The Mass-Mediated Consumption Realities of Three Cultual Groups

Wei-Na Lee, The University of Texas at Austin
ABSTRACT - An important and fundamental question that needs to be addressed in consumer acculturation research is how and through what sources people in various ethnic groups perceive the consumption reality in the host society. The cultivation theory of -communication has long proposed that those who habitually render themselves to television messages would construct a different version of the social reality than those who watch very little television. It is therefore reasonable to suspect that the cultivation effects would be the greatest among the acculturating individuals who tend to rely mostly on mass media in their understanding of the way things are in the host society. This perception of consumption reality would undoubtedly have significant impact on the acculturating individual's newly acquired or adjusted orientation toward consumption. The present study attempts to apply the cultivation theory of communication to the study of consumer acculturation process.
[ to cite ]:
Wei-Na Lee (1989) ,"The Mass-Mediated Consumption Realities of Three Cultual Groups", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 771-778.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 771-778

THE MASS-MEDIATED CONSUMPTION REALITIES OF THREE CULTUAL GROUPS

Wei-Na Lee, The University of Texas at Austin

ABSTRACT -

An important and fundamental question that needs to be addressed in consumer acculturation research is how and through what sources people in various ethnic groups perceive the consumption reality in the host society. The cultivation theory of -communication has long proposed that those who habitually render themselves to television messages would construct a different version of the social reality than those who watch very little television. It is therefore reasonable to suspect that the cultivation effects would be the greatest among the acculturating individuals who tend to rely mostly on mass media in their understanding of the way things are in the host society. This perception of consumption reality would undoubtedly have significant impact on the acculturating individual's newly acquired or adjusted orientation toward consumption. The present study attempts to apply the cultivation theory of communication to the study of consumer acculturation process.

The study examined the relationship between exposure to mass media and the perception of consumption reality in three groups of respondents-Taiwanese, Taiwanese residents in the U. S., and Americans. The perception of consumption reality was assessed from respondents' estimated percentages of Americans who own or enjoy various consumer products and services which are often portrayed in the mass media. Their self-reported exposures to the dominant American mass media, television, were also measured. Results indicate general support for the cultivation theory of communication and observe interesting phenomena when comparing the cultivation effects across cultures.

INTRODUCTION

Culture is one of the fundamental determinants of human experience and behavior. In today's global environment, the maintenance of a single culture in isolation has become virtually impossible. When cultural groups come into contact with one another, certain changes are expected to occur. These changes can be perceptual, attitudinal, or behavioral. Acculturation, therefore, describes the changes in attitudes, values, or behavior of members of one cultural group toward the standard of the other cultural group (Gordon 1964; Herskovits 1941; Triandis, Kashima, Hui, Lisansky, and Marin 1982). Consumer acculturation is simply that aspect of the acculturation process which concerns the consumption-relevant attitudes, values, or behaviors. Implicit here is the acknowledgement that in today's world all cultures are constantly engaging in this merging process.

To truly understand cross-cultural consumer behavior, consumer behavior researchers must first know how and from what sources aspects of consumer knowledge are adopted. For immigrants to acculturate into the American culture, they must first learn. from various acculturation agents, the symbolic meaning system of the host society. What they have acquired from their culture of origin may be inadequate and subject to modifications as they encounter new social environments. Depending on their original cultural backgrounds, immigrants are open to different parts of the American culture and interpret their experiences in different ways (Glazer and Moynihan 1970).

In the process of acculturation, individuals rely on both direct and indirect channels to facilitate their understanding of the culture of residence. Several important variables may act upon their merging process differently. In particular, the sources through which individuals become acculturated may very likely dictate their renewed orientations toward aspects of life. Undeniably, twentieth century American mass media offer the immigrant a unique opportunity to take a quick view of the American society. In this case, even without first-hand experience, immigrants are still able to understand how Americans live their lives. This mass-mediated learning may result in fundamentally different social perceptions and behavioral patterns than that acquired via direct experience (Adoni and Mane 1984; Berger and Luckmann 1987; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, Morgan, and Jackson-Beeck 1979; McLeod and Chaffee 1972). It would therefore be reasonable to argue that acculturating individuals, in their eagerness to adjust to and become members of the culture of residence, be most susceptible to the messages from mass media and, in turn, perceive an often exaggerated version of affluence in the host-society.

There is, in fact, a unique aspect of the American culture, namely, a "consumer culture." It is a culture which evolves mainly around material abundance and the happiness obtained through the pleasure of consumption (McCracken 1985). Needless to say, many immigrants come to the United States for the pursuit of the so-called "American dream." Oftentimes, this American dream is premised upon the belief in, and promise of, a material "good life." In many ways, the symbolic meanings of material objects explain the underlying reasons for the motivation to own and the desire to display various consumer products. Therefore, it is crucial that we closely examine the way in which those new to America learn to become "American consumers."

The present study is an attempt to investigate the consumer acculturation process of members of the Chinese subculture in the United States and, most importantly, their perception of American consumption reality. Specifically, this study explores the impact of mass media on consumption reality. Chinese residents in the United States, while adopting varying levels of many aspects of the American culture, learn the consumption-related attitudes, knowledge and skills in order to function as consumers in the American marketplace. Among these many things, one of the first thing they are likely to learn are the socially expressive aspects of being an American consumer. The agents very likely to be responsible for this type of consumer learning in the United States are the mass media (O'Guinn, Faber, and Rice 1985; O'Guinn, Lee, and Faber 1986). Through the mass media, the acculturating individuals may learn what consumer products they "should" want and own in order to be considered as members in good standing of the dominant society.

CULTIVATION THEORY AND MASS MEDIATED CONSUMPTION REALITY

It may be difficult for us to admit that less and less of our information these days comes directly from our experience with the "real" world. Instead, most of our perception and understanding of the world around us comes indirectly from the mass media. McLeod and Chaffee (1972, p. 349) also indicate that "our complex communication systems enable us to overcome the time and space limitations and leave us with a greater dependence on mass media in shaping our ideas about how things are in the world." Among the various mass media, television undoubtedly exerts the most influence on our everyday life.

An approach to the study of how mass media affect the individual's construction of social reality is -George Gerbner's cultivation theory of communication (McQuail 1983). Social reality is generally defined (Ogles 1987, p. 43) as:

internalized, learned expectations derived from (1) past experiences, and (2) information, such as that obtained from media exposure.

The assumption of the cultivation theory is that people are brought up in a mass-mediated environment which cultivates images based on the cultural conventions. Gerbner considers television content to be mostly stereotypical and inconsistent with the "real" world. This discrepancy between media content, especially that of the television, and the real world gives two very different versions of what the world is like. An individual's perception of the world, therefore, as would be argued by Gerbner, depends on the amount of television the individual is exposed to. The most widely known theme of this cultivation theory is the so-called television-viewing-and-aggression hypothesis during the 1970s (Morgan 1980). An example of this type of hypothesis is that heavy television viewing would result in people's exaggerated estimations of violence in the society (Gerbner 1973). Similar findings of cultivation effects have been documented over the years (Carveth and Alexander 1985; Hawkins and Pingree 1981, 1982; Morgan 1986; Perse 1986; Pingree 1983; Potter 1986; etc.). A general agreement among those studies is that when individuals have very little or no direct experience, they are more likely to think television portrayals are realistic and thus more cultivation effects. This is exactly the case for the acculturating individuals who enter into a new cultural environment with very little, or in most cases zero, first-hand experience of the environment.

The major implications of the cultivation theory of communication are two-fold: (1) the stereotypical nature of television content; and (2) the content of television begins to be accepted as reality by the group of audience who habitually watch television. In other words, the content of television may have become the primary source for the construction and validation of social reality. The impact of television programs is mainly in their ability to construct for the audience an imaginary world where everyone can experience the maximum excitement in life without being confronted with the risks that usually accompany such forms of excitement in reality (Cawelti 1976). In most television programs and almost all commercials, we see people display the pleasure of consumption and ownership. However, rarely do we see them engage in the moment of purchase where hard-earned money is spent. We usually see an exciting picture, the before-and-after kind of picture, rather than the in-between process where reality comes in.

Advertising, in particular, provides a different kind of messages from that of television programs. Needless to say, the goal of advertising is to portray for the audience-a desirable way of life which is mainly consumption-based. The focus is therefore on consumer products and what they can do for the individuals, either functionally or symbolically. The notion that consumer products can communicate symbolic social meanings and can thus be used to express one's self-concept is not new in consumer behavior research. It has long been documented that many consumer products possess symbolic features and that the consumption of consumer goods is often dependent more on their social meanings than their utilitarian functions. Research in the areas of symbolic consumption (Hirschman 1980), the role of consumer products in impression formation and communication (Belk 1978; Belk, Bahn, and Maya 1982; Holman 1981; etc.), and product-image and self image congruence (Birdwell 1968; Dolich 1969; Gardner and Levy 1955; etc.) all point to the significant role of consumption for social recognition. In more than one way, consumers rely on the social image associated with products to assert self-identity and satisfy role performance. It is therefore logical to suspect that acculturating individuals, who are uncertain about their identities, would show greater reliance on material symbols to create an "in-group' feeling (Wallendorf and Arnould 1988).

Materialism has always been thought of as one of the underlying determinants of how people want to live their lives. BeLk (1985) suggests that "what one does" (status) used to be a strong determinant in a person's self-image. However, "'what one has' became a stronger part of self-image as individuals move toward a larger and more anonymous societies with multiple role identities" (Belk 1985, p. 266). This focus on the material world is said to be prevalent in the values and aspirations of Americans (Yankelovich 1981). Such a materialistic outlook has also become widely spread through the images and ideals portrayed in the mass media. It has been the general consensus of communication researchers that mass media transmit the cultural aspects of the society. It is conceivable that materialism is an important cultural trait concerning consumption in the United States. The desire to retain ownership of one's possessions is most likely culturally bound.

Mass media, especially television, provide a unique type of consumer acculturation sources. Rather than specific information on purchase decisions, mass media provide mainly images and values for various types of consumption activities. Research has shown that mass media rarely provide specific information for consumption-relevant skills (Resnick and Stem 1977). Therefore, individuals absorb from mass media mainly the general attitudes and values about consumption. In fact, mass media are said to be conveying the idea of material abundance and the desirability of consumption ownership (Faber and O'Guinn 1988; O'Guinn et al. 1985). Their contents may be important sources for individuals' acquisition of a variety of consumption-related norms. It is therefore reasonable to expect television viewing to be positively related to individuals' perception of consumer objects owned in reality.

It may still be too early to make a conclusion about the causal relationship between television viewing and the construction of social reality. However, it is reasonable to suggest that television does portray for the audience a culturally defined social reality, especially for the acculturating individuals. An important notion here is that American mass media convey a consumption-oriented aspect of the American culture not only to the Americans but also to those new to the country, the immigrants.

A central theme of the acculturation process is the constant interaction of ethnic subcultures and host society. There are various ways that the acculturating individuals come into contact with the host society, either directly (school, work place) or symbolically (mass media). However, the constant interaction from direct contact can also be very difficult for the acculturating individuals who are not entirely fluent in English. Television, the major pictorial mass media, therefore provides a perfect solution to the dilemma. The acculturating individuals with inadequate language skills can always understand the television programs through their vivid pictorial presentations. Television viewing among those acculturating individuals is by no means passive. The type of learning from mass media, especially television, is in essence an emulating process. Most immigrants are adults when they come to the U. S.. This means that they need to pick up the dominant American culture in a relatively short period of time in order to function as members of the society. Mass media are readily available for the immigrants. They help reduce the embarrassing situations one has to go through to "do things right." Imitating television characters or personalities appears to be an easy way to learn the "appropriate" behavior for various social occasions. This has special implications for the study of the acculturation process.

Even though research on ethnic media usage is scattered, some investigations on the function that mass media serve to immigrants have revealed that immigrants use more television as a source of knowledge regarding how people live, to explain how important issues and events relate to them as individuals, and to provide explanations on things already experienced (Nagata 1969). For example, Garcia (1982) concludes that preference to be associated with media entertainer an important clue in identifying cultural orientations. Research on Mexican Americans has suggested that they prefer the mass media over many other agents as a source of information and advice. The affluent lifestyle commonly portrayed on television, especially in advertising, has long been documented (DeFleur 1964; Gentile and Miller 1961; Smythe 1954). O'Guinn, Faber, and Rice (1985) also indicate that:

Content of U. S. television during the 1970's and 1980's is much the same as films of the 1920's. The themes are of opulence, and the glorification of conspicuous consumption.

Less than affluent life styles are sometimes presented, but they are generally overshadowed by portrayals of the "good life" (Fox and Philliber 1978). To the immigrants, this may very well be synonymous with "American culture," and to become acculturated to the "mainstream" American society would therefore mean living a materially abundant life.

THE STUDY

The present study examines the cultivation effects on the perception of consumption reality among Chinese subculture in the United States relative to the culture of origin (Taiwanese) and the culture of residence (American). The cultivation theory of communication suggests that the more the individuals are exposed to mass media, especially television, the more likely they are to perceive the mass-mediated portrayal as reality. Given the pervasive messages of conspicuous consumption in today's television programs and advertising, it is logical to expect those acculturating individuals to perceive a society that is affluent and mostly consumption-oriented. On the other hand, for those acculturating individuals who have little television exposure, they would have a different picture of the American society. Expanding on this notion, the hypothesis for the study can be stated as: Those acculturating individuals who watch a great deal of television would differ significantly from those who watch very little television in their perception of consumption reality in the U. S.

Samples

Since the objective of the study was to examine the cultivation effects in the process of consumer acculturation, it was necessary to include both the culture of origin (i.e., Taiwanese/Chinese) and the culture of residence (American) as anchors. Thus, three groups of respondents were included in the study: Taiwanese in Taiwan. Taiwanese residents of the United States, and Americans. Students attending major Taiwanese and U. S. universities were used as participants in the study. Initially, a sample of approximately 40 college students in each group was use in the elicitation. The purpose was to gather qualitative information on consumer products and services that are usually associated with American's way of life. A list of 12 items was then compiled. Subsequently, approximately 200 university students from each cultural group were asked to participate in the study (N=641). The Taiwanese participants were students attending four major universities in the Taipei metropolitan area in Taiwan. The acculturating Taiwanese were students attending universities in the United States (three universities in Midwest and one in Southwest). The American respondents were mainly students attending a state university in the Midwest.

Measures

The study employed a survey research design using self-administered questionnaires. Taiwanese students attending major U. S. universities and American college students were asked to respond to English questionnaires. The same questionnaire was translated into Chinese and was used with Taiwanese college students. Back-translation technique was used (Brislin, Lonner, and Thorndike 1980).

Major variables in the study consisted of exposure to television and perception of consumption reality. Exposure to American television was used as the independent variable while perception of consumption reality was the dependent variable. Exposure to television was measured from respondents' self-reported amount of time spent watching television daily. Perception of consumption reality was defined as the individual's perception of what the social reality of consumption and ownership is. It was operationally defined as the estimated percentages of people in the society who own or enjoy various consumer products or services. The 12 items generated from elicitation were: a house; a house with a pool; a boat; a sport car; a personal computer; take yearly vacation to Europe; have servants at home; more than one car; a microwave oven; a phone answering machine; a video cassette recorder; and a compact disc player. Respondents were simply asked to write down, for each of-the 12 items listed, their estimated percentages of Americans who own or enjoy them.

RESULTS

In Table 1, respondents' estimated percentages of the ownership of various consumer products and services in the American society were compared across the three cultural groups. Ten out of the 12 items yielded significant differences across the three cultural groups. For all ten items, the acculturating Taiwanese's estimated percentages fell mostly within the two anchoring groups' responses. They indicated the general process of acculturation as the acculturating individuals lay somewhere between their culture of origin (Taiwanese/Chinese) and the culture of residence (American). The findings suggest that the acculturating Taiwanese are indeed in the middle of the merging process (i.e., the acculturation process). As a group, their estimated percentages are between the two anchoring groups. The highest estimated percentages usually come from the Taiwanese in Taiwan who, without any direct cultural contact, provide evidence for the "stereotypical" perception of the American society as most affluent. The possible sources for such perception come mainly from the mass media. Some of the most popular television shows in Taiwan, at the time of the study, consisted of programs such as "Dynasty," "Dallas," "The Cosby Show," and "The ATeam." The somewhat lower percentages from the acculturating Taiwanese indicate the influence of direct contact in bringing perception closer to reality. And, of course, American respondents are assumed to represent the perspectives most closely connected to reality.

Once the position of the acculturating Taiwanese relative to the two anchoring cultural groups was observed, the focus was then on the acculturating group and their perception of the American consumption reality. The acculturating individuals were categorized into high (i.e., watch more than two hours of television daily) and low television exposure (i.e., watch less than two hours of television daily) groups. Based on the mean percentages as presented in Table 2, five items yielded significant differences between high television exposure acculturating individuals and low television exposure individuals in their perception of consumption reality. The five items included: own a house, own a personal computer, take yearly vacation to Europe, own more than one car, and own a compact disc player. Therefore, the preset study partially affirmed the suspected relationship between television viewing and perception of consumption reality. Some cultivation effects are observed, however, they are not overwhelmingly strong. A possible explanation could be that the use of student samples tends to give a somewhat limited representation of what "real" consumers would think. However, the relationship observed here does give some general indication of the potential for cultivation effects since, of the five significant items, high television exposure individuals tend to give higher percentages than low television exposure individuals.

CONCLUSION

Past research has repeatedly shown that ethnic minorities, the young and the less educated watch more television relative to other groups of the population in the United States (Greenberg, Burgoon, Burgoon, and Korzenny 1983; Hawkins and Pingree 1982). Since ethnic minorities do not always have the advantage of being familiar with the American social and cultural systems, their use of mass media, especially television, becomes an important way of learning the value system, the social and interpersonal role structures of the American culture. It is no wonder that they become heavy television viewers. In fact, research has suggested that ethnic minorities tend to consider television as a trustworthy and reliable source for information and advice (e.g., Greenberg et al. 1983). This is usually shown through their positive attitudes toward television programs and advertising. The acculturating individuals may use television to gain insights as to how people live their lives in the host society and to perceive the reality as portrayed on television. Consequently, they are inspired to live the kind of lifestyle as portrayed on television.

Mass media contents tend to affirm cultural interests and attitudes by portraying for the audience an imaginary world of excitement and pleasure. The cultivation theory of communication has long proposed the notion that mass media is a powerful and effective learning agent (Gross and Morgan 1983). Numerous studies on the cultivation theory have focused mainly on Americans and indicate that their perception of social reality is strongly influenced by their use of television. However, no previous research has used the cultivation theory to investigate the effects of television on ethnic minorities. The present study therefore attempted to explore the cultivation effects among Chinese subculture in the United States. Partial support was found for the hypothesized relationship among the acculturating Taiwanese. Further research using non-student sample should yield better insights of the cultivation effects on various ethnic minorities.

TABLE 1

ANOVA OF MEAN RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS ASKING FOR PERCENTAGES OF AMERICANS WHO OWN CERTAIN CONSUMER PRODUCTS OR SERVICES

TABLE 2

ANOVA OF MEAN RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS ASKING FOR PERCENTAGES OF AMERICANS WHO OWN CERTAIN CONSUMER PRODUCTS OR SERVICES

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