Mass Mediated Consumer Socialization: Non-Utilitarian and Dysfunctional Outcomes

Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois
Ronald J. Faber, University of Texas
ABSTRACT - This paper deals with the non-utilitarian and dysfunctional outcomes of mass-mediated consumer socialization. It is suggested that the dominant theories and metatheories may have critical limitations where these type of outcomes are concerned.
[ to cite ]:
Thomas C. O'Guinn and Ronald J. Faber (1987) ,"Mass Mediated Consumer Socialization: Non-Utilitarian and Dysfunctional Outcomes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 473-477.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 473-477


Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois

Ronald J. Faber, University of Texas


This paper deals with the non-utilitarian and dysfunctional outcomes of mass-mediated consumer socialization. It is suggested that the dominant theories and metatheories may have critical limitations where these type of outcomes are concerned.


For many important reasons, scientists prefer research which is guided by theories and/or models. Studies grounded in theory are believed more likely to contribute to understanding of phenomena and, at the same time, generate testable hypotheses which help to reduce the likelihood of committing Type I error. Unfortunately, too myopic a focus on a specific theory or too strong a reliance on a particular metatheory or world view may blind the researcher to some potentially important questions. A theory, and the metatheory which guides it, largely determine what should be studied and often times dictate which methodological procedures should be utilized. It must, therefore, be remembered that this also means a chosen theory or metatheory excludes some possible phenomenological content and precludes some methods. This can stifle efforts to truly understand a given phenomenon by limiting our conceptualizations.

In many established disciplines true breakthroughs in knowledge only occurred after revolutionary changes in perspective, or "Kuhn paradigms" came along. These radical changes are, however, naturally very rare. Rather than wait for a Kuhn paradigm to emerge, it is rather the responsibility of the scientist to occasionally suspend the normal stream of research in an effort to determine just how well the guiding theoretical framework is serving the pursuit of knowledge. It is through this process that new theoretical approaches often emerge.

While there are no doubt many areas of consumer behavior which could benefit from a critical examination of metatheoretical orientation, this paper will focus on one particular type of consumer socialization: socialization via the mass media. The dominant socialization theories derive from world views that appear to have critical limitations, either endemic or self-imposed, where the mass media and non-utilitarian outcomes are concerned. It is the purpose of this paper to step back from the dominant theories and explore this particular form of consumer socialization (mass mediated) which may be best examined outside the constraints of the dominant worldviews which have guided past research.

Dominant Theoretical Perspectives

Consumer socialization research in the past decade has been dominated by three theoretical approaches emanating from different metatheoretical perspectives. Perhaps the most frequently invoked theoretical framework guiding consumer socialization research has been cognitive develop ental theory (Ward 1974; Ward, Wackman & Wartella 1977). Cognitive developmental theory stems from an organismic model of development with its roots in biology (Langer 1969; Reese and Overton 1970). Indeed, the major proponent of the cognitive developmental theory most often used by consumer socialization researchers is Jean Piaget who was trained not as a social scientist, but as a biologist and zoologist. It should, therefore, not be surprising that cognitive developmental theory views development as a functionally adaptive process occurring for the good of the organism. Change is seen as occurring in discontinuous, qualitative jumps leading toward progressively higher levels of reasoning. The metatheoretical assumptions inherent in this model may have directed its proponents toward looking for positive, functional changes as the outcome of socialization.

The second most frequently used type of theory in consumer socialization research are interpersonal communication theories and models such as co-orientation and family communication patterns (Moschis 1985; Moore and Moschis 1981). These theories have their roots in the balance theories of Heider and Newcomb. While not concerned with development, they rely on a homeostatic model which, like cognitive development, comes from a biological analogy. Thus, once gain, the et-theoretical perspective tends to be toward adaptive, positive outcomes from these interpersonal interactions.

Since the two most common types of theories which have been applied to consumer socialization have both been based on a biological model of men, it is not too surprising that the outcomes of consumer socialization that have been studied are predominantly adaptive, utilitarian and goal-oriented. Even our definitions of the field have been influenced by the pro-adaptive viewpoint inherent in the metatheoretical perspectives guiding these theories. For example, Assael's consumer behavior text (1984; 363) defines consumer socialization as, "the process by which consumers acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to operate in the marketplace." This definition i plies a rational and utilitarian type of information acquisition and use, and would tend to direct researchers' attention to only necessary and useful types of dependent outcomes.

Similarly, Ward (1974) defines consumer socialization as the "process by which young people acquire skills, knowledge and attitudes relevant to their effective functioning as consumers." While Ward's definition is somewhat less restrictive than Assael's, it is still premised upon "effective functioning" and therefore, places a great deal of emphasis on reasoned action, cognitive consistency and utilitarian outcomes.

The major consequence of these limited definitions of consumer socialization has been to over-emphasize the acquisition of positive utilitarian skills and knowledge. Typically, dependent variables investigated in consumer socialization studies include functional items such as children's understanding of the purpose of television commercials, their concern with performance related product attributes, their awareness of information source distinctions. attitudes and behaviors involving saving money, purchase requests, and adolescent's knowledge and behaviors at various stages in the product decision making process (Atkin 1982; Moschis 1985; Moschis and Churchill 1978; Moschis and Moore 1979; Ward, Wackman and Wartella 1977). While there have been occasional departures from this exclusive focus on goal-oriented, functional outcomes of socialization with the inclusion of variables such as attitudes towards materialism and conspicuous consumption (Moschis and Churchill 1978; Ward and Wackman 1971), these have clearly been the exception, not the norm in consumer socialization research.

The final major theoretical approach which has been used to explain consumer socialization is learning theory (Moschis and Churchill 1978; Moschis, Lawton and Stampfl 1968). While learning theories are the most commonly used theoretical basis for studies of media effects on children, they have been less frequently utilized in studies of consumer socialization None-the-less, several different learning theories (e g - Ausubel's learning theory; Bandura's social learning theory) have occasionally been used in consumer socialization studies. All learning theories emanate from a mechanistic model of development in which learning takes place through reaction in terms of antecedent-consequence relations (Bijou and Baer 1963; Reese and Overton 1970) Behavior simply articulates the actions which the environment demonstrates and reinforces (Langer 1969). The emphasis on mechanistic models, therefore, is generally directed toward explaining behavior

Since learning theory does not rely on a biological model, its world view is not as closely tied to functional or utilitarian outcomes from socialization Still, consumer behaviorists employing social learning theory have, for the most part, allowed the major research questions to be framed by those interested in functional and adaptive outcomes of socialization. This mechanistic model assumes that people behave as a direct reaction to their environmental stimuli, much the may a machine reacts when one of its buttons is pushed. Just as a machine is programmed to provide useful service when the correct control is activated, the outcome of socialization may be viewed as useful to the extent that the environment is set up (programmed) to reward utilitarian knowledge and behavior This may be a reasonable assumption when the socialization agent is a teacher or a parent, but if a large amount of consumer learning occurs from the mass media as several authors have suggested (Adler et al. 1980; Atkin 1982), then this assumption may be questionable.


The role of the environment is not just important in mechanistic models, but in organismic models as well. Piaget, for example, viewed true learning and development to be the result of an interaction between maturation and the environment Therefore, al of these world views require that we look at what the environment offers in order to determine what outcomes are reasonable to expect. Functional outcomes of socialization make sense only if the environment provides and rewards knowledge and behaviors which are logical and goal directed. If, on the other hand, the environment provides incorrect or inappropriate experiences, the outcome will, of course, be erroneous knowledge and beliefs and dysfunctional behaviors

Since the environment will partially determine what learning will take place, a reasonable way to conceptualize what the outcomes of consumer socialization may be is to consider the dominant inputs. The two major sources of consumer knowledge appear to be parents and the media While the knowledge, beliefs and behaviors imparted by parents are likely to differ greatly from family to family, the content available from the mass media say be somewhat more homogeneous. Therefore, to fully recognize the type of outcomes likely to emerge from consumer socialization, a good starting point may be to look at the type of consumer related content portrayed on television.

Consumer Content on Television

Moschis and Churchill (1979) distinguish between two types of consumer related knowledge: direct and indirect skills. Direct skills are things that are functionally related to consumption actions such as budgeting abilities, pricing knowledge and attitudes toward specific advertising and marketing stimuli Indirect skills, on the other hand, are cognitions or attitudes which are not directly useful in specific market transactions These include materialistic attitudes and motivations for consumption.

What Moschis and Churchill have called direct skills are the rational and logical knowledge necessary for successful consumer behavior These are the types of skills which are generally assessed in consumer socialization studies They are also the types of things which almost never appear in the media Prices are hardly ever discussed in television programs and it is extremely rare to even see money physically change hands on television (Venus 1978). Not only does programming fail to provide this type of information, but even commercials are typically devoid of direct skill information Resnick and Stern (1977) for example, found that less than half of all TV commercials contain even one specific piece of information about the product and only one percent contain as many as three informational points.

Bather than providing detailed knowledge, television is a medium of values and images. What television offers to consumer socialization is a picture of a world were wealth and consumption are both desirable and common (DeFleur 1964; Katzman 1972) Television also provides images of the context in which goods are used or possessed One can determine whether a product connotes wealth or value based on who owns it and what other products or values are associated with it.

The underlying themes on television shows often revolve around opulence, hedonism and conspicuous consumption Since 1970, prime time television programs which have dealt with consumption and extreme wealth have been enormously popular. DALLAS and DYNASTY, two of the highest rated shows in American television history, serve as excellent examples. These shows indicate that for something to be truly worthwhile, it must be prominently and lavishly displayed

Daytime television, consisting mainly of game shows and soap operas, may present an even more hyperbolic American reality As Atkin states:

In the realm of television entertainment, the most explicit consumer content occurs on g&me shows which feature substantial prizes of money and material goods. Contestants on these programs typically express exaltation as they win luxury automobiles, boats, jewels, trips, appliances, furs, and large sums of money, while the studio audience cheers appreciatively. It is possible that such avaricious displays may engender desires for the featured consumer goods or heighten materialistic orientations. (Atkin 1982, 199)

The American soap opera provides important consumption [ values These program are populated with upwardly mobile young people, wealthy professionals, and other social elites (Katzman 1972). Such of the action involves consumption and ritualized hedonistic behavior. A great many of these soap opera characters are either successful in a materialistic sense, or rapidly trying to achieve material success through whatever means necessary. Their pursuit of this end quite often provides the soap opera's storyline. Viewers are thereby provided with the lessons and symbols of a consumer culture in which this type of behavior is the norm, often rewarded, and even idealized

Between the programs are commercials which exist for the purpose of stimulating consumption. In order to best do this, commercials not only point out the attributes of a product, they often dwell on their value expressive nature, and their status conferring qualities (Belk and Pollay 1985). They are not merely statements of information, they too are gents of socialization They may, however, be far more effective at helping perpetuate a mass consumer culture, than effectively increasing demand for a specific brand

The mass mediated portrayal of conspicuous consumption is not limited to television. The "good life" has long been portrayed in the content and advertising of different media. In print advertising, luxury themes and appeals have been common for at least the last seventy years and the trend is toward an increase in the depiction of and appeals to materialism (Belk 1985; Belk and Pollay 1985) In the 1970's, for the first time this century, the dominant theme in print advertisements was one of luxury and pleasure rather than one of functionalism and practicality (Belk 1985) Friedman (1985) has found similar evidence of an increase in materialism in popular novels, plays and music. Even characters in the comics tend to reflect an overly prosperous and successful culture (Kassarjian 1984)


Each of us likes to think of himself as being rational and autonomous Our ideas seem to be peculiarly our own It is hard for us to realize how little of our information comes from direct experience with the physical environment, and how much of it comes only indirectly, from other people gad the mass media Our complex communication systems enable us to overcome the time and space limitations that confined our ancestors, but they leave us with a greater dependence on others for shaping our ideas about how things are in the world. While becoming aware of places and events far from the direct experience of our daily lives, we have given up much of our capacity to confirm what we think we know (McLeod and Chaffee 1972, p 50)

A very significant outcome of consumer socialization is the development of a mental construction of the marketplace and consumption values These are shaped by a person's direct experience with the marketplace as well through observation of both the real world and the world as portrayed on television and in other media However, it was previously pointed out that much of the media's content shows a world that doesn't really exist The net effect of this may be the development of a false construction of social reality

The media's ability to distort heavy viewers' perception of the real world has been well established by media researchers investigating cultural indicators and the cultivation hypothesis (Gerbner et al 1978; Hawkins and Pingree 1982) This research has shown that heavy viewers of television are more likely than lighter viewers to have incorrect beliefs bout the real world which are biased in the direction of television portrayals For example, it has been found that heavy viewers are not likely to overestimate their chances of being a victim of a crime (Gerbner et al 1977); overestimate the stability of the nuclear family (Pingree et al 1979); have greater faith in doctors (Volgy and Schwarz 1980); have more negative attitudes bout the elderly (Gerbner et al 1980); and hold more sexist attitudes (Morgan 1980; Volgy and Schwarz 1980)

At least two studies support the belief that television viewing can lead to a false perception of consumption related reality Fox and Philliber (1978), using a gross measure of television viewing, found a positive, although weak, association between it and overestimating affluence in the U.S. Similarly, a study of Israeli viewers of American television program found that they overestimated the average weekly earning of Americans, and the percentage of households in the United States having items such as air conditioners, dishwashers, multiple cars, electric can openers and freezers (Weimann 1984) Furthermore, the heavier viewers overestimated to a greater extent than lighter viewers

Once developed, an incorrect perception derived from television or films s y be difficult to dislodge O'Shaugnessey (1972), for example, found that even though Canadian children were taught accurate information of the plight of modern day Canadian Indians in grade school, most eight and nine year olds still believed that current day Indians wear little or no clothes, have feathered headbands, live in tents or tepees, and survive by killing people and stealing One reason for this may be televisions ability to show vivid images it has been suggested that vivid mental images gained from the media may play a disproportionately important role in information processing and decision making (Janis 1980; Tversky and Kahneman 1974). Therefore, perceptions of the world developed from visual media may be particularly important in determining future behaviors and exceptionallY difficult to correct.

A number of possible effects may result from the development of a false perception of reality regarding consumer behaviors and values. From an individual level perspective, exposure to the media's version of consumption reality may ultimately effect specific product choices either by altering perceptions of direct consumer skills and knowledge or by means of stimulating viewer fantasies. Another possible result may be feelings of malaise or dissatisfaction due to mass-mediated social comparisons. Of course, these and other effects may be manifest at the societal level as well.

Media Effects on Purchase Decisions

Perceptions derived from the media can alter our decision making criteria for selecting products and brands. Critics have commonly claimed that advertising creates false impressions about what product attributes are important in purchase decisions. For example, automobile advertisements tend to stress attributes such as looks and comfort while ignoring equally or more important attributes such as safety and warranties. Repeatedly hearing some attributes stressed to the exclusion of others ray, over time, perform an agenda setting function where frequently mentioned criteria become the most salient features in decision raking.

The very process of decision making may also be effected by television content. Decision making skills may be learned from different socialization agents, but rarely will interpersonal sources demonstrate the internal process they go through in making a decision. The mass media are unique in their need and ability to express the internal states and considerations one goes through in making a decision, rather than just showing the overt behaviors associated with decision making. Therefore, viewers may gain insights bout the decision making process by observing a media character going through a decision.

A content analysis of network programming indicated portrayals of decision processes were relatively common (Faber 1978). The portrayal of the decision making process was then compared to criteria associated with vigil and decision making practices (Janis and Mann 1977). Television decisions typically demonstrated good strategies with two major exceptions. First, televised decisions are made on the basis of a limited number alternative solutions. Rarely were more than two alternatives considered. Secondly, television decisions appear to be resolved very rapidly; 25% were resolved immediately, 25% within a one day period, 40% within a week, and only 9% took longer than a week. Therefore, modeling the decision waking process shown on television could lead to making overly hasty consumer decisions.

Purchase decisions way also be influenced by fantasies stimulated from media content. This may occur in two different ways. The first is through part-social interaction (Horton and Wohl 1956). According to this notion, people relate and respond to television characters as they would to their friends. Viewers don't just model what they see, but actively think bout situations, evaluate behavioral strategies and broaden their tastes during viewing interactions.

Para-social interactions afford the viewer opportunities to interact with characters of the opposite sex, characters of higher and lower status that his own and with people of particular occupations and professions. It is likely that para-social interactions can lead to critical analysis of events and occurrences, and since they involve no identity loss such interactions may well provide practice for everyday social roles .. and allow the viewer to take roles not yet experienced in real life (Noble 1975 D- 39)

Thus, para-social interactions may provide viewers with a chance to experience and evaluate lifestyles different from their own. Knowledge of the tastes and values appropriate to higher social strata may help facilitate social mobility (Fox 1984). Alternatively, para-social interactions may work in the same way as real life reference groups do in influencing and reinforcing tastes to facilitate fitting in with existing social groups.

A second, and more extreme way in which the media may create consumer fantasy is through affecting our self image in buying situations. In buying situations where the object is particularly desired for its value expressive nature, our more "rational" self may be unusually influenced by a sort of mass-mediated preferred persona, or a synthesis of who we really are with who we would like to be. This idea is similar to the notion of "idealized self" (Belk 1985; Milgram 1976; Sontag 1973), but is premised more on images borrowed from the mass media than from interpersonal contact.

Another possible result of a false perception of consumption reality may be chronic unhappiness or malaise. When comparing their own lives to the world of televisions the majority of people are bound to feel deprived. This social comparison may also spur a desire to have "what everyone else has." However, as people acquire more and more, they are likely to find that each new item is less and less satisfying. Brickman and Campbell (1971) call this the "hedonic trap." The life portrayed on television sets us up to believe that it is primarily through possessions that we find happiness. The more we buy the more Ye need sad desire and the less we appreciate each new purchase. This creates the trap which leads ultimately to dissatisfaction and unhappiness.


We have tried to show how previous research has only examined part of the possible outcomes of consumer socialization. Research based on the dominant theories used in consumer socialization has naturally centered on the goal-oriented skills needed to be a good consumer While these skills are definitely important and deserve attention, focusing solely on these outcomes is likely to miss some of the potential power of the mass media, and limit our perspective of consumer socialization.

Research on media effects has shown that they are as likely to create dysfunctional effects as functional ones (Wright 1959). Therefore, it is important for consumer socialization to also consider these less desirable, but equally important, potential outcomes. While we have tried to point out some of these potential effects, a more thorough effort is needed. A possible starting point may be to conduct content analyses of the consumer related cognitions and behaviors presented in the media and especially television. This may suggest both important independent and dependent variables for investigation.

By changing our perspective to first consider the media environment in which people become socialized, we may be able to develop new models which can further our knowledge about consumer socialization. However, it is also likely that we will need to include antecedent and intervening variables in these new models. Current theories of media effects reflect either a belief in a transactional model or a new powerful effects notion which stresses long term perceptual effects (Severin and Tankard 1979). These theories stress the need to recognize audience differences in predicting media effects. Previous research in communication and consumer socialization suggest that these antecedent and intervening variables may include things such as interpersonal communication (Moschis and Moore 1982), consumption and viewing motivations (Ward and Wackman 1971), and life situations (Ferber, Brown, and McLeod 1979).

This is consistent with Klapper's (1960) metatheoretical perspective on media effects. Klapper argues that most often the media simply reinforce existing beliefs. One situation sufficient for a more powerful media outcome is, however, when there is an absence of mediating influences. Therefore, when parents, peers and other socialization genes are not exerting much direct influence, the media will be particularly important. This may be an important precept to remember in developing models to explain the relative role of different socialization agents in consumer socialization.

By stepping back from the current theories and the world views that drive them, and by focusing instead on the role television and other media play in comprising the individual's learning environment, we can hopefully expand our view of the consumer socialization process The first step will be to develop sound models of the different ways (both functional at dysfunctional) that the media influence consumer learning. Then, perhaps, these models can be integrated into our larger theories and models as part of the environmental inputs in the consumer socialization process.


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