Media Images, Materialism, and What Ought to Be: the Role of Social Comparison


Marsha L. Richins (1992) ,"Media Images, Materialism, and What Ought to Be: the Role of Social Comparison", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 202-206.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 202-206


Marsha L. Richins, Department of Marketing, University of Missouri, Columbia

Consumers are exposed to countless media images in the form of billboards, magazine images, and television programs. Some of these we seek out, as when we read a newspaper or watch television; others, such as ft magazine covers at the grocery checkout stand or advertising on buses, infringe on our senses unsought. It has been observed that taken collectively, these media images present a rather idealized version of life in America. Individual images, as well, may be idealized. This is particularly true of advertising. Several characteristics of an image itself or techniques used in its production can result in idealization. Three such characteristics are described below.

One characteristic possessed by many idealized media images is the depiction of highly desirable circumstances that can be achieved by only a few members of society. For instance, Belk and Pollay (1985) found that the level of wealth or material comfort displayed in many advertisements is well beyond that available to middle class households. Similarly, the level of beauty and physical attractiveness possessed by nearly all actors and models (especially female) is available to an extremely small segment of the population. Collectively, media images present a biased, undemocratic view of life in that they do not represent a cross-section of American life as it truly exists. Jordan and Bryant (1979), for example, analyzed the portrayals of couples in magazine advertisements and found no old, poor, sick, or unattractive couples in the 500 ads sampled.

Second, media images are idealized in that they almost necessarily present an edited version of life. One very appealing commercial for United Airlines shows an attractive business person who is also a mother. She drops her daughter off at day care, flies to a business meeting, and returns at the end of the day in time to pick up her smiling, delighted daughter. The boring things are omitted. We don't see the this woman brushing her teeth or standing in line to buy a newspaper. Also omitted are the unpleasant things. As far as we know, this woman never has a run in her pantyhose, never has to wait in the rain for a cab, and her daughter never whines. In media, time and space are costly. Including boring or unpleasant aspects of life in a television commercial or program is expensive and in most cases detrimental to the advertiser's or director's goal, so these elements are omitted. But the resulting image depicts an idealized version of life that isn't achieved even by the most fortunate members of society.

Third, technology and special effects are often used to make media images appear more perfect or ideal than they otherwise are. Airbrush, cropping, and editing techniques make the imperfect more perfect, and lighting effects or camera angles can make the ordinary seem special. Music or sound tracks are particularly effective for the latter purpose. Walking a few blocks on city streets or driving becomes an exciting adventure when accompanied by a John Williams score. Even doing the laundry can seem special with the appropriate sound track.

The idealized media images of most interest in the study of materialism are those that represent idealized levels of wealth and consumption. It is argued in this paper that continued exposure to images idealized in these ways has at least two effects on consumers. First, these images negatively influence satisfaction with the self and with one's circumstances by encouraging frequent comparisons against an idealized standard of consumption. Second, they influence consumers' expectations of 'what ought to be' in their lives.

Many authors and social critics have complained that media images create materialism or a consumer culture. This paper places such concerns in a social psychology theoretical framework to examine some of the mechanisms by which idealized media images might influence materialism.

While idealized images are presented in nearly ail media forms, this paper focuses particularly on advertising images and their impact on consumers' perceptions and feelings about themselves. The effects described, however, can be said to apply to other forms of media as well. Further, these effects are described in the context of American media, although they probably apply to media images in other industrialized economies as well.


Idealized images affect satisfaction with the self through social comparison (Pichins 1991). People desire to know about themselves, and one way to know one's self is to compare with others. After reviewing the extensive literatures on comparison, Pettigrew (1967) concluded that "there appears to exist a pervasive motive to evaluate, particularly seif-evaluate..." and these evaluations "furnish forceful motivation for a variety of specific behaviors" (p. 243). Evidence of social comparison appears early in life. What parent hasn't heard the complaint, "Billy's piece of cake is bigger than mine," or overhead a child claim to a playmate that her mom/dad/sibling is stronger/smarter/better than the playmate's? Social comparison theory (Festinger 1954; Goethais and Dariey 19T7; Wood 1989) addresses how people develop self-knowledge and make social choices based upon their comparisons with others.

The Motives for Social Comparison

At least two types of information can result from social comparison. First, people can use comparison to determine whether they are "correct" or 'normal.' Among adolescents, for instance, there is quite a bit of overt and covert locker room examination of peers' sexual characteristics. This helps teenagers assess whether their own development is 'normal." During political campaigns, many voters discuss candidates and political views. One of the purposes of these discussions is to determine the correctness or acceptability of one's own views.

The other type of information resulting from social comparison concerns relative standing. This information is most likely to result from comparisons of abilities or circumstances. Through social comparison individuals determine whether they are smart or not so smart, richer or poorer, better off or worse off than others.

The information on correctness and relative standing obtained through social evaluation 'leads to positive, neutral, or negative seif-ratings which are relative to the standards set by the individuals employed for comparison' (Pettigrew 1967, p. 243). This notion of a comparison standard and the fact that our relative standing depends on the comparison standards we use are important ideas to which we will return.

The Domains of Social Comparison

People can compare themselves with others on any visible criterion, from eye color to driving skill to the attractiveness of one's spouse (Kruglanski and Mayseless 1990). However, some comparison criteria are more important than others, and what's important to one individual may be unimportant to another. Hence, for some people academic accomplishments matter, for others, it may be the difficulty of mountain ascents, the breadth of travial experiences, or the number and/or quality of one's sexual conquests. The most important comparisons will be on those criteria which most importantly define who we are, the core elements of our SON".

For materialists, material possessions are particularly important in defining the self (Belk 1985; Fournier and Richins 1991). In addition, materialists appear to be more status conscious than other consumers (Rassuli and Hollander 1986; Richins and Dawson 1992), and social comparison is an important mechanism for evaluating status. For these reasons, material possessions and consumption experiences are important comparison domains for materialists, and materialists are expected to engage in more frequent social comparison on- these criteria. Consistent with these ideas, empirical evidence suggests that materialists are more externally oriented than other consumers. In unpublished research, I found materialists to be significantly higher than low materialists in public self-consciousness (Scheier and Carver 1985) and in self-monitoring (Snyder and Gangestad 1986). Both of these constructs involve a high level of concern about appearances and the reactions of others and are suggestive of social comparison.

The Comparison Standard and Comparison Outcomes

According to the original formulation of social comparison theory (Festinger 1954), individuals prefer objective sources of information over subjective sources. Thus, to evaluate their economic status people would be expected to prefer comparison with government statistics on income distribution, for instance, over their subjective impression of other people's income level. However, for most comparison criteria objective standards are not available and comparisons must be based on subjective evaluations of other people we either know personally (e.g., friends and coworkers) or know about from media descriptions or other sources.

People often control or choose with whom they compare. Particularly, we often decide (perhaps unconsciously) whether we will make a downward or an upward comparison. In downward comparison we compare with a worse-off other. This is particularly useful when one's feeling of self-worth is threatened. For instance, a student who gets a 0 on an exam can partially restore feelings of self-worth by comparing with a student who got an F. Downward comparison can also result in increased satisfaction with one's circumstances. Most of us feet a surge of thankfulness and satisfaction with our own lives when we encounter a severely handicapped person and for a moment at least find our own infirmities easier to bear.

People may also engage in upward comparison, i.e., with a better-off other. In some circumstances this can provide hope and motivation, as when a poverty-stricken medical student looks at better-off practicing physicians as a motivator to endure the hardships of medical training. Perhaps more frequently, however, upward comparison results in feelings of inferiority, dissatisfaction, and impaired self-worth. The mod student expects to achieve eventually the lifestyle and circumstances of the practicing physician, but the physician's gardener does not. To the extent that the gardener compares his or her circumstances with the physician's, negative feelings are likely to result.

While social comparison theory originally recognized only sought comparisons, more recently it has been recognized that we sometimes can't control who we compare with (e.g., Wood 1989). Goethals (1986, p. 272), for instance, noted that "It can be hard to hear an extremely intelligent person on the radio, or see an extremely handsome on" in the grocery store, or participate on a panel with an expert without engaging in social comparison no matter how much we would like not to.'

Perhaps the most frequent social comparison in our culture, often unsought, is with media images (Richins 1991). Advertising and entertainment media images are pervasive, providing many opportunities to compare with respect to material possessions, level of attractiveness, and other criteria. Also, because most of these images are idealized, the comparison is an upward one and the comparer finds him/herself deficient with respect to the comparison standard.

If the comparison domain (e.g., wealth, attractiveness) is important to the individual, the deficiency resulting from comparison with an idealized image leads to negative self-feelings. These negative self-feelings are motivating (Higgins 1987; James 1948), and people strive to eliminate the negative feelings and repair their sense of self-worth. At least three ways of dealing with these unpleasant feelings are available.

Perhaps the strongest response to the negative feelings associated with a comparison discrepancy, and the one most frequently posited by theorists (e.g., Carver and Scheier 1981; Duval and Wicklund 1972), is to increase efforts to reduce the discrepancy between oneself and the comparison standard. For the materialist viewing media images of "the good life,' this means acquiring more possessions in an attempt to more closely approximate the ideal. Thus, for the materialist, idealized media images of wealth will reinforce and exacerbate the drive to acquire more of the desired goods.

Second, one may reduce or prevent the negative self-feelings that result from comparison with an ideal by reducing the importance of the criterion compared on. When a person low in materialism sees idealized images of wealth, negative self-feelings are unlikely to result even if their own possessions are relatively modest; material possessions simply aren't important to their feelings of self-worth. Research indicates that those low in materialism are considerably more satisfied with their standard of living than high materialists (Richins 1987; Richins and Dawson 1992), suggesting indirectly that low materialists either do less comparing with idealized images or are less concerned about the outcomes of such comparisons.

Finally, individuals can avoid negative self-feelings by simply refusing to compare themselves with idealized media images. Because many comparisons are unconscious and unsought, however, and because the domain compared upon (in this case, possessions and lifestyle) are important to materialists, this option is more appealing in theory than in practice.

The above discussion describes how idealized media images of wealth and the good life can affect materialists by increasing their motivation to acquire more of the possessions they desire. The following analysis demonstrates how the" idealized images may affect all consumers, whether high or low in materialism, by influencing their expectations about life, or 'what ought to be..


All of us have a vague, generally unarticulated notion of 'what ought to be' in our lives. These include notions of how our friends and coworkers should treat us, how much fun we should have on vacations, and what standard of living we should have given our personal talents, occupation, and work effort expanded. These notions develop over time and in response to a variety of social stimuli. The analysis in this paper will examine one dimension of what ought to bo-people's expectations concerning the level and quality of their material possessions.

Early in their lives, children look about them to determine what ought to be. Parents often hear such tearful pleas from their children as "Linda has a Barbie doll-I want one too," or 'Stevie gets to stay up late-how come I can't?' The fact that another child has or is allowed to do something is prima facie evidence of what ought to be.

Among adults we can identify at least three sources of information about what ought to be. Adults, like children, gain such information from their peers. Most adults view themselves as entitled to approximately the same benefits and quality of life possessed by peers of the same age and with the same general education and skill levels. If my neighbor who happens to be similar to me in those characteristics has the same sort of possessions as I do, my belief in what ought to be is unchallenged. However, if this same neighbor installs an in-ground swimming pool, acquires a matched set of BMWs, and spends four weeks in Europe every summer, I may view this consumption set much like Linda's Barbie doll and eventually see this standard of living as what ought to be.

Aspiration groups provide another source of information about what ought to be. In adolescence and early adulthood (and perhaps to a lesser extent in later years) people look beyond the present to what life will be like when they've "arrived,' to the time after graduation, after marriage, and so forth. This imagining is assisted by identifying others who have already reached that desired state-one's parents, perhaps, or friends of one's parents; follow employees who have been working longer and have advanced further in their careers. The lifestyle of these individuals provides useful information about what ought to be and the standard of living one can expect when one reaches that particular stage of career or life cycle.

The first-hand, immediate access to information about lifestyles and consumption possibilities provided by peers and aspiration groups is necessarily limited by the range of one's acquaintances. Since we tend to know people who are similar to ourselves, these first-hand sources of information tend to be appropriate and realistic. However, this is not necessarily the case for media images, the third source of information about what ought to be. Media images such as television shows, movies, and advertising expose us to images and possibilities that are not available to us through immediate observation or personal experience. Through the power of television we can see how Donald Trump lives, can see inside the homes of rich celebrities who would never invite us in should we knock on their doors. More frequently, however, the media introduce us to consumption Styles Of people who don't even exist. We see the homes of Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable, of Roseanne, of people who use Tide to wash their laundry or serve Folgers instant coffee at fancy dress dinner parties.

These sources, plus a variety of socializing agents such as religion, parental admonition, and the like, create an unconscious expectation of what ought to be with respect to one's assortment of possessions, lifestyle, and standard of living. Information integration and related theories provide insight into how now information from media and other social stimuli may be integrated to influence people's expectations of what life ought to be.

When the now information or social stimuli are symmetrically distributed about a person's expectation level, the expectation level isn't changed. Thus, if people see media images of individuals better off and worse off than what they expect in about equal proportions, their expectations remain unchanged. However, exposure to stimuli consistently above or below the expectation level will cause it to be raised or lowered, respectively (Helson 1947; Thibaut and Kelley 1959; Anderson 1975). Since advertising images tend to be idealized-that is, they show people who are very well off in terms of possessions-exposure to large amounts of advertising will raise people's expectations of what ought to be. The process by which this information is assimilated is largely unconscious and generally unsought.

Information integration theories were developed to explain judgments of the properties of physical stimuli For such judgments, stimuli are treated more or less equally in the integration process. In integrating information contained in more complex psychological stimuli such as advertisements, however, some stimuli are more carefully attended to than others, and the stimuli differ in the degree to which they may affect perceptions and expectations. Social and media stimuli that are vivid (Kisielius and Sternthal 1986; Richardson 1986), realistic (Potter 1986), and relevant are more likely to affect perceptions of what ought to be than are stimuli that don't possess these characteristics. The particular qualities of advertising images that make them especially potent in affecting perceptions of what ought to be are discussed below.

Vividness of advertising images. Perhaps the most important goal for an advertisement is to make it stand out from the media clutter, to have it noticed. Vividness is one of the ways to accomplish this. The use of special effects, color, music, and high quality photography in the hands of highly talented production staff result in advertisements that captivate us and can be beautiful, memorable, and emotionally potent.

Realism in advertising. While some advertising uses surreal images or is clearly designed to appeal to consumers' more extravagant fantasies (as when a swimming pool and gorgeous women magically appear when a bottle of beer is opened in the desert), most advertising is designed to be perceived as real and credible. Advertising is to be believed or the advertiser hasn't gotten his/her money's worth. Furthermore, much advertising can be viewed as artistic or (in the case of commercials) dramatic creations. An important goal in artistic creation, including advertising, is to cause a suspension of disbelief, to cause the viewer to enter emotionally into the artistic creation as if it were real (Englis 1992; Gardner 1983). Even advertisements that employ surrealistic executions can be perceived as real to the extent that their creators are successful in engaging the viewer's willing suspension of disbelief. These factors, and the large pool of talent in the advertising industry that devote their efforts to effective advertising, ensure that most advertising, or important elements thereof, seems very real to most viewers.

Another factor that makes advertising seem real is the use of photographic images. Photographs seem real, truthful, and objective, and their use in advertising makes the advertisement seem real. As one photographer noted, 'if you sea all these wonderful, thin, muscular, tall, blonde, white, rich, healthy, young people buy this car, or this hamburger, or whatever it is, you know that's the " because you see it right in front of you' (quoted in Englis 1992, p. 206). These photographic images, sometimes with special effects, may depict situations or places with which most viewers have no first-hand experiences. This hinders the ability of even the more cynical viewer to judge the accuracy of the image presented and encourages the acceptance of that image as truth. (See Moog 1990, pp. 109-139, and Schudson 1984, pp. 210-222, for additional discussions of realism in advertising.)

Relevance of advertising images. In determining what ought to be, some images are more relevant than others. We can observe George Bush's circumstances and activities when he vacations at Kennebunkport and automatically realize that our vacations won't be like that, nor should they be. The President's lifestyle and circumstances simply are not relevant in determining what ought to be in our own lives. When we see news-clips of poverty-stricken Filipinos foraging for food in a garbage dump, we may feel revulsion or concern, but these images have no relevance for what ought to be in our own lives. The most relevant images are those which include people like ourselves.

Thus, whether an advertisement or other media image influences our expectation of what ought to be depends on the relevance of the characters portrayed in that image. It is in the advertiser's interest to make those characters seem relevant to as many viewers as possible in the hope that viewers will also see the featured product as relevant. For this reason, most characters or models in advertising are decontextualized or are contextualized only loosely. Aside from gross cues such as gender and age, we have little objective information about what kind of person this is in an advertisement and his/her similarity to us. Advertising is purposely vague concerning such cues as occupation, income level, and such so that we'll be more likely to identify with the model, more apt to imagine that we could be like (as attractive, as popular, as wealthy as) this "person' if we only used the same product he/she uses. Thus, cues that might indicate the model is not like the viewer are removed or minimized.

Through the advertising production process, the model becomes an imaginary, composite person who is somehow real, or possibly real, whom any of us might become and whose circumstances we might share. in an ad for Sheraton hotels showing an attractive man and woman in evening dress dining out in Hong Kong, there's nothing to suggest that we shouldn't be able to have the same. An ad showing a beautiful woman giving a man a large diamond includes nothing to suggest that she's a neurosurgeon with an income unobtainable by most of us. In "real life" a couple entertaining friends at their lakeside cabin and enjoying a Michelob may have worked weekends for four years and postponed having children so they could buy the cabin, but there's nothing in an advertisement depicting such a scene that would communicate this kind of information to us.

This lack of context serves to obscure the potential irrelevance of idealized advertising images to most consumers and increases the chances that the images will be integrated into our perceptions of what ought to be, thus raising our expectation about the level of material circumstances we deserve and might expect to obtain.

Biased processing of media images. Finally, it is proposed that media images are processed in a biased fashion; specifically, that positive and negative images are not equally likely to be integrated into expectations of what ought to be. When people see images or circumstances below their expectation level, perceptual defenses are activated. K, for instance, we see a no" program interview of a low income family in their modest home, we unconsciously put ourselves into a different category of persons and dismiss the information about that family's circumstances as irrelevant to us, or at least irrelevant to our belief in what ought to be. That mother or father's circumstances simply don't apply to us because we're a different kind of person (more intelligent/motivated/skilled); as a result this irrelevant information isn't integrated into our perception of what ought to be.

On the other hand, when we see an interview with a successful attorney in her well-appointed home or an ad with someone driving a Mercedes 500 SL up the drive to his country estate, we're not so quick to dismiss these individuals as dissimilar or irrelevant. In this instance, putting ourselves in a different category from such people would make us seem inferior. Instead, we unconsciously see ourselves to be as good or as worthy as they are and perhaps wonder why we too don't have a country estate. We ask ourselves what these "people" have done to merit such circumstances and wonder how we can got them too. The information about their possessions and status are thus relevant and integrated into our expectation of what ought to be, raising it slightly.

Because media, especially advertising, is filled with idealized images of better-off others, our expectations of what ought to be are gradually raised to a level that is unrealistic for most individuals. The frequent exposure to wealthy, beautiful, and happy people generates a false reality in which the uncommon and ideal become mundane and attainable. In our daily unconscious assessments of out lives, we continually fall short. For some, the result is a continual striving and a desire for more accompanied by a feeling of missing out, of having less than what ought to be.


This paper uses social comparison theory and information integration theory to explore how idealized media images influence people's satisfaction with their lives and their perceptions of what ought to be. It was concluded that materialistic people are more likely than others to compare themselves with media images showing idealized levels of wealth, creating or adding to their dissatisfaction with their possessions and standard of living. It was also suggested that idealized media images can influence people's expectations about the standard of living that they can expect to obtain, often to unrealistic levels. The special characteristics of advertising that increase its potency in raising consumer expectations include (1) the vivid and impactful nature of advertising images, (2) design characteristics that make the advertising seem real or encourage viewers to suspend disbelief, (3) the lack of context surrounding some advertising images which serves to make them seem relevant, and (4) the tendency to ignore or discount images that depict circumstances below our expectation of what ought to be while processing those above our expectation.

These are only a few of the processes by which advertising affects consumers' feelings and desires. Other mechanisms not addressed here may be equally or more important in their impact on consumers, and any complete picture of advertising effects would need to incorporate these mechanisms as well. Work on the role of fantasy (Campbell 1987), advertising and meaning creation (McCracken 1986) and advertising, consumption, and identity (Dittmar 1992; Moog 1990) mom particularly promising for explaining advertising's influence.


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Marsha L. Richins, Department of Marketing, University of Missouri, Columbia


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

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