From Consumers, To Shoppers

Thanks Chris, for the introduction. As mentioned, I am currently located at a firm that designs consumer environments, most often for specific brands. By and large, we work with grocery stores, big box retailers, convenience stores and consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs). This position has allowed me access to the world of consumerism, which I’m hoping to write about more, and Savage Minds has kindly given me a space to think about this. What you’ll find in this and subsequent posts is a mix of semi-shaped insights and under-theorized observations. I hope to receive feedback, reflection and productive criticisms from some of the readers, responders and even lurkers on this blog. So, this is where my thoughts begins…

Advertising is dead.


Okay, not truly dead, in the sense of irrelevant, but certainly plateaued in certain areas—a problem which, in today’s capitalist economy, is as good as dead. I’m talking, more specifically, about American advertising in its traditional sense, the Mad Men-era of nationally televised mainstream commercialism. Recent reports suggest that the efficacy of this form of advertising is stagnating, in all likelihood due to over-saturation of messages, the changing ways we watch television and shop, increasing skepticism among people about advertising (though that’s debatable), the proliferation of media sources and other causes.

That’s not to say we are buying less, consuming less or being influenced less. Instead, our consumer culture is currently shifting where and how it gets shaped. Consider some of the following statistics, which may mark a shift in the consumer landscape, particularly as it relates to grocery stores and big box retailers, my central sites of interest:

—According to a 2009 Nielsen report, 50% of consumers are becoming aware of products for the first time inside of a store, while 71% are becoming aware simply by seeing them on the shelf, not in commercial ads. (www.adage.com)

—The store beat TV as an awareness driver by a 50% to 36% margin in 2008 vs. a bare 52% to 48% margin four years earlier. And the margin is even wider among heavy category buyers (three times likelier than average to buy a product), by a 55% to 35% spread (Source: www.supermarketguru.com)

—A recent study, called “The Elements Report,” claimed only 27% of consumers would call ads “very effective.” (www.brandweek.com)

While we, as anthropologists, might balk at using these statistics as markers of cultural shift, it is nonetheless important to recognize how the corporate world responds to them.

In pursuing new opportunities for more effective advertising, marketing departments have sought alternatives to traditional advertising, attempting to leverage the proliferation of media, especially the internet. Online marketing has experienced rapid growth in the last several years. The majority of that ad spending has focused on all of the flashing images now invading most websites. Meanwhile, the majority of reporting about internet marketing seems focused on the rise of social media in marketing, especially sites like twitter and facebook.

My work, however, doesn’t look at internet advertising and its follies, or the infiltration of advertising into everyday life. I guess if there is one thing I have learned through my experience in the business world, it’s that business is much more vast, fragmented, plural and complex than most portraits of capitalism can seem to fully capture. I am constantly amazed to encounter yet another multi-billion dollar regional company or field of expertise employing thousands of people that I had never heard of before and whose business will likely never be written up in the Wall Street Journal or any other major business media source, much less a social science text. As a case in point, I’m consider the emergence and growth of a field now named “Shopper Marketing.”

In the words of a 2007 Deloitte study on shopper marketing, “stores should be thought of like any other marketing media.” Put otherwise, shopper marketing is the “science” of how marketing can communicate to and influence people at the point of decision-making: inside stores. As such, it touches on a number of issues, from shifting categories of “consumer” and “shopper” in the corporate world, to the way the shopper environment affects shopper behavior, to, of course, the changing nature of consumerism today.

Before I get too carried away hyping a brave new world that will somehow revolutionize consumerism as we know it, let me bring this field into context and down to earth—very down to earth. Shopper marketing includes an expanding purview, but has traditionally focused on product packaging, category management and in-store promotions. In other words, I’m talking about annoying plastic wrappers and cardboard cutout displays in the aisles of your local grocery store. These things are big business.

While packaging and product displays are somewhat familiar to most people, what is less well known is the role of category management in retail stores: shelf space management, assortment, promotions and pricing decisions. Industry leaders in each category of the grocery store create what are called planograms, basically diagrams for where a grocery store should place products on the shelf. This is not random and not based on a store manager’s preferences. Consumer packaged goods companies (CPGs) pay “slotting fees” to rent space in a store, which is a sizable source of income for store chains (though not a profit growth source—they still need to sell stuff!). Depending on the category, planograms are changed periodically and CPGs are constantly making the case to their grocery store customers why their products, properly placed, will result in bigger sales for the store. Depending on the chain, different CPGs may have more or less power to sway the planogram. There is, in other words, a battle taking place on a continual basis over which products get sold and where they get placed inside of a grocery store. And this warfare has become increasingly “scientific” and data-driven.

In a certain sense, the field that has only rather recently been dubbed “shopper marketing” is not actually new. Merchants and shops have used visual merchandising to great effect for a very long time. What is new is 1) the naming of the field, 2) the more data-driven/scientific approach and 3) the potential impending shift for where consumer brands most prominently and centrally tell their story to consumers. Previously, the 30-second TV commercial spot was king, but now any number of marketing media forms could become equally important, depending on the brand.

While difficult to pinpoint, the emergence of “shopper marketing” as a specific discipline seems to stem from Procter & Gamble’s Walmart team, which dedicated an increasing amount of time, money and attention to the dynamics of the store environment, and how it related to sales. This then became a major initiative for the entire company, called “store back.” Starting at least in 2008, P&G is now spending more money on shopper marketing and trade promotions (marketing at the middle men) than on media spending ($3.5 billion vs. $3.2 billion)—which is notable because P&G spends more on marketing than any company in the world. (source: www.adage.com). Another signpost of shopper marketing’s emergence as a corporate discipline has been the renaming of the P-O-P trade magazine (Point Of Purchase) to Shopper Marketing. By and large, the magazine continues to focus on the latest news about cardboard display fixtures found throughout the retail world, but there seems to be a sense of greater urgency, attention and importance generated by the new name.

The legacy of shopper marketing extends beyond cardboard fixtures. It is closely tied to the emergence of the bar code—first developed in the early 1950s and then widely implemented in the 1970’s—and its attendant impulse towards a kind of Weberian rationalization of the retail industry. In the words of one industry pioneer of that time, “point of sale scanning technology” (i.e. barcodes) created, “opportunities for improving shelf space management, assortment, promotion, and pricing decisions [that] could be identified and supported by data rather than based on traditional, often more emotion-based, decision-making methods.” This technology essentially gave new meaning to the question of what sells best, as the science of understanding the relationship between shoppers and the products they choose could more easily be studied, quantified and analyzed. Experiments in the store environment, including placement of products and packaging could now be studied to discover their effectiveness, essentially establishing the foundation for a science of shopping.

Although the “science” of this kind of marketing is sometimes debated and questions constantly arise about the messy, qualitative side of this discipline—something I can discuss more, later on—powerful statistics act as a call to shopper marketing. Namely:

—70% of brand selections are made at stores

—68% of buying decisions are unplanned, and

—5% of consumers are loyal to the brand of just one product group (Stahlberg & Maila 2010)

In other words, while sometimes highly effective, there seems to be something very ineffective with traditional marketing, advertising and branding efforts. As a result, shopper marketing budgets are growing rapidly.

Beyond a multi-sited ethnographic portrait of an emergent phenomenon in the contemporary world—this one relevant, I believe, in light of current crises in our consumer-centric economy—I think this site is also interesting perspective from which to think about the role of ethnography, and research on human behavior more generally, in applied business fields.

This, more or less situates me in my everyday job: working for an architecture, design and brand strategy firm that, at times, does shopper marketing projects (we would never call ourselves a shopper marketing firm, however). In this capacity, I could use my everyday, on-the-job research as the basis for ethnographic work, if granted permission. In other words, I might produce “mini” ethnographies of grocery stores, convenience stores or restaurants, providing insight on American shopping habits and consumer customs. And there are precedents for this, including Marshal Sahlins’ classic Culture And Practical Reason (1976), which picks apart the symbolic life of food and clothing—what he calls la pensee bourgeoise. Daniel Miller’s more recent work is another great source for reflections on consumerism today.

While important, I’m nonetheless more inclined to study the role of research-based knowledge (including, but not limited to ethnography) in shopper marketing, and the role of shopper marketing in the corporate/consumer landscape. The amount of research happening in the corporate world right now is unspeakably vast, however problematic many consider it. Characterizing this research is an enormous challenge, even in specific places.

This is not a question of the validity of ethnographic work outside of academia—all knowledge-production is shaped and situated—what I’m trying to focus on is the way research is used in a specific location, shaped and provided explanatory force. The problem is how data sources, information and knowledge about shoppers and shopping are influenced by, transformed, translated and ultimately re-appropriated by companies that employ or contract anthropologists and other researchers.

Upcoming posts will try to point to some of the locations I’m thinking about and looking at.

35 thoughts on “From Consumers, To Shoppers

  1. Welcome, Michael. Fascinating stuff. Allow me to add a couple of points.

    1. Marshal Sahlins and Daniel Miller are great anthropologists, but the key figure here is Paco Underhill. Underhill, a student of Marvin Harris, pioneered the observational study of retail spaces and made a successful business of it. His Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping is a genuine classic. Among his more humorous findings is the “butt brush” effect. Most neckties, it turns out, are bought by women, who are disturbed when people brush past them in narrow department storer aisles. Moving the necktie display into a low-traffic cull de sac will boost necktie sales 20-30%.

    2. Message saturation is one possible reason for the declining effectiveness of mass media advertising, but channel proliferation and the rise of the Web is the heart of the business problem. When consumers had access to at most two or three newspapers and three or four TV channels, advertising space brokers were selling narrow bandwidth and captive audiences. Competition for these limited goods was fierce, and prices went up and up. Mass media advertising was a very good business to be in. Now available bandwidth is growing by leaps and bounds and no longer captive audiences are fragmenting. In-store is increasingly important because in stores is the only place that you can be sure of reaching consumers at the point they are ready to buy.

  2. I was hoping/fearing that Paco Underhill would head his rear here. I was wondering why the omission on Michael’s part, but perhaps he will come to that, since Paco Underhill is also, in my experience, the person most often mentioned when academics condemn the use of anthropology/ethnography to improve corporate profitability (btw, I thought he was a William H. Whyte student, not Marvin Harris, though I suppose one could be both).

    more generally, it does seem that one thing at stake here is the tension between producing knowledge which helps a particular corporation (the anthropologist’s client) understand their customers better, and knowledge which helps any corporation understand any customer better. It strikes me that if practicing anthropologists are doing the latter, the burden is on the academic anthropologist to understand and appreciate their findings, whereas if they are doing the former, the burden is on the practicing anthropologists to articulate why anyone should care. John’s post on EPIC seems to suggest that everyone wants to be perceived as doing the former, but no one quite knows how to have their cake and be paid to eat it too.

  3. right now as a newbie ethnographer newly arrived “in the field” i’ve got a serious case of consumer confusion which makes me sometimes long for the kinds of space allocation and organization you describe here michael.

    the order and comfort of knowing that generic brand corn flakes will always be on the bottom rung of the shelves.

    makes me think that perhaps this kind of marketing work also functions as a kind of decision-scaffold whereby shoppers can make purchasing decisions more easily, more quickly. so, rather than consumers having to constantly negotiate and commit psychic energy to figuring what kind of soap they’re going to buy, it allows them choose quickly and then carry on with other aspects of their lives, like collecting data or writing fieldnotes.

    maybe i’m painting too optimistic though. but it would be interesting to these kinds of studies at flea markets, bazzaars as a point of contrast. marketing surely serves additional functions aside from those intended by the marketers. just how these functions take shape in non-marketed environments may shed new light on our consumption economy.

    i’m really glad to see you writing here michael. look forward to more!

    vietnam as someone

    intellectual scaffolding/infrastructure to guide us in consumption decision-making.

  4. If you were to google William Whyte’s “The Social Life Of Small Urban Spaces”, you can actually watch his early video work that served as Paco Underhill’s inspiration, if not education—he may have been part of that project, but I’m unsure. And once you see that video, then you can quickly make the leap that Underhill took Whyte’s video methodology and applied it to the retail world. This approach is not, strictly speaking, ethnographic, but is certainly observational. Underhill’s company Envirosell also does interviews. But one thing that makes Whyte compelling is that he was open to whatever methods he considered most useful to answer the fundamental questions of, why are people doing the things that they do? Whyte wasn’t an academic professor when he rose to fame with The Organization Man and his public spaces project, he was an editor at Fortune magazine.

    In one of the upcoming posts, I was planning to talk more about Paco Underhill and others who write about and claim to know how shoppers think, so I’ll save some of those thoughts for then. However, it is interesting to note, for anyone who has actually read Why We Buy, that he never actually answers the question. The famous “butt brush” effect John mentions is a behavioral regularity and women are supposedly very annoyed by this. Okay, let’s grant that women don’t like to be stuffed into confined spaces (do men like this more, for some reason?), but does that really explain why women buy ties? (also, like Chris, I had no idea that Underhill was taught by Marvin Harris, but that would be interesting if it was the case.). Underhill makes persuasive arguments. It is interesting to see who buys into them, and why.

    Lilly: You are definitely raising points that need further articulation. It’s interesting how clearly we recognize the norms of shopping when we are forced out of our routine, exactly because most of us embrace and rely on that routine. And this seems to get at a core issue of how and why people change habits, or refuse to change. Raising this up to a more strategic level, I have found that, by and large, corporate people who run, say, grocery stores, tend not to like change.

  5. Chris: For the record, its not only from academics whom you’re likely to hear a large sign from at the mention of Paco Underhill. Can’t wait to hear what Michael has to say.

    Michael: I personally have not done much work on consumers or marketing, but I can say your hint at framing of questions of how research is located, shaped and provided explanatory force applies more broadly to work in organizational/industry settings. I think it goes beyond what counts as “data sources” to include constructions of ‘data’ more generally, and indeed what counts as a question to be sought and explained. Adrian Sloban and Todd Cherkasky’s look in their EPIC 2010 paper at when ethnographic research resides in the context of analytics speaks directly to this point and more obtusely, my own paper from EPIC suggests different framings of what is desired to be known, and why, in corporate contexts. Proliferations of knowledge shaping all around. Anyway, I think you are on to a great set of questions and looking forward to hearing more.

  6. Whoops, “large sigh”, not “sign”. Though I’m sure many of you would be happy to rift off that obvious slippage.

  7. @Michael

    When you write,

    While important, I’m nonetheless more inclined to study the role of research-based knowledge (including, but not limited to ethnography) in shopper marketing, and the role of shopper marketing in the corporate/consumer landscape. The amount of research happening in the corporate world right now is unspeakably vast, however problematic many consider it. Characterizing this research is an enormous challenge, even in specific places.

    I can only say, Yes, Oh Yes, Oh Yes. Like you,

    I guess if there is one thing I have learned through my experience in the business world, it’s that business is much more vast, fragmented, plural and complex than most portraits of capitalism can seem to fully capture.

    No segment of humanity is more seriously understudied than the business worlds arbitrarily collapsed into the big black box/ogre called “capitalism” in so much of the “critical” blather I read.

    @ckelty

    I am still pondering the distinction you attempt to draw between knowledge about a particular corporation’s customers and knowledge about consumers in general. The more I think about it, the more confused I become. Am I wrong to perceive that, shifted out of a business context, it would, in effect condemn as unworthy of academic anthropological attention any ethnographic research that does not add something to our knowledge of humanity in general? Are particularistic understandings unconnected to universal theoretical concerns to be discarded wholesale?

  8. @Melissa, @Ckelty, @ Michael

    What is people’s beef with Underhill? This is a serious, not a rhetorical question. I suspect a good deal of sour grapes, given the success of his business model. I can also see that, given our current tendency to see the ethnographic interview and attempts to grasp the “native point of view” as the heart of anthropological research, a fellow who focuses instead on observations intended to reveal things that people don’t talk about because they are unaware of them has moved in a direction sharply at odds with the current anthropological zeitgeist.

    I find myself thinking of Andrew Abbott’s trinity of possible social science goals: translation, leverage, and deep explanation and observing that while cultural anthropology has, since E-P and Geertz, increasingly focused on translation, Underhill has focused instead on leverage. In the case of the butt-brush effect, for example, the translator’s/conventional market researchers questions, why is the woman buying a tie and why does she prefer one to another, are beside the point. So is the imagined disrespect of not letting the woman speak for herself. You move the ties, sales go up, leverage at work. Manipulative? You bet. Evil? Not particularly. After the ties are moved, women (and men) buying ties enjoy a more pleasant shopping experience. The retailer’s sales go up. Looks like a win-win to me. Still, I can how those who make critical mountains out of molehills will be upset.

    But this, too, is only speculation. It’s time to ask my collaborators. What do you think is going on that makes Underhill such a creepy figure to those who don’t like what he does?

  9. John to Ckelty: “Am I wrong to perceive that, shifted out of a business context, it would, in effect condemn as unworthy of academic anthropological attention any ethnographic research that does not add something to our knowledge of humanity in general?”

    This exact thought came to my mind when I read that statement as well. Although, I have to say that in the non-academic case, such applied research would increase the social capital of all anthropologists (academic and practicing alike), while the latter case has do much for anyone but individual researchers.

  10. I would like to come back to and give some more thought to ck’s comment, both because I think it is potentially valuable and because it is possibly being analyzed tangentially. As he states:

    one thing at stake here is the tension between producing knowledge which helps a particular corporation (the anthropologist’s client) understand their customers better, and knowledge which helps any corporation understand any customer better. It strikes me that if practicing anthropologists are doing the latter, the burden is on the academic anthropologist to understand and appreciate their findings, whereas if they are doing the former, the burden is on the practicing anthropologists to articulate why anyone should care.

    As I see it, this is not a question of worthy vs. unworthy knowledge, but rather a problem of creating knowledge for different audiences and how that audience shapes knowledge.

    Let’s say, for example, I write an ethnographic report for a grocery store chain client. And if done well, then my client finds it valuable and useful. I think it’s also important to mention that, at least where I work, we are always trying to impress that client with our work.

    Now, just because that audience found the report insightful, should we assume that a cultural anthropology audience will also find it insightful, much less useful, valuable and contributing to the conversation that the field is participating in? I wouldn’t expect that audience to react that way.

    It’s a lot more work, but it seems to me that cultural anthropologists would find it more useful to read characterizations and thick descriptions of larger social, political and economic trends. Perhaps my research on an individual grocery store chain somehow can help illuminate those larger trends, but I see it as my job to draw out the connection.

    But I wouldn’t limit this discussion to only audiences of clients and anthropologists. I find it interesting, challenging and even important to try to write for broader, non fiction audiences, as well. Yet, I wouldn’t write a non-fiction essay the same way I write an anthropology essay or a client report. Now, ideally, it would be a great accomplishment to write something that can appeal to multiple audiences simultaneously, but that seems like a rare and difficult feat. As a case in point, you might check out the scathing reviews of Paco Underhill’s latest book, entitled “What Women Want.”

  11. Am I wrong to perceive that, shifted out of a business context, it would, in effect condemn as unworthy of academic anthropological attention any ethnographic research that does not add something to our knowledge of humanity in general?”

    Bizarre. You guys (John and Rick) both strike me as science-loving enough to recognize that the problem at stake is in contributing knowledge to a common, cumulative structure in which the particular result (an ethnography of this particular convenience store) is expected to somehow relate to the general problem of a science of humanity in general. Let’s pretend for the moment that there are no such things as non-disclosure agreements, intellectual property contracts, trade secrecy or client-firm privilege and that everything corporate anthros do automatically enters into some vast, clearly labeled and agreed upon Body Of Knowledge. If so, then every little bit of work that corporate anthros do is just as much a part of the BOK as anything any academic does. But even so, as Michael says, the important part is to draw out the connections between any given empirical case and a shared body of theoretical knowledge. It’s at this point that we have a disconnect that is bridged only in rare cases like the EPIC conferences and books by people like Melissa Cefkin. To be perfectly clear, I think we desperately need a better mode of scholarly communication precisely for this reason. This is why I am so fanatic about open access: I don’t want these two discussions to be cut off from each other just because university academics have access to one large body of publications, and corporate anthros some other and non-overlapping set of publications (in this sense both toll-access academic products and super-expensive proprietary consulting reports suck equally).

    And re: Paco Underhill, the problem is not that he is clever and a good empiricist, this goes without saying (as was also true of Whyte), but that he’s a bad theorist. As Michael points out, he has no theory of the butt-brush effect, only a compelling correlation. I’m not sure I even want a theory of the butt-brush effect in my understanding of culture, but the burden is nonetheless on him to either provide it, or to explain how it fits into Marvin Harris’s understanding of culture, or Geertz’s or Alex Golub’s or mine for that matter.

  12. Michael, I think it’s more than what is produced, although that’s definitely part of it, I think it’s also about whether or not knowledge or data is at all useful and to whom. I think many anthropologists like to think of what they do in terms of astronomy, i.e., pure research for human curiosity.
    This attitude can be both naive and self-deceiving. Self-deceiving, because none of us, or our science, can be separated from the Enlightenment, or ever aspect of modernity that we enjoy on a daily basis. Naive in the sense of believing they are the chosen people that can be trusted with truly neutral knowledge. As Bernard tells us in the intro to his Opus on anthropological methods, applied social science is the science of behavior change. That is a simple fact which itself is truly neutral and universal, but we often become uncomfortable with the neutral nature of this science. So instead of developing ways to get people to use less water, recycle more, buy organic, decide to bike vs. drive a car, etc… All of the positive and wonderful things that we can do, we don’t in any great numbers. So we fear the science and the methods, and struggle to render them inept, rather than to use them to fight the good fight. God knows the only side isn’t out there sitting on its hands. The only side is busy getting fat people to buy more fatty food, people with a lot of guns more bullets, and has been utilizing well understood media techniques to persuade that Obama is a Muslim, and that the economy was fine until he took over. Where is our side, out pressing those same buttons to get people to realize that they’re being manipulated, and that there are other ways. The think is that in doing so, we actually have to provide them with something and make suggestions, which would imply a lack of moral relativity. I think that scares people. It scares people to make a decision that they think this is better than that, and that they should use social science to make it happen.
    Sure physicists built the atom bomb, but that didn’t keep them from continuing to do science, and to help give us all the wonderful advances that we enjoy today.

  13. As Bernard tells us in the intro to his Opus on anthropological methods, applied social science is the science of behavior change. That is a simple fact which itself is truly neutral and universal, but we often become uncomfortable with the neutral nature of this science.

    Let’s be clear. Stating that applied social science is the science of behavior change may indeed be a neutral statement of fact. But the doing of science of any sort is never neutral. That’s especially true when the science being done is aimed at changing behavior.

  14. I am a new doctoral student in Anthropology and am studying corporate identity and branding practices in Korea. I look forward to reading more from Michael.

    I did find the statement “Advertising is dead” to be more typical of the gotcha style of business books and brand gurus portending the future of media, and not generally of the attitude of anthropologists who are working in this growing field, of which I hope to be a contributor. Not least to mention it is fairly clear from your writing that advertising is far from dying.

  15. thank you, i was looking forward for this theme to be discussed. Myself is particularly interested in the interdependency (or more specific the concept of schismogenesis introduced by bateson) between consumers and the “cast members” which are most liable for the design of the particular environment. And i ask myself, if there should be any ethics concerning the design of human behaviour, because in the end we contribute to the production of subliminal massages. After all, there are more and more and more people which have difficulties to go into shops, or even anxious to go shopping.

  16. @mprentice: Ouch. Well, it is a bold statement, so perhaps I’m due a lashing. Nonetheless, it is incumbent on me to build a solid argument for why I see a potential shift in the world of consumerism. I think the facts laid out in this first post establish a ground to say that “something” is happening (and I’m hoping that I have more facts to go on than a “brand guru” does!), though I need to follow up with specific places where I sense a qualitative change emerging. You would certainly be as good a judge as any to reflect on whether the shopper marketing thing is just more of the same advertising, or is actually something different. I’m over-stating the case at the outset of my post on purpose, but perhaps my real argument is over-stated, as well.

    I also should qualify that my research and work is focused mainly on America, though I’m a little bit aware of some of this talk in Asia. I’d be curious to know if you have encountered any similar studies or even chatter about the diminishing efficacy of traditional advertising (e.g. TV and print ads) in Korea or elsewhere?

  17. Michael, I was wondering if we’ve been focusing on one issue as being causal, that of a proliferation of advertising outlets, and have been ignoring the concurring change in the proliferation of products themselves.
    For example, when my dad was buying beer in the 1960′s, there might have only been 3 television stations and no internet, but there also weren’t hundreds of different beers to chose from. Has this been explored? I’m wondering if the explosion of consumer products has biased the data, and resulting models. Has anyone ruled out the possibility that consumers are learning about new products at a steady pace from traditional media, but that there are so many more products to learn about that you get massively skewed data? If that is the case, then it might show that traditional media is still viable for more established brands.

  18. @michael @mprentice

    When I joined Hakuhodo, Japan’s second largest ad agency, as an English-language copywriter in 1983, the ratio of above the line (mass media commission) income to below the line (piecework fees for collateral, events, point-of-sale materials, etc.) was roughly 70:30. When I left the agency in 1996 the ratio was 50:50. I recall reading an issue of Business Week sometime between those two dates when the cover story was “What ever happened to brands?” At that point the anxiety about the possible demise of brands and traditional advertising was driven by (1) convenience stores, (2) POS systems, and (3) private label, in particular, store brands. Convenience store’s limited shelf space, combined with the product proliferation that Rick mentions, intensified competition for that space. POS systems gave convenience store chain owners daily updates on what was and wasn’t selling, undermining the value of traditional market research whose data was typically weeks, if not months or years old, when presented in ad agency pitches. Private label brands, with packaging that often mimicked that of national brands, were eroding brand value. Working on, God save me, Coca-Cola in the mid 1990s, I heard a lot about how things had changed. It used to be, I was told, that Coca-Cola decided what it was going to sell and how it would be packaged and advertised then told bottlers and distributors what they would do in the coming year at a big annual meeting. A lot of processes that assumed at least a half year to prepare for that meeting were being disrupted and reconsidered. Infomercials on TV and the rise of e-commerce on the Internet have intensified the disruption and collapse of old business models. This is the changing environment in which shopper marketing is, if not the next big thing, at least a glimmer of hope for brand and store managers confronted with the continuing collapse of the conventional wisdom of their business cultures.

    If you like, feel free to contact me privately. I see a lot of potential in collaboration among us and will be happy to lend a hand by checking out stuff in Japan for you. Check out our website http://www.wordworks.jp for contact information.

  19. michael, there has been plenty of chat in Japan along the lines you mention. If either you or mprentice wants to get in touch with me directly, I can inundate you with material.

  20. The attempt to apply anthropological methods to the study of consumer behaviour is not recent. I am of course out of touch with contemporary anthropology having graduated in 1974 and not worked in the discipline since but I notice that no-one mentioned the work of Mary Douglas and in particular her book, with Baron Isherwood, “The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption” published in 1978.

  21. There’s a relevant article in the latest Human Organization journal to the topic. Ya’ll might be interested: “Brands, Interactively and Contested Fields: Exploring Production and Consumption in Cadillac and Infinity Automobile Advertising Campaigns.”

    MTBradely: “Let’s be clear. Stating that applied social science is the science of behavior change may indeed be a neutral statement of fact. But the doing of science of any sort is never neutral. That’s especially true when the science being done is aimed at changing behavior.”

    That was actually a major point I was trying to get across in that post. I think most of what I’m trying to say on the topic can be better understood by the intersection of two writers who are much better writers than myself: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Here we see to competing visions of the future. Both visions can find their respective realities in different places. Like North Korea for Orwell, and part of the US for Huxley.

    I think most of the resistance that anthropologists have to social science as leverage, or in influence campaigns can be tied to the warnings of Huxley. They make sense, and I get it. There’s something insidious to people being controlled and them not really realizing it. My contention though, is that much of this cannot be removed from the very nature of the human condition itself. I don’t think the people that have a strongly negative visceral reaction to applied social science (and it is an emotional, visceral reaction), realize that they are just as manipulated and self-deceiving as everyone else. Here my thesis can be understood in it’s totality from Orwell’s essay, “Notes on Nationalism,” so I won’t bother trying to improve upon it. (the essay is online, and I still don’t trust the filter with links).

    Basically, there’s a very strong tendency in anthropology towards the kind of nationalism that Orwell describes in the essay, defined as, “…the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Because, becoming an anthropologists becomes such a central part of a person’s identity, there is an equally strong tendency for people to associate the discipline completely along nationalistic lines.
    Again from the essay:

    “But for an intellectual, transference has an important function which… …makes it possible for him to be much more nationalistic — more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest — than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge… …because some kind of dislocation has taken place. In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion… …will not allow him to do so… …in that case he will have abandoned the form of nationalism that lies nearest to hand without getting any closer to a genuinely internationalist outlook. He still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad… …God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack — all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognized for what they are, they can be worshiped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct.”

    So, in a nutshell it is not the use of social science for influence that bothers anyone, but who it is used by. I doubt most of the people against it for corporations, would be against it for media campaigns to get people to be less consumeristic, or less bigoted. But, because the tactics are so identified with “evil” side of this simple dichotomy, they are rarely considered in the defense of the “good” side in people’s minds. A similar example would be the abhorrence of the use of guns to defend the powerless, because the powerful use them.

  22. Rick, just to take your “anthropology is like a nation” metaphor a step further: do you think that anthropology has already made a more-or-less clear distinction about who or what is good and who or what is evil? I’m not sure this is any more simple than how any other nation, or social group, tends to do the same.

    Another crazy notion, but perhaps it is those anthropologists who get outside the community—whether by choice or circumstance—who are also the ones that tend to think a bit differently about various issues?

    Thanks for the reference, too, by the way

  23. Michael, I would say that you are correct in saying that the process of dichotomizing isn’t clear cut, but then that is accounted for in Orwell’s essay. He states, like I will now, that we are all guilty of this psychic tendency, and that we must be aware of, and resist it. He also points out that the archetypes of this tendency are more rare. It is in those archetypes that this process becomes very easy to spot. For example, if you go to a site like Zero Anthropology, you’ll see a few folks that the essay could be based on. Obsession is a major thing to look for (like HTS), and within academic anthropology the most common types of nationalism would be Transferred and Negative Nationalism. This phenomena in anthropology makes more sense compared to other disciplines, because it is a nature outgrowth of the empathy for the subaltern folks that have been at the heart of study since the beginning. I think historically, this has made anthropology both very susceptible to transferred and negative nationality, if not one of the origins of them. (Over the last 30 years there has been a tenancy for these to push for a sanctity of culture over the rights of individuals, but that’s off topic.) This is made more interesting by the fact that anthropologists are on the forefront of debunking these types of nationalism. E.g., we have been the first to note that power isn’t unidirectional. Both, I think, are rooted in direct experience. It’s among issues that anthropologists have no empiric experience that archetypes appear, which leads to your next question.

    “perhaps it is those anthropologists who get outside the community—whether by choice or circumstance—who are also the ones that tend to think a bit differently about various issues?”

    I would say absolutely, especially outside the academy. The way the more archetypal nationalists in the discipline have narrowly defined both it, and its enemies, has really defined anthropology for all of us, even though most of us are able to see multiple perspectives (which is part of the job). I think that so many anthropologists have become so nationalistic (I hate using that word this way), precisely in areas they have the least direct experience. Looking over comments and posts on SavageMinds bares this out. There have been many posts on the bad leadership, insane bureaucracy, and general strangeness of the academy and its institutions (including the AAA). People can then talk about how much this pisses them off, etc… but, there is always a tacit agreement that these institutions can be improved, are not evil just lead by an idiot, and are valid. Complexity is tolerated.

    Then look at posts, both here and elsewhere, dealing with corporations, the military, or government. That’s where you see really strong examples of Orwell’s Nationalism. A corporation, and anyone working for it, are not simply imperfect (like the AAA), but are at their core evil (capitalism is also pure evil). Those of us, like yourself, that work for them are marked by their evil pollution, and are traitors to the discipline.
    Almost everything anyone has stated about the military, or a business, could be easily transferred to any other bureaucratic organization. At least it can in my mind, because I’ve yet to not find equally frustrating and similar processes in all complex organizations (non-profit, government, business, military). If I ever get to an organization of more than 150 people that isn’t dicked up in some predictable way, I will have witnessed a miracle.

    Orwell: “Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening… …Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level.”

    Within the academy one can see this in two phenomena. First, by taking on the views of those we study and making them our own. So if a logging company is cutting down the trees of people we work with, it rarely if ever occurs to most of us to go an talk to the loggers. We know all we need to know about them already. Second, by the endless rounds of rhetorical question asking. Eventually, those who feel the need to ask, “For whose benefit…,” should be made the answer the question.

  24. I am reminded, once again, of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Letter to Novy Mir,” in which Bakhtin argues that all cultural understanding is inherently dialogical, for the plain and simple reason that all of us, whatever our cultural background, have our blind spots, in which others see things that we can’t. Thus, to use one solid example, a linguist’s informant is unlikely to be aware of the phonological and syntactic rules governing her speech, unless, of course, the informant is herself a linguist.

    It is always problematic when an observer/critic claims to detect in another’s words, artifacts, or behavior, structures of which the other is unaware. But again, as the linguist’s example shows us, the problems have solutions. The linguist tests her structures against the informant’s intuitions, using the method of minimal contrasts to isolate structurally significant features. Observers using looser interpretive frameworks can use similar methods, offering interpretations to the other who will then embrace or reject them. Smart observers will, of course, add situational awareness and observations of behavior that may contradict what the other says in crafting the interpretations they offer.

  25. I don’t know John, I think that this kind of cultural blindness is the more traditionally understood ethnocentrism; what Orwell calls in his essay, “Patriotism.”

    “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people… …Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”

    I think in this sense we are all to a greater or lesser degree patriots to a particular vision of anthropology, or our fields in the discipline. Most of us however, don’t feel the need to impose that vision on others. It’s the nationalists in anthropology who seek to define what is and what is not anthropology in political, ideological terms, and exclude and sanction those who don’t submit to that vision.

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