Product Images in Television Comedies and Dramas


William D. Wells and Kendra L. Gale (1995) ,"Product Images in Television Comedies and Dramas", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 144-148.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 144-148


William D. Wells, University of Minnesota

Kendra L. Gale, University of Minnesota

Scholars have always known that homes, clothes, foods, beverages, travel, leisure-time activities, and many other every-day products and services project "images" of their users, and that consumers uses those images to express themselves and understand each other. (Barthes 1990, Bourdieu 1984, Gardner and Levy 1955, Goffman 1959, Hirschman and Holbrook 1981, McCracken 1986, Solomon 1983).

One way to study those images is to ask consumers about them. Belk (1988), Holbrook and Hirschman (1993), Levy (1985) Mick (1986), Rook (1985), Sherry and McGrath (1989), and Shrum and O'Guinn (1993) are just a few of the investigators who have asked consumers to describe the meanings of consumption.

Another way to study product images is through the lens of fiction. Sherlock Holmes smoked a pipe (not cigars or cigarettes), Colombo wore a rumbled trench coat (not a Brooks Brothers suit), and Jessica Fletcher (of Murder, She Wrote) favored sophisticated restaurants, not neighborhood diners. In all those cases, ordinary productsC"cultural artifacts"C added realism, delineated role and status, and encoded personality and character.

The present study focuses on one particular ordinary productCcoffee, and one particular genreCUS prime-time television. Our purpose was to study coffee's meanings through the lens of evening fiction.

Our data came from videotapes of the nine most popular network comedy and drama series of the 1993-1994 TV season. (Our original intention was to include the ten most popular series. This intention was subverted when the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth ranked series exchanged places in the Nielsen ratings.)

The nine series were: Cheers; Coach; Full House; Home Improvement; Love and War; Northern Exposure; Murder, She Wrote; Murphy Brown; and Roseanne. In 1993-1994, first-run episodes of those programs totaled about 230 hours.

From the 230 hours of videotape, we extracted scenes where coffee appeared or was mentioned, along with enough context to clarify the meaning. This editing reduced the tape to 195 segments that, collectively, ran about five and one half hours.

Our approach to this material was to ask, "why coffee?" Why were the characters drinking coffee instead of water, tea or milk? Why were they drinking anything at all? In answering these questions, we relied on repeated viewing, judgment and discussion, and on insights drawn from the same material by Michael Griffin (1995), Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1995), Linda Scott (1995) and John F. Sherry, Jr. (1995).

Our examination led us to infer two kinds of causes. First, coffee has objective features: It is hot. It is bitter. It is ubiquitous. It has a quality dimension. It (usually) contains caffeine. These features underlie its varied uses.

Second, coffee has symbolic meanings (Holbrook and Grayson 1986). In the TV stories, coffee connotes adulthood. It bridges genders and social classes. It's both sociable and non-committal. It marks extended-family membership. These meanings help explain its use, and add realistic details to the characters.

We also saw that coffee communicates. It forwards comment on assorted topics. It annotates environments. It diverts, divides and focuses attention. It punctuates conversations.

So our answer to "why coffee?" has three sections: (1) Objective Features, (2) Symbolic Meanings, and (3) Coffee as a Communication Medium. The sections interact, of course; they are not independent.



Coffee is usually served hot. In the television stories, characters sought hot coffee when they came in from the cold, and consumed it during chilly outdoor conversations. Thus, coffee's temperature dictated some important use occasions. When coffee was hot, people sipped it. That action will be revisited later in this paper.


Undiluted coffee is bitter. This quality complements sweetsCdoughnuts, pie and coffee-cakeCnot pickles or pizza. In the TV stories, these bitter-sweet gestalts defined important use occasions. In Murphy Brown and Coach, for instance, coffee and doughnuts initiated office interactions. In Full House and Home Improvement, coffee and coffee-cake predicted guests. In Northern Exposure and Murder, She Wrote, coffee and dessert marked formal ends of formal dinners.

Bitterness makes coffee strong, not weak like tea. This contrast built coffee into some all-male celebrations. In one episode of Coach, for instance, Hayden's twenty-something daughter had prepared a menu for the annual Football banquet. She proposed "salmon mousse to complement the Chicken Dijon" and "squash puree to add a little color and texture." Hayden said, "Your mousses and your squashes are very nice, honey, but athletes don't eat anything with texture." He deleted mousse, chicken and squash and added steak and potatoes. She said, "Steak, how trendy! Well at least you left coffee and tea." He said, "tea?" deleted tea and added beer. Coffee and beer marked this and similar occasions.


In the TV stories, coffee appeared in private clubs, trendy restaurants, roadside diners, and a shelter for the homeless. It was a fixture in offices and family kitchens. It stimulated and moderated parties. It sustained outdoor work and recreation. No other drink (including water) infused such diverse interactions.

Ubiquity made coffee seem safe, not dangerously addictive, and supported its role as a communication medium. These assets will be revisited later in this paper.


Coffee has a quality dimension. In the TV stories, the low end was "sludge" or "dishwater." The high end was "a great cup of coffee." "Sludge" was a relatively safe insult. "A great cup of coffee" was a special invitation.

Espresso and cappuccino were one step above the top of this dimension. In an episode of Love and War, for instance, Wally had imported an espresso machine to upgrade the Blue Shamrock's image. Predictably, the bartender (and former owner) derogated this pretentious acquisition.

In Murder, She Wrote, a small-town sheriff had prepared cappuccino for detective Jessica, the major character. Referring to his cappuccino machine, he said, "You taste the sludge they serve down at the diner, you'll know why I got this monster." Jessica sipped and said, "Oh, that is delicious." To conclude the conversation, they clicked mugs in a "toast" gesture. Like Wally's espresso machine, the sheriff's cappuccino machine said "more than just folks." That inference was substantiated when the sheriff helped Jessica solve the murder.

In the TV stories, instant coffee fell toward the low end of the quality dimension. Although not quite "sludge" or "dishwater," it was never "great." At one point, Roseanne asked, "Where's that instant crap I save for company?" When she located the instant she saw that (even worse) it was decaf: "My God, it's decaf! Who let that into the house?"

In the TV stories, flavored instant coffee had an advertising-based exotic image. In Northern Exposure, EdCwho was not a coffee drinkerCkept instant "Bavarian Cream" and "Cafe Mocha" on hand for company. In Roseanne, Roseanne and her sister (Jackie) were at a grocery store check-out counter. Roseanne inspected Jackie's purchases: "Let's see: disposable razors, Amaretto Mist instant coffee, and a soft pink light bulb. Well, who is he?" As the American advertising for this product has so often said, flavored instant coffee is for "special moments."


Compared with alcohol or dinnerCor even lunchCcoffee incurs a lower obligation. Low cost, in both the literal and figurative sense, makes coffee significantly insignificant. As we shall see, insignificance is one of coffee's most important connotations.


Regular coffee contains caffeine. In the TV stories, this property had diverse implications. First, coffee without caffeineCdecaf, or "unleaded"Cseemed almost not real coffee. Characters who preferred it were marked as "drug free" in the broadest sense, or as particularly health-conscious.

Second, coffee was clearly a brain sharpener. This trait put coffee at breakfast and other morning rituals, where it cleared cobwebs, brightened moods, and permeated conversations. It put coffee in scenes where brain work was done, and where characters might be zapped by more alert opponents. It made coffee a companion of repartee, a support for study, and a stimulant to creative effort.

Some characters "needed" coffee, and had a fit when it was not present. In Murder, She Wrote, a waitress said, "If I don't get a coffee fix over to Sam Talbot, you're going to hear yelling and screaming like you never heard before." But such episodes were rare and played for humor. In these stories, coffee was not dangerously addictive.

Caffeine made coffee an antidote and substitute for alcohol. Characters who had "one too many" got coffee, and coffee was the beverage of the morning after. In Cheers, Sam drank coffee to show he was still on the wagon.

Coffee's empirical attributesCit's warmth, bitterness, ubiquity, quality metric, low cost and caffeine contentCunderlie and reinforce its social meanings. In the TV stories, social meanings mediated all use occasions.


Adult Status

Because caffeine is a drug, adults think that coffee is wrong for children. Because coffee is bitter, children make few efforts to obtain it. In the TV stories, exceptions were precocious claims to adult status.

In one episode of Full House, for instance, Danny's teenage daughter had just returned from Italy, and Danny met her at the airport. She said, "When we get home we'll have a cup of coffee and I'll tell you all about my trip." Danny said, "Since when do you drink coffee?" She said, "Actually, cafe con leche." He said, "In this county, we don't drink 'cafe con leche.' We drink chocolate milk." She said, "I'm almost 16. I've been to Europe. I think I'm old enough to choose my own beverage." He said, "Sweetheart, I didn't choose my own beverage until I was 21, and even then my mom chose chocolate milk." She said, "Dad, that's so provincial!" In this particular instance, "cafe con leche" added ominous sophistication.

Social Class

TV anchor Murphy Brown owns an expensive-looking coffee service. Detective Jessica frequents restaurants where china, silverware and furniture establish status. Blue-collar Roseanne presides over The Lunch Box, where she serves her "famous loose meat sandwiches." There, coffee comes in industrial-strength mugs, and coffee drinkers sit on stools at Formica-topped counters.

In white-collar environments, coffee drinkers sit erect, and sip in a restrained manner. In blue-collar environments, they slouch and slurp when that behavior is in character. In these narratives, crockery, sips, slurps and drinking postures are all class markers.


As the football banquet episode suggests, bitterness and strength gave coffee some male connotations. This is not to say that coffee made female characters less feminine. Instead, like Marlboro cigarettes, it conveyed inner strength and independence.


Because coffee crosses class and gender boundaries, it serves as a temporary leveler. Equally symptomatic, deliberate refusal means, "We don't belong together."

In Murder, She Wrote, a manager summoned an employee to his office. The manager was about to offer a promotion. The employee assumed that he was being fired. The manager said, "Have a seat. Want some coffee?" The employee said, "No, thanks." The offer meant, "Let's strengthen this association." The (polite) refusal meant, "Let's get this over with as soon as possible."

In another episode of Murder, She Wrote, Jessica had not yet made an accusation. The suspect said, "May I offer you some coffee, some other refreshment?"Cmeaning (not very hopefully), "is this just a social visit?" Jessica said, "No thanks. I've found what I came for"Cmeaning, "I don't want to socialize. I'm here on detective business."

In the TV stories, an offer of coffee, and acceptance or rejection of that offer, predicted whether and how the characters believed they fit together.

First Move

Because coffee is inexpensive, non-alcoholic and ubiquitous, an invitation to "go out for coffee" can be a tentative toe in the romantic water. In Home Improvement, a party at Tim and Jill's home had just ended. As Al and Tim were cleaning up, Al said (to Tim), "You know, I think the Western shirt paid off." Tim said, "What do you mean?" Al said, "Karen. I think she took a shine to me. Do you think it would be all right if I asked her out for coffee?" Just as Al was about to follow through, he discovered that a rival had preempted. He did not invite himself to join them.

In Murphy Brown, CorkyCnewly separatedCran into a male friend in a bookstore. Knowing her marital status, he invited her to dinner. She said, "That would be nice, but I'm not really ready to..." The dinner offer was too portentous.

In a later scene the two met again. As they were about to part, Corky said, "Kevin, would you like to get a cup of coffee or something?" Here, belated acceptance of dinner would have sent a very different messageCas would an invitation to "get" a beer, a glass of milk, a cup of tea, or any other beverage.

Extended Family

Characters who help themselves to coffee have access to the family larder. Characters who help themselves to coffee, and do not offer coffee to others present, are assuming that those others enjoy coffee-pouring privileges. Thus, behavior that might seem impolite denotes extended family status.

In Roseanne, Jackie (Roseanne's sister) helped herself to coffee whenever she was in Roseanne's kitchen. When Roseanne and Dan were there, she neither asked nor offered. In Home Improvement, Karen (Jill's best friend) poured coffee for herself and Dave, her new significant other. She did not ask permission, even though she was in Jill's kitchen.

Almost-family membership explains who pours and who doesn't pour, who gets offered and who doesn't get offered. In so doing, it explains behavior that might have been decoded as presumption, hostility or rudeness.

Mug Symbolism

In Murphy Brown the major characters are individualists. Each has his or her own coffee mug. In Roseanne the family drinks from mundane mugs that might have come from Sears (Mayerle 1991). In Coach, Luther's mug carries the Minnesota State University logo. In an episode of Murder, She Wrote, a cartoon-like mug trademarked a cartoonist. These observations parallel previous findings by Solomon and Greenberg (1993).


In the TV stories, widely understood meanings made coffee a communication medium. At the one-way level, these meanings transmitted messages from actors, writers and producers to the audience by marking characters and defining settings.


At the interactive level, coffee carried messages among the characters. In Home Improvement, for instance, Jill had been out of town and Tim had not washed any of the dishes. Desperate for a clean mug, he poured coffee into a cow-shaped creamer. Jill said, "You're sucking coffee from a cow!" Tim said, "That way I don't have to add milk." Jill said, "You're pathetic." This exchange was not really about coffee. It was about Tim and Jill and their relationship.

In Full House, Danny's girl-friend's mother said, "You know, Danny, I wasn't going to say anything, but now that it [marriage] has come up, what are your thoughts on the subject?" Danny said, "Marriage. (Long pause) Well, I think that marriage is a wonderful thingCif you want to end up, uh, married. (Complete change of subject.) Coffee?" Naturally, the would-be mother-in-law ignored the offer.

In Roseanne, Roseanne and Dan were in the kitchen, discussing one of the children. During the conversation, Roseanne helped herself to coffee, carried the mug as she talked, and sipped in a casual manner. Her action said (to Dan and to the audience), "This problem is not very serious." Had she sat down, faced Dan, and put the coffee on the table, the meaning would have been very different.

In a visit to Maurice's Northern Exposure office, an angry Ruth Ann accused Maurice of interfering with her brother's future. Maurice said, "That's about the stupidest thing I ever heard!" and refilled his coffee without offering her any. This action broke eye contact and shielded him from the full glare of her anger. It also meant he hoped this "stupid" conversation would soon be over.

In Murder, She Wrote, Sam (the cappuccino sheriff) interrogated a suspect in the suspect's office. When Sam asked an especially probing question, the suspect broke eye contact, helped himself to coffee, and gained a moment to organize an answer.

In all these cases, coffee was the medium but not the message. In the latter three, it was an attempted attention-switcher.

Coffee as Punctuation

Coffee punctuates conversations. In one episode of Love and War, for instance, the leading male and female characters (Jack and Wally), had spent separate "time to themselves." Jack said, "You know, Wally, this time to ourselves idea was brilliant. Exactly what we needed. I'm already planning what I'm going to be doing next Monday night." As Jack was about to sip, Wally said, "I lied, Jack." Jack put his coffee down and said, "What?" She said, "I lied. I had a horrible time. He said, "Wow, that's fantastic!" She said, "Why?" He said, "I had a horrible time too. Isn't that great? We both had a horrible time!"

In the remainder of the conversation, the two motioned with their coffee mugs to signal who was to begin and who had finished speaking. To conclude the conversation, Jack said, "When we were both out last night, did you see anybody you liked better than me?" She aborted a sip, smiled, and said, "Noooo," then completed it. He said, "That's all I wanted to know." He retrieved his coffee, kissed her, and exited.

In this and many other conversations, coffee gestures served as punctuation. Wally's aborted sip meant, "I'm about to say something." A sip at a pause meant, "It's your turn." A suspended cup or mug meant, "There's more. I'm not finished." Putting the cup down firmly served as a full stopCa conclusive period.

Here are two of many other punctuation instances: In Full House, Danny's script-writer partners were at the kitchen table, discussing a show they were preparing. Danny sat at the counter, reading a newspaper, drinking coffee, half-listening to the conversation. When he got a bright idea, he put his paper on the counter, carried his coffee to the table, and joined the action. While he described his bright idea, he held his cup suspended. At the punch line, he placed it triumphantly on the table.

In Murphy Brown, house-guests had prepared Christmas breakfast in apology for last night's behavior. At first Murphy accepted this gesture (including the coffee) almost automatically. Then, when one of the guests said, "can't we start Christmas all over again?" Murphy said, "No. No, we can't." Putting her coffee down, she said, "You can't make scrambled eggs and coffee and expect everything to be all right. I want you out of my house, now!"

In these bi-level coffee-coded conversations, writers, directors and producers communicated with their audiences, and characters communicated with each other. Essential aspects of both levels were nonverbal. Words alone would not have been sufficient.

Why does coffee have this role so often? Why not some other object or some other beverage? One answer lies in coffee's common presence. In the US at least, coffee is so familiar that writers, directors and producers can employ it without distracting explanation.

A second, related, answer is thatCcompared with other objects and other beveragesCcoffee has less surplus meaning. Gesturing with a cup of coffee is one thing. Gesturing with a glass of wine, a glass of milk, or a glass of beer is quite another.

Coffee's familiarity, and its significant insignificance, allow it to be a common carrier. Like a word, a number, or a punctuation markCand like television itselfCit is both a message and a medium.


How much of this is real? In one sense, none of it is real. These stories are not biographies of real persons. In another sense, all of it is real. Like models cast in ANOVA and LISREL, these stories portray their authors' views of causal sequences.

Thus, the question is not, "are the stories true?" The question is, "are the models valid?" Do they represent important aspects of the real behavior of real consumers? We must ask that question of all research, including surveys and experiments.

One answer to that question is that these models are tested in American living rooms each evening. When they fail to represent some essence of experience, viewers reject them. But the Nielsen test alone is far too general. What we really want to know is, which (if any) of our findings are specious, and which are valid? Again, we must ask that question of all research, no matter what the method.

Consumer researchers customarily answer that question at three increasingly demanding levels. At the least demanding level, they refer to personal experience. "Have I ever seen an adolescent use coffee (or cigarettes, or whatever) as an entree into adulthood? Have I ever seen a 'provincial' father?" If the answer to that question is "yes," they tentatively accept the model. Most of the coffee episodes pass that test. If they did not, they would seem disruptively artificial.

At a more formal level, researchers survey the scientific literature. Have other researchers found that porcelain coffee pots are status symbols, that caffeine stimulates mentation, or that conversation partners use artifacts as punctuation? Most of the coffee episodes pass that test too, so far as scientific evidence is available.

At the most demanding level, researchers test real-world range and limits (McGrath and Brinberg 1983). How many real consumers believe that instant coffee is inferior? How many female coffee drinkers mean to say that they are strong and independent? Under what conditions and among whom do coffee-pouring privileges denote extended-family membership? That test is by far the most important.

That's where additional research comes in, as usual. We offer these findings as provisional, and suggest that many of them are interesting enough and important enough to merit further study.


This approach to consumer research could be extended to wine, milk, tea, beer or other beverages; to product use occasions such as breakfast or gift exchanges (Wells and Gale 1994); to blue jeans, jewelry, travel, restaurant meals, or financial services.

It could include changes over time. We know that smoking is less common in the US than it was 20 years ago. This change suggests that a 20-year comparison would show that smoking now has sharply different implications.

Finally, the lens of fiction lends itself to cross-cultural investigations. Some product meanings change as one crosses the Pacific, the Atlantic, and even the English Channel. Analysis of these changes would probably enrich our understanding of those products, and of the cultures.


Our answer to the question, "why coffee?" is that, in the US at least, coffee is an entree to adulthood, a precursor and facilitator of brain work, a symbol of social status, and an initiator of social interaction. It is significantly insignificant, and therefore non-committal. It marks extended-family privileges. It diverts, divides, and focuses attention. It punctuates conversations.

In its many-sided roles, this product can be more eloquent than words. As a one-way medium, it details physical and social settings, qualifies personalities, and encodes nonverbal exchanges. As a two-way medium, it enriches streams of interlocking messages that help audiences understand characters, and help characters understand, appreciate and influence each other. Much of this agrees with common sense, and some of it agrees with other findings. We don't yet know how fully it portrays the real behavior of real consumers.

The lens of fiction could be turned on other products, and on services, changes through time and changes across cultures. There, it would enrich our understanding of the complex images that guide behavior.


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William D. Wells, University of Minnesota
Kendra L. Gale, University of Minnesota


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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