Consuming Contemporaneous Discourses: a Postmodern Analysis of Food Advertisements Targeted Toward Women

ABSTRACT - Has postmodernity arrived? And if so, what does it mean for the ways that female buyers and preparers of food products are being targeted? To answer these questions, I selected food advertisements drawn from a recent edition of a woman’s magazine to look for evidence of postmodern discourses apparent in these texts. I found that while themes arguably consistent with postmodernity were indeed present, so too were elements of both modern and premodern discourses. I discuss selected implications of (and for) these contemporaneous discourses.


Eileen Fischer (2000) ,"Consuming Contemporaneous Discourses: a Postmodern Analysis of Food Advertisements Targeted Toward Women", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 288-294.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 288-294


Eileen Fischer, York University


Has postmodernity arrived? And if so, what does it mean for the ways that female buyers and preparers of food products are being targeted? To answer these questions, I selected food advertisements drawn from a recent edition of a woman’s magazine to look for evidence of postmodern discourses apparent in these texts. I found that while themes arguably consistent with postmodernity were indeed present, so too were elements of both modern and premodern discourses. I discuss selected implications of (and for) these contemporaneous discourses.


While consumer pundits may not agree on precisely what postmodernity is, most seem to agree that is has "arrived." For some, it has arrived in the sense that the time for postmodern critiques is upon us; for others, it has arrived in the sense that the epoch that is postmodern has come (e.g. Brown 1993, 1995, 1997,1999; Featherstone 1988; Firat 1990; Firat and Venkatesh1995; Firat, Venkatesh and Sherry 1993/1994; Hirschman and Holbrook 1993; Holt 1997; Jameson 1983, Scott 1992; Stern 1994, 1996; Venkatesh 1989, 1995). Indeed, some scholars outside the loosely constructed consumer corral are even hinting that postmodernism is already passT and hunting for new epithets and insights with which to lasso the emerging epoch: cit(sight)ings of post-postmodernism have been reported (e.g. Marcus 1994).

This paper will not, however, seek to praise or bury postmodernism. Rather, it seeks evidence of its mark upon the advertising for the product category that is at once the most mundane and the most sublime: food.

Why food advertising? First, social constructions of food, food preparation, and eating and those of gender under-gird and reinforce one another, as is apparent in the handful of structural (Levy 1981, Stern 1995) and semiotic (Belk and Costa 1998, Heisley 1991; Wallendorf and Arnould 1991) research that has been conducted by consumer researchers, as well as in the much greater volume carried out by those in other disciplines (e.g. Bordo 1990, DeVault 1991). Yet postmodern analyses of the connections between food or food consumption (broadly defined) and gender have not been much pursued in the pages of ACR or JCR. And given that understanding "the change that significations in gender are going through now, given postmodern trends, will help us understand future changes in the constitution of the consumer, and thereby the changing meanings of consumption," (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995, p.261), more attention to these connections is warranted. Given that advertising is one locus of the construction and communication of connections such as those between notions of gender and those of food (cf. McCracken 1988) it is appropriate, if we seek to understand these changing significations of gender, to look at food advertising targeted at one sex versus the other. In this paper, I will focus only on selected exemplars of food advertising targeted at women, though it will be equally important to examine those that are targeted at men.

The pursuit of these connections is warranted not only from the perspective of those who want to understand the changing meanings of consumption. It is also appropriate from an explicitly feminist perspective. The emancipatory projects typically associated with feminism (cf. Bristor and Fischer 1994, Hirschman 1994, Stern 1994) while not exactly stalled, are certainly not in high gear given the proliferation of critiques of the projects and viewpoints of feminism(s) and feminists (e.g. Crittenden 1999). The term "backlash" seems too tame to characterize the torrent of rhetoric suggesting that the emancipation sought by feminists of various types has done more harm than good for contemporary men and women. Among some there is a sense that feminism is "broken" and needs to be "fixed"; others view feminism in general as having been a mistake in the first place, and wish to "fix" it permanently, in the sense that neutered animals are "fixed." In this paper, I seek merely to "fix" our gaze on postmodern (and other) discourses in food ads in order to catch sight of (get a fix on) where feminist projects have gone, and might be (be)headed. In short, I want to know what the multiple discourses that are present and absent in food advertising might imply for the ways that female buyers and preparers of food products are being targeted.

Cascading Caveats

Before taking up my analysis, it seems prudent to stress that my reading is not an attempt to articulate the ways that consumers in general, or any consumer in particular, will read the texts I discuss. The multiple emerging perspectives on how consumers read texts (e.g. Hirschman and Thompson’s model of consumer relationships with advertising and media (1997), Friestad and Wright’s persuasion knowledge model (1994), Mick and Buhl’s meaning-based model of advertising experiences, Scott’s reader-respnse theory (1994)) compel us to acknowledge that no mere scholar of consumer behavior could come close to guessing how groups or individuals might respond.

Similarly I acknowledge that I am not trying to read the minds of the creatives or the brand managers behind these advertisements to assess what they intended. Any similarities between what I perceive and what the creators might have meant, or what the intended audiences of these texts might infer, is purely coincidental.

What I am trying to show is the discourses that intentionally or otherwise have found their way into or been marginalized in these texts, in order to understand some of the implications for both consumer research and those who must, each day, feed themselves and their families.

Postmodern Analysis versus Postmodern Themes

Before launching into the analysis of particular ads themselves (no, really, I’m not stalling), it is necessary to address the difference between a postmodern analysis and the search for postmodern themes. Thoughtfully, Scott (1992) and Stern (1996a, 1996b) have surveyed the works of poststructuralists such as Derrida and Barthes and furnished us with readable road maps for the terrain of postmodern analysis of advertising texts. Management theorists such as Boje (1995; Boje and Dennehy 1994), Calas and Smirchich (1991, 1992, 1993), Fondas (1998) and Martin (1990), illustrating how other managerial texts may be subjected to probative poststructural prodding, provide complementary insights on the "how to" of postmodern analyses, all despite the resistance of by leading poststructuralists (e.g. Derrida 1991) to the appropriation of their techniques as methods. The approaches they highlight can be grouped into two broadly defined categories. The first involves historical and genealogical approaches to discerning the symbolic webs of meaning in which advertising texts are embedded and the bricolage of sign fragments on which they draw. The second involves reading for absences or "gaps"CdiffTranceCin (or out of) texts to unsettle stable readings, challenge taken-for-granted hierarchies, and surface tacit contradictions.

As for postmodern, as opposed to modern or premodern themes, that landscape has been surveyed by Firat and Venkatesh (1995) and Boje (1995), and briefly visited by Thompson and Hirschman (1995). Their discussions can be summarized in the following sets of contrasts.

1. Postmodern discourses reflect a continuously symbolically constructed hyper-reality, while modern ones reflect a stable unequivocal and knowable reality, and premodern discourses highlight the role of spiritual forces in shaping a reality beyond comprehension in the mortal realm.

2. Postmodern discourses highlight the fragmentation and incoherence of human experiences, while modern discourses highlight coherent, rational narratives, and premodern ones rely on tradition, myth and religion to make sense of that which may seem arbitrary or disjointed.

3. Postmodern discourses highlight a culture of consumption, in which consumers are active producers of consumption symbols, while modern ones reflect a culture of production premised on the notion that production creates value while consumption destroys it, and premodern ones resist the separation and commodification of production and laissez-faire capitalism. It is worth noting in general, but in particular in regard to this theme, Boje’s contention that premodern discourse interpenetrates postmodern discourse: many elements of one appear, and are celebrated, in the other (1995, p. 103).

4. Postmodern discourses feature decentered, historically constructed, subjects, while modern ones portray human subjects as self-aware, cognitive, unified, independent agents, and premodern discourses do not differentiate a person from his or her social or religious role, and emphasize peoples’ embeddedness in contexts of family, community and nation.

5. Postmodern discourses juxtapose opposites through pastiche, while modern ones seek the logical unification and reconciliation of differences and paradoxes, and premodern ones rely upon tradition and custom to challenge dualities (e.g. the political versus the private).

This thoroughly modern exposition exposes the types of themes that will be stalked, and distinguishes those types of themes from the manner in which they are pursued.


To ensure that ads to be analyzed were likely targeted primarily at women, I chose to look at ads that had been placed in Good Housekeeping (GH). GH bills itself as "The Magazine America Trusts." And though no one authoritative voice speaks out to American women in this epoch of the end of master narratives, GH certainly tries to maintain market share by providing both copy and advertising that is attractive to readers. Hearst, which publishes GH, claims that it, together with the other Hearst publications targeted at females, reaches 48 million women each month ( 1999). What, then, can be found in the ads? To narrow the scope of analysis, I choseClargely arbitrarilyCto examine two that were prominently positioned, one on the outside, the other on the inside back covers.

On the back cover of the most recent issue at time of writing (April 1999, Volume 228, No. 4) is the ad for Uncle Ben’s Rice side dishes reproduced in Figure 1. In it, we see a beautiful woman in an elegant, crimson evening gown (or it could be a negligee) balancing a golden platter of asparagus, meat and rice in one hand and, with the other hand, holding a forkful of the rice to the mouth of an equally beautiful man. He is dressed in a black shirt that cannot well be described since it is indistinguishable from the black background. A few out-of-focus candles in the foreground illuminate the darkness. In case we wondered "what’s going to happen next" some text in the middle of the page suggests this is "Passion Lesson #13" and that "From now on every night would be different . . . filled with endless variety." Along the bottom of the page, and visually outside of the scene above, is an orderly row picturing six bright orange boxes of Uncle Ben’s, each a different flavor. In the bottom right hand corner, beside the sixth box of rice, is a round framed, glowing, picture of Uncle Ben himself, with a blue banner curled around the bottom declaring that somethingBthe rice? Uncle Ben?Bis "Perfect Every Time."

WhoaBthere’s a lot going on here. But our quest is ordered by the search for postmodern themes, so we can cut right to that chase. Is there anything postmodern about all this? You bet. For instance, there’s the evocation in the copy of "endless variety," a state largely consistent with the fragmentation of experience. Now the text does suggest that this variety will be of a certain kind (it will occur every night, and might have something to do with passion lessons one through twelve, as well as thirteen), but varied experiences of some kind apparently are on the menu.

Another facet of the ad that can be read as postmodern is the depiction of consumption, not as destructive, but rather as potentially highly productive. The food that the woman (who presumably produced both the meal and the seductive scenario) is feedng her male co-consumer, promises (however symbolically or hyperbolically) to fuel a night of passion. The lack of distinction between production and consumption is standard postmodern fare (but also consistent with pre-modernism, our first but not our last sign that all is not purely postmodern here).

Note, too, that in typically postmodern fashion, the subject is not only, and not primarily, a male subject. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) highlight that postmodernists reject the modernist subject as a male subject. In this ad, the fragmented female consumer (she shops for Uncle Ben’s by day, she participates in a passion-evoking eating events by night) has at least equal billing in the implied mini-drama. She is fore-grounded in the picture, and appears to have at least an equal role in the events that are unfolding. Indeed, one might argue that the fork-fed male is infantilized while the woman is portrayed as an adult (albeit a feminine, nurturing one).

A further evidence of pervasive postmodernism is the juxtaposing of the sophisticated, soft-focus, glamour of the intimate dinner atop the ad with the glaring orange boxes of Uncle Ben’s strung prosaically along the bottom. And then there’s the image of Uncle Ben himself, a well-recognized brand persona who might be regarded as a jarring intrusion in this intimate setting were it not for the postmodern permission to leave opposites unreconciled.

Thus, the ad can be read as a purveyor not only of racy rice side dishes but also of postmodern themes. That is not all there is, however, as is not surprising for anyone persuaded of postmodernism’s tenet of multi-vocality. Ironically, perhaps, postmodernism is inherently open to multiple discoursesCincluding modern or premodern onesC resounding within the same text.



What modern themes may be read in the Uncle Ben’s ad? Let us first consider the headline "Passion Lesson #13." These words suggest that there is somethingBa knowable, stable, enduring concept or techniqueBto be taught. Much as self-help guides suggest to consumers that there is a rational way to solve all the problems of their lives, including those of intimate relationships, this ad implies that there exists a recipe, or rather 13 recipes, for producing passion. That which the naive might regard as a rather ungovernable (passion), the ad suggests is controllable by rational means, consistent with the modernist emphasis on a knowable reality.

A related facet of the ad that can be read as modernist is the implication that the point of buying and preparing Uncle Ben’s rice side dishes is to produce (passion) rather than merely to consume (food). This is consistent with a modern privileging of production over consumption: a good modern sales pitch would never rest solely on the pleasures of consumption, which, under this world view, are distinct from and inferior to the potency of production.

The ad can be read as modernist, too, in the agency or self-determination and coherence of purpose implicitly associated with the fore-grounded female subject. She is consciously and with self-determination pursuing her purpose of creating a love life filled with endless variety. Harkening again to the self-help manuals and women’s magazines that offer advice to those who seek to master their love-lives, the ad suggests that a woman can be in control of her own ends. The ad even suggests that the woman is a relatively unified subject (if not a particularly feminist-friendly one): the coherent core of her existence is the pursuit and control of endlessly varied passion. She purchases, prepares and presents food to her spouse (I note the wedding ring on his left hand, assume he is married to her) all towards this central project.

These modern themes cheek to cheek with the previously identified postmodern ones are not alone. They share the stage with premodern themes that can be read the plurivocal text as well. [Note that there is not one single modern or premodern discourse. In this paper, given its feminist agenda, I am primarily emphasizing a premodern discourse which is patently patriarchal, but other versions of premodernism could have been-and could later be-considered.] Consider, for instance, the potential reading of the woman in crimson as a temptress/ enchantress seducing the vulnerable male with the food she is holding to his lips. In certain premoern mythic and religious belief-systems, of course, this is precisely the role in which women were cast. Their sexuality was considered a weapon with which they ensnared men, however temporarily. Some women (such as witches) had heightened powers and knowledge enabling them to dominate men even more thoroughly. In this Uncle Ben’s ad, we might discern a temptress with powers enhanced through the magic of Uncle Ben’s array of products. The burning candles, the blackened background, and the glow around the portrait of Uncle Ben do little to suppress the suggestion that there’s a certain premodern magic in the air here.

And speaking of Uncle Ben himself, we might read him here as a powerful, mystical, even religious figure in his own right. He is (like God) "perfect every time?" Or perhaps he is a master of the dark arts: he is, after-all, aiding and abetting the temptress. Or perhaps he is more simply, but also consistent with certain premodern thinking, the man who is really in charge of the whole show. In patriarchal forms of premodern thinking, women are less powerful than and subject to the mastery of, men be they pimps or patriarchs, husbands, brothers or owners.

In addition to invoking mystical or religious overtones (or undertones) that resonate with patriarchal versions of premodernism, the ad can also be read as portraying subjects who are embedded in social contexts. The relationship between the man and woman portrayed in the ad is not arbitrary or random: they are playing out scripted roles, which derive from and serve to support a certain social order. The wife’s varied, nightly seduction of her husband serves to keep him from straying. It is her job to keep him in their matrimonial bed, and preserve the stable family at the heart of a stable, premodern society.

Another premodern theme that can be read in this ad, already alluded to above, is the integration of production and consumption. In keeping with a premodern perspective, the woman in this ad is by no means alienated from the fruits of her labor. She will co-consume what she produces (both the food and the passion).

I have not exhausted (indeed, as a postmodernist I cannot exhaust) the readings in this ad. I have only suggested some of the premodern, modern, and postmodern themes that can be discerned in this ad that features so prominently in the magazine. To extend my search for postmodernity and its ancestors (or are they its cousins?) I now turn the page to the ad that appears just inside the back cover, the Lunchables ad reproduced in Figure 2.

There I am greeted by the knowing glance of a young African American girl, dressed in sporty blue baseballish togs and a matching blue baseball style cap that is worn backwards. She is holding in one hand a box of Lunchables brand, ready to eat, no need to heat, All Star HotDogs, and in the other a box of the same brand of ready to eat, no need to heat, All Star Burgers. The background behind the girl is a plain, vivid pink; into the pink expanse above her head, written in white letters that vary in size and slant, and that are haphazardly capitalized, is the phrase "Home ruN Mom." Hovering over the burger box, written in a different style of white text, are the words "Make Fun oF Lunch," trademarked to the firm that produces Lunchable Lunch Combinations.

What’s present in this text, and what is absent? What is signified by both? The signifiers that are present are (a decontextualized postmodern pastiche of) symbols that can be read as (a coherent and eminently modern) celebration of (traditional) "family" values. In support of this reading, consider first the selection of disparate symbols that can be reconciled into a coherent narrative celebrating traditional values. The young girl is dressed in boyish blue baseball togs, and is holding up a box that is covered with sports icons much more traditionally associated with boys than with girls. In fact, only a soft wisp of hair escaping from the edge of her cap gives us much of a clue that this is a girl and not a boy. And the large letters suggest that it is Mom who is scoring home runs, a domain that was traditonally reserved for the Dads of the world. Yet lest we fear that gender roles are completely ambiguous here, the vivid pink background can reassure us that the child’s "context"Bhowever decontextualized (there is, after all, no baseball field behind the sporty little tyke)Bis a feminine one. And a culturally knowledgeable reader of the text might well take it as suggesting that the home runs that Mom is associated with are more metaphorical that literal. Mom scores by feeding her child lunch food that is (as the packaging reassures us) fun to eat. The absent Mom in this text (she is no-where to be seen) is playing her traditional role as the pleaser and the feeder of the family.

To dig somewhat deeper into this permeable Lunchables box of meanings, we can consider three elements of the ad: the product, the child, and the (absent but implicated) mother as being respectively associated with the postmodern, modern and premodern. This is a product that, in good postmodern fashion, blurs the distinction between real and non-real. Is a grilled burger that you don’t need to heat a real burger? And is a product that "makes fun of lunch" a real lunch? Further, consider that this product, which requires absolutely no input from mom or her daughter by way of preparation, is surely an example of the apex of a consumption culture: gone is the guilt associated with early cake mixes, which mothers apparently just had to be able to add eggs to in order to retain their housewifely dignity as food producers; here we have a product that your child just opens and eat.



Just as the product can be read as a piece of postmodern perfection, the child who is associated with the product can be read a model of modernity. This girl child plays sports (or so one might reasonably assume given her attire and the baseball metaphor in the ad). She wears blue clothes. She wears her cap backwards is a boyish fashion. And yet, with the escaping wisp of hair, she is feminine. A reading one can make of this selection of images is that the child who consumes this product has achieved "equality": she is a "equal" to boys, in the keeping with the discourse of liberal feminism, which takes its inspiration from the modernist notions of rational, self-interest maximizing, individualism (cf. Bristor and Fischer 1993).

The mother’s "equality" seems less assured. There is a quality consistent with a patriarchal version of premodernity to her being named but not pictured here: the woman is "self"less, and indistinguishable as an individual. Mom, in this reading of the ad, is defined by her role, in keeping with the premodern emphasis on social embeddedness as the anchor for individuals’ identities. And the role that Mom plays is one of serving food in order to please others: her successes (her "home runs") are to be judged according to her effectiveness in satisfying her family’s needs.


Postmodernity does seem to have arrived in the food advertising targeted toward women. But it is not alone. In true postmodern fashion, the discourses that can be labeled postmodern coexist relatively comfortably with those we can readily recognize as versions of modern and premodern discourses. It is not surprising that we should see contemporaneous discourses co-existing, and occasionally competing, in the self-same advertising texts. After all, the very lesson of poststructualism is that texts, signs, and signifiers are all inherently multi-vocal (Derrida 1989). Further, as Boje (1995) argues, it is not the case that premodernism was replaced by modernism and modernism by postmodernism; rather, all three types of discourses can co-exist, shifting between background and foreground to "reorganize and reterritorialize" their rivals (p.1002).

The implications of postmodern discourses co-residing with modern and premodern ones in these two exemplars of food advertising targeted toward women are less readily appaent, but most important for my purposes both as a scholar of consumer behavior and as a feminist. Given Firat and Venkatesh’s (1995) argument that gender must be made a central subject of study to fully understand consumption, the co-occurrence of these version of pre, post and modern discourses in advertising targeted towards women, particularly in the food product category that is so intimately associated with gender roles, is important. The emancipatory potential that they associate with postmodernity may be blunted by the co-existence of the three kinds of discourses in advertisement that can both reflect and shape women’s understanding of their rights, roles and responsibilities "in the kitchen."

As an additional point, I note that while it is beyond the scope of this paper to pursue similar analyses of food ads targeted toward men, or of non-food ads targeted toward women, it is likely that the mix of discourses that might be found in them would be different than those found here. That is, postmodern themes might be less mixed with modern and premodern ones. It is plausible that, in the fragmented conditions of postmodernity, the meanings that coexist in food ads targeted toward women allow for (though they by no means ensure) the persistence of traditional gendered behaviors in the food product category, even while other product categories and target markets may be discursively constructed in more pervasively postmodern ways.

A final feminist conclusion I will draw is that, while critical discourse analysts (e.g. Fairclough 1993) argue that hegemonic struggles take place among orders of discourse, and that the dominant discourses reinforce the hegemonic order in broader social practice, the analysis here does not, to me, support any notion that patriarchal modern or premodern discourses have greater resonance and force than postmodern ones. I believe the implication of this analysis is not that traditional roles remain unchallenged, but rather that postmodernity, in all its plurality, is open to the simultaneous continuance of both traditional and more postmodern female roles and practices. No challenge is required, since postmodernity requires no reconciliation of contradictions. For women and men who must, or who choose, to purchase, prepare and present food to their families, the postmodern conditions of their existence may mean that liberatory postmodern discourses co-occur with certain more constraining modern and even premodern ones in ways that are paradoxically only partially emancipatory.


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Eileen Fischer, York University


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