The dark side of the gift

John F. Sherry, Mary Ann McGrath, Sidney J. Levy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

165 Scopus citations


Probing of the semiotic significance of gift exchange behaviors has recently been resumed. The symbolic exchange value of the gift is especially amenable to investigation via ethnographic methods and projective techniques. In this paper, negativity and ambivalence in gift exchange, a theme derived from a comparative ethnographic study of two midwestern American gift stores, are refined and elaborated through projective analysis. What emerges is a more balanced and comprehensive account of gift giving than presently available in the literature of consumer-object relations. Gift giving and receiving engender high levels of anxiety among consumers. Gifts create and exacerbate interpersonal conflict. They are frequently used as weapons, and consumers' responses to them are carefully canalized. The ways in which negativity is managed by donors and recipients are examined. Consumers, victims of sentiment and symbolism, are found to be entrapped in rituals and enjoined by cultural ideology from expressing discontent in most ways except fantasy. The impact of such fantasy on gift giving, and its relevance for marketers, is explored in this article.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)225-244
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Business Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Marketing


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