Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management. Grant McCracken. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2005. 240 pp.
Reviewed by John F. Sherry, Jr.
meet brandthropology. In this concise volume (a companion to his
watershed 1998 effort) of articulate introspection and insightful
ethnographic essays, the author exhorts anthropologists to take back
their culture. This reclamation requires more than merely wresting
control from the pundits, critics, and celebrities of the contemporary
cultural scene. It demands a plumbing of the ontological status of
consumer culture before engaging in reflexive critique. Such a project
should be close to the heart of every museologist and material culture
McCracken, a former curator, active industry consultant, and
peripatetic professor, is an unrivalled stylist. His conversational
eloquence, self-deprecating humor (he is, he admits, Canadian), and
incisive wit engage the reader throughout the book. He has structured
the volume to rock the reader from the intensely personal to the
analytically universal. He anticipates the themes of his elegant
interpretations – many reprinted from other sources – in his
autobiographical musings as an active participant in consumer culture.
It is little wonder that Business Week has recommended his blog
(cultureby.com) to anyone who would comprehend contemporary consumer
behavior. While Culture and Consumption II
is not as intellectually dense as its predecessor, it is a more
immediately accessible work that will reinvigorate interest in the
the first of seven sections, the author lays out his agenda in
autoethnographic detail, beginning with a mini-manifesto on the need
for consumption studies that are empirical before they are critical.
The indictment of materialism has unfairly preceded a carefully
considered analysis of the role goods play in peoples’ lives. The
author proposes a paean to material culture, properly understood.
Insofar as meaning is resident in stuff –and not only or even
principally managerial meaning–anthropologists are uniquely suited to
inquire into the dynamics of its investment, recovery, and
reconfiguration. And, as it happens, to interpret those dynamics for a
media audience, as his satirical account of events surrounding his
appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show hilariously demonstrates.
Ethnographic consumer researchers have increasingly employed the term
materiality in documenting person-object relations, to bracket the
prematurely harsh judgment hardwired into the term materialism, and to
avoid diagnosing consumption as a pathological syndrome before it is
author unpacks a North American key symbol or root metaphor–home–in
Part Two, first in a breezy piece on the house as a “transformational
opportunity” in our socio-psychological and metaphysical construction
projects, and then more systematically in a signature essay on
“homeyness.” He analyzes the physical, symbolic, and pragmatic
properties of the North American dwelling that make the home a cultural
cynosure. In Part Three, he trains his sights on the car, offering
first an autobiographical reverie on the ways in which boys identify
with cars (and attendant danger), and then in an ethnohistorical
cultural account of automobility as embedded in the 1954 Buick. He
explores the “interpenetration” of humans and machines, and celebrates
the car as the “gift” and “proof” of progress. It is difficult to
imagine two more apt examples of the cybernetic self than house and
car, or two artifacts more conducive to co-creation by marketers and
is the focus of Part Four, viewed first through the prism of Marilyn
Monroe, a cultural artifact embodied as a new American “persona,” whose
chief meaning revolves around “access of every kind.” In another
signature essay, McCracken examines the phenomenon of celebrity
endorsement, using a cultural meaning transfer model of consumption to
illustrate and correct the shortfalls of the dominant psychological
model of influence. Viewing the world of celebrity as among the most
powerful sources of meaning available to marketers, he explores the
ways in which our individual experiments in self-construction via goods
are shaped by these “superconsumer” exemplars.
most poignant, theoretically compelling, and managerially relevant of
the author’s insights, as well as those most pertinent to readers of
this journal, are found in Part Five. Here we are treated to an
evocative account of the “Madeleine object”–in this case, the author’s
uncle’s wallet–an artifact so charged with meaning and power, and so
“irreducible,” that it threatens to “overwhelm theory.” McCracken then
provides a magisterial ethnographic account of such an object writ
large: the Royal Ontario Museum. He contrasts the traditional
curatorial “preferment” model of museum management with a
“transformation” model that captures the lived experience of the museum
visitor, and shows how the consumer’s appropriation of the curator’s
offering can be harnessed to facilitate a more satisfying engagement.
He offers some guidance for negotiating the cultural shift that
contending narratives produce on the prospective ordering of
exhibitions, as curators strive to design experiences that anticipate
the unarticulated and emergent desires of the visitor.
Part Six, McCracken begins with a tongue-in-cheek description of an
avuncular pep talk delivered in his role of experienced corporate
consultant and elder statesman of meaning management to a group of
young initiates trembling in the corridors of commercial power. The
huckster-of-the-symbol-aura of the encounter is first evoked and then
dispelled by the author’s ingenuous demeanor. He segues to a critique
of the information processing model of advertising that dominates
consumer research and elaborates a meaning-based model that encompasses
the cultural contexts and projects of consumer behavior. McCracken
construes advertising as a semiotic field upon which consumers draw in
their identity construction projects, and he tracks the movement of
meaning from culture to consumer through goods.
volume concludes with Part Seven, an MBA-style discussion of the role
of culture in meaning management. The author provides a practical
demonstration of the ways in which culture colors every aspect of value
creation, and of the marketing mix. The essay is a convincing
illustration of the utility of the anthropological sensibility to the
care and feeding of brands.
Culture and Consumption II
is well suited for adoption as a supplementary text at any level in
courses dealing with material culture or museology. It should pique the
interest (and perhaps the ire) of curators seeking to revitalize the
design of exhibits. It is a ready demonstration to students of
anthropology of the relevance of their training to careers in commerce
and to the prospect of enlightened personal consumption. Most happily,
since McCracken has written so frequently for a marketing audience
rather than an anthropological one, his book may encourage our tribe to
explore the literature of consumer research that has grown so receptive
to ethnographic inquiry in the past decade.
1. See Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
John F. Sherry, Jr. is the Ray W. and Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of
Marketing in the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre
Dame. His research focuses on consumer behavior, organizations, and
qualitative methods. He is the author of many works, including Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995), (with Stephen Brown) Time, Space, and the Market: Retroscapes Rising (Amonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003) and (with Russell Belk) Consumer Culture Theory (Oxford: Elsevier, 2007).