Consent Rituals In Market Research


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The filling out of forms demanding consent and the obtaining of signatures may merely be ritual activity that mimics biomedical practice but does not end in subject comprehension.

This quick comment from the authors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method will bring a nod of recognition from anyone who has had to take part in market research in affiliation with a thoroughly institutionalized client.

I have done plenty of research on highly personal topics. Think of the thing in your life that you most want to avoid talking about with other people. The chances are that I have conducted market research on that topic, doing one-on-one, in-depth interviewson the subject. I may have even performed research involving participant observation of related behavior.

The chances are also good that, during the course of that research, I did not obtain a consent form. Why would I? I have found that, despite the supposed disruption of bonds of trust in our culture, most people are willing to talk openly with a researcher who approaches them in the right way – even when they’re asked to discuss the most embarrassing parts of their lives. Many of them actually enjoy getting their thoughts and feelings off their chests, and they never ask me to provide them with a consent form.

There are the occasional research participants who are defensive and suspicious, of course. Signing a consent form wouldn’t change their attitudes, though.

What are these consent forms for, then?

It isn’t for legal protection. In all the years I’ve been researching consumer culture, I’ve never had a research participant even threaten to file a lawsuit against me, whether they’ve signed a consent form or not.

The authors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds are on to something when they suggest that market research consent forms are an imitation of a ritual that developed in medical institutions. Medical consent forms aren’t just a legal formality. They’re a sign of submission.

Signing a medical release form is a test of surrender that enables entry into a system that puts people through terrible ordeals. By signing that form, a person becomes a patient, willing to do whatever the doctor orders – at least for as long as the hospital stay lasts.

By adopting research consent forms, market researcher and their clients seem to be trying to take on some of the authority that medical professionals exercise. They are seeking a ritual submission of the same kind that people perform when they agree to undergo frightening medical procedures.

Such submission is necessary in the practice of medicine, but it’s a mistake in market research. In medicine, when physicians need is compliance. In market research, what we need is honesty, and self-reflection. We need trust.

Starting out an interview or ethnographic observation by handing a research participant a long statement about the rights they are willing to give up and the indignities they must be willing to undergo is not an effective method for earning trust. In the context of market research, a legal consent form represents a microritual that shifts both researcher and participant into a state of cold, mutual apprehension.

As qualitative researchers, we earn trust by displaying openness ourselves, by speaking authentically, rather than reading from corporate scripts. A consent form gets a research conversation off on the wrong foot, sending the message: “Before we go any further, I have a note that my lawyer says I have to read to you.”


Ritual and Commerce: Moving Beyond Postmodern Loss


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In our culture, the standard narrative of ritual centers around loss. We tell ourselves that ritual is a thing of the past, a relic of a lost way of life. When we see rituals taking place, especially rituals that involve commerce, we interpret them as inauthentic shadows of the old times.

We see this interpretation applied academically by Greg Dickinson, in an article considering the false resemblance of authenticity at Starbucks coffee shops.  Dickinson writes, “Starbucks’ rhetoric works to suture individual bodies and subjectivities into a seemingly natural world through the practices of production and consumption of coffee and through the use of “natural” colors, shapes and materials. This turn to nature is augmented by a claim to authenticity made by the coffee itself and is further reinforced by the rituals surrounding the buying and drinking of coffee. These rituals provide sanctifying performances that strive to cover the sins of postmodern consumer culture.”

Implicit in Dickinson’s interpretation is the assumption that “postmodern consumer culture” is fallen, inauthentic, desanctified, sinful. He recognizes that rituals are taking place in a Starbucks, but regards them as a mere “cover”, rather than as something authentic in their own terms.



Another perspective is suggested by David Palmer in a paper on the persistence of the traditional coffee ceremony in the Ethiopian diaspora, that “the Buna ceremony plays a significant role in the construction of identity and in determining well-being in exile.” While some individuals among the Ethiopian migrants in London who were the subject of his study experienced the loss of the coffee ritual as a symptom of overall loss of cultural identity, others retained the practice of the ceremony, and experienced with it a sense of continuity, even through cultural change. “Buna gives you a sense of being back home and getting some bits from home,” one of Palmer’s respondents explained.

Cultures are dynamic systems that survive by changing, not stiff systems of order ruled by tradition that perish when their formulas are no longer followed to the letter. Coffee is a cultural artifact as much as it is an economic commodity, and its cultural roots are in ritual consumption. If Ethiopian refugees are able to adjust their coffee ceremonies to fit in with their new lives in urban Europe, it is fair to believe that American rituals centered around coffee can survive the dominance of chain cafes like Starbucks. The rituals we find in such places will be different from what we find in the more singular places of the past, or in the marginalized present, but they remain, in their own way, authentic.

Healthy cultures adapt their rituals to deal with disruptions in technology and social organization. It is no sin to acknowledge that circumstances have changed.

The First Step Toward Ritual Marketing: It Matters


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One of the most basic benefits of ritual marketing is the transcendence of commoditization. Selling a product as a commodity is a simple to accomplish, because it accepts the product as a literal, physical object. For the same reason, selling a product as a commodity is a trap, unable to move beyond the concrete benefits that a product provides.

Given the way that they both begin with the samepreface, many people conflate the concepts of commerce and commoditization. These words have different roots, however, and refer to different processes of cultural economics. Whereas the sale of commodities fits the expected mode, true commerce is more flexible, working at the boundaries where different expectations meet.

Escape from commoditization begins with the simple recognition that when people shop, they often seek to purchase something more than the literal attributes of the products available to them. The first step away from commoditization toward ritual marketing is taken marketers acknowledge that the products they sell have meaning.


This small shift is taken by Caffe Vita, which defines its brand as “where the coffee matters”.

Coffee beans are a commodity – or are regarded as such most of the time. Caffe Vita, however, gives itself the task of “creating an environment where the customer can see, touch, and taste the coffee they purchase”. It develops “mutually fruitful” relationships with coffee growers “meticulously”, rather than engaging in the massive blending of coffee beans that bigger coffee sellers do. Caffe Vita builds stories around the acquisition and preparation of its coffees, so that its customers can build stories around their consumption of it.

The creation of these stories isn’t enough to transform the sale of a product into a ritual experience, but it is a necessary step in the lengthy project of building a ritual marketing strategy. In the case of Caffe Vita, even though its stories are told about the coffees it procures, it’s the story of the brand, and not the coffee itself, that builds the sense of meaning that customers attribute to their experience. The mere communication of the idea that there is meaning infused into their coffee signals Caffe Vita customers that their moment of drinking coffee will have meaning. It is around such moments that ritual experiences are constructed.

Can Ritual Marketing Be Taken Online?


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One of the characteristics of ritual that differentiates it from mythology is that ritual consists of action. Both myth and ritual are symbolic, but myth is constructed of symbolic communication, whereas ritual is a performance, not just a telling.

Where does this leave online rituals? Traditionally, rituals are considered to be inherently embodied. That is, their enactment involves the physical bodies of human beings interacting in time and space with physical objects of ritual significance.

In an interview with S. Brent Plate, Rachel Wagner, professor of religious studies at Ithaca College and author of Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality, comments, “If you define ritual as structure, then moving a ritual online can work quite well, because the structure can be retained. Anything that we experience in an online context has been programmed by someone, so it has some kind of fixed structure. So, if you think of ritual as sort of a set of actions that you perform in a particular way, then those actions can be portrayed in virtual reality as effectively as they can in real life. But then, the question becomes one of enactment, right, and how important is the body in that enactment, and some people think it’s crucially important, especially if it’s a ritual that’s supposed to build community. Some people think that you can’t build community if you don’t know people in their embodied form.”



One’s response to the question of whether online rituals are possible depends on one’s definition of the physicality of the human form. Manichean tradition casts the realm of ideas and the realm of objects as separate things. However, the creation of a virtual world using physical objects challenges this cultural belief.

It’s important to remember that, whenever online worlds are entered, they are done so through physical objects: Computers, tablets, or smart phones. No mind is directly hooked into the Internet – yet. Even if such a direct mental link were to take place, the thoughts of the linked-in mind would take physical form of some sort in a human brain before being transmitted into the Internet.

Besides, the idea that physical bodies must be involved in ritual for the ritual to be authentic ignores the conceptualization of ritual as a liminal experience – taking place in a threshold environment in which the ordinary structures of time and space are suspended. If the virtual worlds of online life don’t count as liminal, nothing does.

Online rituals may not only need to be grudgingly admitted into the community of ritual, but to be recognized as the new rituals par excellence.

If the online realms are acknowledged as inherently ritual in nature, then we can begin to understand that models of ritual marketing can be the most effective means of linking online commerce with symbolically significant forms of consumption in the offline world.

The New Doctor’s Regeneration


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If asked to name one myth of our time that embodies the spirit of ritual as it is manifested in our culture, I would choose Doctor Who.

I think of the liminal space of the Tardis, a separate liminal zone in which time and space lose their ordinary meaning, and travelers lucky to go along for a ride are shown remarkable symbols of meaning, liberated from the ordinary rules that constrict them back home, while learning, usually in a frightening way, that every world has its taboos. I think of the iconic door of the great blue box, presenting a threshold into adventure.

I think of the way that The Doctor changes identity, physically, as a way of representing what we all go through when we endure major passages in our lives. This connection was made explicit in the most recent episode of Doctor Who, the last appearance of Matt Smith as The Doctor. 

In the closing minutes of that show, The Doctor explains, as he begins to regenerate, “It’s started. I can’t stop it now. This is just the reset, a whole new regeneration cycle… It all just disappears, doesn’t it, everything you are, gone in a moment like breath on a mirror… Times change, and so must I. We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different people all throughout our lives, and that’s okay. That’s good. You’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”

This is the lesson of ritual: It is an entrance into a strange land where we engage in commerce with other versions of ourselves.

The ongoing popularity of Doctor Who has a great deal to do with the imagination of its creators, but it is also due to a corresponding passion in our commercial-industrial culture for developing multiple identities, all housed under one official name. As Matt Smith’s Doctor suggests, the Time Lord merely goes on a more flamboyant version of a journey that we all take.

Tardis in time vortex

Consumers Drawn To The Rituals Of Shopping


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Russell Belk’s essay, Are We What We Own? suggests that in our commercial-industrial culture, “Buying becomes a transformative ritual intended to precipitate a totally new life”.

The idea is that the act of shopping is an elaborate ceremony of identity adjustment in which shoppers enter a store seeking material objects that hold sufficient symbolic power to act as talismans, changing not just what shoppers are able to do but also who they are able to be.

Through our shopping rituals, Belk suggests that we set the stage for larger rites of passage, maintaining our sense of integration with our psychological and social identities in the present, but also engaging in a kind of material meditation on the narrative arc of the identity transformations we have been able to achieve in the past, and those we face in our futures. “Our accumulation of possessions provides a sense of past and tells us who we are, where we have come from, and perhaps where we are going,” he writes.

These ideas are at the core of the insights of ritual marketing. Where ritual marketing deviates from Belk’s vision, is that a ritual analysis holds that human beings as psychological and social beings are not separate from the physical objects they purchase, any more than a metaphor can be detached from the physical symbols from which it is constructed. Ritual marketing does not accept that being and doing are separate states of experience from having, but considers these aspects of human experience to be fully intertwined with each other.

We are not beings of abstract thought, trapped in a material prison. Who we are, what we do, how we feel, and how we think are not merely reflected in the objects that we own, but are made possible through our ritualized relationships with the objects we own, and the processes of transformation we go through in order to gain purchase upon the. In our culture, most ritual transformation is achieved in the proximity of a checkout counter.

Russell Belk’s insights about the richness of symbolic consumption are unfortunately contained within a book, I Shop Therefore I Am, that tends to regard emotionally-invested shopping as a form of pathology, rather than as a legitimate form of ritual. Truly compulsive shopping certainly exists, but then again, so does compulsive washing, compulsive exercising, compulsive organizing, compulsive talking, compulsive eating, and so on. As with these other compulsive disorders, when people’s shopping spirals out of control, it isn’t the shopping itself that’s the problem. It’s the rare case of compulsive attachment to it.

Ironically, the publishers of I Shop Therefore I Am seem to have been consumed by an economically pathological practice themselves: They offer the book at a list price of $120.00. Ouch. It seems that the people involved in the production of this book have some issues of low self-worth that they need to work through.

checkout aisles and pews

Ritual Brings Marketing Into Action


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rethinking pluralism“Ritual puts questions of belief or truth aside in favor of the shared world that its action creates and requires.” – Adam Seligman and Robert Weller, in Rethinking Pluralism

The ultimate goal of marketing is not to spread ideas, but to change behavior. Specifically, marketers seek to get consumers to buy specific products from specific sources. Without this particular desired action, marketing is a failure, no matter the aesthetic skill with which it is executed.

Of course, perceptive professionals understand that compelling ideas, beautifully executed, add to the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. They’re helpful, but they’re not sufficient.

The best marketing strategies are based on powerful ideas, creatively communicated, but go beyond a call to action. They translate a call to action into a concrete plan of action that brings potential customers into a role in which they naturally engage in acts of consumption.

That’s what ritual marketing is for.

Ritual matches the behavioral goal of marketing with a time-tested system of behavioral modification. The ritual process takes people through a passage that, although it is often steeped in profound beliefs about the truths of life, doesn’t need belief to work.

Ritual brings people from one set of behaviors to another by taking them through a series of culturally embedded actions that allow them to surrender their attachment to one social identity in order to gain purchase on another role.

Ritual marketing doesn’t depend on persuasion, whether it be rational or emotional. As Seligman and Weller observe, a ritual-based system simply moves its participants, putting existential questions aside, guiding people to shift into accord with what the moment requires.

Ritual in Marketing: A Flash In The Pan Or A Pan?


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It’s a funny thing about ritual, the way it brings opposites together. People speak of ritual dismissively as a quick and easy thing, a rote behavior that’s used to avoid commitment or deep consideration. They also speak of ritual as a powerful experience that transcends routine behaviors, provoking profound contemplations and sustainable change.

The amazing thing about ritual is that it can take on both of these aspects. It can be a tiny thing, quickly forgotten, or a grand event that remains in our memories for the rest of our lives.

The use of ritual in marketing is like this as well. A comprehensive model of ritual marketing can create intense emotional experiences with products that enable lasting relationships between brands and consumers. The use of ritual in marketing can also, however amount to little more than a gimmick in which “ritual” is thrown into conversation as a buzzword to create the semblance of depth.

In marketing can be a flash in the pan. Ritual marketing can also be the pan – a solid tool that can be used to combine the ingredients of a marketing campaign, cooking them together until they become something delicious.

Which approach do you think will be of more benefit to your marketing efforts?

How can you tell the difference between a marketer understands how to work with ritual and a marketer who uses ritual to create a false mystique?

ritual pan

Pierce the mystique with questions. When you hear a marketer refer to including ritual in their campaign or research, ask them about what they mean. Then, follow up with more questions:

– What do you mean when you say “ritual”?

– How can you tell that ritual is taking place?

– Why bother with ritual?

– What is your model for how ritual works in a marketing context?

– How do you intend use to research ritual?

– What are the specific ways can you help us work with ritual principles to strengthen our brand?

A professional who understands how ritual works in the context of marketing will be able to answer these questions, on the spot. A presenter who is merely trying to add pizazz to a pitch will not.

Playing Marbles


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Ritual is a very serious matter, but it’s also very playful. Ritual deals with the important process of transformation, helping its participants to transcend the boundaries of their social and psychological identities so that they can become something more than what they have been. Yet, in order to do so, the ritual process often requires its participants and officiants to become like children, playing an elaborate game of pretend.


Linguist Johan Huizinga noted the ancient historical links between ritual and play. He explained, in his book Homo Ludens, how games and rituals alike are contained within a magic circle, allowing a separate system of rules to temporarily take replace the expectations that ordinarily constrain behavior. Within ritual and game play alike, people put aside their usual identities in order to give themselves to an experience that transcends ordinary reality.

Huizinga’s idea of the magic circle of play and ritual was inspired by the child’s game of marbles, which begins with the drawing of a circle in chalk on a piece of empty pavement. That simple chalk shape marks out a ritual environment, declaring that, within the circle, something special is going on.

For marketers, the introduction of elements of the ritual process enables the introduction of the spirit of play. Ritual marketing places consumers in a state of mind where they can pretend, and entertain the possibility of change. It is an approach that brings back the flexibility of youth, within which new relationships between consumers and producers can be formed as easily as within a group of children gathered around a game of marbles on the ground.

The Marks Of Ritual


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When animals undergo metamorphosis, there is no doubt about their transformation. A pollywog that turns into a frog will never be mistaken for a little minnow again.  For human beings, processes of transformation are often not so clear. Our identities are defined by our elaborate social relationships and by our complex psychological makeup as much as by our physical appearances.  So, a person could undergo a revolutionary shift in identity without any change in the way they look.  Certainly, our bodies respond only in subtle ways to our social and psychological transformations.

Ambiguities of status are threatening to the social order. So, people have devised a remarkable number of ways in which to create visual signals of status. These signals are delivered as initiates prepare to leave the ritual threshold, and are awarded only after tests of worthiness.

These marks of passage may be presented as trophies, but they may also take the form of clothing or objects that are required to fulfill the duties of the new identity adopted after ritual. Such things may be given under the pretext of functional value, but they also operate as cues of status.

maori tattooSometimes, though the human body rarely changes its appearance in response to shifts of status, rituals involve the purposeful alteration of the body to represent the inner change. Traditionally, people have undergone piercing, tattooing, scarification, and even the removal of small body parts as a part of such ritual marking.

These marks exist are for others to see, but also serve as reminders to the self. The threshold experience of ritual stands apart from other reality, and so could be easily forgotten. Even when ritual successfully alters a person’s identity, regression can take place. Especially during the stage when the initiated integrate the behaviors associated with their new, post-ritual identities, markers help prevent this kind of backsliding from taking place. They help the initiated feel the part, until the new role comes naturally to them, through practice.

Justine Musk explains how the use of these ritual-associated objects can support a fledgling identity, writing, “When you stock your context with the proper cues, you don’t have to consciously decide how to react; your subconscious will take care of that for you.” Musk explores the way that the clothes we wear support the identities we seek to embody.  It’s a concept called enclothed cognition, and it’s just one more example of the way that our thoughts are modeled from the outside-in as much as from the inside-out. Someties, we become what we at first only appear to be.