Charles Nanry (1981) ,"Discussion", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 108-109.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 108-109


Charles Nanry, Rutgers University

A discussant has, Bruno Beatelheim pointed out at a recent conference, three options. In the first, he or she may decide to praise everyone else, becoming a "nice guy", but running the risk of being a "lackey." A discussant may also condemn everyone thus proving his or her intelligence, but running the risk of accumulating enemies. A third alternative is to ignore the previous speakers and simply deliver one's ideas using the discussant designation as an excuse. I shall try in my remarks to generate a fourth type by combining all of the above.

Since I am a sociologist by training, I shall begin with a sociological insight, namely, that people live in groups. Groups, if they act, must have a basis upon which to act. Everything in the relevant environment -pure unsupported rumor to the latest report of true and temperature - supplies the individuals who make up a group with "plans for future action."

Networks of communication, often arranged into hierarchies, bind a group together. Culture, a product of eons of this process - from esthetics to notions of cosmology - embeds within itself the symbol systems that are the very meat and morrow of social exchanges, including that of consumers and producers.

I have before me a veritable feast of practitioner's retorts on conventional and not-so-conventional wisdom about how the exchange of products - including the not-so-value free content of entertainment - is generated in our current cultural context. The overall thesis is quite clear: a theme machine is at work which is attempting to link together Picasso and plebeian taste, the blurring of brand names and generic identification of streamlined toasters, swing and swinging lifestyle, and the gratification of learning and/or a chuckle with product identification. The dynamic tension of a Barnumesque "giving the audience what it wants," and selling the masses on "good" art emerges as a key conflict in consumer esthetics. The middle term, of course, in this enterprise is the role of the current conventions of our peculiar system of linking buyers and sellers.

The papers by Bertges and Wurtzel focus on the changing nature of television as a linking mechanism between audiences, often highly differentiated, and those who create and ourvey the content of television. Wurtzel describes a current strategy in producing television fare that builds on the accepted notion that no program can be all things to all viewers. He suggests that audience segmentation research has moved beyond crude demographics and overly psychologized lifestyle research to an approach that might be termed "the beach head paradigm." The implied here has three components. 1) Use a highly rated show as the analytic base (it must be giving the audience what it wants). 2) Find out the limits, in terms of themes and solutions to clot problems, that the audience will accept. 3) Press outward by introducing new themes and situations which will draw additional segments into the audience without losing the audience base which made the show successful in the first place.

Wurtzel alludes to a variety of scales based on the "uses and gratifications" model, and on other standard and in-house scales. We are in no position to make a reasoned judgement about a basic methodological issues such as reliability and validity since the data is proprietary in nature. We can assume the impact on the industry of this new approach, however, because of the changes in the conventional wisdom about the TV season and the development of the mini-series. We can also see a rather conservative "implosion" of spin-offs and "new formula" shows based on this modified lifestyle approach.

The worm in the apple of conventional network broadcasting is hinted at the paper presented by Bertges. Cable TV offers a "narrowcasting" alternative to broadcasting. The potential availability of a larqe number of channels available to specialized audience segments is a spector that haunts the three networks.

Cable TV can literally turn the Wurtzel paradigm on its head. By aiming at very special audience segments, such as sports or jazz fans, cable narrowcasting can behave more like the non-mass media. A TV tower of Babel is possible if one can combine a popular sit-com from the network with a religious broadcast from Atlanta and a stock market report from New York into a cable package aimed at some specific group of viewers in Long Island. Setting aside basic cable, pay cable has the additional possibility of adding other hard-to-provide content, such as current movies to its subscribers. Unlike FIA, but like sub-channel broadcasting, cable TV with its franchise control can taylor programming in an extraordinary way. Bertges only hints at the sophistication which could be the hallmark of this dramatically new medium in the future.

The presentations of Stein and Mello present an old fashioned contrast in class differences in the market place. Stein's presentation is an exercise in the conventional testing of taste differences based on the perception of consumers of brand differences. Can J.C. Penny sell customers on the idea that a house brand is just as good as nationally advertised brands? with the traditional identification of Penneys, a certain strata and its current attermpt to broaden its mass merchandizing appeal into adjoining strata, Stein has given us a fascinating glimpse into retail marketing. Mello, on the other hand, captures a historical process which has led to the decline of haute couture in favor of mass marketing within a company that has made that difficult transition. Bergdorf-Goodman reaches out and down scale (from high fashion) as Penneys reaches out and up-scale. No better examples of the effects of modern mass markets could be found. No longer supported by small groups of patrons, companies such as Bergdorf-Goodman attempt to lead the fashion world through trend setting. This means that penetration of the mass market is necessary as well as the recognition that those who, in an earlier era, would have been a cart of the world of haute couture now purchase clothes that are ready-to-wear. This pattern parallels the shift in art patronage from the aristocracy to the Bourgeoise in the seventeenth century, followed by a further downshift to the masses in the late nineteenth. Setting aside quality, affordability becomes the criterion for differentiation in the fashion market. Without elite patrons to set style, high fashion becomes fashion, i.e., trend setting. The search for alternative new styles lead to deviant groups such as gays and to cultural events such as the current Picasso exhibit.

The paper by Plummer is more theoretical than the others we have considered. It gives us an up to the minute insight into advertising. Uneasy about conventional copy research and the day-after-recall technique, Plummer suggests that the basis for decisions about copy is shifting to a more "scientific" mode based on current trends in psychological and social research. Clearly, copy writers and those who employ them have a need to act as well as audiences. The whole purpose of research is to create an accepted basis upon which decisions about what aspects of a product or idea will position it in the market place.

The major caution I would give in regard to all we have heard today is that there are fads and fashions in research. Current ideas about right and left brain hemispheres, certain social and psychological measures now in vogue, and the role of trend setters in the fashion world represent only partially tested theories. There is a strong temptation on the cart of those who apply social science to overburden social science theory. Much careful research remains to be done before we know just what specific aspects of behavior are connected to brain hemispheres. Lifestyle variables are tricky as independent variables in any research design, since so much careful work is needed across a broad variety of contexts in order to establish their reliability and validity is any scientific sense. Trend setting and a connection with theories of collective behavior are not clearly understood in social psychology. The need to act for us, as well as for consumers, causes us to seek out some basis for our own activities. We must recognize that art, a feel for the market, and hunches play a large part in consumer esthetics and symbolic communication. This posture will keep us humble in the face of large and often not well understood social forces.



Charles Nanry, Rutgers University


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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