Immigrant Consumer Acculturation


Lisa N. Penaloza (1989) ,"Immigrant Consumer Acculturation", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 110-118.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 110-118


Lisa N. Penaloza, University of California, Irvine


Consumer acculturation is a term used to describe the acquisition of skills and knowledge relevant to engaging in consumer behavior in one culture by members of another culture. This includes how one learns to buy and consume goods as well as how one learns the meanings that we attribute to ourselves and others as consumers of goods, processes typically investigated under the heading of consumer socialization (cf. Ward 1974; Moschis and Churchill 1978). However, whereas studies of consumer socialization examine the processes whereby consumption skills are learned within one social context, consumer acculturation emphasizes the cultural bases of consumption behaviors and consumer learning processes, examining these processes as they are affected by the interactions of two or more cultures. More specifically, consumer acculturation describes an eclectic process of learning and selectively displaying culturally defined consumption skills, knowledge, and behaviors.

This topic is of interest to consumer researchers because the word "multicultural" describes a growing number of the world's cities (cf. Kasarda 1984 on changing American demographics; Brown and Jacobson 1986; Newland 1979 on international demographics and migration patterns). By addressing the juxtaposition and interactions of two consumer cultures (i.e., groups sharing consumption values and meanings, and learning processes) and their effects within one consumption context, the study of consumer acculturation advances a more critical view of the process of acquisition of consumer values, knowledge, and behaviors.

The purpose of this paper is to develop a framework for the systematic investigation of culturally specific aspects of consumer learning processes and behaviors. To begin, the concept of consumer acculturation is defined and distinguished from its predecessors, concepts such as acculturation, socialization, and consumer socialization. Next, some examples of acculturation models are briefly reviewed to illustrate previous conceptualizations of cultural adjustment, and to suggest relevant dimensions of consumer acculturation. While the concept of consumer acculturation invokes a multiplicity of cultures, in this paper, a simplified model of immigrant consumer acculturation is developed that is composed of dual sets of variables, which correspond to a culture of origin and a host culture, respectively. Further, while this model is designed to apply to immigrant consumer acculturation in general, the focus will be on immigrants to the U.S.. Having introduced the concept of consumer acculturation, the discussion will now turn to the theoretical roots of this term.



The term consumer acculturation is a modification of the more general term, acculturation, which originated in anthropology. Acculturation has been defined as:

"Cultural change that is initiated by the conjunction of two or more autonomous cultural may be the consequences of direct cultural transmission; it may be derived from noncultural causes, such as ecological or demographic modifications induced by an impinging culture; it may be delayed, as with internal adjustments following the acceptance of alien traits or patterns, or it may be a reactive adaptation of traditional modes of life. Its dynamics can be seen as the selective adaptation of value systems, the processes of integration and differentiation, the generation of developmental sequences, and the operation of role determinants and personality factors." (Social Science Research Council 1954).

At issue in the study of acculturation is cultural contact, conflict, and adaptation that occurs at the individual and group level (Berry 1980). Cultural contact varies in its nature, purpose, and duration, and these factors would be associated with significant differences in acculturation processes. For example, the least acculturative change would result from a novel experience in a foreign culture, such as a vacation; the most acculturation would result from an extended stay in another country, as in the case of immigration.

At an individual level, several distinct stages of cultural change were outlined in a study of missionaries (Oberg 1960). In Phase 1, the "honeymoon" stage, the individual is fascinated by the endogenous culture. Cultural contact is superficial, and conflict and adaptation are virtually nonexistent. Phase 2 is the "rejection" stage, characterized by hostile and aggressive attitudes to the new culture. At this stage, the individual begins to realize that his/her behavior is not appropriate, but does not know what to substitute in its place. He/she seeks company with others from the culture of origin. Cultural contact and adjustment are minimized, and conflict is intense. Phase 3, the "tolerance" stage is characterized by the acquisition of some cultural skills and knowledge. Cultural contact and adjustment increase, and conflict is beginning to lose its intensity. In Phase A, "integration," cultural adjustment is generally adequate. The individual now has confidence in his/her ability to function in the new culture, which is viewed as just another way of life (Oberg 1960, p. 178 -179).

There is, however, an important distinction between the missionary and the immigrant. The missionary, seeking to convert the native people to a certain belief system, may be more resistant to cultural adaptation. The immigrant, lacking this "mission," may be more adaptive to the new environment. Moreover, the order and progression of these stages may differ, depending on individual, cultural, and contextual factors which will be discussed later in the paper. Nevertheless, the immigrant and the missionary are similar in that both would probably vary in his/her attitudes toward the new culture over time.

At the group level, Berry (1980) listed eight variations of acculturation, along the following three dimensions: I) retention/loss of the cultural identity of the immigrant culture, 2) positive/negative relation to the dominant society, and 3) ability/inability of the immigrant culture to determine factors I and 2. Each of these variations of acculturation describes a significantly different type of cultural adaptation, which suggests that structural as well as motivational issues influence the acculturation process.

However, while acculturation studies focus on cultural change as the result of cultural contact and adaptation, the study of consumer acculturation primarily focuses on cultural adaptation as manifest in the marketplace As such, consumer acculturation is a subset of acculturation. More specifically, how immigrants learn consumer skills, knowledge, and behaviors that are appropriate within a new consumer culture is the theme of this paper. Therefore, literature on social learning processes is also integral to this study.


Socialization, defined as the development of socially relevant behaviors (Zigler and Child 1969), is also one of the roots of consumer acculturation. Berger and Luckman (1967) distinguished between primary and secondary socialization. Primary socialization is the process by which the individual's initial world view is acquired. The authors noted that generally subsequent socialization processes are not as intense in terms of the degree to which the individual emotionally identifies with key socialization agents, e.g., parents. Further, the first world view acquired by the individual is generally not consciously acknowledged by the individual, but rather taken for granted, and assumed to be the world.

Secondary socialization was defined as "any subsequent process that inducts an already socialized individual into new sectors of the objective world of his society" (p. 130). Upon experiencing secondary socialization, the individual is confronted with another world view. This process, very much like acculturation, can be very disturbing, as the security and comfort of the primary world view is challenged. However, the two terms differ in scope. Berger and Luckman limited their discussion of secondary socialization to the acquisition of organizationally based interpretations of reality, e.g., an individual's immersion into the job "world," or more specifically, indoctrination of army recruits (p. 139). In contrast, consumer acculturation focuses on more general, socio-culturally based interpretations of reality.

In an earlier work, Berger (1963) wrote of a similar concept, alternation, which describes developmental processes whereby the course of events that constitute one's life are subject to alternate interpretations. Like secondary socialization and acculturation, alternation would imply a shift in the belief system or world view of an individual. For example, Berger cites the amazing transformation of identity and self image that occurs upon a simple change of residence (p. 58).

The shift in world view is as significant in alternation as in consumer acculturation. Similarly, there would be a range of psychological responses to an experienced confrontation of world views, from unconscious adaptation to pure awareness of a number of possible "worlds" and the resulting conscious choice of an "appropriate" world view and identity. There would also be a number of experiences that would bring about a confrontation of world views, such as geographical migration, major life events (e.g., entering a career, marriage, child bearing), and ideological (e.g., political, religious) conversion. However, consumer acculturation is primarily concerned with the effects of geographical, rather than ideological movement. More specifically, how one learns consumer skills, knowledge, and behaviors that are appropriate within a new socio-cultural context is the theme of this paper. Therefore, literature on consumer learning is also one of the theoretical foundations of this research.

Consumer Socialization

Research on consumer earning typically falls under the heading of consumer socialization. Reisman and Roseborough (1955) first used the term socialization in a consumption context, discussing developmental processes of acquiring consumption knowledge in the family. It was Ward (1974), however, who coined the term consumer socialization, narrowing its scope to refer to "processes by which young people acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes relevant to their functioning as consumers in the marketplace" (p. 2).

As can be discerned from this definition, the early theoretical focus was on childhood, and the majority of consumer socialization studies have focused on childhood and adolescent consumer learning (cf., McNeal 1964; James 1971; Moore and Stephens 1975; Moschis and Churchill 1978). Although Brim (1966) noted that socialization continues on throughout the life cycle, it has been a recent development in consumer research to extend the concept of consumer socialization beyond childhood to apply to consumption learning throughout the human life cycle. A recent book on consumer socialization employs such a life cycle perspective (Moschis 1987).

The emphasis on childhood in studies of consumer socialization stems from a "blank slate" view of consumer learning. By not considering the existence of previous consumption knowledge, important aspects of consumer learning are neglected. Further, the role of the individual is de-emphasized in the socialization perspective, which does not portray the consumer as actively participating in the learning process, but rather as passively acted upon, i.e., undergoing socialization. The most severe problem with these studies, however, is that there is no consideration of the context of consumer learning. More specifically, there is no appreciation of the multiple bases of consumption knowledge, the modification of consumption-related values involved in consumer learning, or the resulting difficulty or even resistance that individuals may have when learning new consumption values, skills, and knowledge.

In sum, since consumer socialization focuses on normative processes and outcomes of consumer learning within one society, this perspective is somewhat limited in terms of its potential contribution to the study of immigrant consumer acculturation. Cultural adaptation is a dialectical process of interaction among two or more cultures, in which the individual can adapt some aspects of the new culture, and yet still maintain some traits of the culture of origin (McFee 1968). Therefore, it is important to consider aspects of consumer learning which may be separatist as well as conforming in nature


The distinguishing characteristic of consumer acculturation is that processes of consumer learning are studied within their multicultural context. A consumer culture is defined as a system composed of individuals who share specific values, skills, and knowledge relevant to engaging in consumer behavior. There are a number of what may be viewed as consumer cultures, and they may be characterized along a number of dimensions that are not mutually exclusive. Age, occupation, social class, family position, ethnic group, and geographical area of residence are somer of the boundaries defining consumer cultures (Penaloza 1986). For example, Cateora (1963) observed general agreement among adolescents on several consumption values and goals independent of social class. These cultures may be distinguished by appropriate behaviors, dress, and other material objects that are defined and maintained within that culture (Belk, Bahn, and Mayer 1982; Solomon 1983; Hirschman 1985).

Consumer acculturation is a two level phenomenon that simultaneously occurs at the individual and the group level. Therefore, both psychological and social-psychological theories are relevant to the study of consumer acculturation.

At the individual level, the psychological view emphasizes individual processes in the transmission of norms, rules, expectations, and knowledge (Staub 1980). Cognitive development theory (Piaget 1928) may explain age and generational differences in immigrant consumer acculturation. The prior development of cognitive structures (beliefs) regarding consumption activities may partially account for the fact that first generation immigrants typically demonstrate lower levels of cultural assimilation than proceeding generations (Padilla 1980). Differences in level of acculturation are then associated with differences in the consumer behavior of immigrant groups (cf. Guernica 1982).

At the group level, social-psychological theories emphasize interpersonal relationships and exchanges of information which affect individual consumer learning (cf. Asch 1953; Deutsch and Gerard 1955; Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975; Kelly 1976). Reference group theory, role theory, and such interactional processes as modeling and reinforcement are some of the social psychological concepts relevant to the study of consumer acculturation.

The acquisition of social motives for consumption, i.e., learning to interpret consumption cues of others and to use goods as a means of self-expression, is also an important topic in consumer acculturation. According to Solomon (1983), when role demands are characterized by uncertainty, there is an increased reliance upon and consumption of symbolic products as a guide to behavior. In consumer acculturation, uncertainty due to the effects of multiple role demands of multiple reference cultures may result in the accelerated adoption and conspicuous consumption of products associated with the new culture.

Modes of Consumer Acculturation

Three modes of consumer acculturation are highlighted, based on Berry's (1976; 1980) work in acculturation. The first mode, assimilation, represents cultural adaptations that decrease conflict by making cultural or behavioral features more similar to the dominant culture. The melting pot is an example of consumer acculturation in the assimilation mode. The melting pot describes a process of voluntary immersion and corresponding loss of cultural identity by the immigrant culture, who becomes like members of the dominant culture.

Integration is the second mode of consumer acculturation, in which the cultural identity of the minority culture is maintained, with a positive relationship between the dominant culture and the minority culture. Further, there is movement lo become an integral part of the larger societal framework by the acculturating group. An example of consumer acculturation in the integration mode, the salad bowl, describes a social situation in which cultural diversity is valued by the host culture, and the various cultures are seen as elements comprising the whole.

The third mode of consumer acculturation, separation, represents cultural adaptations that attempt to decrease conflict by movement away from the source(s) of the conflict. Separation may be characterized by the retention of the identity of the culture of origin apart from the host culture, or the rejection of both culture of origin and the host culture. It is possible that a third, hybrid culture emerges, as in the case of the chicanos of the southern and western U.S., whose culture is in many ways neither Mexican nor American.




In this model (see figure 1) the immigrant enters the new consumer environment with consumption knowledge previously acquired in the consumer culture of origin. He/she then comes into direct contact with members of the new consumer culture. The effects of previously acquired knowledge (depicted on the left of the diagram) relate to present and future consumer learning processes and consumer behavior that take place in the new country (depicted in the middle of the diagram). Outcomes of consumer acculturation are depicted as three dimensional; the first dimension represents outcomes associated with the culture of origin, the second dimension relates to outcomes identified with the culture of immigration, and the third dimension represents those outcomes that contain adaptive characteristics of a third, hybrid culture.

Antecedent Variables

Antecedent variables represent the attempt to locate the individual in social space and time and set the stage for consumer acculturation. These variables may affect the acquisition of consumer learning both directly and indirectly (Ward 1974; Moore and Stephens 1975; Moschis and Churchill 1978).

1. Demographic variables - Age, education, income, occupation, sex, marital status, race/ethnicity and combinations such as social class and family life cycle are examples of demographic antecedent variables that have been associated with differences in consumer socialization (cf. Wells and Gubar 1966; Schramm 1969; Ward 1974; Moore and Stephens 1975; Ward et al. 1977; Moschis and Churchill 1978; Stampfl 1979; Belk et al. 1982). In addition, recency of arrival is an important factor affecting acculturative change (Padilla 1980). It is hypothesized that these variables are associated with differences in consumer acculturation.

In addition to cultural differences in antecedent variables, it is possible that changes in these variables would occur upon immigration. For example, the immigrant family could realize significant changes in their socio-economic status upon immigrating. It may be that past socioeconomic status, while having an effect on the attitudes and values of immigrant consumers, would be less significant in its relation to consumption behavior than present socio-economic status.

2. Cultural Consumption values - Cultural values are mirrored in learning processes and behaviors within a given culture (Rotheram and Phinney 1987). Some examples of differences in cultural value orientations that may be related to differences in consumer acculturation processes are individual versus group (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck 1961; Chandler 1979; Firat and Dholakia 1982), active versus passive (Kahl 1968), present versus future time (Hall 1959; 1976), and egalitarian versus hierarchical social relations (Kahl 1968; Inkeles and Levinson 1969). For example, in societies characterized by having the group orientation, it may follow that interpersonal sources of consumer information such as the family would have stronger relative influence on consumer learning than mass media. The family is a key socialization agent for Hispanics (Guernica 1982; Hoyer and Despande 1982) and Japanese (Shigaki 1983), cultures that have been characterized as having the group orientation (Chandler 1979; Connor 1977).

3. Language - Language preference is a key factor because it is directly associated with the ability to communicate and learn consumption information (O'Guinn and Meyer 1983). While not all immigrant families must learn another language, colloquial differences in language are also a factor in consumer acculturation.

4. Intensity of affiliation - This variable relates to the individual's preference for one cultural orientation over another (Despande, Hoyer, and Donthu 1986; Alba and Chamlin 1983; Padilla 1980), which may be related to differences in consumer learning processes and behaviors of immigrants. Choice of cultural orientation could range from culture of origin to culture of immigration to a blend of the two, a third hybrid culture (Wallendorf and Reilly 1983).

5. Environmental factors - The immediate environment would affect the ability and the willingness of the immigrant to learn and display cultural consumption attitudes and behaviors. The immigrant would be more likely to exhibit previous patterns of consumption in social settings in which these patterns were accepted and reinforced. For example, in a study of the effects of migration on conjugal relationships, consumption patterns, and job status of women who move seasonally between Mexico and the US, Guendelman and Perez-Itriago (1985) concluded that in coping with the demands imposed by the two contexts, these women led "double lives."

Consumer Acculturation Agents

Consumer acculturation agents are those individuals or institutions who serve as sources of consumer information and/or models of consumption behavior.

1. Family - The immigrant family is viewed as a coping social structure in which previous patterns of consumer behavior can be preserved as well as new consumption patterns learned. The family differs cross-culturally in its structure, patterns of interaction, and social significance, and these differences have been related to differences in consumer learning processes (Ward et al. 1987). For example, Shigaki (1983) observed more parent-child contact and family member interaction in Japanese families, as compared to American families. In another study, Devereaux (1970) reported that British children experienced more physical punishment and less nurtance and warmth than American children.

Keefe (1980) noted that researchers differ in heir treatment of the family in studies of acculturation. On one hand, researchers see familistic values as responsible for the slow rate of acculturation (Kluckhohn and Strodbeck 1961; Chandler 1979), while on the other hand, others view acculturation as the independent variable that is affecting the family (Grebler, Moore, and Guzman 1970). These apparently conflicting hypotheses are reconciled in the model, which views immigrant consumer acculturation as affecting and affected by the acculturation agents, which in this case is the family.

2. Peers - Previous research has noted socioeconomic differences in the relative influence of the peer group on processes of socialization (McCandless 1969; Moschis and Churchill 1978). Whether the peer group was more closely aligned with the culture of origin or the culture of immigration is an important issue in immigrant consumer acculturation.

3. Mass Media - Mass media is a key source of consumption information. The availability of mass media in the language of the culture of origin is an important issue in the study of consumer acculturation. Further, previous media habits associated with the culture of origin may affect immigrant responses to mass media in the culture of immigration. For example, mass media would have different forms across societies, as the result of different social, legal, and economic conditions (i.e., the distribution of resources and the availability and diffusion of media technology). In cultures where television sets are less diffused throughout the population, individuals may be more accustomed to consulting newspapers, word-of-mouth, and radio for consumption information.

4. Institutional sources of consumer information - The nature of various institutions ar.d their role in transmitting consumption-related information may vary across cultural contexts, and these variations may be associated with differences in consumer acculturation, e.g., differences in immigrant perceptions of the role of educational institutions in teaching consumer skills



Consumer Acculturation Processes

Acculturation processes refer to the ways in which cultural consumption values, knowledge, and behavior are learned. Three methods by which consumer learning is acquired are modeling, reinforcement, and social interaction (McLeod and O'Keefe 1972; Ward 1974; Moschis and Churchill 1978).

Regarding immigrant consumer acculturation processes, certain apriori hypotheses have been derived. Initially, upon arriving in the new country, the immigrant will try to assimilate the consumption patterns of the host country, and will try to consult those sources of consumption information that are perceived to be aligned with the host culture. However, as the immigrant proceeds according to the heuristics of his/her previous culture, seeking out products and sources of consumption information, he/she soon realizes that these guidelines no longer function. Frustrated, the immigrant may look for a familiar products, in an attempt to retain his/her original cultural orientation at this second phase. In the third phase, the immigrant has gained some knowledge of the new culture. Strengthened by this cultural knowledge, the immigrant gains confidence in his/her ability to function in the new consumer environment, and can now choose which one of three cultural orientations (culture of origin, culture of immigration, or a third hybrid culture) to display. However, the order and progression of these processes may differ, depending upon many factors in the culture, the social environment and inherent to the immigrant.

Consumer Acculturation Outcomes

Outcomes of consumer acculturation refer to consumption-related skills and knowledge that are acquired as a result of contact between two cultures. The following are some examples of consumer socialization outcomes that warrant consideration in the investigation of consumer socialization: price awareness, brand specification, slogan recall (Moore and Stephens 1975), attitudes toward advertising (Ward and Wackman 1971), recognition of consumption symbolism (Belk et al. 1982, materialistic attitudes (Ward and Wackman 1971). However, value orientation (Kahl 1968) and identity issues (Rotheram and Phinney 1987) are also important outcome dimensions of consumer acculturation.


The model of consumer acculturation is not deterministic; emphasis is given to the range of cultural orientations that the individual may display. The ability and the desire of the immigrant to learn new and/or to maintain previous patterns of consumer behavior may vary as a function of several factors. For example, many of the products they used to buy are no longer available. Another possible explanation is that former patterns of consumer behavior may not be socially sanctioned in the new country.

Language barriers, limited experience in a new country, and the limited amount of non-English advertising limit the ability of immigrants to evaluate goods. Negative reinforcement may be the chief means of identifying consumption meanings and values for the immigrant consumer. They may learn what is acceptable, by means of a traumatic process of learning what is not acceptable in the host culture by exposure and interaction with individuals with the message, "we don't do things that way here." Immigrants may also develop informal networks composed of family, friends, and other immigrants who can offer support and advice concerning how to get by in the new country.

Changes in familial roles and status as a result of immigration may have implications for household consumer behavior. For example, Guendleman and Perez-Itriago (1985) examined the impact of seasonal -migration on women's roles and lifestyles in the Mexican immigrant family, and observed that wage workers in the US had a greater tendency to establish cooperative roles with their husbands, sharing power and decision making. In another study, Humphreys (1944) observed that the status of the father declined relative to that of the mother and children, while the son assumed a position about equal to that of the father, and the daughter attained the same level with the mother.

Some of the consumer behavior implications of acculturation involve purchase roles, decision-making influence and the allocation of household tasks. For example, Penaloza and Gilly (1986) suggested that, because of the accelerated rate of assimilation of children in the Hispanic family, immigrant parents depend on them as a source of consumption knowledge. There may also be significant differences in the rate of consumer acculturation for single immigrants, as compared to immigrant families, and immigrant families with children, as compared to immigrant families without children. due to qualitative differences in the nature of the family as a support network.

Previous research indicates that immigrant consumer behavior is not a simple blending of the culture of origin and the culture of immigration, but rather a unique cultural style (Wallendorf and Reilly 1983). These aut}hors discovered that Mexican-American consumption patterns did not resemble American or Mexican consumption patterns, but were similar to Anglo consumption patterns of five years earlier. This research suggests that consumer acculturation is a dynamic process in which consumption behaviors of one culture are acquired by another culture, but not without a corresponding time lag effect and distortions possibly due to cultural stereotypes.


Like the immigrant family, researchers operate from within a consumer culture. Perhaps the most critical difficulty to be encountered by researchers in the investigation of immigrant consumer acculturation is that it is very difficult to comprehend other cultures. Cultural knowledge and learning have been linked to the part of the human nervous system that functions according to the principle of negative feedback, i.e., we become aware of our own cultural heuristics only when they do not function (Powers 1973; Hall 1976; emphasis added).

Another problem experienced by the immigrant family and consumer researchers alike is that cultural consumption values cannot be observed and measured directly. They are hypothetical constructs that are inferred from "acceptable" consumption behaviors as they are defined within a particular cultural context. Further, like other macro phenomena, cultural consumption values and behaviors may not correspond to any one individual or group within a culture (Firat and Dholakia 1982; Arndt 1976).

While operationalizing and measuring macro constructs can be quite problematical, it is suggested that the effects of immigrant consumer acculturation are conducive to measurement in terms of the immigrant family's perceptions of the issues and difficulties they have experienced as consumers in a new cultural context. Further, inquires as to the consumption goals of immigrants may lead to insights concerning their motivations for consumptions as well as our own. While the desire and intention of immigrants to continue previous patterns of consumption is assumed by firms who import goods and make them available for purchase by immigrants, the degree to which this assumption is correct is of interest to consumer researchers.


Many cultural issues affecting consumer behavior have been discussed in this paper, including cultural differences in consumption-related values, family interactions, the relative influence of sources of consumer information, and consumption knowledge, skills, and behaviors. The focus of this paper, however, has been on the immigrant consumer. A conceptual model of immigrant consumer acculturation was developed and discussed. Immigrant consumer behavior is not the simple assimilation of established patterns of consumption, nor is it an adamant continuation of previous patterns of consumption exhibited in the country of origin. Although the immigrant may try to maintain previous patterns of consumption behavior, his/her ability to lo so is constrained by several factors both in the consumption environment and inherent to the culture and the circumstances of the individual. Many questions remain. Further research is necessary to identify and examine differences in the consumption values, learning processes, and behaviors of different cultures, including that of immigrant as well as native consumer cultures throughout the world.


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Lisa N. Penaloza, University of California, Irvine


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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