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Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal

YouTube: an opportunity for consumer narrative analysis?


Stefano Pace,
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Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Vol. 11 Issue: 2, pp.213-226, https://
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Consumer
YouTube: an opportunity for narrative
consumer narrative analysis? analysis
Stefano Pace
Università Bocconi, Milano, Italy 213
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Abstract
Purpose – The aim of the paper is to discuss a possible extension of narrative analysis to a new
medium of expression of consumer behaviour, specifically YouTube.
Design/methodology/approach – Marketing and consumer behaviour studies often apply
narrative analysis to understand consumption. The consumer is a source of introspective narratives
that are studied by scholars. However, consumption has a narrative nature in itself and consumers are
also storytellers. YouTube is a new context in which subjects tell stories to an audience through
self-made videos and re-edited TV programs. After defining the pros and cons of different approaches to
the study of YouTube, narrative analysis is presented as a possible means of understanding YouTube.
Findings – Some preliminary evidence is presented by discussing several YouTube videos. These
indicate that YouTube content can be better understood as stories, rather than example of other
approaches, such as visual analysis, media studies, videography, and others.
Research limitations/implications – From the analysis conducted, preliminary managerial
implications can be drawn. It seems unlikely that normal TV broadcasters will be substituted by
YouTube videos. For the most part, YouTube content draws its sense and shared meaning from the
major TV shows and series. The discursive nature of YouTube is also an indication of how to deal
with this new medium as a company or researcher.
Originality/value – The paper is an attempt to open up new applications of interpretive market
research in the form of narrative analysis. It explores a new context that is gaining relevance in both
the marketing literature and managerial practice.
Keywords Video, Mass media, Narratives, Consumer behaviour, Storytelling,
Marketing communications
Paper type Research paper

Introduction
Noah took a photo of himself every day . . . for six years . . . Then he put the pictures in
a mesmerizing sequence and uploaded the video onto YouTube. Noah was one of the
candidates of the 2006 YouTube Awards. What lies behind this behaviour? What
method can be applied to understand the YouTube phenomenon? What happens when
videos refer to brands and consumption?
Consumers live in a narrative world in which stories are told and they write their
own stories through deeds of consumption. In this sense, consumption is a narrative
act, a conclusion which can be drawn from the current marketing and consumption
literature (Hopkinson and Hogarth-Scott, 2007; Shankar et al., 2001; Shankar and
Goulding, 2001). Marketing scholars have acquired an awareness of the relevance of Qualitative Market Research: An
narrative and narrative analysis applied to consumption and to marketing decisions. International Journal
Vol. 11 No. 2, 2008
Branding, communication and consumption itself have been studied as narrative acts. pp. 213-226
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
1352-2752
The author is grateful to Dr Brian Bloch for his comprehensive editing of the manuscript. DOI 10.1108/13522750810864459
QMRIJ We can currently observe a new field for the evolution of narrative analysis and
11,2 narrative expression in consumption: YouTube.
YouTube is a rich repository of information and insights regarding markets and
consumption. The aim of the paper is to contribute to a debate regarding the methods to
study this new medium. How to extract knowledge about consumers from YouTube?
That knowledge is embedded in the videos posted by consumers. Qualitative analysis
214 can help to extract this knowledge. In particular, narrative analysis seems an interesting
method to explore, due to the narrative nature of YouTube. The paper tries to contribute
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to the advancement of qualitative market research by exploring the application of the


narrative approach to this new field.

Narrative and consumption


Narrative can be considered in a continuum from an ontological perspective, according
to which “everything” is narrative, to a tool to understand specific marketing features
(such as advertisements or brands). The first end of that continuum is probably to much
wide to be operationally sound. The other end may limit the use of narrative analysis to
few applications. The aim of this section is to define the boundaries of narrative analysis,
by illustrating how narrative can be found in some aspects of consumption and
marketing.
The relevance of narrative analysis within marketing and consumption studies has
been considered by many researchers (Grayson, 1997; Shankar et al., 2001; Shankar
and Goulding, 2001). Shankar et al. (2001) suggest a narrative paradigm to understand
consumption.
Narrative has a double nature: functional and ontological. As to the former,
narrative is conceptualized as a heuristic function. Narrative is a tool through which
the researcher is able to analyze and understand consumption:
Following the footsteps of Gadamer, Ricoeur suggested that all behaviour, and by
extrapolation our consumption behaviour too, could be interpreted as a text and therefore
could be subjected to a hermeneutic analysis (Shankar et al., 2001, p. 441).
Narrative can be considered ontologically as the very essence of human behaviour,
including consumption behaviour. As human beings, we organize our knowledge and
even emotions, in a narrative form. Our memory stores facts using a narrative frame.
Cognition is a means of giving meaning to the events of life and narrative is a structure
and function to create those meanings. Narrative is not a subjective act: language - on
which narrative is based – is determined socially through discourse. Hence, by
considering human behaviour as narrative in nature, in this current paper we also
introduce a social dimension. Meaning cannot be totally individualistic, but is shared
and created in the daily social agora, the public discourse where meanings are created.
Completely personal meanings could be considered as close to madness, that is, a
monologue not understandable by society.
Narrative and literary criticism is presently a field of interest for marketing
scholars. The relevant literature should be considered by marketing scholars for two
reasons. First, one it is possible that novels can provide insights about consumption
more effectively than research reports or scholarly surveys (Brown, 2005a). Does a
writer known consumers better then marketing researchers? Sometimes, a novelist
forecasts trends and future marketing practices more accurately than consultants
(Brown, 2005a). William Gibson, for instance, in his 1984 novel “Neuromancer,” Consumer
forecasted human-machine interactions and networks that were a literary rendition of narrative
the coming age of the internet. Literary descriptions of consumers are often more vivid
and insightful than scientific pieces. Second, marketing is a form of narrative (Brown, analysis
2005a, b; Hopkinson and Hogarth-Scott, 2007): “the research endeavour is itself an act
of storymaking and storytelling” (Hopkinson and Hogarth-Scott, 2007, p. 158). Articles
are pieces of narration with a scientific rigour. The personal style of scholarly authors 215
impacts on the development of the discipline (Brown, 2005b). Hence, marketing
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scholars can draw inspiration and assistance from literature and literary criticism
(Patterson and Brown, 2005).
The use of narrative can easily be seen in advertising and communication in
general. It is common knowledge that many advertisements have a plot that make
them a form of modern tale, with a problem finally solved by a hero, that is, the product
or brand. It has been proven that, by structuring an ad as narrative, the message can be
more persuasive than an analytical illustration of a product’s features (Escalas, 2007).
When the consumer sees ads that can refer to herself, the narrative self-referencing
is less vulnerable to weak argumentations than common analytical thinking
(Escalas, 2007).
Advertisements can be analyzed using literary criticism and taxonomy (Stern, 1989,
1995) that are more subtle than content analysis. The narrative structure of ads is even
deeper than that. Narrative is not just a story developed along time. Even an image is a
story. Scott (1994a) reflects on the use of rhetoric in the visual element of advertising.
The still images used in the ads have an intrinsic rhetoric value that is coded by the
sender and interpreted spontaneously by the receiver. The interpretation is rooted
more in the historical cultural context in which the subject lives, than in a natural
process of perception. Processes of perception are learned and not inscribed in the
biology of the seer. Visual perception is based on the conventions of symbols and signs
shared by sender and receiver. As Scott (1994b) argues, an image showing a magic box
full of jewels escaping from it, elicits in the mind of the consumer the literary symbol of
the Pandora’s box. That meaning is built in a literary myth shared by the members
of the society. Moreover, the consumer adopts a sophisticated interpretation: the box of
the advertisement brings beautiful objects and not illnesses like in the myth.
Branding is another field in which narrative can be seen. Brand values and
associations are often built through ads that are narratives. At a deeper level, a brand
can be perceived by the consumer as a character within a story (Shankar et al., 2001,
p. 447). Literary genres can also be applied to brands in the manner of novels and tales
(Twitchell, 2004). A brand is a story in itself, expressed visually (e.g. the Golden Arches
of McDonald’s, the swoosh logo of Nike), through sounds and characters (Twitchell,
2004).
In order to benefit from a brand and truly consume it, a subject must be knowledgeable
of the story behind the brand and understand its narrative nature. This understanding
implies brand literacy (Bengtsson and Fuat Firat, 2006), in which the term clearly refers to
conventional knowledge conveyed by symbols shared between advertiser and consumer.
Brand literacy has three levels of skills: reading a sign; writing a sign; understanding how
the receiver would interpret a sign. The third level of ability resembles the rhetoric (Scott,
1994a), that is, the art and practice of articulating a message to achieve a desired effect on
the audience. At the highest level of ability, the consumer uses the brand in a way that
QMRIJ shows her knowledge of it and how the other persons would interpret that use. This
11,2 rhetorical ability is particularly relevant when the consumer becomes a producer of
meanings conveyed to other subjects, as it happens in YouTube.
Another aspect of narrative is its use as a methodological tool. A consumer is a
producer of introspective narratives that can be studied by researchers. In order to
understand the inner emotions and experiences of consumers, researchers investigate
216 the introspective narratives that the subjects write (Carù and Cova, 2006). Probably more
effectively than the answers given in an interview, the narrative of the subject can
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convey the deeper meaning of a consumption experience. Based on the extensive and
varied use of personal narrative that is accumulating in marketing, some authors would
advocate a “literary-based perspective to the interpretive turn in qualitative market
research” (Hackley, 2007, p. 98). Personal diaries are another form of narrative produced
by consumers which are analyzed by researchers (Patterson, 2005). Further back in the
past, service marketing developed and refined the critical incidents technique, through
which a service user recounts the various phases of a service process (Burns et al., 2000).
We can summarize the relationship between narrative analysis and
marketing/consumer behaviour as in Table I.
In summary, the consumer is considered as a reader of narratives that are embedded
in ads or brands, and as a writer of introspective accounts of her own experiences and
feelings. What seems less central in this broad framework of studies based on
narrative, is the consumer as a storyteller. Consumer narratives that are solicited by
researchers cannot be considered as stories as such, but as introspection produced and
used for research purposes. A story, to be defined as such, should be conceived and
issued by the sender with the intent to convey a meaning to an undefined audience.
Brand communities are one of the contexts in which stories are told, since storytelling
is one of the key features of communities (Muñiz and O’Guinn, 2001; Schau and Muñiz,
2006). The members refer to legendary tales of their preferred brands, maintaining the
tradition. However, a story can be told to a larger audience, not necessarily limited to

Marketing fields Key concepts References

Marketing Novels might be regarded as Brown (2005a, b) and Patterson


(in the broader sense) marketing studies or a repository and Brown (2005)
of marketing insights.
Marketing is about writing.
Literary criticism as a marketing
tool
Advertising Ads use rhetorical tools to convey Stern (1989), Scott (1994a, b), Stern
meanings. (1995) and Escalas (2007)
Ads can be studied through
literary criticism
Brand Brands are told through stories. Shankar et al. (2001), Twitchell
Brands are stories themselves. (2004) and Bengtsson and Fuat
Brand literacy: the consumer is Firat (2006)
able to discern and understand
those stories
Consumer Consumers write introspective Stern et al. (1998), Patterson (2005),
Table I. narrative account of their own Carù and Cova (2006) and Hackley
Narrative in marketing experiences and feelings (2007)
fellow members of a community. Recently, new media provide consumers with a Consumer
sophisticated tool for telling their stories about consumption. narrative
Narrative is extensively present in the marketing field, however this does not imply
that all is narrative and that narrative analysis is a “recipe” for any type of marketing analysis
research. The limits of narrative analysis will be presented commenting its application
to the case of YouTube.
217
Broadcast yourself: YouTube
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A new means of self-expression is available to consumers and is gaining attention on in


the managerial practice and the consumer behaviour field: YouTube (www.youtube.
com). The slogan of this new internet service is noteworthy: “Broadcast Yourself.”
Subjects can upload and share personally produced videos, portions of movies and TV
shows[1], creative montages of any audio-visual material that is available on TV or the
Web. Not surprisingly, this technical freedom to post any material raises questions
about copyright infringement by YouTube users and YouTube itself. The future
development of YouTube is inextricably related to these issues and how they are
resolved.
Consumption practices and brands are among the represented topics. The forms are
varied: a fan of the TV series “Grey’s Anatomy” edits images of his favourite program
and creates his own story using the characters[2]; a Heineken beer bottle is dropped
and filmed at high speed to show any nuances of the “phenomenon,” as in a naturalistic
documentary[3]. The new environment of YouTube allows consumers to freely and
creatively redefine their relationship with products and brands and anything related to
them.
YouTube represents a sophisticated and visual form of “public intimacy” that one
can find in some internet-personal spaces, where people let others see their own lives.
Some of these spaces are promoted directly by brands, like in the case of the
community MyNutella, where the fans of the most famous hazelnut spread post
pictures of themselves and their passion (Cova and Pace, 2006).
YouTube is part of the visual age that we live in (Schroeder, 2002). Consumption
increasingly includes vision as part of other acts of consumption or as a form of
consumption in itself (watching TV or browsing in a store are autonomous
consumption acts). YouTube adds another dimension to this phenomenon, that is the
direct production of images by the subjects and not the mere consumption of images.

What is told in YouTube? Attempting a taxonomy


The example of Noah that was given at the beginning of the article is a good answer to
the question of what is told in YouTube: anything can be told. Unlike common TV
shows which are framed in genres and formats, YouTube is chaotic, left to the
idiosyncrasies and caprices of the users.
Nonetheless, it is possible to formulate a necessarily incomplete taxonomy of
YouTube contributions, with specific attention to consumption-related content based
on the types of stories told by YouTube users.

Creative redefinition of brand and consumption


In this case, subjects re-use known products and brands in a new, often entertaining,
way. The Mentos-Coke experiment is an example[4]. The two “researchers” insert few
QMRIJ Mentos mints into a series of Coke bottles, creating a choreographic set of fountains.
11,2 They create a renaissance noble garden, where water is substituted by Coke. Here, the
creativity technique used is that of combining two different things (Mentos and Coke),
provoking a volcanic reaction. Another evident creative technique is that of the
hyperbolic growing of an aspect of a given object: the carbonated effervescence of Coke
is so exaggerated, that it literally explodes.
218 The metaphors conveyed by this story are twofold. On one hand, there is the
showing-off of new “functions” of products discovered by consumers driven by
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curiosity. It is a sort of hilarious reverse engineering of what companies put into the
product. On the other hand, there is a hyperbolic celebration of the Coke brand.

Make your own TV series episode


The main content repository for YouTube users are the media themselves. The user
creates self-made episodes and stories by editing together characters drawn from a
movie or a TV drama. Shots from episodes are taken form aired TV shows, re-edited
into a montage that gives a new story with known characters. For instance, a user can
take scenes from one of the Harry Potter movies and the TV series “The X-Files,”
adding a soundtrack from the movie “Shall we Dance” and he then creates a visual
story about romance and love[5].
YouTube is not an insulated new media, detached from common TV. It shares much
with TV and movies. In fact, a large portion of YouTube content is the uploading –
modified or not – of portions of TV series episodes and shows. It is the expression of
the subculture of TV fandom already observed in other contexts, like the Star Trek
saga (Kozinets, 2001).

Community storytelling
Communities gather around ritual, brands and places (Cova and Cova, 2002; Bagozzi
and Dholakia, 2006; Cova et al., 2007a, b; Schau and Muñiz, 2006). Storytelling is one of
the key features of a brand community. YouTube is used to celebrate the community
rituals surrounding a brand. For instance, a Harley Davidson rally is relived in
YouTube[6]. Other forms of community are devoid of references to any particular
brand and are a mere sharing, such as personal holidays, places visited, programs seen.
In these cases, there is no pre-defined community, but just a sense of sharing. Solidarity
is another key feature of communities (Muñiz and O’Guinn, 2001) and some videos can
be considered as just a gift to the other users. For instance, a subject posts a video in
which he teaches practical recipes and tricks to cook a nice barbeque[7].

Debunking and spoofing marketing


Some videos unmask marketing techniques or alleged marketing threats. The user
employs the rhetorical techniques of advertisers and companies against them. It is a
form of high-brand literacy, that of unmasking the marketing discourse (Bengtsson
and Fuat Firat, 2006) and expressing some counter-power by consumers (Cova et al.,
2007a, b).
For instance, a consumer discovers a supposedly subliminal advertisement by
McDonald’s during a TV program. Subliminal ads are a classic and controversial issue
in marketing. Here, a consumer allegedly proves its use[8]. Users post also alternative
rendition of marketing communication and ads. As an example, a user produces and
uploads a fake video of the iPod launch, using real shot from the Steve Jobs’ speech, but Consumer
re-edited and dubbed in an ironic and funny way[9]. narrative
Replicate milestones in order to celebrate them
analysis
Classic, famous extracts from TV programs, music videos and milestone
advertisements are often simply put online to be relived and seen again and again
with comments and discussion from other users. 219
Some videos are evergreen oldies. Portions of Charlie Chaplin’s movies[10] are
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uploaded and celebrated. Nothing is changed, the user does not modify anything, the
piece of the movie or the ad is just put online and enjoyed. Often it is a leap into the past, a
retro-marketing nostalgia (Brown, 2004) when all seemed innocent and authentic,
marketing included.

YouTube as narrative discourse


YouTube content is so diverse that the categories suggested above cannot pretend to
be exhaustive. YouTube seems a collection of episodes selected randomly by
individuals, with no criterion but one’s own tastes or caprices. Nonetheless, this is
coherent with the historical evolution of writing and storytelling. Literary critics show
that tales and novels before the eighteenth century had to acknowledge one main
feature: to repeat universal ideas and truths with no variations. Any change would
prevent the story from being considered a story. Originality was not considered
acceptable (Rutelli, 2005). Novels and storytelling then developed from these origins.
Originality became a criterion of evaluation of the quality of a story. YouTube presents
stories that can be extremely subjective, showing individual experiences and ideas that
are sometimes almost incomprehensible for a viewer. Compared to YouTube,
advertising and “institutional” communication almost appear as a communication
typical of the past, where truth (the goodness of the product, corporate values) are
communicated and repeated over time. The YouTube videos are like novels.
Stories can be divided into three levels (Hopkinson and Hogarth-Scott, 2001). At a
higher level, there are myths that are universal values and cultural truths. At the
converse level, there are reports: narrative renditions of real facts and events. In
between, there are stories, narratives:
Like myths, “narratives” are not true to external reality, but are distinctive in that they are the
means through which tellers impose order upon what they see, thereby constructing reality
and creating their understanding of events” (Hopkinson and Hogarth-Scott, 2001, p. 28).
YouTube videos can assume all three facets. Videos of real events (reports) and stories
created by the user are both present. The uploading of advertisements can thus be
considered as the rendition of universal myths constituting the “true” values of brands
as coded by advertisers. The renowned Marlboro man tries to tell us a story about
values such as freedom or masculinity. It is a consumption myth. The endorser of Coke
of the 1980s, Mean Joe Greene, is another case of myth telling a story that was at the
core of the US cultural contradictions of that age (Holt, 2004). Those “myths” can then
be modified or replicated by the YouTube user, in a celebration or in a new personal
narrative where the brand is the core.
Using another classification, YouTube’s videos can cover each cell of the rhetorical
tetrad (Table II).
QMRIJ YouTube represents a challenge for interpretive consumer research. One of the key
11,2 challenges is that scholars have apparently not yet refined specific methods of research
for such a new medium[11]. The form of expressions employed in YouTube, is, in fact,
quite new. Users act as movie producers, directors or actors, telling stories visually to
an audience. Other forms of expressions resemble YouTube: blogs, chats, virtual
words. What is different in YouTube is:
220 .
the actual intent of users to broadcast stories to an audience; and
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. the use of visual tales.

Blogs, virtual communities and similar platforms do not have the same structure. The
diachronic nature of videos uploaded to YouTube (the development of the elements of
meaning over time) makes them a story, richer than texts and different from pictures.
The presence of an audience makes the system a broadcasting system, but with no
traditional broadcaster[12].
The material produced by YouTube users can be interpreted from various
perspectives, each capturing a part of the phenomenon at issue.

Theatre theory
The video representations posted in YouTube are similar to the setting described by
Goffman (1959), that is, a theatre-like presentation of the self, where the subject plays a
character. The products and brand would be artefacts and signs to better convey the
meanings of the play. This perspective would not capture the meaning of those videos
in which the subject is not personally present. In that case, the subject is not an actor
who personally plays in front of a public.

Visual analysis
This discipline (Schroeder, 2002, 2007; Heisley, 2001) can be useful to understand
YouTube, but its semiotic roots could limit its explanatory power. In fact, according to
the medium-specificity theory of movies (Forgione, 2004), videos have a nature that is
quite different from a picture or a series of pictures. The editing and chronological
sequence is what distinguishes YouTube videos from other visual material.

Videography
Interpretive consumer research extensively uses videos as method of research and
material for study (Belk and Kozinets, 2005, 2007). However, videography implies
video material produced by the researchers or (less frequently) autonomously
produced by consumers and then interpreted by researchers. In the latter case,
compared to YouTube, what is missing is the specific intention of subjects to broadcast

Impersonal Personal

Particular FACT STORY


Table II. General LOGIC METAPHOR
Rhetorical tetrad in
YouTube Source: Shankar et al. (2001, p. 447); adapted from McClosky
their video to an audience. This intention makes the video a story, a movie that can be Consumer
studied as such and not as real rendition of a spontaneous fact. narrative
analysis
Mass media theories
YouTube allows an individual to be a broadcaster. Current media theories (Gunter, 2000)
are developing new approaches for this new medium. Some TV formats can be a
laboratory for such new perspectives. In some respects, reality shows are similar to 221
YouTube videos. In reality shows the average man or woman is the main character, the
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“hero.” In both cases, common laymen are the stars. However, YouTube adds something
new for traditional TV shows: the subject is the star, the director, the writer, the producer,
and the broadcaster. The slogan of YouTube is “Broadcast Yourself.” This slogan is a
paradox. Broadcasting is a function of societies that relate to specific institutions. These
institutions choose the stories to be narrated. The individual can be one of the characters of
these programs, like in reality shows, but he cannot be the broadcaster. There is a clear
wall between the broadcaster and the broadcasted. YouTube eradicates the division
between the two. An individual can broadcast himself freely with no mediation. YouTube
can be considered a consolidated format in a new medium, but also, and more
interestingly, it seems a new level of evolution of mass media.
Mass media studies have refined the conceptualization of the mass media audience.
The first studies by the Frankfurt School saw the audience and mass composed of
anonymous individuals. The bullet theory would emphasize the power of the messages
broadcasted over such a mass of people devoid of any critical thinking. This theorization
of the audience was coherent with an age in which the messages broadcasted were largely
propaganda by regimes intending to move entire nations towards war or to instil certain
attitudes. The wave of field studies which refined the theory, revealed that the message
was not elaborated by the individual, but socialized and discussed within a social network
in which a particular role is played by the opinion leader.
The 1970s and 1980s introduced a new way of considering the TV audience. The
viewer was no longer a Pavlovian organism which reacts to inputs without reflection.
Researchers observe the actual daily use of TV and the results show a quite different
situation, compared to the theorization of previous studies. Housewives, for instance, were
a common object of study, due to their use of TV. Watching TV was considered a form of
escape by them, sometimes with a degree of guilt.
During the 1980s, Hall (1980) developed the encoding/decoding model. The
broadcaster encodes a desired meaning within the message, but the audience can
decode the message in a quite different way. The decoding may be coherent or resistant
to the meaning intended by the broadcaster. What is missing in the decoding by the
viewer, is that she cannot express her decodification in the same form of the
broadcasted message. For instance, if a viewer interprets a TV ad or a TV program as
an excessive praise of a materialistic view, he can accept or refuse this view with the
very acts of his daily life and consumption. YouTube allows the viewer to decode the
TV material into something made by the same material of TV: images, videos, stories.
The same subject cited before can edit that TV material to reinterpret it and posting
this interpretation online.
Mass media studies, concentrated on the subjects as a more or less active audience,
could have to refine the existing theories in order to investigate the audience as an
active producer.
QMRIJ Narratology
11,2 There is probably no theory presently available that can explain YouTube exhaustively.
However, it seems that, eventually, it may be possible to develop a method for studying
the phenomenon. The methodology that seems to explain the YouTube environment
reasonably comprehensively is narrative analysis (Shankar et al., 2001; Bal, 1997). The
question of whether visual expression might be interpreted by using linguistic rules
222 remains open. As Eco (1968, cit. in Rutelli, p. 139) states: “Not all the communication
phenomena can be explained with the categories of linguistics”[13]. Visual elements can
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be reduced to a language through vague linguistic proxies. Wittgenstein was challenged


to explain a popular Naples gesture in purely linguistic terms: actions cannot be reduced
totally to words. However, other writers like Jacobson refer to intersemiotics, the
possibility to translate different forms of communication into one another. For instance,
visual communication, like advertisements, use linguistic rhetorical figures to convey
meaning. Thus, it is possible that visual elements can be translated into linguistic
elements, allowing narrative analysis to be applied. Each act of communication would
have a fabula (Bal, 1997) within it, that is, the inner structure of the events, their logical
flow, regardless of the actual story told (thus, regardless of the style, the medium used,
the actual terms and expressions employed). Even a still image synthesises a story that
is developed chronologically.
Narrative analysis seems a fruitful approach, covering many facets of YouTube. As
seen, consumer narratives are acknowledged by marketing scholars as a form (even the
core form for some of them) of expression of consumption (Shankar et al., 2001) and
employed as a research epistemology when the subject herself writes down her
thoughts and inner feelings (Carù and Cova, 2006). YouTube adds a visual aspect and
it enriches the way in which a subject can tell his stories of consumption or about
consumption. Moreover, YouTube videos are a form of consumption in themselves.
When produced to be told and broadcasted, a video becomes a story. YouTube
videos have the typical elements of a story: plot, character, structural pattern, and
organization, expressions (as the chosen visual elements). One can analyse videos
using different narratological approaches. One of them is the traditional tales structure
devised by Propp (1968). The focus can be also on the creative methods employed by
the user, like those used to build a fairytale (Rodari, 1973). This could be an operational
starting point for analyzing a video. The researcher could pinpoint the creative
technique used in the video. The Mentos-Coke experiment, for instance, seems based on
the hyperbolic exaggeration of a product’s feature, in this case, effervescence. Another
creative tool used is that of combining two different elements (Mentos and Coke).
The YouTube user employs rhetoric techniques to convey the intended meaning to
the audience. It is similar to the use of visual rhetoric as applied by advertisers (Scott,
1994a, b). Rhetoric is based on conventional means shared by the sender and the
audience. In YouTube, the conventions are the meaning of the brands as generally
conceived in the marketplace. Leveraging on this common knowledge, the user can
play with that meaning and create a story, celebrating or making fun of the brand.
Hence, if Coke is about the excesses of marketing, the video of Mentos-Coke is a visual
rhetorical representation of this aspect. The same holds for TV characters. The user
knows the personal traits of a TV character and she uses these traits to tell some story.
A romantic doctor from the TV series “Grey’s Anatomy” can be used to represent
romance in a self-edited video, just like a movie director who hires an actor to play a
specific kind of role. Doctor House, for instance, is a cynical TV character. His traits are Consumer
known to the viewers of the TV series. A user might combine shots of episodes of the narrative
Dr House show to tell a romantic story with a cynical flavour, or about medical
systems or indeed, about whatever the user can imagine. That character becomes an analysis
actor in the hands of the user-producer. The common and shared repository of
meanings (romance, drama, cynical, and so on) is produced by normal TV programs
and they are necessary to ensure that the discourse of YouTube continues. That is why 223
it is unlikely that YouTube would substitute, at least in the near future, the classical
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broadcasting systems. TV creates the myths and the “universal” ideas on which the
creation by YouTube users are based.
Narrative analysis should respect criteria that are different, compared to other
methods (Riessman, 2002). A narrative analysis should be persuasive and plausible,
rather than objective. It should show coherence with the informant’s view, consider the
viewers as co-authors of the research. The process should allow for pragmatic use, that
is, the opportunity for other researchers to work on the same material and conclusions
to refine them and validate them, in an open process of collective knowledge creation.
A narrative analysis should account for three forms of coherence (Riessman, 2002).
The global coherence accounts for the real intent of the subject in telling the story.
Local coherence means understanding the tools and structure used by the narrator in
order to achieve a desired effect. Thematic coherence means that certain themes are
recurrent in a story and are the relevant keys for conveying the meaning of the tale.
Referring once again to the YouTube series of videos about Coke-Mentos experiments,
the global intent of the user can be quite varied: showing off one’s creativity, making
fun of the brands, imitating other famous videos, conducting a real chemical
experiment. As to local coherence, if a funny soundtrack or laughing are added to the
video, the local coherence moves in the direction of simple enjoyment, rather than
science or accusation. Finally, thematic coherence is the relevance of certain themes: if
the brands are often focused on by the camera and mentioned during the story, the tale
is about a brand, rather than about chemical ingredients. The same fact – the
explosion of Coke once Mentos are added – can told in very different ways. Narrative
analysis can take into account this variety.

Conclusions and limits


New media like YouTube add a new field of study for different streams of research,
such as reader-response theory (Scott, 1994b), the coding/decoding model (Hall, 1980)
and the subculture of consumption (Kozinets, 2001). The narrative analysis can be a
useful perspective to understand the YouTube phenomenon. Naturally narrative
analysis has some limitations:
.
Once a YouTube video is considered as a story, the researcher has still to define
the specific method to apply to understand that story. In fact, unlike other
methodological approaches, narrative analysis present different ways of
application and different references (such as Propp, Bal, Riessman, just to
mention some of the sources).
. The stories that can be told in a YouTube video are so varied that it may be difficult
to reach a sufficient validity in the interpretation by the researcher. Is the
Coke-Mentos video a representation of irony or a form of protest against marketing?
Narrative analysis could produce different results from different researchers.
QMRIJ More quantitative method, like content analysis, would assure more valid and
11,2 reliable results. However, narrative analysis can provide a richer interpretation that
can lead to further insights.

Given the richness of YouTube and the limits of narrative analysis, researchers can
employ different methods to study YouTube. Narrative analysis can complement other
224 methods.
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Notes
1. For instance, an episode of the TV series “The Simpsons” is posted almost in its entirety:
www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ 83Wem49Cl4k
2. TV series Grey’s Anatomy re-edited: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ 8vSWGNqI-sI
3. Heineken beer crash filmed as a naturalistic phenomenon: www.youtube.com/
watch?v ¼ XuplRvI1Sog
4. Mentos-Coke experiment: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ hKoB0MHVBvM
5. Romantic video-story using Harry Potter and X-Files characters, Peter Gabriel’s song: www.
youtube.com/watch?v ¼ jWJmxUwXnX0
6. Harley Davidson rally: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ 7tpVfh4oPAc
7. Tricks and recipes for BBQ: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ ZgeASCOtecI
8. Alleged subliminal advertisement: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ LMzbwa6PvEE
9. Spoofed iPod launch: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ 2Uo_4kyrkDc
10. Charlie Chaplin: www.youtube.com/watch?v ¼ JW7YLPED0wc
11. Quite a few citations of YouTube are present in academic journals, both marketing-related
and other. By using YouTube as keyword for searching the extensive database EBSCO, the
results for academic journals are just four articles. This fact indicates a lack of any
consolidated theory.
12. Traditional TV broadcasters are going to expand their presence in YouTube. CBS, for
instance, has its own channel in YouTube where it distributes portions of some shows like
the well known David Letterman Late Night Show.
13. Our translation from the original “Non tutti i fenomeni comunicativi sono spiegabili con le
categorie della linguistica” (cit. in Rutelli, p 139).

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About the author


Stefano Pace is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Università Bocconi, Milan, Italy, where he
obtained his PhD in Business Administration and Management. His current research interests
are brand communities and service marketing. His works have been published in international
journals such as International Marketing Review, European Journal Marketing, Group Decision
and Negotiation, European Management Journal. Stefano Pace can be contacted at: stefano.
pace@unibocconi.it

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