Popular Film and Television As Consumer Acculturation Agents: America 1900 to Present

ABSTRACT - Acculturation has typically been modeled as a function of direct contact with the traditional social institutions of the dominant society. This paper makes the argument that in order to adequately understand American consumer acculturation the effects of the pictorial mass media must also be included.


Thomas C. O'Guinn, Ronald J. Faber, and Marshall Rice (1985) ,"Popular Film and Television As Consumer Acculturation Agents: America 1900 to Present", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 297-301.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 297-301


Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois

Ronald J. Faber, University of Texas

Marshall Rice, York University


Acculturation has typically been modeled as a function of direct contact with the traditional social institutions of the dominant society. This paper makes the argument that in order to adequately understand American consumer acculturation the effects of the pictorial mass media must also be included.


The process by which immigrants adopt the dominant society's values, attitudes, and behaviors is far from understood in any complete sense. This is particularly true with regard to the way in which immigrants learn to behave as consumers. This paper will focus on this phenomenon as it exists in the United States.

Certainly there is no doubt that part of what it means-to become acculturated as an American includes learning the culturally accepted attitudes toward material goods and possessions. Much of who and what an American is is determined by what he or she possess, and the values those possessions express and convey to others. Immigrants who want to become acculturated must learn what things they should desire, and, to a lesser extent, why.

Previous research into the history of the so-called American "melting pot" has left us without a clear understanding of the agents and forces involved in the consumer acculturation process. For the most part, such studies have focused on the immigrant's direct contact and experience with the new nation's people and social institutions. This approach ignores the American as consumer and tends to overstate the importance of the work place, school and church as agents of socialization. While these institutions may play an important part in acculturation, other sources may be equally important. One important, but often overlooked, source is the influence of popular film and television.

These media have served as powerful acculturation agents for almost a century, and these influences need to be considered in any historical account of the consumer acculturation process.


Acculturation can be viewed as a subset of socialization. Socialization is a process by which the individual learns, adapts and conforms to society's norms, rules and expectations. Communication scholars have, for quite some time, been concerned with the effects the mass media have on the socialization process. However, their work has been generally limited to the study of childhood socialization.

Originally, researchers concerned with childhood socialization looked only at the influence of individuals and institutions with which the child had direct contact. These included parents, schools and churches. However, as interest in mass media grew, scholars recognized that indirect mass mediated contact could also be a socialization agent. Research evidence indicated that children could not only learn and model behaviors from watching television, but they could also learn societal values as well (e.g., DeFleur and DeFleur 1967).

More recently, mass communication researchers have suggested that media socialization may not be limited to just children, but may also occur with adolescents and adults (Faber, Brown and McLeod 1979; Ward 1972). In fact, for any novel role in which people do or expect to find themselves, some degree of socialization will occur. To the degree that direct experience or learning is difficult, or involves greater risk, anticipatory or concurrent socialization may occur via the mass media. For the immigrant who is faced with learning a new cultural value system, especially when a foreign language is involved, the pictorial media may play an extremely important role in socialization. However, when the situation involves a foreigner learning a new set of societal values rather than a native born person learning the expectations for a novel role, we tend to call the process acculturation rather than socialization.

While not discounting the importance of direct experience, twentieth century America offered the immigrant something novel, acculturation not solely dependent upon direct experience. For perhaps the first time, immigrants were able to learn the new society's values indirectly, via the mass media. Yet, current models of acculturation, particularly consumer acculturation, have largely failed to take this into account. The impact upon acculturation can best be demonstrated by focusing attention on two very significant periods of American immigration, the corresponding mass media environments of these times, and the lessons of American materialism and consumption implicit in the content of these messages.


Shortly after the turn of the century the United States experienced unprecedented levels of immigration. Never before, nor since, have so many arrived so quickly. Upon arrival, these immigrants were met with a completely novel social institution: the motion picture. This entertainment medium would find its first audience in the immigrant population, then move into the middle and upper social strata. it would, in fact, become known as "Democracy's Theater", or the first truly egalitarian art form. This medium of great social power was, almost from its inception, a vehicle for the message of consumption, a message that was not wasted upon the new Americans. In a very real sense motion pictures of this era seem to have lead the immigrant into mainstream America, and into the consumer culture which exists even today.

Between 1902 and 1914, the United States experienced a tremendous wave of immigration, during which the annual rate more than doubled. In the first decade of the twentieth century one out of every one hundred Americans had been in the country one year or less (Bureau of the Census 1985). These immigrants, at least at a functional level, had to learn the "appropriate" values and behaviors of their new host society, many of which were tied to notions of ownership and consumption. For some, this was essential for survival, for others it was a desired end in itself. In both cases, the motion picture offered assistance without requiring direct, and thereby riskier, contact with mainstream America.

As immigrants were streaming into the U.S., the motion picture was rapidly becoming "the largest and most widespread commercial entertainment form the world had ever seen" (Jowett 1976, 139). Movies had become commercially viable at the exact same time that immigration began to swell. The two literally emerge at the same time, and develop simultaneously. As the immigrant tried to become accepted by mainstream America, so did the movies.

It was no accident that the motion picture found its first audience in the urban immigrant population. During its formative years the silent short was generally shown in a converted storefront (nickelodeon) located on the edge of the business district for an average price of five cents. It required no knowledge of English, and was an inexpensive diversion from the drudgery of everyday existence. The middle and upper social order initially had no use for this type of entertainment because of its lower class associations, often seamy locations, and themes which were frequently regarded as repugnant to those that clung to the endangered morals of the Victorian era. For the immigrant, however, the early movies provided a very functional service by acting "as a guide to the newcomer on the manners and customs of his new environment" (Jowett 1976, 38). Gilbert Anderson, who played the enormously successful cowboy character Broncho Billy, claimed his films taught young immigrants "their first values of American manhood ... shoot straight and build railroads" (May 1980, 101). While this statement may appear facetious, underlying it is the notion that the typical Western conveyed the values of honesty and hard work which were largely accepted by the immigrant viewer as the American ideal.

While it would be grossly unfair and inaccurate to classify all American films of the silent era under one heading, they did collectively assist in the birth of what has become known as "consumer culture." Though many diverse economic perspectives were represented by the more than 10,000 silent films made during this period, a vast majority of the surviving cultural artifacts are tangible evidence that the dominant theme was consumption. Immigrants were given more than a casual glance at "the good life." During this period America abandoned Victorian morality, embraced the idea of pleasure, and began a love affair with conspicuous consumption that endures to this day. The immigrants of the early 1900's were repeatedly exposed to messages that promoted and reveled in the idea of consumption. While some of the earliest films dealt only in fantasy, and were pure escapist fare, many others were sensitive to the plight of the immigrant.

It is worth emphasizing that the sentimentality of the plots, which jars today, was then very much a fact of life for nickelodeon audiences from the back-streets or immigrant ghettos where drunkenness bred brutish parents, long lost offspring were the common price of having to leave one's homeland, and the dying babies of melodrama had their statistical reality in the infant mortality rate. (Walker 1970, 61).

It was only for about five years that the young medium so directly addressed the problems of the immigrant. Yet even in the films of this brief period, the roots of consumer culture are visible. The harsh reality of social melodramas drove home a message of social inequality, highlighted by a close-up view of those things which were beyond the economic reach of the immigrant. Everyone except the disenfranchised seemed to be buying things which in some way seemed to make one a "real American." These possessions were also displayed in a manner so exaggerated that it made the disparity that much worse.

The power of money in twentieth century America was the subject of many popular films including Edwin S. Porter's THE KLEPTOMANIAC (1906), in which two women are accused of shoplifting. One is a rich matron; the other is a poor waif. The rich woman pleads neurosis and is freed; the poor women is jailed for stealing bread to feed her hungry family. The closing shot is of a figure Justice with gold in one scale and nothing in the other, thus tipping the "balance of justice" in favor of the rich. In her eyes there are shining dollar signs (May 1980). In films such as this, the viewer could not escape the lesson concerning the power of money, and the happiness it could buy through consumption. In general, the films of this period encouraged the pursuit of pleasure, focused on the things that money could buy, and showed you how happy you would be if only you possessed them.

By 1910, the movie business was a full fledged industry, actively seeking a middle class audience. There were 10,000 movie theaters nationwide, attracting approximately 20 percent of the nation's population weekly (Merritt 1976). In large cities this number approached 50% (Davis 1911). With themes changing so as to draw a "more respectable crowd," the focus on consumption was becoming even more distinct. After a brief bout with an effort to recapture the puritan work ethic and Victorian morality (predominately through the work of D.W. Griffith), the American motion picture begins to sell much more than tickets.

Every segment of society now went to the movies, where they were not only entertained but were also profoundly influenced by what they saw. This influence had become obvious not only to critics but also to businessmen, and the motion picture's ability to cause changes in dress, fashion, home decoration, and even some aspects of social conduct such as courtship was beginning to be documented. American industry lost no time in using this power for its own advantage, and the movies were soon turned into a potent medium for the "mass" merchandising of clothing, furniture, soft drinks and even new hairstyles (Jowett 1976, 139).

Consumer culture was in full swing by 1914. The works of prominent film makers such as Max Sennett (e.g., WIFE AND AUTO TROUBLE 1915, THE BRIGHT LIGHTS 1916) and Charlie Chaplin (MAKING A LIVING 1914, THE IMMIGRANT 1915) were outright attacks on the abuses of industrialized America, and the Victorian prohibition against the pursuit of leisure and pleasure. Eschewing the social criticisms common in Sennett's and Chaplin's films, the films of the enormously popular Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks portray characters that find true happiness in their leisure time. The obvious implication in the Pickford and Fairbanks' films was that one worked within the system in order to purchase happiness through the pleasure that only consumption could give you. This philosophy sprang from the belief that "discontent with work and loss of power can be alleviated through consumption" (May 1980, 116).

In HIS PICTURE IN THE PAPERS and the advertisements Fairbanks made, we see the new code of success. Men continued to achieve in the world of production; but now they strove equally hard for the money to purchase goods and leisure pursuits to compensate for boredom on the job. The Fairbanks hero was thus expanding the necessities of life. As leisure now supplied a new frontier for male energy, mass produced but high-class consumer goods became a reward for tolerating the modern economy (May 1980, 117).

Despite the different political and creative orientations, both the more leftist films of Chaplin and the more politically conservative films of Fairbanks shared one important element: the expressed belief that the pursuit of pleasure through consumption and leisure was a basic human right. Although probably unintended, the wide spread acceptance of this notion gave manufactures just what they needed.

Although there was no conspiracy of big business to foist this formula on the public, the movie industry had synthesized consumption to Progressive ends, which perfectly suited the needs of the emerging corporate era. (May 1980, 146).

It is also within this period that we have the birth of the star system. Americans begin to glorify, and more importantly emulate the "beautiful people" of the silver screen. Inextricably tied to this emulation was the notion that there was emancipation from drudgery via consumption. Furthermore, it became increasingly necessary to demonstrate one's emancipation through conspicuous consumption. in other words, it was not only important that you were freed from the monotony of industrialized society, but that everyone else was aware of it as well. Perhaps no other star has ever demonstrated this as well as "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford.

Stars not only enjoyed the good life an the screen, but off it as well. For example, Mary Pickford was by 1915 being paid over $1,000,000 dollars annually. Fan magazines showed the glories of a fictitious life of pleasure without labor. The public didn't see the stars working nearly as much as they saw them at play. Hollywood literally became a metaphor for self indulgence and conspicuous consumption. Everything was exaggeration; everything was hyperbole. In describing the case of Pickford, May states:

"the press constantly showed "America's Sweetheart" modeling the latest dresses and fur coats; purchasing pets and cars; and living in an elaborate home filled with eclectic foreign artifacts" (143).

The lesson was clear: spend, and be seen spending. Life was a cocktail party.

Equal opportunity came to mean not merely that each of us had a right to protect his interests with his vote, but that each of us had a right to stalk around in public places and live vicariously the life of the rich. (Ferguson 1932).

Not only did the movies provide a means of vicarious consumption, but they also guided people in making actual purchases and product choices. Films and film stars had a tremendous impact on specific product desires.

More and more is the motion picture being recognized as a stimulant to trade. No longer does the girl in Sullivan, Indiana, guess what the styles are going to be in three months. She knows because she sees them on the screen . ...The head of the house sees a new golf suit. The housewife sees a lamp of a new design ... down they go to the dealers to ask for the new goods.(Hays n.d.).

The immigrants who had come here during the first decade of the century were literally barraged with a group of movies which overtly glorified consumption. While these films had a significant effect upon the consumer behavior of the entire nation, they were particularly influential to the newcomer. The immigrant could, for the first time, sit in a darkened neighborhood theater and experience the consumption ideals of the dominant society without the inherently greater risks of direct contact and interaction. The fact that the America which they experienced on the screen was not always the America of reality made little difference as far as their acquisition of "acceptable and appropriate" American consumer attitudes.

The important point here is that the motion picture was the first of the major mass media forms to attain this status of a massive socializing force on a national scale (Jowett and Linton 1980)

From the first world war through the depression, the movie industry in America flourished. its absolute peak came around 1930, with an average weekly attendance of 90,000,000. This accounted for an average weekly attendance of over 3.0 per household (Jowett 1976). The motion picture had become an American passion.

From the mid 1930's to the late 1940's the motion picture remained an important mass entertainment medium. It was not until television's successful commercial debut, that this enviable position was challenged. However, once television began to spread, even the double feature, drive-ins and technological innovations such as 3-D and Cinerama could not save the motion picture from the one-eyed monster. From the late 1940's on, the motion picture industry was faced with a steady erosion of its audience to television.

Immigration during this period was relatively low, with the exception of a minor spike during the years immediately following World War Il The acculturation of the enormous wave of turn-of-the-century immigrants was essentially complete. While during the years from their arrival to the Great Depression in 1929 the American popular film had been a major contributor to the rise of consumer culture, the films following the depression reflect a reassessment of the consumption ideal,-and for some an outright repudiation.

Perhaps more than any other genre of the post depression period, gangster films speak to the immigrants about consumption. However, the message here is exactly the opposite of the 1920's films. Gangsters in the movies were often from immigrant families and became gangsters because they wanted to get rich quickly. All they warted was the "good life" they were lead to expect as Americans. However, when they achieved it they found it did not bring happiness, but rather destruction. As a counterpoint to this, we often see the gangster in conflict with the rest of his family who are shown to be poor but honest, hard-working and happy (e.g., ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES 1938). The clear message to the immigrant is "work hard, but don't expect too much."

From the 1940's on, American films become increasingly difficult to characterize in any systematic fashion. This may very well be due to the decline of the "Hollywood System", and the increasing individual freedom film makers began to enjoy after World War II.

The year of 1948 is typically used to mark the beginning of the end for Hollywood. It was the year that the U.S. Supreme Court made the vertical integration of the film industry illegal. It was also the year commercial television begins its dramatic push into American living rooms. By 1960, the motion picture was no longer the dominant mass medium in the United States. Television had replaced it.


For at least the last fifteen years there has been a steady and significant rise in the immigration rate of the United States. The U.S. Department of Commerce figures indicate that between 1975 and 1980 a full one-third of U.S. immigration was from Mexico. According to these same statistics the official immigration rate reached 2.3 persons per 1000 U.S. population in 1978. This was the highest rate in the last sixty years (Bureau of the Census 1985). Furthermore, official government figures greatly underestimate the actual size of this increase due to the fact that a large amount of this immigration is illegal.

What is particularly interesting and important to those who study buyer behavior is the consumer acculturation process that these new immigrants must face. This seems particularly interesting given the presence of the single most important socializing agent at work in America today: television. If films allowed the earlier immigrants to taste the consumption values of the new land, television, with its pervasive place inside the home, now force-feeds the current immigrants with a steady diet of American cultural values and attitudes' regarding consumer behavior.

A study of Hispanics living in the U.S. indicated that even among Hispanics Spanish language television available, 83% watch at least some English language programming and a majority watch predominately English language shows (Yankelovich, Skelly and White 1981). 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. An informal content analysis of network television of the past fifteen years reveals messages which predominately glorify the possession of wealth and its use for consuming everything imaginable. The most popular television programs in America tell us about the lives of the wealthy, and the pursuit of happiness through consumption. Someone is always buying something, and waving it under 100 million noses tuned into shows such as DALLAS or DYNASTY. The song remains the same: purchases and possessions will make you a better and happier person.

Consider DALLAS and DYNASTY; two of the highest rated shows in American television history. What messages do they convey about what it means to be an American consumer? They tell us that dreams can come true, and that simply owning something is not enough. For something to be truly useful, it must be prominently displayed and frequently discussed. The furs, the elegant clothing, the expensive cars, the swimming pools, and expensive electronic gadgetry are what life in America is all about. Champagnes have to be imported, clothes have to be designer originals, and only the finest will do.

Even minorities are now portrayed as sharing the good life. The only new show on U.S. television last year to become a true hit was THE COSBY SHOW. This program portrays an upper-middle class Black family; the husband is a doctor and the wife is a lawyer. While not flaunting wealth and consumption ir. the same way as DALLAS and DYNASTY, it is clear that the members of this family want for nothing and can purchase whatever they desire. The parents and children in this program reflect the same values and concerns as those in any successful American family. Clearly, the message to the immigrant viewer is to embrace the American dream and, "you too can be accepted and succeed."

Even shows about war and destruction such as M*A*S*H*, still glorify the notion of ownership. The heroes of the show are doctors, traditional symbols of wealth and status, begrudgingly doing their time in Korea while swilling gin and complaining about the things they have left behind in comfortable America.

Of course, daytime television is even worse. It consists largely of game shows and soap operas. Game shows portray an environment where "common folks" can mingle with the stars and take home a bunch of cash and goodies. The American soap opera is the glorification of conspicuous consumption raised to the nth degree. Everyone is either successful in a materialistic sense or rapidly trying to get there. Then you have commercials. That's where we Americans get really serious about the glories of consumption. Day and night, American television provides the immigrant with constant lessons about consumption in their new land.

With the spread of communication satellites and the "cultural imperialism of American television," future immigrants may already be on the road to becoming acculturated to American consumption values well before they ever arrive in the United States. American television programs are broadcast in a staggering number of other countries. These programs are providing their viewers with perceptions (albeit not always correct ones) of what economic life in America is like. For example, research in Israel has found that Israeli viewers of American programs overestimate the amount of money the typical American earns, the number of cars in the average American family, and the percentage of Americans owning air-conditioners, blenders, dishwashers, freezers and second homes, to name just a few items (Weimann 1984). Moreover, heavier viewers of U.S. programs overestimated American consumption to a greater extent than lighter viewers. Thus, it appears that acculturation to the values expressed in American films and television can occur without ever stepping foot on American soil.


Prior to the introduction of the pictorial mass media, acculturation was modeled as a function of direct experience with traditional social institutions. With the advent of the motion picture early in the twentieth century, it became necessary to amend this conceptualization. The motion pictures and then television have been found to be very powerful socialization agents. Theorists are now beginning to realize that these media are also extremely important in the process of acculturation.

Given the media's potential role in the acculturation process, it is time for consumer behaviorists to better understand the consumption related content of these pervasive forces as they exist in times of significant immigration. In the United States two major periods of immigration have occurred within this century. The first and largest of these took place between the years of 1902 and 1914. It is at this same time that the motion picture was quickly becoming the dominant entertainment medium in the United States. The second major wave has been in progress for at least the last fifteen years. Like the first, this period corresponds with the ascendancy of a new major pictorial medium: television. What is interesting to note is that during both periods the content of these media stressed the same message: consumption is good, and conspicuous consumption is even better. While immigrants encountered a much broader social milieu, the role of the media in training them in the consumer values and attitudes of their new environment should not be overlooked. In a very real sense, these media have played an important part in transforming many immigrants into American consumers.


Bureau of the Census (1985). "Statistcal Abstracts of the United States 1985 (105ed), Washington: U.S. Department of Commerce.

DeFleur, M. and L. DeFleur (1967), "The Relative Contribution of Television as a Learning Source for Children's Occupational Knowledge," American Sociological Review, 32, 777-789.

Faber, Ronald J., J. Brown and J. McLeod, "Coming of Age in the Global Village: Television and Adolescence," in E. Wartella (ed.) ChildrenCommullicariniz , Beverly Hills: Sage, 215-249.

Fergusen, Charles, "High Class," Harper=s Monthly Magazine, 1932, p. 456.

Hays, William Harrison (n.d.), "Supervision from Within," in Larry May (1980), Screening Out The Past, New York: Oxford University Press, 236.

Jowett, Garth (1976), Film: The Democratic Art, Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Jowett, Garth and James M. Linton (1980), Movies as Mass Communication, Beverly Hills: Sage.

May, Larry (1980), Screening Out the Past, New York: Oxford University Press.

Merritt, Russell (1976), "Nickelodeon Theaters 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies," in Tino Balio (ed.), The American Film Industry, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Walker, Alexander (1970), Stardom, New York: Stein and Day Publishers, p. 61.

Ward, Scott, "Consumer Socialization," Journal of Consumer Research, 1, 1-14.

Weimann, Gabriel (1984), "Images of Life in America: The Impact of American T.V. in Israel,"International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 8, 185-197.

Yankelovich, Skelly & White (1981), Spanish USA; A Study of the Hispanic Market in the United States. Report to the SIN National Spanish Television Network.



Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinois
Ronald J. Faber, University of Texas
Marshall Rice, York University


SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives | 1985

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