Special Session Summary Consumers in Extremis: Decision-Making, Meanings and Service Encounters


Darach Turley and Stephanie O’Donohoe (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Consumers in Extremis: Decision-Making, Meanings and Service Encounters", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 225-227.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 225-227



Darach Turley, Dublin City University, Ireland

Stephanie O’Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh, UK


The term "Consumers In Extremis" in our title is intended to denote consumers facing their own impending deaths or consumers having to deal with the death of a close relative or friend. A key motif underlying our decision to focus on such subjects is the fact that, to date, human mortality has been largely ignored or sidestepped by consumer researchers, with a few notable exceptions (Belk 1988; Hirschman 1990). At one level this omission is understandable; marketing seems to sit more comfortably with human vitality than with human mortality. At another level, the failure to feature what is arguably the most significant event in the human life-course on the consumer behaviour research agenda is quite remarkable.

Fortunately, this oversight has begun to be redressed and one element in this process has been the inclusion of papers on this topic at ACR conferences (Gabel et al. 1996). This nascent cadre of researchers have sought to progress the deathBconsumer behaviour nexus by broadening the research focus beyond the purchase event for funerary artefacts to include deeper psychological and sense-making dimensions. This special session is intended to continue this research agenda. Rather than homing in on what consumers buy when bereaved, we focus on the impact of dying and bereavement itself on consumers. Whether the death in question is one’s own impending death or the death of a loved one, the impact is typically one of shock, terror and heightened emotions (Parkes, 1986). Against such an affective backdrop what might be termed normal consumer functioning becomes problematic if not precluded, indeed comporting oneself as a "normal" consumer in the face of proximate or recent death might well incur social disapproval (Gentry et al. 1994).

The first paper by Kropp, Shoham and Gentry, explores consumer decision making under chronic pain, including people who are in the liminal, terminal, stages of life as well as surviving partners or caregivers. This study examines the difficulty these vulnerable consumers have in making the normal range of decisions that consumers typically make as a part of their everyday lives. Apart from the impact of loss on cognitive functioning and decision making, those who are bereaved must also restore meaning and sense in the face of what is perceived to be a meaningless and senseless loss. The second paper in this session argues that expenditure by the bereaved on the recently deceased can constitute such a meaning-making exercise. Specifically, Sorensen suggests that survivors are giving gifts and thus attempting to communicate both with the departed, and with themselves, through this expenditure. She proposes that these consumers in extremis are essentially making a final gift to their loved ones and that, as a result, the extant corpus of research on consumer gift-giving may well afford a useful prism through which such behaviour can be examined.

The third paper, by Turley and O’Donohoe, also positions itself on this meaning-making trajectory. One such meaning-making strategy is to continue to communicate with those who have died and, in so doing, maintain, modify and modulate relationships with them. It looks at a group of Irish bereaved consumers and the manner in which they insert memorial verses for their departed loved ones in regional newspapers. For many, placing these In Memoriam inserts with newspaper personnel can prove a highly charged and traumatic service encounter. Specifically the paper tries to illuminate how the emotional intensity and grief inherent in this exercise inform the service encounter for both provider and client.




Fredric Kropp, Monterey Institute of International Studies, USA

Aviv Shoham, University of Haifa, Israel

James W. Gentry, University of Nebraska, USA

Consumer decision-making processes have been thoroughly studied for a fairly wide range of products, however, consumer decision processes under extreme stress or in high emotional contexts have attracted less attention. Previous work by Kropp, Shoham and Rose (1999) examined consumer decision-making at the end of life. This study builds upon and extends this research to examine the decision processes by consumers who experience chronic pain, including those who may be at the end of life. A better understanding of consumer decision-making processes and consumer behaviour can help marketers to better fill people’s needs during a difficult and emotionally stressful period. In addition, as consumers are particularly vulnerable when in chronic pain and may not make "good" decisions there are public policy implications, specifically, to provide protection for an extremely vulnerable population.

Previous research identifies three major approaches to consumer behaviour: the decision-making perspective, the experiential perspective, and the behavioural influence perspective (Mowen 1988). In the decision-making perspective, the consumer can be viewed as a rational problem-solver. The experiential perspective suggests that consumers may not always engage in rational decision making prior to making a purchase but are often guided by affect r emotions. Rather, rational explanations can be constructed after the decision is made (Mowen 1988). The behavioural influence perspective starts with the concept that the behaviour is elicited by environmental stimuli including situational factors and the societal and group norms.

Sometimes, the person in extremis may not be capable of making decisions and the decisions are shifted to care givers. Therefore, in addition to studying the person in extremis, this study also examines the role played by care givers and by loved ones. Care givers are also in a stressful position. In previous work that examined the role of care givers in the decision process (Gentry, Kennedy, Paul, and Hill 1994), it was the exception rather than the rule that caregivers were able to keep the medical system accountable. Most relied on third parties to pay the bills which were submitted, without checking to see if they were legitimate. This further highlights another set of public policy implications.

This paper examines the decision-making processes of consumers in chronic pain, including those at the end of life, and examines how they relate to each of the consumer perspectives described above. It uses depth interviews to further understand consumers in extremis and care givers who also may be in extremis. It develops an approach for further study of the phenomena and explores public policy implications.



Elin Brandi Sorensen, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

Research taking a consumer perspective on death and dying has focused primarily on the vulnerability that follows from the impact of bereavement on the consumer decision making of the bereaved (Schwarz, Jolson and Lee 1986, Gentry & Goodwin 1995, Mitford 2000). A notable exception, though, is the work of Gabel, Mansfield & Westbrook (1996). Based on their preliminary, exploratory analysis of meanings associated with death related consumption, they suggest that three interrelated categories of meaning underpin this consumption phenomenon: #peace of mind’, #search for trust’, and #fear, avoidance, and expediency’. The study reported in this paper should be seen as an attempt to build on the work of Gabel et al.. So, besides portraying categories of consumption meanings experienced and expressed by survivors in their funeral related consumption, it also attempts to develop an overall framework that manages to encompass these consumption meanings. Since it can be argued that expenditure by bereaved survivors on caskets, flowers, gravestones, attire, etc. can be considered a final gift to the deceased (Schwarz et al. 1986; Kropp, Shoham, and Rose 1999), the proposed framework is strongly inspired by the consumer research literature on gift giving (e.g. Sherry 1983).

Initial observation made it clear that people’s accounts of death and funerals are more than replete with consumption meanings. They include personal experiences and stories, expressions of strong emotions, and moral evaluations that may relate to almost any object (e.g. coffin, hearse, flowers, graveyard, place of social gathering, etc.) or any person (e.g. the deceased, the survivors, the mourners, the funeral director, the clergyman) involved in the funeral and related consumption. Taking a gift giving perspective makes it possible to give a more structured overview of the objects, persons and processes involved in funeral related consumption together with their attendant meanings, motives, and emotions.

In his conceptualisation of gift giving, Sherry (1983) describes three distinct phases in gift giving: prestation, gestation, and reformulation. Applying this framework to funerals provides us with a structure through which funerary consumption meanings can be examined in terms of temporal sequence, i.e. those taking place before, during, or after the actual funeral ceremony. Further, it also points to the social aspects of funeral related consumption. Not only do survivors dispose on behalf of somebody else, their behaviour and choices are also strongly guided by social norms and values, e.g. a set of moral obligations that corresponds fairly well with Mauss’ notion of potlatch (Mauss 1990).

In order to capture the tapestry of meanings inherent in funeral related consumption, the research in this project is qualitative in nature and follows an emergent design, alternating between field studies, mainly depth interviews, and literature studies (e.g. Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989). Specifically, the empirical research involves semi-structured depth interviews with a funeral director, a pensioned clergyman, an artist producing ceramic gravestones, and six persons who have recently lost a close relative. In addition, the author accompanied a funeral director for one day and has participated in three group meetings with five funeral directors. To this should be added a large number of unplanned and unstructured interviews that developed out of incidental observations and conversations with friends, fellows, and acquaintances concerning the topic of funerals and related consumption.

The findings of this research will hopefully provide some of the actors within the field of funeral consumption, e.g. funeral directors, with a more comprehensive understanding of how funerals and funeral related consumption are experienced by those responsible for making arrangements for their departed loved ones.



Darach Turley, Dublin City University, Ireland

Stephanie O’Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh, UK

Few studies examine the range of service encounters normally ensuing upon the demise of a spouse, parent, or close friend (Gabel et al. 1996). The bereaved, either in person or through other family members, are likely to find themselves having to deal with an array of health, funerary, religious and financial service providers, at a time when their own decision making and psychological resources are severely impaired or depleted (Raphael 1984; Gentry et al.1994). Hand in hand with this functional impairment, the heightened sensibilities of the bereaved and the perceived consequences of their decisions for the reputation, status and memory of the deceased infuse these interactions with an emotional charge and pathos rarely encountered on the service encounter spectrum. In every sense, this is consumer behaviour in extremis. Thanatological literature indicates that the trauma attendant on the grieving process can endure and consequently affect such encounters long after the death has taken place (Lopata 1973; Parkes 1986).

The specific service encounter examined in this paper involves bereaved people placing In Memoriam notices in local Irish newspapers and their interactions with newspaper staff. In Memoriams are verses inserted in local newspapers by bereaved relatives and friends on anniversaries or birthdays of their deceased loved ones. The empirical research involved phenomenological interviews with 8 bereaved consumers and six newspaper staff in various Irish towns and cities. The use of interpretive methods in exploring consumers’ experience of service encounters is supported by Schembri and Sandberg (2002). The authors initially conducted research with bereaved consumers to understand their experiences of placing In Memoriams and interviewed some newspaper staff to better understand how these verses were put together. It soon became clear however that encounters between bereaved client and newspaper employee could be highly sensitive and emotionally draining and merited further research in their own right.

Our findings uncovered a varied emotional tapestry among bereaved respondents. For some, dealing with the newspaper is routine and uneventful, for others, it constitutes a trying and traumatic experience. During the encounter itself a perceived emotional asymmetry on the part of placers can raise issues. If they consider newspaper staff and indeed the placing regime itself (deadlines, format restrictions, cost) to be inflexible and uncaring, resentment can emerge. For their part, striking the appropriate level of emotional investment in the encounter can be problematic for staff. Too much may both hinder their ability to function professionally and bewilder clients, too little may run the risk of seeming cold and clinical. Put dramaturgically, the question of how much of the provider’s "back region" should be disclosed during the service performance is both delicate and salient (John, 1996). Findings are further compared with similar extended, affectively charged and intimate service encounters (Hill 1995; Price & Arnould 1995). This study offers insights into experiences of intense service encounters, from the perspective of both providers and consumers. It also offers a rare glimpse of bereaved consumers going about their business, indicating how the quality of their encounters in the marketplace may help or hinder them in dealing with loss.


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Darach Turley, Dublin City University, Ireland
Stephanie O’Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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