Consumers’ Use of Intertextuality and Archetypes

ABSTRACT - This paper examines two specific types of consumer-generated discourse which are constructed in response to television shows and motion pictures; these are intertextuality and archetypes. Intertextuality refers to the interconnectedness of cultural narratives, such that current texts refer always backward to structures and ideas contained in earlier texts; each generation’s patterns of discourse are built upon those of preceding generations. In the present paper, I demonstrate three forms of intertextuality used by consumers to onnect their own personal narratives to the larger cultural discourse surrounding them.


Elizabeth C. Hirschman (2000) ,"Consumers’ Use of Intertextuality and Archetypes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 57-63.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 57-63


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


This paper examines two specific types of consumer-generated discourse which are constructed in response to television shows and motion pictures; these are intertextuality and archetypes. Intertextuality refers to the interconnectedness of cultural narratives, such that current texts refer always backward to structures and ideas contained in earlier texts; each generation’s patterns of discourse are built upon those of preceding generations. In the present paper, I demonstrate three forms of intertextuality used by consumers to onnect their own personal narratives to the larger cultural discourse surrounding them.

Archetypes are concepts carried forward in discourse generation after generation and used to anchor key meanings, often bi-polar, that the culture uses to explain the workings of the world. Jung argues that archetypes are invariant across time and societies, because they are inherent to the human species; whereas others argue for a culturally-coded view in which archetypes are most significant as iconic representations of social meanings, for example, Good versus Evil. In the present paper, I explore consumers’ use of archetypes to anchor key personal meanings. As will be shown, archetypic icons are readily drawn by consumers from mass media texts such as motion pictures and television shows.


Over the past decade, consumer researchers have shown a growing interest in consumer-directed and consumer-generated discourse (see for example, Hirschman, Scott and Wells 1998; Hirschman and Thompson 1997; Holt 1997; McCracken 1986, 1988a, b; Thompson 1996; 1997). The present paper is drawn from interviews generated during a large-scale study which examined consumer discourse generated in response to questions about their favorite motion pictures, television shows, actors and actresses. The aim of the study was to learn how consumers incorporated these cultural narratives into their lives, especially in terms of gaining understanding of cultural norms and alternative paths of self-development (see e.g., Campbell 1973; 1974; 1988).

This paper examines two specific types of consumer-generated discourse which are constructed in response to television shows and motion pictures; these are intertextuality and archetypes. Intertextuality refers to the interconnectedness of cultural narratives, such that current texts refer always backward to structures and ideas contained in earlier texts (Barthes 1972). Each generation’s patterns of discourse are built upon those of preceding generations (Hirschman, Scott and Wells 1998). In the present paper, I demonstrate three forms of intertextuality used by consumers to connect their own personal narratives to the larger cultural discourse surrounding them.

Archetypes (see Jung 1916/1959) are concepts carried forward in discourse generation after generation and used to anchor key meanings, often bi-polar, that the culture uses to explain the workings of the world. Jung argues that archetypes are invariant across time and societies, because they are inherent to the human species; whereas others (e.g., Campbell 1973; 1974; 1997) argue for a culturally-coded view in which archetypes are most significant as iconic representations of social meanings, for example, Good versus Evil. In the present paper, I explore consumers’ use of archetypes to anchor key personal meanings. As will be shown, archetypic icons are readily drawn by consumers from mass media texts such as motion pictures and television shows.


Textual data for the present study were generated by means of phenomenological interviews with 24 volunteer participants of diverse gender, ethnicity, age and religious affiliation. All participants in the study were assured of anonymity. Diversity among the participants was purposely sought, as intertextual and archetypic thought are posited to be present in all segments of the population. I used a six question interview protocol to initiate and guide the discussion. The questions regarded the consumer’s favorite motion pictures, television shows, actors and actresses. The primary objective of the interview was to allow each participant to articulate the narratives and meanings that comprised his/her favorite texts and icons within this domain.

Each interview was conucted in the participant’s place of residence with only the participant and the researcher present. I sought to create a context in which the participants felt at ease and comfortable discussing the topic. The interviews began by asking the participant to simply "tell the story" of his/her favorite film. All participants were eager to do this, and often continued their initial narrative rendition for half an hour with little or no assistance by the researcher. Because of the deeply involving and seemingly enjoyable nature of the task, participants continued through the subsequent questions and discussion enthusiastically, responding to each of the general probes in a lengthy and detailed manner. Interviews took a minimum of 1.5 hours; some went as long as three hours.

Interpretive Procedures and Logic of Analysis

Analysis of the verbatim interview transcripts involved an iterative, part-to-whole reading strategy through which I developed a comprehension of each transcript, while also noting ideational similarities across the set of transcripts. During this process, earlier readings of an interview were used to inform later readings and, reciprocally, later readings allowed me to recognize and explore patterns not noted in my initial analysis. I read through, in an iterative manner, the entire set of transcripts, developing marginal notations regarding substantive thematic content. These initial thematic categories were compared with those developed previously by Campbell during his extensive studies of comparative mythology (Campbell 1968, 1973, 1974). Additional concepts were also discerned which related to recent findings on cognitive categorization (e.g. Zaltman 1997) and meaning transfer (McCracken 1986) and were classified into groupings for additional analysis. As noted in the Introduction, the present paper focuses upon two specific types of cognitive categorization and meaning transferBintertextuality and archetypes.


In a recent article, Holt (1997, p. 329) observed that:

The meanings of a particular cultural object or action are always constructed through a cultural process known as intertextuality, by metaphoric, imagistic, and narrative association with other cultural objects and practices.. Meanings [may be] conceived as endlessly referring symbolic chains [or as] meaning webs or systems (see, e.g., Geertz 1973).

In the discussions to follow I will illustrate three types intertextuality: (1) the linking of a film, T.V. show, or character to other, earlier shows/films; (2) the linking of a film or T.V. show to actual people or events, and (3) the linking of a film or T.V. show to the consumer’s earlier life or a nostalgic past.

Cross-text Intertextuality

The first type I have labeled cross-text intertextuality, because it describes consumers’ mental linkages across similar narratives they have encountered. Becky, 26, uses cross-text intertextuality to describe two of her favorite television shows, Spin City and Caroline in the City.

B: Spin City is with Michael J. Fox. He’s the assistant to the mayor of New York City, played by Barry Bostwick. ...And the mayor is kind of like the governor was in Benson. You watch Benson in the #70’s, where [the governor] was like a dumb goofball and very nanve, and Benson was his assistant who took care of him. I think of it in he same way, because Michael J. Fox takes care of everything. He smoothes things over, he tells the mayor what to do, what to say. And the mayor is just like this happy-go-lucky guy; everything is cool. And Michael J. Fox will take care of everything.

I: What is it about that particular show that you find interesting?

B: Just the way the characters interact. It’s not so much what they’re getting into, but that they’re so familiar with one another. They go to Remo’s, a restaurant almost like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Remo talks to them and he’s totally involved in their personal life. It almost doesn’t seem normal, but it almost seems nice in a way that people are interacting and their different walks of life are combining.

In these passages, Becky uses two prior television series, Benson and Cheers, to categorize and make sense of two current shows she enjoys. In Spin City she constructs a metaphoric equivalence between one character and an earlier Benson character; while in Caroline in the City she links a communal gathering place, Remo’s Restaurant, with the bar in Cheers, which served a similar role. This is a key aspect of intertextualityBthat structural aspects of a narrative may be transferred across different texts, but maintain the same meaning.

Vince, a 27-year-old Italian-American man, views the Jason Alexander character, George, on Seinfeld as a reincarnation of Jackie Gleason’s character, Ralph Cramden, on the earlier show Honeymooners:

V: I like Jason Alexander when he plays George in Seinfeld. Now, this is interesting. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, watch an episode of the Honeymooners one night, then watch a Seinfeld episode right after. George is based kind of on Ralph Cramden from the Honeymooners.

I:  In what sense?

V: Well, you have a fat guy running around [and] it’s obvious he incorporates a lot of the [Ralph Cramden] character. He screams a lot. He makes the hand motions. Like snapping his fingers, things like that. That’s a very interesting feature of the show. Not a lot of people pick up on it. [But] once you’re made aware of it, you can go watch it and see it.

As Thompson (1997) notes, such analogic equivalencies are quite consistent with cognitive schema theory: consumers learn about novel products by thinking about them as similar or dissimilar to product concepts they already have in memory. Here, Vince is clearly using visual images to construct parallels across characters, just as Zaltman (1997) suggests.

Out-of-Text People and Event Intertextuality

A second type of intertextuality I labeled out-of-text people and event intertextuality. Here consumers link actions and/or characters in a given fictional text to actual people or events. In essence, this type of intertextuality represents consumers’ efforts to link fictitious texts to the "outside" world. As the examples below illustrate, this helps the consumer anchor both his/her inner, conceptual world and the external world of reality.

Vince describes one of his favorite films, The Manchurian Candidate, using out-of-text references to two historic events.

This [film] was made in 1963 and Frank Sinatra was the star. As a matter [of] fact, I think he was also producer of the movie. And interestingly enough, it was only shown in movie theaters, and it was never really shown on television like the last 20, 30 years or on video, because the movie paralleled the Kennedy assassination so closely that he [Sinatra] jut thought it was very disturbing. And for that reason, he didn’t release it.... So it unfolds that the sergeant’s stepfather is a very powerful senator from the Midwest or somewhere. Kind of like paralleling Eugene McCarthy. Remember him? The communists, the Red Scare, all that stuff.

Vince’s description incorporates intertextual references to both the Kennedy assassination and the McCarthy era; such references help link the movie to Vince’s sense of the world, while at the same time making more real the historic events, themselves, because they are paralleled in the movie. In this way, Vince, who is too young to have actually experienced either event, is able to relive them via the fictional text.

A similar example of out-of-text reference is provided by Sylvia, a 45-year-old Jewish woman, when she describes one of her favorite films, Schindler’s List.

R: And he (Schindler) protected many more (Jews) by feeding them, housing them, clothing them; he was very ingenious actually, he pretended that the Germans really needed these people to make their weaponry or whatever. In fact, there was one incident where a Nazi officer asks him why would he need a young child of ... maybe eight or six-years-old ... So he claims that "who else has such small fingers to be able to put gunpowder in a bullet and stuff it in. But of course we need his little fingers." He was very creative, very dazzling and very brave to have risked his life ....

I: Do you know any other people that remind you of him or helped to do the same kind of mission as he did?

R: Well, I don’t know. I never met these people, but my father had been hidden from the Nazis by Ukrainians in their home. This person had originally worked for my father at one time and my father had been very good to him. Nevertheless, it was incredible that they hid my father and a sister of my father’s as well as some of her children, at risk to their lives....

Here, Sylvia is able to link the events depicted in Schindler’s List, which were based on historic events, with her father’s and aunt’s survival during World War II. As she mentions elsewhere in the interview, Schindler’s List was an extremely significant film for her to see, because it tells the story of "what happened to my people and my family." Because she was born after the conclusion of the war, the film provides Sylvia with a deeply meaningful way of touching these events.

Out-of-text linkages were also made to the actors and actresses who portrayed particular characters in consumers’ favorite motion pictures and television shows. As we see in the extensive excerpt below from Marie, 57, consumers often permit actor’s roles and their private lives to become interconnected cognitively. Here is Marie’s account of the film Cleopatra.

She married Julius Caesar, right. And after he got killed, Marc Antony, who was played by Richard Burton, it really turned into a real love story, because they fell in love on the set, and she divorced Eddie Fischer and he [Burton] divorced his wife and they got married. And they were married for a pretty long time. I think that he must have been the great love of her life.

But in the movie they’re fighting Octavius, and word is sent back to Cleopatra that Marc Antony was dead. And because of that she killed herself. She got dressed in her most gorgeous gown and she laid down on, it was more like a table but I guess it was considered a bed, and then she let an asp bite her, a poisonous snake. And then he gets there. He wasn’t dead at all. Of course, after that he didn’t care and he got killed, too. So, I mean, it didn’t have a happy ending but it was a fantastic movie ...

And from the first time Elizabeth Taylor sa Richard Burton, it was like a lightning bolt. They fell so madly in love that you could tell. Their scenes, their love scenes were not really love scenes. It was real love. They were having a very open, scandalous affair.

Everybody in the world knew about it. It was in the headlines all over the world, because she was news all over the world. And, naturally, you get more press when it’s bad press. I think that the affair between she and Richard Burton made the movie a huge success. Because it was a multi-million dollar extravaganza. I don’t know if I ever told you, but when she first came to Rome, she married Caesar. When she came to Rome to meet the court, the Italian court, she came on a barge and then she was carried in this chariot that was all gold. She had all gold on. Her son had all gold on .

To Marie the cognitive notions of Cleopatra (the historic person and the movie character) are inextricably linked with Elizabeth Taylor (the historic person and the movie actress) in an intertextual network of remarkable detail and vividness. In the final section of this paper, I will discuss the meaning transfer model suggested by McCracken (1986, 1989) more thoroughly, but as this passage gives evidence, there is often a vigorous flow of meaning from historic events to cultural narratives to actors and actresses.

Consumers also used this form of intertextuality to move meaning from actor-to-role-to-actor, as Sam’s transcript passage below suggests:

Paul Newman’s a guy who I would like to meet. I think he most probably is wonderful. He’s been married to the same woman all these years. He’s been through some incredible hardships losing a child. But he’s not a guy who’s in the limelight to say hey, I’m the greatest. He does his job. He’s great at it. Even though he’s getting older, I still love the roles he plays. He played Someone Up There Likes Me, where he plays a prizefighter, I think Rocky Graziano. And he’s taking this train in Brooklyn. He sees this woman he loves, and he just is going to take care of her, just like I would take the train or the bus to take a woman home that I was dating when I was dating then. And you just love him in the movie. You just believe him.

The amazing thing is that as a person now he’s involved in raising charity through a food business. And all the proceeds from Paul Newman’s popcorn and salad dressing and salsa and stuff goes to charity. He has not forgotten the idea of giving back, giving to those who are less fortunate. And he didn’t make a big to-do about it; he gave all of us an opportunity to buy good products and contribute and therefore feel good about what we’re doing, because we’re all helping.

Sam’s description of Paul Newman contains a reference to his (Sam’s) younger self. Consumers’ favorite motion pictures and television shows, I found, often took them back to their childhood or adolescence, creating a sense of nostalgia. It is to this third type of intertextuality that we now turn.

Nostalgic Intertextuality

According to Holbrook (1993), nostalgia "refers to a longing for the past, a yearning for yesterday, or a fondness for possessions and activities associated with days of yore (p. 245)." Earlier, Holbrook and Schindler (1992) proposed that nostalgia indicated a consumer’s preference for things that were more common in one’s childhood or even in time periods before one’s birth. Braudy (1990, cited in Holbrook 1993b, p. 84), further comments that "at the heart of all nostalgia is a desire to recapture innocence, to open the door to an ideal past, an Eden of time where great things are happening forever . . . "

This notion of nostalgia encompassing an idyllic past resonates with McCracken’s (1988) writings on displaced meaning:

The continuum of time is, or instance, often made the location of a golden age ... [Consumers may] discover a personal golden age in which life conformed to their fondest expectations or noblest ideals: the happy years of childhood or perhaps merely a single summer holiday (p. 108).

My interviews with consumers indicated that they commonly experienced nostalgic feelings through favorite motion pictures and television shows. Vince, for example, now is 27, but fondly recalls seeing Fast Times at Ridgemont High when he was a teenager.

When you’re 14, your own life is pretty boring. But then you look ahead and go, wow, when I’m 17, I’m a senior in high school. I’ll be really cool like them. So it’s like a fantasy. It was a fantasy then. Now it’s like nostalgic. I look back on it. I’d be like, oh, I can’t believe I was thinking like that when I was 14.

As Vince now looks back upon his fourteen-year-old self, he recognizes his own naivete and innocence. The motion picture that once mythically represented his hopes for the future, now reminds him of his purer past. It has become, in his mind, a nostalgic text of pleasurable images.

A similar experience is related by Tom, now 21, describing his affection for the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I: What is it about the movie that you like so much?

R: I saw the movie when I was younger. And I think one of the reasons that I liked it so much is that I really related to the character. I had a friend who is very much like Ferris. He was the most popular kid in the school. He got away with everything. I was more like Cameron. I was his reluctant sidekick always telling him not to do this. We’d always get into a series of adventures and such. And I think it really reminded me of myself...I must have been about 10, 11, 12-years-old when I saw it. I was just becoming a teenager and it made being a teenager look so interesting. I remember Ferris had all these posters all over his room and he could drive this car, and to me that seemed really cool. I remember he used to wear a white t-shirt and vest. And a couple of years later I bought a white t-shirt and vest. I used to wear it all the time. And he also had a big, huge Union Jack flag on his door. And later on I bought one of those. Because to me, Ferris was the coolest guy you could be in high school. I kind of looked up to Ferris in a way, like idolized him.

Tom, like Vince, saw the movie as an aspirational and inspirational version of his future self. But Tom’s identification goes beyond that of Vince; he acquired several possessions to recreate himself as Ferris Bueller, in essence, living the myth. Here, clearly he is attempting to transfer the heroic meaning of this very attractive, mythical character to himself (see Hirschman and Thompson 1997).

As a final example, we consider excerpts from the transcript of Pamela, 57. Perhaps more than any other consumer to whom I spoke, her descriptions evoked the nostalgic quality of intertextuality as discussed by Holbrook and McCracken.

P: [The movie] Easter Parade, I always liked, with Judy Garland. I think that was when ... I was a little girl and growing up. Easter was a beautiful time of year. And people dressed up. Everybody wore hats and everybody wore gloves and everybody had pocketbooks to match. And you always had to have a nice Easter outfit. And everybody dressed up and stayed that way all day long...Everybody of course went to church. And then usually you would go walk up to the parks and you would walk in the gardens, and it was a beautiful time in April and the spring flowers would be coming up ... So I kind of miss that, I think. [Today] everybody’s too casua. And sometimes when you should be dressed up you don’t see the people dressing up like they did. And I guess maybe that’s why I like these movies, too.

I: And do you think that you watch [Easter Parade] every year?

R: Yes. And, of course, I think it was one of the best ones that Judy Garland sang [in]. All of the songs that are in the movie are still around. I don’t think they’ll ever die. I think they’ll stay around forever and ever. And it reflects what Easter used to be, and the spring. Years ago, when you went and saw a movie, when you left the movie you felt really good. You felt happy inside and you felt like singing songs .... [But] when you go to a movie today, you don’t see too much of that. You don’t come out feeling hey, I would like to be like this one or I would like to be that. You don’t feel like that. There really aren’t that many good songs anymore, like there used to be. Most of those songs years ago, they’re still here. People still sing them....But today the songs will come and go .... There’s no one that knows even how to write songs like that anymore, like Irving Berlin and Sammy Kay. And there’s just so many old, wonderful songwriters and they’re gone. They’re gone. And the young ones coming up do not know how to do any of that anymore .... [But] those songs, again, will stay around forever.

Pamela clearly prefers the films, songs and lifestyles of her childhood, a time and society she now views as happy, idyllic and beautiful. She explicitly constructs a bi-polar opposition between Then and Now, expressing a distinct preference for Then, just as Holbrook and Schindler describe (1991). As we move now to the second topicCarchetypesCwe will find that such oppositional structures can play a central role in consumers’ attempts to make sense of life.


Campbell’s work in comparative mythology draws heavily from Jung’s theories on archetypes, which are defined as "forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myth and at the same time as autochthonous individual products of unconscious origin" (Jung, 1959). In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell (1973) presents a detailed discussion of the similarity between Jung’s notion of archetypes, Bastian’s theory of elementary ideas, Boas’ writings on the mental characteristics of man, Freud’s dream symbolism, and Frazer’s discussion of mythic characters.

More recently, Barthes (1972) has discussed such symbolic forms in terms of a collective memory of mankind’s past. Indeed, Campbell (1968, 1974) argues that most archetypal forms originated in Sumer and Akkad around 2500 B.C. From this beginning, he proposes, all other textual narratives represent a "provincial extension of the one historic heritage and universal history of mankind" (1974, p.133). Archetypal images include such widely recognized symbols as the tree of life, the raven and jackal as death images, owls as symbols of wisdom, ships as carriers of the dead, birds as female figures, the earth as a womb and tomb, and so forth.

In the interviews I conducted there was ample evidence of archetypal thought among consumers. For example, Campbell (1973) writes of "the helpful crone and fairy godmother as a familiar feature of European fairy lore (p. 71)." This female figure serves as a helper or guide to the novice in the story, providing special wisdom or knowledge to help the novice complete his/her task. Lisa, age 20, describes an exemplar of this archetype in the character of Mrs. Garrett, the headmistress on television series The Facts of Life:

They lived in a boarding school. And from what I can remember about the show, they were always doing something wrong and then being told a lesson. Something happens, but it always ended teaching a lesson somehow. Mrs. Garrett, I remember her. She was like the keeper of the school, or at least the girl’s dorm. And I guess she was like their mom, their psychiatrist, because she always had the right answers and she always had the right ways, and they were always asking her for advice. And she was this old red-headed lady. So she was always directing them in the right direction.

Campbell (1973) also writes of the Sumero-Babylonian myth which "identified aspects of the female with the phases of the planet Venus. As morning star she was the virgin, as evening star, the harlot (p. 303)." The virgin/whore dichotomy has been an enduring archetypal opposition for millennia. Debby, age 35, uses it to describe two of her favorite actresses, Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day:

[Marilyn Monroe] had a lot of insecurities about herself, which led her to go from man to man, but she always somehow used to try to find men to actually better herself. And it seemed to me that she really kind of liked to string men along, as if it was a power play for her. It gave her a feeling of importance...So that’s why she went from man to man to man, to try to make her feel some self worth .... I have no respect for her, because I think that she was a tramp. But I liked her as an actress and felt bad for her, because she almost became a victim of her own circumstances.

And at the other end of the spectrum I liked Doris Day a lot, because I thought that she was very pretty, very wholesome. Although later on people would poke fun at her as being a goody two shoes, I kind of like that in her character. I like the fact that she was a wholesome, all American, good girl next door.

Bi-Polar Oppositions

As with the virgin/whore example above, archetypes are usually organized in a bipolar manner within the narrative to construct its meaning (Levy 1981). Psychological research has suggested that such binary operations are the primary basis for much human cognition (see e.g., Zaltman 1997). And indeed, several of the consumers to whom I spoke organized descriptions of their favorite texts in just such a binary fashion. Some examples are given below:

Susan, 30, describing Murphy Brown.

I think the characters are great. They are so specific and like so opposite of each other. Miles is always worrying about his blood pressure and he’s always stressed. Murphy is never really stressed except her veins are always popping out of her neck. She’s more laid back, in control but a little eccentric; and Jim is always supposedly uptight. He’s the one that makes me laugh the funniest, #cause he’ll crack a joke with the straightest face; and they are so opposing and so different, and they complement each other well.

Julio, 27, describing Lethal Weapon.

The first Lethal Weapon movie is about two cops. One of them is the psycho-cop who wants to kill himself. It’s Mel Gibson. And Danny Glover is more the ready-to-be-retired, serious kind of guy. And I think the mix between the two different personalities is very good. I love that clash of different backgrounds or different ways of thinking, how they clash.

Mike, 36, describing Dallas.

JR Ewing was very manipulative and self-centered and he was out for himself and he was out to destroy people and people’s lives. His brother Bobby was more of a goody-two-shoe, who was not devious in his approach to life.

Occasionally, consumers would cite characters who contained a dual nature, such as Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks.

Laura Palmer, she was the bad girl living the perfect life on one hand and living the life of a rebel on the other. She was having sex for money and doing drugs, but everybody thought she had the perfect family life and she did Meals on Wheels, and she was the high school head cheerleader. (Janet, 25)

And as Lisa, 22, observes, sometimes characters in a narrative are transformed from one bipolar meaning to the other.

Kelly was the rich girl and her mother was doing drugs .... She drove around in her BMW convertible and flaunted her money .... And she just bought whatever she wanted. She was a real spoiled brat. And she thought she was better than anybody else. [But] it’s cool though how Kelly’s character grew up on the show, because I feel like she’s the only one who really matured on the show. Somehow her character grew, and now she’s totally different from when she started. Now she’s like all straight-laced and she’s a good girl, and she does everything by the rules and she was dating Brandon, who’s the good guy. And she doesn’t flaunt her money anymore. Now, she’s generous and likes to help people.

Hall (1997), writing about the process of cultural representation, states that persons are able to give meaning to their world by constructing a set of correspondences, i.e., analogies or metaphors, between objects/entities in the external world and internal mental concepts. These concepts are then paired with metaphoric signs/representations present in cultural discourse, such as film and television narratives. Such discursive vehicles help us make sense of our lives by reiterating the object<->concept<->sign analogic bond. Archetypes are the concepts and their iconic representation in given texts reifies the culture’s, and consumer’s, view of the world (see e.g., Zaltman 1997).

Thus, building up from simple, binary archetypal oppositions, consumers may acquire much more complex cultural-category structures. Marie, 57, discusses All in the Family in this vein:

I guess my favorite TV show is All in the Family. That show has everything. It has a very wide variety of characters. You have Edith, who was an innocent and a genuine altruist. Then you have Archie the complete opposite. He’s an opinionated, illiterate bigot. Then you have Gloria; she’s a very modern woman, liberated, feisty. She’s not afraid to fight for her rights and other women’s rights. And, in fact, she takes the cause of all people’s rights. And then you have Meathead. Archie hates him because he’s Polish. And Archie hates every ethnicity. He calls the English fags, the Italians are gangsters, the Jews are thieves and the Blacks and Hispanics, forget about it. He’s just one hundred percent against them.

In Marie’s account several social types drawn from American culture are contrasted with one another to construct a meaningful pantheon. Some serial narratives construct large and extremely elaborate sets of iconic figures, each representing a social category drawn from actual persons. Ultimately, these archetypal images can be combined into nuanced and subtle patterns. A detailed excerpt from Charles’ description of the plot of Friends provides a remarkable example of this.

My favorite is Phoebe. I tend to like off-the-wall people. I guess they call her a New Age character. She’s very spacey. She’s not in reality at all. She’s usually pretty much out there. She’s still living in society, so obviously she’s getting along somehow. She always has these comments or thoughts or ideas that are completely far gone from reality as we know it. I really think that Phoebe exists somewhere. I know she doesn’t, but the way she is portrayed, she is a real character to me. She’s really thee. That’s what I like about her. She’s believable.

There is Chandler who I’d say is self conscious, self deprecating. He never could find the right woman, I guess. He’s never satisfied with anything. He’s very neurotic. Every time he finds a perfect woman, he finds a reason not to like her. He could never be happy. He always has to find a problem with everything. He’s very down on himself. He uses humor as a defense mechanism, so people can’t get in to see him and what he’s really like.

You have Joey who is kind of like the airhead on the show. He’s very similar to Phoebe, but he’s not that far gone, I guess. It’s in a different way. Phoebe is spacey, while Joey is just not bright. I would say Phoebe is not smart either, but she tends to go out there, while Joey lets it go over him. He doesn’t realize too many things. He’s always dating women, but he’s never been in love. They’ve never had him with a steady girlfriend, ever, on the show. He’s always dating women on top of women. You have Ross who is neurotic also. He’s not in the same class as Chandler, but he’s goofy. He’s kind of unsure.

Charles’ account of the iconic structure of Friends makes visible the Tversky-like detail with which consumers can compare and contrast cognitive concepts. Joey and Phoebe, for instance, are both classified as "airheads," yet subtle distinctions can be drawn between them. To Charles, Phoebe is more "spacey," i.e., detached from normal experience in her thoughts and responses, whereas Joey is "not bright," i.e., less intelligent. Charles also describes a nuanced contrast between the characters Chandler and Ross. While he sees both as "neurotic" (a social-type category), Chandler is additionally viewed as chronically dissatisfied with others and with himself, whereas Ross is seen as "goofy" and "unsure" of himself. In essence, texts such as Friends permit consumers to construct elaborate mental models of the complexities of the social world (see Zaltman 1997). While bipolar oppositions form the bedrock structure of these models, they exhibit remarkable flexibility and intricacy, as well.

Meaning Transfer: From Icon to Actor

Cognitive network models of consumer memory propose that objects/entities are represented by conceptual nodes connected by neural pathways that indicate the strength of association between the concepts (see e.g., Thompson 1997). The more closely two concepts are related by feature similarity, the more likely it is that evoking one concept will stimulate the other to be brought to mind, as well. As we have already seen in Marie’s discussion of Elizabeth Taylor, the actress, and Cleopatra, the movie role in which Taylor appeared, consumers often connect actors with the characters they portray and vice versa.

McCracken (1988, 1989) has termed this the meaning transfer process and applied it to explaining the mechanism whereby celebrities acquire cultural meaning. "For communications purposes, the celebrity is a composite of his fictional roles" (McCracken 1989, p. 312). Such meaning transfer is a special case of metaphor in which the actor, as a person, comes to stand for the characteristics of the role(s) s/he portrays. Although McCracken offered no empirical support for his model, there was ample evidence for this process among the consumers I interviewed. Susan, for example, describes actress Jodie Foster based upon her acting roles:

Jodie Foster. I like her a lot. Silence of the Lambs is probably one of the first ones. I really liked her as an actress and thought she was really good .... In Nell, she played a girl that was secluded from civilization for a long time and was found and didn’t have any "normal" language. A lot of her characters seem to be somewhat naive in what they are doing, but they learn a lot and they are headstrong and hey are hard asses and get the job done. It’s always good to see a female character that can be seen as feminine and beautiful, but just doesn’t take shit from anybody. I love that.

Tom sees actor Harvey Keitel as an amalgam of his film roles, in much the way described by McCracken (1989):

I think in terms of his acting, he’s a very good actor and the roles in which he plays are very suited to him. He’s usually a tough guy, usually carries a gun, some kind of a cop, thug, a mobster, hit man. He’s very gruff for an actor. Not a pretty voice. Not really good looking either. He’s very normal looking. Very tough. Very realistic in the roles that he plays.

We now examine a final example which illustrates another aspect of the meaning-transfer process. One notion which McCracken alludes to in his (1989) discussion is that of typecasting. Typecasting implies the equating of an actor with a given cultural category, in other words, the actor becomes the icon for the archetype. Although actors may desire to resist typecasting, to do so may damage their value as a cultural sign, and hence their career. Vince tells about actor Michael Anthony Hall:

Michael Anthony Hall played the perpetual dork. He always felt left out. And if you notice, in his career, once he went over to trying to play the cool guy, like in the movie Johnny Be Good, where he’s the quarterback and all the women want him and all the colleges want him. That movie signaled the end of his career. He was no longer a dork. People could not identify with him. And that was it.

In the above case, cultural meaning flowed from the role to the actor. However, in other situations the persona of a given actor may flow into and come to instantiate the archetype. As Allen notes below, such is the case with actor Sean Connery and the character of James Bond.

A: There’s different James Bonds. Each person that played James Bond had a different approach to it.

I: Which actor was your favorite?

A: Well, Sean Connery, the first one, he’s the best.

I: Why is that?

A: He invented it. Everybody else who came after him kind of had to try to stack up to Sean Connery. Sean Connery is the epitome of the suave Englishman. Incredibly handsome. He’s got this kind of, it’s almost like a condescending mannerism. Well, that’s the English for you, anyway. And everything he says has a double meaning, whether it’s a sexual connotation or something else. He invented the role, and that’s why he’s my favorite. He was the original.

Just as Arnold Schwarznegger personifies the Terminator, Sylvester Stallone is Rocky Balboa, and Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, some mythic roles become so closely tied to a given actor that the culture views them as equivalent. As Braudy (1989) observes, this form of transference is possible only in societies whose mythologies are carried aboard mass media vehicles and made directly accessible to large portions of the population. Once an actor is strongly identified as a given icon, s/he is continually renewed in this identity by echoes within the larger cultural discourse. For example, Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe, though both dead, continue to live as cultural signs of the virgin/whore archetypic dichotomy.

Some Closing Thoughts

Intertextuality is used to integrate the self with events and persons in the external world and with one’s own ersonal history and/or an imagined idyllic past. Thus, intertextuality can serve a vital function, weaving consumers into the past, present and future and connecting them to the world beyond themselves. Further, through archetypes, consumers form essential culturally-shared conceptual maps by setting-up oppositional categories of thought. These categories can be formed into elaborate and flexible patterns of social types, both drawn from and projected onto cultural narratives. Finally, because our narratives, unlike those of the ancient world, are encoded in vehicles of mass dissemination and mass acquisition, they can create living icons from those humans who successfully portray especially meaningful archetypic figures.


Barthes, Roland (1957/1972), Mythologies, Annette Lavers, trans. New York: Hill and Wang.

Braudy, Leo, (1990), "In the Arts, Tomorrow Begins with Yesterday," New York Times, Arts & Leisure Section, July 1, 1-17.

Campbell, Joseph, (1968), Creative Mythology: The Masks of God, New York: Penguin.

Campbell, Joseph, (1973), The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Campbell, Joseph (1974), The Mythic Image, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Campbell, Joseph, (1988), The Power of Myth, New York: Doubleday.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. and Craig J. Thompson, (1997), "Why Media Matter: Toward a Richer Understanding of Consumers’ Relationship with Advertising and Mass Media", Journal of Advertising, 26, Spring, 43-60.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C., Linda Scott and William B. Wells, (1998), "A Model of Product Discourse: Linking Consumer Practice to Cultural Texts", Journal of Advertising, 27, #1, Spring, 33-50.

Holbrook, Morris B. (1993), "Nostalgia and Consumption Preferences: Some Emerging Patterns of Consumer Tastes", Journal of Consumer Research, 20, September, 245-256.

Holbrook, Morris B. And Robert M. Schindler (1991), "Echoes of the Dear Departed Past: Some Work in Progress on Nostalgia," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, ed. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 330-333

Holbrook, Morris B. (1993), "On the New Nostalgia: These Foolish Things and Echoes of the Dear Departed Past", in Ray B. Browne and Ronald J. Ambrosetti, ed., Continuities in Popular Culture, Bowling Green, Oh: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Holt, Douglas B. (1997), "Poststructuralist Life Style Analysis: Conceptualizing the Social Patterning of Consumption in Modernity", Journal of Consumer Research, 23, March, 326-350.

Jung, Carl G. ([1916] 1959), The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Vol. 9, Pt. 1 of Collected Works, ed. Herbert Read, et al. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Levy, Sydney J. (1981), "Interpreting Consumer Mythology: A Structural Approach to Consumer Behavior", Journal of Marketing, 45 (Summer), 49-61.

McCracken, Grant (1986), "Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Meaning of Consumer Goods," Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (June), 71-84.

McCracken, Grant (1989), "Who is the Celebrity Endorser? Cultural Foundations of the Endorsement Process", Journal of Consumer Research, 16, December, 310-321.

Thompson, Craig J. (1997), "Interpreting Consumers: A Hermeneutical Framework for Deriving Marketing Insights from the Texts of Consumers’ Consumption Stories", Journal of Marketing Research, 34, November, 438-455.

Zaltman, Gerald, (1997), "Rethinking Market Research: Putting People Back in", Journal of Marketing Research, 34, November, 424-437.



Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Institutional Influence on Indebted Consumers’ Understanding of Wants and Needs

Mary Celsi, California State University Long Beach, USA
Stephanie Dellande, Menlo College
Mary Gilly, University of California Irvine, USA
Russ Nelson, Northwestern University, USA

Read More


F1. Reach out in the Darkness: How Unfair Treatments Shape Social Connection Motivation

Yijie Wang, Hong Kong Polytechic University
Yuwei Jiang, Hong Kong Polytechic University
Mandy Mantian Hu, Chinese University of Hong Kong, China
Ninghua Zhong, Tongji University

Read More


J6. Cozying up to the Kardashians: A Theory for Consumers' Affinity towards Celebrity Gossip

Jayant Nasa, Indian School of Business
Tanuka Ghoshal, Baruch College, USA
Raj Raghunathan, University of Texas at Austin, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.