Consumer Behavior and Mass Communications Research: a Retrospective Commentary

Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles
[ to cite ]:
Harold H. Kassarjian (2000) ,"Consumer Behavior and Mass Communications Research: a Retrospective Commentary", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 100-103.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 100-103


Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles

Although the title of this session is A Contemporary Look at the 1969 Workshop on Experimental Research in Consumer Behavior, the various papers have alluded to the pastBthe times as they were three decades ago and the start of ACR here at Ohio State.

For those with an interest in greater detail of the history of Consumer Behavior and ACR, I urge you to look at the 1994 ACR proceedings edited by Frank Kardes and Mita Sujan ( l995). Papers were presented that year on our start by Jim Engle, Joel Cohen, Bill Wells, Ron Frank, myself, and two papers by Jerry Kernan, one on the history of ACR and the other on the history of the Journal of Consumer Research. What is clear from those papers, and, now the ones on these two Anniversary sessions, is that in the beginning the Association of Consumer Research was broad-gauged and open minded, irreverent, and fun. I hope we have not lost those endearing characteristics.

But let me get to Bob Meyer and Steve Hoch’s purpose of our being hereBa look at what has happened to our research over the last three decades. In my case, research on mass communications since publication of my 1969 ACR paper on Blacks in Advertising. But to do that, I need to point out the social influences on research at the time; that is, a one-minute look at our history.


The 1960s, the start of ACR, were a tumultuous time in the academy. The thousand days of Camelot, the Kennedy Consumer Bill of Rights, and the War on Poverty had been overtaken by Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, and the Civil Rights movement. Egged on by Sputnik and the successes of the Soviet space program, the US space program was headed for the moon, to everyone’s disbelief and amazement. The Ford and Carnegie reports spurred business schools to incorporate the behavioral sciences, mathematics, statistics and other social sciences into our teaching, research and thinking. And, unfortunately, the country was on verge of another war. Our campuses were suddenly changing and beginning to look like a war zone with protests, helmeted troops, rifles, billy clubs and tear gas. Enrollment in business school classes dropped precipitously. President Eisenhower had earlier warned the country of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. To many, it was now becoming clear what he had meant. (Kassarjian 1994)

The young faces of those days, the ones that today are around here with gray hair and wrinkles, vainly tried to distance themselves from the establishment. For example, Kotler and Levy were trying to broaden the marketing concept to include not only toothpaste and detergent, but also hospitals and charities, and politicians and social causes. We had new terms: broadened marketing and social marketing and political marketing. It might be all right to be in marketing as long as it was not peddling tooth paste, coffee or napalm. People like Mary Gardner Jones at the Federal Trade Commission were inviting us to work with the Federal Trade Commission and also we went to the Post Office and the White House and the Food and Drug Administration. Many consumer researchers were loudly proclaiming that we are not the handmaidens of the military-industrial complex. Consumer research could be used for the good of society as well as for the evils of tradeBthat we could be relevant for the protection of consumers as well as their exploitation (Kassarjian in Kardes and Sujan, 1995).


Meanwhile Caplovitz and Sturdivant along with Alan Andreasan, George Haines and Thad Spratlan were writing articles and book on whether or not the poor pay more. Were the meat and fish and vegetables just as fresh in the ghetto as on Nob Hill (see Joyce and Govini, 1971 for numerous references)? Advertising Age was pointing out that not one of the 670 television stations in the U S is black owned or programmed for African-Americans (W.M. Kassarjian, 1971). COREBthe Congress for Racial Equality and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were bringing direct pressure upon advertisers to include more African-American actors in advertising layout, in TV programming and to hire more blacks in the advertising industry. Arnold Barban (1969)at Illinois as well as Stafford and his colleagues (1970) at Texas were studying the effects of using integrated advertising on black and on white recipients. Cox and Shuey (1969-1970) at Houston, had found that less than 2% of ads in the largest circulation newspapers contained an African-American model or character. Greenberg and Kahn (1971) did the same sort of study using cartoons in Playboy. It was less than 1% black. A UCLA study for the American Civil Liberties Union (Schmidt, 1966) claimed that Blacks were given 0.65% of the speaking roles on television commercials and 1.39% of the non-speaking roles. [References to additional studies can be found in Capon and Lutz (1976) and W.M. Kassarjian (1973).]

Meanwhile Venkatesan and Jean Losco (1975) and Beverlee Anderson (1972) were writing about the image of women in the marketplace. And we, in consumer behavior felt that such topics were appropriate concerns of society and therefore appropriate topics for study within our field. We did not feel limited to coffee and orange juice and markeing implications. Implications for consumer protection, regulatory action, or social causes were equally appropriate.


By the late 1960’s, I wondered, if business had become more socially responsible during those activist years? Had the efforts of the civil rights groups had any effect on the frequency of blacks appearing in magazine advertising? Also I wondered if the role of the black within the ad had changed. That was that study that I presented at the first ACR meeting. Was there any change between the years 1946 and 1969 in the depiction of minorities in advertising? Were more African-Americans appearing in magazine advertising and had their role changed from the traditional Aunt Jemina and Uncle Tom, the servant-laborer-slave role, to that of the middle classBsay a mailman or skilled laborer or even rocket scientist?

We examined nearly some 200,000 pages from a random sample of a dozen highest circulation magazines between 1946 and 1969. The number of ads containing a black character had not increased as expected, but actually dropped from about 0.5% in 1946 to about 0.4% of the ads in 1956, and by 1965 had risen to a paltry 0.6%. In the follow-up study in 1969 it had jumped to 1.3%. that is, about one ad per 100 pages of magazine contained a black face.

Further the role or occupational status of the African-American in magazine advertising had not changed much. Middle-class occupations were simple not to be found among blacks characters in ads. They continued to be depicted in service or laborer positions. By 1969, and a follow-up study in 1973 again indicated that blacks in the world of advertising sometimes continued to be depicted as maids and field hands, but now, very clearly, they had become high paid entertainers, sports figures and even brain surgeons. They simply were not being depicted as holding realistic middle class positions and jobs (Kassarjian 1969, 1971, 1976). The conclusion of those papers was that, "... ads that treat the Negro as an equal are so few that neither can the civil rights groups be acclaimed as successful nor can the advertising industry take particular pride in their supposedly newly found social responsibility."

Bob Meyer has pointed out that this sort of research, looking at the media as a social mirror, no longer exists in the field of consumer behavior. Unfortunately, he may be right. What are the social messages and the reflections of the human condition that are being presented in television and radio and newspapers and magazine today, be it advertising or editorial content? Consumer research has rather turned from the big picture to experimental psychology and minutia, be it cognitive, methodological, or interpretive. It is too bad, for we have given to others some of the most fun research topics to be found in our field.

Those sorts of studies are being conducted and published all right, but it is in political science and the humanities and even marketing, but not consumer behavior. For example, Greyser’s work on advertising is to be found in the Harvard Business Review, Sid Levy’s work on the social mirror is in the Journal of Marketing and in various anthologies. Pollay has published his classic paper on the Distorted Mirror in the Journal of Marketing and not the Journal of Consumer Research. Very interesting research of this sort continues to be found in the Public Opinion Quarterly and the Journalism Quarterly. And Mary Gardner Jones, I recently noticed, has an article that seems to be of this sort in the Osgoode Hall Law Journal. It is our loss.


But, back to my original tale. The reception that the Blacks in advertising paper received led to a another set f papers on a similar topic. The National Organization for Women had been bitterly complaining that women are presented in menial roles in advertising: The dumb blonde, the dependent housewife needing male instruction, and the overachieving housewife obsessed with menial tasks. Venkatesan and Losco (1975) had conducted a splendid content analysis of magazine ads verifying those claims.

About that time, President Gerald Ford made one of his more memorable comments. He is reputed to have said, "There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media and Doonsbury, not necessarily in that order."

I began to wonder. If the mass media, magazine advertising and television programming, are a reflection on society what about the comic pages? Does Doonsbury really reflect what is happening in Washington? If in fact, the Sunday funnies are a social mirror, I wondered, for example, how the comics treat women and minorities. The issue of sex-role stereotyping and blatant sexism had been studied in magazine advertising, television programs, children’s picture books, textbooks, and a variety of other media. We also knew that the world of the mass media was a male world. In motion pictures, novels, advertising, fiction, radio drama, etc., men outnumbered women two to one. The question at hand was whether or not stereotyping and male domination was to be found in the Sunday funnies, the comic pages.

Hence a content analysis of the Sunday funnies was conducted and first presented at ACR in 1982 (Kassarjian 1983). As Shaw (1977) pointed out, the comics are a serious business. Born during a circulation war between William Randolf Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer cartoons were the origin of the term yellow journalism. (The first political cartoons were printed in yellow ink because the foreman in Pulitzer’s pressroom wanted an excuse to use another color.) Today, the comics are a multi-million dollar enterprise. Peanuts appears in more that 1,400 papers around the world and has generated hundreds of books in a dozen languages as well as a Broadway play, a line of greeting cards, annual TV specials and an entire products industry including sweatshirts, baseball caps, dolls, bed sheets, stuffed animals and calendars. The rights to print the strip sell for all little as $10 per week to many thousands of dollars per week depending on what the traffic will bear. Some years ago, the Philadelphia Bulletin paid a quarter million dollars to buy King Syndicate features and comics from a competitor (Shaw, 1977). As the Los Angeles Times writer wrote, "When you lose Blondie and Beetle Bailey, it is no laughing matter."

In this study more than 100 comic strips appearing in the Sunday papers during 1959, 1976, and 1979 were examined using formal systematic content analysis techniques. The purpose was to count heads as well as measure the major values, goals and means to the goal being promulgated in this amazing medium of communication (Kassarjian 1984). Like other mass media, the world of the comics was an adult male world. Males outnumbered females two to one. Adults outnumber children five to one. There were no poor in the funnies for most characters were in white collar or professional occupations. The comic strip world was one of tranquility and racial harmony. There was no class conflict and no racial problems, for there were few minorities.

The criticisms of the National Organization for Women and the findings of Venkatesan and Losco of blatant sexism and sex role stereotyping in advertising was strangely missing in the comics. A shrewd Blondie controlling her bumbling husband, Dragon Lady foiling Terry and the Pirates, a Brenda Star, Apartment 3G, or the characters in Doonsbury, simply do not fit the dependent, overachieving, obsessive housewife stereotype.

One can only wonder how the comic strips of today have changed. What are the values and what is the reality they promulgate to some hundred million readers every morning? It is sad that that Bob Meyer is right, we no longer see research in our field that examines the mass media as a social mrror. The last time comics were studied was by Susan Spiggle in the mid -1980s.


The second stream of publications that emerged from that ACR paper on Blacks in Advertising was the methodological work in content analysis. That paper was one of very early studies using a formal systematic content analysis. Content analysis had been mentioned in the literature before, of course. As early as 1958 Ferber in his book with Wales, Motivation and Market Behavior, had alluded to it. In the late 1970s, in his role as Editor, Ferber asked me to write a paper describing content analysis, the technique and its uses. Although the technique was well known in the social sciences it had not taken hold in Marketing or Consumer Behavior. It was not one of the tools in our toolbox. Surely, the work on content analysis in political science, journalism, and social psychology could be translated and presented in JCR. Reviewing the work of Berelson, Cartwright, Fearing, Holsti, and Kerlinger, and others, I wrote that paper and JCR published it in 1977.

According to an as yet unpublished study conducted by Mike Mulvey and Barbara Stern that paper has been referred to or referenced 168 times, 139 of those appearing in marketing or business journals. Amazing! Ferber, once again, had been right.

Berelson had defined content analysis as a research technique for the objective, systematic and quantitative description of the manifest content of communications. Fearing expanded that to include latent content as well as manifest content using trained judges and objectively defined criteria. Instead of observing behavior directly, interviewing them, or asking them to respond to scales, content analysis takes the communications materials that people produce and asks questions of the communications.

As Lasswell, Berelson, Cartwright, and others have stated, content analysis must be objective, systematic, and quantitative, by definition. Hence, it does not include data reduction in which open-end responses in surveys are categorized by a single researcher, it does not include a meta-analysis of the literature on a topic by an author. It is not a journalistic overview or backgrounder or investigative report of a columnist. And for the most part it does not include analysis of comments by respondents in an interpretive paper, for only seldom are those responses quantified and statistically tested.

By no means do I intend to be critical of the work of the investigative reporter, the political analyst, the survey researcher with open-end questions, or the interpretive researcher in consumer behavior. It is just that their work, as fine as it may be, is technically not formal content analysis as the term content analysis has been defined for fifty years. Let’s just call it something else, to avoid confusion and criticism.


As a conclusion, I think it is appropriate to ask, "What are some of the interesting questions and topics in communications research that have been recently neglected in our field. A personal example: my neighbor is a TV news reporter and part-time anchorwoman in her mid-30s. She recently mentioned that her contract would be up in March and the TV station was looking for a younger woman who is Asian or African-American, or even Latino. Herein lies an interesting study in my opinion. Are TV personalities today primarily young attractive minorities as compared with last year or last decade? What are the implications of such a trend?

To end this presentation, let me list a few other topics that might be interesting:

1. What are the changing values in society as reflected in the mass media.? Are the values of baby boomers or gen-Xers really different from those who preceded them and those who followed?

2. Have the values and goals depicted in advertising changed over the past 50 years?

3. Is there really more sex and violence on television now than in the past. Is it any different from the violence on Radio Drama of the 1930s and 1940s or cable TV of the 1990s.

4. Is advertising more or less informative that it was? Why?

5. Is deceptive and misleading advertising on the increase? Has it changed from in the past 100 years? Is advertising on the Internet more deceptive than print media or television.

6. Is advertising presented on the Internet substantially different in content, infromativeness, misrepresentation, and persuasibility than material in newspapers, television or other mass media?

7. What is the role of women, minorities, children, in television, fiction, motion pictures, the comics? Is the use of minorities dropping off in the 1999 television season, as has been claimed?

8. Is the mass media still a male dominated world?

9. The religious right claims that the mass media are a hot bed of liberalism. Are news broadcasts on television or newspaper articles leaning more toward liberal values than right wing values?.

10. Are the major newspapers in the country biased toward one political candidate or another?

11. What is the image of big business, medicine, politicians, lawyers (or professors) today as compared to several decades ago?

12. What are the values being promulgated by political cartoons in the US as compared to Euroland or Asia? How do political cartoons compare with those of yesteryears?

13. What are the major values promulgated in such publications as National Enquirer, or True Confessions, Movie Fan magazines, or comic books?

14. What about textbooks? Grammar school, high school, college level? What is the extend of gender and ethnic stereotyping, political propaganda, right wing conservative values or rampant liberalism? Has it changed since World War II, or the Civil War?


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