Television Commercials As Socializing Agents

Ann H. Beuf, The University of Pennsylvania
ABSTRACT - The paper addresses the question of the means by which television commercials, as well as performing their manifest function of promoting a product, also act as socializing agents in American Society. There are essentially three parts to this consideration. First, some theoretical background from sociological work in the area is provided, dealing with secularization and the assumption of value-transmitting tasks by secular institutions. The manner in which television-commercials-as-socializers may be viewed as a modification of the concept of American way of life is discussed. Next (1) the messages of commercials and (2) the devices of presentation of commercials are examined with regard to how they function to convey certain primary American values to children. Finally, the above observations are approached from three different perspectives on socialization. It is suggested that television with its extensive use among American children has the potential to function as a common conscience which introduces and reinforces American values at a high level of generality and that research in this area should take this dimension of the experience of commercial viewing into account in assessing the quality of children's commercials.
[ to cite ]:
Ann H. Beuf (1976) ,"Television Commercials As Socializing Agents", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 528-530.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 528-530

TELEVISION COMMERCIALS AS SOCIALIZING AGENTS

Ann H. Beuf, The University of Pennsylvania

ABSTRACT -

The paper addresses the question of the means by which television commercials, as well as performing their manifest function of promoting a product, also act as socializing agents in American Society. There are essentially three parts to this consideration. First, some theoretical background from sociological work in the area is provided, dealing with secularization and the assumption of value-transmitting tasks by secular institutions. The manner in which television-commercials-as-socializers may be viewed as a modification of the concept of American way of life is discussed. Next (1) the messages of commercials and (2) the devices of presentation of commercials are examined with regard to how they function to convey certain primary American values to children. Finally, the above observations are approached from three different perspectives on socialization. It is suggested that television with its extensive use among American children has the potential to function as a common conscience which introduces and reinforces American values at a high level of generality and that research in this area should take this dimension of the experience of commercial viewing into account in assessing the quality of children's commercials.

INTRODUCTION

It is quite clear to all of us that changes have taken place in the socialization of children during the past several decades. The increasing differentiation of school from family has expedited changes in this area; many functions once performed by parents are now part of the teacher's role. Another process has occurred concurrently with this process of differentiation of family and education with regard to the 'secondary socializers' in a child's life. In Athenian Greece (Payne, 1916) in Church-controlled Europe preceding the reformation, and in the Puritan era which followed it, religion functioned as a conveyor of important societal values (Payne, 1916). This function has diminished in an increasingly secular era. In this paper television, especially commercials will be considered as a new secondary socializer on the American scene, stepping in to perform some of the tasks of value definition and inculcation which are no longer so effectively performed by sacred institutions.

There has been much sociological speculation on the nature of the secularization of our society. Some have argued that Americans still relate to sacred institutions but do so for secular reasons such as the need for ethnic identification (Herberg, 1960); others (Cox, 1966) have stressed the growth of a new "people-centered" religion based on the principles of Autonomy, the dictates of conscience and the performance of good acts towards others within the 'secular city'. Another approach to the question of secularization has been the notion of a fusing of religion and patriotic rationalism. (Belial-, 1967).

Herberg also argues for the co-existence of formal religious institutions and another, secular system of ethics which he calls the American Way of Life. This system embodies Bellah's Civil Religion, but in addition includes other values not so directly related to patriotism: "there is to be found among Americans some sort of faith or belief or set of convictions, not generally defined as religion, hut definitely operative as such in their lives in the sense of providing them with some fundamental context of normativity and meaning." (Herberg, 1960). Herberg goes on to note that it is the American way of life which supplies Americans with an "overarching sense of unity," and a framework in which "crucial values" of American life are couched. (Herberg, 1960) Some of the prominent features of this system are: love of fellow man, patriotic zeal, activism, individualism and achievement. The roots in Protestantism are immediately apparent --in fact Herberg calls it "a sort of secularized Puritanism." (Herberg, 1960) This value system is disseminated by patriotic ceremonies in schools, public ceremonies (such as presidential inaugurals), and the celebration of holidays which commensurate events in the nation's history. (Bellah, 1967) (Herberg, 1960)

An Extension of the Theory

It seems necessary to consider one of the limitations of this approach which has special relevance for this paper. While the American Way of Life is a useful concept, it seems doubtful that it would be as widespread as Herberg claims it to be if dissemination were indeed dependent on schools, families and celebrations. Participation in and acceptance of these institutions is not so universal as to provide a really common set of experiences and a core of common values for the entire society. For a variety of reasons, many groups within American society are alienated from, ignorant of, or denied access to the very institutions which both Bellah and Herberg see as primary disseminators of a core value system. (Bellah, 1967) (Herberg, 1960)

For the poor, the minority person, involvement in such events as the fourth of July, Washington's Birthday and Thanksgiving (this last being a real bete noir of the American Indian community) is either absent or occasion for ambivalent affect. The present debates raging within several minority communities over whether or not they should participate in the Bicentennial celebration is frank evidence of the lack of a society wide acceptance of certain elements of the American way of life.

I believe that Herberg is essentially correct that secular vehicles are increasingly employed to inculcate social values, but I would extend his argument. I believe that many other institutions, among them the mass media, perform the function of value dissemination and are better able to do so in the face of political and social diversities and animosities than are traditional institutions.

The central contention of this paper will be that there is within our society a socializing agent which reaches large numbers of children, regardless of class or race, thus providing them with (a) a common set of experiences and (b) exposure to a common set of values while manifestly performing other tasks of entertainment or salesmanship. This secular vehicle is television and I shall argue that it invokes the same value clusters as those which are present in both the American way of life and the Protestant Ethic as delimited by Max Weber (Weber, 1958) Television as a Socializer.

In socializing the American child to a set of values both message content and mode of presentation are invoked. Some commercials, notably public service messages, overtly instruct a child in such values as honestly (anti-shoplifting) and neatness ("Don't be a litterbug:"). These messages, direct and to the point, represent an obvious attempt to give instruction in "correct" behavior. What we shall be concerned with here, are the more subtle cases, those in which human virtues are being peddled along with cereal and sneakers.

The values most frequently stressed in the television commercials I have observed are achievement-success, individualism, equality, patriotism, fairness, and equality, good health, a rather peripheral component of the American way of life is also frequently mentioned, especially in food commercials. All of these values are important elements of The American Way of Life as Herberg has delineated it. (Herberg, 1960) These values are stressed in a variety of ways, some quite direct, others rather subtle. I have noted five ways of introducing or reinforcing an American Way of Life value in children's commercials.

A. Direct instruction. Here the audience child is told what or what not to do. Examples: "Don't be a litterbug!" "Hug your Baby Tender Love. Love her."

B. Indirect instruction. Here the television actor child is told what or what not to do. Thus an adult figure tells a child to share his Nabisco cracker with his sister. In a Capt'n Crunch commercial when one child starts to help another with a riddle he is reprimanded "Don't tell him. Let him do it himself."

C. Modeling. This device simply approaches the viewer by showing good things happening to children because of something they do. Winners receive pats on the back -- a tacit reward for achievement. Girls who are "friendly" are shown drinking Kool-Aid with friends. Sometimes this modeling has to do with who the children are with. In an effort to promote Equality, many children's ads are now multi racial. In the television world children in these groups are always smiling and laughing.

D. Overvoice. The use of adult, usually male adult overvoices to tell about the product while children are seen using it, can be viewed as a cultural way of lending authority to the values stressed and also of reinforcing the obedience value in viewers.

E. Appeals to children's anxieties. Some commercials speak the fears and anxieties of children. Is one feeling small and vulnerable -- this toy you can use "all by yourself." Is a little girl jealous of her mother -- with Baby That-A-Way she can identify with her. Is junior in the throes of the Oedipus complex --he can beat hell out of his Dad at Parcheesi. If he "plays his hardest."

F. Appeals to Pity. Here ill or poor persons are shown in a condition such as to stir up in the child the proper emotions of sympathy and generosity (which are then commended by the male adult overvoice).

Almost every device is employed in the service of the American Way of Life. Some mechanisms seem to be favored for the inculcation of certain specific values. For example, I observed that individualism is very often conveyed through the mechanism of the overvoice addressing the viewer. "You should try this yourself." "You can build this unaided," while equality (perhaps because of its dubious standing in the value hierarchy right now) is never referred to verbally, but is conveyed through a portrayal of happy interracial groups. Patriotism is most frequently introduced through the Juxtaposition of a common patriotic symbol with an object which has good connotations. Example: Grandpa Strohman singing to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy amid stars and stripes while enjoying "Some of mine delicious bread."

What becomes evident through prolonged viewing is that the American Way of Life is being sold by reference to toys and candy, just as toys and candy are being sold by references to the American Way of Life. So far, investigators have only dealt with the latter aspect of this two-fold phenomenon.

Socialization Theories

On a theoretical level, at least, we can interpret these observations from several perspectives in the area of socialization. (Empirical investigation will have to be carried out to find which of these, or which combination of them is actually at work.)

From a learning theory perspective we can see children as receiving direct instructions and indirect messages via models on the screen as they view television commercials. "Try doing this yourself first!"

The positive reinforcement received by children on the screen with whom the viewer identifies can also be employed as a socializing device (Bandura, 1967). Thus the smiles of approval which are directed at the winner of a game, reinforce aggressiveness and success as values. (not Just the value of the table game!)

From a symbolic interactionist point of view, television and those who people it can come to be internalized in personality as both "specific others" and "generalized others." (Mead, 1934). Thus the expectations for social behavior expressed and demonstrated on television become a part of the child's value repertoire.

Finally, Freudians might claim that the special psychological anxieties and fears of children are manipulated by the symbolism of television commercials. Certainly doll commercials capitalize on the female child's wish for a baby, while instilling ideas of "proper mothering," and the frequency with which sons are portrayed beating Dad in game commercials does cater to Oedipal fantasies-- associated with aggressive game behavior as well as with the game itself.

CONCLUSION

It appears then, that television and in particular television commercials function as socializers of American children by selling values as well as products. The process involves seems to be many-faceted and probably involves the child in cognitive learning; internalization of the norms and values held by the "generalized other" such as it is presented in the world of television, and a tapping of deeper psychological concerns and anxieties. It has been suggested that this mechanism has, along with such other institutions as the schools and the political-legal system, emerged as an important "secondary socializer," and that this has accompanied the diminished importance of religious institutions in this realm. The family probably remains the most important socializing agent for our children, but increased use of television (Schramm, 1968) and the long hours spent in its presence by most American children have given it a role in their lives which we should not ignore. That it reaches and holds the attention of a wide variety of children regardless of race or social class may make the watching of television and the learning from it the most common experiences of young Americans as a people. Regardless of how widely different may be the experience of the Eastern Urban Black youngster and the Anglo farmers child of the Midwest, in all likelihood these two children, if they met could immediately exchange reminiscences about the adventures of Speed Racer, Bugs Bunny and the crew of the Starship Enterprise. They doubtless also could recite the lyrics of many a commercial and reel off the chemical contents of a variety of toothpastes and other toilet articles.

This idea of a shared experience was a primary ingredient for the development of a "common conscience" as it was developed by Emil Durkheim. (Durkheim, 1964) The common conscience was the source of religion and was reflected by it. The common consciences, or shared value systems of small cohesive groups were believed by Durkheim to have been weakened by Western Society's movement toward large, heterogeneous, industrial-urban societies. It appears, however, that for the coming generation of American children, the common conscience may be rising, Phoenix-like from its ashes to manifest itself in children who have been exposed to the same set of values by the mass media.

Children are not just exposed to a series of isolated values through this process. As Gross has noted (Gerbner and Gross, 1974) they are presented with an entire world view. Furthermore, it seems likely that they will buy this world view, precisely because the fact that it is being conveyed is a disguised or latent process. Robertson and Rossiter (Robertson and Rossiter, 1974) have indicated that the suggestions children resist are likely to be those which they recognize as having persuasive content. As the-value messages are hidden dimensions of commercials, the child is unlikely to realize that he is being "sold" a value, and therefore unlikely to "turn-off" to it.

In light of these considerations it seems important for us to give serious thought to the nature of the television-world-view as it is conveyed by commercials. The values it applauds, the degree to which it represents either the static complacency of the status quo, or a liberating challenge to existing repressive social arrangements should be the subject of thorough and sensitive research in the fields of communications and consumer behavior.

REFERENCES

Albert Bandura, "The Role of Modeling Processes in Personality Development," in Willard W. Hartys and Nancy L. Smothergill (Eds.), The Young Child: Reviews of Research (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children), 1967.

Robert Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus, 96 (Winter 1967) 1-22.

Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966)

Emil Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (New York: The Free Press, 1964).

George Gerbner and Larry Gross, "Cultural Indicators: The Social Reality of Television Drama" (Unpublished paper, 1979).

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1960).

M. L. Kohn, "Social Class and Parent-Child Relationships," American Journal of Sociology, 68 (1963) 471-480.

George H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society, C. W. Morris (Ed.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).

George H. Payne, The Child in Human Progress (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1916).

Thomas Robertson and John R. Rossiter, "Children and Commercial Persuasion: An Attribution Theory Analysis," Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (June 1974), 13-20.

William Schramm, Jack Lyle and Edwin B. Parker, "Television in the Lives of our Children ," in Derek Phillips (Ed.), Studies in American Society: I (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968).

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958).

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