Advertising Death and Identity Through Obituaries in Ghana

Sammy K. Bonsu, York University
[ to cite ]:
Sammy K. Bonsu (2002) ,"Advertising Death and Identity Through Obituaries in Ghana", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 510.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Page 510


Sammy K. Bonsu, York University

In traditional advertising fashion, obituaries serve as means by which people communicate essential aspects of themselves and their dead for purposes of reconstructing identities (Lawuyi 1991; Marks and Piggee 1998). From such a perspective, the dead serve as symbolic products and are used by the bereaved in social exchanges towards consumption objectives. The strong link between consumer selves and behavior (Belk 1991; Sirgy 1982) suggests the need for understanding obituaries and other forms of non-traditional advertisementsCpersonal ads for example (Hirschman 1987)Cthat influence the formation and reconstruction of the self. In spite of this, the significant investment in advertising and related research has tended to overlook these forms of communication and their role in everyday consumer activities.

The primary objective of this study was to explore how obituaries are used to communicate aspirational identities of the dead for purposes of creating new and refined images of the deceased in a manner that has positive implications for the social status of the bereaved (Lawuyi 1991; Long 1987). This objective was achieved through a semiotic reading (Berger 1991; Goldman 1992) of obituaries drawn from a developing society in an effort to extend advertising and consumer research beyond the traditional location in western philosophy. Data for analysis comprised all relevant obituaries that were published in a Ghanaian newspaper over a three-month period. After eliminating repeated obituaries, analysis was based on a total of 73 obits, which comprised 42 females and 31 males. Virtually all the obituaries included pictures of the deceased. To understand the culturally embedded meanings of obituary texts, a text-interpretive approach (McQuarrie and Mick 1999) was use for data analysis. The study identified 5 themes to suggest the various consumption practices around obituaries in Ghana.

The findings of the study suggest that obituaries have advertising-like features that allow them to be used as vehicles for the negotiations of social identities for the deceased and the bereaved. Traditional advertising invites its target audience to assume the social identities that they we might develop if they applied the relevant product (Williamson 1978). In the context of obituaries, this translates into readers imagining how their own obituaries and epitaphs would read, and developing a concept of how they will like to be remembered after death. The observations provide meanings of death and everyday activities life in the local culture, and the nature of acceptable forms of social capital for identity negotiations purposes. For example, we note the use of celebrity endorsers to enhance social status of the deceased and bereaved family. The evidence uncovered in this study show how a deceased person’s identity may be reconstructed through death ritual artifacts such as obituaries. Thus, our findings suggest that contrary to current theories of identity construction (as represented in the philosophy of Heidegger), a person’s identity does not cease to evolve after death.

The findings also suggest that like advertising, obituaries constitute a "form of internal cultural colonialism that mercilessly hunts and appropriates those meaningful elements of our cultural lives that have value" (Goldman 1992; p.8), to exploit the cultural symbolic value of death and related artifacts to communicate perceived and aspired identity status for both the deceased and the bereaved. Like product advertising, positive information in obituaries may lead to positive attitudes towards the people represented in the obituary. With this in mind, bereaved consumers may consciously design obituary content to arouse positive feelings towards the deceased and themselves (Lawuyi 1991; O’Donohoe and Turley 2000). The fluidity of identity, as it is continually refashioned in conformity with dominant symbolic socio-cultural scripts, enhance obituaries’ ability to work in this capacity (Giddens 1991; Thompson 1995).


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