How Consumer Sub-Cultures Code Reality: a Look At Some Code Types

ABSTRACT - Writers in the area of symbolic consumption refer to how manufacturers and advertisers en-code--and consumers de-code--product designs, advertisements, pack designs, and even company logos. They implicitly suggest that some autonomous "code" exists yet few have tried to describe code systems and suggest implications of different codes for marketers. This article describes the code concept and provides examples of two types of codes, restricted codes and elaborated codes (based on the research of Bernstein 1973). Implications of these codes are provided for advertisers and wroduct designers.


Jeffrey F. Durgee (1986) ,"How Consumer Sub-Cultures Code Reality: a Look At Some Code Types", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 332-337.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 332-337


Jeffrey F. Durgee [School of Management, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York 12180-3590 (518) 266-6588]


Writers in the area of symbolic consumption refer to how manufacturers and advertisers en-code--and consumers de-code--product designs, advertisements, pack designs, and even company logos. They implicitly suggest that some autonomous "code" exists yet few have tried to describe code systems and suggest implications of different codes for marketers. This article describes the code concept and provides examples of two types of codes, restricted codes and elaborated codes (based on the research of Bernstein 1973). Implications of these codes are provided for advertisers and wroduct designers.


Research on symbolic consumPtion has flourished over the last several years (ex. Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Belk, et al. 1982; Levy 1981; Holbrook et al. 1984). Briefly, this research focuses less on consumer perceptions of the functional meanings of products and more on their perceptions of secondary (Eco 1980) or symbolic meanings. The focus is not on what the product does but rather what it means. All of the articles in this stream (note especially Solomon 1983; Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981) implicitly involve a symbolic interactionist perspective. This perspective is based on three premises: (1.) humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them (ex.: heavy breathing means two different things on a telephone verses in a gym), (2.) the meaning of things arises largely out of social interaction (we have to be taught what heavy breathing means on the phone), and (3.) meanings are not fixed; rather they are selected, transformed, suspended, and modified as part of an internal conversation that the individual has with h J elf (Is the heavy breathing a prank? For real? Who is it? etc.) (Blumer 1969). The focus of this article is on the second premise, viz., that meanings evolve from social interaction. Nearly all of the articles on symbolic consumption recognize this. Levy (1980) writes of socially shared "symbol systems-'. Hirschman (1980) refers to culturally and sub-culturally shared product attributes. Belk, Bahn and Mayer (1982) examine the process by which children are socialized into consumption symbolism patterns. And Wallendorf (1980) describes how aesthetic standards are created, diffused and moderated through social processes.

Similarly, Solomon (1983) and Kotler (1983) describe consumer action in terms of "de-coding" and "encoding" processes. The viewer of an advertisement de-codes the ad; he interprets the content of the ad based on some socially shared agreement of what the objects in it stand for (ex: big home = "wealth"). The content of this ad was originally encoded by a creative in an ad agency.

At the same time, products can act as stimuli to cause a particular self-image for a given individual (Solomon 1983). A young man climbs on a motorcycle, de-codes its meaning (tough, dangerous) and assigns that meaning to himself, i.e., he feels what the motorcycle represents.

In short, the literature notes the existence of socially shared symbol systems or "codes" and describes the role they play in marketing and consumption processes. Usually, this role is one of an intervening variable between some stimulus (such as a new Mercedes model)--and a response (assignment of high status and desire to own it). Hillier (in Clark 1973, p. 409) reiterates this mediating role in the following quote: wan individual's relationship to the environment is mediated by an organization of representations into systems whose structure constitutes the means by which experience is made intelligible." In schematic form, the intervening role of a code system between consumers' needs and product selection--and between product usage and self-attribution--is shown in Figure 1. This figure shows the bi-directional relationship between products and consumers (from Solomon 1983) but adds to it (in heavy black lines) the mediating function of the code system.



So far, there has been little examination of codes per se, in other words, the "what" of what is learned by new inductees into a given culture about consumption symbolism. Little has been done toward understanding types of rule systems or codes. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to describe the code concept and what it offers in terms of understanding consumers, and then provide examples of two code types. Implications of these types of codes for marketers are also included. we assume that if marketers know target market code systems, they will be able to develop advertising and product designs that facilitate de-coding efforts by these target markets. The first task, however, is to clarify the "code" concept.


Berger (1984) lists three types of codes: social codes, aesthetic codes, and logical codes. Social codes (ex. etiquette) specify correct vs. incorrect behavior; aesthetic codes (ex. Shaw's Major Barbara) specify good vs. bad art and literature; and logical codes (ex. horse code, sign language, chemistry terms) specify meanings attached to certain sign objects which are used to characterize and understand the world. All of these satisfy Lachman et al.'s (1979, p. 68) definition of a "code": "a set of specific rules or transformations whereby messages, signals, or states of the world are converted from one representation to another, one medius of energy to another, one physical state to another." Codes, in short, specify how information is to be converted from one form to another.

As indicated earlier, codes represent socially shared sources of product meaning. This is not to say, however, that product meaning does not spring from other sources. Hirschman (1980), for example, notes how meaning springs not only from the tangible attributes of the product (Jello Pudding means "creaminess" because it is, in fact creamy) but also idiosyncratic sources. Idiosyncratic sources, which Hirschman found to determine most of the product meaning for several product categories might include not only past experiences with the product but also the user's physiological make-up. Pabst beer might mean "sickness" to a person because he once got a bad can of Pabst--or because his individual neurological make-up doesn't jibe well with Pabst's chemical Properties--or both.

She idiosyncratic or individual, cognitive analogue to the code concept is the schema. Schemas, according to Fiske and Linville (1980) are mental frameworks that individuals internalize and carry with them which help them organize new information, retrieve learned information, and guide situational behavior. Abelson's (1976) notion of the 'script", for example, is a type of schema. As an example, an individual carries with him a cognitive script which programs for him a sequence of activities in a McDonald's restaurant: look up at the menu, give the order, get it, sit down, etc. Any new learning about eating at McDonald's will be organized and retained via that script or schema. In fact, McDonald's restaurants everywhere are purposely laid out and organized in a way which satisfies consumers' expectations regarding "eating out" behaviors, that is, the sequence of ordering, paying, eating, etc. (Rapoport 1982).

The difference between the code concept and the schema concept concerns their levels of generality. A schema refers to a specific area of behavior. In the restaurant example above, it refers to a cognitive ordering of steps involved in eating in a restaurant. In contrast, codes refer to common tendencies of members of a given culture to cognitively organize every area of their lives. One term, for example, used by code theorists and symbolic anthropologists is "boundary" (Leach 1976). This refers to how strongly people demarcate separate spheres in life, i.e., work vs. leisure, sacred time (church service) vs. secular time, entree vs. desert, and living room vs. dining room. In some code systems, boundaries are very weak. The writer knows of student subcultures, for example, that maintain weak boundaries between library behavior, fraternity behavior, football game behavior, and classroom behavior. In other cultures, i.e., certain upper-class English cultures (Clark 1973), boundaries are firm and constant; life spheres such as living rooms vs. dining rooms and parties vs. football games are rigidly separate entities. Presumably, a highly enculturated member of the latter group might be somewhat befuddled in a fast food restaurant, where separate food courses -- salads, entrees, deserts, coffee -- are all purchased at once.

But first, what does the code concept buy us? The goal is to understand the set of rules that a group of people share and use to organize and make sense out of their environment. We contend that knowing a group's code provides a marketer with information that is not available from any other conceptual framework. To take an extreme example, suppose that an international marketer wanted to market a product to a nonindustrialized third world country. To do so, it planned to advertise that its product out-scored 3 competitors in product tests. s fact that Dorothy Lee (1977) has noted in certain third world cultures is their tendency to code everything in non-lineal terms. For example, where our lineal culture includes such things as ordered career "paths", causal theories of history, and maps based on road lines, Trobriand Islanders perceive everything in non-lineal terms. They see their careers and history as aggregates of unconnected, personal and social anecdotes, and structure their maps in terms of specific locations (i.e. not routes going in specific directions). Whereas our lineal culture has "lines" of authority, many tribal cultures (Lomax 1970) consist of one, weakly designated leader and 100 to 200 semi-independent followers. In these same cultures, rather than have one singer sing to an audience (as in western culture), all singing is group singing. Since these people organize objects, time, and interpersonal relations in non-lineal terms, marketing communications which rank order the performance of one's product versus competitor products would require special decoding efforts by these people. As Bernstein (1968) says, a two-step decoding effort would be required; step one: translate the message into one's own coding system, step two: decipher what the translated message means.

In short, the unique attribute of the code concept is its comprehensiveness. A code is a unitary concept which describes how members of a given culture subjectively structure interpersonal relations, geographic space, time, art forms, religion, language, architecture (Bunt, et 81 1980), and even home furniture arrangements (Douglas 1970). In contrast, the concept of "values" is the next most general concept. Values, however, refer to "desired states of affairs" for a given sphere of behavior--for example, "that all people have equal opportunity for economic advancement." The code concept is throughgoing; it represents a system of rules for the cognitive structuring of nearly all life areas. Also, as used in the writing of most sociologists, the terms "values,'- "norms," and "mores" imply that a group of people are familiar with nonconforming cases, e.g., not having equal opportunity, not serving in the army, not abstaining from cocaine. In a sense, they have a choice between different types of behavior. In contrast, the code concept indicates how people selectively perceive and organize reality. According to a given code, "equality" might be a nonexistent concept, in fact. there may be no word for it in the language!

One learns a culture's code mainly through its language. Language structures reality much the same as the underlying code does (Whorf 1956). A highly articulated language reflects a highly articulated structuring of reality. Also, words in the language specify which elements of the world will be attended to. Curiously, marketing researchers think they can learn the "languages" -- and underlying code systems -- of consumer subcultures in a few hours in focus groups. Cultural anthropologists claim it takes up to ten years to truly learn how a culture experiences and defines its external world!

Understanding Codes

Codes are like languages. They consist of primary elements (words, phonemes) and rules or an algorithm (or "grammar") for interrelating these elements (Eco 1980). Interestingly, several investigators (see Stiny and March 1981) have already written sets of rules (or codes) for conceptualizing product designs. Koning and Eizenberg (1981), for example, de-composed 11 house designs from Frank Lloyd Wright's "prairie design" period into essential elements (fireplace, rooms, porches, etc.), and devised a set of rules for designing Frank Lloyd Wright-style houses. One of the rules is that, "room additions to main living room should not exceed two-thirds size of main living room." They also built these rules into a computer program which generates house designs that many experts believe were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (See Appendix for example). Automobile designers who want to maintain a family similarity between all of the automobiles in their lineup might develop similar algorithms and programs for designing automobiles.

Research on a culture's code system begins by taking some functional area of the culture, for example, eating habits, language, or dress codes and then identifying components of this area as well as the underlying rules which determine how these components are interrelated. The researcher then studies other areas, looking for similar rules or algorithms. The goal is a single algorithm which describes the total code system.

There are probably dozens of different ways to describe codes and code types. However, since this is only a first step at understanding codes and their implications for marketing actions, we focus on only two of the types of codes that researchers have studied so far, restricted codes and elaborated codes. These codes are described below along with implications for advertisers and product designers.

Restricted Codes

Bernstein's (1973) research on social relationships and linguistic patterns among middle and working-class London school children revealed two code types, restricted codes and elaborated codes. Restricted codes are dominant among working class cultures while elaborated codes are dominant among middle and upper-middle class cultures.

Restricted codes represent a high degree of sensitivity to the content of objects as opposed to the relationships objects share with each other, and a greater focus on description as opposed to analysis. A comment about Sears, for example, might be, "Sears treats you good; they're 'real' people" -- as opposed to, "Sears has a more efficient bone financial management center than Key Bank and City Bank although the interest on their insurance policies does not accumulate as fast as the industry average." Also, restricted codes call for less differentiation of objects, and meaning is largely dependent on context, that is, it tends to be implicit meaning. As Clarke (1973, p. 409), says, "Only those possessing a shared, unspoken, implicit understanding of certain features of the context can have access to its meanings." In a teenage gang, for example, an individual's identity, including his nickname, personality, etc. is largely dependent on the peer group. In the same gang, there are strong incentives to conform and few incentives to wear different clothes, have different interests or different behavior patterns from group norms.

In restricted codes, verbal communication relies heavily on non-verbal communication to communicate feelings. A woman in a fast food outlet asks "Where's the beef" and she looks mad. Since meaning is a function of shared, implicit experience, there are limited tendencies to create unique. individual or personal language forms.

Also, there are comparatively few adjectives or adverbs. Instead, words are strung together "like beads on a frame," (Clarke, p. 411) using simple conjunctions. Sentences are short, and rely on concrete, descriptive symbolism, e.g. "This product slices and dices and mashes and ..." As Clarke (1973, p. 409) describes the poetry of working class children, wit places an importance on the special ordering of lines, which allows symbols to reverberate against each other and points to the implicit and symbolic nature of space and the importance of condensed symbols."

The focus on individual objects (in place of a matrix of relationships) has implications for how these people code personal relationships, time, and personal feelings. more stress is placed on attributes of the individual ("he's a 'real person'") than formal role patterns (The's supervisor to 30 middle managers"). Conceptions of time and one's own feelings are also relatively undifferentiated . The key time element, for example, is here and nov, not different points in the past or future which might be causally linked (e.g. "if I start saving next year, I'll have a comfortable retirement"). Regarding feelings, one might say "I feel lousy" as opposed to "I feel anxious but mainly confident I can do the job." Since meanings are dependent on context, these people code spaces in terms of other spaces, e.g. "the front room", "the corner store".

Elaborated Codes

Elaborated codes, dominant among middle-class English people, represent a high sensitivity to differentiation between objects and how these objects are interrelated and hierarchically organized. the middle class child is born into a world that is carefully structured for him (or her), and soon learns to appreciate this structure. Their world, for example, contains a lot of qualifiers and causal connections: "If I buy bubble gum, my parents might be angry because the sugar is bad for my teeth." Meanings here are explicit. In contrast, the meaning of gum to a working class child is implicit: "Mom won't let me buy anything from the candy counter." This code is closely tied to these peoples' language patterns and determines how they cognitively organize social relationships, time, physical environment and personal feelings.

To the middle class person, language is seen as a set of theoretical possibilities for the transmission of unique experiences. The vocabulary is larger, and a premium is placed on verbalization of personal feelings which, in turn, are much more differentiated than in restricted code systems. Social interaction focus more on formal, relational components. and stress the instrumental qualities of these relationships, "if I do x for him, he is expected to do y." Time is also conceptualized in instrumental terms: "Save now for a better tomorrow." Physical spaces are organized based on formal, functional properties: "dining room", "financial district."

Elaborated codes and restricted codes are summarized in Figure 2.




Bernstein's findings are based on English subjects. English middle and lower classes are different from American ones (see Young and Willmott 1965) so the English codes do not describe American ones. Nevertheless, before designing a large scale American code study, it is interesting to note that American consumers in middle and working class sub-cultures share certain similarities with their English counterparts in terms of cognitively organizing their worlds and more importantly, their buying behavior.

Lower class codes in both countries are characterized by a higher focus on object content and a lower focus on differences from other objects. Thus, lower class American consumers have been found to be more oriented to the inherent qualities of a product than differences from other products. Appliances, furniture, and clothing are bought with an eye toward sturdiness and comfort, not style or fashion vs. other brands (Rich and Jain 1968; Levy 1966). In contrast, middle and upper class consumers are more attuned to differences of design and style, and are more willing to experiment with modern furniture and colored appliances (Roscoe et al. 1977). As Levy notes, middle and upper class people are skeptical of television and television advertising yet are "strongly appealed to by sheer difference, by approaches that seem somewhat individual in tone." (in Kassarjian and Robertson 1981, p. 455).

The stronger tendency of American middle and upper-class consumers to perceive products in terms of instrumental benefits is well documented. The VALS program at Stanford Research Institute (Hawkins, et al. 1983), for example, notes the upper-class emphasis on setting long term goals, and their higher spending on education, investment services and "investment clothing." Lower class consumers, in contrast, buy with an eye towards satisfying immediate needs.

Lower class consumers perceive products based on their implied meanings. They rely on context as a judge to evaluate products. Lower class consumers are poorly informed about relative merits of different products (Assael 1981) and rely instead on price as an implied indicator of product quality. Also, as Rainwater et al. (1959, p. 210) note, advertisers to lower class people should show how a product fits into a total life context, or should "convey an image of a gratifying world in which products fit functionally into the drive for a stable and secure life."

Also well documented is the fact that lower class consumers are more attracted to advertising which uses language that is more literal and concrete whereas middle and upper class consumers are attracted to language that is more symbolic, more abstract (Robertson et al. 1984).

However, additional issues in advertising to lower and middle/upper class consumers concern their perceptions of products in general. Take beer, for example. Since lower class consumers are less oriented to differences in general, this might make it that much more difficult to advertise to this group, that is, to single out one's product from competitors. Advertising here should stress the inherent contents or quality of one's product. Budweiser advertising, for example, stresses its "beechwood aging." Budweiser's success might also be due to the spokesperson, Ed McMahon. Levy (in Kassarjian and Robertson 1981), for example, notes how lower class consumers prefer stores with friendly, "real-type" sales people. Ed McMahon might satisfy this preference very effectively for Budweiser. Another tactic is to stress the implied benefits of beer drinking, that is. beer in a given context. (ex: "Natural Light: The Beer with a taste for food").

In contrast, advertising to middle and upper class consumers should stress differences, analysis. and instrumental ties to distant benefits. Beer advertising here. for example, emphasizes attributes such as foreignness, refinement ("the beer chosen by experts"), and weight loss (Lite Boer).

A summary of the implications of restricted codes vs. elaborated codes for advertisers is provided in Figure 3.




This article examines the code concept and how it explains consumer behavior. The code concept is described, and examples are provided from Bernstein's (1973) work on restricted vs. elaborated code systems among English lower and middle classes.

Briefly, a code is a socially shared set of rules for organizing and making sense out of one's environment. The idea of the existence of an autonomous set of rules for making life intelligible could be a springboard for many further studies. Rosenblum (1978) defines "style" as a set of "particular mannerisms or conventions that are frequently associated together." This suggests that a possible direction for research on consumers' "life styles" might focus on rules or code systems that cut across all life decisions: what clothes to wear, preferred architecture, car designs, career paths, etc. As Levy (1978) notes, each individual is an artist who creates his own lifestyle as a mosaic of separate elements. Just as researchers are now able to identify the codes that architects and artists use to design paintings and buildings, researchers should be able to identify the rule systems or codes that are implicit in all lifestyle choices. Are bright colors preferred in clothes, cars, furniture, and all items in a given culture? Are angular lines preferred in car designs, home designs, and appliance designs?

Research to date on code systems has mainly been descriptive. Got enough is known yet about code systems to develop a set of variables for classifying them, or, in other words, a system for coding codes. Researchers such as Bernstein (1968) look for ways that codes --mainly, linguistic codes -- differ from each other. To do this, they study one or two languages in depth, and develop highly articulated descriptions of those languages, e.g.:

"Characteristics of a public (lower class) language are: short, grammatically simple, often unfinished, sentences with a poor syntactical construction; simple and repetitive use of conjunctions (so, then, and), thus modifications, qualifications and logical stress will tend to be indicated by non-verbal means; frequent use of short commands and questions; rigid and limited use of adjectives and adverbs; infrequent use of the impersonal pronoun (it, one) as subject of a conditional sentence." (Bernstein 1968, p. 228).

This only refers to language. In Leach's (1976, p. 10) opinion, all non-verbal dimensions in a culture clothing styles, village layout, architecture, music, food, etc. -- "communicate," so a true code for a culture cannot be developed until many other aspects of the culture have been similarly described. In Levy's (1978, p. 143) words, what's needed is not empirical tests but more "spade work," that is, deeper knowledge of "how consumers process their physical, social and cultural circumstances through their psyches in deciding how to allocate resources of time, energy, attention, reasoning, emotion, desire - and finally money - to develop, sustain, modify and elaborate the meanings that matter to them." Thus, further work might proceed on several fronts, all of which are essentially ethnographic and provide descriptive "building blocks" toward a conceptual framework for describing all code systems. Since much code research begins with language, psycholinguistics is a promising starting point. Research might focus on how a culture's language codifies or represents reality and then move on to other areas -- eating habits, non-verbal behavior, architecture - to determine whether they "communicate" or represent reality in the same way. Another starting point might use structuralist methods from anthropology. Where Levy (1981) applied structuralist methods to understand dining habits, similar methods could be applied toward understanding all components of a culture (see Leach 1976). Finally, if current interest in cultural influences (e.g., ethnic influences) on consumer behavior continues to grow, findings from these studies could provide grist for new theories about codes and their effects.



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Jeffrey F. Durgee, [School of Management, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York 12180-3590 (518) 266-6588]


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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