The Wild West in the Consumer Imagination


Terrence H. Witkowski (1994) ,"The Wild West in the Consumer Imagination", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 251.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Page 251


Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach


The North American frontier has inspired imaginations for nearly 500 years, but most evocative of all have been the images produced during the period following the Civil War. This "Wild West" has meant vast expanses and natural wonders, the buffalo and the long-horned steer, and cowboys, Indians, gunfighters, and pioneer settlers. The Wild West has spawned entire genres of literature, painting, music, film, and television as well as popular amusements ranging from Wild West shows to rodeos to cowboy poetry readings. The stagecoach, the warbonnet, the Colt revolver, and the Winchester rifle have become American icons, while sundry other western motifs permeate countless objects of everyday life. Above all, the Wild West has been an idea, a symbol of individualism and unbounded freedom.

The ongoing consumption of the Wild West is a significant phenomenon worthy of study for its own sake. It is deeply embedded in American life and differentiates American consumer culture from other consumer cultures. Yet, the Wild West also has a worldwide following ranging from Japanese tourists in search of authentic dude ranches to the American Indians' Friends Society in Poland. The objective of this special session was to investigate different aspects of this macro phenomenon, as it relates to consumer behavior, from different methodological perspectivesChistorical, reader response, and ethnographic.


The first paper by Ronald A. Fullerton examined the evolution of the mythology of the West as portrayed in late nineteenth-century dime novels, in Wild West Shows and early movies, and by celebrity heroes including Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and Sitting Bull. The paper then analyzed "Somewhere West of Laramie," the famous and revolutionary 1923 advertisement for the Jordan motor car. This ad exerted enormous power on consumer consciousness because it seamlessly transferred key cultural fantasies about the Wild West to one of the major products of our century, the automobile. Fullerton's explanation introduces a longitudinal dimension to McCracken's theory of meaning movement.

The next paper by Thomas C. O'Guinn used a reader response methodology to investigate the western film, illustrated by John Ford's The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The western has been an enormously successful consumer product because it: (1) attracts a large and diverse set of interpretive communities; (2) works out essential dilemmas such as individuality versus conformity; (3) is an infinitely transferable form; (4) is mythic; (5) is populist; (6) is a game between good guys and bad guys; (7) has a constraining form that yields an open text; (8) illustrates core American values; (9) reveals tensions between adolescence and adulthood; and (10) is great fun.

The third paper by Lisa Penaloza presented ethnographic findings on how animals, humans, and mythic images are marketed, commodified, and consumed at a western stock show. The romance of the Wild West differs greatly from what really goes on at the show: educational seminars on artificial insemination and embryo transfer; pure bred cattle shampooed, blow-dried and carefully "finished" for the show ting; entertainments including a rodeo, mule tiding competitions, and draft horse and dog pulls; and state of the art marketing practices such as video sales pitches and satellite auctions. Nevertheless, romantic images and their associated valuesCrugged individualism, human independence and mastery over nature, and male dominanceCremain as meanings used to market many of these products and services.


In his discussant remarks, Terrence H. Witkowski classified the consumption of the Wild West according to different levels of authenticity. Originals are material artifacts and other cultural productions that survive from the historical era of the Wild West. Recreations are things, services, sounds, and images that attempt to accurately reproduce originals and interpretations are things, services, sounds, and images that borrow elements (themes, styles) from originals, but combine and apply them in new ways. Not only has the distinction between the real and the mythical West often been blurred, the social definitions of each of the different levels of authenticity have changed over time.



Terrence H. Witkowski, California State University, Long Beach


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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