Citation:

Stephen Brown (1995) ,"", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 96-103.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 96-103

PSYCHO SHOPPER: A COMPARATIVE LITERARY ANALYSIS OF THE "DARK SIDE"

Stephen Brown, University of Ulster

ABSTRACT -

In recent years, a number of prominent scholars have advocated the analysis of works of literature and studies of the so-called "dark side" of consumer research (drug addiction, compulsive consumption etc). Surprisingly, however, these two approaches have yet to be combined, even though the canon of contemporary fiction contains numerous depictions of archetypal "dark side" activities. This paper attempts to explore the interface between literary analysis and the "dark side" by examining consumption behaviour in two very different works of popular fiction, Scruples by Judith Krantz and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Ironically, however, the outcome of the exercise only serves to call into question the very research tradition to which it belongs.

INTRODUCTION

In the ten years since the project was first mooted (Jan. 1985), the Consumer Odyssey odyssey has been recounted on numerous occasions. Disillusioned by the sterility of the positivistic, hypothetico-deductive approach to consumer research then prevailing, a group of avant-garde academics abandoned the ivory tower for a 27' recreational vehicle and set off on a three-month voyage of discovery into the heartland of American consumption (see Belk 1991). Although the much-vaunted Consumer Odyssey is in danger of being elevated to mythical status in itself, there is no doubt that the investigation represented a defining moment in post-war marketing scholarship and, more importantly perhaps, that it accelerated a significant shift in the methods and domain of the sub-discipline of consumer research. Methodologically, it served to legitimise a host of "interpretive" research procedures, of which literary analysis is perhaps the most radical (in so far as it represents, or rather symbolises, the antithesis of "scientific" research endeavour). In terms of domain, moreover, the Odyssey helped reinforce researchers' growing interest in broader societal concerns, of which the so-called "dark side" issues (drug addiction, prostitution, compulsive consumption etc) are perhaps the most prominent.

Although the emergence of literary analysis and "dark side" studies are distinctive features of contemporary consumer research, there have been surprisingly few attempts to combine the two. In its desire, therefore, to explore this hitherto neglected research topic, the present paper will, firstly, offer a brief overview of the respective literatures on literary analysis and the "dark side"; secondly, undertake a comparative study of two markedly different works of contemporary fiction, Scruples by Judith Krantz (1978) and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991); and, thirdly, conclude with a summary discussion of some lessons that such studies contain for the sub-discipline of consumer research. This paper, it must be emphasised, does not claim to be the last word on literary analysis or investigations of the "dark side". It simply seeks to reinforce the point made almost a decade ago by the renowned Odyssean, Russell Belk (1986a, p.27), "art can be a useful way of generating knowledge...art has much to contribute to consumer behaviour... [and]...art may be seen to provide an attractive alternative to more traditional 'scientific' means of consumer research".

OVERVIEW: LITERARY ANALYSIS AND THE "DARK SIDE"

As a visit to the local library or book store quickly demonstrates, the world of literature is replete with descriptions of consumer behaviour and consumption activities (see Brown 1995). Although many mainstream consumer researchers remain immune to the suggestion that the specialism has anything to learn from analyses of literary artifacts, a small but distinguished group of scholars begs to differ. Arguing, in effect, that creative authors and artists are endowed with an unrivalled understanding of the human condition (moreso certainly than the "typical" consumer researcher, armed with a battery of blunt survey instruments), they subscribe to the view that systematic analysis of works of literature can provide unique, possibly privileged, insights into the nature and characteristics of consumption behaviour, or, at the very least, generate a number of interesting hypotheses for further research (e.g. Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Belk 1986a; Sherry 1991; Hirschman and Holbrook 1992).

To this end, a number of empirical studies of literary texts have been undertaken. These include Friedman's (1985, 1987) longitudinal analysis of brand-name citation in post-war popular fiction; Belk (1987) and Spiggle's (1986) studies of materialism as manifested in manifold comic books; Goodwin (1992) and Fullerton's (1994) investigations of consumption behaviour and marketing consciousness in detective stories and nineteenth century pulp fiction respectively; Hirschman's (1990a) use of Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities to illustrate her hypotheses on secular immortality and the ideology of affluence; and Holbrook and Hirschman's (1993) recent meditations on Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Goethe's Faust, Joyce's Ulysses and Dickens' A Christmas Carol amongst others. Although these analyses range across the spectrum of elite and popular culture, and utilise a host of quantitative and qualitative methodological procedures, it is important to appreciate that only a fraction of the literary canon has been culled by consumer researchers thus far and that there is ample scope for additional investigation.

Alongside these pathbreaking studies of "marketing in literature", the sub-discipline of consumer research has recently been characterised by its growing concern with what has variously been described as "consumer misbehaviour" or the "dark side" (Holbrook 1986; Hirschman 1991; Sherry et al 1993). This development is attributable to three interrelated issues, which emerged in the mid-eighties and came to a head at the start of the present decade. The first pertained to researchers' reputed preoccupation with the initial process of acquisition, or buying behaviour, rather than the equally important processes of consumption - that is, the uses, meanings and satisfactions derived from individual possessions over a longer period of time, plus their ultimate disposal (Holbrook 1987a, 1987b). A second, and bitterly contested development, involved the contention that consumer research was tainted by its continuing association with practising managers and that until such times as marketing ideology was abandoned for a more neutral intellectual stance, consumer research would never attain academic respectability (Holbrook 1985; Jacoby 1985; Belk 1986b). Third, increased sensitivity to the negative consequences of unbridled consumption (Sheth 1979; Holbrook 1986), coupled with the realisation that marketing and consumer researchers were implicated in this regrettable state of affairs (Pollay 1986), culminated in Elizabeth Hirschman's dramatic call to arms. Drawing upon her interest in Jungian psychoanalysis, and her own near-death experiences, Hirschman (1991, p.4) emphasised how much the consumer research community, "could accomplish if we would turn even a portion of our talents toward understanding and ameliorating the Dark Side of consumer behaviour".

The upshot of these developments, combined with the legitimising impetus provided by the Consumer Odyssey, was that consumer researchers' traditional - and continuing - preoccupation with micro-scale managerial perspectives and everyday, routine, low-involvement, non-problematic buyer behaviour issues has been complemented, and to some extent overshadowed, by macro-scale investigations of homelessness, drug addiction, racial and gender-specific discrimination, teenage pregnancy, child abuse, shoplifting, smoking, compulsive consumption, obsessive collecting and many other instantiations of abnormal, dysfunctional, miscreant, aberrant or in some way socially regressive activity (e.g. d'Astous 1990; Cox et al 1990; Belk et al 1991; Hill 1992; Hirschman 1992a, 1993a; Wright and Shapiro 1992). Although these latter-day developments are strongly reminiscent of the earlier "broadening" debate within marketing, and the associated emergence of social/societal/macro-marketing paradigms (see Kernan 1987), a glance at the contents pages of any recent volume of ACR proceedings reveals that "dark side" and misbehaviour issues are high on the agenda of contemporary consumer research.

Remarkable as the advent of literary analysis and "dark side" studies have proved, these developments are no less remarkable in another sense. Most of the researchers active in literary analysis are also pioneers of the "dark side" - Elizabeth Hirschman, Morris Holbrook and Russell Belk, to name the three most prominent - but they have yet to combine both approaches in a systematic fashion. Granted, Hirschman's (1992b, 1993b) analogous analyses of various motion pictures, Holbrook's (1992a, 1993b) scholarly discourse on the "sorrows of consumption", and Belk's (1985, 1989) acknowledgement of the aversive effects of untrammelled materialism portrayed in comic books are significant indicators of the applicability of literary analysis to the study of consumer misbehaviour. However, in light of the innumerable depictions of "dark side" activities in popular fiction (see for example Hapke 1989; Vice at al 1994), it is reasonable to conclude that interesting insights might emerge from this particular fusion of horizons.

COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS: SCRUPLES AND AMERICAN PSYCHO

At first glance, a comparative analysis of works by Judith Krantz and Bret Easton Ellis may seem like a highly questionable undertaking. The paradoxes of postmodernity aside, a more unlikely literary pairing is hard to imagine. After all, the former is the doyenne of low-brow, formulaic works of raunchy romantic fiction - admittedly best-selling works of raunchy romantic fiction - whereas the latter is "a serious author", one of the brightest rising stars in America's literary firmament. On closer inspection, however, the comparison is less eccentric than it initially appears. Apart from the obvious gender related contrast, which is a very important consideration in literary analysis (Stern 1991; Stern and Holbrook 1994), and the closely associated issue of genre (Krantz working within the traditional "female" field of romance and Ellis within the "masculine" genre of murder and mayhem), both the authors and the individual works exhibit some particularly interesting symmetries. A baby boomer, Krantz was born in New York, lives in Los Angeles, writes in a conventional, realist style and has recently found critical favour as a result of radical feminist attempts to recuperate romantic fiction (which was once regarded as oppressive and is now deemed liberatory). An archetypal representative of the "slacker" generation, by contrast, Ellis was born in Los Angeles, lives in New York, writes in an existential, stream-of-consciousness fashion and has recently fallen into critical disfavour as a result of a radical feminist fatwa (American Psycho was rejected by his publisher, excoriated by reviewers, boycotted, removed from display etc). Indeed, in some respects Scruples and American Psycho are mirror images of each other, in that the former is widely credited with initiating the heavy brand name-dropping that is characteristic of the sex 'n' shopping sub-genre (Cadogan 1994), whereas the latter's frenzy of brand citation has been held responsible for killing it off (Billen 1993). In light of these parallels, the present exercise commences with a plot summary of the two novels, continues with a content analysis of the brand names mentioned therein and then turns to a discussion of certain "dark side" issues they endeavour to describe.

Plot Summaries

The protagonist of Scruples is Wilhelmina Hunnenwell Winthrop Ikehorn Orsini, or Billy for short. Scion of a rich and old-established Boston family, albeit on the impoverished wing, Billy is orphaned at an early age and lives with her father, an underpaid, workaholic biomedical researcher. Overlooked at home, she grows up a morose, grotesquely overweight teenager who fails to get into college and is sent to Paris for a year. This ugly duckling, however, returns to the United States a beautiful and sophisticated swan having lost weight, learnt French, had a doomed affair with an impecunious aristocrat and, most importantly of all, having developed an astute fashion sense. She enrols in secretarial college in New York, joins the firm of Ikehorn Enterprises, has an affair with and then marries its fabulously wealthy septuagenarian founder, Ellis Ikehorn, and after his death inherits his entire fortune.

As an extremely affluent young widow, she indulges herself in an orgy of compulsive consumption, but due to Rodeo Drive's inability to satisfy her needs, she decides to establish her own speciality clothing store, the Scruples of the title. Although it is the last word in retailing luxury, the store is unsuccessful and is only rescued by the appointment of a marketing authority, Spider Elliott, and haute couture specialist, Valentine O'Neill. After the re-launch and triumphant success of the new, improved Scruples, Billy is invited by one of her best customers to the Cannes film festival, where she meets, falls in love with and subsequently marries a movie producer, Vito Orsini. She assists with the making of his next film, Mirrors, which wins the Oscar for best picture despite the studio's attempts at sabotage. The book ends on Oscars' night with Billy pregnant, Vito triumphant and Spider and Valentine in love.

If, as a consequence of its comparatively "conventional" plot structure, the essence of Scruples is relatively easily encapsulated, the same cannot be said for American Psycho. In typically postmodernist fashion, the novel is episodic, the conventions of linear time are disrupted and the narrator is decidedly unreliable. In so far as there is a plot, it revolves around Patrick Bateman, a handsome, sophisticated, charming and intelligent 26 year-old Harvard graduate. Ostensibly a successful Wall Street dealer, his life consists of a constant round of exclusive restaurants, expensive nightclubs, fashionable clothes, chic accessories, having haircuts and manicures, working out, watching videos, listening to rock bands on his Walkman, fending off male and female admirers, withdrawing money from automatic tellers, attempting to catch a glimpse of his hero, Donald Trump, and debating the finer points of sartorial-cum-social etiquette.

In addition, however, Bateman spends much of his time indulging in malicious, misogynic, racist and xenophobic gossip, sleeping with the girlfriends of his colleagues, tormenting the hoards of sick, homeless and destitute beggars on the streets of New York, imbibing copious quantities of cocaine, alcohol, steroids and non-prescription drugs, and, not least, fantasising about, threatening to perform and indulging in unspeakable acts of brutality. He tortures, kills, mutilates and, in most cases, sexually assaults, dismembers and cannibalises at least nine people in the course of the book, possibly as many as thirty. Pursued by the police, he manages to avoid detection but on owning up to his superior about his hideous crimes, his confession is dismissed as a crude practical joke. The book ends in Harry's Bar with Bateman and his fellow dealers watching daytime television, exchanging salacious gossip and debating which restaurant to patronise for their evening meal.

TABLE 1

COMPARATIVE CONTENT ANALYSIS OF SCRUPLES AND AMERICAN PSYCHO

Content Analysis

As a glance at almost any page of either book perfectly illustrates, by far the most striking aspect of Scruples and American Psycho is their extensive deployment of extant brand names. Both novels are replete with references to national brands, designer labels and famous celebrities from Coca Cola and Kleenex to Calvin Klein and Clint Eastwood. True, the injection of verisimilitude into works of popular fiction, whether it be through the use of "real" places, people or events, is a long-established literary device, which was a commonplace by the late nineteenth century (de Botton 1994). Nevertheless, it is a very distinctive feature of these particular works of fiction and in an attempt to further explore this brand name-dropping - what Friedman (1987) terms "word-of-author-advertising" - a comprehensive content analysis of both books was undertaken by the author.

The results of the investigation reveal that Scruples and American Psycho refer to a staggering 3402 brand names between them, an average of approximately 3.5 per page of text. This figure, admittedly, reflects the fact that both authors mention certain brands with considerable frequency but, even when inter-novel overlaps are taken into account, it is still the case that the books cite no less than 1393 different brand names on 3402 occasions, an average of 2.44 mentions per brand. These figures, furthermore, derive from an extremely broad interpretation of the term "brand", which is taken to include famous personalities, works of art, professional associations, educational institutions and almost every "real" referent the authors employ to engender the novels' striking air of veracity. Indeed, the content analysis demonstrates that in addition to celebrities and works of art (both popular and elite), both books are dominated by references to upmarket retail stores, designer label apparel and exclusive leisure services - restaurants, hotels, nightclubs etc (Table 1). All told, 62.6% of the total brand name mentions, and 63.9% of the different brand name citations, belong to these five particular categories of merchandise.

More interesting perhaps than combined totals, the two novels exhibit marked differences in their individual brand name citation strategies. The most obvious contrast is discernible in the sheer number of allusions. Although, as noted earlier, Scruples is often considered to be the book that started the latter-day propensity for heavy brand name-dropping, its overall incidence of named brands pales by comparison with American Psycho. The latter novel is not only much shorter than the former - by about 33% - but both the total number of named brands and the frequency with which each is referred to, is almost double that of Judith Krantz's best-seller. Both books, moreover, may be dominated by the designer label trappings of hyper-affluent lifestyles, rather than the quotidian categories of merchandise (gasoline, building materials, fast food, soft drinks etc) found in Friedman's (1985, 1987) analogous analysis of brand names in post-war American fiction, yet a number of differences in emphasis can be identified. As the list of top ten cited brand names illustrates (Table 2), Scruples places much greater emphasis on celebrities, retail stores, magazines and newspapers, and (educational) institutions, whereas American Psycho exhibits a comparative preponderance of menswear, household goods, food, drink and tobacco, and speciality merchandise. Many of these differences are attributable to the novels' plot development and contrasting settings (Los Angeles fashion retailing versus New York financial services), though they also appear to reflect "traditional" gender related preoccupations - department stores, male film stars and glossy lifestyle magazines in the case of Scruples, as opposed to the hi-fi equipment, rock bands and alcoholic beverages in American Psycho.

TABLE 2

TEN MOST FREQUENTLY MENTIONED BRANDS

In addition to the books' contrasting brand citation strategies, it is possible to compare the findings of the content analysis with Friedman's above mentioned longitudinal study of brand names in popular fiction. Direct comparisons, admittedly, are difficult due to the particular methodological procedures employed in the earlier investigation and his relatively restricted definition of what constitutes a "brand". Nevertheless, when the appropriate adjustments are made, content analysis reveals that the number of specified brands in both Scruples and American Psycho comfortably exceeds the vast majority of volumes in the previous exercise. Using Friedman's classification system, Scruples mentions 282 different brand names and 582 in total, which works out at 16.3 per 10,000 words of text and 33.6 per 10,000 words, respectively. This incidence of brand name citation is greater than most - but not all - of the individual books in Friedman's sample. Contrary to popular belief, therefore, it appears that while the amount of brand name-dropping in the first sex 'n' shopping novel is high, it is not of a completely different order of magnitude to the popular fiction mainstream. The same, however, cannot be said about American Psycho. Boasting overall averages of 52.8 different brand names per 10,000 words of text and 142.9 total brands per 10,000 words, the citation ratios of Ellis's opus are more than three times greater than anything that appeared in the earlier investigation. On the surface, these figures lend weight to Friedman's hypothesis of an exponentially increasing incidence of brand name-dropping in best selling works of fiction, but it is important to recognise that American Psycho was a watershed work. Since its publication, "word of author advertising" has significantly declined (see Billen 1993).

Exploring the "Dark Side"

The extensive deployment of brand names in Scruples and American Psycho is not simply a devious authorial device to inculcate an air of "reality", thereby inducing readers to suspend their disbelief, temporarily at least. Important though the introduction of verisimilitude undoubtedly is, the books' brand name-dropping is also relevant to their respective storylines, in so far as a great deal of the action revolves around consumption related behaviours. As the foregoing plot summaries suggest, both novels are replete with depictions of hyper-affluent lifestyles, whether it be dressing in the most elegant outfits, dining in the most exclusive restaurants, driving in the most expensive automobiles, disporting the most extravagant displays of jewellery and accessories, staying in the very best suites of the very best hotels or acquiring an array of luxurious items ranging from designer apparel to works of art. The novels, in short, reek of prosperity, profligacy, pampered self-indulgence and, indeed, aspiration. Both Scruples and American Psycho contain detailed descriptions of complete outfits, interior designs, social mores and fashion advice for, presumably, the super-rich aspirants among the readership. It is no exaggeration to state that the books under examination, Scruples in particular, are extended, occasionally ecstatic encomia to the hedonistic joys of irresponsible, irrepressible, untrammelled consumption behaviour.

That said, the two works of fiction offer numerous representations of what many consumer researchers consider to be characteristic "dark side" activities. In Scruples, these include over-eating, workaholism, sexual promiscuity, the obsessive pursuit of physical perfection and, most importantly of all, compulsive consumption. During the incapacitation and after the death of her husband, Ellis Ikehorn, Billy indulges in a prolonged shopping spree, which the author memorably describes as follows:

"There was something which almost relieved her constant tension in prowling daily through the boutiques and department stores of Beverly Hills, buying, always buying - what did it matter if she needed the clothes or not...Billy knew perfectly well, as she walked into the General Store or Dorso's or Saks, that she was falling into the classic occupation of rich idle women: buying supremely unnecessary clothes to feed, but never fill, the emptiness within. It's that or get fat again, she told herself, as she walked up Rodeo or down Camden, feeling a sexual buzz as she searched the windows for new merchandise. The thrill was in the trying on, in the buying. The moment after she had acquired something new it became meaningless to her; therefore, each time she went out looking for something to purchase it was the same need that drove her." (Krantz 1978, pp. 205-6).

In recent years, an extensive academic literature has accumulated on the topic of compulsive or addictive shopping, and articles on "shopaholics" are a commonplace in newspapers and magazines (e.g. Valence et al 1988; O'Guinn and Faber 1989; d'Astous 1990). As Elliott (1994) points out, these papers present a consistent picture of consumers who buy for motives not directly related to the possession of goods, who persistently repeat the behaviour despite its adverse consequences, and who feel compelled to continue for a combination of reasons including low self-esteem, high levels of personal anxiety and, not least, the emotional succour or "mood repair" that these shopping bouts engender (notwithstanding post-purchase feelings of remorse). A close reading of the above passage reveals that, despite the literary establishment's disdain for her low-brow endeavours, Judith Krantz perfectly captures and synthesises many key aspects of compulsive consumption identified by consumer researchers employing "scientific" research procedures. Her representation of the experience is not only accurate, so to speak, and much more succinct than most, but it considerably predates the bulk of the published research in this rapidly growing field.

More significantly perhaps from a consumer research perspective, the foregoing extract draws a direct relationship between shopping behaviour and sexual gratification ("feeling a sexual buzz as she searched the windows for new merchandise"). This relationship, admittedly, has been alluded to by a number of prominent thinkers such as Marx, Freud, Baudrillard and Lyotard (Sherry et al 1993), but with the exception of Hirschman and Holbrook's (1982) brief mention of the connection and Gould's (1991) analogous analyses of "consumer lovemaps", the hypothesis has attracted very little attention from marketing and consumer researchers hitherto. Granted, it is likely to be difficult to test by traditional research procedures, but, given, however, the frequency with which the "sex and shopping" connection is explicitly made in Scruples (e.g. "buying clothes should be as satisfying as a good fuck", "her sex life existed only in the moment of purchase", "you had to be hot for them [purchases], dizzy with a desire that can't be forced, any more than a faked orgasm can be enjoyed"), detailed empirical research may well prove instructive.

According to Holbrook's (1986, 1987a) classification of "consumer misbehaviour", which he defines as actual or supposed violations of societal value norms or ethical codes, its principal forms comprise irregularity (transexuality or psychotic hallucinations), irrationality (superstitious dressing or compulsive gambling), illegality (taking drugs or highway speeding) and immorality (adultery or polluting the environment). Since all of these categories of activity, or very close equivalents, are discussed at length in American Psycho, the novel must rank as a quintessential representation of misbehaviour. In actual fact, however, Holbrook's inventory of aberrant activities is comparatively innocuous compared to some of the depraved, barbaric, unspeakably vile, utterly loathsome - and almost unreadable - actions depicted in Ellis's gruesome (albeit extremely funny) book. Of these, baiting street bums, watching pornographic videos, incessant masturbation, poisoning or electrocuting household pets, the rape and physical abuse of prostitutes, and pretending to be a doctor in order to get a better view of a dying child are among the least repugnant.

In addition to its catalogue of horrors, American Psycho deals with an issue that is central to consumer researchers' latter-day concern with "the dark side" - drug addiction. Thanks to the endeavours of several prominent scholars, Elizabeth Hirschman (1990b, 1991, 1992a, 1992c) in particular, the nature, characteristics and consequences of substance abuse have been brought to the attention of mainstream academics. Powerful, vivid and no doubt cathartic though these contributions have proved, it is arguable that the drug-propelled activities described in American Psycho are much more representative of "what it feels like to be an addict" than anything published in the academic literature thus far. The book contains 22 separate descriptions of drug taking behaviour - which range across the entire spectrum of chemical substances from lithium through Valium to Ecstasy - and makes 20 other allusions to various forms of narcotics ingestion. It is consistent with the evidence concerning cross addiction (alcohol, painkillers, physical exercise, horror videos and general grooming rituals in Bateman's case) and heredity (he comes from a family with a history of drug abuse and indeed psychosis). More to the point perhaps, American Psycho offers a compelling account of the existential and emotional states induced by chemical dependency - paranoia, panic, rage, schizophrenia, forgetfulness and the overall feeling of compulsion, of being completely out of control (see Hirschman 1992a).

To cite but a few instances of these tendencies: an acute air of paranoia is very powerfully evoked by Bateman's belief that his repeated borrowing of Body Double, a notorious "splatter" movie, may have aroused the suspicions of the assistant at the video store. He suffers a panic attack in Bergdorf Goodman when faced with such an array of merchandise that he is unable to make a choice, and flies into irrational rages on encountering restaurants that serve unsophisticated fare ("Broiled, what's that?"). A remarkable sense of schizophrenia is achieved by the periodic abandonment, usually during scenes of murder and mutilation, of the first person narrative for introspective third person references to "Bateman". Forgetfulness, furthermore, is a recurring theme throughout the book (the characters are indistinguishable and, as the protagonist's ability to avoid capture illustrates, constantly misrecognised), as is the almost overpowering sense of uncontrollable compulsion (at one point Bateman grabs four phials of crack from a dealer and consumes them on the spot, and comments like "I'm losing it" or "my life is a complete mess" are scattered throughout the book).

Indeed, it is not unreasonable to contend that the novel's entire narrative comprises nothing less than a drug-fuelled hallucination. Apart from its fragmented structure, hard-edged, turbo-charged dynamic, and vignettes of extraordinary vividness, most of the murderous activities it contains defy conventional logic - in so far as they simply could not have occurred without detection - and hence they must be hallucinatory fantasies. New York may be an impersonal, hard-bitten place and its police force may find it difficult to maintain control, but it is inconceivable that taking blood-drenched clothing to a dry cleaners, entering a restaurant covered in gore and bodily fluids, riding in a cab with a dead body for company, running amok with automatic weapons in the downtown financial district or indeed the sheer stench of decaying flesh in Bateman's luxury apartment, would not have aroused a degree of official suspicion. This air of insanity is made manifest in many small ways (a park bench "follows" Bateman, automatic tellers send him messages etc), but it is most clearly apparent in the breakfast television programme watched by the protagonist on a daily basis. At the start of the book the guests on The Patty Winters Show comprise the usual mix of film stars and celebrities, but as the narrative descends ever further into drug-addled dementia, they become increasingly outlandish, culminating in Bigfoot ("to my delight I found him surprisingly articulate and charming"). Regardless, therefore, of the understandable shock, dismay and protest it aroused on publication, and its undeniably grotesque subject matter, American Psycho remains a compelling introspective account of (largely) cocaine induced psychosis.

DISCUSSION

The first chapter of American Psycho, appropriately titled "April Fools", contains a lengthy state-of-the-nation speech by Patrick Bateman which virtually comprises an agenda for contemporary consumer research - AIDS, abortion, the elderly, natural resource conservation, homelessness, racial discrimination, female rights etc. As its internal contradictions imply, however, Bateman's address is ironical in intent and, as such, contains an important message for consumer researchers. There is no doubt that since Hirchman's (1991) dramatic call to arms, the sub-discipline has devoted a great deal of time and effort to analyses of the "dark side" and that many noteworthy advances have been made. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to recognise that, as a group, academic consumer researchers can only make a minute contribution, if that, to the resolution of these profound and intractable problems. This is not to suggest that such endeavours are worthless - on the contrary, they represent a welcome antidote to narrow managerial concerns - it merely suggests that a more realistic attitude be adopted. If the tenor of recent issues of ACR is any indication, a "become a consumer researcher and save the world" mentality is all too prevalent. Disciplinary megalomania of this kind serves no useful purpose, as many marketers, having recently come to terms with the limits of the marketing concept, would doubtless willingly testify (Brown 1995).

Apart from its timely reminder that a little modesty would not go amiss, the study of Scruples and American Psycho provides two other important messages for consumer research. The first of these concerns the utility of literary analysis. Although many mainstream scholars may continue to disagree, there is no doubt that the world of literature can provide meaningful insights into the nature of contemporary consumption behaviour and act as a source of potentially testable hypotheses. Scruples, as noted earlier, intimates the eminently researchable proposition that "where there is shopping, sex will soon follow". American Psycho, moreover, raises many tempting research possibilities including consumer panic in the face of overwhelming choice, the tactile attractions of handling fresh banknotes and the effects on consumers of mislaying or losing recently acquired merchandise. As Young and Caveney (1992, p. viii), echoing numerous philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Rorty, have recently pointed out, "ironically, fiction is now the closest we're likely to come to truth and as such it should be loved and cherished".

The second message emanating from the present analysis concerns the domain and methods of consumer research. A decade after the catalytic Consumer Odyssey, the broadened domain advocated by Holbrook, Belk and others is now a widely accepted fact, as, thanks to the "interpretive turn", is the sheer diversity of legitimate research techniques (Hirschman 1989; Sherry 1991). The content of American Psycho, however, poses an important question about the domain of the sub-discipline. Bateman's acquisition, usage and disposal of his murder victims undoubtedly meet Holbrook's broadened definition of "consumption" behaviour, but the question has to be asked: are torture, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, serial killing and acts of sexual degradation really appropriate topics for consumer research? Should these issues not be left in the capable and better equipped hands of others, such as criminologists? Are there no limits to consumer research? Likewise, it is not unreasonable to challenge the continuing promulgation of interpretive research procedures. If, as has been argued, creative authors and artists can provide superior insights into and phenomenological accounts of compulsive consumption, drug addiction and so on than even the most articulate of interpretive consumer researchers, would the latter not be better off abandoning their infatuation with qualitative techniques and sticking instead to their quantitative lasts? It is, admittedly, profoundly paradoxical when the employment of interpretive procedures, like literary analysis, serves to highlight the limitations of the latter-day interpretive turn, but it is arguable that a little reflexivity would be just as welcome in consumer research as the much-needed dose of humility.

CONCLUSION

Ten years on from the first stirrings of the pathbreaking Odyssey project, the sub-discipline of consumer research has made remarkable strides. Its devotees have a diverse array of interpretive (and non-interpretive) research techniques at their disposal and, thanks to a broadened definition of what constitutes consumption behaviour, are contributing to the alleviation of numerous serious societal issues, the so-called "dark side" of consumer research. This paper has attempted to add to this tradition by combining "dark side" concerns with literary analysis, a prominent interpretive research procedure. It examined the nature of consumer misbehaviour in two novels renowned for their preoccupation with conspicuous consumption, Scruples by Judith Krantz and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, arguing that such works of literature can provide meaningful insights into the nature of compulsive consumption and drug addiction. Indeed, it is arguable that the two novels under investigation are metaphors for the development of the sub-discipline of consumer research. Published in 1978, Scruples is dominated by discussions of buying, of acquisition, of the pleasures of consumption, with only a hint of the negative consequences of such unbridled hedonism. A product of the early 1990s, on the other hand, American Psycho is totally dominated by dark side activities - death, drugs, dereliction, despair - with the merest leavening of the lighter side of life. The parallels with consumer research could not be clearer, though in light of the hostile reaction to the latter novel and the damage it did to the reputation of the author, perhaps it contains yet another message for consumer research...

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Authors

Stephen Brown, University of Ulster



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995



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