Pragmatic Reality



Citation:

Larry Percy (1998) ,"Pragmatic Reality", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 254-258.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 254-258

PRAGMATIC REALITY

Larry Percy, Consultant, U.S.A.

While not meaning to discourage new ways of thinking about consumer response and behaviour, one must wonder if those advocating new definitions of 'reality’ have given any thought to what it might mean if they were really right. There is no questioning the fact that these methods and philosophies offer interesting perspectives on how man might communicate (or perhaps more properly, be communicated with) and behave, at least in the abstract.

They all seem to have in common some notion of the individual as the ultimate source of meaning, radical behaviourism excepted (at least as we understand it) where the individual is held captive by his environment. In any event, one thing seems certain about these new explanations of reality, the marketer is just 'spitting in the wind’ without a hope of really affecting behaviour. Unless, that is, one is buying the idea of 'markets-of-one.’

But where would this leave us, even if true? If everyone defines their own reality, we would indeed need to study every individual in order to address their particular 'reality,’ unique understandings, and needs. Once we 'understood’ this reality, a product or service could be created that fit their 'reality,’ satisfying each unique 'market-of-one.’ If we were really lucky, there might even be some people out there with the odd need in common, with a shared 'reality,’ so we really wouldn’t have to literally market to a single individual, always assuming we can find tem and their 'reality’ hasn’t changed before we try to communicate with them. No, we might even be able to bundle people into markets of two or three, always with the same caveat; or who knows, perhaps there might even be as many as a dozen people with the same view of the world (but only, of course, for one particular part of it, never the whole thing).

No, it simply will not do. We have evolved as a species by retaining common ways of optimizing our response to the world around us; 'rules’ of responding developed through common learning and experiences, cultural inheritance, and species-stored responses in our limbic or paleomammalian mind. Why else, for example has Shakespeare been able to touch all men, including non-Western man, with his characterizations, as Bloom (1994) points out in his analysis of the Western canon?

With no hope of being inclusive, let us at least look at some of the odd perceptions of reality current in the literature of consumer behaviour (at least on the fringe), and then attempt to return to a more rational, sane world.

RADICAL BEHAVIOURISM

Gordon Foxall (1997), in talking about radical behaviourism has suggested that it "does not deny the existence of 'private events’ like thoughts and feelings and even admits them in principle as proximal causes of behaviour. But the distal causes are always located in the environment and, in the long run, private events will control behaviour only in so far as they are consistent with its environmental consequences." I do not see how unless we are taking a Darwinian view of the 'long run.’

How can such radical behaviourism deal with known biologically and psychopharmacologically driven behaviour? Neural stimulation of particular areas of the brain result in specific behaviour; chemical imbalances in the brain lead to very specific behavioural consequences. In an interesting experiment conducted some years ago a sample of normal weight adults and a sample of clinically obese adults were asked to fill out some forms. On the table was a bowl of snacks. The manipulation was in the snack bowl. In one cell, it was an open bowl where the snacks could be plainly seen; in a second cell, the bowl was deep and the snacks could not be seen. Subject were told they could eat the snacks as they filled in the forms (actually a distractor task).

The results were interesting. Obese adults ate all of the snacks in the bowl where they could be seen, but hardly touched those in the deep bowl. Normal-weight adults ate equally from both bowls. Environmentally conditioned behaviour? Unlikely. It seems that in such clinically obese people it is the sight of food that abnormally stimulates their brain, leading to consumption.

We should like to argue (and shall below) that much of our response to the world is 'pre-programmed’ in the limbic system. Much of this is indeed the residual of a truly radical behaviourism, where how we responded to the stimuli in our environment did determine if we would survive. Many of these responses remain, and provide a common, human reaction far removed from any 'contemporary environmental consequence.’

POSTMODERNISM AND SUNDRY VARIETIES

Let us now turn our attention to the area of 'meaning.’ To a postmodernist, as nearly as we can tell, meaning is wholly at the discretion of the individual. In fact, carried to its logical conclusion, there is no meaning, generally understood. Words can mean whatever someone (i.e. the receiver) wishes them to mean, and only by the purest chance what the author of the message 'meant.’ This is certainly what Steven Brown (1995) has in mind: "Thus there is no 'true’ meaning, no 'right_aning, no 'determinate’ meaning, no 'intentional’ meaning, no 'single’ meaning, no 'final’ meaning." This would argue that for the majority, if not all people there is no predictable meaning to be gleaned from anything let alone marketing communication.

Reading Steven Brown (1995) on postmodern marketing is always entertaining, but we often wonder why a postmodernist even bothers to write about anything, there being no 'meaning’ in the exercise. In the postmodern world, as they would seem to have it, an advertisement announcing Sony televisions on sale for US $299.00 can just as likely mean Sears refrigerators cost ,15.00 or Snickers are now available for only 1000 yen. As Elliott (1993) reminds us, "meaning is not determined by marketers but negotiated by consumers."

Fowles (1996) has said that "A programme and its advertising cannot truly be said to have meaning until an individual viewer supplies that meaning." Yes it can, and yes it does. Statements like this bring to mind that old question from philosophers: if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a noise? Yes it did, as scientific recordings of the frequency of the disturbances in the air would confirm. And words and text too have meaning. To quote from Erick Heller, the author of the classic of modern criticism The Disinherited Mind:

"many literacy commentators go through their text with the professional air of policemen searching for the 'meaning’ as if it were contraband or stolen property. Their findings, more often than not, tend to provoke the question: 'if this is what the author meant, why did he not say so?’"

In fact, when dealing with admittedly difficult prose such as Kafka (another author included by Bloom in the Western canon), Heller suggests:

"while it is in the nature of Biblical parables to show meaning, through concrete images, to those who might be unable to comprehend meaning presented in the abstract, Kafka’s parables insinuate meaningless though nonetheless irrefutable real and therefore suggestively meaningful configurations."

Or is what authors such as Fowles, Goldman (1992) and others trying to say analogous to Clyde Coombs’ notion that quantitative survey results aren’t really data until they are 'mapped’ into data via analysis? Are we simply playing a semantic game? It would seem so. Back to Fowles (1996), who allows that a 'symbol’ is the "genetic term for anything that refers to something else beyond itself," carefully noting that he prefers the word 'symbol’ to the word 'sign’ because of its Saussourian tradition. He goes on to remark that "adopting this perspective, intellectually fertile as it has proved to be, demands locating 'meaning’ within the sign itself rather than within the observer of the sign." We certainly would not want that!

So, it would seem that "symbols are what we send, but meanings are what are received." An interesting choice of word, received. Unwittingly Fowles has suggested that the 'symbol’ (words or pictures to the rest of us) actually arrives with meaning, having been magically transformed, we can only imagine, somewhere in the liminal space (as Sherman [1992] defines it) between the picture and the viewer, or the reader and the text.

Is all of this really necessary? We share meaning at any number of levels, and for most things, most people clearly understand an author’s 'meaning.’ If we did not, we would most certainly experience the Biblical world of Babel.

In carrying these arguments into advertising, Elliott and Ritson (1997) really are on a reach. They state that "As much as the author would prefer the reader to adopt the intended meaning of the text such passive transference is highly unlikely." Right, so to wat extent is the message that 2 + 2=4 open to various interpretations? What does it mean to say the sky is blue; that it might be green? I sense in this sort of drivel the roots of outcome-based education.

The fact that a reader mis-understands a message does not alter the reality that, assuming something is clearly written, it will be understood by the vast majority of people.

In their recent paper, Elliott and Ritson (1997) would in fact seem to want things both ways. While stating (as above) that the "capitalist authors" of advertising (don’t you just love it) have little chance of communicating their intended meaning, they nevertheless let us know that advertising is so powerful that it is "an ideology with power and influences beyond any other." That is certainly putting such things as communism, fascism, socialism and other ho-hum, insignificant ideologies in their place.

Would that advertising had a tenth of that power. In fact recent research shows over and over that people tend to pay next to no attention to advertising, and when they do, use it for their own ends. The nonsense inherent in such arguments as those advanced by Elliott and Ritson can be easily illustrated by looking at their discussion of Gillette’s 'The Best a Man Can Get’ campaigne. They describe the campaigne as "dripping with images of achievement and aspirations ... Gillette interpolates the consumer with conjoined images of future success (our emphasis) and a branded good." To this we can only say, not in any Gillette advertising we have ever seen. They go on to say, "it is as legitimate for the individual to aspire to many of these images (successful romance, successful work, successful friendships) as it is to desire and use the Gillette product. To deny this implicit connection would be to deny our hopes and aspirations for the future." In other words, implicit in their argument is getting a better shave with Gillette than with some other brand is the key to one’s future. We would rather imagine that this advertising, which is typical low involvement/informational advertising (addressing simple problem-solution negative motivesChow to get a better shave), does little more than excite the possibility of getting a smoother shave. Again, implicit in their argument is that men shave for such positive motives as social approval or sensory gratification. We doubt that very much.

A RATIONAL LOOK AT REALITY

Among other things that distinguish us in the evolution of species is the Paleomammalian mind, or the limbic system. Unique to mammals, the limbic system lies between the reptilian and neomammalian mind. It is here, at a sub-cognitive level, that much of our emotional behaviour originates. Additionally, it is implicated in play behaviour and audiovocal communication (MacLean, 1990). We introduce this because it is likely that much of our 'human’ response to many stimuli originates here.

Visual Communication

As an example, regardless of one’s cultural background, when someone looks at the powerful images of primitive art it is not unusual to be struck by a feeling of horror and amazement. In fact, Freedberg (1989) reminds us that 'primitive’ is often used synonymously with powerful, strong, effective. There is meaning here that is universally recognized at a human level.

In a very practical illustration, consider the example of Unilever’s Snuggle fabric softener and the cuddly bear, first introduced into the German market in 1970. The image traveled next to France in 1972, then to Italy in 1978 where the image of the bear became more than a part of the label and was introduced as the spokesman for the brand. The universal appeal of the cuddly bear wa tapping into a deep-seated psychological image, arousing positive feelings of warmth and communicating softness within the context of the brand. An important point here is that these early uses of the cuddly bear image were not very realistic. The positive response was stimulated by a rendering. In 1983 the image was enhanced to a much higher level of realism and introduced into the United States. This more realistic image then returned to Europe, and from there to the Far East. Here is an image universally understood; and we would suggest owing to a human response originating in the limbic system.

There are many, many examples in various literature, everything from anthropology to geography, cultural studies to psychology, of how we as a species respond to stimuli in specific and predictable ways. One of the more fascinating examples is Jay Appleton’s symbolism of habitat (1975, 1996). He has remarked, following Roston (Appleton, 1990) that humans predictably 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." These are natural responses to landscape or representations of it (e.g. in pictures or illustrations) that are common to humans, predictable responses that are not 'open to interpretation.’

In his forward to The Symbolism of Habitat Appleton (1990) draws a very specific definition of what he means by "natural symbolism." He is careful to draw the distinction between what he is arguing as a natural or human response and culturally determined symbolism. Culturally determined symbolism, even when encoded in the limbic system, is not universal; even though it too will be predictable and subject to very little variation within the determining culture. For Appleton, natural symbolism is "an intrinsic part of the survival behaviour of the species."

What he is suggesting is that we as humans have a natural habitat to which we are predictably and naturally drawn. Arguing from the work of anthropologists like Balling and Falk (1982) and Orians (1980, 1986) and others he feels that we as a species are attracted to an environment, and representation of it, that is reflective of our origins. Appleton points out that Orians argues that whatever it was that originally drew man to a landscape of essentially trees and grass still survives in our genetic makeup.

We might digress here to point our that this idea (though not so elegantly discussed) was certainly an accepted axiom of 17th and 18th century thinking. But, of course, to the postmodernist such modernist thinking could have no relevance. Wrong. The thinking of that time, especially in England, intuitively accepted premises such as this and created, among other things, the English landscape garden, then and now the most popular landscape form in the world and a perfect reflection of Appleton’s ideas.

One of the keys to understanding this is found in what environmental psychologists have called affordance (Gibson, 1979), or as Appleton (1990) has put it, "what’s in it for me?" It is not enough that one perceives the symbolism in one’s environment but that they respond to it in a particular way. Appleton (1975, 1990, 1996) has identified two primary responses he calls prospect and refuge, along with a third, hazard. (In the literature his theory is often referred to as 'prospect-refuge theory’.) Prospect is defined as having to do with "perceiving, with obtaining information, particularly visual information," refuge is defined as referring to "hiding, sheltering, or seeking protection", and hazard is defined as implying "the proximity of something which threatens, menaces, or disturbs our equilibrium."

What does this have to do with a discussion of reality? Our point is that 'reality’ is mediated by, and defined by, at the very least modal responses to visual and verbal stimuli. Prospect-Refuge Thory presents an example of not just modal, but an all-but-consistently common and predictable response to visual stimuli. Perhaps, you may reasonably be thinking, if it is true. Elsewhere (Percy, 1995) we have empirically demonstrated the predictability of Appleton’s theory. At the time reviewers pointed out that although a large and diverse sample of subjects was used in the study, it was basically a Western sample culturally. A fair enough observation, but we have since replicated the results in China. It would seem that we do, as a species, 'see’ opportunity in images representing prospect (e.g. views to the horizon) and a sense of protection in images of refuge (e.g. cave-like images implied by archways). There is most definitely a common meaning implied by images of prospect and refuge, and this is communicated.

As Peter Smith (1980) has put it: "We come into the world already equipped with an elaborate set of mental programmes which establish probabilities as to the way we shall react within environmental situations." Before leaving our discussion of Appleton’s important insights into how we respond to our environment, there is another fascinating application that adds further to our case that we as humans respond in common and predictable ways. Grant Hildebrand (1991) has used Appleton’s theory to inform an analysis of the meaning in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Hildebrand reveals that "beauty in a fundamental sense is related to characteristics of prospect and refuge," and he feels this is a key reason why owners of Wright homes were and are willing to put up with all the practical inconveniences of his houses. Many of Wright’s plans frustrate any attempt at a reasonable arrangement of furniture, and there is almost no storage space. In fact, there are many stories of owners who got tired of the inconvenience, inadequate closets, and leaky roofs and sold the house only to in short order do all they could to re-purchase it!

In a building, as Appleton (1975, 1996) has noted, features such as "windows, alcoves, recesses, balconies, heavy overhanging eaves, all suggest a facility of penetration into refuge" even when actual access is not possible. Such things as balconies or terraces outside windows, large windows, openings of one room to another, especially when there is something marking the division, and vistas through hallways opening to more distant windowed spaces all suggest prospect. And all of these features are to be found in the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In Hildebrand’s (1981) analysis he found that almost all of the houses designed by Wright after 1902 contained architectural disposition consistent with Appleton’s landscape disposition. Even as early as the 1902 Heurtley house in Oak Park, Illinois one can identify these conditions of prospect and refuge. As seen from outside, the house sends clear signals of refuge in the deep overhanging roof, the loggia and arched entry (a clear cave-like image of which Appleton [1995] has remarked "is the most complete general sanctuary provided by nature"). Wright’s open plan is the essential devise. Generally acknowledged as originating the open plan in domestic architecture, it is the ideal vehicle for manipulating prospect and refuge. As one looks at and past the columnar elements of the interior there is the suggestion of "looking past trees at the edge of a forest to view a meadow or grove beyond" (in Hildebrand’s words), an ideal condition of prospect. We could go on, but refer the interested reader to Hildebrand (1991). As he concludes: "Wright’s houses hypnotize. Though beset with problems, irritations, willfulness, and eccentricities, whether pristine or shabby, and whether we wish it or not, they bring us under their spell . . . it has to do with some fundamental human attraction to characteristics of prospect and refuge" (our emphasis).

Verbal Communication

As we have just discussed, there certainly can be and is meaning in visual stimuli hat will generate a common and predictable response. The same is also true of verbal stimuli (written or spoken). Do we forget the work of Osgood and his colleagues (Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum, 1957)? While we are all no doubt quick to associate his classification of semantic scaling into 'evaluation,’ 'potency,’ and 'activity,’ we have pointed out (Rossiter and Percy, 1991) that he was doing much more. Osgood (1971) has contended, and with overwhelming supporting evidence, that verbal stimuli are universally analyzed for meaning in terms of his three classifications, and that these categories or dimensions have biological and cultural survival value.

He is suggesting that in terms of evaluation one understands that it pays to decide quickly how good or bad something is; with potency whether it is powerful or weak; and in terms of activity, whether it is fast or slow. A clear pattern of verbal image arousal was noted in Osgood et als.’ (1957) work. Is black more sad than happy; is it more heavy than light; is it more powerful than weak; is it more old than young? However irrational these choice alternatives may seem in relation to the word 'black,’ there is no doubt that our answers will be more systematic than random.

In more recent work in this area, Liu and Kennedy (1996) report a pair of experiments where subjects were asked to match twenty pairs of words to a circle and a square. For all but a very few word pairs (3 in one experiment and 1 in the second) there was a significantly greater than chance consensus in matching words with shapes. In fact 100% of subjects said a circle was 'soft,’ a square 'hard;’ 97% a circle 'gentle,’ a square 'harsh;’ 93% a circle 'happy,’ a square 'sad;’ and 94% a circle 'mother,’ a square 'father.’ "Language may not be the most appropriate medium for attaining understanding of consumer cognitions" (as put by Stephen Brown [1995]), indeed! Or as Brown (1995) suggests Elliott (1993) would have it, that "these highly individual, and often inconsistent interpretations are the norm." What rubbish.

Liu and Kennedy (1966) offer several important observations on their findings, not least that while there may not be a consensus for all referents there is significant consensus for most. Also, they point out that the high consensus pairs are not synonymous: e.g. mother-father is not synonymous with alive-dead or good-evil. The results also show that shapes can symbolize complex ideas such as love and hate, and that there is a consensus to these representations.

Gombrich (1963) has developed a rather simply two-dimensional model based upon Osgood’s work. Proceeding from the idea that our basic reactions to things are grounded in a biological urge for survival, he suggests one might say we see things as either friendly or hostile. He developed a model of what he referred to as a 'natural code of equivalences.’ In it, every odor, sound, or shape has a natural feeling tone just as every feeling has an equivalence in the world of sight and sound. Much of Liu and Kennedy’s work would seem to be informed by this model.

He is suggesting that on a scale of sensory experiences, bodily feelings of temperature change should stimulate warmth from friendliness and friendliness experienced as warmth; hostility as cold and cold as hostility; etc. On a scale of visual sensation then, darkness, would be experienced as gloomy and hostile, light as warm and friendly. Extending the analysis to colors, Gombrich argues that because red is brighter than blue, it will easily be experienced as the equivalence of warmth and cheerfulness, blue of cold and sadness.

There is much that we, as humans, understand with very little, if any variance. Without such a 'reality,’ we would not be able to communicate at all. It is perhaps worth quoting at length comments made back at the turn of the 19th century by Richard Payne Knight (1805):

"Man, both from his natural and social habits, is so accustomed to espect order and regularity, that it may properly be considered both physically and morally, as a principle of his existence. All his limbs and organs serve us in pairs, and by mutual co-operation with each other: whence habitual association of ideas has taught us to consider this uniformity as indispensable to beauty and perfection in animal form. There is no reason to be deduced from any abstract consideration of the nature of things why an animal should be more ugly and disgusting for having only one eye, or for one ear, than for having only one nose or one mouth; yet if we were to meet with a beast with one eye, or two noses or mouths, in any part of the world, we should, without inquiry, decide it to be a monster, and turn from it with abhorrence: neither is there any reason, in the nature of things, why a strict parity, or relative equality, in correspondent limbs and features of a man or horse, should be absolutely essential to beauty, and absolutely destructive of it in the roots and branches of a tree."

As Payne Knight so elegantly illustrates, as a people we do understand 'reality." Really, it is not so difficult.

SUMMARY

The French, alas, have been at this sort of thing for a long time. Dr. Johnson recalls that "Lord Powerscourt laid a wager, in France, that he could ride a great many miles in a certain time. The French academicians set to work, and calculated that, from resistance to the air, it was impossible. His Lordship, however, performed it." Why we who study consumer behaviour should be so taken by such strange notions of 'reality’ is bewildering. Or perhaps the French philosophers of the latter part of the 20th century manage yet what Smollett (an Englishman) remarked in 1766: "The French, however, with all their absurdities, preserve a certain ascendancy over us, which is very disgraceful to our nation."

We would do better, in the end, to recognize and understand that people respond to visual and verbal communication in consistent and predictable ways. Individuals are very unlikely to provide unintended 'meaning’ to a message, or to behave wholly in consequence to their environment, independent of their own cognitive processes. We will do best when we look to tap into what for lack of a better word we might think of as our humanness. This is why there is such a thing as 'good taste.’ This is what permits successful marketing. This is what permits community.

REFERENCES

Appleton, J. (1975) The Experience of Landscape. London: John Wiley & Sons.

Appleton, J. (1990) The Symbolism of Habitat: An Interpretation of Landscape in the Arts. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Appleton, J. (1996) The Experience of Landscape. Review Edition, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

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

Bloom, H. (1994) The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

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

Elliott, R. (1993) "Marketing and the meaning of postmodern consumer culture" in D. Brownlie et al. (eds.) Rethinking Marketing. Coventry: Warwick Business School Research Bureau, 134-42.

Elliott, R. and M. Ritson (1997) "Poststructuralismand the dialectics of advertising: discourse, ideology, resistance" in S. Brown and D. Turley (eds.) Consumer Research: Postcards from the Edge. London. Routledge.

Fowles, J. (1996) Advertising and Popular Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Foxall, G. (1997) "The contextual stance in consumer research." Working paper. University of Birmingham.

Freedberg, D. (1989) The Power of Images. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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

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

Gombrich, E.H. (1963) Meditations on a Hobby House. Oxford: Phaiden Press Limited.

Hildebrand, G. (1991) The Wright Space: Pattern & Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Houses. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Knight, R.P. (1805) An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste. London: T. Payne.

Liu, C.H. and J.M. Kennedy (1996) "Form and its symbolic meaning" in R. Woodfield (ed.) Gombrich on Art and Psychology. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

MacLean, P.D. (1990) The Triune Brain in Evolution. New York: Plenum Press.

Orians, G.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.

Osgood, C.E. (1971) "Exploration in semantic space: A personal diary." Journal of Social Issues. 27, 5-64.

Osgood, C.E., G.I. Suci, and P.H. Tannenbaum (1957) The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Percy, L. (1995) "An introduction to the theory of symbolism of habitat and its implications for consumer behavior and marketing communication" in F. Hansen (ed.) European Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 2. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Rossiter, J.R. and L. Percy (1997) Advertising Communication and Promotion Management. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shearman, J. (1992) Only Connect . . . Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, P.F. (1980) "Urban Aesthetics" in Mikellides (ed.) Architecture for People. London: Studio Vista.

Smollett, T. (1766) Travels Through France and Italy.

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Authors

Larry Percy, Consultant, U.S.A.



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998



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