Introduction: the Esthetic Imperative in Consumer Research


Morris B. Holbrook (1981) ,"Introduction: the Esthetic Imperative in Consumer Research", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 36-37.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 36-37


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

[The author gratefully acknowledges the support of Columbia University's Faculty Research Fund.]


Inchworm, Inchworm-

Measuring the marigold-

You and your arithmetic

Will probably go far.


Inchworm, Inchworm-

Measuring the marigold-

Seems to me you'd stop and see

How beautiful they are.

        -Frank Loesser, " Inchworm, "  Hans Christian Andersen


We have with us, today, a distinguished roster of well-known academicians in the behavioral sciences and consumer research and prominent practitioners in entertainment and the arts. So we fully intend that the day will belong to you and that you will spend most of it hearing each other speak and very little of it listening to me pontificate. However, before we begin, I would like to say a few words about why we are here--or, more accurately, about the remarkable fact that so many of us either are here already this morning or have agreed to participate at some point during the two-day period.

Mayor Ed Koch would like to think that your presence is attributable to New York's status as a vacation paradise. But--considering that the City is increasingly noted less for its Broadway theatres than for its X-rated movie houses, less for its sense of adventure than for its crime-in-the-streets, less for its urban sophistication than for its garbage and subway strikes--there must be some additional reason that so many people have agreed to come.

And I think I know what that reason is. I think we have agreed to come here because each one of us--in one way or another, in one area or another, for one purpose or another--is a confirmed, hopelessly incurable fan: a film buff, a jazz freak, an opera lover, a groupie, an art collector, an audiophile, an aficionado of the dance, perhaps even a dedicated patron of the arts.

By a "fan" I refer to someone who is strangely and inexplicably transported to ecstatic peaks of enjoyment by some particular artist or entertainer or musician or singer or actor or poet. And I am convinced that--once something like that occurs in our lives, once we become fan--we become ineluctably fascinated with the question of how and why anything so remarkable can happen, not only to us, but also to other members of the audience, other listeners, other viewers . . . in short, other consumers. And then, once such profound thoughts have been raised in our minds, some of us (the ones who work on Madison Avenue or teach in business schools, for example) automatically go on to ask the next logical question--namely, "How can I make money on it?"

And so, to our delight, Beth and I were amazed by the alacrity and enthusiasm with which virtually every one of you agreed to come and participate in a conference an consumer esthetics and symbolic consumption. I cannot imagine that your eagerness to contribute would have been as ardent or as vocal if we had planned a conference on marketing toothpaste or laundry detergent or soft drinks . . . or canned and frozen peas.

It has been argued by some that entertainment and the arts are just one more kind of product and that marketing esthetic offerings is no different from marketing peas. But, if that were true, I don't think any of us would be here. And I think we know it is not true because we can introspect and can see that, when it comes to peas, there is probably no such thing as what we are; there is no such thing as a true fan. By contrast, when it comes to esthetic enjoyment, we know from personal experience that there is something going on that Mr. Birdseye and the Jolly Green Giant never dreamed of,

There is a name for this distinction that I am making, and the name was supplied by Herbert Krugman when he described what he called "low-involvement" products-products like corn flakes and frozen orange juice and potato chips--that nobody spends very much time seeking information about, that nobody wastes much trouble deliberating over, and that nobody exerts much effort shopping for because, frankly, these are products about which consumers really just don't give a damn. And yet-as Hal Kassarjian pointed out in what was probably the most amusing but terrifyingly accurate assessment of our research activities--this low-involvement, unthinking, uncaring, vacuous aspect of consumer behavior is precisely the type in which we, as researchers, have specialized. Yes, we can build multiattribute models that predict preferences toward toothpaste; we can generate complex multidimensional spaces that represent perceptions of cigarettes; we can construct devilishly clever procedures that trace the acquisition of information on cereal brands; we can--with our bare hands-construct mighty regression analyses that relate detergent usage to 300 separate life-style variables. In short-- when it comes to the factors of least importance to the consumer's emotional, cultural, and spiritual existence--we excell.

But I think we have to ask ourselves if perhaps we excel where excellence is essentially an empty achievement. Because we are fans, we know that there is a kind of consumption that is a great deal more earthshaking than the kind we usually investigate. We know about the spine-tingling sense of esthetic excitement that begins somewhere in the lower part of your back, rises through your neck, and passes out through your scalp until it practically makes your hair stand on end (if you are lucky enough to have any hair). We know about the almost shattering electric charge that can accompany deep emotional involvement in a work of art. We know about the completely irrational but nonetheless triumphant sense of personal vindication that comes when the actor that we admired--the one that reduced us to tears in the final scene--wins the Oscar or the Emmy or the Tony Award.

Because we know this, we also know that the study of consumer esthetics--the study of purchasing situations where involvement is high, where responses are important, and where emotions run deep--demands far more attention than it has received to date. I've looked and I can just about guarantee you that, as anthropologists, we do not really know yet where these esthetic responses originate; as sociologists, we are still debating about which art forms do have them and which aspects of popular culture do not; as psychologists, we have turned our backs in embarrassed silence and focused instead on something that we politely call . the arousal curve"; and as consumer researchers, we do not have the faintest idea how to make money on the discoveries of Leonardo or the insights of Eliot and Yeats or the inventions of Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

I think that this thing I have been talking about deserves a name. All week, Beth has been suggesting that I call it "The Esthetic Manifesto" and nail a copy to the door of the Surdna Conference Center. But I have decided instead to copy that great marketing researcher Immanuel Kant and call it "The Esthetic Imperative in Consumer Research." The Esthetic Imperative (which should always be capitalized in hopes that people will take it really seriously) says that it is time for us to remove our heads from the sand. The Esthetic Imperative says that it is time for us to shift some of our research attention away from trivial frequently purchased consumer nondurables and focus a little more on some of the esthetic principles and eternal truths and more profound concerns that guide much consumer behavior. The Esthetic Imperative says that Right Guard and Close-Up and Oxydol and Pampers are nice, but that the,: are not everything. The Esthetic Imperative invites us to take a look at the Sistine Chapel ceiling or read Paradise Lost or hear the "B-Minor Mass." Those are consumer durables. And it is rather interesting to ask what makes them so durable and what can we do about it--and, perhaps, even how can we make money on it?

I think it is this Esthetic Imperative that has brought us here. And, in telling you this, my main motive is to encourage all of you to feel very good about what you are doing because what you are doing, all of you, is very important.

It is therefore because we are fans, because we all pursue the same Esthetic Imperative, and because we are enough scientists to realize how little we 'Know about a subject so immense, that we have come here. We have been brought together by the understanding that, though we have thus far learned virtually nothing about consumer esthetics, the horizons are almost unlimited and the effort it takes to explore the terrain is bound to be worth the trip.


These introductory comments prompted an animated discussion by conference participants concerned with the distinction between utilitarian and esthetic aspects of consumption and with the relative balance between the two in various cases. Much of this debate hinged on the appropriate uses of words such as "utility," "function," and "art." In my own work, I adopt the position that esthetic experience is associated with appreciating the object for its own sake independent of whatever "utilitarian function" or "useful purpose" it may serve:

There appears to be some consensus among philosophers devoted to the subject, . . . , that esthetic experience involves attending to, perceiving, and appreciating an object-for-itself, without regard to whatever utilitarian function it might perform. Viewed in this light, virtually any product--for example, a chair or a bottle of wine--could be regarded as an artistic object and appreciated accordingly. In this sense, all merchandise involves certain esthetic aspects in its design, packaging, and promotion. Nevertheless, some products--such as Beverly Sills performances, Picasso paintings, Shakespearean sonnets, and Paul Desmond recordings-seem to exist almost solely for the sake of being enjoyed in their own right, as objects-for-themselves. Only in perverse cases could we imagine them being used for other purposes like drowning out the neighbor's dog, serving as an impromptu umbrella, wallpapering the den, or keeping the potted plant from leaving stains on the coffee table.

This perspective appears to be consistent with the viewpoints of philosophers 1ike Robert McGregor, psychologists like Daniel Berlyne, and sociologist=s like Howard Becker. However, some conference participants argued that a product's esthetic role is itself a kind of "function" or "utility." If anything, this contention calls attention to the need to maintain caution in one's choice of terminology. Thus, I personally regard this issue as primarily definitional in nature and find the ensuing debate somewhat unenlightening. It reminds me of angels dancing, with rather heavy feet at that.

Nevertheless, I must concede that what seems like heavy treading to me may constitute the very essence of the matter to others. For example, in his influential "Meditations on a Hobby Horse," E. H. Gombrich designated "function" as "the common denominator between the symbol and the thing symbolised." A hobby horse is equine in the sense that one can ride on it. Thus an object's suitability for some utilitarian purpose may itself work as a component in its esthetic appreciation. Accordingly, one should resist the temptation toward a compartmentalization of esthetic and utilitarian value:

O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

        - William Butler Yeats, "Among School Children"



Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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