Social Values and the Sunday Comics: a Content Analysis

ABSTRACT - This study is a content analysis of the values, goals, ethnic composition, and other stimulus variables of the characters appearing in the Sunday funny papers during the years 1959-1979.


Harold H. Kassarjian (1983) ,"Social Values and the Sunday Comics: a Content Analysis", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 434-438.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 434-438


Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA

[This paper presents preliminary results of a larger study in preparation for publication. Marian Burke participated in the design of early phases, and Judy Zaichkowsky and Joseph L. Orsini helped in the data processing. Appreciation is expressed to the marketing departments of The Pennsylvania State University and the Copenhagen School of Business Administration and Economics for their help and assistance.]


This study is a content analysis of the values, goals, ethnic composition, and other stimulus variables of the characters appearing in the Sunday funny papers during the years 1959-1979.


President Gerald Ford is reputed to have said,

"There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury, not necessarily in that order (Cuadra, 1976)."

The print and electronic media have been thoroughly researched. Everything from editorial content and advertising to the influence of TV on children has been examined under a microscope, hut Doonesbury and the comics have not been taken seriously. Nevertheless, the comics are a serious business involving thousands of dollars per week for publication rights by newspapers. As many as 100 million people in the United States, and perhaps two or three times that number worldwide, are exposed to and perhaps influenced by the comics.

Hence the purpose of this study was to examine the Sunday comics over a period of two decades. ; a t kind of people live in the world of comic strips? Who are they, what do they do? What is the world in which the characters live, work and die, marry and love, eat and vote? \!hat are the values expressed and transmitted -from the mass media to the populace? -What is the message transmitted to the tens of millions who read the comics every Sunday morning? What changes have occurred over the past two decades?

This study is a systematic formal content analysis of a sample of Sunday comics. It is a measurement of the stimulus material itself; it is not a study of the intent of the artist or newspaper editor, nor is it a measure of how readers perceive comic strips. The question is, what is in the strips and how has it changed over time?


Selection of Sample

Because this study was carried out in 1980, 1979 was the first full year available for sampling and analysis of comic strips; 1959, two decades earlier, was the second year selected. A few previous studies do exist, carried out on 1950 strips (Spiegelman et al 1952, 1953a; Saenger 1955), and for the years 1943, 1948, 1953 and 1958 (Barcus 1963), so 1959 seemed to be a reasonable choice. The third year selected was 1976, primarily because a full set of strips was available in that year, but also as a measure of short-term stability.

Some 300 comic strips are available for purchases by newspaper editors. Some are extremely popular, such as Peanuts; others have only a few newspapers for clients. Since microfilm or microfiche files simply would not do and other archival material was not available for a 20-year period, the decision was mate to use strips from the Los Angeles Times. This is the same newspaper used Wy Spiegelman in 1950. Further, these were strips that had actually published in a major newspaper, rather than a sampling of comics that may have been little used.

All available Sunday comic sections were aggregated into three-week units. It was felt that if one was to understand the values and activities depicted in a strip, the reading of a single strip would be insufficient to make judgements about the characters. On the other hand, too many continuous strips would be unnecessary. The decision was to use three strips per year (three Sundays in a row) as the unit of analysis--long enough to get the jist of the message in soap operas such as Mary Worth or Apartment 3-G, the story line in adventure strips such as Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, or a feeling for the characters in Dennis the Menace or Joe Palooka.

Using random numbers, a three-week unit for each year was selected from the Los Angeles Times. Since some issues of the Los Angeles Examiner (later the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner) were available, those comics were also included. The final sample consisted of all comic strips published in the Los Angeles Times on October 4, 11, 18, 1969; March 14, 21, 28, 1976; and August 5, 19, 19, 1979. In addition, strips in the Los Angeles Examiner on March 9, and 28 and on April 4, 1976, and on August 5, 12, 19, 1979 were included. Of the total of 104 comic strips, 79 appeared in 1959, 37 in 1976, and 38 in 1979. The 104 strips contained 691 characters, of which about 9 percent were animals and 91 percent were humans (figures consistent with earlier studies).

Categories of Analysis

The content analysis involved a procedure in which trained judges were provided with the comic sections or the Sunday papers for the three consecutive weeks and asked a series of questions concerning the strip as a whole that involved categories such as time, locale, humor, and serialization. Judges were then asked questions about each individual character that included demographic characteristics, activities, the values and goals expressed, and the means used to achieve these goals.

The various categories, definitions, and instructions were tested in pilot studies using comic strips from the 1958 and 1977 issues of the same newspapers. All disagreements were discussed and new definitions or clarifications developed until the data clearly indicated that the judges agreed on the meanings of the categories and shades of difference between responses. The resulting categories and definitions comprised the questionnaire.

Judging Procedures

The final set of judges consisted of graduate and undergraduate students from The Pennsylvania State University and UCLA who volunteered several hours of their time. They were presented with 1958 and 1977 comic strips and the instructions in groups of one to three. Once they were familiar with the task and the rules, the students were presented with a final sample of the Sunday comics and asked to read and judge the strips for about two hours. They processed 15 to 18 different comic strip installments. Each judge worked alone.

Typically, each strip was processed by two or three judges, for a total of 9,964 separate judgments. The judges disagreed with each other 789 times or a reliability figure of 0.92, quite respectable in content analysis. The errors and disagreements tended to cluster around age (is Snoopy a teenager or adult, is Andy Capp classified as adult or older?) and around the goals and values of characters (is the goal of Broom Hilda on a lazy Sunday afternoon one of comfort or recreation?). However, all reliability figures were within reasonable limits.

Next, an independent judge was presented with the responses of the original judges and the actual strips. His task was to consider only the disagreements, reread the strip, and adjudicate any differences between judges. In most cases, errors were, in fact, clerical (Mary Worth checked off as a male or Snoopy as a female), but when substantative differences did occur, this judge was to make the final determination using only the definitions spelled out in the instructions. The results provided the final data.


Since there were no significant overall differences between the two newspapers, those data were combined as were the data for 1976 and 1979 for this presentation.

How Funny are the Funnies?

It was hypothesized that the comics have become more funny over time (albeit the more gentle and sophisticated humor of a Peanuts, Doonesbury, or B.C., rather than the slapstick humor of Nancy or Henry of an earlier era). With the encroachment of television, "Who wants to wait 18 weeks to see what happens to Dick Tracy when you can get it all, from start to finish, in 30 minutes on TV?" (Robert Cochnar, editorial editor of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, as quoted in Shaw 1976) As Shaw has claimed, TV is not only faster, it is more involving, more exciting, and easier to identify with. Charlie's Angels or The Dukes of Hazzard may be one-dimensional characters finding simplistic solutions to contrived problems, but they are living, breathing, walking, talking human beings--not immobile stick figures talking to balloons. As an aside, Burger (1973) found that the number of words per page and the average number of words per strip decreased dramatically between 1929 and 1973.



Judges were asked to classify each strip as either humorous or adventurous. The results are presented in Table 1. . There was a slight preponderance of hum, r strips over adventure strips in 1959, but hardly enough to justify the title "funnies" or "comics" at that time. By the late 1970's, however, about four-fifths of the strips were classified as humorous. Whether or not this change is due to television or to a more sophisticated readership, today the comics do seem to be comical, or at least classified as humorous by judges. Unfortunately, the level of sophistication of the humor could not be measured, because a reliable category and definition of sophistication could not be devised. That must await a more ingenious or clever researcher, although an informal perusal of the funny papers does indicate a far subtler brand of humor than the buffoonery of days past.

Directly related to the humor-adventure dictotomization is the manner in which the strip is drawn (caricature-realistic) and whether the strip consists of a continued serial (almost always adventure) or discrete episodes (almost always humor). Note in Table 1 that the ongoing serialized stories have been replaced by strips in which each day's story, joke, or message is discrete and stands alone. The continued serial category dropped from about half the strips to a scant one-fifth by the end of the 1970's.

Population of the Comic World

The major purpose of this study was to examine the individual characters in the comic strip, their value, goals, and what they do in the fantasy world of work and play.

Sex and Age

Sex and age data are presented in Table 2. The world of comics is a world of males. The male to female ratio it more than two to one. For 1950 comics, Spiegelman (1952) found the population of humans to be 70 percent male. In Barcus' study of comics from 1943-1958, it was 72 percent male. Using 1950 New York City newspapers, Saenger (1955) also found the two to one ratio. Berger (1973) studied comics as far back as 1929, finding almost the identical ratio from year to year. The consistency is amazing. Not only do the studies get literally identical results, but these data agree with studies on other mass media such as fiction and radio, and the ratio has not changed in half a century. Women are not all that important in the mass media (at least in head count) in 1929, 1943, 1950, or 1979.



In the funny papers, reality is a middle class reality (Table 2). Two-thirds of the characters were categorized as working or middle class. There are very few poor. In fact, the data are clearly skewed toward the upper end. About 15 percent of the characters are upper class, leaving a mere 10 percent or so for the lower classes. Again, these data are in agreement with both the Spiegelman and Barcus studies. However, over time there does seem to be a shift, with the upper class showing a significant decrease (from 18 percent in 1959 to 14 percent in 1976, to 12 percent in 1979) and the number of lower class showing an increase (7 percent in 1959, 10 percent in 1976; 14 percent in 1979 ). Daddy Warbucks and Maggie and Jiggs of Bringing Up Father are being replaced by the Andy Capps of the comic world.

Turning to occupational status (Table 9), those comic strip characters who do work, work more in professional and white-color occupations (Judge Parker, Dagwood Bumstead) and much less in the unskilled and craftsmen categories. Again this may be reflecting the interests of suburban, better-educated readership of newspapers. However, the stability over time is interesting. There is little change in the occupational distribution over a 'O-year period. The skilled craftsman category has drooped a bit and the unskilled labor has increased a bit, but nothing dramatic has occurred. Somehow the comics have ignored the societal changes that have occurred over the past three or four decades, for the Barcus results going back to 1943 show a similar pattern. The number of retired, those unemployed, the number of housewives, simply has not changed, at least between 1959 and 1979

Finally, the word of the comic is consistently an adult world and has been for decades.

It was hypothesized that the world of the poor and unemployed would be a world of minor characters, foreigners, and blacks. Because of sample size, this could not be tested analytically, but a casual informal analysis seems to suggest it.


The comic strip world is one of tranquility and racial harmony. There is no class conflict nor are there racial problems, for there are no minorities. These data are presented in Table 3. Originally, a detailed category of ethnic and nationality groups was devised, but it was soon evident that the categories would simply have to be collapsed. Hence the Berelson and Salter (1946) concept of the 100 percent American was used as the first category of ethnicity. The group includes strips such as Mary Worth, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, and Steve Canyon, who are white, probably Protestant, and of Anglo-Saxon or Nordic heritage, not including Irish or Italian Catholics, Greeks, or Hungarians. Those in this latter group were called "hyphenate Americans" (Irish-American, Italian-American, or Greek American), since they are American by nationality but not Anglo-Saxon-Nordic by heritage. The category of American minorities" included blacks, Jews, Asians, and Chicanos. The rest of the world was divided into: Europeans and "other" (all other continents).



Spiegelman found that about 75 percent of the comic actors were Anglo-Saxon-Nordic American. The Barcus results were about 88 percent. In the present study, the results were more or less similar. In 1959, 87 percent of the characters were Americans of Anglo Saxon-Nordic heritage. Interesting, some changes did occur in the following two decades, in that the Anglo-Saxon Americans dropped to 78 percent by 1976 and to 65 percent by 1979. The number of Europeans (e.g., Andy Capp, Wizard of Id) increased From none to 12 percent during the same time period. Also notice that the "don't know" category increased, indicating that the judges could not be sure from cues provided in the strip about the national or ethnic origin of, say, a character in Doonesbury. One would have expected some changes in the hyphenate American or American-Indian groups. The assumption was that the stereotyped Irishman or Indian would be less in vogue and less funny by 1979, but that was not so: the few Indians (Redeye, Rick O'Shay, Latigo) are still presented in the usual stereotypic role, and the hyphenate American still looks the same (Bringing Up Father).

The most surprising lack of change was in the category of minorities. At a time when every self-respecting advertisement, TV show, or corporation proudly displays its Blacks, Hispanics, or Orientals, one should have expected some change, but only two Blacks appeared among the 691 characters (a 1979 soldier in Beetle Bailey, and a Black in Doonesbury in 1976) only two Mexican-Americans existed (1959 in Gordo), and the only two Oriental-Americans appear in a Doonesbury strip as children.

Hence the only change in ethnicity and nationality is the switch from Anglo-Saxon-Nordic American to European, and much of that is accounted for by the British Andy Capp and his wife and neighbors, Prince Valiant was not in the 1959 sample), Hagar, and the Wizard of Id.

The Comics remain a world of white, middle-class, adult males who are "100 percent American". Apparently the world of fantasy is not easily affected by the social turmoil of reality. Finally, it was hypothesized that it is Anglo Americans who tend to be the heroes and the sympathetic, reasonable people, while villains tend to be foreigners and minorities. The sample size was too small for a statistical study, but again, a casual analysis indicates that adventure often takes place in foreign lands and seldom are the unsympathetic roles assigned to the white middle-class American. Adventure is a serious business in the funnies. Indeed. it is hard to image a young, clean-cut, midwestern male placed in the role of "heavy" in Dick Tracy, Rick O'Shay, Spiderman, or Star Wars.

Depicted Task of Characters

What is it that the comic characters do Sunday after Sunday, year after year? The answer, pretty consistently, seems to be that they work on the job and they play (Table 4). Consumer activity, buying, selling, and complaining about products and services has never been important in the funnies (perhaps products are simply not funny for a humorous strip and irrelevant for an adventure strip). One might expect that, with new laws, governmental activity, a consumerism movement. and concerns about product safety, pollution, and waste, we would see an increase in "marketing" jokes and stories. However, consistent with other findings, these day-today concerns of society do not seem to be reflected in the comics.



Turning to work and play, the interesting finding here is that there is an increase in situations depicting recreation, play, and leisure, and a decrease in working on the job. One might assume that this is reflecting a more hedonistic set of values (particularly in 1976, after the great turmoil in the country) and a movement away from the Protestant ethic of hard work. The only difficulty with this conclusion is that in other areas, the comics do not seem to quickly reflect changes in society. Thus it is more likely that this is a reflection of a greater number of humorous strips. Perhaps work is not funny and to be funny one must be playing; or from another direction, if something is funny, it simply is not work.

Values and Goals

Finally, we turn to the values being promulgated in the comics and changes over time (Table 5). Consistent with the previous finding, the most important goals of comic strip inhabitants. seem to be recreation, sports, and visiting. This along with physical and psychological integrity and a comfortable, relaxed life--accounts for about half the goals and values expressed in the strips.



Interestingly, one seldom sees romantic love or tenderness or its opposite (vengeance, retribution, brutality, or violence). Interest in wealth seems to have dropped somewhat over the 90 years, and justice- related concerns seem to show a major decrease. Although one could k wonder about the implications of that finding, the data are perhaps more parsimoniously explained by the belief that justice -and cops and robbers- are simply not funny topics. Also note that goals and values revolving around science and wisdom have not increased. With the middle-class, mid-America, professional inhabitants in f the comic pages, one might have expected an increase in this value. The interesting finding here is, once again, not the changes over time (as originally hypothesized), but the basic similarity of the values promulgated over time. These data correspond amazingly well with the Fearing and Barcus studies. The values, goals, and basic wants of comic characters simply have not changed over the 20 to 40 years represented in these studies. Success, well-being, and a comfortable life style is the message every Sunday morning, year in and year out.

Means to the Goal

What are the means used in attaining the desired goals? These data are presented in Table 6. As might have been expected, in the world of Anglo-Saxon-Nordic Americans, industry, hard work, determination, and diligence were the most important means of attaining goals, and that simply has not changed for two decades. Less than 10 percent of the almost 700 characters used violence, force, or threats. Moreover, sponging, begging, and welfare simply do not exist in the comic world (one notable exception being Andy Capp).



The second most important means to the goal is personal charm, cordiality, or affability, but these qualities along with trickery, deceit, and craftiness- have decreased consistently over the 20-year period. This is particular interesting because the number of villains (mean and bad people) has remained constant. The fact that nonviolent trickery has decreased is no"good" place, without racial violence, without foreigners and minorities and differing behavior patterns, with little sponging, force, deceit, or trickery. To the cynical among the readers, the comics may truly be a fantasy world


The purpose of this study was to determine the major values, goals, means to those goals, and messages that the comics--an amazing medium of communication--promulgated to readers during the years 1959, 1976, and 1979.

One major finding was the increase of humorous strips over the adventure story or soap opera of earlier days. The characters were primarily human, and the animals that did exist (about 10 percent of the characters) were generally anthropomorphized. Further, characters were primarily male (two to one ratio) and primarily adults (three to one ratio), rather than children or older people. They are mainly middle class, in the professional, white collar, or housewife occupations. Overwhelmingly, they are white. Few comic strip characters that are poor, or very rich; there are very few American Indians or Blacks, and a minuscule number of Orientals or Mexican-Americans. It is a world of Anglo-Saxon-Nordic Americans, without racial upheavals or turmoil. They spend their time at work or at leisure and seem to worry little about the day-to-day tensions in the world, whether it be the purchasing of goods or voting for political candidates (with notable exceptions, such as The Better Half, Doonesbury, and Broom Hilda).

The values held by the characters revolved around recreation. a relaxed life style, and their own psychological and physical integrity, with little room for romantic love, aggression, brutality, or vengeance. To reach these goals, the comic characters use industry, hard work, charm, established power, fate, and the Protestant work-ethic of Mid-Americana. There is little emphasis on deceit, threats, force, or sponging. Interestingly, very few changes have occurred over the two decades measured in this study. In fact, if one turns to other studies for even a longer period of time, the comics simply have not changed all that much. In some ways they reflect reality, and in many others they portray a fantasy world that is not much affected by the day-today changes and cataclysms in society.


Barcus, Francis E. (1963), "The World of Sunday Comics," in The Funnies: An American Idiom, eds. D.M. White and Robert H. Abel, New York: The Free Press, 190-218.

Berger, Arthur A. (1973), The Comic-Stripped American, Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Berelson, Bernard, and Salter, Patricia J. (1946), "'Majority and Minority Americans: An Analysis of Magazine Fiction," Public Opinion Quarterly, 10, 168-190.

Cuadra, Gloria N. (1976), "Letters to the Times," Los Angeles Times, December 6, Part 2, p. 6.

Fearing, Franklin (1953), "Toward a Psychological Theory of Human Communication," Journal of Personality, 22, 71-88.

Saenger, Gerhart (1965), "Male and Female Relations in the American Comic Strip," Public Opinion Quarterly. 19(Summer). 195-205.

Shaw, David (1977), "The Comics - A Serious Business," Los Angeles Times, April 28, Part 1, p. 1ff.

Spiegelman, Marvin, Terwilliger, Carl, and Fearing, Franklin (1952), "The Content of Comic Strips: A Study of a Mass Medium of Communication," Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 37-57.

Spiegelman, Marvin, Terwilliger, Carl, and Fearing, Franklin (1953a), "The Content of Comics: Goals and Means to Goals of Comic Strip Character," Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 189-203.



Harold H. Kassarjian, UCLA


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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