Saturday, April 4, 2009

Applying Kracauer to Consumer Behavior

Literature and art are modes of communication that provide a framework for understanding marketing communications and its influence on consumer behavior. Siegfried Kracauer was a cultural analyst and member of the applied social sciences group at Columbia University. His work laid the foundation for modern film criticism and he is the author of several works including Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality.

One of his foundation essays was on photography. First published in October 1927 in the Frankfurter Zeitung, Kracauer considered Photography to be one of his more important works. As editor, he also published the works of Adorno, Horkheimer, Bloch and Benjamin, the architects of what became known as the Frankfurter School. The University of Chicago republished the Thomas Levin translation of Photography in 1993 in its journal Critical Inquiry.

A summary of his article Photography can be found in this earlier posting. Photography is an analysis by one of the most powerful minds of 20th century sociology and film criticism. Most of the precepts it presents are now part of consumer behavior as well as modern film. Moreover, it is part of his larger body of work that is a framework for understanding groups and cultures and tools for discovering their nature.

Kracauer had a PhD in Architecture with significant training in sociology. To supplement his penetrating fusion of the two, he references classical figures such as Aristotle and Goethe among others. The work has been peer reviewed by three generations and has stood the test of time. It is still considered relevant enough to be published in a recent University of Chicago journal.

Several seminal points are made in the article. Visual communication is an art that requires care to eliminate clutter, and establish meaningful associations between the elements that survive the purge. This cannot be done mechanically.

A second point is that photographs do not represent reality. Neither does memory for that matter, because it is the association of what is in activated consciousness. This in turn permits irreality to be created in a subject or consumer. For example, Hawkins, et al (2007, p 326) report on a study that showed subjects presented with imagery were able to recall a childhood event of being at Disneyland and seeing Walt shake hands with Bugs Bunny, which is an impossibility.

A third point is that the meaning conveyed by a photograph is generally incomplete and may be inadequate depending on the skill of the artist. These points are incorporated into consumer behavior already and form the basis for work with conditioning, consumer inferences, memory interference, and memory’s role in learning.

Two final points are not widely applied to consumer behavior but should be. The fourth point is observing the quotidian aspects of the group or culture is the best way to understand the motives and attitudes of its members. The fifth point is that timeless work does not attempt to be contemporary.

How Kracauer Enriches our Understanding of Consumer Behavior
On photographs, Hawkins, et al (2007, p 305) tell us that the impact of visual images on consumers and their inferences from communications with visual images is becoming increasingly important. Page (2006, p 94) makes the more bold assertion that the concept of an image, and the connection of the elements in that image to each other and to the concept is the “fundamental action within an advertisement.” This being so, we should expect Kracauer’s insights into photography to have a reflection in current consumer behavior body of knowledge. They do.

First, photographs do not represent reality, and for that matter neither does memory, as Kracauer observed. Trachenberg (2008, p 113) demolishes the notion that photography represents reality. He says

“Today that simple idea of a light-based transparent nexus between photograph and a determinate past is undergoing radical reappraisal. The digital revolution, as probably everybody on earth now realizes, has eroded the old confidence in that transparency.”
Hawkins, et al say (p 305) that “Until recently, pictures in ads were thought to convey reality.” This has changed and now instead “They supply meaning.” Hawkins, et al (2007, p 282) provide support for the debility of memory as well. They argue that consumer awareness and attention are highly selective, and their interpretation is a highly subjective process. They offer this conclusion: “Thus reality and consumer perceptions of reality are quite often different.” They go on to say (p 328) that memory links fade over time.

Has there been a re-discovery of Aristotle’s Law of Contiguity, the idea of proximity begetting association? Hawkins, et al (p 301) assert that stimuli positioned close together are perceived as belonging to the same category. Page (2006, p 95) makes the next connection. She cites research on Pavlovian conditioning (a.k.a. Classical) that there is also a transfer of meaning with such associations.

Kracauer argues that a series of different photographs can influence the perception of each other through the overall context they create. The modern consumer behaviorists, Hawkins, et al (pp 299-300) explain the nature of such contextual cues. This can be other pictures on the same page in a magazine or the programming surrounding a commercial on TV.

As we might expect, the artistic assignment of meaning is widely recognized and applied. Its fallibility well discussed. Kracauer noted that composition according to a theme is what separates photographic art from mechanical and meaningless photography. Hawkins, et al (p 300) comment on the need to organize stimuli to help consumers react to and interpret our communications with them.

They go on (p 292) to insist that all good advertising must have a clear visual point of reference. They affirm the artistic focus recommended by Kracauer and declare it fundamental to advertising communications (p 290): “Any factor that draws attention to itself and away from the brand and its selling points has to be used with caution.”

Page (p 95) recommends a process she calls framing. Her frames constitute “principles of selection, emphasis, and presentation that organize the social construction of reality.” This is the elimination of non-message elements through emphasizing a meaning to organize our communication.

Analytical Trade-off in Kracauer's Approach
The great social psychologist, Karl Weick evaluated behavioral research according to “three inevitable tradeoffs:” the simplicity, accuracy and generality of the results (1979, pp 35-40). The first tradeoff is typical of activities mimicking the natural sciences, the attempt to be general and accurate while sacrificing simplicity. The second tradeoff, the case study approach, is accurate and simple but sacrifices generality. Finally there is the approach used by Kracauer, thought experiments (considered a valid form of inquiry: see Weick, 1979, p 38) as well as aphorisms from his observations and analysis. These are general and simple at the expense of accuracy. The trade-off Kracuaer chose should be kept in mind in reading any of his works.

Implications for Consumer Behavior of Kracauer’s Work
First, the behavioral sciences are at risk with their overreliance on statistical research methodology. Subject pretense is activated through participation in such research. Neumeier (2006, pp 110-11) cautions that such research is susceptible to the Hawthorne effect. He describes this as the penchant for people to act differently when they know they are under observation or being measured. Kracauer asserted that the everyday social activities of a group or its unembellished enactments like its literature and art reveal its nature without mediation and are better evidence for understanding its essence than its own pronouncements or the application of formal research techniques.

Wilson and Ogden (2004, pp 52-60 ) report on case studies of catastrophic failure in marketing campaigns based on statistical surveys, including New Coke. They present the following summary opinion with several supporting citations (p 30):
"Industry and academic opinion is that opinion surveys that measure behavior and predict behavior in isolation from the group are inherently flawed. Unless the measuring device is carefully designed and implemented, it may not measure the most salient opinion and the results may be misleading, causing costly strategic errors."

Taleb (2007, pp 229-247) provides further explanation and criticism (p 229 and following): “The Bell Curve, that great intellectual fraud.” Statistical distributions such as the Bell Curve are based on the assumption that the underlying population is non-scalable. In other words, as you leave the mean, not only is the count less, but that it is increasingly less. This is not a true attribute of all the populations where behavioral scientists are applying statistical surveys in a wooden and perfunctory manner.

A second and related implication is that the consumer research reaction to issues with mathematical surveys is to introduce “visual ethnography.” Brace-Govan (2007, p 735) says “visual ethnography offers marketers opportunities to gather appealing and pertinent data.” In view of Kracauer’s reservations, and his preeminence in the field of the visual arts, another and critical look must be made into the use of visual ethnography and interpretations based on it. Photographs do not represent reality.

A third implication is a view in the Humanities that the emotions and attitudes of a people can be found in their literature, music and art well before it is obvious to journalists or social scientists (see Kaplan, 2001, p 158). This is because the future lies in the uncomfortable and sensitive feelings of the present that cannot be expressed in a presentable narrative because it would contradict conventional wisdom. However, they can be expressed as a work of fiction or art whose popularity is an indicator of these transforming undercurrents. Review of art and literature is the approach recommended by Kracauer. This is also the viewpoint of the anthropologist, Wallace (1963, pp 101-3)

This can aid the discovery of latent motives in a culture or group. Such unstated motives are often driving forces in a culture but unlike manifest motives, are not directly presented (see Hawkins, 2007, p 375). Instead, indirect appeals through artwork are made. Latent motives according to Hawkins can be cracked with sophisticated analytical techniques, but an implication from the review of the Kracauer article is they can be discovered through a literature review also.

Brace-Goban, Jan (August 4, 2007). Participant photography in visual ethnography. International Journal of Market Research. Retrieved on March 26, 2009 from EBSCOHOST.

Hawkins, Del, David Mothersbaugh and Roger Best (2007). Consumer Behavior. McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Holbrook, Morris (June 1987). What Is Consumer Research?. Journal of Consumer Research. Retrieved from WVU IMC 612 Week 2 Readings on March 21, 2009.

Kaplan, Robert (2001). The Coming Anarchy. Vintage.

Kracauer, S and T Levin (1993). Photography. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436. The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from JSTOR at on March 2009. (If you do not have a JSTOR account, I can email you the article).

Lewis, Charles (1998). Advertising Photography. History of the Mass Media in the United States: An Encyclopedia. Retrieved on March 23, 2009 from EBSCOHOST.

Neumeier, Marty (2006). The Brand Gap. New Riders.

Page, Janis (Spring 2006). Myth & Photography in Advertising. Visual Communications Quarterly. Retrieved on March 23, 2009 from EBSCOHOST.

Taleb, Nassim Nickolas (2007). The Black Swan. Random House.

Trachenberg, Alan (Spring 2008). Through a Glass Darkly. Social Research. Retrieved on March 23, 2009 from EBSCOHOST.

Wallace, AFC (1963). Culture and Personality. Random House.
Wilson, L. and Ogden, J. (2004). Strategic Communications Planning For Effective Public Relations and Marketing, 4th Ed. Kendall/Hunt Publishing

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