Fordham Business SchoolMy Job Interview for Fordham Business School

Back in 2011, as an anthropologist, I was employed at BBDO advertising, after years of working in similar agencies as director of consumer insights. I wanted to make the ‘jump’ to academia. I thought the skills and practices that I learned in consumer research could be taught in a business school. So, to make an academic connection, I contacted one of the senior account directors at BBDO, Paul Reilly, who had received his undergraduate degree at Fordham and was on the Fordham Business School advisory board in NYC. I asked Paul if he could introduce me to John Carrey, a professor of Media Communications, who was his friend. When Paul introduced us, I offered to give a lecture to a class on how anthropological approaches to consumer research can help reveal deeper insights into consumer behavior and help in developing media messages.

John Carrey reached out to me, asking, “What does anthropology and its theories offer to the area of media communications?”

I replied, “Much of how we communicate and learn on a daily basis is through the use of metaphors. Media messages in advertising often draw on metaphoric imagery and associations to communicate a consumer benefit for a product or service. If you are interested, I will talk about an ad campaign that used metaphors; I can show the class the research I did for Mobile One synthetic motor oil.”

My introduction and brief pitch got me the class gig.

In class, I presented slides to students that explained how metaphors have been harnessed for decades by various corporate firms to guide a company’s mission, to shape its storytelling, and create an internal  culture. I said effective metaphors also communicate what the ideal of a brand (it’s ultimate aspirational expression) can be to consumers, so metaphors are frequently used in advertising.

I discussed a pitch at BBDO for Mobile One synthetic motor oil and how prior research that my team conducted led to an understanding of people’s relationship to cars via engine oil.

The challenge is, I explained, is that Mobil One is a synthetic oil that is longer lasting and better for the environment, as it can be reused and doesn’t need to be changed as frequently as ordinary engine oil. The background information we received from previous messaging on Mobile One was that it offers superior lasting protection for engines.  The psychological motivation for changing engine oil is that it lets people feel in control, and gives them greater assurance, confidence, peace of mind. I wanted to study the practice culturally.

In the class, I said we conduced ethnographic research with car mechanics, oil change centers, and customers that change their own oil or take their car to a service station.

I wanted to show that an anthropological perspective can reveal consumer experience with motor oil in a different light and that cultural analysis poses a different set of questions.

So rather than ask in interviews specifically about motor oil such as what are qualities of a good motor oil, or how you feel when you change your motor oil (psychological motivations). My team asked a very basic cultural question: what is a car? This question seems so obvious and even dumb, but part of cultural analysis is “making the familiar, strange.”

We discovered that people’s relationship with their cars runs deep. Cars in America have strong cultural meanings.

We learned about cultural practices, rituals, behaviors around cars. An emic view of car owners revealed that owners treat their car not as a thing but as a living personality:

  • Cars are animate entities with feelings, agency, actions of their own
  • Cars are often named
  • Owners develop intimate relationships with cars
  • Cars get treated as a member of the family

I told the class that media messages conveyed to audiences were most relevant when we conveyed this learning. We developed advertising messages at BBDO that used the metaphoric language of family to imply that your car is part of your family.

This offered Mobil One synthetic motor oil a new way for customers to relate to their car. Changing the car’s engine oil gives back to your car for all the things it does for you, so it expresses care, like protecting a family member to keep the relationship alive and happy.

The class really enjoyed the lecture, and I was later offered a position at Fordham for teaching Consumer Insights.

About the Author: Timothy Malefyt

Timothy Malefyt
Timothy de Waal Malefyt (PhD Anthropology, Brown) is Clinical Professor of Marketing at Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University. Previously, he held executive positions as VP, Director of Consumer Insights at BBDO and D’Arcy advertising agencies, where he led teams to explore cultural approaches to consumer research for developing brand and strategic insights. Tim was conference co-organizer for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC 2014) and has hosted the Business Anthropology Summit (2019) and AAA Career Readiness Commission Conference (2022) at Gabelli. His five books include Advertising Cultures (2003); Advertising and Anthropology (2012); Ethics in the Anthropology of Business (2017); Magical Capitalism (2018); and Women, Consumption and Paradox (2020), as well as numerous other publications. A Fulbright award grantee, he enjoys frequent presentations at conferences, and serves on a number of editorial boards.