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The Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods.  Consumer goods have a significance that goes beyond their utilitarian and commercial value  They carry and.

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Presentation on theme: "The Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods.  Consumer goods have a significance that goes beyond their utilitarian and commercial value  They carry and."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods

2  Consumer goods have a significance that goes beyond their utilitarian and commercial value  They carry and communicate cultural meaning  Cultural meaning is located in 3 places 1. The culturally constituted world 2. The consumer good 3. The individual consumer  How is meaning created, and how does it move between these three things? The Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods Grant McCracken: Culture and Consumption: Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods. J. of Cons. Res., Vol. 13, No. 1. (Jun., 1986), pp. 71-84.

3 The Culturally Constituted World  The world of everyday experience  The phenomenal world presents itself to the senses but shaped and constituted by the assumptions of our culture  Culture is the lens through which we perceive the world  It also tells us how we are supposed to behave. -- is the blueprint for human action  Culture constitutes the world by supplying it with meaning  Meaning can be characterized by two concepts: cultural categories and cultural principles

4 Cultural Categories  Basic distinctions (categories) a culture uses to divide up the world  time (days, decades, leisure time, work time etc.)  Space (sacred and profane, public and private)  Nature (flora, fauna, land, supernatural)  Society (class, status, gender age, occupation etc.)  These categories help us organize the world

5 Cultural Categories  Are subject to change  They are also subject to manipulative efforts by various parties.  Social groups can seek to change their place in the cultural system  In other words the categories do not go uncontested  Marketers seek to encourage a new category of person (e.g. tweens) in order to create a new market segment

6  Cultural categories are invisible  We can see a plate of chicken curry but we can’t see it as ethnic Indian cuisine  We can see a church but we can’t see it as a sacred place of worship  Cultural categories are substantiated by human practice – by going to an Indian restaurant, or praying at church  We play out categorical distinctions so that the world we create is consistent with the world we imagine The Substantiation of Cultural Categories

7  One of the most important ways cultural categories are substantiated is through a culture’s material objects  The cultural meaning that has organized a world is made visible, through goods. The Substantiation of Cultural Categories  Objects are created according to a culture’s categorical blueprint  Objects render categories of this blueprint material and substantial  Objects are vital and tangible record of cultural meaning that is otherwise intangible

8  Goods make culture material - allowing us to discriminate visually among culturally specified categories by encoding them in the form of a set of material distinctions  Much of the meaning of goods can be traced to the categories into which a culture segments the world.  e.g. categories of the person can be divided into parcels of age, sex., class and occupation. The Substantiation of Cultural Categories in Goods  These can be represented in a set of material distinctions by means of goods  Clothing “systems” for instance show a correspondence to cultural categories of the person  Demographic (age and gender) information is carried in goods

9  Cultural meaning also consists of cultural principles  With principles, meaning resides in the ideas or values that determine how cultural phenomena are organized, evaluated and construed cultural principles  cultural principles are the organizing ideas by which things are categorized  Cultural categories are the result of this segmentation into discrete parcels  For example, burgers, fries, tacos etc. can be considered as in the category of “fast food”  The organizing principle is “speed” or “timeliness”

10  Both cultural principles and cultural categories are substantiated by material culture in general and in consumer goods in particular  Consumer Goods express both simultaneously  When goods show a distinction between two cultural categories they do so by encoding something of the principle according to which the two categories are distinguished  e.g., clothing that distinguishes between men and women (the category) also encodes something of the nature of the differences supposed to exist between men and women (the principle)  Clothing communicates both the supposed “delicacy” or femininity of women and the “strength” or masculinity of men

11  Meaning first resides in the culturally constituted world  To become resident in consumer goods it must be transferred to them  One way this is done is through advertising  Ads bring the consumer good and the culturally constituted world together within the framework of the ad  The advertiser sees an essential similarity between them – a symbolic similarity

12  When symbolic equivalence is successfully established the viewer attributes to the consumer good certain properties that he or she knows to exist in the culturally constituted world  These properties thus come to reside in the unknown properties of the consumer good and the transfer of meaning from world to good is accomplished  What is the meaning of the cowboy?  And Marlboro cigarettes?

13 Step 1: identify the properties that are sought for the good (e.g. fun, sexy, helpful etc.) Step 2: decide where in the culturally constituted world the properties for the ad reside  fantasy or natural setting  exterior or interior  Urban or rural  cultivated or untamed  Time of day, year How is the Transfer Achieved

14 If there are people in the ad what is their Sex Age Class occupation clothing body postures Emotional states May be done at conscious as well as unconscious levels These are pieces of he culturally constituted world that can be evoked What meaning should we attach to Bacardi rum?

15 Step 3: determine how the culturally constituted world is to be portrayed in the advertisement  This involves reviewing all of the objects that substantiate the selected meaning and then deciding which of these objects will be used to evoke this meaning in the ad 1958 issue of Lady's Home Journal  What are the culturally meaningful objects in this ad.  What is the meaning of the ad  What have the designers of this ad assumed about the culturally constituted world – especially about the roles of men and women.

16  How would this ad change our understanding of our concept of the male gender?  Through advertising, old meanings of cultural categories are continually changed and new ones taken on

17  The idea is to see an equivalence between the world and the good  World and good must be seen to go together  When we see the sameness after many repetitions the process of transfer has taken place  Meaning has shifted from the culturally constituted world to the consumer good  The good now stands for a cultural meaning which it didn’t have previously.

18  It is chiefly the visual aspect that joins the world and object  Text provides instructions on how the visual part of the advertisement is to be read  Words makes explicit what is already implicit in the image  What’s the meaning of Clairol Herbal Essences and how is it achieved?  All of this must successfully be decoded by the viewer

19  What cultural categories and principles are used in this ad.  Because they don’t see the culturally constructed meaning.  Why do many non-Westerners fail to see the humour in this ad?

20  Fashion (in the broad sense) is another means by which goods are invested with meaningful properties  Works in three ways to transfer meaning  First way is seen in magazines and newspapers and the process is similar to advertising  similarity is sought  After all it is often hard to separate advertising from articles about clothing etc.

21  The fashion system takes new styles of clothing, home furnishings etc. and associates them with established cultural categories and principles moving meaning from culturally constituted world to consumer goods

22 “No longer the sole domain of prep-school boys, the V- neck sweater is having a comeback.” GQ Magazine Wentworth Miller (Michael Scofield - Prison Break)  Done by opinion leaders who help refine existing cultural meanings, encouraging the reform of cultural categories and principles  Second way is through invention of new cultural meanings  Often people of higher social status are sources of meaning for those of lower social status  The innovation of meaning may be promoted by their imitation  e.g. sugar and tea

23 Recently, Beyonce unveiled her new perfume - True Star Gold, True Star Gold is “is more for nighttime, for a woman when she wants to be sexy and more confident. It's sort of like me onstage -- hair blowing, lots of attitude.''- it's a sexy, confident fragrance." (  Movie and popular music stars, are a group of influential opinion leaders who are highly regarded for their status, their beauty and (sometimes) their talent  These opinion leaders invent and pass along new meanings to prevailing cultural categories and cultural principles

24 “Lil' Flip has effected [sic] the dress of urban culture across America. One of the main causes of the streets going wild with burberry design-like car paint jobs, interiors, and matching clothing, he has truly set off many trend explosions in the past two summers.” (, 1995)

25  Third way fashion system transforms meaning is through radical reform of cultural meanings  The groups responsible for the radical reform of cultural meaning usually exist on the margins of society e.g. hippies, punks, or gays  Such groups invent a much more radical, innovative kind of cultural meaning  Until recently in Western culture, only sailors, criminals and prostitutes got tattoos.  The Romans considered decorative tattooing barbaric, and used tattoos to mark slaves and criminals.  The negative connotations are still evident in the Latin word for tattoo: stigma.  Today, the tattoo is undergoing a renaissance reflecting a change in attitudes towards the body: seen as a canvas.  What do tattoos mean today?

26  Same sex marriages – redefine marriage  The redefined cultural categories have now entered the cultural mainstream  These groups redefine cultural categories often by violating existing cultural categories.

27  Product designers, clothes designers, architects, interior designers, technological and automobile designers, etc.  Instead, the consumer good leaves the designers hands and enters any context the consumer chooses Agents of Change Designers and Commentators  Product designers, through the physical properties of the design itself, try to convince consumers that a specific object possesses a certain cultural meaning  ultimately is the consumer who supply the meaning transfer from the world to object  What is the meaning of this chair

28  Fashion journalists, commentators, academics and other social observers are also agents of meaning transfer  They review aesthetic social and cultural innovations as they appear and then classify them as either important or trivial  Once they decide what is important they begin a dissemination process to make their decision known

29 Locations of Cultural Meaning: Consumer Goods  Cultural meaning is located in all high-involvement product categories e.g. clothing transportation, food, housing exteriors and interiors,  all serve as media for the expression of the cultural meaning that constitutes our world

30  How does meaning, now resident in consumer goods move from the consumer good to the life of the consumer Answer:ritual Instruments of Meaning Transfer: Good to Consumer  Ritual is a kind of social action that manipulates cultural meanings for purposes of collective and individual communication and categorization  Ritual affirms, evokes, assigns and revises the conventional symbols and meanings of the cultural order  Eg. rite of passage moves one person from one cultural category to another  Gives ups symbols of one state eg. child for those of another e.g. adult Initiation scars

31 There are four types of ritual that are used to transfer cultural meaning from goods to individuals 1.Exchange 2.Possession rituals 3.Grooming 4.divestment rituals

32 Exchange  Eg. Christmas and birthdays  Often a gift is chosen because it possesses the meaningful properties the gift giver wishes to see transferred to the receiver  e.g. if a woman gets a particular kind of dress as a gift she is also receiving a particular concept of herself as a woman ( e.g. Ashburton’s gifts)  The dress contains this concept and the giver invites the her to define herself in its terms  The gifts to children often contain symbolic properties that the parent would have the child absorb

33  Consumers as gift givers are agents of meaning transfer  Consumers selectively distribute goods with specific properties to individuals who may or may not have chosen them otherwise  When we give a gift to a person we are saying that that person is a particular sort of person.  When we receive a gift, we are also receiving that symbolic representation of ourselves  In one sense then, who we are, is very much influenced by the gifts we have received (and have accepted)  So, when we give a gift, we are giving not only the object itself, but also something symbolic

34 If you were to Receive a “see-thru” print dress, which were all the rage in Japan a few years ago, what is the giver saying about you What is the meaning of the dress To you To the gift giver To young Japanese girls? Why didn’t they catch on in North America?

35 Possession Rituals  Consumers spend a lot of time cleaning, disposing, comparing, reflecting, showing off and even photographing their possessions  Housewarming is often a chance to display possessions,  These events have an overt function but they also have a more subtle function i.e. to assert ownership  Showing to the community their possessions and along with them the meanings.  Possession rituals allow the consumer to take possession of the meaning of the consumer good.  Goods can mark time, space occasion, status, gender, age, occupation etc. e.g. Tea ceremony What sort of a person lives here?

36  Eg. making preparations for going out in public.  We want to look our best, sometimes, say on an evening out or to attend some function, We put makeup on, fix our hair or dress to make an impression. Grooming Rituals  We want to be seen as a certain kind of person when there will be public scrutiny

37  When we go out grooming rituals often give us a feeling of being, glamorous, exalted, self-confident,  These meaningful properties exist in our best consumer goods  In grooming rituals the meaning moves from consumer goods to the consumer

38  We all go through private grooming rituals  The shower is seen as a sacred, cleansing ritual.  In these rituals women reaffirm the value placed by their culture on personal beauty.

39 Divestment Rituals  Often we come to view goods in personal terms, associating goods with their own personal meanings and values  When we buy a second a second hand car or an older house a ritual is used to erase the meaning associated with the previous owner  the cleaning and redecorating of a newly purchased home for e.g. may be seen as an effort to remove the meaning created by its previous owner  The new owner is now able to free up the meaning properties of the possessions claiming them for him or herself.

40  Second type is when planning on giving something away or selling it.  Garage sales are culturally acceptable way of getting rid of objects  Many of the objects are full of memories  goods must be cleansed of meaning before they are handed on  The consumer will attempt to erase the meaning that has been invested in the good by association with it  We rationalize that the things no longer represent who we were – We can get rid of the ugly lamp that we once thought was beautiful.  Or we may feel strange about someone else wearing your clothes

41 (1) Standardization: food, interior design, layout etc. (2) Initially presented itself as uncompromising American food - no Chinese name at first - transliteration later - no Chinese food (3) Standard of cleanliness: clean washrooms in restaurants (4) Customer discipline: line up for food (5) Idea of a regular meal: (a) exotic to ordinary; (b) snacks versus meals [customers: middle-class, like exotic American culture  all ages, all social classes, look for a simple meal] McDonald’s /Hong Kong

42 Local? (1) Resistance of McDonald’s? Involve in community activities – hard to attack (2) Local choice of food: fish burger and plain hamburgers rather than Big Mac as favorite, other local favorites e.g. shogan burger, chicken wings … (3) Consumer discipline: service w/ a smile, busing own tables, hovering, napkin wars (4) Fast food restaurant? US: customers stay no more than 20 minutes on average; HK: study room for high school students, gathering place for senior people

43 McDonald’s opened its first store in Beijing in 1992 McDonald’s enjoyed tremendous success Chinese attempts to imitate McDonald’s, but failed McDonald’s /China

44 Who go to McDonald’s and why? (1) Young professionals: a mark of “middle-class” status (in 1992), feeling of connection to the world … (2) “Single” women: morally suspect in traditional restaurants. Greater equality in McDonald’s : order own food, no fear of being dominated in conversations (3) Young couples: clean, soft music, romantic, a place for courtship (4) Parents with young children: children’s choice of restaurants

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