Commercial Influences in Popular Literature: an American Historical Perspective

ABSTRACT - This study is the third in a program of research on commercial influences in popular cultural contexts. All three consist of content analyses of brand name usage in popular American cultural products in the postwar era. The first two studies found dramatic increases in brand name usage over the course of the postwar period, with brands high on the psychological dimension of value expressiveness mentioned most frequently. These results were also found in the third study which examined the lyrics of the top American song hits of each year for the 1946-1980 period.



Citation:

Monroe Friedman (1985) ,"Commercial Influences in Popular Literature: an American Historical Perspective", 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: 307-308.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 307-308

COMMERCIAL INFLUENCES IN POPULAR LITERATURE: AN AMERICAN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Monroe Friedman, Eastern Michigan University

[The author would like to thank Rita Friedman, Nancy Gold, and Richard Jackson for their assistance with the data collection and analysis phases of this study. Financial support provided by Eastern Michigan University is also gratefully acknowledged. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 1984 meeting of the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology and the 1985 meeting of the American Council on Consumer Interests.]

ABSTRACT -

This study is the third in a program of research on commercial influences in popular cultural contexts. All three consist of content analyses of brand name usage in popular American cultural products in the postwar era. The first two studies found dramatic increases in brand name usage over the course of the postwar period, with brands high on the psychological dimension of value expressiveness mentioned most frequently. These results were also found in the third study which examined the lyrics of the top American song hits of each year for the 1946-1980 period.

INTRODUCTION

in recent years critics have expressed concern about what they perceive as the deleterious effects of advertising and other commercial practices on language and culture. Typically, however, the quality of evidence cited by these critics to support their charges has fallen below customary scholarly standards, consisting largely of anecdotes and unconfirmed subjective impressions.

The present study is the third in a series of research efforts aimed at generating a historical data base which may permit a more meaningful discussion of the commercialization question. The study seeks to understand the impact of commercial practices on popular forms of language in the United States by examining the usage made since World War II of brand names and generic names in the lyrics of popular songs.

THE COMMERCIALIZATION CHARGE

By way of background it should be noted that advertising, the commercial practice of perhaps greatest concern to the critics, has been a source of controversy in the United States for over fifty years. In their 1927 classic, Your Money's Worth, Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink concluded that, "We are Alices in a Wonderland of conflicting claims, bright promises, fancy packages, soaring words, and almost impenetrable ignorance" (P. 2). Similarly harsh sentiments continued to be voiced through the last few decades with the publication of Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders in 1957, John Kenneth Galbraith's New Industrial State in 1967, Stuart Ewen's Captains of Consciousness in 1976, and William Meyers' The Image-Makers in 1984. Recently, the historian Barbara Tuchman also observed that "... our culture has been taken over by commercialism directed to the mass market and necessarily to mass tastes." (6, p. 40).

These various criticisms no doubt reflect the rapid growth of advertising in the United States, and especially since World War II. With the greater presence of advertising has come, the critics argue, a general debasement of social values through the commercialization of our culture and language. Since this charge has typically been viewed as incapable of operationalization, its various expressions have remained largely subjective and impressionistic. It is this circumstance which prompted the present series of studies which use an objective research approach to examine brand name usage in popular forms of language and literature.

THE STUDY BACKGROUND

The present study is based on two earlier studies which examined both brand name and generic name usage in popular novels and plays in the post World War 11 era. The major hypothesis of these studies is of special interest since it served as a basis for formulating one of the major hypotheses of the present study. Since a primary objective of most consumer-oriented advertising is the identification and subsequent purchase by consumers of a particular brand-named product ("Don't say beer, say Bud"), it seemed reasonable to hypothesize that success in reaching this objective for thousands of business firms over the years has been accompanied by an elevation of the level of consumer familiarity with and usage of brand names in everyday language. In light of the unavailability of a representative sample of transcripts of telephone conversations or records of written correspondence between friends or relatives over a substantial period of time, it was decided to explore this hypothesis by examining a surrogate. Hit songs were selected as the surrogate since they are available over the 35-year period of interest to the study and their popular success with the American public strongly suggested that the language used in their lyrics was appropriate for the times in which they were published.

THE RESEARCH HYPOTHESES

Based on the findings of the two earlier studies, three hypotheses were set forth. To test them required the identification of a sample of song hits and the analysis of their lyrics for the presence of brand names and generic names. The hypotheses are as follows:

v

1. When applied to the sample of song hits, the two measures of brand name usage employed in the earlier studies (total number and variety) will show increases over the course of the postwar period.

2. For generic names, however, parallel increases will not be manifested in the popular song sample over the course of the postwar period.

3. Brands for consumer products and services high on the dimension of value expressiveness will aDpear -more frequently in the popular song sample than will other brands.

PROCEDURES

The Study Sample

The study sample was drawn from a commercial compilation of top ten national hits for each year of the 1946-80 time period. The pool of top ten hits was then screened for appropriateness using several criteria. Considered inappropriate for the purposes of this study, and thus deleted from the pool, were instrumental pieces (no lyrics), songs set in earlier historical periods, songs with foreign language lyrics, and songs copyrighted before 1946. Also, to assure independence of the data, steps were taken to assure that all songs selected for study were composed by different lyricists or teams of lyricists (If a lyricist or team of lyricists had more than one top ten hit during the 1946-80 time period, the earliest one was selected for inclusion in the sample.)

The sample which remained after the above criteria were applied consisted of 256 hit songs. Of this total, 36 received copyrights in the 1946-50 period, 74 in the 1951-60 period, 77 in the 1961-70 period, and 69 in the 1971-80 period. Among the more familiar selections (and their years of top ten status) are "Near You" (1947), "Because of You" (1951), "Love Letters in the Sand" (1957), "Satisfaction" (1965), "Joy to the World" (1971), and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (1978).

Brand Name Analysis

Before the songs in the study sample could be scrutinized for the presence of brand names, it was necessary to arrive at a definition for brand name. A brand name was defined as a distinctive commercial term used by a firm to identify and/or promote itself or one or more of its consumer products or services. By this definition, brand names may refer to products or services as well as manufacturers or retailers. They may or may not be registered as trademarks. Only national brand names were included in the content analysis.

MAJOR RESEARCH FINDINGS

The findings relating to the three study hypotheses, when taken together with the results of the two earlier studies on best selling novels and hit plays, offer support for the following empirical generalizations:

1. Since World War II, the number and variety of brand names appearing in the popular literature of the United States have increased.

2. Since World War II, a parallel increase has not occurred in generic name usage in the popular literature of America.

3. The brands most frequently mentioned in the texts of the popular literature in the postwar era represent products high on the psychological dimension of value expressiveness.

The significance of these findings would appear to be considerable. For what is perhaps the first time, objective evidence has been uncovered to support the allegations of commercial influence in the non-commercial spheres of society. And the evidence suggests that the linguistic prominence enjoyed by brand names in the commercial sector is rapidly diffusing into the non-commercial sector.

REFERENCES

Chase, Stuart and Schlink, F.J. (1927), Your Money's Worth. New York: MacMillan.

Ewen, Stuart (1976), Captains of Consciousness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Galbraith, John Kenneth (1967), The New Industrial State. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Meyers, William (1984), The Image-Makers. New York: Times Books.

Packard, Vance (1957), The Hidden Persuaders. New York: D. McKay.

Tuchman, Barbara W. "The Decline of Quality," New York Times Magazine, November 6, 1980, p. 40.

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Authors

Monroe Friedman, Eastern Michigan University



Volume

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



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