Does Television Viewing Promote Materialism? Cultivating American Perceptions of the Good Life

James E. Burroughs, University of Virginia (McIntire)
L. J. Shrum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Aric Rindfleisch, University of Arizona
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - There have been few technological developments in the past century that have had as widespread and profound an impact on contemporary culture as television. Television has been widely implicated in helping to usher in an age of consumer culture. In fact, the average American will spend 15% of their waking lives tuned to television and its abundant images of lavish homes, fancy cars and conspicuous consumption (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi 1990). However the empirical evidence linking television viewing to materialism is weak. A few studies have been conducted (see e.g. Richins 1987, Sirgy et al. 1998), but there has been surprisingly little research on this topic. Moreover, past studies of television and materialism have been beset by a number of limitations such as poor reliability in key measures. This research draws on cultivation theory in developing a theoretical account of the linkage between television viewing and materialism. It is hypothesized that a mediated set of relationships exists where, heavy television viewing leads to materialism, which leads, in turn, to diminished life-satisfaction. It is further hypothesized that the link between television viewing and materialism will be moderated by attention to social comparison information and attention while viewing.
[ to cite ]:
James E. Burroughs, L. J. Shrum, and Aric Rindfleisch (2002) ,"Does Television Viewing Promote Materialism? Cultivating American Perceptions of the Good Life", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 442-443.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 442-443

DOES TELEVISION VIEWING PROMOTE MATERIALISM? CULTIVATING AMERICAN PERCEPTIONS OF THE GOOD LIFE

James E. Burroughs, University of Virginia (McIntire)

L. J. Shrum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Aric Rindfleisch, University of Arizona

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

There have been few technological developments in the past century that have had as widespread and profound an impact on contemporary culture as television. Television has been widely implicated in helping to usher in an age of consumer culture. In fact, the average American will spend 15% of their waking lives tuned to television and its abundant images of lavish homes, fancy cars and conspicuous consumption (Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi 1990). However the empirical evidence linking television viewing to materialism is weak. A few studies have been conducted (see e.g. Richins 1987, Sirgy et al. 1998), but there has been surprisingly little research on this topic. Moreover, past studies of television and materialism have been beset by a number of limitations such as poor reliability in key measures. This research draws on cultivation theory in developing a theoretical account of the linkage between television viewing and materialism. It is hypothesized that a mediated set of relationships exists where, heavy television viewing leads to materialism, which leads, in turn, to diminished life-satisfaction. It is further hypothesized that the link between television viewing and materialism will be moderated by attention to social comparison information and attention while viewing.

According to cultivation theory, heavy television viewers come to rely on what they see on television as representative of reality (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan and Signorielli 1986). Since the images portrayed on television tend to be exaggerated and fictitious, heavy television viewers come to have a distorted perception of the world. In other words, television "cultivates" reality. Applied to the case of materialism, it is suggested that because television programming and advertising contain so many images of luxury and material indulgence, heavy viewers come to believe that the average person is wealthier than they actually are. In their attempt to be normal, heavy television viewers increase their consumption. They become more materialistic. Unfortunately, for the average person, this high level of consumption cannot be sustained. Income becomes overtaxed, debt increases, and consumption must be curbed. Meanwhile the materialistic images on television continue unabated. Th viewer is left wondering how they got left behind. Unhappiness and dissatisfaction follow.

The strength of the relationship between television viewing and materialism appears to vary considerably across individuals. Thus it is useful to search for other factors which might moderate this relationship. Since the viewer must take these images on television and somehow processes them it is suggested that the more actively a viewer processes the information from television, the stronger the cultivation effect should become. Thus, attention would appear to be an important moderator of the televisionCmaterialism link. In this research, attention is considered from two perspectives: first, how much attention is specifically paid while viewing, and, second, how much attention is paid to material images generally (i.e. attention to social comparison information). It is believed that both of these variables will strengthen the connection between television viewing and materialism. As a potential alternative explanation, the research also considered if introversion, rather than materialism, mediates the relationship between television viewing and life-satisfaction. Introversion has been linked to both increased television viewing and decreased well-being (see Finn 1997 and Diener, Sandvik, Pavot, and Fujita 1992 respectively).

To test the proposed relationships a national survey was undertaken. 1500 surveys were mailed out to individuals all across the United States, and just over 300 of them were returned. The survey contained measures of television viewing level, materialism, life-satisfaction, attention while viewing, attention to social comparison information, and a host of other, related variables. The relationship between television viewing, materialism, and life-satisfaction was tested using tests of mediation prescribed by Baron and Kenny (1986). The results suggest that materialism mediates the relationship between television viewing and life-satisfaction. This hypothesis was confirmed when the relationship between television viewing and life-satisfaction disappeared once materialism was included in the model (the p-value changes from less than .01 to greater than .05). When moderators of the television viewingCmaterialism relationship were examined, there was a significant (p<.05) interaction between television viewing levels and attention while viewing. Simple slope analysis (Aiken and West 1991) showed that higher attention while viewing increases the effect television viewing has on materialism. Attention to social comparison information does not appear to moderate the television viewingCmaterialism relationship. Finally, it appears that introversion can be ruled out as an alternative explanation as it is statistically unrelated to television viewing (p>.05).

Our results suggest that television viewing cultivates distorted material perceptions and expectations. This finding is important because it harbors negative implications for life-satisfaction. Other research has examined these linkages, but none have specifically tested for mediation using the type of stringent approach outlined by Baron and Kenny. Our findings come at a time when marketers are penetrating the classroom with television programming and commercials. This raises alarm about long-term psychological consequences of television programming on our youth. Finally, our findings suggest that the relationship between television viewing and materialism is not automatic. Attention while viewing is an important moderating factor. This stands somewhat in contrast to recent television and advertising research, which has tended to emphasize low-attention effects. Careful consideration must also be given to the role of active processing in understanding television’s influences, at least with respect to materialism.

REFERENCES

Aiken, Leona S. and Steven G. West (1991), Multiple Regression: Testing and Interpreting Interactions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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Diener, Ed, Ed Sandvik, William Pavot, and Frank Fujita (1992), "Extraversion and Subjective Well-Being in a U.S. National Probability Sample," Journal of Research in Personality, 26, 205-215.

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