Special Session Summary the Status and Future of a Semiotic Perspective on Consumer Behavior: Research, Education, and Practice


David Glen Mick (1999) ,"Special Session Summary the Status and Future of a Semiotic Perspective on Consumer Behavior: Research, Education, and Practice", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 4-6.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 4-6



David Glen Mick, University of Wisconsin, U.S.A.


Semiotics is a doctrine concerned with communication and meaning. Its fundamental unit is the sign, which is anything that can stand for something else, to some animate being, in a given context. Hence, semiotics can readily address many issues in consumer behavior, from advertising, fashion, household possessions, leisure, and the arts, to retailing, product design, and brand logos.

It is apropos that Jouy-en-Josas was the setting for this ACR special session on semiotics given that the French were the true pioneers in applying semiotics to marketing and consumer behavior issues. Since its earliest beginnings in France in the 1960s, the influence of semiotic consumer research has spread internationally (e.g., Aoki 1994; Floch 1990; Grandi 1993; Holbrook and Hirschman 1993; Larsen et al. 1991; Mick 1986, 1997; Noth 1997; Umiker-Sebeok 1987). Today there is a wide range of consumer research being conducted and published around the world, n many different outlets and languages. At the same time, educators such as Pinson at INSEAD and Heilbrunn at E. M. Lyon have been developing special cases to teach the benefits of a semiotic orientation on consumer behavior, for both undergraduate and graduate classrooms. Moreover, semiotics has become more accepted and applied in businesses and non-profit organizations for conducting a variety of market analyses and developing strategic programs. For instance, the largest advertising agency in Japan (Dentsu, Inc), has spearheaded the use of applied semiotics for several years (e.g., see Fukuda 1990) and one of the leading semiotic consultancies is Semiotic Solutions, based in London.

Over recent years, ACR conferences have been heavily populated by academics based in the United States who present and discuss their latest research. It has been less common for sessions to include non-U.S.-based individuals or presentations about consumer behavior related to pedagogy or consulting. This session for the 1999 European ACR conference brought together consumer researchers, educators, and consultants from America and Europe to discuss the state of semiotics as it applies to research, education, and business practice. The goal of the session was to enrich our field’s understanding of semiotics through a cross-national dialogue about its value in scholarship, teaching, and marketing management. The appeal of the session was made on several bases. First, the session addressed a number of areas of interest to consumer researchers including communication, meaning, culture, symbolism, structuralism, and qualitative research. Second, the session was multidimensional insofar as it concerned not just academic research, but also education and consulting. Finally, the session was multinational, involving individuals from France, England, and the United StatesCall with considerable expertise in semioticsCallowing for multiple perspectives on semiotics in marketing and consumer behavior to be provided.

The first presentation was based on a paper by Mick, Burroughs, Hetzel, and Yoko Brannen which covered a project underway for the last three years. These researchers collected over 500 citations and papers on semiotics consumer research from around the globe. They then evaluated and synthesized their insights according to structure, process, and content issues related to communication and meaning in consumer behavior. The presentation highlighted the main results such as those areas have received the most semiotic research attention (e.g. advertising); which theoretical insights are dominant in which substantive areas (e.g. past research on advertising has heavily emphasized structural issues); the type and level of semiotic foundation in the research reviewed (e.g., the French have relied heavily on the Saussurean heritage and its structural orientation); and, finally, which substantive areas remain most overlooked. The implications of these findings for future semiotic consumer research were also discussed, such as the opportunity for researchers to address signs at multiple levels of analysis within the same topical area.

The second presentation by Heilbrunn was based on his experiences in working with Christian Pinson at INSEAD to develop up-to-date and engaging classroom materials, including cases to tutor students on the opportunities and limits of semiotics for consumer behavior. The presentation included the use of a specific case developed to illustrate and apply semiotics for pedagogical objectives.

The third presentation by Valentine addressed the opportunities and difficulties of building a business consultancy based on using semiotics to help position firms and products in the marketplace. She provided a number of specific international studies involving semiotics, discussed the training and persuasion of clients about semiotics, and generally described the nurturing of applied semiotics from its complex and diverse theoretical bases.


Aoki, Sadashige (1994), Bunmyaku s(z( no mGketingu [Marketing and Context Creation], Nippon Keizai Shinbun-sha.

Floch, Jean-Marie (1990), Sµmiotique, Marketing, et Communication, PUF: Paris.

Fukuda, Toshihiko (1990), Monogatari MGketingu [Narrative Marketing], Tokyo: Takeuichi Shoten Shinsha.

Grandi, Robert (1994), editor, Semiotic el Marketing, Milan: FrancoAngeli.

Holbrook, Morris B. and Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1993), The Semiotics of Consumption, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Larsen, Hanne Hartvig, David Glen Mick, and Christian Alsted (1991), editors, Marketing and Semiotics: Selected Papers from the Copenhagen Symposium, Copenhagen: Handelsh°jskolens Forlag.

Mick, David Glen (1986), "Consumer Research and Semiotics: Exploring the Morphology of Signs, Symbols, and Significance," Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (2), 196-213.

Mick, David Glen (1997), "Semiotics in Marketing and Consumer Research: Balderdash, Verity, Pleas", in Consumer Research: Postcards from the Edge, eds. Stephen Brown and Darach Turley, Routledge: London, 249-262.

N÷th, Winfried (19970, editor, Semiotics of the Media, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Umiker-Sebeok, Jean (1987), editor, Marketing and Semiotics: New Directions in the Study of Signs for Sale, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.



David Glen Mick, University of WisconsinCMadison, U.S.A.

James E. Burroughs, Rutgers University, U.S.A.

Patrick Hetzel, UniversitT Robert Schuman, France

Mary Yoko Brannen, San Jose State University, U.S.A.

The rise of semiotics in consumer research over the last forty years has paralleled a growing interest in communication and meaning in marketplace phenomena. Despite this, semiotics remains underutilized in the field and considerable uncertainty still exists as to what exactly it has contributed. Several problems exist. First, many works are unknown due to their farspread and non-English bases. There has also been a tendency of some consumer researchers to caricaturize semiotics (e.g., wrongly equating the whole with only one subdomain such as structural linguistics), which has inhibited a more comprehensive and accurate appreciation of semiotics. Finally, prior reviews of semiotic consumer research are limited for a number of reasons (being outdated, limited to one country, or constrained by page limits). In sum, the organization and evaluation of semiotic contributions across cultural borders and application frontiers (e.g., advertising, leisure, product symbolism) is vital for appraising the value of semiotics to consumer research today and for improving its applications in future work.

To that end, the researchers assembled as a team sharing strong interest in semiotics, but also with varied academic backgrounds (e.g., marketing, philosophy, sociology) and multiple language fluencies (e.g., English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese). They mailed over 400 letters worldwide, conducted extensive computerized data based searches, made announcements in various newsletters, and traveled internationally to meet with researchers and practitioners (e.g., Finland, Japan) to solicit citations and copies of semiotic consumer research. The combined efforts resulted in over 500 examples of semiotic consumer research.

harchers then reviewed and evaluated the research papers and books collected. They focused on explicit semiotic research, i.e., where historical foundation, key concepts, and established principles of semiotic inquiry are plainly evoked. They also prioritized empirical research, though some of the top conceptual papers were strongly considered as well. In general, the researchers organized the international contributions to semiotic consumer research according to insights about the structure, process, or content of communication and meaning, as each of these divisions appear within the different topical areas addressed (e.g., advertising, fashion, retail-shopping, leisure, the arts, personal possessions). Certain theoretical themes or propositions emerged within and, at items, across topic areas. For instance, the role of the consumer as an active, self-expressive, and not-wholly-controllable reader of advertising texts appears across several papers (based on Umberto Eco’s work on the concepts of undercoded texts and the "model reader"). Similarly, several semiotic analyses of malls and retail stores have emphasized the designs of space and artifacts as subtle ways by which individuals are led into specific walking patterns, voyeuristic experiences, and a general ambiguity about the fundamental buying motivation for their presence there (even though it is the primary marketing intent of the venue).

The project has been quite complex and time consuming due to its global scope. The conference provided the authors an opportunity to present an overview of the project and stress the findings that appear most valuable for theory and methodology in semiotic consumer research.



Benoet Heilbrunn, E.M. Lyon, France

This communication aims at showing the difficulties facing anyone who wants to teach semiotics to marketing students or practitioners. It is then shown that the semiotician must act as a hidden persuader and really use a semiotic strategy to infuse semiotic knowledge.

The first part will focus on the reasons for semiotics’ bad reputation among students and practitioners. The following reasons may be put forward:

* it often appears as an obscure discipline reserved to a very limited set of academics who use what is often perceived as useless and pretentious jargon (icon, expression plan, syntagmatic relationship, etc).

* it requires time and effort because of a quite complex conceptual framework and because of the variety of semiotic schools of thought which often have different paradigms and terms (see for instance the difficulty to define such terms as icon, symbol, etc.); also schools such as the Greimassian school and the Peircian school are often perceived as having antithetic viewpoints.

* an exaggerated difference between theory and practice mainly due to the fact that semiotics has often been primarily used by such disciplines as literary criticism, cultural theory, and urbanism which may seem distant from managerial purposes.

The second part of this presentation will provide recommendation on how to overcome these difficulties. The pedagogical devices which have proved to be successful will be mentioned. There are two parallel approaches to be developed in order to "semiotize" students. On the one hand, there is an implicit approach which shows that semiotics infuses most of every day life practices. The objective of this approach is to put students in a position where they cannot deny the fundamental existence of semiosis. Students must e shown that they act as Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, that is "they do semiotics every minute of their life without even knowing it." This stage requires a strong emphasis on daily practices; most of Floch’s works illustrate, for instance, this semiotization of every day life by showing that semiotics can help to decode such practices as the visit to a hypermarket, the purchase of a car, the choice of a menu, the interpretation of logos and advertising messages, the choice of clothes, etc. This implicit approach is used to increase the general involvement of students towards semiotics.

On the other hand, an explicit approach must also be implemented; this second approach should provide students with terminology (via dictionaries, encyclopedias etc) as well as tools and models (e.g., the semiotic square). This explicit approach assists students in structuring their semiotic perspectives on reality and provides them with concepts and methods they can readily apply to managerial issues. The use of special case studies are very useful at this stage because they illustrate the extent to which a semiotic perspective can provide diagnostic insights and strategic directions for numerous managerial problems and decisions scenarios. For illustration, the semiotic analysis of time (see Voirol 1976) in the resolution of the Swatch case will be discussed.


Bouissac R (ed.)., 1998, Encyclopedia of Semiotics, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Floch J.-M, 1995, IdentitTs visuelles, Paris, PUF.

Floch J.-M, 1990, STmiotique, marketing et communication, Paris, PUF.

Greimas A.J., 1983, Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press. Translation of SJmantique structurale, 1966, Paris, Larousse.

Greimas A.J.,& Courts J., 1979, Semiotics and Language. An Analytical Dictionary, Indiana University Press.

Kimball H. and Pinson C., 1987, Swatch, Case Study, Insead.

N÷th W., 1990, Handbook of Semiotics, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Saussure, F. De, 1969, Courses in General Linguistic, New York, Mc Graw-Hill; originally published in French in 1915.

Sebeok T.A. (ed), 1986, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 3 vol.

Vorol, M.-A., 1976, "Un probleme d’Tvolution du produit horloger," in Les Apports de la STmiotique au Marketing et a la PublicitT, IREP Seminar.


Virginia Valentine, Semiotic Solutions

The thrust of this presentation deals with the problematic of adapting the vastCoften obtuseCbody of semiotic theory to a methodology that will meet the demands of the marketplace and the needs of the commercial consumer, i.e., how to make it user-friendly without compromising its epistemological principles. And also make a profit. In the presentation I focused on three main areas.

I. Semiotic SolutionsCThe Brand

Selling semiotics is no different from selling any other product. nd Semiotic Solutions livesCor diesCby the rules of the brand.

You have to manufacture the product out of the raw materials of the theory. You have to cost it, price it, and market it. Above all, you have to semiotically construct a subject position for the receiver that enables her/him to see the processed and packaged theory as the custom-tailored solution to a precise marketing problem. This includes meeting the timescales that the buyerCwho is probably a cog in a vast ever-turning wheelCis working to, while still maintaining the rigour of the analysis. And it entails reformulating theoretical principles as marketing concepts and models without sacrificing their theoretical point of difference. I outlined how we have approached this production process and talked about some of the problems we have faced: what we’ve managed to overcome and where we are still struggling.

2. Semiotic Analysis as Consumer Research

This is the most difficult part because it re-enacts and repeats the semiotic revolution every time. For a commercial community that regards the humanist sovereign consumer as the centre of his/her world and the source of all understanding and decision-making, the notion that a semiotic analysisChalf a dozen #semioticians’ sitting round looking at ads and packagesCcan really tell you what is going on in the consumer mind is, to say the least, difficult to accept. But accept it they must. If not, we may think we’re selling semiotics but they won’t have bought into it.

However, we now sell far more semiotic analyses on precisely that basis, rather than qualitative consumer studies. In my talk, I touched on how we position semiotic analysis as a more accurate first stage alternative to conventional consumer researchCand also create programmes that position consumer research as a secondary stage in a semiotic study. At this point in the presentation I brought in several case histories to show how the programmes work and the results they can deliver.

3. Commercial SemioticsCThe Way Forward

This section brought the talk full circle. In these concluding remarks I focused on the development of semiotic products. I referred broadly to international studies, semiotic training for clients, semiotic training for clients, semiotic brand-development consultancies, NPD innovators, and so on.

My aim was to look into the future regarding the growth of semiotics out of theoryCout of consultancy evenCinto a series of #things’ that will become indispensable tools for marketing, market research, and for all communications. In other words, I advocated that we should look at commercial semiotics not as a commentator on the production/consumption process, but as the dynamic at its heart.



David Glen Mick, University of Wisconsin, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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