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«Journal of Marketing Management, 2006, 22, 1053-1076 Folklore, Families and Fear: Robin Croft1 Exploring the Influence of the Oral Tradition on ...»

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Journal of Marketing Management, 2006, 22, 1053-1076

Folklore, Families and Fear:

Robin Croft1 Exploring the Influence of the

Oral Tradition on Consumer


The oral tradition has long been studied by social

psychologists and cultural anthropologists for the

insights it can provide: folklore both mirrors and

shapes the anxieties, fears, hopes and understandings

University of Glamorgan of societies and of groups within it. This paper uses traditional and contemporary legend in an attempt to gain some understanding of the consumption experiences and decision-making processes of families.

It finds that the modern oral tradition overwhelmingly reflects the worries that parents feel for the safety of their children: fear of abduction, of poisoning, of violence and other forms of victimisation; these parental concerns are highlighted also in many of the more conventional studies used to help ground the theory in this paper. These anxieties in turn shape family consumption decisions in the areas of housing, leisure, food and transport. But although understanding the conditions of late modernity can be useful in explaining the socially constructed realities which families share, the evidence of traditional folklore, dating back before the 19th century, suggests that these worries may yet have a deeper basis.

Keywords: housing, child safety, processed foods, shopping malls, urban legends Introduction It has been over 20 years since the publication of John Sherry’s seminal paper on the oral tradition: Sherry encouraged researchers to explore personal narratives as a potential source of rich data with which to inform our understanding of consumption. For reasons that are not entirely clear, few researchers have taken up Sherry’s challenge, despite the tantalising promise Correspondence: Robin Croft, University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, Wales, 1 CF37 1DL, Telephone +44 1443 483373, Email: rcroft@glam.ac.uk ISSN1472-1376/2006/9-10/01053 + 23 ©Westburn Publishers Ltd.

1054 Robin Croft that “Stories told by consumers shape and reflect not only social structure, but also ideologies underlying consumption” (Sherry 1984). A similar call was made by Brown (1998: 168), and more recently byShankar et al. (2001), who assert that “an understanding of narrative can help in the interpretation of consumers’ consumption experiences.” This paper takes as its source some clearly-defined oral narratives which may help to explain the concept of ‘family’. The analysis is based on collections of contemporary and historical folklore, stories told by consumers which are well known and widely distributed across many different cultures.

The projective dimensions of the experiences described in these tales may enable us “to explore the interaction of personality with culture from symbolic, structural and functional perspectives.” (Sherry 1984).

Contemporary belief tales are the centrepiece of this study. Also known as contemporary legends or, popularly, as urban legends, they are widely studied in the behavioural fields; as sociologist Gary Alan Fine puts it, they are “the genre of narrative preference… [they] thrive in societies crosscut by multiple communication channels and relatively open networks.” (Fine 1992:1). Examining contemporary belief tales can help consumer researchers to unravel the complexities of family structure through the projective insights they offer: “These texts hold a mirror…to the social and economic conditions of modern, Western, industrial society… they depict topics of public concern – allegations about ‘real’ happenings and metaphors that include ‘symbolic truths’” (Fine 1992:2). But these truths potentially have a resonance beyond sociological profiling of family groups: as Fine observes, contemporary belief tales “deal explicitly with the consequences of mass marketing and the strictures of industrial enterprises”.


Although Sherry suggested a mixed methodological strategy, his choice was largely determined by the diverse nature of the data he had gathered, including documents, interviews and texts. In this study the researcher attempted to restrict the variables by limiting the analysis to one main source of contemporary narrative – a range of commonly-told anecdotes, often known collectively as urban legends. The research also drew on some supplementary popular narratives, including the traditional German folktales gathered by the Brothers Grimm at the turn of the 19th century.

Contemporary belief tales, as we have noted, are widely distributed across cultures: not only are they are spread through traditional interpersonal channels, but they are also distributed via the internet, in newspaper articles and in broadcast media. This study, though, restricted itself to narratives published in popular anthologies and academic studies, but was still able to Folklore, Families and Fear 1055


a substantial portfolio of family-centred belief tales. The process of selecting individual narratives for analysis involved systematic studying and classifying the genre in its printed format. The starting point was 18 compilations of contemporary belief tales published over the last decade or so: these ranged from mass-market, budget-priced anthologies to more scholarly (but equally popular) collections made by folklorists such as Brunvand (for a full list, see the Appendix).

The grounded theory approach to data analysis suggested a prolonged immersion in the narratives, followed by some preliminary axial coding (Sarantakos 1997: 203): this helped to identify the core themes and common motifs, and to cross-index protagonists, locations, artefacts and elements in the narratives. Another key task involved de-duplication: over 3,500 narratives were studied in total, but most individual tales appear in more than one compilation (and in practice the research tended to avoid drawing inferences from narratives appearing in only one anthology).

Further categorisation enabled the researcher to identify many narratives referring to families, which seemed in practice to be about other consumption experiences, but which happen to feature a family unit.

Similarly, an attempt to narrow the focus was made by restricting the data to narratives involving children rather than adolescents: the researcher felt justified in doing so by judging that many (or possibly most) of the tales of adolescents represent some sort of right-of-passage narrative, with the underlying theme of the transition from childhood to adulthood symbolised by the move from the family home (Brunvand 1981: 47-8).

The overall methodological approach represents something of a compromise in that using printed sources in this way loses important contextual dimensions of what is inherently an oral genre: we can only guess at the nature of the performers and make assumptions about their audiences.

However, balanced against this weakness is the pragmatic decision in an exploratory study to widen the pool of narratives available for analysis through drawing down oral episodes gathered by popular authors and respected social scientists alike. There is evidence of the widespread oral dispersion of these episodes in the continuing popularity of the genre, both on the printed page and in virtual media (a point also made by Fine 1992:1).

In addition to contemporary legends, the research was supplemented by a study of the early 19th century folktales gathered by the Brothers Grimm in Germany, and published around 1814. Their collection includes several hundred Märchen (folktales), many of which are well known throughout the English-speaking world, both through storytelling and with the encouragement of Hollywood. This supplementary source may be

instrumental in helping to gain an understanding of the nature of the data:

these traditional folktales are told – to modern audiences at least - as pure 1056 Robin Croft fiction. Contemporary belief tales, as a counterpoint, are told as true and represent the experience of an undefined friend-of-a-friend. Urban legends are often wrongly termed ‘urban myths’: this can be misleading because a myth makes no claims to truth and reality, whereas a legend by definition is assumed to have some ‘factual’ basis (Brunvand 1981, pp. xi-xii).

The final dataset therefore drew on around 50 contemporary narratives which had started out as oral episodes (many of which are described briefly in the article that follows), and a dozen or so traditional tales from German folklore (most of which are comparatively well known to modern audiences).

Between them these texts highlight consumer anxieties about ‘the family’, and from them it is possible to draw some societal and behavioural lessons.

These emerged from the process of interrogating the data in the context of what was already known about each theme (Smith and Fletcher 2001:59), with further data being drawn from a range of publications in fields as diverse as criminology and social psychology. This process of analytic induction (Devine and Heath 1999:61) constituted an exploratory approach, designed to take up Shankar et al’s challenge (2001) to initiate some empirical testing of the value of narrative in consumer research.

The Narratives: Constructing the Concept of ‘Outside’

Through the oral tradition we can see how the idea of the family home as a safe haven is largely informed by the notion of the outside world representing a hostile environment. This concept has a long tradition in folklore, and is found repeatedly in the Märchen collected by the Brothers Grimm at the start of the 19th century. In well-known stories such as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids’, the forest is seen as a place of danger, containing vicious robbers, hungry wolves, evil witches, fierce giants and savage boars – all lying in wait for the unwary child. The forest is wild, vast and lawless: children and travellers must constantly be on their guard against the depredations of humanity, the supernatural and nature itself.

In modern legends the forest has been replaced by an urban landscape peopled with drug dealers, kidnappers, paedophiles, Satanists and unspecified bad people. These characters lurk in shopping malls (usually in the parking lots), in suburban neighbourhoods (usually in abandoned houses) and along the roadside. Contemporary legends see children threatened by drugs (particularly heroin and LSD), by syringes and hypodermic needles, by knives, axes and razor blades, and by gangs using petrol bombs as part of bizarre initiation ceremonies.

In the outside world, few of the institutions of modern family life are exempt from these anxieties. Shopping malls feature extensively in Folklore, Families and Fear 1057 contemporary legends, although it is rare for concerns to be raised about specific retailers or service providers. The ‘Attempted Abduction’ tale describes how children disappear, but are saved after a frantic search disturbs the would-be kidnappers in ‘restrooms’, having already drugged the child and being well advanced in changing its appearance. The theme of child abduction appears regularly in older folklore, and at times the parents are complicit in this – for example ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’. More often, though, the abductors are strangers, with or without supernatural powers. In modern tales children are subdued by giving them pizza or other foods contaminated with narcotics: however, in the Märchen this motif is also present in tales such as ‘The Enchanted Stag’, where a witch has imbued the wild fruits and streams in the forest with supernatural properties which cause the young protagonist’s physical form to change.

It is not as if, in the modern psyche, the school represents a safe haven either: ‘The Blue Star LSD’ legend has been circulating for more than a generation, and tells of drug dealers targeting school children with bogus tattoos. But instead of ink being transferred to the skin, so the story goes, the blue star printed on the paper is impregnated with hard drugs which, once absorbed, trigger a pattern of drug dependency or even death. Indeed, contemporary legends detail a range of horrors in the schoolyard, a theme which grows to almost epidemic proportions when the child passes adolescence and graduates to higher education.

Immediately outside the home danger lurks too, at least according to contemporary legend. Children playing in abandoned houses become the victims of Satanic cults; the Halloween practice of trick or treat is marred by incidents of psychotic neighbours hiding razor blades and discarded hypodermic needles in candy. This theme of consumption outside the home manifests itself in tales which parents commonly exchange, warning of the dangers of products and brands which children would typically consume away from supervision. The leading contamination story in this class would probably be ‘The Mouse in the Coke’, although the same tale is told about rodents being found in other brands of soft drink, and it is not specifically children who are affected. A more pertinent example is called ‘The Death of Little Mikey’, which tells how a former child TV star dies after washing down Pop Rocks (an effervescent candy) with Coke. This story echoes an earlier tale – still widely believed - which suggests that children can become intoxicated by combining the same drink with aspirin. But perhaps the motif is older still: we have to be reminded how Snow White suffered near-fatal poisoning when she was persuaded to eat a poisoned apple while her seven diminutive guardians were away from home.

Not that a parental presence provides any real protection in a hostile environment – in modern legends at least. Anxious parents describe how 1058 Robin Croft discarded hypodermic needles are to be found in the play areas of fast food restaurants, behind the seats in cinemas and (very occasionally) in theme parks. Singled out for attention are the ball pits commonly found in retail outlets and other sites; apart from the paraphernalia of drug addiction, these are sometimes said to contain poisonous snakes which breed in the warm, protected environment.

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