An Introduction to the Theory of Symbolism of Habitat and Its Implication For Consumer Behavior and Marketing Communication

ABSTRACT - In Appleton's theory of a natural symbolism of habitat, he suggests that there is a basic symbolism present in our landscape environment (including garden landscape, buildings, street scenes, countryside, etc.) that survives from man's earliest beginning. Perceptions of this symbolism in visual representations are hypothesized by him to elicit specific feelings descendent from our drive for survival: prospect, which signals opportunity to see or explore; refuge which implies protection; and hazard which stirs feelings of wanting to escape. This paper reviews Appleton's theory and presents the results of an exploratory study designed to test consumer reaction to a series of visual images representative of Appleton's three concepts. Findings provide generally strong support for these ideas, and their implications for marketing and communications are discussed.


Larry Percy (1995) ,"An Introduction to the Theory of Symbolism of Habitat and Its Implication For Consumer Behavior and Marketing Communication", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 19-28.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 19-28


Larry Percy, Montgomery, Alabama


In Appleton's theory of a natural symbolism of habitat, he suggests that there is a basic symbolism present in our landscape environment (including garden landscape, buildings, street scenes, countryside, etc.) that survives from man's earliest beginning. Perceptions of this symbolism in visual representations are hypothesized by him to elicit specific feelings descendent from our drive for survival: prospect, which signals opportunity to see or explore; refuge which implies protection; and hazard which stirs feelings of wanting to escape. This paper reviews Appleton's theory and presents the results of an exploratory study designed to test consumer reaction to a series of visual images representative of Appleton's three concepts. Findings provide generally strong support for these ideas, and their implications for marketing and communications are discussed.


In his The Experience of Landscape (1975), Jay Appleton introduces the notion of an aesthetic psychology based upon a primitive survival instinct. He suggests one should consider the possibility of a "natural symbolism" that represents elements crucial to survival in the habitat of living creatures. He argues, following Roston (Appleton, 1990), that humans derive pleasure from particular scenery owing to "instinctual responses traceable to man's early experiences as hunter and hunted, with open plains offering welcome escape routes and strategically placed trees or bushes providing concealment for stalking prey."

Appleton attempts to show how a classification system might be developed that would enable the analysis of landscape for descriptive purpose into, as he has put it, "functional rather than morphological categories" (Appleton, 1990). Specifically, he identifies three categories to help define one's relation to our environment: prospect, refuge, and hazard. Prospect is defined as having to do with "perceiving, with obtaining information, particularly visual information"; refuge as referring to "hiding, sheltering, or seeking protection," and hazard as implying "the proximity of something which threatens, menaces, or disturbs our equilibrium."

In this paper we shall be presenting Appleton's theory in some detail, and discussing its potential impact upon consumer behavior. On the surface, the implications would seem to be significant. If indeed we respond to our environment at a deep and primitive level, these responses may certainly mediate our behavior as consumers. This would include everything from the obvious example of where one chooses to live or holiday, to more subtle effects such as how one responds to visual background images in marketing communications (e.g. advertising or even package design).

To determine if in fact people do seem to respond to various natural landscapes in a systematic or predictable manner consistent with this theory of natural symbolism in our habitat, the results of an exploratory study into some of these issues is presented. The findings do tend to be consistent with the theory.


Appleton (1990) draws a rather specific definition of what he means by "natural symbolism." He takes care to separate this notion from what he has called "culturally determined symbolism," that which Kroeber-Riel (1993) and others have talked about as culturally determined schemata. These would be the symbols one has learned, even if one may now respond to them at a sub-cognitive level. The response was learned, and is not part of our simply being human. On the other hand, Appleton's definition of "natural symbolism" would seem to go well beyond that of a Jungian archetype. For Appleton, "natural symbolism" is "an intrinsic part of the survival behavior of the species."

Without belaboring the point, he is suggesting that Homo sapiens have a natural habitat to which they are naturally drawn. Arguing from the work of people like Balling and Falk (1982), Orians (1980, 1986), and other anthropologists that we as a species are attracted to an environment reflective of our origins, consisting essentially of trees and grass. Appleton points out that Orians argues that whatever it was that originally drew man to this type of landscape still survives in our genetic makeup. The English landscape garden, the most popular landscape form in the world, is a perfect reflection of this type of landscape environment.

There is a critical point in all of this as one explores the possible implications of the theory for consumer behavior. The key is implied by what environmental psychologists have called affordance (Gibson, 1979): or as Appleton has put it, "what's in it for me?" It is not enough that people perceive the symbolism in landscape or habitat, but that they respond to it in a predictable way. This is not to say that these responses are necessarily prescriptive, because like most things (in marketing, advertising comes immediately to mind) environments may communicate conflicting signals. Nevertheless, these symbols do alert us. Appleton (1990) puts it this way. Symbolism of this kind is more like a notice of what lies ahead, and "prepares us to make a decision on how best to adjust out behavior to what we shall find when we encounter it." An important thing for us to recognize here is that this response occurs automatically, out of consciousness. In other words, the "environment" of our marketing activities, everything from store layout to package, buildings to advertising, provides a visual context that in many ways triggers responses conditioned by "natural symbolism."

It is interesting to note that in a great deal of landscape painting, the concepts of prospect and refuge are jointly present; and in fact, these notions find their way into most visual renderings, including portraits. On one side of a visual field one finds the symbols of prospect (e.g. long views off into the distance); on the other, symbols of refuge (e.g. heavy foliage or buildings). These joint symbols reflect opportunity and security, and promote a feeling of both pleasure and stability. Returning to the idea that these responses follow from man's original habitat, where prospect satisfied the need to stay well informed about possible threats or opportunities, and refuge provided protection, one can understand the residual importance of their symbolism.

Looking more closely at prospect, Appleton reminds us of the rather unique imagery qualities of the horizon. The horizon separates that which we "see" from that which we only "imagine." One does not know what lies beyond the horizon. But man, as all other animals, is driven to explore. The long term benefit of this drive to explore is an improved chance of survival (Appleton, 1990); and we would add, an improved chance of success. This last, of course, has important implications for consumer behavior. If the horizon stimulates an underlying interest in exploring or a positive feeling of opportunity, this context should enhance positive processing of messages reflective of this view (e.g. financial services).

Appleton (1990) tells us that the most evocative line in the English language comes from the nursery rhyme: Over the hill and far away! While the horizon implied can be experienced visually in any number of ways, at root it has the ability to stimulate interest and pleasure (i.e. pleasure from curiosity, following Campbell, 1973).




The sort of imagery evoked by the horizon, properly understood, may facilitate processing where it is a part of a communication. Work presented by Kroeber-Riel (1993) underscores the practical potential of this idea. In his work, he is seeking to associate, from consumer responses, a key visual element with the primary attribute of a brand in order to optimize processing and persuasion. The results of such a program for Volksbanken Raiffeisenbanken (a large retail bank in Germany) was a series of ads where the key visual element in each was a large path leading off to the horizon. Figures 1a, 1b, and 1c provide outline sketches of three ads from the series. One could not hope to find better illustrations of the point.

The major message is: "Wir machen den Weg frei" (We clear the way to give our clients a safe and solid base for the future, to live free and independent). In each ad we have an integration of prospect and refuge. The horizon itself has been interfered with by the inclusion of rocky mountains, trees, or tall buildings. Each of these images offers a symbol of refuge or safety in keeping with the "safe and solid base for the future" claim. But the road running to the horizon reinforces the point that this is the best place to "see" beyond the horizon; the clean path to the future.

It is important here to understand that this visual interpretation, the path leading to the horizon, was generated by consumers in response to the verbal cues related to the primary message. Kroeber-Riel uses an insightful research technique that (simply put) asks people to visualize whatever image they associate with the primary attribute or claim made by a brand or company (the bank in this case). From the images suggested, a set of visual stimuli is gathered and exposed to people to see what attribute is primarily associated with that image. It is his contention that the best communication accesses a strong emotional schema at a very deep level. Kroeber-Riel (1988) identifies three basic emotional schemata:

1. Biologically founded schemata which rely upon deeply seeded psychological responses that have a relatively strong impact upon behavior, and are common to people all over the world. Two examples would be various erotic images and babies.

2. Culturally determined schemata which are found in the myths and arts of a culture (although certain myths do transcend culture, and actually tap biological schemata).

3. Individually learned schemata which tend to be restricted to particular groups. Examples here would be groups such as sports fans.

Clearly the schemata tapped by the image of a path to the horizon is biologically founded in his sense; and just as clearly would seem to be tapping what Appleton has called a natural symbol of habitat.


In order to explore the issues of natural symbolism in landscape, a series of eight landscape paintings by three masters of the "picturesque" and the "sublime" were selected: two by van Ruisdael, two by Poussin, and four by Claude. These artists were specifically chosen because of their acknowledged renderings of specific "moods" in landscape. Claude is considered the master of the picturesque, rendering classical themes in landscape to elicit feelings of calm and balance. Van Ruisdael (like the earlier Italian master Salvatore Rosa) renders what is known as the "sublime" in art and landscape. This means images that arouse a sense of alarm or danger in the viewer; such things as raging water, rough terrain, or steep cliffs. Poussin tended to paint in the picturesque mode, but was equally known for touches of the sublime.

These artists provide styles of landscape painting that well reflect Appleton's notions of prospect, refuge, and hazard. Claude and Poussin should provide images of prospect and refuge; van Ruisdael images reflective of hazard.

In addition to the eight paintings, eight additional images of actual landscapes found in the English countryside (photographic slides taken by the author) were included. These images were carefully selected to provide a full range of the symbols suggested by Appleton: such things as columns, water, bridges, open landscape, lowering sky, etc. Again, the ideas of prospect, refuge, and hazard were fully covered.

Four cells with roughly 90 adult male and female subjects in each participated in the study. The study was conducted in two cities in the eastern United States. Within each cell, two paintings and two actual landscapes were used as test stimuli. All stimuli were presented via color slides. For subject ratings on Appleton's dimensions of prospect, refuge, and hazard, they were operationalized, following his definitions, as "opportunity," "protection," and "escape." After exposure to each test slide, subjects were first asked: "For this slide, we would like to know how strongly you feel a sense of 'opportunity' as you look at it. Would you say the feeling is very strong, somewhat strong, not too strong, or not strong at all?" The question was then repeated for "protection" (reflecting refuge) and "escape" (reflecting hazard).

Considering the outcomes in response to natural symbolism in landscape described by Appleton, one would expect a feeling of comfort or relaxation if there is in fact a positive response. This would especially be true of "hazard," assuming the image provides an obvious means of avoiding the consequence of the hazard (e.g. a bridge over a waterfall). In addition, if these notions are to have practical application in effecting consumer behavior, one would hope for a relationship between natural symbolism in landscape and a desired attribute in a company or brand. For example, if a company wished to be seen as "friendly," a sense of comfort elicited by the visual imagery of its communication would help reinforce that response. Toward this end, subjects were also asked how strongly each slide stimulated a sense of comfort and of relaxation, utilizing the same four-point scale.


The first things one is struck by in analyzing the results of this study is that on the one hand there is a great deal of discrimination among the 16 images, while on the other hand certain images carry multiple meanings. This seems to be reflected in the overall correlations between the responses to the three dimensions of habitat (as measured over the 16 images studied). There are moderate correlations between Prospect and both Refuge (r=.71) and Hazard (r=.70); yet there is a very weak relationship between Refuge and Hazard (r=.34). Looking at the individual difference in responses to various images for each of the three dimensions offers some help in explaining these relationships, as we shall see in the discussion below.

Subjects definitely respond to certain images more than others (and generally in the ways suggested by Appleton), and a few images seem to elicit strong responses to each feeling studied, especially Images H and D, as seen in Table 1. Before addressing each of Appleton's three concepts of the symbolism of habitat, let us look at these two images that elicit such strong overall appeal (Figures 2 and 3).

As the data in Table 2 show, the proportion of subjects expressing a very strong feeling for Image H (Figure 2), a view of the English countryside open to the horizon, ranged from 40% for Opportunity to 69% for Relaxation, while the range for Image D (Figure 3), a setting from an English garden showing a gateway and sunlit path leading away in the direction of the horizon, ranged from 40% for Opportunity to 56% for Relaxation. These are rather remarkable numbers when one considers that as few as 9% felt some images inspired a very strong feeling of Opportunity (and, in fact, 7 of the 16 images had "very strong" ratings of 20% or less); and that as few as 13% felt another image studied elicited a very strong feeling of Relaxation.

What is it about these two images that cause such a strong response to all of the feelings measured? In terms of Appleton's three concepts, a close look at each of the images reveals elements consistent with the symbolism of habitat he attaches to each concept. Looking at Image H (Figure 2), we see a strong representation of Prospect in the wide horizon (reflected in our measure of Opportunity); Refuge in the grouping of trees (measured by Protection); and as Appleton (1990) has pointed out, "whatever form an impediment hazard may take, a particular significance attaches to any point at which it can be overcome . . . openings in walls, holes in hedges" would seem to explain the strong feeling for escape (our measure of Escape). Image D (Figure 3), which reflects a much different aspect of natural habitat, again strongly elicits feeling for all three concepts. The lighted path arouses a desire to explore (Prospect), the gate posts offer a sense of protection (Refuge), and the breach in the wall a means of escape (Hazard).





But while these two images have the ability to elicit strong feelings for each of Appleton's concepts of symbolism in natural habitat, others of the images studied did little to arouse any feeling, while still others tended to be more uniquely related to a particular concept. We shall next examine what images do or do not tend to reflect each of the three concepts.






As we look at the mean ratings for Opportunity in Table 1 (our measure of Prospect), we see that Images H and D are most likely to elicit feelings of "Opportunity." As we have already noted, 40% of subjects felt each image stimulated a "very strong" feeling of Opportunity, the highest of any of the 16 images. It is also clear that none of the 16 images studied seem to be uniquely associated with Opportunity, although Image F, Claude's famous painting of Aeneas at Delos is more strongly associated with Opportunity than either Protection or Escape. In both Images F and H we have the purest examples of a wide horizon from among the 16 images studied, so it makes sense (following Appleton) that they would be most likely to elicit a strong feeling of Opportunity. Image D, as already discussed, provides a path leading away, which is consistent with the idea of man's drive to explore. Appleton (1975) in discussing what he terms "one of the most significant manifestations of the symbolism of opportunity" calls just this type of image a "deflected vista" in which a potential channel of movement is disclosed but the view along it is terminated by a bend or deflection.

Looking for images that do not suggest Opportunity, but are at least somewhat likely to suggest Protection or Escape, we see that Image C, which tends to elicit feelings of both Protection and Escape, does not at all suggest Opportunity. As we see in Figure 4, this image offers no sense at all of access to the horizon. Clearly then, a key symbol of Opportunity derived from our landscape environment is a view to the horizon; or at least an implied path to the horizon to explore.



Appleton (1990) has also remarked that bridges are "a powerful symbol of opportunity," (as well as hazard, as we shall see below, albeit for different reasons). Four of the images studied included a bridge within the landscape, some more prominent than others. If we look at the average strength of these four images to evoke a feeling of Opportunity, we find it higher than the average strength of those without a bridge (2.68 vs. 2.52); a finding that becomes statistically significant if we eliminate the three defining Images H, D, and F (2.68 vs. 2.39), significant at the .05 level. While it is obviously impossible to partial out all potentially mediating symbolism within these images, the results do suggest a strong association between bridges and an image's ability to evoke a feeling of Opportunity.


Looking next at Refuge, which was measured as a feeling of Protection, we find that Image G (Figure 5), one that depicts a view from inside a house through a window into an enclosed courtyard garden, is strongly and uniquely associated with a feeling of Protection: 57% very strongly felt a feeling of Protection. The sense of Protection or Refuge here is obvious in this image. Another image that is more strongly associated with Refuge than either Prospect of Hazard is Image O (Figure 6), one of a substantial arched entranceway with foliage leading to a dark passageway. This image clearly reflects what Appleton (1990) has described as the "strong emotional attraction towards the symbolism of the cave" in his discussion of Refuge. Image D, as already discussed, also strongly elicits a feeling of protection.

Seeking images that do not reflect Refuge while at least somewhat associated with Protection and Hazard, we find one in Image P (Figure 7), a view of a bridge seemingly in the middle of a field with trees spotted here and there. The key here would seem to be the fact that these trees clearly offer no place to "hide," since they are not grouped in copses. In fact, as one studies all those images which were weakest for Refuge, the common denominator is no place to hide. In each the trees are clearly isolated, and in two there are rocky scenes with no caves or niches evident.


Turning to Hazard, Image A, van Ruisdael's A Waterfall elicits the strongest feeling of Escape. In this strong image of turbulent water in the foreground with a bridge over the rapids providing the means of "escape" from the impediment, we have a perfect example of that Appleton has called Hazard. This image was not only the most likely to elicit a feeling of Escape, but it also elicited the strongest feeling of any image for any concept: 65% said they felt a very strong feeling of Escape when exposed to this image. It is also of interest that as one looks at those images which tend to be stronger for Hazard rather than either Prospect or Refuge, we find that 3 of the 4 represent the remaining images with a bridge. While we have already seen that bridges are powerful symbols of Opportunity, providing a means to explore, they are also an important "breach in impediment hazard," as Appleton (1990) has put it. If we again look at the average strength of the response for those images with a bridge vs. those without, this time for feelings of escape, we note a significant difference (3.13 vs. 2,75, significant at the .05 level). The remaining image unique to Hazard, Image I, is another of van Ruisdael's paintings, A Waterfall Near a Village. Again we find rough water in the foreground, cascading among large ragged rocks, but with the safety of a village behind.







It is interesting that the two images included in this study that most reflect what Burke (1757) and writers on landscape theory in the 18th century called the "sublime," van Ruisdael's waterfalls, both strongly evoke a sense of Hazard and feeling of Escape. This idea of the "sublime" was to experience the thrill or horror of danger viz. such landscape features as a precipice, raging water, or ragged rocks, but with a knowledge of one's own safety. There would appear to be a strong relationship between the "sublime" and those symbolisms of Hazard as suggested by Appleton.

Comfort and Relaxation

In addition to attempting to measure Appleton's three concepts, two additional measures were gathered. As one studies Appleton's theory of the symbolism of habitat, it becomes clear that one of the consequences of a person's "reading" these symbols in one's environment is a sense of well-being that should be reflected in such feelings as comfort or relaxation. Responding to these symbols in one's habitat, Appleton argues, is one of the ways that helped to sustain the evolution of man, and to the extent that these feelings are evoked, one should feel at ease. For a preliminary look at this issue, subjects were also asked how strongly they felt a sense of "comfort" and a sense of "relaxation" on the same four point scale used for the dimensions of habitat.

In fact, we do indeed find that those images that elicit any of the three concepts also strongly elicit feelings of Comfort and Relaxation (Table 3). Even those images that were strongly associated with only one concept evoke strong feelings of Comfort and Relaxation as well. For example, Image A (unique to Hazard) elicited very strong overall response for both Comfort (3.10) and Relaxation (3.33); and Image G (unique to Refuge) elicited very strong response for each (3.35 and 3.34).

Bridges, which were found to indeed be strong symbols of both Prospect and Hazard as Appleton predicted, also were found to be strongly related to both Comfort and Relaxation. Those images with bridges were significantly more likely than the average image with no bridge to elicit a feeling of Comfort (3.16 vs. 2.77) and Relaxation (3.30 vs. 2.86), both significant at the .05 level.

The image eliciting the strongest feeling of both Comfort and Relaxation was Image H (Figure 2), where 61% and 69% respectively reported a very strong feeling in response to the image. Image H, of course, was the most universally strong image, reflecting each of the three concepts. Interestingly, the image eliciting the next highest very strong response for both Comfort and Relaxation was Image G (Figure 4), a strong image unique to Refuge, with 59% reporting a very strong feeling of Comfort and 63% a very strong feeling of Relaxation.

The overall relationship between Comfort and Relaxation is clearly quite strong (correlating at r=.97 over the 16 stimuli studied), but there is some variation relative to the three dimensions of habitat. What we found (as seen in Table 4) is that Relaxation is more strongly correlated with Hazard than either Prospect or Refuge, while Comfort is correlated well with all three dimensions. The weakest overall relationship for both Comfort and Relaxation is with Refuge. These general correlations would seem to be consistent with the implications drawn from the individual image relationships discussed above.


The purpose of this paper was to explore empirically Appleton's theory of the natural symbolism of habitat to determine if indeed people respond to images from landscape environment along the lines he suggests, with an eye towards possible implications for marketing and communication. To the extent that people do respond as hypothesized, the implications for consumer behavior would be significant. What we found is strong support for Appleton's idea. His three concepts of Prospect, Refuge, and Hazard do appear to be recognized by people, eliciting specific feelings associated with each. Symbols of each concept, as advanced by Appleton, do seem to be strongly related to appropriate feelings.





What is the importance of all this for consumer behavior? It would seem that particular symbolism present in everyday landscape evoke very specific feelings. To the extent that such feelings are compatible with key attributes of a brand or an advertiser's message, they will facilitate positive responses to that brand or message when used in conjunction with the brand (e.g. on its packaging or in-store displays) or its advertising. As discussed earlier in this paper, Kroeber-Riel (1993) has shown that such congruity between visual images and key attributes do facilitate learning of that attribute in association with the brand. Additionally, this learning, when it occurs (i.e. is processed) at the level of what Kroeber-Riel calls "biological schema," will occur sub-cognitively. Actually, Appleton (1990) has made much the same point, suggesting that "by analyzing landscapes into categories based on concepts of this kind, we can begin to break into an alternative system which turns out be more closely concerned with natural than with cultural symbolism." To the extent that Appleton is correct that our responses to the symbolism of habitat are residual from evolutionary survival, these responses will be occurring at the limbic-brain level; hence automatically, without conscious processing.

We have seen that in the case of two general attributes (Comfort and Relaxation) there are strong correlations with each of the three concepts. There is no reason to believe that other more targeted attributes would not also be readily associated with one or more of Appleton's three concepts. For example, Appleton (1990) describes the concept of Hazard as implying "the proximity of something which threatens, menaces or disturbs our equilibrium; at another level, if we think of it in terms of our behavioral response, the symbolism of hazard prompts evasive action, like hiding, escaping or eliminating the source of danger." One can quickly imagine products where the key attribute would reflect behavior such as "evasive action" in eliminating a source of danger; such things as safety related products or most OTC remedies.

In fact, products come easily to mind that might be readily associated with each of the concepts: investment, travel, and education with Prospect; new homes or insurance with Refuge. But even beyond such obvious associations, the general feelings of well-being elicited by strong congruence between the symbolism of habitat and visual images associated with brands and their marketing communication will certainly enhance the likelihood of a positive response; even without conscious processing. It will also be interesting to see how these more "automatic" responses relate to more cognitive responses to marketing communication, and with the motivations that are associated with purchase behavior (as discussed, for example, by Rossiter and Percy, 1987).

More research is clearly called for, but the outlook is promising. As these results have demonstrated, Appleton's theory does seem to hold. People do associate strong feelings with particular symbols from their environment. Now we must see to what extent those associations can be used to facilitate brand communication.


Appleton, Jay (1975) The Experience of Landscape. London and New York: Wiley.

Appleton, Jay (1990) The Symbolism of Habitat. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.

Balling, J.D. and J.H. Falk (1982) "Development of Visual Preference for Natural Environments." Environment and Behavior 14:15-28.

Burke, Edmond (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and the Beautiful. London.

Campbell, H.J. (1973) The Pleasure Areas. London: Eyre Methven.

Gibson, J.J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kroeber-Riel, Werner (1988) Advertising in Saturated Markets. Saarbrncken, Germany: Institut fnr Konsumund und Verhallensforschung: International Series.

Kroeber-Riel, Werner (1993) Bild Kommunikation. Verlag: Franz Vahlen.

Orians, Gordon H. (1980) "Habitat Selection: General Theory and Application to Human Behavior." In J. Lockard (ed.) Evolution of Human Social Behavior. New York, Elsevier, 49-66.

Orians, Gordon H. (1986) "An Ecological and Evolutionary Approach to Landscape Aesthetics." In E. Penning-Rowsell and D. Lowenthal (eds.) Landscape Meanings and Values, 3-25.

Rossiter, J.R. and L. Percy (1987) Advertising and Promotion Management. New York: McGraw-Hill.



Larry Percy, Montgomery, Alabama


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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