Are Americans Becoming More Materialistic? a Look At Changes in Expressions of Materialism in the Popular Literature of the Post-World War Ii Era

Monroe Friedman, Eastern Michigan University
ABSTRACT - Are Americans becoming more materialistic? A review of three content analyses of popular American literature in the postwar era revealed that the answer may depend on how materialism is defined. Two types of materialism were distinguished (commercial and non-commercial) and summary results were reported which suggest increasing emphasis on one (commercial materialism) but not the other (non-commercial materialism).
[ to cite ]:
Monroe Friedman (1985) ,"Are Americans Becoming More Materialistic? a Look At Changes in Expressions of Materialism in the Popular Literature of the Post-World War Ii Era", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 385-387.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 385-387

ARE AMERICANS BECOMING MORE MATERIALISTIC? A LOOK AT CHANGES IN EXPRESSIONS OF MATERIALISM IN THE POPULAR LITERATURE OF THE POST-WORLD WAR II ERA

Monroe Friedman, Eastern Michigan University

The author wishes to thank the many student assistants who helped with the data collection and analysis for this study over the past few years. Additional thanks is due to Eastern Michigan University and the University of Tilburg (The Netherlands) for their support of this research.

ABSTRACT -

Are Americans becoming more materialistic? A review of three content analyses of popular American literature in the postwar era revealed that the answer may depend on how materialism is defined. Two types of materialism were distinguished (commercial and non-commercial) and summary results were reported which suggest increasing emphasis on one (commercial materialism) but not the other (non-commercial materialism).

INTRODUCTION

A preoccupation on the part of ordinary Americans with materialistic values and lifestyles has been noted and discussed by scholars and intellectuals for many years. Indeed, in 1605, the British playwrights George Chapman and John Marston had one of the characters in their theatrical comedy, Eastward Ho, refer to life in the colony of Virginia as follows:

I tell thee, gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us... Why, man, all their dripping pans are pure gold; and all their chains with which they chain up their streets are massy gold...and for rubies and diamonds they go forth on holidays and gather 'em by the seashore to hang on their children's coats (Potter 1954. p. 78).

Although exaggerated to make a point this excerpt reflects an underlying materialistic theme which has been sounded over the years in such classics as de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Veblin's Theory of the Leisure Class, Potter's People of Plenty and Gorer's The American PeoPle. To illustrate, Gorer, writing almost four centuries later than Chapman and Marston, emphasized the importance of material things in the lives of Americans as follows:

To improve the design and increase the supply of things adapted to man's use and enjoyment is the most important object of life. This object is pursued with a fervor and a sense of dedication which in other societies and other times have been devoted to the search for holiness and wisdom, or to warfare (1964, p. 158).

Similar quotations could be cited throughout American history including the present decade of the 1980's. In their contemporary versions terms such as materialism have been replaced by consumptionism and consumerism (e.g., Ewen 1976) to denote what some observers have seen as an American preoccupation with the acquisition and use of consumer goods and services.

Recently scholarly attention to materialistic values in American life has been exhibited at the level of the individual and the level of society. At the individual level, psychologists Csikszentimihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) have distinguished between "terminal materialism" (consumption for the sake of consumption) and "instrumental materialism" (acquisition or consumption as a means for discovering or furthering non-materialistic goals). At the societal level, historians have dealt with materialistic values by attempting to understand the cultural structures which have spawned them. For example, Boorstin (1973) has coined the term "consumption communities" to refer to communities based on communalities in consumption patterns (e.g., brands acquired and used) rather than residential location. Moreover, Fox and Lears (1983) and their colleagues have recently addressed the task of defining the consumer culture of twentieth century America and tracing its historical roots.

A primary question of concern to this paper is the nature of such concepts as materialism, consumptionism and consumer culture, and how they relate to American life in the post-World War II era. Of particular interest is whether Americans have exhibited increasing concern with the commercial manifestations of materialism, i.e., consumer goods and services, over the course of the postwar era.

In an effort to address these questions this paper reports summary findings for three content analyses of brand name and generic name usage in popular American cultural productions. The first study looked at the texts of 31 bestselling novels, the second examined the scripts of 28 long-run Broadway plays and the third focused on the lyrics of 256 hit songs. In each of the three studies objective data were used to document popularity and the samples selected drew upon works published at various times throughout the postwar period.

Due to space limitations the background and methodology of only one study are detailed herein (the study of bestselling novels). Since the origins and procedures for all three studies were similar this is not seen as a serious limitation. Following this section of the paper, summary findings for the three studies are presented and discussed.

BACKGROUND AND METHODOLOGY

In recent years critics have expressed concern about what they perceive as the deleterious effects of advertising and other commercial practices on language and culture. Typically, however, the quality of evidence cited by these critics to support their charges has fallen short of customary scholarly standards, consisting largely of anecdotes and unconfirmed subjective impressions .

The bestselling novel study was the first in a series of objective research efforts aimed at generating an historical data base which might permit a more meaningful discussion of the commercialization question. The study sought to understand the impact of commercial practices on popular language in the United States by examining the usage made since World War II of brand names in the texts of popular novels.

The major hypothesis of the study is of special interest since it served as a basis for formulating the major hypotheses of the two remaining studies in the series of research efforts. Since a primary objective of most consumer-oriented advertising is the identification and subsequent purchase by consumers of a particular brand-name product ("Don't say beer, say Bud"), it seemed reasonable to hypothesize that success in reaching this objective for thousands of business firms over the years had been accompanied by an elevation of the level of consumer familiarity with and usage of brand names in everyday language. In light of the unavailability of a representative sample of transcripts of telephone conversations or records of written correspondence between friends or relatives over a substantial period of time, it was decided to explore this hypothesis by examining a surrogate. Bestselling novels were selected as the surrogate since they were available over the 30-year period of interest to the study and their popular success with the American public (McElroy 1968, Sharon 1973) strongly suggested that the language used in these books was appropriate for the times in which they were published.

The study sample consisted of 31 fictional best-sellers (defined as a million or more copies sold) published between 1946 and 1975. They were selected using several criteria. To assure that each book in the sample reflected the events and circumstances of its time of publication, it was decided that all 31 books selected for the study would be set (at least in part) in contemporary America. It was also decided that each of the books selected would be the product of an American author writing at an early stage of his or her career as a novelist; and indeed, almost all of the books selected were first novels. (The later criterion was employed to exclude the products of "formula writers" such as Erle Stanley Gardner who, over a series of decades, penned dozens of bestselling Perry Mason mysteries each of which was deliberately designed to avoid being tied to a particular time period.) Finally, books were excluded from the sample if they were set in institutional environments (e.g., mental hospitals, army bases, or homes for the aged) outside of the mainstream of American life. Application of the above mentioned criteria to the total population of several hundred bestselling American novels published in the 1946-75 period led to the 31 eligible entries which constituted the study sample.

STUDY FINDINGS

A content analysis of the contemporary American segments of each of the 31 books (the whole book in most instances) uncovered strong support for the major hypothesis of the study in that the total number and variety of brand names (per 10,000 words of text) had each undergone a striking exponential rise over the 30-year period study. In particular, the books published in the 1970's were more than 500% higher than the books published in the 1940's on each of the two measures of brand name usage (total number and variety) employed in the study.

Additional data were secured and analyzed to test the generalizability of the study findings from brand names to their generic counterparts, and from usage in popular literature to usage in popular language (as reported by American college students). With regard to the first question, these data revealed t - the generic counterparts of the brand names (e.g., car instead of Chevrolet) had not experienced parallel increases in usage over the 30-year period of study. With regard to the second question, a survey of college students found that their reports of the relative frequencies with which they used the individual brand names found in the study in their everyday conversations were in substantial agreement with the relative frequencies with which the 31 authors used these same brand names in their bestselling books. These data are a source of validative encouragement for the study findings since they suggest that the use of brand names in written language by popular authors may not be markedly different from their use by more typical individuals in the natural context of conversation.

Finally, a finding emerged from the data which was not hypothesized and this was a tendency for brand names associated with consumer products high in value expressiveness, such as automobiles and magazines (Lessig and Park 1978, Munson and Spivey 1981), to appear far more frequently than those low on this dimension.

When the results of the bestselling novel study were examined alongside those uncovered by the studies of popular plays and song hits, several findings emerged which offer support for the following empirical generalizations:

1. Since World War II, marked increases have occurred in the number and variety of brand names appearing in popular American literature.

2. Since World War II, parallel increases have not occurred for generic name usage in the popular literature of America.

3. The brands most frequently mentioned in the texts of popular American literature in the postwar era represent products high on the psychological dimension of value expressiveness.

As evidence in support of the first generalization we note that for each of the three studies statistical analysis revealed that the correlations between copyright date (for each published work in a sample) and each of the two measures of brand name usage employed in the studies (number and variety of brand names per 10,000 words of text for each published work in a sample) were positive and significantly greater than zero. As evidence in support of the second generalization we note that for each of the three studies statistical analysis revealed that the correlations between copyright date (for each published work in a sample) and the measure of generic name usage employed in the study (number of generic names per 10,000 words of text for each published work in a sample) were not significantly greater than zero. As evidence in support of the third generalization we note that in each of the three studies the product whose brands were most frequently mentioned was either automobiles or magazines, and as we have indicated earlier, both have been found to rank very high on the dimension of value expressiveness.

DISCUSSION

It will be recalled that the primary goal of this paper is to advance understanding of materialism as it relates to American life in the postwar era. Of special concern is whether Americans since World War II have shown increasing interest in the physical manifestations of materialism, i.e.S consumer goods and services.

Before addressing these questions it is necessary to point out the limitations of the studies whose findings were discussed above. Perhaps most significant in this regard is our choice of a surrogate for linguistic behavior. As indicated earlier, three genres of popular American literature were selected to serve as surrogates for the linguistic behavior of ordinary Americans since World War II; although the findings of a survey of the linguistic behavior of college students were encouraging with regard to the appropriateness of this approach, we are by no means certain of its validity.

With this caveat in mind, we turn next to the task of answering the earlier posed question relating to whether materialism has increased in America since World War II. As we have seen, the answer to this question may depend on how one conceives of materialism. If one defines it in terms of the brand names associated with consumer products and services (commercial materialism), the study findings suggest that the answer may well be yes. All three studies, it will be recalled, found significant increases in brand name usage in the popular American literature since World War II. On the other hand, if one defines materialism in terms of the generic or ordinary names of consumer products and services (non-commercial materialism), the study findings suggest that the answer may well be no. For all three studies reported no significant increases in generic name usage in the popular literature of America since World War II.

While it is not altogether clear why the two types of materialism behaved so differently, it seems likely that the increasing signs of commercial materialism in the popular literature were due, at least in part, to two developments which emerged in the postwar era for the purpose of raising consumer consciousness of brand names. We refer to the dramatic increases in advertising expenditures which occurred during this period and the advent of commercial television as a leading carrier of advertising messages. What does seem clear, however, in light of the findings of the series of studies, is that social scientific and humanistic conceptualizations of materialism in American life may have to be broadened to acknowledge the distinction between its commercial and non-commercial manifestations.

REFERENCES

Boorstin, Daniel, J. (1973), The Americans: The Democratic Experience. New York: Random House, 145-148.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Eugene Rochberg-Halton (1981), The Meaning of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ewen, Stuart (1976), Captains of Consciousness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fox, Richard W. and T. J. Jackson, Eds. (1983), The Culture of ConsumPtion. New York: Pantheon, p. x.

Gorer, Geoffrey (1964), The American People. New York: U. U. Norton.

Lessig, V. Parker and C. Whan Park (1978), "Promotional Perspectives on Reference Group Influence: Advertising Implications," Journal of Advertising, 2, 41-47.

McElroy, Elizabeth W. (1968), "Subject Variety in Adult Reading," LibrarY Quarterly, 154-67.

Munson, J. Michael and W. Austin Spivey (1981), "Product and Brand-User Stereotypes among Social Classes," Journal of Advertising, 2, 37-48.

Potter, David M. (1954), People of PlentY. Chicago: The UniversitY of Chicago Press.

Sharon, Amiel T. (1973/74), "What do Adults Read?, Reading Research Quarterly, 9, 148-69.

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