The Anthropology of Snacks, Widgets, and Pills: What I Learned from Ethnographic Consumer Research

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Laurel George. It is the second in a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Laurel's previous post here.]

Anthropology as a discipline and ethnography as a set of practices enjoyed a period of heightened popularity in the world of market research in the U.S. from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s.  During that time, anthropology was seen as the “next big thing,” a new, improved way of understanding the behaviors and motivations of consumers.  Stories about the special insights that ethnography could bring offer abounded in the popular press, trade journals, and even on NPR’s Motley Fool radio show.  Advertising firms and makers of consumer goods touted ethnography’s ability to offer a more authentic and deeper view of consumer attitudes and practices.  These enhanced understandings, it was promised, would enable ad agencies and product manufacturers to target new markets, develop new products, transform their brand image, and, ultimately, sell more snacks and widgets.  My entry into this landscape was a function of chance; I earned my PhD in cultural anthropology in 2002, during anthropology’s hottest corporate moment. Newly credentialed, on the academic job market, and broke, I was more than a little interested when an anthropologist friend in similar (actually, identical) circumstances told me about a small consumer research firm that was hiring anthropologists to “do ethnographies” on consumer habits. For the next three years on and off,  I worked for this small outfit and, with teams of other anthropologists and videographers, helped produce ethnographic videos and reports on products ranging from snack and convenience foods to appliances to phamaceuticals.  This snapshot of that work is not meant as expose, but rather an account of what ethnography signified and looked like in that context.  It not an entirely negative story. To be sure, much substance can be lost when knowledge is produced under such instrumentalizing constraints and conditions.  But to my surprise, this interlude furnished gains beyond the adjunct-salary-shaming paycheck. I’m still not sure that what my colleagues and I produced were ethnographies per se, but the experience, as I’ll explain, has expanded how I imagine the possibilities of ethnographic research and intellectual collaboration.

Before proceeding, though, I should clarify two points: 1) while the period I speak of was a particularly fertile one for consumer ethnography, the relationship between anthropology and advertising has a long history; and 2) I’m no expert on the field of consumer research.  Indeed, the fact that neither my anthropologist colleagues nor I at the consumer research firm had extensive training or experience in that area is a function of the “boom” moment during which firms expanded their staffs beyond consumer research experts to hire graduates students and newly-minted PhDs. For an account of the character of this moment in the context of the relationship between ethnography and consumer research, Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny’s 2007 volume Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research is an essential resource that expertly spans theory and practice.  In chronicling the history of anthropology in marketing and the corporate sector in general, the authors point out that the relationship between advertising and social science is nothing new.  It is, they assert, at least as old as Madison Avenue’s love affair with Freudian depth psychology. Sunderland and Denny also indicate what ethnographic consumer research can aspire to in the long haul, pointing out that while the ethnography boom in advertising and marketing may have passed, blue chip Madison Avenue firms have retained in-house anthropologists, and, in some cases, entire ethnographic research departments, well-versed in cultural analysis.

That said, what did ethnography look like in the corner of consumer research I inhabited in the boomlet years of the early 2000s? The outfit I worked for (which, incidentally, no longer exists) was small but led by an experienced and well-connected marketing professional who was able to secure contracts with major corporate clients. The clients would hire the firm to design and carry out research (“ethnographies”) meant to give information (“insights”) into consumer’s thoughts, feelings and practices related to a particular type of product.  Once hired by the corporate client, the firm paired anthropologists with videographers to go into the homes of  pre-screened consumers and interview, observe, and film them going about aspects of their daily lives relevant to the product or topic the client wished to investigate. Sometimes the themes came from our own observation; more often, they were determined by the client (or at least were the result of negotiation with the client).  On average, the duration of our stay in the home was about 4-5 hours and was divided between interviews and activities, e.g., washing dishes; throwing together a quick meal; or exercising through the pain that the client’s newly-patented pharmaceutical could alleviate.  After each encounter in the field, the anthropologist would write up fieldnotes, review the raw footage of interviews and activities, and code both according to theme.  These themes then acted as templates for the short quasi-documentaries and Powerpoint presentations (the deliverables) we produced for the client.   The term “ethnography” was somewhat slippery and ill-defined in this context, but the use of the term “video ethnography” was consistently used to denote the mini-documentaries we produced along with the videographers (also contract workers) and the in-house video editor.  The time span for each project was often as short a couple of weeks and rarely longer than a month from start to finish, meaning there were many 10-hour days either in the field or in front of a video monitor selecting and organizing snippets of footage.

This intense foray into market anthropology was fairly short-lived for me (less than a few years), and problematic on several fronts. First, while my anthropology PhD got me the job, this work was not at all what I had envisioned for myself.  The fact that I could earn as much in four days of market ethnography as I could in four months of adjuncting (which I was also doing at this time) only problematized things further.  Second, I wasn’t so sure I felt great about some of the products we were helping to sell (mostly the pills, but also some of the snacks).  Perhaps the biggest conflict of all, as I somewhat guiltily admitted when asked about my “corporate gigs,” was that I actually really liked the work itself. The satisfaction I derived from it came largely from the fact that it was everything that writing up a dissertation was not: quick, collaborative, and relatively lucrative.  Working with the videographer and film editors to make the video ethnographies was fun and creative in a completely different way than conducting my own research. In comparison to the inherently isolating process of writing a dissertation, working with the other anthropologists to compile and analyze our findings offered an experience of collaborative knowledge production that was incredibly refreshing. As I said, it’s arguable whether or not what we produced were ethnographies. I think by many definitions they weren’t, although they did employ a version of ethnographic methods and benefitted from anthropological ways of thinking about patterns of behavior and how groups of people make and see meaning in their daily lives. Nonetheless, these experiences generated new skills and modes of working, not to mention an insider’s look into a range of corporate modes of thinking and operating. For example, approaching the field with an eye to creating video documentation has made me more attuned of the visual and aural aspects of fieldwork. And the process of working as part of a team with a clearly-defined, shared goal is a situation I’d like to recreate in future work. Ultimately, though, I think of this interlude in terms of how I might bring the knoweldge and skills gained there into my “own” work, which for me still means original research and teaching. In keeping with the theme of precarity and ethnographic production, then, I wonder how skills and ways of thinking gained or honed in a less-than-ideal setting may get translated and used in others in ways that ultimately enrich our practice and production of ethnography.

Laurel George is an adjunct assistant professor in New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences and Gallatin Division, as well as a humanities scholar with The Paul Taylor Dance Company. She received her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Rice University in 2002.

11 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Snacks, Widgets, and Pills: What I Learned from Ethnographic Consumer Research

  1. Thank you for the very nice feedback, Jason. I also highly recommend the Sunderland and Denny volume to students considering working in this area. It’s a great (maybe unique) bridge between academia and applied anthropology, written by very thoughtful and smart practitioner-scholars.

  2. Your insights take me back to the same boomlet when I found myself PR’ing consultancies run by or employing PhD anthropologists. They wanted to cultivate a mystique around anthropology/ethnography and position bone fide academically trained practitioners and their approaches as essential to solving certain business problems relating to marketing and R&D*.

    This goal was somewhat undermined by a legion of rivals newly describing their own qualitative approaches as ethnography, making it hard to bring attention to the particular skills possessed by anthropologists and further removing the process from anything the academy would recognise (Simon Roberts lists many of the approaches lumped under the umbrella of ‘ethnography’ in the book edited by Sarah Pink ‘Applications of Anthropology’, pg.86).

    Arguments about what is or isn’t ethnography aside, the boomlet did help to spread the word about anthropology far and wide. On a personal level, without it my interest in anthropology may have never been piqued to the extent of pursuing a Masters and perhaps beyond.

    This is just a long way of saying I wanted to draw attention to the valuable and probably unanticipated contribution by those in your past position and the third of anthropology PhDs for whom there are no academic positions at all (Spencer et al., 2005 – http://www.theasa.org/news/careers_research.doc) to the goal of “making [culture] available as a scrutinizing lens for our society at large” (which Denny and Sunderland argue that they contribute to in pursuing applied activity such as: “making culture visible in advertising’s ethnographic practice”: http://www.practicagroup.com/pdfs/Sunderland_and_Denny_Psychology_vs_Anthropology.pdf). Debates between anthropologists are unlikely to achieve the same goal, although to state the obvious such debates are essential for the vitality of the discipline and for generating much of the theory which applied practitioners draw on.

    *Complementing the Denny and Sunderland book ‘Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research’ (albeit in a less practical and more critical fashion) is a paper by Lucy Suchman dealing with that other great commercial employer of anthropologists aside from marketing/market research – industrial R&D. See http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/doc_library/sociology/Suchman_consuming_anthroploogy.pdf

  3. Laurel, as a fellow anthropologist of snacks and other cultural detritus, I’m also very interested to see if you could talk more about the uses—real, imagined or perceived—of your ethnographic consulting work.

    I find it quite common that insights-based consultant reports, which is the common ethnographic product, often encounter a variety of different corporate audience responses. In my experience, insights alone rarely, if ever, make an organization change its way of doing things, though I’m sure there are examples that prove my experience wrong. And that goes for pretty much any kind of insight or analysis, whether it be qualitative, quantitative or another kind of data source. What’s been your experience of this?

    You mention that this consultant organization went out of business. Any relationship between the company’s demise and its approach or business model?

  4. “In my experience, insights alone rarely, if ever, make an organization change its way of doing things.”

    On the other hand, as I used to tell my students while teaching a seminar on the making and meaning of advertising, I never once saw solid, quantitative market research sell anything. On reflection, I suspect that what is needed is both the inspiration that insight provides and the risk-management reassurance that charts and numbers provide. The latter shows the client that you understand business, and their business in particular. The former, assuming the insight is genuine, provides the “Wow!” factor that closes the sale.

  5. @Laurel

    Since you like Denny and Sunderland’s book so much, you might be interested to know that they are putting together a new one. I know because I have been invited to contribute a chapter to it (Rita and I go back a long way, to chapters we contributed to John Sherry (1995)_Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook_). It occurs to me that, given your background and experience, it would be worth getting in touch with them to see if they would be open to your also contributing a chapter to the new book. Feel free to mention that I made this suggestion. No guarantees. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  6. @John McCreery

    I hear you. And I think it suggests two levels of work that might be called ethnographic, one written and the other often unspoken. One level is the insight. The second is the client/audience. Like you say, you need to show the client, “that you understand business, and their business in particular.” So how do you learn that?

  7. “So how do you learn that?”

    Let you in on a little secret. It’s not that hard. Start with a couple of basic books. I don’t know if they are still around, but there use to be a “Fast Forward MBA” series with titles on Finance, Marketing, etc. Next, do a Google search for your client. Read the financial reports, the press releases, the trade press where they are mentioned. Expand your search and learn about the industry of which your client is a part. Who are their competitors? Where do they rank? Whose products are hot? Whose products are not? Read product reviews. Are your client promoting new technology? Look it up.

    It has always been pretty easy to learn stuff like this. Back before the Internet, when I was hired as a copywriter by a Japanese ad agency to write copy about digital electronics (printers, copiers, PBXs, cameras, supercomputers, computers and communications) I was fortunate to encounter a Japanese account executive who had got himself on the free subscription lists for Information Week, ComputerWorld and Electronic Engineering Times. He had the magazines piling up on his desk (his English wasn’t good enough to read them very fast). One day he noticed I was interested and asked me if I wanted them. I said, “Yes,” and discovered the difference it makes if you are talking to client A about their new gadget Y and your colleagues are just sitting there nodding their heads as we learn that Y is faster, quieter, smaller, whatever, and then you pop up with, “I was reading about your competitor B and their new gadget Z. I’ve compared the specs and it looks like Y is a better product here, here and here. We should feature those points in your ads. Being quieter, in particular, should be very attractive in Germany, where silence in offices is highly valued. ” I could see the clients’ expressions change. Their relief was palpable. Here was someone who understood what they were trying to do. It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

    Now that we have the Internet, it is simply inexcusable not to know a lot about your client’s business, at least as much as decent business journalists know.

  8. Apologies to all for the delay in responding.

    @John: Thank you so much for the tip about Denny and Sunderland’s forthcoming book. And also for the cite for the Sherry book. I have looked at it in the past, but will definitely revisit it as I think about the consumer research work and especially how some of the ways of working (collaboratively, visually, quickly) can be translated into other ethnographic projects.

    @Michael: Great question about how or if the insights produced were acted upon by the companies we worked with–especially since “actionable insights” were promised. My sense is that the reports we produced never really led to major changes in the direction a client was going in with a particular product or campaign. I do think that they may have been used strategically to get higher-ups to move in a particular direction, either by bolstering a position (“expert research confirms that….”) or by giving clients a broader/different language in which to discuss a direction.

    I think the company’s demise was possibly related to the fact that they relied so heavily upon contingent, temporary labor. Not that we weren’t qualified to produce ethnographic insights, but without a core team and approach, there was a sense of reinventing the wheel each time. I also think it was a function of the overall economic downturn.

  9. “Great question about how or if the insights produced were acted upon by the companies we worked with–especially since “actionable insights” were promised.”

    I note the difference between “actionable” and “action taken.” I recall once again the advice of Alice Buzzarte, a wise woman who was, at that time, the dean of English-language copywriters in Tokyo. “To succeed in this business, you will have to grow a thick skin,” she said. “Three out of four of your brilliant ideas are going straight into the trash can.” Corporations are constantly receiving ideas from all sorts of sources. Sifting through them, mixing, matching reformulating and, finally, making decisions on which to implement and how to implement them, accounts for a large part of what management does. In this process, actionable is only one filter, and most ideas are discarded. This is a fact that people who work in business or any other kind of practical, policy-making activity have to get used to. A basic training exercise for newbie creators at the Japanese ad agency that employed me was called hitoban hyakan,i.e., “one night, a hundred proposals.” The assignment was to come up with a hundred ideas by the following day, at which point they would be evaluated, and if even one survived, it would have been a good night’s work.

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