Consumer Esthetics: a Commentary

Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles
[ to cite ]:
Harold H. Kassarjian (1980) ,"Consumer Esthetics: a Commentary", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 127-128.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 127-128


Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles

[Prepared while a visiting professor, Pennsylvania State University.]

Broadening the field of consumer behavior to areas other than consumer goods has been attractive for several years. Political marketing and communication, consumer behavior in the service areas, the medical field and education have been examined from time to time. The papers in this session are testimony to the fact that research in consumer behavior may be having some impact in entertainment, the arts and the marketing of esthetic products.

Belk and Andreasen

Under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Belk and Andreasen examined the development of new markets for the theatre and symphony orchestra in an attempt to broaden audience interest, particularly in regions of low penetration. The authors conclude that by offering better known performers and conductors and by offering a discount for couples the generic market for performances can be broadened without losing present audiences.

In a sense they argue for market segmentation and product differentiation in the performing arts--a different offering for the peasants than for the aristocrats--a chauffeured Pinto as well as a Lincoln Continental.

Semenik and Young

Under a grant from Opera America, this study is basically a descriptive analysis of season ticket subscribers. Using a self-administered questionnaire handed out to Opera audiences the authors had access to data from 2600 subjects. Their basic findings consist of correlation coefficients, significant at the .001 level of confidence, relating opera attendance to other behaviors such as attendance at the ballet, and rock concerts; viewing theatre and symphony concerts on TV; and other such interests and activities.

Of course, correlations that are significantly different from zero at the alpha risk of .001 are not all that rare when the sample size is as large as 2600. And in fact many if not most of their r's ranged from .03 to .19, accounting for perhaps one or two or three percent of the variance in their data. But as consumer researchers we have learned to live with such figures and are able to make interpretations that make some sense.

Sexton and Britney

Using data collected by the National Research Center for the Arts on 30,000 art audience members, Sexton and Britney try to segment the arts market on behavioral criteria. Using factor analysis, clustering algorithms, and other impressive computer software, they conclude that there are four segments in the ballet and opera market to which different marketing mix variables would be effective.

Huber and Holbrook

In contrast to the previous papers which depended on the survey method for their data, Huber and Holbrook conducted a laboratory experiment controlling the variables of interest rather than seeking correlations. It is a refreshing approach as experimental studies are rare indeed in the field of consumer esthetics--a field in which any research is rare.

Again using impressive software, multi-dimensional scaling, estimation models, and sophisticated analyses, the authors conclude that simpler, less complex, musical stimuli are preferred to the more complex. They then tie this into earlier research on complex vs. simple stimuli and present a theory adapted from some of Berlyne's work on hedonic value.

Each of these studies is quite interesting and all are well carried out relative to their individual purposes and goals. Personally I did not expect this level of quality in the research on an emerging field. More typically in a new field early research can be characterized either as attempting to crack boulders with tack hammers or pound tacks with sledgehammers. These authors were attacking boulders and properly used sledgehammers.

Even more significant than the data seemed to be the excitement and the interest level in the topic that the various authors emanated. This level of interest is best summarized by Holbrook in his introductory paper: "There may be a need, however, to emphasize the keen sense of excitement with which the authors and the session participants have approached the uncharted by inviting waters of research on consumer esthetics. For the issues raised in this area seem of genuine importance. The potential rewards to marketers appear enormous..."

And it is enormous, for as Holbrook points out, the esthetics industry is a vast economic enterprise with 25 billion dollars of our annual GNP.

But one might ask, why is it all so important and interesting with a "keen sense of excitement." What new theories, concepts, relationships, or other contributions to knowledge or to practice can we expect to emerge from the study of esthetics?

To place this body of research in perspective, let us see what would happen if these same studies and methodologies had been applied to frozen and canned peas instead of the opera and the symphony.

Whereas esthetics involves 25 billion of our Gross National Product in dollars; canned peas--that is, pea consumption--I estimate to be in excess of several trillion units per year. And I estimate that this is a most significant portion of the Gross National Product in units.

Holbrook would have begun the session with a plea that we need a theory of pea consumption. Belk and Andreasen would inform us that perhaps we should have two kinds of peas in our repertoire--one using famous hybrid peas and well known canners and another cheaper variety with discounts for twin-pack purchasers.

Semenik and Young would have done a massive study on the correlates of pea purchase with the purchase of frozen corn and cauliflower and conclude with excitement that they got some significant correlations between peas and cauliflower. Sexton and Britney would have found some multi-variate vectors and Huber and Holbrook would have concluded that complicated pea shapes are less preferred than simple round ones.

The View of Arts Managers

So why all the excitement and interest in this field? Certainly arts people, producers and performers, are not all that thrilled about having marketing people and consumer researchers interfering into their territory. As Holbrook has pointed out, the view of arts managers is that they are product oriented and not concerned all that much with consumer needs; that their task is to foster and preserve art; and that research on the marketing concept is irrelevant in their value system. Further, since the arts generally cannot be self-sufficient, government and other support is necessary rather than simply the seeking of market shares and box office success.

The view of marketing and the marketing concept is to sell more to more people. Market segmentation, product differentiation, price, and promotion are called upon to aid in the goal of selling more to more customers. In short, it is not all that clear that the goals are similar or that arts managers want our interference. And it is not all that clear that they are all that wrong. In fact, art has from time to time suffered when businessmen and marketing men have interfered. In the motion picture industry, the hey-day of filmmaking was at a time when producers, directors, artists and moguls ran the industry. By the late 1940's the great studios in Hollywood were taken over by banks, conglomerates, and business concerns and most will agree the art form declined. However profits and the industry were saved from the inroads of television.

Similarly the golden age of television was in the 1950's with live shows and quality drama. Then marketing research, audience analysis, Nielsen and the Audiometer, the ARB and Pulse came in. Needs for audience share and advertising dollars substituted quality programming with "Laverne and Shirley," "Happy Days," and now TV's finest art form, "WKRP in Cincinnati."

If arts management is not all that interested in the marketing concept and audience ratings, why do we see the interest Holbrook talks about in his paper. For one thing there is available some grant money. Almost all the authors had at least partial support from foundations. Research costs money, and if money is available it seems to attract, foster, and instigate research.

But more important than money is that esthetics research is important to the field of consumer behavior if not vice versa. Outside of an interest in art and esthetics, per se, more important is the fact that we in management, marketing and consumer research have often been accused of being instruments of big business and of the peddling of unwanted and unneeded goods. Certainly our research is not as prestigious as research in physics, or mathematics, humanities arts, or the double helical structure of the DNA molecule.

And we have learned well from the torment of the 1960's, turning from canned peas to studies in social responsibility, public policy, consumer protection, and consumer discontent. For here the work somehow appeared to be more significant, more prestigious and more relevant. Now that the word "relevant" is no longer quite as relevant in our society; perhaps, as the Robber Barons learned a near century ago, being a patron of the arts cleanses one's soul. Just perhaps research in esthetics offers a method of gaining legitimacy in a field of research that is not yet all that prestigious. And if nothing else research in esthetics, arts, opera, and symphony performances is prestigious in the ratified atmosphere of academia.

To summarize, these papers make it clear that there may well he quality data consumer researchers can offer the arts industry even if it is not always embraced with tender appreciation. In turn we as researchers are offered legitimacy in our research. And that is more than reason enough for consumer research to make whatever contributions it can in this emerging field.