpretive categories than men (Meyers-Levy 1989), the male coder (coder 2) in this study appears to be making finer distinctions than the female coder (coder 1). [We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue.] We conjecture that coder 2 detected respondents’ attempt to explain danger’s appeal, which were unwarranted for coder 1.

Additional evidence can be found in the consistency between semantic and evaluative codes. Coders 1 and 2 are significantly more likely to disagree about whether a thought is positive when leisure danger is involved than for other semantic discrepancies. Of the thoughts that had a Safety/Danger vs. Excitement conflict, 63% were coded as negative or neutral by coder 1 but positive by coder 2. Across all semantic disagreements, 48.5% of the evaluative conflicts had the same pattern.

Finally, we examined whether there is support for an alternative explanation, which posits that one or both coders may have had a systematic but idiosyncratic bias in favor of certain codes, unrelated to respondents’ conflicts about leisure danger and thus irrelevant for our thesis. If this were the case, the distribution of disagreements should have been unaffected by using three different ad versions featuring the skiing themes of challenge, safety and facility. Results do not support this potential objection. Most of the Safety/Danger vs. Excitement disagreements (68%) arose in connection with the ad featuring a theme of challenge. Note that this ad had been seen by only 24% of the respondents. The ad featuring safety, seen by 53% of the respondents, accounted for only 20% of these disagreements. The last ad, featuring a theme of facility, was seen by the remaining 23% of respondents and accounted for 15% of the disagreements. As should be expected, the ad claim affected respondents’ awareness of, and response to, this particular dual opposition, which was reflected in coders’ disagreements.


We isolated relevant portions of respondents’ thoughts to discuss consumer interpretation of leisure danger as an advertising theme and specify the components of the duality. Thoughts are reported verbatim in italics; thoughts that generated disagreements between coders in the use of the Safety/Danger vs. Exctement codes are highlighted with the symbol *. Gender, age and skiing status for the respondents are indicated within parentheses; F and M indicate female and male respectively; S and NS indicate skier and nonskier respectively; the number refers to a respondent’s age. Each of the excerpts reported below is from a different participant.

Leisure danger is often perceived as a stress-seeking activity (Zuckerman 1979), potentially destructive or addictive (Klausner 1968). Many respondents’ statements reflect a suspicion of frivolity, narcissism, or inclination toward a death wish: "() A desire for challenge, death wish, pleasure*" (F-40-S); "People are crazy to do such a risky sport. The guy should be worrying about a helmet more than boots ()" (F-36-NS); "Serious slope almost vertical. Dangerous, treacherous, suicidal" (M-37-S); "James Bond movies, showing skiing, images of accidents, deaths" (M-35-NS). Leisure danger may even be labeled as incomprehensible, deranged: "Quick, speed, danger. This guy belongs in a psycho ward *" (M-22-S); "High performance skiing. () Daredevil skiing. ()*" (F-25-S); "What a crazy idea, hurling down an extremely steep incline on two seats of wood! ()" (F-30-NS).

Some respondents had to struggle with the fact that leisure danger is metaphorically appealing but practically inaccessible to them: "Exciting. Thrilling. () Skiing could be dangerous. Skiing is not a piece of cake. Skiing looks difficult*" (M-39-NS). This inaccessibility makes danger a peculiar advertising symbol, one that differentiates consumers as much as products. Dangerous pursuits represent aristocratic activities which are associated with power and exclusivity (Boydston 1997): "Power, performance, radical, wild*" (M-25-S), "Power and speed. Control. ()*" (M-23-NS); "()Dangerous feat Bskier must be the best ()" (F-49-NS) "() This is for skiers who don’t like to ski family resorts, but ski alone or in pairs with other experts. Skiing isn’t necessarily social, is a real sport. Looks fun" (F-28-S). The dramatic enactment of danger may be related to social roles (Schouten and McAlexander 1995): "Excitement. Adventure. Wild animal, exciting () Nordica C logo very masculine () symbol" (M-36-NS); "() Wild, risky, no-fear people. Sports car owners*" (M-26-S).

On first reading, a sport-equipment advertisement presents the product as a sport accessory: "The skier is in a very scary situation because of the slope of the mountain and the speed in which he is coming down. In order to ski safely in this type of mountain, the proper ski boots are required. Nordica GPX seems to be the proper ski boots that should be used ()" (F-24-NS); "It will make you an expert ()" (M-28-NS); "() If I wear these boots I’ll ski like that ()" (F-24-NS). But, as an illustration of product performance, images of leisure danger are somewhat dubious: "Picture is not realistic. Don’t think of skiing on a mountain this steep. Seems more like a mountain-climbing mountain ()" (F-47-NS); "() It seems to show that the boots can be used for the most difficult circumstances, upper left picture, but how about showing some less difficult terrain for non-professional users ()*" (M-26-NS).

Both advertisers and audiences are aware of the trivial economic reality that ads are selling messages (Pollay and Mittal 1993). But a leisure-danger image is a hyperbole of product performance that openly, even ironically, undermines the ad’s delivery of brand information: "Intense skiing. For experts only. Clever advertisement*" (M-26-S); "The boots are uglier than I expected. They are pushing safety but don’t give any proof. They are being artificial and toying to be cool with the toast reference. I would not wish to ski on that incline" (F-41-S); "() Is that really a mountain side or a trick photography?" (M-22-NS).

Nevertheless, the ad makes danger acessible at an imaginary and metaphorical level. It gives respondents a vicarious feeling of mastering and overcoming danger: "HA! Dangerous! What does it mean? OH!? Really? That’s great! It (the boot) looks nice also. Hey, there is an animal on the tree, why does it show it here? Does it mean if I wear this, I’ll be fast (wild) like this animal? ()" (F-24-NS); "The dramatic nature of the steep slope, rough terrain, and tigress in the bushes appealed to those who desire to be different. It seems to be targeting off-road skiers and those who possess a wild streak. It almost was as if wearing Nordica would put you out in the wild ()*" (F-22-NS).

By transferring the focus of the appeal from product information to leisure danger, an ad presents the product as an abstract symbol of personal qualities, fun, and glamour: "I liked the action picture B it looks like you would need good ski boots to do that ()*" (M-22-NS); "Danger. Excitement. Challenging. Fashionable, trendy, colorful ()" (M-27-S); "() The guy in the photo is having good fun" (M-22-NS). The connection between abstract values and product is recognized as revolving around the urgency of "doing," exemplified in popular culture by a well-known Nike campaign. Respondents recognize this theme as consistent with both advertising (Johnson 1987) and leisure danger, particularly in its egocentric and self-affirming connotations: "Extreme skiing () Nike ads ()*" (M-22-NS); "() Go for it! ()" (M-32-S).

While leisure danger lifts an ad from sales pitch to value statement, it itself is altered by the ad. Through advertising, leisure danger is promoted from being the preserve of insiders and experts to an expression of anybody’s ideal self, encompassing courage and innocence (Klausner 1968): "Beauty of nature. Image of snow-covered mountain seen in the past. Thought of spending some time in a wild life reserve. Trying skiing sometime in the future" (M-23-NS); "The thrill and excitement of skiing, the wilderness, free-spirited*" (F, 24, NS); "Living on the edge. Going to an extreme. Excellence & high performance ()" (M-26-NS); "() For people who are adventurous and energetic. Not afraid to take risks, a person who is willing to do anything" (F-22-NS).

It is this very synergy between the elitism of leisure danger and the materialistic promise of advertising that elicits conflict and propagates the dualism of leisure danger: "Stupid ad aimed at risk-taking immature ski jerks. Fosters a hip extreme sports, MTV frivolity, detracts from safety features. Caters to inexperienced skiers. Seems to condone placing oneself in danger" (M-28-NS); "() The ad looked cheap, meretricious ()" (M-35-NS).

In summary, images of leisure danger evoke narcissism and destructiveness, but also excitement and courage. Since these positive aspects are perceived as inaccessible by some consumers, these images differentiate a potential audience, as much as they differentiate the advertised product. This differentiation easily reflects social roles, but may also appeal to other personal characteristics. These images can also be seen literally, as an illustration of product performance. In this case, though, they appear as hyperbole and tend to elicit skepticism. As a metaphor of personal qualities and extraordinary experiences, instead, these images make leisure danger accessible and, paradoxically, safe. They also constitute a vicarious affirmation of self, particularly through advertising’s implicit materialism and the availability of a product and a brand name as tokens or badges. The augmentation of leisure danger’s exclusive nature with advertising’s promises further encourages dualistic and polarized responses.


Leisure danger invites consumers to actively djudicate meaning and value but is also a creative platform for representing (albeit hyperbolically) brand attributes and performance. The evidence presented here supports both perspectives and suggests that ad interpretation transcends simple inferences about brand attributes.

A leisure-danger ad becomes credible because it communicates a questionable worldview. On one hand, it depicts product use as a manifestation of control, energy, courage, self-affirmation, and excitement. A consumer gives evidence of these traits by liking the advertised product and by identifying with social groups that embody these values. Historically, relevant social roles stemmed from age and gender; frequently, these appeals target young men (Koerner 1997). As social roles, particularly those related to gender, evolve, this type of appeals is being extended to other groups who also affirm a claim on those values, like young women (Schouten and McAlexander 1995).

On the other hand, these ads can be interpreted negatively, as glorifying narcissism, arrogance and self-destruction. The possibility of a negative interpretation allows some consumers and marketers to underscore differences related to lifestyle, social and demographic identity, and life outlook in general.

Since each side of the fear/daring duality can only be understood in relation to the other, leisure danger involves necessary comparisons. As images of leisure danger become more common, their positive values appeal to larger segments of the population. But social groups that identify strongly with such values (such as teenagers) often respond to a 'democratization’ in leisure danger by migrating towards ever more extreme images and activities (Crossen 1997), in pursuit of exclusivity.

In marketing, segmentation relies on identifying differences related to product interest, such as age, attribute preferences or lifestyle. Implementing a segmentation scheme through advertising entails the translation of these differences into communications focused on a target audience’s cultural codes (Mick and Buhl 1992; Sherry 1987). In this study, younger respondents seemed more likely than older ones to take a favorable view of leisure danger. But in general these respondents’ comments do not show any obvious pattern based on age, product-use, or gender. Neither the original sample nor the subset of excerpts included here, however, are representative of a population, and therefore conclusions about socio-demographic characteristics or product-use status are unwarranted. Mapping these readings to actual demographic variables is an exciting area of future research, particularly for its managerial implications.

This study suggests that leisure danger, by expressing a worldview and a conflict, segments a market. Articulating a relevant paired opposition through an ad also "satisfies a need" above and beyond the product information an ad conveys, by contributing concepts and symbols to consumers’ personally meaningful and difficult disputes of values. As exemplified by soft-drink ads targeted at teenagers (Time 1994), the product itself may become a token and a memento for the ad’s articulation of a point of view in a paired opposition.


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