Special Session Summary Consuming Images: Media, Cultural Codes, and Representation


Jonathan E. Schroeder and Liisa Uusitalo (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Consuming Images: Media, Cultural Codes, and Representation", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 228-232.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 228-232



Jonathan E. Schroeder, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

Liisa Uusitalo, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland


The mass media often depict consumer society as a fountain of personal freedom and satisfaction, where citizen and consumer are almost interchangeable expressions of identity (cf. Meijer 1998; Shields 2002). This session brought together four papers that question this portrayal, and pose several important questions for consumer researchers. What are the perceptual processes by which consumers interpret images, and how much leeway do consumers have to interpret freely? How does media structure our daily lives, including how we spend and think about our time? How is identity represented in marketing communication, and how has this changed recently?

We problematize the notion that "the consumption of symbolic meaning, particularly through the use of advertising as a cultural commodity, provides the individual with the opportunity to construct, maintain, and communicate identity and social meanings" (Elliott 1997, p. 285). We employ several different research methods, including content analysis, ethnography, and semiotics, to investigate how cultural codes are expressed and interpreted within a consumer environment saturated with images. We contend that visual consumption of media images is a key attribute of an experience economy organized around attention. As psychologist and art historian Rudolf Arnheim argues, "one must establish what people are looking at before one can hope to understand why, under the conditions peculiar to them, they see what they see" (Arnheim 1977, p. 4). Images function within culture, and their interpretative meanings are subject to change.

We draw on recent work on visual consumption as a key process of consumer behavior (Schroeder 2002). We question several assumptions that are fairly prevalent in consumer research circlesBassumptions about interpretive polysemy, gender representation, and consumer relationships with mediaBfrom several disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, and marketing. One goal is to begin to reconcile diverse research traditions within consumer behavior, including social cognition, advertising interpretation, and media consumption. The session also was designed to demonstrate the growth of consumer research within Sweden and Finland in recent years, in the face of industrial marketing’s dominance of the research scene.


Arnheim, Rudolf (1977), The Dynamics of Architectural Form, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Elliott, Richard (1997), "Existential Consumption and Irrational Desire," European Journal of Marketing, 31 (3/4), 285-296.

Meijer, Irene C. (1998), "Advertising Citizenship: An Essay on the Performative Power of Consumer Culture," Media, Culture & Society, 20, 235-249.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. (2002), Visual Consumption, London: Routledge.

Shields, Vickie R. (2002), How Advertising Affects Self-Image, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.




Jonathan E. Schroeder, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

Janet L. Borgerson, Stockholm University, Sweden

Recent work has shown that ads are interpreted or read in multiple ways, prompting an important and illuminating reconsideration of how advertising 'works,’ and shifting attention from ad producers toward consumer response to understand how advertising creates meaning (e.g., Frat and Schultz 1997; Hirschman and Thompson 1997; Kates 1999; O’Donohoe 2001; Schroeder and Borgerson 1998; Scott 1994b; Stern 1999). Consumers are seen to construct and perform identities and self-concepts, trying out new roles and creating their self-image within and in collaboration with, consumer culture (e.g., Solomon, Bamossy and Askegaard 2002). Cultural codes, ideological discourse, consumer’s background knowledge, and rhetorical processes have been cited as influences in advertising interpretation and consumer’s relationships to advertising and mass media.

We contend that these analyses overlook basic social psychological processes of attribution and impression formationBprocesses consumers are frequently unaware of, of which they are not in conscious control, and that often operate without intention or effortBthat influence ad interpretation. We draw on experimental social psychological research into what we call tacit interpretationCinterpretive processes that consumers use without awareness in making social attributions. This phenomenon includes "nonconscious ideology" (Bem and Bem 1970), "automatic stereotyping" (Banaji and Hardin 1996), "automatic influence" (Bargh 2002), "implicit social cognition" (Greenwald and Banaji 1995), "non conscious system justification" (Jost, Pelman, and Carvallo 2000), and "face-ism" (Archer, Iritani, Kimes, and Barrios 1983).

Tacit interpretation leads people to judge others on the basis of subtle visual cues, social categories, and cognitive schemas, and, moreover, generally serves to psychologically justify the status quo, operating as an identifiable and stable interpretive convention (Jost and Banaji 1994; Jost, Pelham and Carvallo 2002). Tacit interpretation mitigates against the apparently transparent interpretation of ads that forms a crucial component of postmodern and poststructural descriptions of the consumer’s interpretive relationships with ads (e.g., Brown 1995; Elliott and Ritson 1997; Frat and Venkatesh 1995; Holt 2002; Kellner 1992; Kates and Shaw-Garlock 1999; O’Donohoe 2001; Scott 1994a; Stern 1996). As philosopher Susan Bordo reminds us: "in a world in which appearances can be so skillfully manipulated, the notion that everything is 'open to interpretation’ is no longer an entirely edifying one. Without toppling into absolutist conceptions of truth, we need to rehabilitate the notion that not all versions of reality are equally trustworthy, equally deserving of our assent" (Bordo 1997, p. 12).

We do not suggest that these researchers posit that cultural and perceptual codes do not exist; however, most do not engage with the literature on social cognition that we are calling tacit interpretation. These tacit interpretive processes constrain, rather than determine, interpretation. As social psychologist John Bargh recently stated in the Journal of Consumer Research: "consumer research has largely missed out on [...] key developments in social cognition research: the growing evidence that much of social judgment and behavior occur without conscious awareness or intent" (2002, p. 280). Bargh’s critique focuses on cognitive decision-making and motivation, without much discussion of advertising interpretation or social attribution. We extend his argument, and claim that these 'automatic’ social attribution processes work against much deconstructive, playful, queering, or resistant interpretive work, often claimed to operate in the consumer’s identity construction activity. Tacit interpretation, then, serves as a boundary condition, or limiting factor, of advertising polysemy and interpretative creativity, particularly within the realm of consumer identity construction.

We join recent work that discusses advertising as discourse (e.g., Berger 2000; Kates and Shaw-Garlock 1999; Pearce 1999; Ritson and Elliott 1999; Schroeder 2002). Research on tacit interpretation, framed within theoretical concepts of identity construction, suggests that given the prevalence of particular versions of identities in advertisements, represented iterations often reproduce a limited realm for identity construction within consumer culture. We introduce several ad examples to illustrate the concepts of tacit interpretation, and discuss how awareness of tacit interpretive processes helps frame emerging models of marketing communication and consumer response. As consumer researchers increasingly acknowledge cultural codes, consumer response, and deconstruction as essential in understanding how advertising produces meaning, our multidisciplinary approach aims toward integrating knowledge from psychological and consumer research to situate advertising within perception and culture.

Experimental social psychological research has documented several such nonconscious processes that affect social attribution, for example, making judgments about identity, character traits, and social inequality (see Jost and Hunyady 2002, for a review). Many perceptual processes fluctuate between conscious and unconscious control. For example, eye movement, attention, and awareness are governed by cognitive as well as physiological processes (Barry 1997). Perceptual codes influence visual information processingBWesterners generally read from left to right, and from top to bottom. Furthermore, perceptual cues, such as relative size, shape, color, and symmetry contribute to consumer cognition at a level of which most are most dimly aware (cf. Arnheim 1974). For example, objectsBor personsBthat appear larger in the visual frame are generally ascribed more importance than those that appear small.

We call this phenomenon 'tacit interpretation’ and suggest that it is a major, yet relatively under-researched process of ad interpretation, particularly regarding consumer subject self-formation. Research on advertising interpretation and its connection to consumer culture needs to take tacit interpretation into account. Even within postmodern consumer culture, interpretation is not fully disconnected from basic perceptual processes, nor are consumers completely liberated to interpret images in any way they see fit.


Archer, Dane, Bonita D. Iritani, Debra D. Kimes and Michael Barrios (1983), "Face-ism: Five Studies of Sex Differences in Facial Prominence," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 725-735.

Arnheim, Rudolf (1974), Art and Visual Perception, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Banaji, Mahzarin R. and Curtis D. Hardin (1996), "Automatic Stereotyping," Psychological Science, 7, 136-141.

Bargh, John A. (2002), "Losing Consciousness: Automatic Influences on Consumer Judgment, Behavior, and Motivation," Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (2), 280-285.

Barry, Anne Marie S. (1997), Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Bem, Sandra L. and Daryl J. Bem (1970), "Case Study of a Nonconscious Ideology: Training the Women to Know her Place," in Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs, Daryl J. Bem, ed., Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Berger, Arthur A. (2000), Ads, Fads and Consumer Culture, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Bordo, Susan (1997), Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O.J., Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brown, Stephen (1995), Postmodern Marketing, London: Routledge.

Elliott, Richard and Mark Ritson (1997), "Post-Structuralism and the Dialectics of Advertising: Discourse, Ideology, Resistance," in Consumer Research: Postcards from the Edge, Stephen Brown and Darach Turley, (eds.), London: Routledge, 190-219.

Firat, A. Fuat and Clifford J. Shultz II (1997), "From Segmentation to Fragmentation: Markets and Marketing Strategy in the Postmodern Era", European Journal of Marketing, 31, 183-207.

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), "Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (December), 239-267.

Greenwald, Anthony G. and Mahzarin R. Banaji (1995), "Implicit Social Cognition: Attitudes, Self-esteem, and Stereotypes," Psychological Review, 102, 4-27.

Hirschman, Elizabeth and Craig J. Thompson (1997), "Why Media Matter: Advertising and Consumers in Contemporary Communication," Journal of Advertising, 26 (1), 43-60.

Holt, Douglas B. (2002), "Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding," Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 70-90.

Jost, John T. and M. R. Banaji (1994), "The Role of Stereotyping in System-justification and the Production f False Consciousness," British Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 1-27.

Jost, John T., Brett W. Pelham and Mauricio R. Carvallo (2002), "Non-conscious Forms of System Justification: Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Preferences for Higher Status Groups," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in press.

Jost, John T. and Orslya Hunyady (2002), "The Psychology of System Justification and the Palliative Function of Ideology," in European Review of Social Psychology, Vol. 13, eds. Wolfgang Stroebe and Miles Hewstone, London: John Wiley and Sons.

Kates, Steven M. (1999), "Making the Ad Perfectly Queer: Marketing "Normality" to the Gay Men’s Community," Journal of Advertising, 28 (Spring), 25-37.

Kates, Steven M. and Glenda Shaw-Garlock (1999), "The Ever Entangling Web: A Study of Ideologies and Discourses in Advertising to Women," Journal of Advertising, 28 (Summer), 33-49.

Kellner, Douglas (1992), "Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities," in Modernity and Identity, Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, eds., Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 141-177.

O’Donohoe, Stephanie (2001), "Living with Ambivalence: Attitudes to Advertising in Postmodern Times," Marketing Theory, 1 (1), 91-108.

Pearce, Richard (1999), "Advertising: Critical Analysis of Images," in Critical Textwork: An Introduction to Varieties of Discourse and Analysis, Ian Parker, ed., Buckingham: Open University Press, 78-91.

Ritson, Mark and Richard Elliott (1999), "The Social Uses of Advertising: An Ethnographic Study of Adolescent Advertising Audiences," Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (3), 260-77.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. (2002), Visual Consumption, London: Routledge.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Janet L. Borgerson (1998), "Marketing Images of Gender: A Visual Analysis," Consumption Markets and Culture, 2 (2), 161-201.

Scott, Linda A. (1994a), "The Bridge from Text to Mind: Adapting Reader-Response Theory to Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (December), 461-480.

Scott, Linda A. (1994b), "Images of Advertising; The Need for a Theory of Visual Rhetoric," Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (September), 252-273.

Solomon, Michael, Gary Bamossy, and Soren Askegaard (2002), Consumer Behaviour: A European Perspective, Harlow, UK: Prentice Hall.

Stern, Barbara B. (1996), "Textual Analysis in Advertising Research: Construction and Deconstruction of Meanings," Journal of Advertising, 25 (3), 61-73.

Stern, Barbara B. (1999), "Gender and Multicultural Issues in Advertising: Stages on the Research Highway," Journal of Advertising, 28 (Spring), 1-10.



Anu Valtonen, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland

This study explores the cultural role of media and advertisements in maintaining and breaking down the prevailing temporal order. It presents the results of an ethnographic study conducted in Finland. Drawing on anthropological literature, the study focuses on newspapers and explores the multiple ways in which they enter into the ritual renegotiation of temporal boundaries both in terms of their content and reading patterns.

The study regards the newspaper as a thoroughly cultural productBadvertisements, journalistic contents, classification principles, publication politics and reading patterns re all products of a given culture, and they all also reproduce that culture. That implicates that advertisers, readers and reporters are all seen part of the same circle by which time is created. From this viewpoint, the newspaper can be seen as a cultural meeting point that makes visible our invisible time conceptions in an interesting way. Especially, in the current information society where traditional temporal order has been called into question, the newspaper makes visible the struggle between old and new temporal ideals. It represents a battleground for renegotiating time. Therefore, it enters in a complex way into the process of enhancing, breaking down or reshaping rituals by which we are used to create time.

For example, the newspaper contains announcements of birth, death, marriages and birthdays that enhance and reproduce these classical rituals marking human life cycles. It also contains advertisements related to these ritualised events, as well as advertisements for many other events representing temporal boundaries, like Christmas, the start and end of schools, and summer vacations. On the other hand, the same newspaper also contains reports and advertisements that promote for a boundary-free society: advertisements of new technological devices that free us from boundaries of time, and discussions of a seamless society. Letters for editor section might present worries about the blurring categories of free and work and constant lack of time. These kinds of discussions and contents as well as the news themselves offer in turn topics for small talk in ritualised events like coffee breaks or lunch pauses at work. Also, the way newspaper contents are classified reveals and enhances our conceptions of time. For instance, what is included to the section "leisure activities" reveals what is culturally considered as appropriate to leisure time, and this in turn reproduces its rituals.

Furthermore, the mere reading of a newspaper is highly ritualistic (cf., Otnes and Scott 1996). It may be a means for creating a time of one’s own, for placing protective boundaries. For many Finns, it is also an essential part of morning rituals. This kind of repetitive usage pattern, as well as the regular daily publishing schedule and quite a strict content structure of the paper, draw attention to the cyclical time concept embedded to the newspaper. In a way, through its regular usage and its basic concept, the newspaper creates a sense of continuity in the midst of contemporary society often characterized in terms of discontinuity (cf., O’Guinn and Shrum 1997).

The viewpoint adopted in this study extends the understanding of social and cultural use of media and advertising in two ways. First, previous studies addressing the relationship between rituals and advertising and media, have concentrated either on exploring rituals and media usage or rituals and advertisements. This study views the media as a seamless, throughout cultural product. This kind of viewpoint makes possible to address its overall cultural role and position in the on-going re-negotiation of time. In doing so, the study takes part into the discussion of "context", considering it not as semantic context, or as a specific social context, but in terms of larger cultural context.

Second, while previous studies have discussed the relationship between advertising, media and rituals in terms of social interactions, for example, how rituals adopted from advertisements create social hierarchies, this study focuses on their role in the creation of time. This focus on time is relevant, since time has become quite a remarkable phenomenon both in academic and practical fields. In the field of consumer research, time has, however, received relatively little attention.

Furthermore, starting from the premise that advertisements and media are cultural products on their own right, the study also questions the relevance of the rigid separation of producer/consumer, reporter/reader, and advertiser/audience. The study offers a viewpoint where they all are seen as cultural members entering into the same on-going renegotiation of time. This lays ground for a new conceptualisation of the subject in advertising and media research.

The fieldwork of the study is conducted in Finland. It consists of personal interviews and focus groups that were used to identify various kinds of temporal boundaries and their ritual production. Drawing on these findings, this given study explores in detail one singular newspaper, a leading paper in Finland, and analyses it in terms of ritual time production. Focusing on the newspaper is particularly relevant in the Finnish context, since newspapers play a specific and dominant role in our media behaviour. Focusing on one single newspaper makes it possible to concentrate on a detailed analysis, and it highlights how 'the production of time’ is thoroughly embedded in an everyday media. The analytical reading and interpretation of the newspaper in this sense is inspired by semiotics and metaphorical analysis. It pays attention both to visuals and texts.


O’Guinn, Thomas C. and L. J. Shrum (1997), "The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality," Journal of Consumer Research, 23 (March), 278-94.

Otnes, Cele and Linda M. Scott (1996), "Something Old, Something New: Exploring the Interaction between Ritual and Advertising," Journal of Advertising, 25 (Spring), 33-50.



Liisa Uusitalo, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland

Brett Martin, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Topi Saari, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland

This paper explores the way men are represented in present-day advertising. Most gender related studies have concentrated in studying women in advertising and claim that men are still represented as the dominant gender and in more active, independent and functional roles than women. This paper asks whether this still holds for advertising in the beginning of 21st century. Many cultural changes may have broken the earlier stereotypes, for example changes in the family life, attitudes toward various sexual identities, concepts of masculinity and femininity, and changes in cultural style.


It has been claimed that advertising relies on stereotypical images and reproduces certain sexist or racist attitudes. Both by its style and rhetoric it tends to treat women as sexual objects, representing them as inferior to men, or if equal, as something threatening to men. Especially, in portraying women, the women body is underscored as the site of femininity (Venkatesan & Losco 1975, Skelly & Lundstrom 1981, Artz & Venkatesh 1991, Goldman 1992, Schroeder & Borgerson 1998, Cortese 1999). Women are often visually portrayed in a position of children (Goffman 1979), and elderly women are represented as somewhat foolish, comical creatures. In short, it is claimed that women have been looked predominantly through the 'gaze of men

Most studies based on American advertising show a higher frequency of men than women portrayed in advertising (Belkaoui & Belkaoui 1976). However, in European countries the difference is smaller. Associating men with products has been based on their authoritative, argumentative role as expert or interviewer rather than a less knowledgeable product user (McArthur & Resko 1975). Studies show only minor changes in male representation: men are portrayed now more often in recreational life spheres and slightly more than earlier as decorative, objectified models. Sill they are not portrayed as taking up any family or household work (e.g. England & Gardner 1983, Wolheter & Lammers 1980). A few recent studies support the persistence of strong masculine stereotypes in advertising, but these studies are not based on as broad media samples as the earlier studies (Brosius, Mundorf & Staab 1991, Kolbe & Albanese 1996).

In contrast, some Nordic studies show changes at least in women’s position (PenttilS & Vilkki 1990). In addition to the traditional, subversive roles, women are displayed in dominant, independent and professional roles. Often they also represent the mythic strong women familiar from the stories of the Greek mythology or a national epos. Based on the recent changes in the representation of the female gender in the Nordic context, we can assume corresponding changes in male representations.

Postmodern cultural tendencies in advertising style mean increasing emphasis on the visual aspects and embedded, connotative meanings. Contemporary body culture is an example of the narcissistic identity seeking based on visual characteristics. Bodies have often become projects to work on, and people assume that there is a strong link between bodily development and social status (Joy & Venkatesh 1994, Patterson & Elliott 2002). Postmodern advertising may also turn upside down the familiar attitude (Petersen 1998). By way of mockery men can be portrayed as submissive in their relationship to women, or as workforce for women, or they can be portrayed otherwise in foolish, self-ironic positions.


The data consist of 62 printed advertisements portraying male images in a sample of 21 Finnish magazines that appeared in 2000-2001. The magazines included a broad scale of family, business, women, sports and other leisure magazines. Finland is a good representative of Europe, because advertising expenditure per capita has long been among the highest in the world, as are the readership figures for magazines and daily papers. Based on a qualitative analysis of the images, twelve distinct categories of representing men were identified.


The results show that men are portrayed in traditional dominant roles and positions, but also in new equal and submissive positions. Moreover, some male images clearly portrayed new sexual identities (androgynous or homosexual). Postmodern tendencies such as body culture and ironic attitude were revealed by several new categories.

The categories 'Polished triumphant’, 'Samurai-man’ and 'Don Juan’ support the conventional gender images. 'The polished triumphant’ is a wealthy, well-dressed, fashionable and successful man with a masculine outlook. He is often surrounded by, or carries leisurely some status symbols. 'Samurai man’ is a continuation to the classical male image based on the mythical lonely heroes of the Western films. It clearly reflects the social tendencies toward individualism, personal fulfillment, and desire for exciting experiences. 'Don Juan’ is a conqueror, seducer and lover of woman. The role division is traditional, the man playing a dominant part. New elements are the direct way of showing sexuality by denotative sexual acts instead of more hidden references. This type consists of two subcategories: the passionate lover and the romantic dreamer.

Men in equal or submissive positions are represented by categories 'Daddy’, 'Woman’s assistant’, 'Low-paid worker’, and 'Equality advocate’. 'Daddies’ are fathers who like to be with their family and children and value highly the time spent at home. Daddies are not necessarily 'soft’ in a feminine way. When men are portrayed as 'Woman’s assistant’, the usual role distribution in which men are in functional and women in decorative roles has been turned upside down. Portraying men as 'Low-paid-workers’ also contrasts the earlier way of representing men as professional experts, managers or skilled, high-paid workers. Men and women in advertisements can be deliberately portrayed as equal. Thus, men acting as 'Equality advocates’ are doing some housework or sports together with their partner. Often the habitus of both sexes is very similar.

Diffusion of sexual identities is shown by categories 'Woman’s imitator’ and 'Minority advocate’. Masculine images are picking up some feminine features. 'Woman’s imitator’ portrays the man as having so many feminine features that he starts to remind a woman. Some male figures in this category could be named also androgynous. Men are portrayed as having feminine appearance, or being interested in activities considered feminine. 'Minority advocate’ refers either to sexual or racial minorities. Earlier there were hardly any references to homosexuality in advertising. Still now the references are rare and hidden and maybe noticed only by sexual minorities themselves. Also advertisements that emphasize body culture include both hetero- and homoerotic suggestions.

The postmodern body culture can be clearly identified. The category 'Eros’ shows that also men are displaying their bodies as beautiful esthetic or sexual objects. A new feature is the narcissistic way to look at and care for the body. Another version of the narcissistic body culture, the 'Trimmer’, is more related to body exercise and training and includes fewer sexual references. To this trimmer-category we also accounted men who were 'trimming’ their appearance. Postmodern cultural style has also brought about a new category of ironic male portrayals, 'Fools’. Advertising that portrays men in an ironic, foolish position may reflect relaxing attitudes toward male authority.

Our results contradict and challenge earlier studies. They show that men are portrayed in a far greater variety of roles than was found earlier. In addition to the traditional representations showing male dominance, there are several new ways of representing men in non-dominant, non-masculine, and subordinate roles, or in positions were they are portrayed equal to women. Especially the men’s new role as child-caring fathers is a rather dominant new trend. Moreover, men (male bodies) can be objectified, and men are as much as women treated as sexual or romantic objects to women or to other men. There is also an ongoing diffusion of sex and gender characteristics. References to homosexual identities are still vague but show that alternative identities or sexual orientations may be breaking through.


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Jonathan E. Schroeder, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
Liisa Uusitalo, Helsinki School of Economics, Finland


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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