Music Television As Teen Image Agentca Preliminary Report From the United States and Sweden


Basil G. Englis, Michael R. Solomon, and Anna Olofsson (1993) ,"Music Television As Teen Image Agentca Preliminary Report From the United States and Sweden", 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: 449-450.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1993      Pages 449-450


Basil G. Englis, Rutgers University, U.S.A.

Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University, U.S.A.

Anna Olofsson, University of Umes, Sweden

A recent hit song by rap singers D.J. Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince is a good illustration of how the messages contained in popular music are vividly portrayed in music videos, and how these messages may reflect the consumption concerns of teenage viewers. The song (and video) is titled "Parents Just Don't Understand" and relates the experiences of a teenager who goes shopping with his parents for a "back-to-school" wardrobe. Mom's and Dad's selections leave much to be desired: e.g., button-down butterfly collars and plaid shirts are not appropriate, and the cachet of particular brands is illustrated when the teen complains that Mom doesn't understand that there is no substitute for Adidas. These product choices are juxtaposed with "cool" alternatives. The rewards of being cool are shown in a daydream in which the central character looks cool, drives a cool car, and offers a lift to a "cool babe." And, the penalties for wearing the "wrong" style of clothing are dramatically illustrated when our young hero's peers point and giggle at his "plaid shirt with button-down butterfly collar." All of the elements needed for modeling to occur are present: an attractive model who is similar to the viewer, clearly defined behaviors, and meaningful consequences.

Informal examination of music television (primarily the MTV network) programming and commercials suggests that a great deal of information regarding "style" is conveyed and is closely linked to different genres of popular music. Our aim in the present research is to consider how musical genres become associated with distinctive styles of fashion on music television and how this association influences the teenaged audience. A cross-cultural approach is employed in a naturalistic study that seeks to assess the effects of amount and type of media exposure on the relationship between media-transmitted images of consumption activities and the behavior of the teen audience. While music television has a relatively long history in the United States and some of its effects on adolescents have been chronicled (e.g., Brown, Campbell and Fischer 1986; Englis 1990; Paskowski 1985; Sun and Lull 1986), its recent introduction to Sweden allows us to consider its impact on adolescent consumption activities in a culture in which there is little historical linkage between popular music and the visual medium of television. MTV has a weekly penetration of 43% of U.S. teenager viewers (Paskowski 1985); and they watch an average of a half an hour to two hours a day (Sun and Lull 1986). Within two years of its introduction, MTV is present in 78% of Swedish households with television. The predominantly 12 to 29 year-old Swedish audience is demographically similar to the U.S. audience (Benkert 1991).

Although much has been written about the potential impact of music television, there has been surprisingly little empirical work. Much of the literature concerning music television has been interpretive (e.g., Aufderheide 1986; Kaplan 1987), or has emphasized the motivations underlying teenage viewing patterns (e.g., Brown, Campbell and Fischer 1986; Sun and Lull 1986). Only recently have researchers attempted to link exposure to music television with specific behaviors. These studies have considered behaviors such as aggressiveness and sexuality (Hansen and Hansen 1991; Zillmann and Mundorf 1987), and have related MTV viewing preferences to personality factors (Bleich, Zillmann and Weaver 1991). To date no empirical research has linked exposure to music television and/or musical preferences to consumption activities.

However, music television presents a powerful association between popular music, visual imagery, and the stars of the popular music sceneBheroes of popular culture. Since most people model the behaviors of those whom they admire and would like to resemble, the heroes of popular music should provide important modeling influences for teens. Verbal expressions, hairstyles, clothing, music, food preference, and basic social valuesBelements of one's "personal style"Bhave all been linked to adolescent modeling of other pop heroes (e.g., Rice 1981, p.65). As examples of how such modeling can translate into marketing strategies, Madonna and Michael Jackson are currently marketing their own lines of clothing based on the styles they wear in their music videos. Music television often associates pop heroes with various products and consumption activities and thus may play an important role in socializing consumers during adolescence (e.g., Atkins 1982).

Even a casual perusal of the popular music sceneBmusic videos, album cover art, stage concertsBsuggests that each musical genre presents a powerfully integrated image to its fans. For example, the heavy, metal-studded leather outfits and black torn tee shirts worn by "metal" bands seem to "fit" the often harsh and violent lyrics, as well as the instrument smashing sometimes seen during concerts (e.g., Hansen and Hansen 1991). Moreover, the fans of heavy metal respond more positively to such violent images than do non-fans (cf. Zillmann and Mundorf 1987; also Bleich, Zillmann and Weaver 1991). These images are in sharp contrast to the upbeat romantic themes often portrayed in dance (or club) music. Performers such as Paula Abdul present a "soft" image including gossamer wind-blown fabrics, beach scenes, and openly loving, affectionate interactions. Such stylistic distinctiveness between genres, often reflected in consumption activities, is potentially useful to teenagers in providing emblems of group affiliation and expressions of individual musical preference.

Some writers have noted the presence of consumption imagery in music videos (e.g., Aufderheide 1986; Kaplan 1987), and others have conducted content analyses (e.g., Baxter et al. 1985). However, there has been no systematic analysis of the consumption-related content of music television. We conducted a content analysis that focused on the consumption imagery present in the music videos shown on music television in the U.S. and in Sweden. A 24-hr. sample was recorded off-the-air, taking four hours from each of six musical genres. The music categories used in this study were generated through interviews with students and through consultation with an industry expert. Each category is represented in a music television program shown on the MTV and VH-1 networks in the U.S. and on MTV in Sweden. The categories are: Dance Music, Top40/Soft Rock, Hard Rock/Heavy Metal, Classic Rock, Rap, Alternative/New Wave. MTV programming in Sweden closely parallels that in the U.S. (see, e.g., Benkert 1991) as does the content of the music videos that are shown (Englis, Solomon and Olofsson 1992).

Our preliminary analysis revealed the following differences in consumption imagery as a function of musical genre (a complete report of these results is provided in Englis, Solomon and Olofsson 1992). As compared with other genres, dance music videos contain the most fashion-oriented imageryBincluding references to and consumption activities involving clothing, lingerie, hairstyles, and make-up. Dance videos also contained the most imagery relating to body adornment, which includes the use of jewelry, earrings (worn by men), and tattoos. In contrast, classic rock and new wave videos were lower than all other genres in imagery concerning fashion and body adornment. Another, quite different form of imagery involved the "dark side" of consumption and included alcoholic beverages, weapons, use of tobacco and drugs. Rap music videos contained the most dark-side consumption imagery of all the genres sampled. Heavy metal/hard rock videos contained the most emphasis on musical instruments and the use of vehicles (cars, motorcycles, trucks). Not surprisingly, top 40/soft rock was the least distinctiveBit tended to contain a mixture of the other genres. In sum, the content analysis showed that consumption imagery is pervasive (nearly all videos contained some form of consumption imagery) and the quality of the imagery varies as a function of genre.

Although the content analysis showed that the amount and type of imagery varied according to genre, it does not shed light on the question of whether or not the visual imagery is stylistically distinct between music genres. In order to address this issue, a sampling of visual scenes was edited from the set of videos used in the content analysis. The visual scenes were shown to a sample of college students who were asked to decode music genre based only on the visual information. Four scenes were taken from each of the six genresBthe scenes ranged from ten to fifteen seconds in duration and were presented without the sound. The scenes were randomly chosen with the constraint that they contain no visual information which would identify specific performers and that no explicit visual reference to genre was made. Another purpose of this study was to relate involvement in (and exposure to) music television and popular music to ability to decode musical genre from exposure to the visual content of music television. Preliminary analyses of the data from our U.S. sample revealed a strong interaction between decoding accuracy and involvement. High involvement respondents were equally accurate at decoding the visual imagery associated with their preferred musical genre as well as all other genres. In contrast, low-involvement respondents were poor decoders of non-preferred genres and also performed more poorly at decoding their preferred genre as compared with high-involvement viewers. A comparable analysis of our Swedish sample is currently underway.

The data from these studies shed light on several issues. First, it is clear that there is a great deal of consumption imagery present in the music videos shown on the MTV networks. Moreover, the programming and content is comparable between the two countries studiedBthe U.S. and Sweden. Second, the content analysis revealed that the categories of consumption activity shown on music television varies as a function of musical genre. This finding makes more plausible the tacit assumption that exposure to music television may be one mediator of the relationship between musical preference, and personal style and its related consumption activities. Finally, this research shows that viewers do learn the "style" associated with different musical genres and, in particular, that they are able to decode the style associated with their preferred genre. Since involvement with and exposure to popular music influenced accuracy, we expect to find support for the general hypothesis that Swedish teens will be less accurate in their knowledge of the style associated with different musical genres. Research currently underway seeks to elucidate the relationship between exposure to music television and viewer ability to decode the visual style presented (including fashion-relevant information. In addition, we are concerned with the degree to which exposure and preference influence actual consumption behavior, and will address this question in a project that examines teen fashion choices and their relation to musical preference in Sweden as compared with the U.S. We plan to conduct ongoing comparisons between the U.S. and Sweden, which should reveal that teen cultures become increasingly similar over time to the extent that mass media vehicles of popular culture also converge.


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Rice, F. Phillip (1981), The Adolescent: Development, Relationships, and Culture, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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Zillmann, Dolf and Norbert Mundorf (1987), "Image Effects in the Appreciation of Video Rock,' Communication Research, 14 (3), 316-334.



Basil G. Englis, Rutgers University, U.S.A.
Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University, U.S.A.
Anna Olofsson, University of Umes, Sweden


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1 | 1993

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