When Hyperreality, Reality, Fiction and Non-Reality Are Brought Together: a Fragmented Vision of the Mall of America Through Personal Interpretation

ABSTRACT - In this paper we are setting the emphasis on the role of personal interpretation in seeking to understand the universe of consumption which surrounds us (all of us, after all, are consumers and it seems eminently sensible to cogitate upon our own consumption behaviours). To do this, we shall make use of an exemple: The Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Therefore, this paper tries to explore the ontological assumptions of an approach that is part of the so called Ainterpretive turn@ in consumer research which has some specific philosophical positions and also contributes to renew the range of AWeltanschauung@ that a consumer researcher can have when studying consumption nowadays.


Patrick Hetzel (1998) ,"When Hyperreality, Reality, Fiction and Non-Reality Are Brought Together: a Fragmented Vision of the Mall of America Through Personal Interpretation", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 261-266.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 261-266


Patrick Hetzel, University Jean Moulin, France


In this paper we are setting the emphasis on the role of personal interpretation in seeking to understand the universe of consumption which surrounds us (all of us, after all, are consumers and it seems eminently sensible to cogitate upon our own consumption behaviours). To do this, we shall make use of an exemple: The Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Therefore, this paper tries to explore the ontological assumptions of an approach that is part of the so called "interpretive turn" in consumer research which has some specific philosophical positions and also contributes to renew the range of "Weltanschauung" that a consumer researcher can have when studying consumption nowadays.


In this presentation we are setting the emphasis on the role of personal interpretation in seeking to understand the universe of consumption which surrounds us. To do this, we shall make use of a specific example on which we worked in 1996, by way o an ethnographic approach: The Mall of America in Minneapolis. This colossal shopping center and entertainment place is of interest in a number of respects. It is a place where reality, hyperreality, non reality and fiction are ceaselessly intermixed. Cast in the image of Las Vegas, this place, born of nothing, poses the problem of a relationship with the world and the ontological dimension which it encapsulates. It is the prime example of an artefact made real. It exists by mixing the virtual with the construct. Its reality is hyperreality, and the commutative universes mix within at will. The basic question is therefore this: "To what extend can the "interpretative" function of the researcher allow us to come to a better understanding of the system of consumption ?". In the image of Baudrillard, whose pertinence and contribution in this field of knowledge no-one would deny, there can be no question of arguing taht an interpretation by a researcher, if based on an ethnographic approach, would be irrefutable and would conform to "reality". It is nevertheless an interesting construct, allowing us to make an approach to reality, and perhaps contributing also towards providing an interesting context for analysis, because it is the fruit of the labour of explanantion, the explanation of perpetual individual phenomena. In terms purely of an exercise, the researcher into consumer behaviour can experiment with the phenomenology of direct consumption. The system of consumption then becomes a kind of Odyssey, in which the researcher can play the roles of Odysseus and Homer simultaneously. Therefore, let us start our journey into the hyperreality of the Mall of America.


We can detect in our "up-front society" a metamorphosis in our value systems. Stores and shopping centres are gradually moving away from stressing the value of the product range to stressing the presentation of the overall offer. Thus in a few years we have moved from the store as a place where the object is presented, to the place of sale as the object of the presentation. Because of this the task of the retailer and his marketing staff has become ever more complicated and sophisticated. In a recent study (Hetzel, 1995) showed us that it is becoming increasingly necessary to re-examine research methods in order to understand consumer behaviour at a place of sale and that this is basically due to two factors. The first is that consumers are increasingly seeking emotions and new experiences as revealed only a little over ten years ago by authors such as Hirschman and Holbrook (1982). The second is that distributors, who for a long time have worked on the visual dimension of what they sell, are taking increasing account of other organoleptic dimensions. In so doing, moreover, they are simply returning to a traditional method of marketing productsBthe bazaar, where an appeal is made to all the senses. There is however one very great difference, for the bazaar is not the result of a previously thought out and defined marketing drive, but is rooted in an entire past and a civilisation whereas our modern retailing concepts thought up by marketing men are a complete fabrication created out of nothing. Thus, today some retailers in the West devise extremely sophisticated retailing, or even shopping centre, will similarly set out to work systematically on the five senses. This is the case with the Ralph Lauren brand throughout the world, but also of chains like "Nature & DTcouvertes" in France or a shopping centre like "Mall of America" in Minneapolis. Thus, selling today may be much more than an exchange of goods. It may be the expression of particular values, indeed the resolution of philosophical problems.... In fact, marketing is not seeing its apocalypse but its practices are tending to become more sophisticated as time goes by. And if these marketing practices are today less easy to detect in some consuer sectors, it is precisely because of their increasing sophistication. The consumer must be increasingly vigilant and perspicacious if he is going to manage to disentangle the different levels of meaning of concepts where intertextuality is becoming the rule.

Located in Bloomington, in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, "The Mall of America" is at present the biggest shopping centre in the world. It is particularly interesting because it combines in one unified space a gigantic shopping centre and a theme park open to all ("Knott’s Camp Snoopy") where the only charges are for using the equipment.


A few statistics

The shopping centre was officially opened on 11 August 1992, in the presence of about 200,000 people and on its first anniversary the centre could already boast a record 37 million visitors. The average number of centre customers per week today varies between 600,000 and 900,000 people (depending on seasonal variations). The initial investment was 650 million dollars (over 3 billion French francs or 385 million pounds sterling). The centre now comprises: 400 stores, 45 restaurants, 9 discos, 14 cinemas and 15,000 parking spaces (for more details cf. Appendix 1).

Economic impact

The centre has led to the creation of 12,000 new jobs in the state of Minnesota. In addition, it has now become a major tourist attraction. The American Automobile Association (AAA) has stated that for its members it is the third most well-known tourist attraction in the United States (just behind Disneyland and Disneyworld). Today visitors come from all over the world to see this very special place. Almost one million of 1993’s visitors were foreign tourists.

A building designed to be easy to find one’s way around

The main objective when the shopping centre was being built was to provide a place which, because of its size, should be easy for the customer to find his way around. As a result, the building was designed as a gigantic quadrangle. At each corner there is a big store (Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Sears) on three levels, and in the middle of the site is the Snoopy theme park, which is surrounded by four hundred stores spread over three levels and along four gigantic avenues linking the four major stores. A mood, a particular theme, has been devised for each side of the quadrangle, with very distinctive colours:

* South Avenue: located between Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, this area is the most sophisticated and top of the range part of the shopping centre with many fashion stores.

* East Broadway: located between Bloomingdale’s and Sears, this "high-tech" area is the most modern part of the centre and is decorated in neon and chrome.

* North Garden: located between Sears and Nordstrom, this area tries to recreate the feel of a gigantic garden.

* West Market: located between Nordstrom and Macy’s, this area recreates the atmosphere of a British railway station with small footbridges and benches to sit on.

A shopping centre where leisure, culture and consumption are intermixed:

It is very difficult to put a label on "The Mall of America". Is it a shopping centre or a theme park? Here the consumer society joins the leisure society. Furthermore, leisure and consumption are elevated to the status of culture. You move around this modern day cathedral as if in a museum. It is in such a place that the consumer society shows all its power and strength. It has become a core value. "The Mall of America" is not only a Mecca to the North-American consumer culture of today but also translates one form of the dominant value system of the whole of today’s western society. It is a place of worship for the cult of consumption.


When you enter this shopping centre, you experience two sorts of conflicting emotions. You are at once fascinated by this more than slightly "magical" building that allows you to walk around in the depths of Minnesota’s very cold winters as if it were the height of summer and at the same time you also experience some irritation at the gigantic "construct" being offered to you. You cannot help thinking that in all probability some "demiurgical" temptation has been at work to construct what is still today, the biggest shopping centre in the world. The enormity of the project is impressive but is also dizzying. You want to latch on to something. Fear of the void is mixed with the pleasure of discovering what humanity is capable of erecting in the late twentieth century to satisfy the God or Mammon of consumption to which the centre is entirely consecrated. It is well and truly a modern day cathedral like that suggested by Zola in the last century at the beginning of his novel "Au Bonheur des Dames" when talking about the big stores along the Boulevard Haussman in Paris. Just as in a Gothic cathedral, whose purpose was also to denote the greatness of God, the supplicant must be impressed, must be told that in terms of the divine, he is of little importance. There is certainly something of this when you enter "The Mall of America". Buying, eating, drinking and being entertained then become a postmodern version of the #potlatch’ of traditional American Indian societies studied by anthropologists. Everyday time and space are here put to one side. Consumers are here to have an experience. When the shopping centre and "Knott’s Camp Snoopy" are very busy, at regular intervals you hear the cries of people experiencing the big wheel. Then, for a few seconds, the other people in the shopping centre stop making a noise, as if "communing" with those having this experience ....


In order to interpret that temple of consumption the "Mall of America", we shall pass successively through three semiotic squares that seem to us particularly revealing about what happens in this place, examining each in turn. Each of them in a way corresponds to a possible level of interpretation of the place. The first of these squares is represented by figure 1.

It was Eco (1985) who in a logical account of new mythologies attempted to penetrate the mystery of appearances by using the contrast between reality and hyper-reality to explain the American villa of "Citizen Kane". We are indebted to him. In fact, there is nothing more real than shopping centre such as this. But at the same time there is an interplay between several dimensions which will be intermixed. Reality exists side by side with the non-reality constituted, for example, by artefacts such as plastic trees. While they are indeed "real" in a way (in that they exist even if they are an artificial version of a natural tree), they are also slightly unreal. Mixed in with natural trees, the visitor cannot resist touching them, fingering them to fin out whether he is to make a "construct" based on something true or false (we shall come back to this other dichotomy a little later). Places like the Rainforest Caffee (where a tropical forest has been reconstructed with false trees but real animals, sound effects that reproduce the noises of the forest, odour diffusers that try to make the consume feel he is somewhere "exotic", although the concept is a combined restaurant and shop selling clothes and gadgets), or Planet Hollywood where you can rub shoulders with icons of the stars, are certainly fictions but fictions that rest on a translation whose whole object is to give an impression of reality. The object of such concepts is to make believe that one is experiencing something as close as possible to a "reality". You are in Hollywood or a tropical forest without paying a high price for it and above all without taking risks. This notion of risk-taking is essential to an understanding of what happens in service places like the Mall of America. The very latest attraction, which opened its doors in the summer of 1996, is called "Underwater World". Architecturally it is a gigantic series of pools. For the visitor, who passes under and between the pools on a moving pavement, it is a unique opportunity to get close to and find out about flora and fauna. In little more than half an hour he will be taken from the muted colours of the aquatic worlds of the Mississippi in the northern United States to the brightly coloured flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico. In a very short space of time the visitor symbolically covers thousands of kilometres, and, moreover, under water. It is a unique exploit. To achieve it a world of hyper-reality is required for it is not possible to do the same either in a submarine or in a diving suit, but especially it purports to make the visitor take risks that he has not actually taken in this instance. In short, everything is done for him. The experience is put within his reach, whether he is young or old, able-bodied or disabled. This constitutes an enormous difference from other "experiences", like, for example, rafting, as described by Arnould and Price, in that all this can be done without effort. It is the "digest" and "light" way to explore underwater worlds. This cult of nature, is at the same time that of culture, two sides of the same coin. But the hyper-reality does not stop there. At any given moment you can be inches away from impressive sharks. It must be pointed out, however, that most parents coming with their children feel obliged to tell them that being so close is only possible because of the technical achievement involved in creating this aquatic world, but that in "real life" not only could they not get so near, but if they did they might be killed. In short, the technical achievement makes it possible to provide more reality than nature. It is in this context that it makes sense to talk about hyper-reality. In "The Mall of America", as in all places of this type, you have the opportunity to experience adventure, with less danger. But is adventure without danger still adventure? It is undoubtedly the adventure equivalent of "decaffeinated" or "light". "The Mall of America" is such a true reality that it also conveys with it all its falsity ....






What is also interesting in the "Mall of America" is that some concepts deployed here seek to lay so much stress on the real that they have to be expressed via something absolutely false to achieve it. This is probably one of the most fantastic paradoxes of postmodernism. To synthesise this, we propose the semiotic square in figure in 2. For our comments we shall use an Italian restaurant in "The Mall of America", the "Tucci Benucci".

Of course, the object is to give a little "Italian flavour" to customers wanting refreshments. With this restaurant they will not be disappointed. The kitchen "revisits" Italian cooking with a dab of North-American taste. It is an "Italian flavour" which can be interpreted as such by those not familiar with "real" Italian cooking. But this does not mean that what you eat is false on every level; the food itself is genuine and real. What probably works best and which in any event cannot be described as false, is the decoration. To all appearances, the interior designer probably previously worked in films, for everything makes you think of a tavern in Naples or Sicily at the turn of the century. The "set" is very well done and it must be said that it breathes "non falsity" in its attention to detail, colours, etc. From the tablecloths through the crockery and the restaurant fittings, everything is completely consistent, and you almost have the impression of having leapt into Italy’s past. The reconstruction is almost perfect. Thus with "The Mall of America" you can merrily travel through time and spaceBit is a reconstruction of a miniature planet. From one floor to another, from one store to another, you can pass through time and space, change continent or change period. And to conclude, it should be added that "Tucci Benucci" is a character who has been created in all respects. There are photographs of "Tucci Benucci" and his family in all the menus. The photographs are in period (or at least they give that impression, since here you can be sure of nothing) but the name is the invention of a marketing agency. Even a private diary has been created for him, from which selected extracts are reproduced. As for the dishes served, these are copied from recipes used by "Tutti Benucci’s" grandmother and mother. It is thus well and truly the juxtaposition of these false elements that help to create an impression of the "true". In short it proves to us that the boundary between the true and the false is blurred, everything is intermixed and it then becomes difficult, or indeed impossible, to tell things apart. The real undoubtedly fragments and there is an interplay between the true and the false, the real and the unreal. With no semblance of simplicity, a gigantic complexity is hidden.




The semiotic square in figure 3 also makes it possible an accurate perception of how through the phenomena of levelling (bringing everything into same space and time frame) you can create a fusion between the copy and the original.

Thus, while there are reproduced elements identical to things that exist, they are juxtaposed with original false thingsBLegoland is not the original and the dollars in circulation bear the effigy of Snoopy ... In short, consumers not only have the right to real and original things ("The Mall of America") but they can also enjoy the abundance and multiplicity of locally reconstructed and reproduced truths. Taken in isolation, the attractions, the concept restaurants and sales areas will not make you dizzy. This is the product of the juxtaposition of so many things within a defined space/time.


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

B The Mall of America probably contributes to the crises of the logical distinction between real world and "possible worlds"

B Our five senses are no longer able to make clearly the differene between real and fake

B With the "duplication" of real worlds, what is implicitly meant is: "You no longer need the originals, we have reproduced copies for you".

B With "recreations" (this can be interpreted in two senses) of "real worlds" the impossible becomes possible

B The frontiers between true and false are more and more unclear.


The aim of this article was to make a plea for the use of subjectivity as a means of access to certain information about consumer behaviour. Far be it from us to let it be thought that we reject the notion of objectivity. Thought is dialectic and is invigorated by the comings and goings between objectivity and subjectivity. However, it must be observed that there is still very often in consumer behaviour a rejection of this subjective dimension nonetheless inherent in the activity of thinking. Why do we have to justify ourselves so much when we use our own emotions or interpretations to try to understand and explain the world around us and in which we live? Even so, it is curious to note that researchers into consumer behaviour expend twice the imaginative effort in making their own affects, emotions and feelings emerge in some subjects through projective techniques or "collages", and that the same people will reject their own emotions and feelings as a basis for discursive work. It was actually a personal interpretative process that Roland Barthes used as a starting point for his theory of the fashion system. The world, scientific or not, is constructed with language and discourse. Don’t let us fall into the trap of turning away the subjective but useful resources which may be awakened in us in order to understand and explain. Sharing interpretations is really to do the work of the researcher, as soon as one puts everything on the table and starts from the principle that human activity consists first and foremost of making sense of what happens to us and of what is around us. And don’t tell us that such an approach helps to promote anarchic nihilism, it is quite simply the basis of all phenomenological understanding. Reality and the roads to knowledge are many and varied, let us not be frightened to admit it.




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Patrick Hetzel, University Jean Moulin, France


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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