Materialism and Magazine Advertising During the Twentieth Century

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia
ABSTRACT - Based on content analyses of U.S. magazine advertising it was found that the use of materialistic themes has increased while utilitarian appeals have decreased during the first eight decades of this century. While the type of materialism emphasized has generally been a more benign "instrumental materialism," there is some evidence of recent increases in "terminal materialism."
[ to cite ]:
Russell W. Belk and Richard W. Pollay (1985) ,"Materialism and Magazine Advertising During the Twentieth Century", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 394-398.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 394-398


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia

[The authors are grateful to the History of Advertising Archives housed at the University of British Columbia for access to the advertisements studied. The research collections of the Archives are funded by the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada.]


Based on content analyses of U.S. magazine advertising it was found that the use of materialistic themes has increased while utilitarian appeals have decreased during the first eight decades of this century. While the type of materialism emphasized has generally been a more benign "instrumental materialism," there is some evidence of recent increases in "terminal materialism."


Advertising has been described by Berger (1972) as an attempt to make us envious of the selves we might become if only we acquire the product or service advertised. This explanation may not apply to some institutional advertising, but it is a useful way to view the vast majority of advertising in which benefits are promoted as contingent upon acquiring the offering and as accruing to the buyer rather than to some third party. Even appeals to help or give to others, often imply that we will be better people for doing so.

The important thing to note in Berger's (1972) explanation, is that advertising attempts to link a sense of self to what we have or what we do. Since self concept is abstract, having and doing provide tangible evidences of who we are. In a small scale self-sufficient society, such evidences might be viewed as the natural emergence of an inner self (Belk 1984). But in a large scale consumer society, purchased products and services may actually create self. This is reflected in Sartre's (1956) belief that there is no inner core of self -- only a completely malleable nothingness that becomes whatever our possessions and experiences are thought to imply. There is feedback from others, but it is feedback based on our actions and possessions rather than on inner character. This view is also supported by Goffman's (1959) ideas about self-presentation and Bem's (1967) ideas about self-perception. In each perspective we use or examine the tangible evidences of our having and doing to shape inferences about the nature of our being


Even though having and doing may both involve products and services, they reflect different types of materialism. As a general trait, materialism is the tendency to view worldly possessions as important sources of satisfaction in life (Belk 1984b). Where the satisfaction or self-definition is thought to be derived from doing some activity enabled by the possession, the materialism involved is a relatively benign form termed "instrumental materialism" (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1980). However, when having the possession is the end in itself, the materialism involved is a potentially more destructive form that Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) labeled "terminal materialism."

Terminal materialism is potentially the more destructive type because it is the most likely to result in such specific materialistic traits as envy, possessiveness, nongenerosity, miserliness, greet, jealousy (of one's possessions), and perhaps the tendency to treat people as possessions. Instrumental materialism may also lead to negative specific traits including prodigality, gluttony, and the acquisitive pursuit of experiences. But even though these traits may be equally selfish, they are less likely than the terminal materialistic traits to negatively affect others. There is also some thought that the doing focus of instrumental materialism is more intimately related to sense of being (Allard 1976) and is more rewarding and less burdensome than the having focus of terminal materialism (Hirschman 1982, Linden 1979, MacDougal 1983).

It is more difficult to develop arguments in favor of terminal materialism, but some of its seemingly negative traits have been defended. For instance, envy has been defended as a natural mechanism allowing us to identify our wants (Smith and Whitfield 1983) and as promoting achievement motivation to fulfill these wants (Foster 1972, Lyman 1978, Sabini and Silver 1982). And since possessiveness involves a tendency to retain one's possessions, an absence of possessiveness might be thought of as careless, wasteful, or irrationally ascetic.

In general, however, materialism (both types) has been treated as a negative value (see Belk 1983). In addition, America has traditionally been characterized as being more materialistic than any other part of the world (DuBois 1955). There is also a popular view that Americans have become more materialistic since 1970 (Wolfe 1976, Jones 1980, Yankelovich 1981). However, rather than increasing the terminal materialism of our culture, there is some speculation that the terminal materialistic desire to have has decreased while the instrumental materialistic desire to do has increased (Campbell 1981, Seguela 1982, Rose 1984). These speculations are based either on the assumption that the marginal utility of having decreases in a society of abundance (Scitovsky 1976), or on the self-definitional argument that having failed to find who we are through possessions, we are turning to consumPtiOn in seeking an identity.


A major determinant of changes in American materialism may well be advertising. Lears (1983) contends that between 1880 and 1930, consumer advertising succeeded in bringing about a culture of consumption or more accurately, a culture of possessions) in which having things replaced religion as a way of finding meaning in life. Lasch (1979) and Handlin (1979) note that a part of this alleged macro effect of advertising was to convince people that buying things like clothing, foods, and soap was superior to making these items. Another macro effect of advertising in twentieth century America may have been to shift any remaining interest in finding self through doing from a locus in the world of work to a locus in the world of leisure. In attempting to market an expanding array of leisure goods and activities, it has been suggested that advertising helped to undermine the Protestant Ethic of virtue through hart work and savings (Albee 1977, 1978). Besides leisure, extraordinary comfort and luxury are thought to have been increasingly promoted and increasingly accepted during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as replacements for the traditional Protestant Ethic (Williams 1982).

In addition to such appeals to individual hedonism, advertising may evoke awareness of social status and suggest status associations with having and doing. Status symbols are normally thought to be tangible products (Goffman 1951), but may also include such experiences as travel (MacCannell 1976, Nicosia and Mayer 1976, Greenwood 1977) and museum visits (Kelly forthcoming). because status symbols must not be freely available if they are to be effective in differentiating one's status from that of others (Douglas and Sherwood 1979), the items regarded as status symbols change (Brooks 1981) and may become less conspicuous with rising affluence (Mason 1981, Steiner and Weiss 1951). The role of advertising in the creation of new status symbols is to attempt to infuse a would-be status object with the symbolic image desired. A common way to do this is to associate the object with other objects or people recognized as already having high status. In this way it is hoped that the advertising audience may be made envious of the higher status product user and enticed to emulate that person in use of the advertised item.

Advertising then may promote an advertised item through terminally materialistic appeals to luxury and status or through instrumentally materialistic appeals to buy products and services that allow one to do new things or do old things more easily or quickly. In addition to the advertising copy about the product or service advertised, background illustrations of other products and related activities can also support these two types of materialism. However, not all advertising themes use either type of materialistic appeal. Appeals to nutrition, practicality, and friendship are among the alternatives. Generally, direct appeals to be a better person are also non-materialistic. Furthermore, what constitutes a status or luxury appeal at an early point in time when a product or service is scarce, expensive or new, may be a non-materialistic appeal to practicality later when the product has come to be widely adopted and regarded as more of a necessity. This means that an assessment of the materialistic values of an advertisement must also consider the historical context in which the ad appeared.

The present study does not attempt to distinguish between advertising's possible roles as cause and effect of changes in U.S. materialism. This is necessary because it is not possible to distinguish these roles in retrospective historical research. But even if advertising only reflects current material values, its materialistic themes would still be of interest since they would help to legitimize and reinforce the values reflected. Since advertising is not value-neutral, if it does not change cultural values then it tends to perpetuate them. The interpretation of advertising value changes would then be in terms of contemporaneous cultural value changes rather than as determinants of future cultural values. Nevertheless, while we cannot demonstrate the contention it seems an inescapable conclusion that advertising, especially in its cumulative, macro, and largely unintended effects, both mods and reflect consumer material values.


Based on advertising criticisms such as those by Lasch (1979) and Lears (1983), the general expectations was that advertisements would be found to have become increasingly materialistic over the period studied. Specifically, we expected the use of appeals to luxury and status to increase over the first eight decades of the twentieth century, and utilitarian appeals to practicality and efficiency to decrease.

The second concern we to examine whether instrumental (doing) or terminal (having) materialism were most emphasized over this period. Based on the arguments of Campbell (1981) and Seguela (1982), it was expected that doing themes would replace having themes as a dominant emphasis in advertising of the nineteen-seventies. It also seemed consistent with these arguments to expect the less materialistic themes directly emphasizing being to increase at the same time.



The study undertaken is a content analysis of advertising in popular American magazines during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. The ads studied were drawn from a population of 2000 magazine ads in the History of Advertising Archives. This parent sample is a random sampling of ads appealing in the ten largest circulation magazines during the five middle years of each of the first eight decades of this century (see Pollay 1983a for details). From this population, we selected for analysis the 411 ads portraying the interior or exterior of a home. The 411 ads showing the home were not evenly distributed across the eight decades, as shown in Table 1.



Since we wished to examine the illustrations as well as the copy themes of these ads, advertisements showing no setting were not of interest. While we could have examined other settings such as work and travel scenes, the home was the single most ubiquitous setting and provided a constant frame of reference in which to investigate changes in materialism in advertising over an 80 Year period.


The analyses of these ads focused on objective visual counts (e.g., number of upholstered chairs shown) as well as more subjective judgments of themes and values (e.g., whether or not status appeals were used). Three graduate students performed both types of coding. After familiarizing themselves with coding instructions and training with a sample ad set, interjudge agreement averaged .85 for the objective codes and .95 for the subjective codes. Disagreements were broken by majority rule or (for objective codes) by r -examination of the ads.

The relevant coding definitions for the materialistic and non-materialistic themes of interest here were as follows:

Having theme - Either a person is displaying or referring to owned object(s) or a house or room is shown from eye level into which the viewer seems to be invited.

Doing theme -- Shows or discusses a reader activity that is aided or provided by the product or service.

Being theme -- Shows or discusses what the reader can become or how people will treat the reader with help of the product or service.

Luxury appeal -- Explicitly mentions luxury (or related terms such as leisure, pleasure, regal, or pampered or else depicts such pleasures visually (depictions should be judged to be clearly more comfortable, lavish, or opulent than most middle class homes of the same period).

Status appeal -- Shows or discusses prestige or social standing relative to others or uses high prestige source or association (e.g., a testimonial by a socially prominent spokesperson or the depiction of household help or a grand home).

Utilitarian appeal - Shows or discusses pragmatic product or service benefits such as practicality, efficiency, cleanliness, or hygiene.

Each of these codes were binary yes/no judgments. Codes were based on the entire ad including copy illustrations, foreground, and background.


Materialistic Versus Nonmaterialistic Appeals

Figure 1 shows the frequency with which materialistic luxury and status appeals and non-materialistic utilitarian appeals occurred over the eight decades. The non-materialistic utilitarian appeal is illustrated by slogans such as, "Easy washing in six minutes" (washing machine) and "If Everyone in This Family Used Pepsodent Antiseptic There Should be 50% Fewer Colds!" Such appeals were most common during the first decade (when a number of new products were promoted to replace doing household work by hand) and during the 1930's (when the aftermath of the Great Depression may have mate luxury appeals less palatable). It is interesting that during the first decade the introduction of products recently regarded as luxuries was based on utilitarian appeals. By the 1970's such utilitarian appeals were at their lowest point. In their place, the more materialistic appeal involving luxury has risen to prominence since its ebb in the 1930's. This appeal is illustrated by slogans such as, "Life's so bright when the air's just right" (air conditioning) and 'your most luxurious evening wrap" (Orlon blankets). Such appeals were also somewhat prominent in advertising of the first two decades of the century when the depiction of household servants and references to luxury were reasonably common. Status appeals are illustrated by slogans such as "Mrs. Nicholas Longworth on keeping one's appearance up to the mark (cold cream) and "We Peeked into the Kitchens of Fashionable Park Avenue and 389 out of 400 we found ROYAL" ( Baking Powder). Such appeals were common only during the Twenties and Thirties. This finding parallels findings of Pollay (1983b) using other coding and the full 2000 ad sample. It may seem paradoxical that status appeals were at their height during the Depression, but as Hearn (1977) notes, portraits of success during this era were also conducive to fantasizing and hoping for a better tomorrow.



Except for a resurgence during the 1920's and during World War II, these findings suggest a general decline in non-materialistic appeals during the period studied, while material appeals increased in frequency. The types of materialistic appeals varied however. Status appeals were only common during the twenties and thirties, while luxury appeals followed an opposite pattern, increasing in all decades except these and the 1960's. In one or another of these forms though, the materialism in U.S. print advertising appeals appears to have increased as hypothesized during the twentieth century.

Having, Being, and Doing

In order to examine whether this materialism tends to be of the healthier instrumental variety or the more destructive terminal variety, it is necessary to look at the thematic codes of having, being, and doing, as shown in Figure 2. Direct themes involving being were most common during the nineteen thirties and, to a lesser degree, the adjacent decades. Education, beauty, or self-improvement were typically involved. Perhaps self concepts needed such direct (i.e., non-symbolic) boosting during the successive value changes, depression, and war of these decades. With the exception of the thirties, themes involving the instrumental materialistic doing state of existence dominated the period studied. Leisure, housework, and cooking were the activities most often aided in these advertisements. However, such themes appear to have peaked in the nineteen fifties, while the terminally materialistic having theme has generally increased in frequency except during the thirties and turbulent sixties. Housing and furnishings were the most frequently shown products using these themes.



Thus, while the general answer to the question of the type of materialism promoted by these ads is that the more benign instrumental materialism is most common, there is some hint that, contrary to Campbell (1981) and Seguela (1982), it is now decreasing while terminal materialism is increasing. This may also be in evidence in the increased frequency with which ads show the product in isolation from settings and people. For the entire 2000 ad sample this percentage more than tripled from fifteen percent in the nineteen fifties to over forty-five percent in the nineteen seventies. To show the products without people and activities emphasizes the product for its own sake, and this is the spirit of terminal materialism.


There are certain obvious limitations to the present research. Besides excluding ads showing non-home settings, we have examined only print media, which have captured a decreasing portion of advertising budgets (J. Walter Thompson 19815. The specific types of materialistic themes examined here also ignore the cumulative impact of an increasing amount of advertising, an increasing array of products and services for sale, and an increasing variety of consumer goods already inventoried in our households. It is also apparent that non-advertising mass media as well as personal observations contribute to our material expectation.

There is, however, evidence in these findings to suggest an increased advertising emphasis on materialism. It is also evident that this materialistic emphasis has been more involved with instrumental themes of using the advertised items than with terminally materialistic themes of having the product for its own sake. If we have become a culture of consumption, it does not yet appear that this consumption is an end rather than a means to other ends. But it may be telling that during the allegedly narcissistic seventies terminal materialism in advertising themes increased while instrumental materialistic themes decreased.


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