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The Power of Reruns

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

We know how the story ends: Carrie chooses Mr. Big, Bella picks Edward, Harry weds Sally, and Rhett doesn’t give a damn.

We know the puffy shirt punch line, so why do we tune in to 20-year-old reruns of Seinfeld—the ratings for which eclipse some first-run TV shows? Why do we turn the tattered pages of that beloved copy of Pride and Prejudice again and again? Why is It's a Wonderful Life as much a part of our holiday traditions as eggnog and family squabbles?

Here’s a plot twist: the answer isn’t nostalgia.

Kogod marketing professor Cristel Russell is among the first to study re-consumption, the conscious repetition of an experience. (Previous research has focused solely on habitual, addictive, and ritualistic experiences.) According to Russell—whose work with the University of Arizona’s Sidney Levy was just accepted to the Journal of Consumer Research—most people don’t turn to their favorite movies and books to remember where they’ve been, but rather to reflect on how far they’ve come.

“The object you’re consuming is the looking glass—it allows you to appreciate how you’ve changed or evolved,” she explains. “If you reread The Da Vinci Code after a trip to Paris, your perspective will change, you’ll appreciate the story in a whole new way.”

Russell and Levy interviewed 23 people in the United States and New Zealand about a variety of re-consumption experiences: rereading a book, rewatching TV shows and movies, and revisiting geographic locations. Through their narratives—including a teenager who watched Titanic a staggering 100 times—the researchers identified five categories of re-consumption:

  • Regressive: replicating a previous experience in order to return to a former state
  • Progressive: revisiting an experience in order to affirm, confirm, or disconfirm an impression left by the experience
  • Reconstructive: refreshing or reconstructing a memory that has evanesced or been forgotten
  • Relational: sharing the experience with new people in order to enhance one’s own appreciation
  • Reflective: revisiting and reconsidering previous interpretations in order to meditate and grow

While Russell’s research explains why so many women turn to Bridget Jones's Diary to work through a breakup (or Thelma and Louise, depending on how bad the boyfriend), it’s also raised new questions. What other objects do people revisit? Are some people more likely than others to re-consume a book or film? How prevalent are these behaviors?

DVD sales only tell half the story, Russell explains. Although the majority of DVDs are purchased by people who’ve previously seen a film, they can remain unwrapped and unwatched for years. “Sales don’t give you the full experience of an object.” More qualitative research is key, she says.

“I was fascinated that all the people we interviewed thought they were alone. They would say, ‘I’m sure I’m the only one who does this . . .’” Russell says. “Modern society is all about new things and evolving technology. People feel weird when they don’t try something new and, instead, stick to what they know and love. They’re afraid of other people’s perceptions.”

That said, all the interviews had a happy ending.

“After telling me about their favorite novels,” Russell says with a warm laugh, “they’d all say, ‘gee, I really need to read that again.’”