Special Session Summary Magic and Transformation in the Marketplace


Cele Otnes (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Magic and Transformation in the Marketplace", 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: 264-266.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 264-266



Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.


In recent years, advertising and marketing researchers have become more and more interested in aspects of consumer behavior that could be described as "sacred," "ritualistic," "transformative," and even "magical." For example, both Rook’s (1985) article on ritualistic consumption and Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry’s (1989) seminal piece on sacred consumption argue that the use of some products and services can "transport" consumers "outside of themselves," and result in transcendent experiences. Likewise, Arnould and Price (1993) delineated what they described as "river magic," or extraordinary experiences that occurred during white water rafting trips. More recently, Arnould, Otnes and Price (1997a, 1997b) and Arnould, Price and Otnes (forthcoming, 1999) have extended this research by examining exactly how consumption experiences in the postmodern era resemble social magic such as that described by Malinowski and other anthropologists xploring traditional societies.

Moreover, scholars in a related areaBadvertisingBhave also become interested in the transformational or magical claims that often appear in this genre. For example, Leiss, Kline, and Jhally (1996) observed that up to 20% of all appeals in ads could be described as "magical," in that they promised some sort of transformation to the consumer. Diane Barthels (1988) describes the use of such claims in beauty ads, and Judith Williamson (1978) states that advertising rhetoric sometimes actually takes the form of spells, a finding supported by recent research on advertising and ritual (Otnes and Scott 1996).

This session integrated these two areas of interest, by exploring the presence of magical elements in goods and services from the perspectives of both consumers and advertisers. In particular, "Magical Special Possessions" by Eric Arnould, Linda Price and Carolyn Curasi explored the ways in which cherished objects acquire characteristics that make them magical to consumers. Moreover, Jelena Runser-Spanjol, Pamela Lowrey and Cele Otnes, in "Magic and Transformation in Advertising: A Longitudinal Study," examined how various types of transformational claimsBor promises that a product or service will change a consumer in any noticeable fashionBare employed in ads directed to women over three decades.

Moreover, this session extended previous research by drawing on a new area of literature that clearly is steeped in magicBthat of the fairy tale. In particular, Benoit Heilbrunn, in "When Snow White Dates Mr. Clean!!! A Narrative Approach to Advertising Discourse" argued that most advertising rhetoric is based on a common universal structure that is found in fairy tales. He observed that while fairy tales offer magical powers as a way to demonstrate competency, the corresponding magic in modern advertising is often articulated as scientific legitimacy (a finding also supported by the transformational claims found in the paper to be presented by Runser-Spanjol, et al).

In short, this session advanced the discussion on magic in the marketplace by: 1) offering a consumer perspective on the magical nature of products; 2) exploring the nature of transformational (and magical) claims in advertising across three decades and 3) discussing the difference between the narrative structure of fairy tales and that of advertising. In addition, we offered an international perspective on this issue by including researchers from France (Heilbrunn), Switzerland (Runser-Spanjol), and the United States.



Eric Arnould , University of Nebraska, U.S.A.

Linda Price, University of Nebraska, U.S.A.

Carolyn Curasi, Berry College, U.S.A.

In this paper we argue that a significant subset of special and irreplaceable possessions are valued for their ability to link the owner or holder with immanent powers to achieve certain ends. Most anthropologists would agree that activation of certain indefinable "latent virtues" in the immaterial world is central to magical practice. Magical possessions interpose between the possessor of these items and immanent forces, to augment possessor potency and/or to enable transcendent experiences.

Our interpretive study develops three themes related to magical possessions. First, these items are used to invoke the spirit of ancestors and protectors, and advisors of descendants to reunite owners with dead loved ones. Second, these magical possessions are used to transcend the present world, creating a powerful physical and emotional experience akin to spirit possession. Third, possessions are often used for practical homeopathic magic to protect, empower, cure and bring good fortune on their owners.

Our development of these themes draws on over 100 semi-structured and depth interviews with consumers about their special possessions, conducted over a thre-year period. This extends our previous research on magical experience (Arnould, Otnes and Price 1997a, 1997b; Arnould, Price and Otnes 1999). But in this present study, we focus on the role of special magical possessions in contemporary embodiments of magical practice. We conclude with a discussion of the way magical possessions are molded to contemporary consumer culture, high in variability and founded on idiosyncratic experience. In postmodernity, magical objects may enable owners to re-constitute their lifeworlds and intentionality, triggering cultural memory and myth and inscribing bodies and selves in cultural tradition.



Benoet Heilbrunn, E.M. Lyon, France

The objective of this paper is to argue that most advertising rhetorical devices are in fact based on a common universal narrative structure that can be found in fairy tales. As Propp showed us as early as 1928, the structure of folklore tales reveals a number of recurring functions or constant elements, independent of how (and by whom) they are fulfilled. In other words, most narratives are articulated around a limited set of common stages. I will illustrate how this common structure of fairy tales is implicitly reproduced in advertisements for most consumer products.

The chosen product category is detergent/cleaners because at first glance, these products lack poetry and imagination, and appear to be a universe totally disconnected from fairy tales. Yet the structure that may be recognized in any cleaner/detergent advertisement relates to the concept of narrative scheme designed by Greimas as a simplified version of Propp’s functions. This scheme boils down to four main functions: contract, acquisition of competency, performance, and sanction. Table 1 shows the similarity of functions between a given fairy tale (Snow White) and a typical cleaner/detergent brand (Mr. Clean).

This model provides a universal narrative structure which allows us to compare the cultural similarities between fairy tales and the advertising universe. It also suggests potential roles to be played by brandsBsuch as hero, an anti-hero, villain (in comparative ads), and so on. Finally, it offers an implicit model by which the consumer may be viewed as a heroine saved by a hero (the brand). The implication from this model is that the imaginary universe of fairy tales has gradually been captured by advertising ideology with the express purpose of involving the consumer in an attempt to develop and consolidate a consumer/brand relationship.



Jelena Runser-Spanjol, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.

Pamela Lowrey, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.

Cele Otnes, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.

Many scholars have argued that some ads promise that products will bring about significant transformations or changes in consumers’ lives (e.g., Barthels 1988; Leiss, et al 1986; Otnes and Scott 1996). However, the nature and pervasiveness of these transformative claimsBand the source of the transformative power behind themBhave not been explored by researchers in any systematic manner. This paper examines the nature of the transformational claims in ads found in two women’s magazines over three decades. In so doing, these claims will be considered within the historical context in which they occurred, and examined as to their differences before or after such events as the introduction of the birth control pill and the rise of the women’s movement.

Two magazinesBVogue and Harper’s BazaarBwere sampled. These publications were selected because of their longevity and wide circulation. Three issues of each magazine were selected from 1951, 1959, 1974, 1979, 1992, and 1997 (two years from each dcade, selected randomly). Every nth ad in each of these issuesBthat created a sample of 20 ads from each magazineCwas scanned and converted into an electronic file, labeled as to magazine and year and converted into an electronic database. The final sample consisted of 720 ads or spreads (20 ads x 3 issues x 6 years x 2 magazines).

Ads were coded for the presence of transformation claims. If such claims were found, they specific nature and duration of the transformation promised to consumers was coded. All elements of copy and art were coded for the possible presence of transformational claims. Initial coding categories were derived from a literature review. The established codes were reviewed by all three authors, and the coding sheet was pretested. After adjustments, a second pretest was undertaken to assess intercoder reliability, which was 73.3%. Disagreements between coders were discussed and resolved.

Of the 720 ads in the sample, 247 (or 34.3%) contained at least one transformational claim. The number of such claims in ads ranged from one to seven, with an average of 2.34 claims in these ads. The vast majority of transformational claims were strictly verbal (89.5%). The two most common transformational claims made across all ads were positive physical transformation (28.2%) and sexuality transformation (24.6%).

Most transformational claims (55.1%) were coded as "enduring," meaning that the transformation would last as long as the product was used by the consumer. Almost 40% were "fleeting," while only 5.7% of ads promised permanent transformations. Most transformational claims were based on science and technology, while only 11.7% were "spiritual."

Chi-square analysis revealed a significant relationship between product category and the total number of transformational claims, the strength of the transformation and the nature of the transformational claims. The nature of these claims, and their variance across decades, is the next step in the exploration of these data.




Arnould, Eric, Cele Otnes, and Linda L. Price (1997a), "Magic in the Marketing Age," Proceedings of the 1997 Illuminations Conference, Department of Marketing, University of Ulster, September 1997.

Arnould, Eric, Cele Otnes, and Linda L. Price (1997b), "Marketplace Magic: Examples and Implications for Consumer Behavior," Proceedings of the 1997 Association for Consumer Research European Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, June, 1997.

Arnould, Eric, Linda Price and Cele Otnes (forthcoming, 1999), "Making Consumption Magic: A Study of River Rafting," Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

Barthels, Diane (1988), Putting on Appearances, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Belk, Russell W., Melanie Wallendorf and John F. Sherry, Jr. (1989), "The Sacred and Profane in Consumer Behavior: Theodicy on the Odyssey," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 1-38.

Leiss, William, Stephen Kline and Sut Jhally (1986), Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products, Images, and Well Being, New York: Metheun.

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

Rook, Dennis (1985), "The Ritual Dimension of Consumer Behavior," Journal of Consumer Research, 12 (December), 251-264.

Williamson, Judith (1978), Decoding Advertisements, New York: Marion Boyars.



Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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