Commercial Influences in Literature and Culture in the Postwar Era: Major Findings of a Ten-Year Research Project


Monroe Friedman (1992) ,"Commercial Influences in Literature and Culture in the Postwar Era: Major Findings of a Ten-Year Research Project", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 199-201.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 199-201


Monroe Friedman, Department of Psychology, Eastern Michigan University

This presentation to the Materialism Workshop participants highlights the major findings of a ton-year series of studies on commercial influences in literature and culture in the postwar or&. Those interested in the particulars of the research program are referred to a book by the author containing this information (A 'Brand' Now Language, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991).

We begin by sharing the findings for a series of three content analysis studies aimed at determining the nature and extent of commercial influences in the language of popular literature of the postwar era. The first study dealt with the texts of best-soiling novels, the nd with the scripts of long-run hit plays, and the third with the lyrics of popular songs. While all three studies treated American materials, the second study also examined the scripts of British plays.

The results of the studies on novels, plays, and songs were highly consistent and lend support to the following empirical generalizations:

1. Since World War 11, marked increases have occurred in the number and variety of brand names appearing in popular American literature.

2. Since World War 11, parallel increases have not occurred for generic usage in popular American literature.

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

The significance of the findings of the content analysis studies would appear to be considerable for students of language and language choice. For perhaps the first time, a strong pattern of objective evidence has emerged to support the allegations of commercial influence in the noncommercial spheres of society. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the linguistic prominence enjoyed by brand names in the commercial sector is rapidly diffusing into the non-commercial sector.

Moreover, the evidence brought forth is highly consistent. Four samples of popular literary products spanning two nations and three genres exhibited increases in the number and variety of brand names used in the years following World War 11, and in each instance, the same type of brand names, those high on value expressiveness, led the way.

The first of the three generalizations is perhaps the most significant since it suggests that the language of the postwar era is rapidly becoming commercialized. Less clear, however, are the limits to this phenomenon. Is it confined to popular literature, or have other forms of popular writing also shown the effect?

To secure an answer to these questions an additional study was undertaken. This study consisted of a mail survey of the editors of large-circulation, American daily newspapers. The survey was conducted in 1984 to determine the editors' perceptions of changes in brand name usage that had occurred in their newspapers in the previous twenty years. The findings of this study provided two additional reasons to have confidence in the commercialization effect. First, the study found the effect manifested in the popular writing of journalists - a prose form considerably different from that examined in the studies of popular novels, plays, and songs. Second, the effect was yielded procedurally by a mail questionnaire - a social science method markedly different from the content analysis technique used in the earlier studies. That supportive results were generated by the newspaper survey, differing as it does in subject manor and methodology, is testimony to the robustness of the commercialization finding.

While the quantitative studies noted above provided many findings of interest they did not reveal the whole story. So in follow-on investigations we shifted to a qualitative approach and looked at how authors have used commercial terms in the popular culture materials of the postwar era. After examining a large corpus of materials that made use of commercial terms, we noted that such terms, in general, and brand names, in particular, are often used by authors for their symbolic communication value, especially if these terms represent consumer goods, such as automobiles and magazines, with high ratings on the psychological dimension of value expressiveness.

We looked first at various linguistic forms for these commercial terms and presented numerous examples of abbreviations, advertising messages, and neologisms. Next we examined the communication functions served by these terms in popular culture works. Examples were presented of commercial terms used to communicate cultural values, human emotions, personal traits, social relations, lifestyles, and celebrity descriptions. Finally, we concentrated on a few authors known for their frequent use of brand names in popular fiction. In each instance we found that commercial terms were used not simply to convey the values of one or two fictional characters, but to establish a tone or atmosphere for the fictional work as a whole. In so doing, the author made brand names of a particular type a trademark of sorts for his or her work - a practice that was often criticized by reviewers.

Continuing with the qualitative approach, our next study examined humorous passages found in popular culture writing of the postwar era. Here we looked at the kinds of brand names that have become absorbed into popular humorous writing and the functions they serve in helping authors create material which elicits humorous responses.

Two findings of the study on humor are especially noteworthy. First, the brand names used for humorous effect in the popular cultural works that were surveyed differed qualitatively from those that previous research has shown are used in popular culture works in general. Popular culture works generally make extensive use of brand names that are particularly effective at expressing the values of individual fictional characters. However, few of these brand names appeared in the humorous excepts in our sample. Instead, it contained relatively large numbers of brand names representing products ranking low on the dimension of value expressiveness.

Second, when brand names were used for humorous effect in popular cultural writings, they often appeared as metaphors for the mundane or the pedestrian (such as common household foods and cleansers), and rarely if ever for the highly esteemed or cherished elements in American society.

Taken together, these two qualitative studies found that the nonhumorous uses of brand names differed significantly from their humorous uses. The qualitative findings for the two studies revealed dominant roles for two functions: a value-expressive communication function for brand names and other commercial terms in popular culture writing, and a more complex incongruity function for brand names in American humor.

The last in our series of studies addressed a central question, namely, how good are the products referred to by brand name in popular culture works? This study used Consumer Reports test data to assess the quality of the" products. The study also used the term word-of-author advertising to reflect the fact that substantial numbers of authors are using brand names in the texts of popular culture works. A distinction was made between two types of word-of-author advertising: those that are commercially inspired (sponsored word-of-author advertising) and those that are not (unsponsored word-of-author advertising). It is the latter practice that is the focus of this research program.

This study of Consumer Reports date yielded an important finding. With regard to the quality of products purchased by consumers, unsponsored word-of-author advertising did not appear to have constituted a counterproductive source of commercial influence, in that most brands represented in popular literature wore associated with products having relatively high overall ratings in tests undertaken by Consumer Reports in the- 1950-1979 period. However, many exceptions were found to this summary finding, suggesting that educators should alert consumers to the possibility of untoward influence.


Of all the various findings reported in the foregoing recapitulation, none has provoked more interest than the substantial rise in the use of brand names in popular culture works of the postwar era. The consistency of this finding across nations, types of material, and methodological approaches contrasts sharply with the repeated absence of an upturn for generic name usage for the several studios in which such usage was examined. It also contrasts sharply with the experience of historical linguists, who typically report language change to be a slow process, with centuries rather than decades as the unit of measure (Bynon, 1977). Moreover, the finding has bearing on many recent developments in the consumer research literature, including such topics as consumer socialization (O'Guinn and Faber, 1987), culture and consumption (McCracken, 1988), and symbolic consumer behavior (Holbrook, 19W; Holbrook and Grayson, 1986; Mick, 1986), as well as materialism and consumer behavior (Belk, 1985; Spiggle, 1986). The last mentioned topic is especially pertinent in light of the claims of increasing materialism in postwar America. By reporting increases for brand name usage but not for generic name usage, our content analyses suggest that commercial materialism may be on the increase while noncommercial materialism is remaining stable.

This observation, together with the study findings on value expressiveness, may help us with the task of defining consumer culture and tracing its evolution in the postwar era. Indeed, they suggest that there may be reason to believe that consumer culture has changed in the postwar era, from a broadly defined concept tied largely to material possessions in general, to one increasingly focused on a subset of these possessions. The subset consists of products and services with brand names that have become widely known and recognized, and, interestingly, it appears that acquisition of many members of the subset tends to satisfy the value expressive needs of individual consumers. In short, a now, but not necessarily improved, consumer culture may be upon us - one that embraces such commercial icons as Rolex and Ferrari, on the one hand, and K-Mart and Sears, on the other, while at the same time shunning generics as well as a multitude of nondescript brand names that tell us little about ourselves and our values.


Beginnings and endings. These three words highlight the contrast between what we have won and what remains to be seen relating to the phenomenon that has served as the focus of this series of studies: word-of-author advertising. As this is written, just eight years away from the end of the twentieth century, we have established the beginnings of this phenomenon in the postwar era and traced its rapid growth to the 19809 both here and abroad in a variety of popular culture genres. We have also seen how authors have appropriated brand names and other commercial expressions from the private sector, used them in various ways to enrich the language and, in so doing, enhanced our appreciation of popular culture works. "Alka Seltzer is funny," said one of Neil Simon's Sunshine Boys in this theatrical comedy account of the reunion of two members of an old-time vaudevillian team, and, we found, so were the uses put to other brand names in a host of popular culture works. We found, too, that when used metaphorically, brand names helped to communicate other emotional responses as well as many characteristics of our social and physical worlds. As noted earlier, one implication of the now emphasis on word-of-author advertising is that our concept of contemporary consumer culture may have to be changed from one largely tied to material possessions in general to one increasingly focused on those possessions with distinctive and widely recognized brand names that have established linkages to the values and lifestyles of individual consumers.

Also noteworthy are the concerns expressed by critics about word-of-author advertising. In the view of some, not only could its emphasis on the commercial lead to an undermining of human values, but its focus on individual brands in what would appear to be an ideal context for plugging one's product raises questions about the desirability of the practice. This latter point is of special concern when one realizes that the products associated with many of the brand names frequently used in word-of-author advertising are of relatively low quality. It would seem that educators may be able to help with this problem by taking steps to assure that consumers are aware of the possibility of undue commercial influence as they partake of the popular culture offerings available in their communities.

As a result of the studies reported herein, we now know a fair amount about the postwar beginnings of the phenomenon of word-of-author advertising but virtually nothing about its endings. Students of language change will be observing the future of the practice with considerable interest as we approach the turn of a new century.


Belk, R. W. 1985. Materialism: Trait aspects of living in the material world. Journal of Consumer Research. 12: 265-280.

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Monroe Friedman, Department of Psychology, Eastern Michigan University


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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