'Absolut’ Consumption: Postmodern Tribe Or False Consciousness?


Richard Elliott (1998) ,"'Absolut’ Consumption: Postmodern Tribe Or False Consciousness?", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 123-124.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 123-124


Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, U.K.


The commodification of the advertising for Absolut vodka has now developed into a market with 100’s of ads being offered for trade on the World Wide Web, and a telephone information line set up by Absolut’s PR agency receives about a thousand calls a month from collectors. Highly-prized for their visual puns and verbal wit, the ads have been collected by college students and adults over the last decade and recently third-grade children in a New York school were restricted to trading Absolut ads on Tuesday and Thursday only (Rothenberg, 1996). Another form of advertising iconography has been described in relation to the portrayal of overt sexuality in an advertising campaign for Haagen-Dazs ice-cream in the UK which was adapted into the social practices of a group of women, where it was suggested that representations of sexuality in advertising may allow women to speak more easily of their desires through the consumption of advertising meaning and its use as a cultural commodity (Elliott and Ritson, 1995). But are these consumers really able to consume advertising as a cultural form without also consuming the intended persuasive meanings?


One important consideration of the nature of the consumption of advertising as a cultural commodity is the ability of individuals to 'twist’ or 'divert’ advertising meanings in order to resist ideological control and to achieve congruence with self image. Heteroglossia (Bakhtin, 1981) describes texts as being multi-vocal, reflecting a society where the discourse of those with power attempts to extend control over the discourse of the poerless. The discourses of the powerless attempt to resist, negotiate or evade this power. In the heteroglossic moment of choice, different interpretations arise leading to polysemy, or mulitiplicity of meanings. Active renegotiation of intended meaning has been shown most clearly by subcultures who perceives themselves to be powerless to control the generation and attribution of meanings within society. This powerlessness impacts upon the autonomy and identity of its members. This lack of power can not be immediately rectified in the material realm of their day to day lives; they remain a disenfranchised, powerless minority and an escape from this position is unlikely (Fiske, 1989). In the semiotic realm however, such cultural amendment is possible. The subculture take the meanings of the mass-culture, those meanings which they feel ostracise, alienate and exploit them, and re-signify them in order to make them simultaneously belong to the group and also reflect the group’s combined rejection of the mass-cultural milieu. Regardless of the specific method used by the subculture, the semiotic motivation which lies behind the act remains the same; the transformation of a mass-culture’s semiotic phenomena into something new, radical and different. The more everyday and 'normal’ the sign is, the more taken-for-granted in the mass-cultural milieu of mainstream society and thus the more attractive it becomes as a subcultural object of transformation. The more a sign represents the powerful majority, the more it also presents a possible site of subcultural distinction if it is transformed. Thus the most grounded symbolic phenomena become the most eagerly appropriated "Dwelling, moving about, speaking, reading, shopping, and cooking are activities that seem to correspond to the characteristics of tactical ruses and surprise: clever tricks of the 'weak’ within the order established by the 'strong’"(de Certeau, 1984). For example, advertising and other aspects of consumer culture have been the arena for re-negotiation of meaning by gay subculture (Ritson and Elliott, 1996). Both Mick and Buhl (1992) and Elliott, Eccles and Hodgson (1993) show how consumers re-negotiate intended meanings subjectively according to their own self-constructs, demonstrating the ability of consumers to re-signify commodity-signs in personalised, unintended directions.


At a societal level of analysis, Maffesoli (1996) has described the formation of 'postmodern tribes’ based on a collectivity of aesthetics, where the social nature of emotional experience constitutes the tribe. The shared emotional experience of consumption phenomena, especially advertising, is thus a prime factor in socialisation (Cova and Svanfeldt, 1993). The construction of social identity through "styles of consumption" is referred to in terms of lifestyle membership of "neo-tribes" by Bauman (1990), where one may join the tribe by buying and displaying tribe-specific paraphernalia. The neo-tribe is informal, without authority and only requires acceptance of the obligation to take on the identity-symbols of the tribe.


However, the power of advertising to influence consumers through subtle ideological manoeuvres cannot be ignored. Although the influence of advertising is often recognised and opposed by the consumer, advertising ideology engenders 'enlightened’ false consciousness in the minds of the consumer as a means of acknowledging this awareness whilst maintaining its ideological influence. In effect, advertising perpetrates a semantic 'double bluff’ by incorporating criticism. By becoming 'reflexive’ a particular ad can distance itself from the identified influence of advertising and in doing so add ideological power to its own influenc. By applying 'tongue-in-cheek’ executions, undercut with a strategic "knowing wink" (Goldman, 1992) advertising ideology is able to wipe the slate of consciousness clean and begin the process of ideology anew with the new 'enlightened’ consumer. Thus consumers obtain merely an imagined freedom from hegemony.


If we define art simply as something which people display for enjoyment i.e. they hang it on the wall, then we can conclude that for many young people advertising is an art form. Among the cultural functions of art are to "Materialize a way of experiencing, bring a particular cast of mind into the world of objects, where men can look at it" (Geertz, 1983), and to "make the implicit explicit" (Schudson, 1984), which can allow people to develop the cultural meanings for experience which already exist. Adorno’s (1984) aesthetic theory of art accords it a fetishistic status which gives it autonomy against the threat of commodification, and thus art may empower the individual to resist dominant meanings: "Freedom from repression can be represented only by what does not succumb to repressionthere is in art works a fetishistic quality that transcends mere commodity fetishism and which can be neither discharged nor disavowed." This ability of art to resist dominant meanings depends on autonomy, it must not have any obvious social function: "Estrangement from the world is a moment of artIf any social function can be ascribed to art at all, it is the function to have no function." Thus advertising may retain autonomy only if it performs no social function, so "postmodern" advertisements that carry no specific product information at all, and sometimes not even the brand name, allowing the consumer to create idiosyncratic meanings and thus be empowered to resist ideological hegemony. Using advertisements as a symbolic resource for self-construction which enables them to experience different ways of being, individuals can perhaps achieve (limited) freedom of action and sustain a (fragile and imaginary) integrated self.


Adorno, T. W. (1984). Aesthetic Theory. trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogical Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bauman, Z. (1990), Thinking Sociologically, Oxford: Blackwell.

Cova, B. and Svanfeldt, C. (1993), Societal Innovations and the Postmodern Aesthicization of Everyday Life. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 10, 297-310.

de Certeau, M.(1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkley: University of California Press.

Elliott, R., Eccles, S. & Hodgson, M.(1993), 'Recoding Gender Representations: Women, Cleaning Products and Advertising’s "New Man"’, International Journal of Research in Marketing, 10, 1-14

Elliott, R. & Ritson, M. (1995), "Practicing Existential Consumption: The Lived Meaning of Sexuality in Advertising," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 22, 740-746.

Fiske, J. (1989). Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin-Hyman.

Geertz, C. (1983). Art as a cultural system. In: Local knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. London: Fontana Press.

Goldman, R. (1992). Reading Ads Socially. London: Routledge.

Mick, D.G. & Buhl, C.(1992),’A Meaning Based Modl of Advertising’, Journal of Consumer Research, 19, 317-338.

Ritson, M., & Elliott, R. (1996). Reframing IKEA: Commodity Signs, Consumer Creativity and the Social-Self Dialectic, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 23, 127-131. Provo: UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Rothenberg, R. (1996), Absolut Madness. Esquire, October, 68-69.

Schudson, M. (1984), Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion. London: Routledge.



Richard Elliott, University of Oxford, U.K.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


N14. The Bright Side of Sadness: How Mood Affects Goal Initiation

Yunqing Chen, Chinese University of Hong Kong, China
Leilei Gao, Chinese University of Hong Kong, China

Read More


R5. Autonomy or Enjoyment? The Contingent Nature of Brand Ritual

Yaxuan Ran, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law
Echo Wen Wan, University of Hong Kong

Read More


I6. How Does Runner’s World Shape a Runner’s World? Understanding Representations of the “Ideal” Female Body in Fitness Advertising

Carly Drake, University of Calgary, Canada
Scott Radford, University of Calgary, Canada

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.