Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: Does Television Make Us More Materialistic?
by L. J. Shrum
University of Texas at San Antonio
James E. Burroughs
University of Virginia
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Overview of the Research
Americans have long held a strong affection for television. The most recent Nielsen statistics indicate that we watch over 30 hours per week, on average, or just over 4 hours per day. However, this affair with television could also be considered a “love/hate” relationship, as studies have reported that over 20% of adults and 70% of children believe they watch too much television. For the most part, people feel that television is poor quality entertainment, and that their time could be better spent on more rewarding leisure activities or more worthy pursuits in general.
However, research also indicates that there may be detrimental effects of television viewing other than simply displacing more desired activities. Social scientists have frequently pointed to research that shows that the content of what we view, not just the act of viewing, may have undesired results. Specifically, television has been implicated in helping foster increased violence, the breakdown of family and sexual mores, and a superficial emphasis on money and status.
In this article, we investigate the affect of frequent viewing of television programs on the adoption of materialistic values. The logic is as follows. Television portrays wealth and affluence frequently and positively. When researchers conduct content analysis (a method in which television images are systematically surveyed and coded), they find that the world of television is a much wealthier, more affluent one than the real world. Few popular television programs (other than the occasional movie or documentary) focus on poor people. One may find programs that feature “working class” characters, but even a close examination of these characters’ lives usually shows them to be getting by quite well. But more often what we find are programs that a) feature wealthy people (e.g., Las Vegas), b) portray wealth and affluence in a positive way (e.g., The Apprentice), and c) even glorify the acquisition and consumption of materials goods and services (e.g., The Bachelor). Given these frequent and positive portrayals of what are essentially materialistic values, we predicted that frequent viewing would lead to more materialistic values.
However, we were also interested in going beyond the mere determination of whether there is a relation between frequency of viewing and materialistic values. We were also interested in determining how this effect occurs. For example, when we are making a purchase decision, we may recall information that we learned from television and use that information to make our decision. Alternatively, the influence of television may occur while we are actually viewing. That is, as we view portrayals of desirable products, or see wealth and affluence consistently paired with luck, success, and happiness, we may (consciously or unconsciously) update our attitudes and our value systems to place more importance on material values.
To test these questions, we conducted two studies. One was a national survey of randomly sampled Americans, and the other was a laboratory experiment with college students. For the national survey, we asked respondents a series of questions that attempted to measure the following variables: 1) how much television they watch in an average week; 2) their level of materialism; 3) how much they tend to pay attention to programs while they view; and 4) how much they tend to think about and elaborate on things in general (which would include television programs).
Our findings supported our initial expectations. First, we found that the more people watch television, the more materialistic they are. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that frequent viewing of particular television content (e.g., violence) results in the adoption of attitudes, values, and behaviors consistent with that content. However, we also found another important finding. The relation between television viewing and materialism was greater for those who tend to pay more attention while viewing, and it was also greater for those who tend to elaborate more while viewing. These findings are important for at least two reasons. One, it clearly suggests that the effects are occurring during viewing, as opposed to later at the time of purchase. As we discuss below, this has implications for how we might combat these effects. Two, the findings are important because they reduce the chances that the finding we observed (viewing increases materialism) was actually the other way around (materialism causes viewing). That is, it could be that more materialistic people are simply drawn to the materialistic images on television. However, this explanation has difficulty explaining the other effects we observed. Rather, these effects are most likely to be observed when television viewing is influencing materialism.
In the second, laboratory study, we conducted an experiment in which we showed half our subjects a highly materialistic movie (Wall Street) and the other half a highly non-materialistic movie (Gorillas in the Mist). We then measured a number of the same variables that we measured in the first study. This study confirmed our previous findings that heavy viewers who elaborate extensively during viewing (i.e., those who are most affected by television), tend to produce the most positive reactions to materialistic portrayals.
Significance of the Research
This research is significant to the discipline of consumer research because it provides evidence that television viewing often has unintended effects on the perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and value systems of viewers. Although this contention is not a new one, our research provides more convincing evidence that the television viewing is the real causal variable and not some other unmeasured variable or a result of reverse causality.
Implications of the research for consumers
The findings of this research have important implications for consumers. First, it shows that television viewing can have detrimental effects (i.e., increasing materialism) of which we may not be aware. Second, our research suggests that consumers can reduce their level of materialism by reducing the amount of time they spend in front of their television. However, television viewing trends suggest that few Americans are willing or able to do this. As an alternative remedy, our results suggest that because the effects we observed occur while we view, viewers may combat materialism by being aware of what they are watching and its possible effects, and resisting the urge to fantasize about the affluent lifestyles portrayed on TV -- in other words, reminding ourselves that the television world is distorted. Of course, this may not be a particularly enjoyable way to watch TV, as most viewers like to “suspend disbelief” when watching a fantasy or fiction program in order to maximize enjoyment. Nevertheless, reminding ourselves of the possible effects of what we have viewed may help reduce its effects.
References and additional sources of information
Kasser, Tim (2002), The High Price of Materialism, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Schor, Juliet B. (2004), Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, New York: Scribner.
Shrum, L. J. ed. (2004), The Psychology of Entertainment Media: Blurring the Lines Between Entertainment and Persuasion. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Shrum, L. J., James E. Burroughs, & Aric Rindfleisch (2005), “Television’s Cultivation of Material Values,” Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (December), 473-479.