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Researchers discover fairy tale aspects of Christmas consumerism

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Once upon a time in the land of rigorous longitudinal studies, researchers discovered something – well, magical – about American consumption rituals, particularly the Big One that occurs around the winter solstice.

The researchers, professors of marketing both, found that for some people, there’s a startling similarity between shopping for Christmas gifts and fairy tales.

In particular, they found that people who seriously enjoy Christmas gift shopping tend to wrap the holiday in a fairy-tale metaphor, rendering their shopping experiences in tales that include most of the essential characters in the fairy tale genre – heroines, villains, helpers, dispatchers, etc.

Cele Otnes and Tina Lowrey’s findings appear in a new book, "Contemporary Consumption Rituals: A Research Anthology" (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers), which they co-edited. Their chapter is titled "Consumer Fairy Tales of the Perfect Christmas: Villains and Other Dramatis Personae." Otnes teaches in the department of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Lowrey teaches in the department of marketing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

According to Otnes and Lowrey, who followed four women for seven years on their Christmas shopping trips and then conducted in-depth interviews with them, the focus of the study was on "the Christmas lives" of the informants.

However, when the study began a decade ago, neither of the researchers expected the "Christmas-as-fairy-tale metaphor" to emerge.

"But the more we understood our data, the more this metaphor imposed itself on us. By building our interpretation around this genre, we have cast consumers’ Christmas experiences in a new light and a greater understanding of them is offered in this ritual context."

Only one other scholar has drawn an analogy between fairy tales and consumer behavior. Otnes and Lowrey have extended the work of that scholar to shape a description of "consumer fairy tales" and to study them in the context of Christmas shopping.

As Otnes and Lowrey define it, consumer fairy tales are "narratives that are partially enacted in the marketplace, in which consumers employ magical agents, donors and helpers to overcome villains and obstacles as they seek out goods and services in their quest for happy endings."

While consumer fairy tales don’t typically feature quests for princesses and/or their fathers, as literary fairy tales do, they do feature a "reasonable substitute in materialistic cultures – highly sought-after goods and services," the researchers note.

Thus, in their opinion, a "fairy tale Christmas" is one in which consumers seek happy endings for their celebrations, like those fairy tales that end with a joyous family reunion (as in "Hansel and Gretel"), the acquisition of precious goods ("Jack and the Beanstalk") or recognition for creativity and cleverness ("Puss ‘N Boots").

"Creating and analyzing consumer-based text is a mainstay of interpretive and postmodern consumer research," the researchers say, and while fairy tales may seem to some too juvenile to pertain to adult consumer behavior, there are experts who argue that the fairy tale genre is a "proto-narrative" from which all other popular genre narratives evolved.

In their study, the researchers found that their informants were not content with having merely "tolerable" holidays, in the same way that many women are not content with having merely tolerable weddings. Rather, these women each year tried to outdo themselves, to create a Christmas that was more memorable than the previous ones, a "fairy tale" Christmas," in fact.

The informants or "heroines" – who were chosen because they enjoyed Christmas – displayed "vast amounts of craftiness and even courage as they battled their various villains and obstacles in their creation of Christmas," the authors wrote. Indeed, their tales were filled with "valiant heroines, evil villains, daring deeds and dastardly deceptions."

Their mothers were typically their "helpers," but their fathers often earned the role of "villains," interfering in many different ways with the heroines’ efforts to produce Christmas. Sisters, grandmothers, brothers-in-law and neighbors also thwarted the heroines’ quests for harmonious family Christmases.

In one way or another, all of the informants’ "villains" violated "ritual and familial norms," Otnes said. Heroines’ strategies for punishing their villains were consistent: They typically withheld time, effort and careful thought during subsequent gift-shopping trips for them.

The permanent villain in several of the women’s Christmas tales was the death of a family member. Two of the women, however, fought the Grim Reaper valiantly by "keeping alive the traditions created by or shared with lost loved ones," the researchers wrote.

The professors concede that there are qualitative differences between consumer fairy tales and literary fairy tales.

Literary fairy tales are full of magical animals, phantasms and a host of "other-worldly beings," while consumer fairy tales are primarily populated by people.

"Moreover, in real life, villains can sometimes redeem themselves, and previous helpers can become villains."
The authors also concede that not everyone’s Christmas rituals will resemble fairy tales.

"Only those who pursue the quest for the ‘perfect’ Christmas will likely emulate these tales, because their concern will cause them to devote time and energy to the adversities encountered along the way."

But like literary fairy tales, the informants’ tales illustrate that Christmas is hard work, the authors conclude, often involving altruistic sacrifices in the marketplace.

"Whether penned by the Brothers Grimm or still unfolding in the lives of consumers, triumph over hardships is the stuff of fairy tales," Otnes and Lowrey wrote. "The heroic figures in both types of stories would agree that their ultimate victories are worth the struggles and sacrifices."