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Abstract

Many advertising and marketing communication creative executions imply that the brand can act as a doorway into a new identity, and hence, a new and more satisfying life, but this type of appeal has not hitherto been adequately studied or theorised. In order to address this gap this paper draws on anthropological theory to establish a new category of advertising and brand marketing appeal, the liminoid appeal. Liminoid experiences are those in which constraints on personal and social identity are temporarily suspended and identity is opened up to transformational possibilities. Unlike the more widely noted liminal experiences, liminoid experiences are not dependent on ritual process and can be indulged in voluntarily, repeatedly, and for fun. The paper integrates a theoretical review with a selection of case exemplars to illustrate the novelty, salience and contribution of the liminoid appeal. We add the cautionary note that, while the liminoid appeal resonates powerfully with consumers because of its ostensibly liberatory and self-actualising potential, on a social level the proliferation of such appeals could contribute to rising social disharmony and psychological distress. The paper concludes with implications for practice, research and policy.
Imaginary Futures:
Liminoid Advertising and Consumer Identity
“Your life is a story: change it. With Dulux”
UK TV paint brand ad1
Pre-print (before proof corrections) of paper accepted for publication in Journal of Marketing
Communications 3.11.2019
Chris Hackley, Royal Holloway, University of London chris.hackley@rhul.ac.uk
Rungpaka Amy Hackley, Birkbeck University of London r.hackley@bkk.ac.uk
Dina H. Bassiouni, American University of Cairo dbassiouni@aucegypt.edu
Please cite as
Chris Hackley, Rungpaka Amy Hackley & Dina H. Bassiouni (2019) Imaginary futures:
Liminoid advertising and consumer identity, Journal of Marketing
Communications, DOI: 10.1080/13527266.2019.1694564
1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LchqLmFqnuI accessed 11.1.2019
1
Imaginary Futures:
Liminoid Advertising and Consumer Identity
“Your life is a story: change it. With Dulux”
UK TV paint brand ad2
Abstract
Many advertising and marketing communication creative executions imply that the brand can
act as a doorway into a new identity, and hence, a new and more satisfying life, but this type
of appeal has not hitherto been adequately studied or theorised. In order to address this gap
this paper draws on anthropological theory to establish a new category of advertising and
brand marketing appeal, the liminoid appeal. Liminoid experiences are those in which
constraints on personal and social identity are temporarily suspended and identity is opened
up to transformational possibilities. Unlike the more widely noted liminal experiences,
liminoid experiences are not dependent on ritual process and can be indulged in voluntarily,
repeatedly, and for fun. The paper integrates a theoretical review with a selection of case
exemplars to illustrate the novelty, salience and contribution of the liminoid appeal. We add
the cautionary note that, while the liminoid appeal resonates powerfully with consumers
because of its ostensibly liberatory and self-actualising potential, on a social level the
proliferation of such appeals could contribute to rising social disharmony and psychological
distress. The paper concludes with implications for practice, research and policy.
Introduction
2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LchqLmFqnuI accessed 11.1.2019
2
From prestige cars to paint, clothing to coffee, housing developments to holidays, many
branded goods, services and experiences are advertised as threshold objects, places or
experiences which have the potentiality to transport the consumer into a liminoid space
(Turner, 1974: 1982) of change, experimentation and self-exploration. Advertising’s role in
consumer rituals has been noted (Otnes and Scott, 2013) yet the anthropological concept of
liminoid experience has not been theorised as an advertising appeal that brings something of
the character of ritual to consumer experience. In this paper we address this gap in the
literature with a new contribution that points to the significance for advertising and marketing
research and practice of liminoid advertising, which we define as advertising and marketing
communication that implicitly or explicitly attaches liminoid qualities to the brand.
The advertising appeal is the key element of the creative execution that resonates with and
motivates the target consumer. An advertisement might for example, play on the consumer’s
sense of humour, their insecurity about their body shape, bad breath or hair loss, their fear of
crime (in advertisements for home security systems or personal alarms), or their dreams of
higher social status and peer approval in advertisements for educational courses or for
upmarket luggage, cars and clothes. Numerous different types of advertising appeal have
been proposed. There is no agreed taxonomy, but advertising appeals are often distinguished
as having either an emotional or rational basis (Teichert et al. 2018). However, of the dozens
of differently nuanced appeals, many combine both rational and emotional elements (e.g.
Yang et al. 2015). For example, car advertisements often combine a lifestyle or status appeal
with technical information about the car, whilst advertisements for pensions or life insurance
policies sometimes combine details about financial information with imagery of older people
enjoying exciting leisure pursuits. The target consumer’s sense of identity is implicitly a part
of advertising appeals that focus on status or lifestyle, but we suggest that liminoid
advertising goes further in implying that consumption of the promoted phenomenon can act
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as a gateway into a world of flux and experimentation in which consumer identities are fluid
and impermanent.
Turner’s ideas on liminality and ritual process (1967:1969) have been adapted across the
social sciences to theorise physical, psychological and communitarian spaces that facilitate
personal change, experimentation and transformation of social identity. For example, in urban
studies, Roberts (2015) refers to the “liminoid zones” of urban night life areas in which
young people explore alternative identities (often facilitated by alcohol (Hayward and Hobbs,
2007), whilst in marketing research, nightclubbing has been conceived as an experience laced
with liminal qualities (Taheri et al. 2016). Consumer researchers have noted the liminal
quality of consumer experiences such as pilgrimage (Husemann and Eckhardt, 2019),
adventure sports (Tumbat and Belk, 2010) and wine consumption (Smith Maguire, 2010). In
tourism research, the motivation of holidaymakers seeking liminal experiences has been
documented (Taheri et al. 2017) as has the design of spaces to facilitate such experience has
been researched in event management studies (Pielichaty, 2015), sociology (Lugosi, 2007),
and retailing (Kozinets et al. 2004).
In advertising research, Zhao and Belk (2006) conceived of advertising as a liminal space in
the sense that they saw it helping China’s transition to a market economy. Olsen (2016) has
written of the liminal experience of being an advertising worker in an agency. However, other
than these rare examples (also Otnes and Scott, 2013, mentioned above) there have been very
few mentions of the liminal in advertising or marketing communication research, and none
that articulate liminality as a component of an advertising appeal, in spite of the widespread
use of liminoid appeals. One such example was the source of the strapline printed below the
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title of this paper: “Your life is a story: change it. With Dulux”. A lengthier account of this
example might help to clarify our sense of the concept of liminoid advertising.
Paint brand Dulux’s ‘Your Life is a Story’ campaign (see footnote 1) offers an example of one
way in which advertising appeals can invest a brand with the power of threshold objects that
act as the key to deep yet indeterminate personal change. Dulux sells paint for domestic use,
and the series of ads show people transforming their dwelling, and by implication re-writing
their story of personal identity, with the paint. What is really being sold is the sense that the
brand makes a ‘new you’ possible, the new you being undefined and indeterminate. We term
this sense of the possibility of personal transformation a liminoid advertising appeal,
following Turner’s (1982) later work. Liminoid states are differentiated from liminal states
(Turner, 1967) in that although both terms refer to the threshold between an old identity and a
new one, liminoid states are entered into voluntarily and are not attached to a ritual process.
Liminoid states confer a sense of existential liminality that is engaged in playfully and has no
resolution, since there is no formal re-entry into social structure under a new identity, as there
is in a liminal process. The attractiveness of this state is that it is loaded with creative
possibility and can be engaged in repeatedly. Turner (1982) also acknowledged that this
creative possibility may result in negative and destructive outcomes as well as positive ones.
We wish to make three primary contributions to the literature with this conceptualisation. The
first is to extend Turner’s (1982) later ideas to the advertising field, to focus on the liminoid
as a particular category of advertising appeal. The second is to develop a new perspective on
advertising by exploring some of the strategies advertising creatives use to tap into the appeal
of liminoid experience, however preposterous it may be, on the face of it, for advertisers to
imply that buying a tin of paint or some other commodity can transform one’s life and
identity. The third is to contribute theoretically to the understanding of persuasion in
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advertising by nuancing one kind of appeal to consumer identity projects as a symbolic
manifestation of liminoid experience in brand advertising. Finally, we speculate on the
implications for consumer culture of the relentless promotion of brands and experiences as
liminoid experiences that promise to maintain the individual in a world that is, by
implication, devoid of fixed social structures or fixed identities. That is, we focus not only on
what consumption brings in terms of choices, fun, and fantasies (Holbrook and Hirschman,
1982) but on what its liminoid aspects seem to deny or negate, such as social structures,
institutions, values and identities grounded in fixed notions of class, ethnicity, and family
(Firat and Venkatesh, 1995).
Below, we firstly offer the literature background, focusing on Turner’s (1967) concept of
liminality and noting how it has been applied in social research fields allied to marketing and
management. In particular, we note that it has not hitherto been applied to theorise
advertising appeals. The review then moves to consider how liminality has been used to
theorise consumer identity. Following this, the paper develops a series of case examples of
advertising campaigns that exemplify the liminoid appeal in various manifestations. Finally,
we consider the socio-cultural and practical implications of our theorisation of liminoid
advertising. We suggest that conceiving advertising appeals as having a liminoid character
captures a powerful underlying motivation driving demand and consumption that has not
hitherto been theorised in the marketing or advertising literature. However, we also suggest
that this theorisation poses serious questions about consumer wellbeing in a consumer culture
characterised by liminoid experiences.
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Literature review
Victor Turner: Liminal and Liminoid Experiences
The work for which Turner (1967) is best known drew on Van Gennep’s (1961) foundational
anthropological studies on ritual process. In rituals of transformation, from single to married
or from child to adult, van Gennep (1961) observed three stages. The pre-liminal stage entail
separation from the previous life: the liminal stage refers to the mid-stage of the process
when the participant is neither part of their old life and identity, nor yet part of the new one.
Finally, the post liminal stage occurs when the ritual process is concluded and the participant
is re-absorbed into social structure with a new identity and status. Turner’s work (1967: 1969:
1974: 1982) focused on the mid stage of the process, the liminal stage, and extended the
theory beyond formal rites of passage (van Gennep, 1961) into realms of consumption in
advanced economies.
Turner (1967) described the liminal stage as a time of ‘fruitful darkness’ (p.110) during which
creative new futures might emerge from the flux. “Liminality can perhaps be described as a
fructile chaos, a storehouse of possibilities, not a random assemblage but a striving after new
forms and structures…” (Turner, 1986, p. 42). This liminal period ends when the individual
has their new identity ritually conferred upon them as they re-enter the world of social
structure. Importantly, Turner (1982) differentiated liminality from liminoid experience. With
liminoid experience, this fructile chaos can be experienced as a sense of existential liminality
that is not bound to a formal and compulsory ritual process, but is voluntary and
impermanent. Liminoid experiences are often ludic (oriented to fun and playfulness) (Turner,
1982) and are therefore predicated on the existence of leisure as opposed to work: “One
works at the liminal, one plays at the liminoid” (p 55). Liminoid experience can occur within
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groups, like sub-cultural movements such as hippies or in sports or celebrity fandom, but it
can also be experienced through individual consumption of entertainment experiences or
commodities: “The liminoid is more like a commodity- indeed, often is a commodity, which
one selects and pays for, than the liminal” (Turner, 1982 p.55). Hence, Turner (1982)
explicitly linked liminoid experience to consumer experience. In this sense, we suggest that
marketing and consumption tap symbolically into aspects of ritual process to mobilise the
sense of potentiality for change and transformation. In other words, consumer marketing sells
the imaginary future of a sense of identity that can be changed at will, merely through brand
consumption. We suggest that advertising is a key site for the marketization of liminoid
experience.
Liminal consumption and consumer identity
It is well established in the consumer research literature that consumption, of brands,
experiences and lifestyles, can be symbolically important to the sense of consumer identity
(Bartsch et al., 2016: Luedicke et al. 2010; Belk, 1988; Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998;
Warde, 2014; Larsen and Patterson, 2018). Various researchers have suggested that exploring
alternative identity projects is an intrinsic aspect of human psychology (Markus and Nurius,
1986) and consumption is widely seen as a powerful site for this kind of personal exploration
(Crockett, 2017: Houston, 1999: Kleine et al. 1993; Kenett-Hensel,; Schouten, 1991; Turkle,
1995: Schembri, Merrilees, and Kristiansen, 2010; Puzakova et al., 2018).
Turner’s (1967: 1969: 1974: 1982) work on liminality has been linked to consumer identity in
various ways. For example, part of the appeal of body modification such as being tattooed is
that the participant partakes in a liminoid experience of identity transformation (Patterson and
Schroeder, 2010). Sneath and Lacey (2012) looked at the liminal character of consumption
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after a natural disaster, while Kozinets (2019) and Kozinets et al: (2016) conceptualise digital
technology consumption as a facilitator of liminal consumer experience in relation to identity.
Cody (2012), Cody and Lawlor (2011) and Bassiouni and Hackley (2014: 2016) drew on the
concept of liminality in their study which focused on children’s and teens’ consumption in
negotiating the threshold identities of adolescence. Hobbs et al. (2000) and Hackley et al.
(2013; 2015) have examined the role of alcohol and specifically drunkenness in creating a
liminal psychological zone for young people in which they experiment with identity and risk,
encouraged by the liminoid advertising appeals of alcohol brands. Schau, and Thompson,
(2010), Pielichaty (2015) and Houston (1999) have used liminality in gender research.
Liminality has been invoked in other research studies that do not foreground identity as such
but refer to a consumer need for personal experimentation, change and escape (Taheri et al.
2016: Taheri et al., 2017) for example, by seeking deep personally transformational
experiences through leisure pursuits (Tumbat and Belk, 2010: Thomassen, 2016) or spiritual
consumption such as pilgrimage (Husemann et al., 2016; Husemann and Eckhardt, 2019). In
tourism research, the airport has been theorised as a liminal space (Huang et al., 2018) even
though being there is not an end in itself for consumers- rather, it is a place where people are
transitioning between their usual identity and the possibility of personal change as a person
embarking on a travel adventure to a new horizon.
Liminality and communitas in social research
As we note above, the linkage of consumption with identity projects is well established in
the context of global consumer culture that putatively liberates individual identity from
previously fixed social institutions such as class, religion and family (Firat and Venkatesh,
1995). The concept of liminality, and the connected notion of communitas, the almost
intuitive temporary and transient bond of collective kinship experienced within and through
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the group, have gained wide currency in social science (e.g. Szakolczai, 2000: Horvath et al.,
2009; Sharpe, 2005; Taheri et al., 2016; Baker, 2018), usually in order to point to a state of
flux and imaginative potential in the midst of personal and/or social change. Sharpe (2005)
argued that communitas tends to emerge when “people step out of their structural roles and
into an anti-structural sphere, …. where the rules of everyday life can be altered” (Sharpe,
2005, p.256). However, Turner (1969) argued that communitas is not the same as solidarity or
community: it cannot persist over time and occurs in momentary experiences ‘in the
interstices of social structure’ (p.153). One example might be the connection felt by a group
of friends the summer holiday after finishing high school, before they move on to their new
lives and that connection is lost.
Some liminoid advertising and branding seems to promise the illusion of communitas,
such as in examples of British alcohol advertising that portray the sense of communitas
between young drinkers (Szmigin et al., 2008; Griffin et al., 2009). A similar inferred
communitas seems to also appear in ads for soda brands (Brick et al., 2017). In such
examples, the alcohol or the soda brand is the key to the liminoid experience, of which a
transient sense of communitas with the group (of fellow brand consumers) is part. Turner
(1969) also coined the term ‘existential communitas’ to reflect the temporary sense of intense
group identification that could accompany liminoid experience in advanced economies:
“The very flexibility and mobility of social relations in modern industrial societies...may
provide better conditions for the emergence of existential communitas, even if only in
countless and transient encounters, than any previous forms of social order” (p.56). We
suggest that countless transient consumer experiences facilitated by advertised brands
provides a major platform for consumer identity experimentation in contemporary advanced
economies.
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Liminality in Advertising
As noted above, advertising and marketing communication research has made very little use
of the concept of liminality, although the ludic quality of advertising has been noted by Cook
(2001) whose linguistic analysis of advertising discourse suggested that advertisements fulfil
a human need for communicative play. (Leiss et al. 2005) referred to the narrative quality of
advertising as ameium in which we tell stories about ourselves, to ourselves. Turner (1986)
citing Myerhoff (1979) refers to the importance of social dramas, especially for conveying
the third phase of liminal process, redress (after breach and crisis). Social dramas can be
conceived as a kind of collective autobiography, “a means by which a group creates its
identity by telling itself a story about itself…” (Turner, 1986 p.40). Advertising, we suggest,
can hence be understood as a particularly vivid, resonant and visible source of
autobiographical social drama when it leverages liminoid appeals.
Such biographical dramas, then, clearly sell the possibility of personal change,
experimentation, and new identities, but this way of conceiving advertising appeals is
currently not acknowledged or theorised either in practice or in the literature. Copywriting
tropes such as ‘A New You’ and ‘Transform Your Life’ are tiresomely common in advertising,
and not just in the self-help book or cosmetic surgery sectors. We tend to take this kind of
exaggerated claim for granted as part of the absurd puffery or fantastical claims of
advertisements, yet there has been relatively little attempt to theorise this phenomenon as it
manifests as a form of advertising appeal.
Liminoid experiences can be indulged in through consumption, of products, services,
experiences, brands, ideologies, and group memberships, and repeated without limit since,
with brand consumption, there is no point at which the participant is received back into social
structure formally conferred with the new identity- what the participant has bought is a
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symbolic new identity that they can change, in effect, buy buying another branded experience
next week. In sum, what advertisements that use liminoid appeals are selling, is the
possibility of personal transformation that, being detached from formal ritual processes, is
never subject to closure and can be extended indefinitely. Liminoid experiences can be seen
as playful yet also potentially meaningful “ludic offerings placed for sale on the free market”
(Turner, 1982, p.54). They engage with consumer needs for fun, fantasy (Holbrook and
Hirschman, 1982) and identity experimentation (Larsen and Patterson, 2018). The product,
experience or service that is advertised may or may not be liminoid in character: it is through
the advertising and branding that any potentially liminoid aspects of the brand are brought
into being in the consumer imagination.
There are many examples of brand advertising that imply vaguely that deep personal
change can occur through brand consumption, such as the Red Bull tagline ‘it gives you
wings’3 and the Axe campaign ‘Even Angels will fall’4. The Axe theme in this famous
campaign was double edged, since it suggested that the (male) user would suddenly become
sexually irresistible to women, transforming even angels into rapacious sexual predators. Of
course, the theme was intended to be humorous, but, as Tanaka (1999) points out, just
because an advertising appeal is absurd does not necessarily mean that it does not resonate
with consumers (and Axe/Lynx was a top-selling male deodorant brand throughout this long
running campaign). A problem for brands is that consuming the brand might not do as
promised and then dissonance could set in as consumer register their disappointment.
However, as noted above, the liminoid process can be repeated again and again without
resolution, so what can be sold is not a specific new identity but a ‘storehouse of
possibilities’. If the desired identity transformation does not occur, then the only recourse is
3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azDUNRPT9Xs accessed 11.1.2019
4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqGQCM_JlUc accessed 11.1.2019
12
to consumer more, and more. With no resolution required for liminoid experience, there need
be no end point, and no lasting disappointment. Consumers merely buy the sense of the
possibility of change, and when the fun wears off, they buy another sense of possibility. In
this sense we suggest that all consumers who engage with branded consumption for purposes
of identity experimentation and transformation are in effect consuming an indeterminate
identity, one that neither disappoints, because it can always be changed, and never quite
fulfils, because it is never formally acknowledged. If we consume branded items that are
endorsed by a movie star, we might feel that we are engaging in the fantasy of being like a
movie star ourselves, but we will never win an Oscar nor walk the red carpet.
The quote at the top of this paper refers to a long-running advertising campaign for paint
brand Dulux that places painting one’s home as a source of personal transformation- change
your home, the implication is, and you change your personal story, and your sense of self.
Note that the slogan does not posit the person who repaints their home as an aspirational
identity. Rather, it is the act of painting (with Dulux paint) that opens up the ‘fructile chaos’
from which new identities can emerge. The print version of this ad was found in The UK
Sunday Times Magazine of April 19th 2015, and this magazine offered a useful convenience
sample of similar advertising appeals. For example, an ad for BMW’s then new i8 model
appeared with the tagline of ‘Hello Future’, conflating the intriguing world of technology
with the (equally intriguing) future of the person who buys the car. A full-page colour
advertisement for the Bentley Mulsanne luxury car was adorned with the distinctively
liminoid strapline, ‘Explore the space between yesterday and tomorrow’. There is a hint that
consumption of the brand can act as a portal into a liminoid zone of transformative
possibility. An ad in the same issue for Emirates airline asks the consumer to consider ‘Hello
Tomorrow: Hello World’. Here, the consumption of air travel with Emirates is positioned as a
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source of a possibly transformational future. Yet another ad in the same magazine for an open
top car declaims ‘Watch the drama unfold’. The theatrical pun has the passengers as audience
for the dramatic and ever-changing vistas that come into sight for the traveller as the car is
driven on mountainous roads with the soft top down.
Liminoid elements can be discerned in overtly aspirational ads such as Nike’s 2018 Dream
Crazy5. Consumers are not seriously expecting to become the ‘greatest ever’ in their chosen
sport, but they can engage ludically in the playful fantasy of sporting achievement when they
perform their sport wearing the brand, even if they are running in their neighbourhood and
not in an Olympic stadium. Nike consumers can ‘dream crazy’, as the ad implores, and the
aspiration to be the greatest is both genuine, and an indulgent fantasy of personal change that,
for most of us, will never occur. The appeal is to create a liminoid experience, a playful and
volitional fantasy of deep personal transition, somewhere betwixt and between the humdrum
reality of the present self, and the ‘crazy dream’ of a super-realised self powered by the
pursuit of happiness through experiential consumption. The dramatic portrayals of different
levels of personal achievement using vivid cinematography and powerful evocative sound
tracks heighten the sense that Nike sportswear renders every training session not just a chore,
but a dramatic performance. The reference to drama touches on the performative element of
social identity- we perform identity to others, and also to ourselves (Slama et al. 1999) and
Turner (1982) links liminoid experience to his notion of social drama, as noted earlier. He
suggests that social drama fulfils a deep human need, and advertising has come to be one of
the platforms on which we view the social dramas of stories that are about ourselves.
5 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq2CvmgoO7I accessed 12.1.2019
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The liminoid advertising appeal is not bound to particular cultures or regions. Examples
can be found from advertising around the world. For example, in Egyptian real estate TV
advertising, homes are sold as liminal spaces that can transform identity and experience. We
see taglines such as ‘A Life to look up to’, ‘Where life imitates art’6, or ‘because you deserve
a better life’7, promising the possibility of an indeterminate future filled with the possibility
of change and transformation for the consumer in terms of a “better” or more creative life or
future. Presumably, when a new home does not necessarily result in the new life that was
expected, one moves to another.
These selected examples are few but by no means unusual- indeed, a casual perusal of
almost any advertising platform suggests that it is extremely common to find ads that promise
some kind of personal renewal or transformation. You can, it appears, step into a threshold
toward a new you, if you drive a BMW, live in Mountain View or Palm Hills, holiday with
James Villas, visit Dubai, wear Gucci, smell of Chanel, drink Nespresso or RedBull, read The
Economist, or shop at Marks and Spencer. The specifically liminoid advertising appeal, we
suggest, is based on a nuanced reading of advertisements that display this type of appeal.
Although personal change is a common trope for advertising copywriters, it is, we suggest,
far more than mere puffery but a powerful articulation of the ritual force (Otnes and Scott,
2013) of advertising and consumption.
Discussion
Socio-cultural and practitioner implications of liminiod advertising
6 https://www.instagram.com/p/Bjfd9o9hxQO/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=djr394taqg5s accessed
12.1.2019
7 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DviloQXiWh8&feature=youtu.be accessed 12.1.2019
15
We have offered a relatively small number of case examples of liminoid advertising
appeals with the intention of illustrating how flexible this appeal is in advertising campaigns.
As the literature review above shows, liminality and liminoid experience have been used to
theorise consumer demand and motivation in the research literature for sectors such as event
management, alcohol marketing, nightclubs, retail design, airports and other tourist spaces,
pilgrimage, wine consumption, body modification, marketing to children, video games and
digital technology, and adventure sports, amongst other sectors. The research areas that
employ these foci include sociology, urban studies, tourism, marketing, consumer research
and gender studies. Predominantly, liminality was used to theorise the design of consumption
spaces, experiences, products and services that facilitated consumer identity exploration and
change. Our case examples in the section above illustrate that industries as diverse as
sportswear, fashion, fragrance, paint and home décor, automobiles, real estate, energy drinks,
and deodorant brands use the liminoid appeal in their advertising and branding. Neither the
advertising nor the marketing communication research literature have hitherto theorised
liminoid consumption. The very limited coverage that we could find in our literature search
was confined to a mention of the liminal character of advertising in general ( Zhao and Belk,
2006) and a small number of studies that use liminality to theorise the professions of
advertising and branding (Olsen, 2016: Loacker and Sullivan, 2016) but not the outputs. We
could find no research studies that theorise a liminoid advertising appeal. This is clearly an
under-recognised yet influential area that carries importance for advertising, branding and
marketing communications strategies. We suggest that there are also far-reaching
implications for consumers.
Liminality characterises contemporary social, cultural and political life in ways that are
profound and far-reaching for individuals and societies (Thomassen, 2016). To return to
16
Turner (1969: 1982) for a moment, the notion of liminality has been applied to small groups,
sub-cultures, historical epochs, entire nations or to individuals (Horvarth et al. 2009).
Psychoanalysis, for example, can be understood as a liminal process, while Turner (1969)
noted the hippy movement and charismatic political movements as examples of liminality.
Another example Turner (1969) gave was in the Judeao/Islamic/Christian traditions where
life on earth is a liminal experience, a process of transition, with the desired resolution
occurring only after death (and indeed the same may be said of Buddhism and Hinduism,
with different eschatologies). The liminal zone is often seen as a positive state of becoming, a
zone of infinite possibility and optimism on both a personal and a cultural (or religious) scale.
However, Turner (1969) pointed out that it can also be pathological, using the example of the
Manson family as a charismatic but murderous movement that played on a sense of
liminality. In addition, Turner (1969) gave the example of citizens living under a semi-
permanent state of political chaos and/or warfare. In such circumstances, the experience of
being in a state of transformation may not be resolved during a life course. At such times, the
social and moral order is absent and, sometimes, chaos reigns. Existential liminality, then,
might be experienced as part of a hippy movement, as a member of a charismatic church
group, or as a member of a pseudo religious cult, or of a Hell’s Angels gang, or a nihilistic
religio-political movement such as ISIS, with clearly differing ideologies and values at work.
The dissolution of social structures in such movements, the sense of anti-structure, may be a
precursor to renewal, re-birth and creativity, but it can also foster instability, and a loss of
cultural and ethical points of reference. At its most bleak on a national level, it results in
failed states in which a perpetual state of war and propaganda subsist amidst horror and
deprivation. The permanent suspension of social structure seems potentially destructive and
chaotic.
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The contrast between the dark potentialities of liminality and the ostensibly playful liminoid
experiences promoted in consumer culture seems stark. Social structure can be oppressive but
it confers stability of meaning and values. Postmodern theorisations of consumption suggest
that consumer identities are no longer grounded only in class, ethnicity and family, but are
more fluid and mobile, lending a liberatory character to contemporary consumer culture
(Boutlis, 2000: Firat and Venkatesh, 1995;: Gilovich et al., 2015). What can be more
personally liberating than experimenting harmlessly with identity and lifestyle change
through brand consumption? But, what happens when millions of individuals are engaged in
perpetually repeated liminoid consumption, within a consumer culture that powerfully
promotes liminoid products, brands, services and experiences as liberatory influences for fun,
fantasy and identity experimentation, often in geo-political climates that are in a seemingly
permanent state of liminoid chaos and flux? What happens if individuals spend a lot of their
time playing fantasy role-play games, wearing clothes that mimic celebrities, talking about
(and, on social media, to) celebrities as if they are personally acquainted, and promoting
themselves and their lives to their personal audiences on various social media platforms? Is
marketing in general, and the tendency of advertising to use liminoid appeals in particular,
contributing to a collapse in social structures that, in turn, might be very enabling for some,
but for others might lead to psychological illness and cultural alienation? What becomes of
moral and social sensibility when ubiquitous brand marketing perpetually promotes a state of
anti-structural flux that putatively undermines established loci of social identity?
Glib though it may be to turn from the dark potentialities of widespread liminoid advertising,
branding and consumption to its strategic advantages, it seems clear from the above examples
and research evidence that brands have found liminoid advertising and branding appeals to be
powerfully motivating for consumers. Self-evidently, a desire to lose oneself for a time to
18
engage in lifestyle and identity experimentation, excitement and life-changing experiences is
a component of travel, tourism and leisure consumption for many (Tumbat and Belk, 2010)
as are nightclubbing (Taheri et al. 2017), body modification (Patterson and Schroeder, 2010),
travel (Huang et al. 2018) and spiritual consumption (Husemann and Eckhardt, 2019), but we
have also demonstrated through our case examples that liminoid appeals can be similarly
applied to product consumption of paint, cars, clothes, and, no doubt, almost any other
commodity, subject to the creativity with which the association is portrayed. The value of
liminoid advertising and marketing communications to brands should be formalised as part of
the lexicon of creative strategy for advertising agencies, brand consultancies and marketers.
Notwithstanding the potential social and personal costs of a consumer culture that promotes
identity as a consumer choice that can be shed and changed at will, liminoid advertising taps
into a consumer cultural moment that seems liberating, exciting and powerfully motivating
for many consumers. The desire for personal change and development is universal (Maslow,
1943) and allied to the need for variety and experimentation with identity (Markus and
Nurius, 1986). There is a need for marketing communication professionals and academics to
have a deeper understanding of both the commercial force of liminoid advertising and brand
communication, and the potentially dark wider social, political and cultural movements of
which it is a part (Thomasson, 2016).
Concluding comments
This paper has offered a new contribution to advertising, marketing communication and
brand marketing research and practice in the form of a new theorisation of advertising and
brand appeals based on a new application of Turner’s (1967) well-established theory of
liminality. Specifically, the three intended contributions of the study are, firstly, to extend the
19
notion of liminality and the related concept of liminoid experience into the advertising and
marketing communication research literature. We have demonstrated that liminality has been
highly influential across many areas of social research related to marketing and management,
but is largely absent in the advertising and marketing and communication research. The
second aim was to demonstrate the flexibility and popularity of liminoid advertising appeals,
which we have done with a number of old and more recent case examples. Thirdly, the study
inflects theories of persuasion in advertising with the contribution of a previously un-
theorised form of advertising appeal, the liminoid advertising appeal. Finally, the study
speculates not only on what liminoid consumption brings in terms of choices, fun, and
fantasies (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982) but on what its liminoid aspects seem to deny or
negate, such as social structures, institutions, values and identities grounded in fixed notions
of class and family (Thomasson, 2016).
Future research could include empirical studies to categorise liminoid advertising appeals
by creative strategy, targeted consumer groups, sector and regionality. Additional studies
could qualitatively investigate liminoid consumer experiences broken down by sector and
consumer demographics. It would be useful to identify the sectors and segments’ areas in
which liminoid advertising appeals are most salient, and to examine those consumer groups
most vulnerable to the negative effects of liminoid advertising appeals to inform consumer
policy and advertising regulation.
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