The Meaning of Life-Style: Sociological and Marketing Perspectives

Paul M. Hirsch, University of Chicago
ABSTRACT - The concepts of image, status and prestige have long fascinated both marketing managers and academic sociologists. Historically, the term "life-style" has referred to a composite package of image, status and prestige elements which, for the sociologist, has signified a whole greater than the sum of its parts (Gusfield, 1963; Krugman, 1968). Viewed in this way, the concept has (appropriately) maintained widespread appeal at a theoretical level, and to the extent that the "whole" has presented difficulties in operationalization, we continue to use and accept it nonetheless for its intuitive appeal and face validity.
[ to cite ]:
Paul M. Hirsch (1976) ,"The Meaning of Life-Style: Sociological and Marketing Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 499-500.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 499-500

THE MEANING OF LIFE-STYLE: SOCIOLOGICAL AND MARKETING PERSPECTIVES

Paul M. Hirsch, University of Chicago

ABSTRACT -

The concepts of image, status and prestige have long fascinated both marketing managers and academic sociologists. Historically, the term "life-style" has referred to a composite package of image, status and prestige elements which, for the sociologist, has signified a whole greater than the sum of its parts (Gusfield, 1963; Krugman, 1968). Viewed in this way, the concept has (appropriately) maintained widespread appeal at a theoretical level, and to the extent that the "whole" has presented difficulties in operationalization, we continue to use and accept it nonetheless for its intuitive appeal and face validity.

The emergence of "life-style" studies in marketing is based primarily on a more empirical strategy of learning about the activities, interests and opinions (AIO) of consumers on a brand-by-brand or product-by-product basis, through structured questionnaires, often distinguishing heavy vs. light (or non-) users. The resultant profiles of "who" is typically the most frequent consumer of a specific brand or product thereby provides much information, though quite often on within-group variance among groups of respondents whom sociologists would likely characterize as sharing essentially similar rather that different life-styles. Whereas a sociologist, for example, might be interested in learning the AIO characteristics of users vs. nonusers of all types of personal care products, he would be less concerned with the real marketing issue of what distinguishes brand-loyal or heavy users of Colgate from Gleem or UltraBrite toothpaste. This difference in outlook, however, while likely to provoke terminological disputes over the definition of life-styles, should not overshadow the present value and potential of AIO items and their utilization in consumer surveys as operational indicators in both marketing and "pure" research contexts.

One project at the University of Michigan Survey Research Center in which we (Robinson and Hirsch, 1975) found such life-style measures of substantial utility involved an effort to "predict" the distribution of marijuana use among teenagers. The SRC "Youth in Transition" Survey followed a national panel of 1620 young men from tenth grade through one year past high school graduation. Results from 1970 found 34 percent reporting marijuana use, with users distributed in such a way that virtually no demographic variables were significantly associated with the use of this product. Neither were grades in school, college attendance, region of residence, etc., although usage by friends was highly associated. Among the AIO items on the lengthy questionnaire were two "counterculture" measures, concerning attitude toward the Vietnam War and taste in popular music. Both were associated with use, but taste preference in popular music proved superior to any other predictor (except usage by friends) in the entire battery: those listing two or more "protest rock" records as favorites were twice as likely to report marijuana use as those listing none or one. Additionally, as shown in the accompanying table, when the young men's attitude toward the war was crosstabulated with musical taste preference, the latter continued to hold up as the best statistical predictor of usage. These AIO-type items were thus useful indicators and important aids for constructing a profile of youthful marijuana users.

TABLE 1

PERCENT USING .MARIJUANA AS A FUNCTION OF MUSIC PREFERENCE AND ATTITUDES TOWARD THE VIETNAM WAR (YEAR = 1970)

Further development of this type of life-style research will proceed as such "single product studies" are combined so that more composite profiles of the culture and life-styles of entire groups in society may be constructed, either by factor analysis directly from survey results (as in the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, 1973) or from a more demo-graphically-grounded starting point (e.g., variations in the beliefs and behavior of different ethnic groups). For both products and attitudes these profiles will also need to be tracked over time. With replication of specific items, we will then find out whether the associations of 1970 or 1975 still hold in 1980 (Wells and Cosmas, 1975). Tracking life-style changes longitudinally and across groups could also provide a continuing source of information about the prospects for classes of products and their markets, and the subjective side of social change as well. This type of research, already under way at several universities and advertising agencies, is likely to prove useful to marketing managers and social scientists and should be carefully monitored by both.

REFERENCES

Joseph Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963).

Herbert Krugman, "Consumer Behavior," in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968).

Newspaper Advertising Bureau, Psychographics: A Study of Personality, Life Style, and Consumption Patterns (New York: Newspaper Advertising Bureau, 1973).

John Robinson and Paul M. Hirsch, "Behavioral Correlates of Consumer Preferences in Popular Recordings: An Empirical Study of Diffusion Through the Mass Media" (mimeo: University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, 1975).

William Wells and Stephen Cosmas, "Life Styles: A Paper Prepared for the Consumer Behavior RANN Program" (mimeo: University of Illinois Survey Research Laboratory).

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