Presidential Address Secular Mortality and the Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: Or How Semiotics Saved My Life


Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1991) ,"Presidential Address Secular Mortality and the Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: Or How Semiotics Saved My Life", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 1-4.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 1-4



Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


First let me say that I am really deeply honored and amazed to find myself in the position of making a presidential address today. As I looked back over the past four talks by ACR presidents, I was impressed by the depth and breadth of the topics they had covered: Russ Belk called for a revolution in theory and method; Rich Lutz declared that it had arrived (and indeed it must have, or I wouldn't be here today!) Jim Bettman provided us with an in-depth analysis of how consumers think; and Morris Holbrook lyrically and musically told us how they feel. That didn't leave much normal ground for me to cover...

And so, I decided to talk today about some strange and unusual topics similar to those for which I have become notorious. Now, as most of you know, I am a happy and upbeat person... But today I want to talk to you about some things that are not happy and upbeat, yet nevertheless have been much on my mind and have caused me to re-think much of my philosophy as a person and a researcher. I want to talk to you about some very difficult and troubling issues -- about death and life, about addiction and recovery, about poverty and racism and how they relate to consumer research. The title of my address is "Secular Mortality and the Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: or How Semiotics Saved My Life."

I became interested in these issues after two events happened to me, which I am going to relate to you in narrative form. These two events affected me very deeply, and it is my great hope that by telling them to you, they will affect you also. It is my hope that they will change the way you conduct your research and also the types of phenomena on which you choose to conduct research.

The evening of July 15, 1988 was a pretty normal one for me. It was a Friday. My husband, Ray, was in Los Angeles filming some television commercials. I had worked on some research projects during the day and then had picked the kids up from summer camp. I made them dinner and gave them a bath. I made myself a big lobster dinner and put the kids to bed. I decided to do some more work, so I drank a cup of strong coffee, took a few No Doz tablets and got busy on a paper. After a few hours, my Mom called me and we talked. Then Ray called me twice and we talked. I watched the last 15 minutes of Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger on HBO, had a drink, and went to bed.

At 4:00 AM my two-year-old daughter, Annie, began calling me from her upstairs bedroom "Mommy, I want a baba" (a bottle). I got up and began walking toward the kitchen. I noticed that I was very dizzy and weak. After a few steps I was unable to walk and lay down on the floor. Annie kept screaming "I want a ba ba!" I began crawling on my stomach toward the kitchen; my heart was pounding and I was very dizzy. When I reached the refrigerator, I stood up, opened the door, and took out a carton of apple juice.

The next thing I remember is regaining consciousness on the kitchen floor in a puddle of blood and apple juice. The house was completely silent. I could not move my body. I was terrified beyond words. I realized that something had gone terribly wrong with me and that I was dying. I thought about the situation. The neighbors on both sides were on vacation; the doors were dead-bolted too high up for-my children to reach, and Ray was not due back from California for 5 days. I realized that if I did not get up and get help that my children would be stuck in the house for a long time with a dead mother.

And so, somehow, I crawled over to the kitchen counter, pulled myself up, and dialed 911. After telling the voice on the other end who I was and where I lived, I turned on the kitchen light so they could see me through the window. (I was afraid I would be dead or unconscious by the time the EMS people arrived, and they would drive away.) They came and helped me. I knew I was in bad shape when the EMS nurse would not allow me to be moved for several minutes until an IV line had been set up. She had been able to get only a weak pulse and virtually no blood pressure reading.

When I arrived at the hospital emergency room, several disgusting and frightening things were done to me, that I will not describe here -- since it is lunch time -- which revealed that I had two stomach ulcers. As the gastroenterologist told me: "One is very big, and the other is very deep." During the night, both of them had perforated my stomach wall, and I had lost between one-half to two-thirds of my entire blood supply. The doctors had no idea how I had made it to the telephone...

Why was Beth Hirschman dying of ulcers? Like most research questions, this one has a simple, direct answer and a more complex, indirect one. The simple, direct answer is that I was a caffeine junkie. I was addicted to caffeine. If you will recall the opening portion of my narrative, you'll see that the clues are there. Remember how I made myself some coffee and then took some No Doz tablets so that I could get to work after dinner? Over the past ten years of my career, that had become standard practice for me. Every morning I would consume caffeine in one form or another, every afternoon, every evening -- seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for ten years. And every night I would have one or two drinks to bring me down from my caffeine high, so I could get some sleep. I never stopped because I couldn't. I felt too tired without it. I couldn't get anything done. I needed it. After a decade of consistent abuse my stomach had had enough. And that night, on July 15, it told me so.

No one starts out drinking coffee, or alcohol, or taking Valium, or smoking grass, or snorting cocaine thinking that they're going to become an addict. It just kind of creeps up on you. One day you realize that the stuff you were consuming to help you work better, or sleep better, or feel better has become an indispensable part of your life. You can't live without it, but as I discovered, you can die with it.

The more complex, indirect answer as to why this happened to me is harder to verbalize. I believe the roots of my problem lie beyond the simple fact of addiction, and likely relate closely lo feelings and experiences you have had in your own lives. I wanted very much to succeed and do well at everything. I started out wanting -to be a perfect daughter and did everything I could to make my parents proud of me -- often achieving many things I didn't really care about, but that I believed they wanted me to achieve. I carried that attitude over into my adult life. I tried to be the perfect graduate student, the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect professor, the perfect researcher, the perfect committee member.

But being perfect at all those tasks was beyond what a normal human could do, so I began to use stimulant drugs -- caffeine -- to achieve them. And I was very successful at it. I became a very prolific consumer researcher, I got great teacher ratings, I was named to committee after committee, I won office after office. And then one day I ended up on the kitchen floor bleeding to death... So much for perfection.

I believe in many ways the most insidious, dangerous forms of addiction are those which make us seem successful; which are carried around by people who appear to be performing excellently and who keep receiving reinforcement after reinforcement for their achievements. Unlike the heroin junkie in the gutter, who recognizes his misery, we successful addicts are too busy basking in external affirmation until it is too late. And if we survive, as I did, we find we not only have to learn to live without our chemical dependencies, but also to drastically restructure our lives away from 'being perfect' and more toward being human. Often times this means getting in touch with feelings and emotions that have been dormant for long periods of time and even rediscovering who we are.

One thing that I discovered after my collapse is that relationships with other people are much more important than secular achievements, fame, and glory. Life -- mine, yours and everybody's, is of supreme importance. And I wanted to do something to help other people live their lives better.

This was brought home to me in vivid fashion the second afternoon I was in the Intensive Care Unit. My two I.V. bottles were hooked up to a portable stand and, Type A personality that I am, I decided to take a walk. I wandered down the hall, past the coronary unit, past the trauma unit and on and on until I finally found myself on a strange hallway. It was full of patients. Some were languishing in their beds, some sat slumped in easy chairs in the hall. All-of them looked wasted; all of them were young; all of them were men. I suddenly realized that all of them had AIDS and that they were dying... just as r had been only two days earlier. Only for them, there would be no miraculous call to 911, no EMS arrival, no life-saving transfusion in the emergency room. They were not going to make it off the kitchen floor. -They were going to die. And I felt so terribly, terribly sad.

I resolved to change the course of my research toward more life-oriented forms of consumer behavior. I decided to begin examining those phenomena that can hurt and damage consumers with the thought that if I could learn about them, perhaps I could help prevent them. My first three ventures in this area dealt with the possession and commoditization of women, with prostitution and pornography, and with the diffusion of cocaine. They are nice paper; but they still weren't dealing with the real nitty-gritty issues that were out there. I had put my mind into them, but not my whole heart and soul... And then, something else happened to me...

In late May of 1989, Ray and I decided to take the kids and go on a much-needed vacation to St. Maarten, the friendly island in the Caribbean. After settling into the hotel room for a couple of days and enjoying the beautiful turquoise water and the white sand beaches, we decided to drive into the port city of Marigot. Marigot was absolutely beautiful. Yachts were docked in the harbor, there was a whole collection of excellent French restaurants, and an array of shops selling expensive and exquisite things: Lalique crystal, Cartier jewelry, Yves Saint Laurent clothing, fine wines. The stores were crowded with wealthy tourists from the U.S. and Europe.

We had a delightful lunch there and then began driving back toward our hotel. The road to our hotel passed through what you and I would view as a slum, but which comprised the normal residences of most of St. Maarten's native population: small cinder block houses with tin roofs perched on uneven, bare patches of land. Wandering from yard to yard were goats and chickens and an occasional sickly dog. In the hot sun the residents sat on their porches and watched the parade of tourist traffic drive by in rented Hyundais and Hondas.

As we pulled up at a stop light, a cream colored Mercedes convertible stopped in front of us. Inside was a beautiful blonde woman, her hair bound-up in a Hermes scarf. There were gold earrings against her neck and her wrists were covered with expensive bracelets and a diamond watch. She was wearing an elegant silk dress.

I was amazed at the contrast between her extraordinary affluence and the extreme poverty of the women sitting on the porches. The contrast was not only vivid, it was vulgar and obscene. What invisible wall, I wondered, kept the people on the porches from running forward and grabbing at her, tearing off her expensive things? What had each done to deserve their fate -- the rich and the poor?

But I put those disturbing thoughts out of my mind when we reached the hotel. That night, Ray and I were going out to dinner. We had made reservations at an excellent French restaurant, right on the water, in the town of Grand Case. It was a dinner I shall never forget. Our table overlooked the Caribbean and in the lights we could see each wave gently flowing in and spreading across the sand. The food was wonderful; we had pate' and rock lobster and champagne. There were raspberries and cream for dessert.

Driving back in the car, I realized that I had not been so at peace with myself for a long time -for years. We were in a wonderful mood; we had the radio on to a reggae station and the windows rolled down to let in the fragrant night air.

When we were about 2 miles from our hotel, I glanced down at the clock on the dashboard to check the time so I could pay the babysitter. It was 10:45. As I looked up, I noticed the lights of another car coming up behind us. We were in no hurry, so Ray slowed down to let it pass. There was an enormous crash. Our car was thrown off the road and into a culvert. "Damn," I thought, "those people are drunk and now we've had a wreck." In the headlights of our car I saw two shadowy figures running toward us. There was a bright flash of light and an explosion BAM! on Ray's side of the car. The entire windshield on his side shattered. Ray screamed, "They're shooting at us; they're shooting at us!" I yelled to him "Drive the car! Drive the car!" There was another flash of light, and another explosion on my side of the car and the rest of the windshield fell away.

Suddenly the two men were jerking open the doors of the car. One began hitting Ray in the chest with his gun demanding his wallet. The other put his gun to my head and began grabbing my jewelry and my pocketbook. My ears strained for the sound of the gun going off for a third time. I knew it was inevitable. I knew we were dead.

But instead of shooting us, the men ordered us to get out of the car. As we were exiting, another pair of headlights appeared on the road; one man shouted to the other "Someone's coming, Mon, let's go." And they jumped back in their car and sped away, screaming, laughing, and waving their guns in the air.

I ran into the street and began waving my arms at the oncoming car. It stopped. I yelled to them "We've just been shot at; we've been robbed; our car is wrecked; please help us." It turned out to be 4 tourists from Ohio, (never have I been so glad to see tourists from Ohio) and they did help us. They gave me a ride back to the hotel, while a security man stayed with Ray and the car. Ray told the police what had happened and then was taken to the hospital. The first bullet had been fired at such close range and had passed so closely to his head that the right side of his face was covered with powder burns and glass fragments.

Why did this happen to us? Like my response to the earlier question on caffeine addiction, there is a simple, direct answer and a complex, indirect answer. The simple answer is that, as we learned from the police the next day, our attackers were crack cocaine addicts who had been rampaging around the island since February. They had stopped cars and ransacked villas, each time the wildness and viciousness of their attacks increased. We had the unique distinction, however, of being the very first people they had tried to blow the heads off of. After reflecting on this news, I realized the irony of it all. I had survived my own near-fatal addiction only to almost die, less than a year later, because of someone else's addiction. Thus, the moral of the simple answer is, if your own addiction doesn't kill you, someone else's may.

The more complex, indirect answer to the question "Why did this happen to us?". however, is bound-up in the significance of an event that had happened earlier in the day. Recall the story of the stoplight, with--me watching the rich woman in the Mercedes and seeing also the hungry eyes of the poor women on the porches. The complex, indirect answer lies in the ugly structure of wealth and poverty, of white and black, of insensitivity and apathy confronted by anger and bitterness.

Although I had recognized the vulgarness and cruelty of displaying great wealth in front of people with little opportunity for achieving it, I soon put it out of my mind and continued on with my own privileged, affluent lifestyle. I'm feeling OK, so forget the rest of the world. It's too bad they're poor, but, hey, I can't/won't/needn't do anything about it... On with the party; let's go to dinner.

We never know when we will be judged. But it is usually when we least expect it, at a time when we are least prepared for it, and by those whom we most fear as judges. And so it was with me and Ray on that dark road in St. Maarten. We were judged, harshly, and terrified in the process. But we were not killed, despite our mutual certainty that we would die that night. Here were two men, our fate-designated judges, who had attempted, from a distance of about 3 or 4 feet, to shoot us in the head before robbing us. They were so wild, and reckless and high from cocaine that, remarkably, they missed their mark.

Yet when they threw open the doors to the car and their guns were up against us, and there was no margin for error, they did not shoot. They took our money, our worldly goods, but they left us the most precious of all possessions, our lives. Why? Ray and I, who think differently about nearly everything, converged on the same answer for this: It was the way we were dressed; the way we looked. For despite our affluence and despite our dinner that evening at an expensive restaurant, Ray and I were dressed the way we always are during our leisure time -- when we are really being ourselves -- or at least the selves we used to be back during our liberal, radical youths. In short, we were both wearing jeans, sneakers and T-shirts. Ray with his beard and wire-rimmed glasses; me with my long, unstyled hair and no make-up. Two middle-aged hippies. That is what the angry, addicted, poor men saw as they flung open the door of our car and that is who they decided only to rob, not to kill. Both Ray and I are sure that had we been dressed-up that night, we would be dead today. And that's how semiotics saved my life. You are what you wear, and sometimes that can make a world of difference.

Ironically, perhaps, my experience in St. Maarten convinced me that just as I could not run away from my own consumption problems, I could not run away from other people's either.

I renewed my efforts to delve into the dark side of consumer behavior. I began talking directly and openly to people who suffered from a variety of consumption-related problems -- people who are or have been heroin junkies, and alcoholics, and prostitutes; people who have smoked crack and robbed convenience stores at gunpoint. People who have lived in the street and slept in gutters. People who have gambled away their life savings. And I have found out two important things. First, they are not very different from you and me... In fact, in my case at least, they are me. And second, I believe that we, as consumer researchers, have much that we could do to help them, if only we would make the effort.

As we meet here today, comfortable not only in our attractive surroundings, but in our personal affluence and success, let us not ignore some uncomfortable statistics about other people's realities as consumers. At the present time, 100,000 homeless people dwell in the cities and towns of America, the wealthiest country on earth (National Coalition for the Homeless). Dispossessed and displaced, they wander aimlessly through the streets, camp in parks and live under highways. What have we done to help their plight?

There are currently 2 to 3 million cocaine and crack addicts in the United States (Waller 1990). 375,000 drug-addicted babies were born in 1989, alone (Kantrowicz 1990) -- consumers whose first moments of existence are distorted by the dark side of consumer behavior. What have we done to help them?

Every six minutes a woman is raped in the United States -- the highest incidence of this violent crime, this terrible act of personal commoditization, among the industrialized nations (Salholz 1990). Every 18 seconds a woman is beaten; 3 to 4 million women are battered every year, treated as abused possessions by husbands and lovers (Salholz 1990). What have we done to help them?

Every year over 10 million American consumers suffer financial losses from their addiction to gambling and over 500,000 file for personal bankruptcy as a result of credit card abuse (Brister & Brister 1987; Statistical Abstracts 1990).

There are currently 10 million alcoholics and 80 million cigarette smokers in the United States (Brister & Brister 1987). Every year, 25,000 people die as a result of alcohol-related traffic accidents; and 20,000 consumers die from the disease of alcoholism, itself (Brister & Brister 1987). On average, 360,000 consumers die every year from lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease linked to cigarette smoking -- a number greater than all the American soldiers killed in the Second World War (Brister & Brister 1987). What could we have done to prevent this?

All of these disturbing and disturbed behaviors result from consumption gone wrong. The dark side of consumer behavior is ugly and unhappy, but it is, perhaps, not inevitable. Consumers could likely recover from these damaging behaviors, if adequate research were conducted into their origins and treatment.

We are a bright, and talented, and productive group. How much we could accomplish if we would turn even a portion of our talents toward understanding and ameliorating the dark side of consumer behavior. I hope that through listening to my own struggle with these issues and thinking about the real people whose lives are encompassed in the statistics just presented you will be challenged to do se

Thank you!


Kantrowicz, Barbara (1990), "The Crack Children," Newsweek, February 12, 62-63.

Salholz, Eloise (1990), "Women Under Assault." Newsweek, July 16, 23-24.

Waller, Douglas (1990), "Risky Business," Newsweek, July 16, 16-19.

Brister, David and Phyllis Brister (1987), The Vicious Circle Phenomenon, Birmingham: Diadem Publishing.



Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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