Cultural meaning of consumer goods

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Meaning Manufacture and Movement in the World of Goods

Studying cultural meaning of consumer goods, Grant McCracken has suggested that cultural meaning carried by consumer goods exist in three locations; the culturally constituted world, the consumer good, and the individual consumer further he has highlighted advertising, the fashion system and consumer rituals as the tools that meaning are transferred between these locations.

Even though McCracken’s work has contribute to our enhanced understanding of this phenomena however I have to say that McCracken’s description that the world has been constituted by culture, “first as a lens through which all phenomena are seen and second as a blueprint of human activity”, are based on broad generalization and over simplification of Gestalt psychology who believes people add something to what they perceive to get a meaning and assumption that the whole is different from the sum of its parts (e.g. face to the circle). McCracken has ignored the individual differences and subjectivism in human perception and behaviour. Here it would be probably more scientific correct to say that the world has been constituted by our perception influenced by culture as well other influences such as genetic, cognitive, affective, behavioural or as some psychologist call it ABC model of attitude. we cannot study cultural meaning of consumer goods without considering those factors.

The role of advertising and the fashion system in order to transfer meaning to consumer goods

Further when McCracken describe the role of advertising and the fashion system in order to transfer meaning to consumer goods, despite his sharp observation of advertising process and the fashion system, he failed to accommodate their role in the contemporary society completely and the creation of cultural meaning of consumer goods. As he made his assumption purely based on that object itself is meaningless outside of cultural context, and he ignored that visual communication is one of the main and probably the primarily source of creating knowledge for humans. Cognitive and gestalt psychologists have proven that human brain put a meaning in shapes, forms and colours. Here by referring to Schopenhauer[1] who said “art should reveal ideas, by making the invisible visible” I can say the role of art director and designer is not to transfer meaning to consumer goods even though they may do it sometimes but the successful and the good work of art and design is to translate the existing meaning in the way that idea or object become visible for the people who may not be much visually educated or gifted to discover it by themselves.

In the other hand as we all know sign language has been the first human language through the history and it is still the first language for all of us even though that we have developed verbal language as our second and probably the main. So the phenomenon of sign language is not a new phenomenon as human being has always communicated through signs and objects. I think the mistake McCracken has done is in the unit of his analyse, as I believe the problem of consumer society is not on how we communicate but more likely on how we evaluate.

Further when McCracken explain the rituals used to transfer the meaning from goods to consumer he draws on very narrow description for the motive behind exchange rituals. Of course one motive could be that gift-giver chooses a gift because it possesses the meaningful properties he or she wishes to see transferred to the gift-taker as McCracken described but surely that there are others motives behinds gift-giving. A simple one could be that someone simply wants to make someone else happy or create some sort of relation…

As someone who sees many shortfall and critic in McCracken meaning transfer model, for me it would be almost impossible to use his model to discuss how any particular consumption object, brand, or consumption activity has been filled with meaning. However with some adjustment in my view and perception of reality I can apply his model almost to anything in our life including religions, education, languages, even marriages… which has been used as status symbols in many cases to differentiate one from the crowd.

cultural meaning of consumer goodsIn the case of consumer goods and advertising here I can mention VOLVO. For many years VOLVO personal cars has targeted some characteristics or preferences in the consumer market such as outdoor adventurism, family friendly and more importantly safety, and they have designed and produced the car offering those physical properties. In addition the company has used various advertising to communicate with its target audience to primarily reveal (not transfer) those properties and build preferences for the brand and secondly to remind and reinforce the message. Most chartered advertiser try to avoid transfer meaning to goods/brand that dose not appear in the physical properties of the goods/brand. As it is known that the consumers’ evaluations of brand dose not finish by detecting ads or even purchasing the brand, and if some undesired meaning (positive or negative) has been transferred to a brand, this could cause dissatisfaction after purchasing even though Ray and Batra[2] find out that a positive attitude toward a ad, can then becomes associated with or transferred to the brand. So in that scene we may be able to say that the meaning has been transferred to the brand as McCracken said but that is not what the advertiser does. Gestalt psychologists have proven that human brain adds meaning to anything they see depending to their experiences and the capacity of their mental set. As I have said earlier if any misinterpretations of the message accrue, this is not primarily caused by the sender but more likely caused by the receiver and the way people evaluate reality. As in many cases meanings added to a brand has been never sent by marketers but consumers has created them. For example seeing the ad above it would be a mistake to buy the VOLVO believing that you will become a superior person for life even though some may get that feeling.

As I said it would be bad marketing to load a brand with meanings that dose not appear in the physical properties of the goods as it may work for the short terms but it will not hold for long. As in the case of VOLVO it would be mistake to present it as safe and superior especially when the comparison within its price range show that is neither safe nor superior.

In conclusion I have to emphasize that I do not agree with McCracken about that “advertising and fashion system are the main means by which meaning is invested in the object code.”[3] Even without advertising or fashion system human brain would invest meaning into the object code, visual discrimination is the nature of human brain and necessary for our survivor and each person do this out of his or her mental set. Study of primitive societies, there it was no sign of contemporary advertising and fashion system shown that even then people put a meaning in to objects and used it as a tool of social discrimination to show the owner’s status and place into the society. For example the study of Indian American society shown that clothe, feather and various body painting had some meaning and it was not just for decoration. Someone familiar to their culture could see easily the person’s status, job and some other personal attribution by just looking at what they wear.

So here I can confidently say that advertising and fashion system can just direct our mind toward some particular meaning which may would a different meaning without their interference, but the objectification and materialization of the society has not been caused by advertising and the fashion system even though they may have been some contributor in the process in the contemporary societies. As a postmodernism I do believe the problem is sitting in our educational system and the way science has excluded our body from our mind and prohibited the development of aesthetics entity beyond material observation and mental thought. Referring to John Dewey[4] aesthetic experience would help override the human culture and open sensory response to universal nature. By ignoring our intuition and senses and not being able to make aesthetic judgment we will fall either in formalist or materialist.

A simple example can be that even the education has been turned to a symbol of status or an object of discrimination. As we know some people attend the universities as a path to a certain career, not to accrue the knowledge or find the true and the meaning of the life. How often have you hear that people say I just need the paper from university to get the salary raise. My point here is that with a wrong attitude and mental set human being can turn anything to an object of discrimination or a symbol of status without the help of advertising or fashion system. Art may not change people attitude but will certainly develop their mental set.


[2] Ray, Michael L. and Rajeev Batra (1983), ‘Emotion and Persuasion in Advertising: What We Do and Don’t Know About Affect,” in Advances in Consumer Research, 10, Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, eds., Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research.

[3] Grant McCracken (1990) Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. PP 82-83

[4] Guillet de Monthoux, Pierre, 2004. The art firm, aesthetic management and metaphysical marketing, Palo alto: Stanford University Press, pp 57