Special Session Summary Aesthetics and Consumption


Benoit Heilbrunn (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Aesthetics and Consumption", 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: 188-190.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 188-190



Benoit Heilbrunn, E. M. Lyon, France


Numerous contributions have pointed out the pivotal role of aesthetics in marketing practices. Aesthetics largely influences the way companies design products, services and places as well as the way consumers perceive, select, purchase and use goods. Also the experiential approach to consumption explicitely implies a move from rational criteria to more affective and emotional ones. It thus seems important to analyse to which extend rational and aesthetic criteria may be combined in the contemporary system of consumption.

The diffusion of aesthetics in marketing practices requires the definition of methodological strategies to assess its role, both in the offer definition by companies and in the offer perception by consumers. A specific methodological framework may be necessary in order to evaluate the various dimensions of aesthetics.

This session articulates three perspectives on aesthetics: aesthetics as perceived by consumers (paper #1), aesthetics as perceived by the researcher (paper #2) and aesthetics as defined by companies (paper #3).

The first paper by FrTdTric Brunel uses two experiments and two distinct measures of aesthetic evaluation to establish that aesthetic evaluation mediates the effect aesthetics produces on product attitudes. As part of a proposed dual meiation model, it is also argued that this mediating role can also influence product beliefs, which in turn affect product attitude’s cognitive component. A discussion of the findings, their limitations and implications for future research follow.

The second paper by Lisa Penaloza shows the essential role of fieldnotes and photographs as data collection methods to study the role of aesthetics in consumption. It also shows that both fieldnotes and photographs bring to light aspects of consumption phenomena overlooked through the use of other methods. A need for more methodological creativity and innovation in the writing of consumer ethnographic texts is pointed out.

The third paper by Patrick Hetzel uses a socio-semiotic approach on four examples of service places in order to show that the aesthetic reference to the past is a multi-dimensional concept. A link is thus outlined between the world of the sign "expression" and the role of consumption in constructing and maintaining a sense of the past for consumers (also called nostalgia).



FrTdTric F. Brunel, Boston University, U.S.A.

Product design and aesthetics are important business concerns that remain largely under-researched. This research combines recent developments in marketing, psychology and the visual arts to study product aesthetics (shape, color, texture etc.). For instance, advertising research has shown that an affective reaction to the advertisement (Attitude towards the Ad) is a significant mediator of the impact of the advertisement on the attitude towards the product (see Brown and Stayman, 1992, for a review). In the context of the evaluation of product form, some similar discussion can be advanced. Aesthetic evaluation is based on the intrinsic aesthetics attributes of the products. It derives "from the design and sensory properties of the product rather than its performance or functional attributes" (Bloch, 1995, p.20.) Aesthetic evaluation can be measured for instance with the scales developed by Ellis (1993) or Hirschman (1986). These instruments are measures of the degree to which an object arouses one’s emotions and the extent to which it is perceived attractive and desirable. It is argued that when consumers confront a product and evaluate it, they form an affective (like/dislike) reaction (i.e. aesthetic evaluation). Aesthetic evaluation is conceptualized as a mediator between the product’s physical appearance , and the consumer’s overall attitude toward this product. This mediation role is further justified by the fact that aesthetic evaluation should be seen as a distinct construct from product attitude. Although it is true that aesthetic evaluation is expected to influence product attitudes, product attitudes should be seen as being the consequences of more than just product aesthetics. Other elements (e.g. features, past experiences etc.) also have an impact on product attitudes.

Two experiments were designed to manipulate the aesthetic properties as well as the functional properties of wall clocks. Study ione was a 2*2 (aesthetics and functions respectively) between subjects design and used Ellis (1993) aesthetic evaluation scale. Study two was a 3*2 (aesthetics and functions respectively) between subjects designed and used Hirschman (1993) aesthetic evaluation scale. Following their mediation effect testing methodology outlined by Baron and Kelly (1986), analyses of the findings in each study showed that aesthetic evaluation mediates the effect of product physical appearance on product attitudes. These results suggest that consumers systematically process product aesthetics elements, and used it as a basis for product judgements. Also, it should be noted that as expected, aesthetic evaluation was not influenced by the product functional description.

Discussion of these results and direction for future research lead to the consideration of a dual mediation model, where aesthetic evaluation can lead to cognitive elaboration.It is argued that aesthetic evaluation can mediate not only the overall attitude toward the product but also beliefs about it, and in the beliefs about the product in turn influence the overall product judgment. The evaluative weight of each mediation path can vary based on the situational context and/or individual’s personality traits.



Patrick Hetzel, Robert Schuman University, Strasbourg, France

There are many authors, if not all, who, in the context of the current post-modern environment of marketing and consumption, agree that the aestheticization of everyday life is one of the most striking features of our present times. Very often, this is emphasized by the increasing use of themes in everyday life and especially in the case of commercial spaces like shops, restaurants or hotels (Gottdiener, 1997). One very widespread theme is for example: "the past". In this case, the service places are presenting the appearance of a way of life that no longer exists (Rybczynski, 1986). But whether the way of life is remembered, or simply imagined, it nevertheless signifies a widely held nostalgia (Holbrook, 1990). A study of the litterature allowed us to figure out that on one hand the theme of nostalgia had been widely studied in different areas of consumption like advertising (Stern, 1992) or product possessions (Belk, 1990) and that on the other hand, the concept of place in contemporary markets already led to important contributions in the area of consumer research (Sherry, 1998). Therefore, we thought that the question of romancing the past in contemporary service places could probably be studied somewhat more.

Some questions remain to be asked. Is it simply a curious anachronism, this desire for tradition, or is it a reflection of a deeper dissatisfaction with the surroundings that our modern world had created after world war two ? What are we missing so much that we look so desesperately for in the past ? Of course, those questions are very difficult to answer but in order to provide a new interpretation of the problem of the aestheticization of the present by using the past, we are going to work in parallel on a study in two directions. On the one hand, we shall conduct a socio-semiotic analysis of four different service places in Lyon (France); on the other, we shall attempt to create a link between the world of the sign "expression" (the service place) and the role of consumption in constructing and maintaining a sense of the past for consumers (so called "nostalgia") (Havlena and Holak, 1991, Holak and Havlena, 1992).

The four service places are the following:

Ba bakery called: "Boulangerie Pozzoli"

Ba bar called: "Panorama CafT"

Ba home furniture shop called: "la Maison de Jeanne"

Ba restaurant called: "la Commanderie des Antonins".

These four examples will help us to explain that the reference to the past is a multi-dimensional concept. That it does not lead to one single reality of the aestheticization process of service places. One can create an entirely new place using the reference to the past as a stage (Maison de Jeanne). One can also renovate an old place, trying to make sure that it is as similar as possible to what it was a few centuries ago, which brings back to authenticity as the conjoint theme (Commanderie des Antonins). One could also use an old place and renovate it, thereby trying to keep some elements of the previus function of the place and its new function (Panorama CafT). This bar was previously a movie theater. Therefore, "cinema" was used as a theme for the new function of the place but most of the "signifiers" were related to the present. And finally, one could mix elements of the present and the past but instead of relating the visual signifiers to the present, most of them can be related to the past (Boulangerie Pozzoli).

If we think about the implications of what we were previously mentionning, the following aspects can be noticed:

Bthe codes of the present and the past are more and more brought together

Bcontemporary aesthetics tell us that everything goes

Bcontemporary service places contribute to the crises of the logical distinction between the present and the past



Lisa Pe±aloza, University of Colorado, U.S.A.

Julien Cayla, University of Colorado, U.S.A.

Visuals are pervasive as both metaphor and epistemology in social research. The words, "I see" are used interchangeably for "I understand." Visual methods have a rich tradition in the social sciences; examples include participant observation, photography, documentary film, and archaeological artifact and site studies. In contrast, in the field of consumer behavior we paradoxically have a sophisticated sense of consumers’ use of visuals, yet very limited sense of visuals’ usefulness as data on consumption. The use of visuals has been largely limited to object of study in the analysis of advertisements (Scott 1994; Kassarjian 1977), stimulus in eliciting experimental responses (Mitchell 1986; Edell and Staelin 1983) and interview data (Heisley and Levy 1991), and illustration of interpretive findings (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Wallendorf and Belk 1987). These predominant uses in generating other forms of data or communicating results belie the potential contributions of visual studies of consumer behavior (Collier and Collier 1986).

Even ethnography, which specializes in fieldwork, has relied more on interviews than fieldnotes or photographs as primary data (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Arnould 1989; Pe±aloza forthcoming; Holt 1995). In doing so we have privileged what consumers say over what we see them do in our operationalizations of consumption phenomena, and limited our ability to compare the two, which is one of the strengths of fieldwork (Spradley 1980). When used at all, fieldnotes and photographs most often have set the context, framing the research for the "real" data to follow, largely in the form of interview responses. The result is an implicit epistemology-a consumer mediated phenomenology-if you will, that severely limits the ethnographer to reflecting upon consumer testimony (Wallendorf and Brucks 1993). This presentation draws from ethnographic studies of Niketown, Chicago, a Latino marketplace site, and a western stock show in comparing and contrasting the respective strengths and weaknesses of fieldnotes and photographs as a form and mode of representation.

Both fieldnotes and photographs are well suited to behavioral studies of consumption in situ, as they attend to experiential aspects of consumption (e.g., movement and activities), consumption environments (e.g., mall, store and home design and decor), material cultural artifacts (e.g., advertisements, product design and features) and interpersonal proxemics. In ethnographic research both fieldnotes and photographs ae used to learn about a particular consumption phenomenon, and both aspire to accurate representations. Generally, photographs provide more detailed observation than fieldnotes, yet they are quite limited in studying consumers’ cognitive processes. On the other hand, fieldnotes are written records of the multisensorial experiences of ethnographers, and their greater use in consumer ethnographic accounts entails a corresponding increase in the incorporation of researchers’ subjectivity in our field.

Issues of representation differ between fieldnotes and photographs, as the result of the manner in which each is understood to represent reality. Sontag (1977) noted how photographs were a presumed measure of veracity even as they were recognized to idealize, both in their way of seeing and the substantive content they represent. Photographs both certify and refuse experience, as their conventions influence people’s judgments of what is worthy of remembering and what is not. They communicate based on a visual code, altering and enlarging "notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe" (Sontag 1977, p. 3). In contrast, fieldnotes raise differential issues of representation linked to their various uses in recording events and impressions of consumer behavior and marketplace aesthetics. Interestingly, despite the central, indeed formative role that fieldnotes play in ethnography, they have only recently been brought under critical attention, with wide variation noted in their form, content, uses, and confidentiality across ethnographers, and across time (i.e., over the life of the project and beyond it) (Sanjek 1990). The most serious limitation of field notes and photographs alike is the selective perception and intentionality of their collection (Collier and Collier 1986; Harper 1994). Rigor in writing fieldnotes and taking pictures requires the researcher become aware of his/her own way of approaching, accessing and recording a social phenomenon in order to alter each over time to yield more complete representations.

Finally, there is some evidence to suggest that fieldnotes and photographs capture different aspects of the phenomena under study both in data collection and forms of presentation. Bateson and Mead (1942) noted they had gained new insights through the use of photographs after ten years of field work in Bali. As a part of culturally informed observation, their (photographs’) strengths lie in providing detailed and complete physical records, integrating the study of culture through investigating images and text, and communicating "aspects of culture never successfully recorded by the scientist, although often caught by the artist" (Bateson and Mead 1942, p. xi). Both fieldnotes and photographs play an important role in bringing to light aspects of consumption phenomena overlooked through the use of other methods. As importantly, fieldnotes and photographs disrupt objective, linear conventions of reading studies of consumption behavior. Taussig (1987) resorted to montage in an effort to create special modes of presentation that disrupted the imagery of the natural order through which, in the name of the real, power exercises its dominion. In closing the presentation, greater balance is called for in the use of informant testimony, fieldnotes and photographs as ethnographic data; as is greater creativity and innovation in the writing of consumer ethnographic texts.


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Benoit Heilbrunn, E. M. Lyon, France


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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