Acculturation: the Impact of Divergent Paths on Buyer Behavior

Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois
Wei-Na Lee, University of Illinois
Ronald J. Faber, University of Texas
ABSTRACT - The concept of acculturation is central to the study of subcultures and their interaction with host societies. Yet, while buyer behaviorists have given this topic some attention, actual investigations involving subcultures have been largely descriptive, and conducted without the aid of a substantive theoretical model of the acculturation process. While this paper stops short of presenting a truly comprehensive model, and is developmental in nature, it does, however, suggest a fundamental reconceptualization of existing consumer acculturation theory. The thesis presented by this paper is that the consumer acculturation process may take multiple, simultaneous and less direct paths than previously modeled, the most significant of which may be the path offered by mass media.
[ to cite ]:
Thomas C. O'Guinn, Wei-Na Lee, and Ronald J. Faber (1986) ,"Acculturation: the Impact of Divergent Paths on Buyer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 579-583.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 579-583


Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois

Wei-Na Lee, University of Illinois

Ronald J. Faber, University of Texas


The concept of acculturation is central to the study of subcultures and their interaction with host societies. Yet, while buyer behaviorists have given this topic some attention, actual investigations involving subcultures have been largely descriptive, and conducted without the aid of a substantive theoretical model of the acculturation process. While this paper stops short of presenting a truly comprehensive model, and is developmental in nature, it does, however, suggest a fundamental reconceptualization of existing consumer acculturation theory. The thesis presented by this paper is that the consumer acculturation process may take multiple, simultaneous and less direct paths than previously modeled, the most significant of which may be the path offered by mass media.

"To understand human behavior we must specify its social origins and the process by which it is learned and maintained." (McLeod and O'Keefe 1972, 127-8).

"I watch TV." Chance the Gardner


The United States is presently becoming more ethnically heterogeneous. This is due, in large part, to high levels of Asian and Hispanic immigration. Both of these ethnic groups have brought with them languages other than English, as well as culturally bound attitudes, values and behaviors. Some of these cultural differences may be expressed in terms of buyer behavior. In response, many marketers are having to reconsider the manner in which they have traditionally approached and segmented their markets. Unfortunately, marketing researchers have paid relatively little attention to the concepts of ethnicity, subculture and consumer acculturation.

Previous research grounded in the so-called "melting pot" model has left us without any clear understanding of the agents and forces involved in the consumer acculturation process. For the most part, American social scientists modeled the acculturation process in terms of the immigrant's direct contact with the people and social institutions of the new host society; the greater the contact, the greater the acculturation. This approach, however, ignores the American immigrant as a consumer and tends to overstate the importance of the workplace and the school as agents of socialization. This model may have been adequate when it was developed, but in a consumer culture now pervaded by commercial mass media it is in clear need of revision. A workable model of consumer acculturation must, at a minimum, incorporate the indirect path offered by mass mediated socialization, as well as the traditional path of direct social contact.


A central and primary mechanism involved in the interaction of ethnic subcultures and host societies is the process of acculturation. Acculturation may be defined as the immigrant's adoption of the dominant society's attitudes, values and behaviors. Consumer acculturation is a subset of this process comprised of those attitudes, values and behaviors which collectively comprise what we call buyer behavior.

While some immigrants will retain a great many culturally bound attitudes, values and behaviors, others will more quickly and enthusiastically adopt those that define the dominant host culture. Some of this variance will undoubtedly be expressed along dimensions of buyer behavior. For this reason, level of consumer acculturation could begin to play an increasingly important role in marketing efforts targeted at ethnic populations. Marketers, for example, who now view the Hispanic market as one homogeneous and monolithic segment may have to re-evaluate their thinking and approach. Yet far more important than any application, is the hope that investigation of the consumer acculturation of immigrants may give us a better understanding of the larger consumer socialization process. By studying those new to a society, we are provided with a unique opportunity to investigate the mix of social forces which affect us all.

Certainly there is no doubt that what it means to became acculturated as an American includes learning the culturally accepted attitudes toward material goods and possessions. Much of who and what an American is determined by what he or she possesses, and the values those possessions express and convey to others . Immigrants who want to become acculturated must learn what things they should desire, and to a lesser extent, why.

While this paper does not represent a complete remodeling of the consumer acculturation process, it does suggest one major revision: the incorporation of the indirect path offered by mass mediated consumer socialization. Historical examples and cultural artifacts are used to support and illustrate this thesis. The paper also presents some developmental propositions regarding the effects of these divergent paths, as well as suggestions and implications for future research.


What buyer behaviorists use as a sort of working model of acculturation is largely the sociological model developed in the late 1920's and early 1930's (see Kimball 1955). It represented a major break with the anthropological functionalism and natural history of Boas, Benedict, Sapir and others (Hymes 1967). This sociological model is grounded in logical positivism and focused on the European immigrant to the United States . The psychological factors of acculturation were never explored much beyond a rather narrow view of social facilitation. It is, in short, an incomplete and outdated model. It is incapable of satisfactorily encompassing and dealing with such things as enduring ethnic subcultures, the institutionalization of biculturalism, and the pervasive and powerful effects of the mass media.

According to this facilitation model, the "successful" immigrant takes on the values, attitudes and behaviors of the host society through direct social contact with, and observation of its people and institutions. In the case of immigrant children, the public school system was viewed as the dominant agent of acculturation. There, immigrant children were taught the new ways by both teachers and peers. For immigrant adults, the Anglo-dominated workplace was thought to be the primary institution of acculturation. Even though the immigrant may have worked alongside other immigrants, they typically worked within the confines of an institution dominated by, and operated in accord with the norms of the dominant Anglo society. In these institutional settings the immigrant learned the formal as well as the informal rules of the new culture. Presumably, the old eventually succumbed to the new.

While significant theoretical revision seems warranted on many fronts, this paper will focus primarily on only one. It is, however, one of the most significant. In the United States there has been, ever since the turn of the century, a new path to acculturation via the pictorial mass media. This path was immediately accessible. The pictorial mass media were, and still are, enormously powerful and incredibly pervasive. Some argue that they have, in fact, become central is our everyday lives. Their incorporation into any contemporary model of consumer acculturation is an absolute essential. The development and the diffusion of the pictorial mass media have been described as nothing short of the single most important mass socialization event is this century (McCluhan 1964; DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach 1975). Certainly, their impact upon merging cultures should be considered as well.


Acculturation can be viewed as a subset of socialization. Socialization is a process by which the individual learns, adapts and conforms to society's norms, rules and expectations. However, when the situation involves a foreigner learning a new set of societal values rather than a native born person learning the expectations for a novel role, we tend to call the process acculturation rather than socialization.

In a society dominated by mass media, mass mediated socialization seems a virtual certainty. In the motion picture BEING THERE, Chance the Gardner (a.k.a. Chauncie Gardner) exemplifies a man totally socialized by television. Outside of the people in his master's home, he has only experienced the world through indirect means, or as Chance puts it: "I watch TV." Yet, Chance believes that he understands the world. Chance's social reality has been constructed by television and he lives by the rules of television logic. However, when he encounters the world directly, his behaviors set him apart. He behaves differently, still trying to operate according to the norms and social conventions acquired from television. While Chance is a fictionalized and extreme example, the point remains. Someone new to a society can derive a considerable degree of socialization via the electronic mass media. They need not always take the riskier path of direct contact with the host society sad its institutions. Prior to Mass Media America this simply wasn't the case. Successful acculturation was solely dependent upon direct contact ad observation. First films, and then television made a safer, more indirect path for acculturation. Yet, due to its contrived, hyperbolic, materialistic and blatantly commercial nature, its effect upon the way in which immigrants become "American consumers" must be significant.

Communication scholars have, for quite some time, been concerned with the effects the mass media have on the socialization process. However, their work has generally been limited to children. Originally, researchers concerned with childhood socialization looked only at the influence of individuals and institutions with which the child had direct contact. These included parents, schools and churches. However, as interest in mass media grew, scholars recognized that indirect mass mediated contact could also be socialization agent. Research evidence indicated that children could not only learn and model behaviors from watching television, but also learn societal values (e.g., DeFleur and DeFleur 1967).

More recently, mass communication researchers have suggested that media socialization may not be limited to just children, but may also occur with adolescents and adults (Faber, Brown and McLeod 1979; Ward 1972). In fact, for any novel role in which people do or expect to find themselves, some degree of socialization will occur. To the degree that direct experience or learning is difficult, or involves greater risk, anticipatory or concurrent socialization may occur via the mass media. For the immigrant who is faced with learning a new cultural value system, especially when a foreign language is involved, the pictorial media way play an extremely important role in socialization.

While not discounting the importance of direct experience, twentieth century America offered the immigrant something novel, acculturation not solely dependent upon direct experience and observation. Yet, current models of acculturation, particuLarly consumer acculturation, have largely failed to take this into account. Media content should be included in any attempt to explain the process by which those new to America, or to any mass mediated society, learn to "appropriately" behave as consumers of that culture.


This thesis can best be illustrated with the aid of historical examples. These examples will focus on two very significant periods of American immigration, the corresponding mass media environments, and the lessons of American materialism and consumption implicit in these messages. While making too strong a causal argument through the interpretation of cultural artifacts is an admitted danger, so too is overlooking or discounting them. Art and the artifacts of popular culture represent the creation and the expression of the men and women who collectively define cultures. They have meaning; it's not essential that we absolutely and definitively distinguish refLection from cause. The argument is fact superfluous (Belk 1986).

Filmed in the USA

Shortly after the turn of the century the United States experienced unprecedented level of immigration. In the first decade of the twentieth century one out of every one hundred Americans had been in the country one year or less (bureau of the Census 1976). Upon arrival, these immigrants were met with a novel entertainment medium: the motion picture. While some European immigrants may have seen early motion pictures in their native lands, it was in her indigenous films that the consumption ideals of America found vivid expression and portrayal.

American immigrants, at least at a functional level, but to learn the appropriate values and behaviors of their new host society, many of which were tied to notions of ownership and consumption. For some, this was essential for survival, for others it was a desired end in itself. In both cases, the motion picture offered assistance without requiring direct, and thereby, riskier, contact with mainstream America.

It was no accident that the motion picture found its first audience in the urban immigrant population. During its formative years the silent short was generally shown in a converted storefront (nickelodeon) located on the edge of the business district for an average price of five cents. It required no knowledge of English, and was an inexpensive diversion from the trudgery of everyday industrialized existence. For the immigrant, the movie also provided a very functional service by acting "as a guide to the newcomer on the manners and customs of his new environment" (Jowett 1976, 38). Gilbert Anderson who played the enormously popular silent screen cowboy "Broncho Billy," summed up this effect by crying that his films "taught young immigrants their first values of American manhood...shoot straight and build railroads" (May 1980, 101). While this statement may appear facetious, underlying it is the notion that the typical Western conveyed the values of honesty and hard work. What Broncho Billy forgot to mention was that just as these early American films told immigrants to work hard and earn wages, they more often demonstrated a myriad of attractive ways for the disposal of these very same wages. So while the work ethic was a common theme, the consumption ideal was an imperative.

While it would be grossly unfair and inaccurate to classify all American films of the silent era under one heating, they did collectively assist in the birth of what has become known as "consumer culture" (Hay 1980). Through these films immigrants were given more than a casual glance at "the good life." The immigrants who came here during the first decade of the century were, for at least the nest twenty years, literally barraged with a group of movies which overtly glorified consumption. Their impact upon consumer behavior hoof to have been significant. As film historian Garth Jowett points out (1976, 139):

"American industry lost no time in using this power for its own advantage, and the movies were soon turned into a potent medium for the "mass" merchandising of clothing, furniture, soft drinks and even new hairstyles."

Excellent examples are the films of the enormously popular Mary Pickford (a.k.a. "America's Sweetheart") and Douglas Fairbanks. While both were sympathetic to the plight of the exploited industrial worker, their films often made the point that one should still work within the system in order to purchase happiness through the pleasure that only consumption could give you.

In HIS PICTURE IN THE PAPERS and the advertisements Fairbanks made, we see the new cote of success. Men continued to achieve in the world of production; but now they strove equally hard for the money to purchase goods and leisure pursuits to compensate for boredom on the job. The Fairbanks hero was thus expanding the necessities of life... mass produced but high class consumer goods became a reward for tolerating the modern economy (May 1980, 117).

While the immigrant was attempting to learn the ways of America, Hollywood and the star system became American institutions. America began to glorify and more importantly emulate the "beautiful people" of the silver screen, and Hollywood had literally become a metaphor for self indulgence and conspicuous consumption. Commenting on the socializing force of American film, Fergusen (1932) noted:

Equal opportunity came not merely to mean that each of us had a right to protect his interest with his vote, but that each of us had a right to stalk around in public places and live vicariously the life of the rich.

The early motion picture may have in effect helped us to institutionalize a consumer fantasy life similar to that discussed by Holbrook and Hirschman (1982). We too could be "stars," and the easiest way to do so was to look like they looked, and act as they did. In other words, to be a star in one's own mind, one had to consume what the real stars consumed, and do it in a visible way.

Still, films' influence did not stop with mass vicarious consumption. They actually guided people in purchases and product choices. This was often accomplished by demonstrating the purchasing process itself, the "important" attributes of a good or service, as well as its fashionability.

No longer does the girl in Sullivan, Indiana, guess what the styles are going to be in three months. She knows because she sees them on the screen. ...the head of the house sees a new golf suit. The housewife a lamp of a new design...down they go to the dealer to ask for the new goods. (Hays n.d.)

So even though their impact was unquestionably felt by all of society, early American films must have had a considerable impact upon the consumer behavior of the immigrant. The immigrant could, for the first time, and without the necessity of the English language, sit in a darkened theater and experience the consumption ideals of the dominant society without the inherently greater risks of direct contact and interaction.

And It Really, Really Works

The more things change, the more they stay the same. While the jerky silent film has given way to 70mm color prints, VCR's and remote control, the dominant theme of American pictorial mass media has remained amazingly consistent. This presents a particularly interesting parallel since the U.S. is now experiencing another large wave of American immigration.

In the last fifteen years there has been 8 steady and significant rise in the immigration rate of the United States. If films allowed the earlier immigrants to taste the consumption values of the new land, television, with its pervasive place inside the home, now force-feeds the current immigrants a steady diet of American cultural values and attitudes regarding consumer behavior.

Content of U.S. television during the 1970's and 1980's is much the same as films of the silent era. The themes are of opulence ad the glorification of conspicuous consumption. An informal content analysis of network television of the past fifteen years reveals messages which predominantly glorify the possession of wealth and its use in consuming everything imaginable. The most popular shows in America tell us about the lives of the wealthy, and the pursuit of happiness through consumption. Consider DALLAS and DYNASTY; two of the highest rated shows in American television history. What messages do they convey about what it means to be an American consumer? They tell us that even the most decedent dreams can come true, and that simply owning something is never enough. For something to be truly useful, it must be prominently displayed and frequently discussed.

Daytime television is more of the same, much more. It consists largely of game shows and soap operas. Game shows portray an environment where "common folk" can mingle with the stars and take home a bunch of cash and goodies. The American soap opera is the ultimate glorification of conspicuous consumption and consumer fantasy. Everyone is either successful in a materialistic sense or rapidly trying to get there through whatever means necessary.

Then you have commercials, institutionalized and ritualized mini-messages explicitly designed to stimulate consumption. Everyone knows the intent; no apologies are offered. Commercials not only point out the attributes of a product, they often focus on their value expressive nature, and their status conferring qualities. They are not merely statements of objective information, they too are agents of consumer socialization (Ewen 1976). They may, however, be far more effective at helping perpetuate a mass consumer culture, than effectively increasing demand for a specific brand.

No matter what the genre, all this adds up to a type of mass mediated consumer culture. For the immigrant, it is an indirect path of acculturation. The pictorial mass media are literally windows through which the immigrant may view a society's most important ideals and cherished values.


It is the contention of this paper that the medium way very much be the message (McCluhan 1964), and that people who's socialization is predominantly through the mass media will think and behave differently as consumers than those who more directly experience the world about them.

We believe this because the paths are so different. They differ not only in what they say, but how they say it. Because of this, we can suggest a sort of Mary Hartman-Mary Hartman hypothesis. in other words, a person who is predominantly socialized via the American mass media will think about material possessions and consumption in a very different way than someone who chooses other routes of acculturation. Those new to society give us an excellent opportunity to test this hypothesized effect.

No matter what tragedy befell Mary Hartman, consumer problems were always foremost on her wind. Mary's world was her kitchen and her television. Mary was the embodiment of American televised values. To her "wary-yellow-buildup" was the greatest menace to civilization since "ring-around-the-collar." While she, like Chance the Gardner, are narrative exaggerations, they are not as far removed as we might expect. A society whose members watch an average of sis hours of commercial television per day (Comstock et. al. 1978) cannot hope or pretend to be immune from its socializing influence. Mary Hartman lives.

The pictorial media are powerful. This power is a result of both form and function. Janis (1982) demonstrated how extremely persuasive and effective pictures could be in terms of influencing expected outcomes and behaviors. The repetitive nature and the pairing of attractive outcomes with advertised products, and unattractive outcomes with failure to use these products have lead some to suggest that learning from television can even be linked to classical and instrumental conditioning (Bandurs 1971; Ward 1974).

As an example of this power consider O'Shaughnessy's 1972 study of Canadian school children. Even though these children were taught in grade school accurate information of the plight of modern day Canadian Indians, most eight to nine year-olds still believed that current day Indians wear little or no clothes and have feathered headbands, live in tents or tepees, and survive by killing people and stealing. This image of native Canadians is remarkably similar to that presented by the typical Western. Apparently years of formal education did not effectively compete with years of mass mediated socialization.

The mass media emphasize different values than the school and the workplace. Gans (1974) argues that the mass media emphasize upper middle class values and a culture of consumption, possessions, leisure, whereas more direct paths such as the workplace and the school offer a more diverse and realistic picture. Direct paths place greater emphasis on lower middle class values which stress job skills, and the ethic of hard work.

The school preaches a culture of production and participation; the media one of consumption and spectatoring...

The mass media differ most sharply from the school in that they train children in how to consume and play and how to be family members, whereas the schools emphasize the ability to produce and work, and how to be colleagues and citizens." (Gans 1974, 63-64).

Ward (1974, 41) pointed out that "motivations for consumption acts differ as a function of different socialization practices." It may be that critical differences in path are related to differences in consumption motivations. Television may lead to a desire for conspicuous consumption, whereas interpersonal and direct contact to more utilitarian motivation.

While television may provide greater breadth of knowledge, it is usually somewhat superficial and subject to misinterpretation. It has a greater focus on visual attributes, and offers only shallow understanding about any given topic. This is one reason why warranties and complex product information are rarely found in television advertising. Resnick and Stern (1977) found that 492 of commercials studied contained no information, only 4 out of the 378 contained three or more information items. Relevant information is rarely synonymous with information obtained via television commercials. The problem with learning from television is that it is not good for teaching complex behaviors, only simple ones. This is true of observational learning in general.

Interpersonal communication produce a greater depth of understanding, more detailed knowledge about a given topic, or knowledge bout complex topics. It gives one more realistic view of product attributes and benefits. In other words, richer information from interpersonal communication helps one to put products in proper contexts.

Television demonstrates a highly constrained decision process. A content analysis of network programming by Faber (1978) revealed that while 78% of sit-coms and dramas showed at least one purchase decision per episode, 25% were resolved immediately, 25% within a one day period, 40% within a week, and only 9.1% took longer than a week. This would certainly give the impression that American consumers make rapid purchase decisions. In summary, televised learning leads to a superficial view of products, their importance, their attributes, and the decision making process.

Research Implications and Summary

Consumer acculturation via the mass media offer a safer and less riskier path than direct contact. One doesn't have to worry about making embarrassing mistakes when one doesn't interact. It is certainly the path of least resistance. Paths of least resistance are often the most popular paths. In order to accurately model the process by which immigrants learn to become consumers within their new host societies, we cannot ignore this important agent of mass socialization.

Research utilizing this revised model should further our understanding of not only the acculturation process, but the larger consumer socialization process as well. Immigrants are of particular interest in this regard because we may investigate the consumer socialization process without the confounding effects produced by the developmental processes of native individuals. Most importantly, consumer behaviorists are in need of a more contemporary model of acculturation.

While this paper h s offered only a developmental and partial theoretical revision, future research should attempt to expand this conceptualization. While empirical testing of some of the developmental constructs would be advisable, so too would be more anthropological and qualitative approaches. The examination of cultural artifacts seems particularly appropriate.


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