Zeitgeist and the Academy Awards: Contemporary Cultural Influence on Voting Behavior

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of the contemporary cultural milieu, the Zeitgeist, or the era, on non-political voting behavior. We asked, what is the influence of recession, inflation, war, peace, civil unrest, and other such environmental influences on individual belief and choice.


Harold H. Kassarjian, Deborah A. Cours, and Traute M. Kassarjian (1993) ,"Zeitgeist and the Academy Awards: Contemporary Cultural Influence on Voting Behavior", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, eds. W. Fred Van Raaij and Gary J. Bamossy, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 440-443.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 440-443


Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.

Deborah A. Cours, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.

Traute M. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.

[Appreciation is expressed to Julie Newhouse for the clerical work involving the content analysis phase of this study. The use of subjects as judges was suggested by Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois. Funding for the project was proffered by a UCLA Academic Senate Research Committee grant and a travel grant from CIBER, the UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management Center for Business Education and Research. Computer facilities for portions of this work were provided by the Escola de Pos Graduacao em Ciecias Economicas e Empresariais, Universidade Catolica Portuguesa, Lisbon, Portugal.]


The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of the contemporary cultural milieu, the Zeitgeist, or the era, on non-political voting behavior. We asked, what is the influence of recession, inflation, war, peace, civil unrest, and other such environmental influences on individual belief and choice.


Since the early writings of Kurt Lewin (1935, 1936) social psychologists, and later consumer researchers, have paid homage to environmental influences in consumer decision processes. The oft-quoted Lewinian model: B = f (P+E), Behavior is a Function of the Person and the Environment, is an accepted postulate in the thinking of most researchers. For example, Ward and Robertson (1973) argue that situational variables may account for considerably more variance than person-related psychological variables.

Even if one ignores the work in contemporary culture or the anthropological literature, the influence of the Zeitgeist has permeated modern consumer behavior theory. The work of Mehrabian on Environmental Psychology is perhaps the best known empirical research on environmental factors (e.g. Mehrabian and Russell 1974). Belk has published major empirical studies on the topic (1974, 1975a, 1975b). The importance of the situation or the environment is discussed in several consumer behavior texts and in such tomes as Flemming Hansen's monograph on consumer choice behavior (1972). Lutz and Kakkar (1975, 1976) and Kakkar and Lutz (1975, 1981) have written about building a taxonomy of situations.

Economic psychology has studied other aspects of situational influences. For example, these researchers feel that during times of inflation, turbulence, and economic uncertainty consumers spend less and save more (Katona, 1951, Katona and Curtin 1980, van Raaij 1991). Inflation makes for the postponement of discretionary expenditures and reduces rather than increases the quantity of goods demanded.

Nevertheless, the number of studies relating individual decisions to the environment, the times, or the zeitgeist are amazingly few indeed. Consumer decision making and consumer decision processes have almost entirely revolved around the psychological and cognitive characteristics of the actor or individual and not the milieu.


The purpose of this study is to empirically examine the influence of the zeitgeist on non-political voting behavior. We ask, what is the influence of recession, inflation, war, peace, civil unrest, international tensions, depression and other such environmental influences on individual beliefs and individual choice? The decision we chose to study was not savings or spending, nor the purchase of consumer goods or attitude formation. Rather, we turned to the world of motion pictures and the annual selection of Best Picture by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesBthe Academy Awards.

It was our contention that the times, the zeitgeist, will strongly influence the voting members of the Academy in their annual selection of the best picture. We felt that in time of war Academy members would be more likely to vote as best picture, films that depict heroism, battlefield drama, patriotism, and nationalistic pride. During periods of social unrest we should see films reflecting war, social inequities, or violence in the winner's circle while in periods of abundance we get films depicting materialism and indulgence.

For example, during the late 1920's, in a period of rampant pacificism, we expected that a film such as All Quiet on the Western Front should win the coveted prize. This is a film about a group of German teenagers who volunteer for action on the western front, become disillusioned and none survive. It fixed in the mind of the viewer what it was like in the trenches and has been judged a great pacifist work.

We felt this film would be selected over other great films and not so great works of art produced in the same time period. It was! That year, we had The Love Parade with Jeanette MacDonald and Jean HarlowBa musical about the marriage of the Prince of Sylvania. Robert Montgomery could be seen with Conrad Nagel in The Divorcee, a film on the double standard in American married life. Robert Montgomery could also been seen with the great Wallace Beery in The Big House. At another time it is quite possible that The Big House, highly acclaimed as the most successful prison film ever produced, might well have won.

Again, by 1946 World War II had ended. The world had turned to peaceful co-existence, reconstruction and the problems and adjustment of returning veterans. The winning film that year was The Best Years of our LivesBa story of three men who come home from the war to a small middle-American community to find it difficult to pick up where they left off. Also-ran that year was Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, about a manBJames StewartBwho is prevented from committing suicide by an elderly angel. This film has been rerun every Christmas season for some half a century and has been seen by generations of film goers and TV rerun aficionadosBa fine film but perhaps released in the wrong year if an academy award was to be won.


Each year, members of the Academy nominate about 5 full length motion pictures which are then submitted to the membership for their vote for Best Picture of the Year. The members have the opportunity to view all nominated films over a several-months period during special showings and in regular commercial cinemas. The voting is by secret ballot and the winners are announced at the annual Academy Awards ceremony that is televised worldwide.

Our hypothesis was simple enough. Films that won the award would more reflect the era than films that did not win. Although lists of Academy Award winning films are readily available, what was not available to us were lists of the remaining films produced in any given year. Even if we had such a list, somehow to select a representative sample of motion pictures to study seemed overwhelming. Especially so since we felt we needed to control for the quality of script-writing, acting, directing, costume design and many of the other technical aspect of film production. Hence we turned to an extremely conservative position.

We assumed that the five or so films nominated for Best Picture each year are of approximate equal quality in technical features of motion picture production. We assumed that simply being nominated would indicate that the film was of superior quality and in the same class as other nominated films. Given that the quality is more or less equal, we hypothesized, there would be a greater likelihood that the film which won the Academy Award as Best Picture of the Year would reflect the zeitgeist better than the other four or so motion pictures which were nominated but not selected. Since all five films had already been nominated as the best of that year, differences between them would be particularly difficult to measure, but we felt we had little choice.

In addition, we appreciate that in any given year, there may be special circumstances that led to the selection of a particular filmBsentimental attachments, particularly distinguished acting or production skills, political pressure from the major motion picture studios, or whatever. We felt that such exceptional circumstances would balance out over these seven decades.


Descriptions of Films and the Zeitgeist

For each year since 1927, lists of the Academy Award nominees and the film selected for the Best Picture were compiled along with a neutral description of the contents and impact of the film. Similarly, for each year and for each decade, descriptions of life in the United States were chronicledBfrom the depression years and wars to civil disturbances, abundance and peace (Gordon, 1987).

The description of the film first presented a few sentence summary of the production. For example, the 1970 cinema M*A*S*H* was described as a 20th Century Fox, Aspen Productions release about, "Surgeons at a mobile hospital in Korea (who) spend what spare time they have chasing women and bucking authority. Savage comedy of man's rebellion in the face of death, alternating sex farce with gory operation scenes; hailed as a great anti-everything film, and certainly very funny for those who can take it. It led to a television original." The subject could stop there, but if further information was desired, that was followed by a long description of 1000-3000 words describing the plot of the film, the actors and technical personnel that worked on the film and more detail than most people might care to read.

Life in the United States during the decade (say the 1970's) was presented in a 3-5 printed page description of the times. Data included vital statistics, something about the economic and social climate, the consumer price index and some data about the price of foods (e.g., in the 1970's eggs were 61 cents per dozen, milk 33 cents a quart, coffee 91 cents per pound). In addition, there was a discussion of the first peacetime gasoline shortage, the anti-war events such as at Kent State, Nixon's election, and the policy of detente that emerged out of visits with Russian Premier Brezhnev. The Space-shuttle, Watergate and the Vietnam War were chronicled along with a discussion of the gradual integration of many of the ideals of the sixties into the mainstream of American consciousnessBissues such as busing of school children, affirmative action, and civil rights. The trend toward self-awareness and self improvement was discussed in the popularity of health foods and the sale of books such as I'm O.K., You're O.K. If the subjects wanted still more information, they were presented with facts and figures for each year in the decade along with some 50 or so major newspaper headlines that were published that year.

The Aborted Content Analysis

The ideal methodology for a study of this sort, the analysis of documentary evidence, is content analysis (Kassarjian 1977). The appropriate unit of analysis is the theme. An example of thematic analysis can be seen in a study by Wayne (1956). Wayne compared the values expressed in the content of two major family magazines at the time, one in the United States (Life Magazine) and one in the Soviet Union (Ogonek). For his themes, his unit of analysis, he selected the values defined by Spranger in his book, Types of Man. His results indicated a greater incidence of economic and aesthetic values in the Soviet magazine and greater emphasis on religious and social values in the United States.

Our intent was to develop a series of themes that could be found in the content of the film and be a reflection of the era in which it was producedBthemes such as war, patriotism, pacificism, co-existence, materialism, or whatever. The same themes would be used to categorize the films and the particular decade or era in which the film was produced much as Wayne (1956) has managed to categorize the values found in an American and a Soviet magazine.

The problem that we encountered was in developing a set of themes that could be applied both to the content of the films and to the decade in which the film was producedBvalid and reliable categories of analysis. We were unable to find appropriate lists of themes in the communications literature or in the many works assessing films as an art medium. And unfortunately, we simply were not clever enough to create our own themes which proved to be comprehensive, descriptive of both films and the zeitgeist, valid, and reliable. In short, we failed, and hence turned to another approach to data collection.

Experimental Design

Volunteer subjects (university graduate students who were paid $10.00 each) were assigned randomly to a particular decade (1920's, 1930's, ... 1970's). The decade of the 1980's was not included in this study as the events of that decade and the nominated films might still be fresh in the minds of the subjects leading to possible confounding of the data. Each subject was asked to read the chronicled material describing that era. Half the subjects were then presented with descriptions of the five (or more) nominated films for each year of the assigned decade (generally 50 films in all), and asked to rate the motion pictures on how representative each film was of that particular era or decade.

It is possible that lag effects exist; that is, Academy Award nomination and selection of best picture lag by a few years the era which it depicts. It takes time for viewers to be aware of the changes that have occurred and time for films to reflect those changes. Hence the remaining half of the subjects were shown a somewhat different set of films to evaluateBthose that lagged by five years, 1935-1944, 1945-1954, etc. Subjects who had become experts, say in the era of the 1960's were presented with films nominated in the years 1965-1974.





The critical question asked of both sets of subjects was the following:

Film critics have stated that some motion pictures films reflect the essence of the era in which they were produced. That is, during periods of social unrest, we get films reflecting war or crime or violence, while in periods of abundance we get films depicting materialism and indulgence. (For example, some critics said that the recent film "Bonfire of the Vanities" reflects the Reagan era in American history.

Do you feel that the film you just read about represents American society of the era that you read about in the beginning of this experiment?

Yes, Strongly Agree (1 point) . . . No, Strongly disagree (5 points).


Table 1 presents the data for the first half of the subjects, the non-lag group. The N is the number of times a winning film produced in that decade was rated. The next column is the mean rating on the Likert scaleBlow scores indicate strong agreement that this film best represents the particular era. In general, each decade of 50 films was seen by two non-lag and two lag subjects. Our hypothesis was that the winning film in each decade would get a lower score than the losing films. For example, we expected that the film The French Connection ( a film about a consignment of drugs entering the United States and the academy award winner in 1971) would get a lower score than other 1971 films such as A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, or Nicholas and Alexandra.

The results are clear, we had failed to provide evidence for an intuitively appealing hypothesisBthe influence of the zeitgeist on voting behavior. Only the decade of the forties supported our position, and that, not by much. However, the negative results might easily be explained away were a lag-effect operating. In other words, films nominated in 1970 or 1971 better reflect the era of the sixties than the decade of the seventies. Hence, in Table 2, we present the results of our analysis with a five year lag. That is, subjects who read about the decade of the fifties rated the films nominated in the years 1955-1964. Again the hypothesis was that winning films would get lower mean scores than the losing films.

The fifties were a wonderful decade. Many may not have considered the Eisenhower years, the cold war, the Korean conflict, and the McCarthy era all that wonderful or noteworthy. Yet to us, it was the one decade that supported our hypothesis.

Once again we had failed to provide statistical support for an appealing hypothesis. Two possible conclusions emerge. The first and more unacceptable one is that we were simply wrong in expecting that a motion picture winning the academy awards would better reflect the times, the zeitgeist, than the nominated but losing films. More likely, the problem is not in the conceptualization but rather in our ability to define and measure the variables appropriately. We were trying to measure gross cultural variables and not the highly controlled effects one ordinarily finds in laboratory experiments. We simply were not clever enough to design the study that would produce the evidence for what we know is true. In a sense we were trying to measure the height of trees in the forest with a micrometer and failed.

We also have additional explanations. Quite likely, having so few subjects read about each era and judge some fifty motion pictures each was simply too few subjects and too complex and difficult a task. Our descriptions of the films may have been inadequate, or perhaps a chronological decade is simply too long, or too short, or a wrong period of time to be categorized as an era. For example, the last half of the sixtiesBescalation of the Vietnam War, civil protests, and failure of the Great Society of President JohnsonBwere more like the first half of the 1970's than the first half of the 1960'sBa period of great hope and great optimism. Our chronological divisions of this sort may have been an error.

Perhaps expecting winning films to be very different from the other films nominated by the same members of the Academy was asking for differences that are too small to be measured by the crude instruments available to us. That is, perhaps our hypothesis should have been that nominated films better reflect the zeitgeist than a random sample of non-nominated films.

Or perhaps, this was another journey into failureBa journey with which we are all too familiar. As interesting and as intuitively appealing as our hypothesis may have been, just perhaps it is time to let it die a peaceful death.


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Harold H. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Deborah A. Cours, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Traute M. Kassarjian, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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