The Cultivation of Consumer Norms

ABSTRACT - This paper represents an initial effort to bring cultivation theory to bear on the process by which consumer norms are formed and maintained. To this end, we present the results of a pilot study and a detailed research agenda for subsequent investigation. The results of the pilot study were supportive of the theory of cultivation, particularly the "mainstreaming" effect.


Thomas C. O'Guinn, Ronald J. Faber, Nadine J.J. Curias, and Kay Schmitt (1989) ,"The Cultivation of Consumer Norms", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 779-785.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 779-785


Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinios

Ronald J. Faber, University of Minnesota

Nadine J.J. Curias, University of Illinois

Kay Schmitt, University of Minnesota


This paper represents an initial effort to bring cultivation theory to bear on the process by which consumer norms are formed and maintained. To this end, we present the results of a pilot study and a detailed research agenda for subsequent investigation. The results of the pilot study were supportive of the theory of cultivation, particularly the "mainstreaming" effect.

Consumer behavior researchers have long recognized that product desires and choices are influenced by perceptions of cultural norms and values. Yet as cultures have grown more complex, our ability to develop accurate perceptions of norms may have actually decreased. This is due largely to the extent to which we use mass-mediated information in lieu of that directly acquired. This information is often distorted and appears to be largely unchallenged as an acceptable substitute for "knowing" about the world. This includes what we think we know about how others behave as consumers.

Although we all like to believe that our perceptions of social reality are accurate and based on our ability to observe and interpret information from the world around us, this may be only a comfortable illusion. In fact, we are able to observe only a tiny fraction of our world. A vast amount of what we "know" is mediated by information we gather from other people or the mass media. Much of this information is treated just as if it were directly observed in the real world and is worked into cognitions of reality. Due to the nature of this indirectly acquired information and its ubiquitous presentation, it may result in a limited and distorted synthesis of normative consumption information. The result is that people may, at times, operate on the basis of false perceptions of social reality. This, in turn, can have important implications for our consumption desires, beliefs and behaviors.

A growing number of researchers interested in consumer behavior have written about the role of advertisements in creating symbolic and cultural beliefs in consumers (Mick 1986; McCracken 1986; Levy 1959). However, advertising represents only a small portion of media content. Surprisingly, the programs between the ads have largely been ignored by consumer researchers. Furthermore, symbolic meaning is only one aspect of social reality. Perhaps even more fundamental, exposure to the "world" as portrayed on television has the potential to influence our perceptions of the very existence or incidence of things. If unchallenged these perceptions become part of enduring cognitive structures. We begin to believe the world, or at least part of it, exists as it is constituted on television. The role of entertainment television programming in affecting these perceptions has been examined by communication researchers studying cultural indicators and the cultivation hypothesis (Gerbner et al. 1980a; Hawkins and Pingree 1982). This paper is an-initial effort to bring this theory to bear on the cultivation of consumer norms.

The Cultivation Effect

Throughout the brief history of communication theory there has been a changing perspective on the influence of the media. In its early days, scholars viewed the media as having powerful effects which would bring about changes in the audience. When these effects were not consistently demonstrated the field reverted to a limited effects paradigm in which the media were generallyCseen as merely reinforcing existing beliefs. Cultivation theory assumes that the media act to both change and reinforce perceptions depending on how media depictions compare with the individual's own perceptions of his or her social environment.

Cultivation theory assumes that different demographic groups (based on income, education, sex, SES, etc.) will have had different life experiences which will lead to different perception of social reality. However, heavy television viewers from these different groups will, over time, begin to develop more similar perceptions of the world. This effect is referred to as mainstreaming. Mainstreaming can occur when heavy viewers from different demographic groups change their views to more closely reflect the television world, and are metaphorically swept into the "mainstream." Yet for some groups, the television reality may closely match their own real world experiences. In this case, television would serve to simply reinforce existing social perceptions.

Examination of the cultivation effect from television require two separate but related areas of research. The first is to document the content found on television. Gerbner and his colleagues refer to this as "cultural indicators" (Gerbner, Morgan and Signorielli 1982) or message system analysis (Gerbner et al 1980a). These researchers have been involved in conducting detailed content analyses of week long samples of network television since the late 1960's. This analysis records the frequency with which different types of people and events appear or occur in the television world.

Message system analysis has found that the composition of the television world is significantly different from that of the real world. For example, there are three times as many men on television as women (Gerbner et al 1980a), and television is overpopulated by characters in the 25 to 45 year old age range and under-populated by young and old people (Gerbner et al. 1980b; 1980c). Occupationally, professionals, especially doctors and lawyers, and people in law enforcement predominate on television (Gerbner, Morgan and Signorielli 1982). Studies of the events occurring on television have predominantly focused on violence and found that threats and physical force are extremely common. Approximately two-thirds of male characters and almost one-half of female characters are involved in violent acts (Gerbner et al 1980a). Surprisingly, illness and injuries are infrequent. Only 6 - 7% of major characters on TV have injuries or illness which require treatment (Gerbner, Morgan and Signorielli 1982).

Even though most message system analysis has simply documented the occurrence of people and events on television, a few studies have gone beyond this to establish characteristics associated with different types of characters. For example, the elderly on television are shown as lacking common sense, eccentric and prone to failure (Arnoff 1974; Gerbner et al. 1980c) Other studies have reported level of job satisfaction associated with commonly portrayed occupations (Jeffries-Fox and Signorielli 1979), and degree of success and happiness associated with characters of different demographic groups (Gerbner et al 1980b). Thus, message system analysis provides for an assessment of the "facts" and associated inferences which television provides about the world and the people populating it.

The second stage of research needed to document the cultivation effect is to show that the television content which is at variance with real life has a greater influence on heavy viewers than on lighter viewers. This is done through survey instruments which compare heavy and light television viewers' responses to items which ask for estimates of the occurrence of various types of people or events in the real world.

Research at this second stage, referred to as cultivation analyses, has found some support for the belief that heavy viewers of television are more likely than lighter viewers to have incorrect beliefs about the world which are biased in the direction of television content portrayals. For example, heavy viewers have been found to overestimate the prevalence of violence in the world and their chances of being a victim of a crime (Doob and McDonald 1979; Gerbner et al. 1977, 1979). A review of findings indicates that this is true for both child and adult viewers (Hawkins and Pingree 1982). Other studies have found that heavy viewers are also more likely to have greater faith in doctors (Volgy and Schwarz 1980); have more negative attitudes toward the elderly (Gerbner et al. 1980a); hold more sexist attitudes (Morgan 1980; Volgy and Schwarz 1980); and overestimate the stability of the nuclear family (Pingree et al. 1979).

Critical Questions About Cultivation

Although several studies have found support for the cultivation hypothesis, belief in this effect is far from unanimous. Over the years there has been a great deal of criticism of this model and the methods used to test it (Hirsch 1980; 1981). The correlations between viewing and effects, although significant, often indicate only weak to moderate relationships. It is, therefore, necessary to examine some of these critical questions about the cultivation effect.

One major controversy in cultivation studies has been on the appropriate use of control variables. Control variables are needed to rule out possible spurious correlations due to the association of both viewing and social perceptions with some third variable. This concern is quite reasonable since magnitude of viewing has been shown to be related to demographic variables such as SES, age, income and sex (Comstock et al. 1978). Real life experiences are also likely to differ among members of different demographic groups. Thus, a relationship between heavy viewing and overestimation of crime or violence may simply be due to the fact that lower income people are both heavy viewers and more likely to live in high crime neighborhoods.

Most researchers have recognized the need to apply control variables in analyses, but the controversy has centered on whether these variables should be used one at a time or all at once. Some studies have found cultivation effects when control variables are applied one at a time, but when used simultaneously, the relationship becomes nonsignificant (Doob and McDonald 1979; Hughes 1980). It would appear that control variables should be used simultaneously, but not indiscriminantly. Control variables should be carefully thought out and should have some clear theoretical relationship to the effect under study in order to be meaningfully applied to cultivation analysis. Even when relationships are reduced using many control variables, further analyses may reveal that important conditional relationships persist. For example, the notion of mainstreaming implies that television effects may exist for some subgroups but not for others. These findings may be hidden by the indiscriminate use of control variables (Hawkins and Pingree 1982). Thus, we must be careful in making sure that we are not just "throwing" a general assortment of control variables at the phenomenon and its analysis. Theory and consistency with previous research should guide selection.

In developing a complete theory or model of f the impact of cultivation it is likely that we would want to expand it beyond just the development of false perceptions to also include the impact of these beliefs. One result might be the development of values and beliefs. If heavy viewers develop a belief that expensive possessions are more prevalent in the real world than they actually are, this may, in turn, lead to a greater desire to have these things (materialism) and perhaps lower levels of life satisfaction. Cultivation may also serve to guide impression formation and expectations. Possessions may come to be associated with success and power. Thus, we may judge others by the things they have and come to expect people with certain possessions to be more likely to succeed. Finally, these beliefs may serve to guide one's own behavior. This may occur well after the viewing situation where cultivated beliefs are utilized by consumers who no longer recognize them as coming from the media.

Cultivation and Consumer Behavior

To date, little of the literature on cultivation has looked at outcomes relevant to consumer behavior. There have been two studies which directly relate to this issue, but both have significant limitations. Fox and Philliber (1978) examined the impact of television viewing on perceptions of affluence in the U.S. However, their measure of TV viewing was a very questionable one. It simply asked people to indicate the number of evenings in an average week they watched one hour or more of television. A person who watched one hour every evening would be treated as a heavy viewers even though they would be well below the national average in total amount of television viewed. Using this measure, they found a significant relationship between amount of viewing and perceptions of affluence, but this relationship disappeared when control variables were applied.

A study of Israeli viewers of American programs found that they overestimated the percentage of Americans owning various household items as well as the average earnings of American families (Weimann 1984). Heavy viewers overestimated these things to a greater extent than lighter viewers. Additionally, by testing different causal models, he found that the data are best explained by a model in which control variables influence amount of viewing, but not cultivation effects directly, and amount of viewing does have a direct effect on cultivation. However, the generalizability of this study to American viewers is problematic, especially since the control variables did not include any measure of direct experience with American households.

Pilot Study on Cultivation and Consumer Behavior

In order to overcome some of the problems with, and to reconcile the differences between, the previous studies touching on the cultivation of consumer beliefs, a pilot study was conducted to examine the effects of viewing on consumption perceptions. To accomplish this, 191 students at a major midwestern university filled out questionnaires assessing their perceptions of the percentage of people in the U.S. possessing various things and engaging in different behaviors. Separate estimates were made for the percentage of men, women and households possessing or doing various things. Examples of items investigated included the percentage of people: earning various amounts; living beyond their means; satisfied with their lives; and owning items such as dishwashers, VCR's, compact disc players, swimming pools, convertibles, expensive clothing and vacation homes.

Respondents were also asked to indicate the number of hours they watch each of 10 different types of television programs in the average week. Separate estimates of different types of content were deemed desirable since they would allow for an examination of the relative contribution of different types of content as well as the overall effect of TV viewing on the cultivation of consumption beliefs.

As an extension of previous studies, this pilot study attempted to see if cultivation effects go beyond perceptual differences and also influence value orientations. To assess this a 24 item materialism scale developed by Belk (1985) was included. This scale measures three components of materialism (possessiveness, envy and nongenerosity) as well as overall materialism.

Finally, several demographic variables which have been found to be important control variables in previous cultivation studies were examined. These included age, sex, GPA, number of siblings and family wealth. Each is justifiable on theoretical grounds, and is consistent with previous research.

Results from Pilot Study

In order to more parsimoniously handle the data, several indices were constructed. Since separate questions were asked about perceptions of possessions among men, women and households, affluence indices for each of these groups were computed. Along with the three affluence indices, two simple indices of happiness were computed (one for men and one for women). Each of these indices were composed of just two items: "the percentage of women (men) who are happy with their lives," and the percentage who are "happily married." Finally, scores were computed for materialism and each of its three subcomponents envy, possessiveness and nongenerosity.

As a first test of television effects, amount of television viewing was correlated with each of the indices discussed above. This yielded only two significant correlations. Television viewing is positively correlated with happiness of women (r=.12) and with possessiveness (r=.13). When the effect of age, sex, number of siblings, GPA and family wealth are simultaneously controlled, the relationship between television viewing and happiness of women remains significant, but the correlation with possessiveness does not. Thus, it appears from this initial level of analysis that amount of television viewing does not strongly affect perceptions of affluence, happiness or materialism in U.S. viewers.

However, before concluding that television viewing had no impact on consumption beliefs, a test for a possible mainstreaming effect was conducted. It seemed that the level of wealth one experiences in daily life would influence how television messages are perceived and how they effect the individual. Therefore, separate analyses were run for people who came from families with above average wealth versus those from families with average or less wealth. Table 1 shows the partial correlations of amount of TV viewing and each of the indices for each group after controlling for age, sex, number of siblings, and GPA. As can be seen in this table, television viewing seems to have opposite effects for these two groups. For wealthy respondents, greater viewing is generally associated with lower perceptions of affluence in the real world. However, among average or poorer respondents, greater viewing is associated with greater perceptions of affluence. Therefore, television seems to be providing a mainstreaming effect with heavy viewers developing more similar perceptions of real life affluence.

Mainstreaming also appears to be affecting expectations of happiness in the world. Among the more wealthy respondents, television viewing had no impact on perceptions of happiness. However, among the less wealthy, television viewing was positively associated with believing more people in the world were happy.



An opposite finding occurs with materialistic values. Here, only the more wealthy respondents demonstrate an effect of television viewing. For them, greater levels of viewing are associated with greater amounts of envy, possessiveness and overall materialism. No association is found among viewing and materialism for less wealthy respondents.

These findings may help to reconcile the previous studies of the cultivation of consumer beliefs as well as extend our knowledge. Weimann (1984) found a consistent direct effect of viewing on his entire sample. However, his respondents probably had only limited direct experience with American society. When one has limited direct experience with the content of interest, it is likely that television viewing will exert a consistent and noticeable cultivating effect on all viewers. However, as direct experience becomes more common with the subject matter, television effects are likely to depend on what the viewer's real life experience has been. Thus, homogeneous effects like those found by Weimann are less likely to occur and instead be replaced by mainstreaming effects.

Unlike Weimann, Fox and Philliber (1978) found no correlation between viewing and perceptions of affluence after controlling for other variables. The same was true of the initial analysis here. However, examining only this correlation may have masked a possible mainstreaming effect. Only by examining differences in relevant sub-groups (in this case by income or wealth of respondents) can we determine if a mainstreaming effect, such as the one found in this pilot study, is occurring.

The findings from the pilot study also have interesting implications for a more thorough model of cultivation effects. As might be expected, the cultivation of beliefs about affluence in the real world are strongest among people who have average or less wealth themselves. These people also showed the greatest effect of viewing on perceptions of happiness in others. However, when the outcome variable switches from perceptions to personal values, it is the wealthy subgroup that shows the greatest association between TV viewing and materialism (especially envy). This may indicate that while TV most affects the perceptions of those viewers whose real lives vary most from TV's content, to influence values and beliefs requires some degree of similarity between one's own life and TV content. People who do not perceive themselves as capable of attaining the degree of wealth portrayed on TV may not be influenced by the materialistic message of TV. On the other hand, those who see attaining this level of wealth as within the realm of possibility are affected by this desire. This would be consistent with the belief that perceptions may be influenced through a low involvement process, while values and behaviors are mediated through greater levels of thought.

Developing a Program of Research on Consumer Cultivation

The pilot study would seem to indicate encouragement for future research on the impact of media cultivation of consumer beliefs. It would seem that television viewing may have the ability to influence both perceptions of the real world and values which may ultimately effect consumer behaviors. However, to accurately assess the potential impact of media cultivation on consumer beliefs and behaviors requires an extensive on-going program of research. This program of research must examine both the content of television and its potential effects.


As Hawkins and Pingree (1982) have pointed out, many failures to find a cultivation effect may be due to inaccurate assumptions about the content of television. Therefore, any true examination of these effects must begin with a detailed analysis of relevant television content. As a starting point for this proposed program of research, we have taped one week of programming on all three network stations. Programs taped include both daytime and prime-time shows. While a growing percentage of television viewing involves non-network programs, these shows still represent the majority of viewing. Additionally, many non-network stations air reruns of previous network shows. Since programming has not undergone radical changes in the last few years, it is unlikely that the consumption related content of television has dramatically changed either. Therefore, an analysis of network programming should provide a reasonably good indication of the consumption images viewers are presented.

To study the types of consumption messages available on television requires the examination of both the visual and verbal content. Further, it should look both at the existence of items and events as well as the associations of values to these things. Analysis must be contextual. As a start, we plan to examine the types of characters on television and the types of things they own. One method will involve an examination of the items contained in systematically selected frames. The videotapes will be stopped at selected intervals and a still will be extracted from that tape to another for later analysis. All items appearing in the frame will then be coded. When summed, this should provide a good indication of the types of products owned in the television world. By examining all frames showing similar places (i.e. - living room, bedroom, backyard) we can get an idea of how common specific items are in the world of television. Attempts at assessing the relative value of several types of items (i.e. - cars, furniture, clothes) will also be done. Ownership will also be linked to demographic descriptions and estimates of the power and success of these characters.

In addition to examining the type of possessions shown on television, analyses will also be conducted to determine the frequency and characterization of acquisition and consumption behaviors on television. Content will be coded for the frequency of purchasing and indications of desiring items, as well as how often different types of products are used or consumed. Examinations of the process of buying and the types of considerations going into televised portrayals of purchase decisions will also be included.


Once an analysis of the content of television is completed, hypotheses about potential cultivation effects can be developed. Perceptions of heavy viewers would be expected to begin to resemble what is portrayed on television. As was found here, mainstreaming effects may be the most common cultivation effect, with television's influence depending on viewers' own real life experiences.

If cultivation effects are found, we can then go on to test for further effects of television viewing on consumer behavior. For example, heavy viewers who demonstrate a cultivation effect may also be hypothesized to internalize this effect by ascribing power and success to people who possess items associated with positive values and outcomes on television. This can be assessed through story completions which vary the types of items or brands hypothetical characters possess. If viewers perceive that they have the ability to attain the items they see on television, heavy viewers may also demonstrate greater desire for things and, somewhat paradoxically, lower life satisfaction.

Finally, we may look for behavioral outcomes. These can be divided into two groups, direct effects and indirect effects. Indirect effects might include overspending, high degrees of debt and more frequent purchase of status brands. These effects would not come directly from the content portrayed, but instead be mitigated by materialism and other beliefs.

Direct behavioral outcomes are also possible. These are likely to involve the ways in which people make purchase decisions. Decisions on television tend to infrequently consider important purchase decisions such as finances available and alternative choices (Faber 1978; Way 1982). Additionally, few sources of information are considered and decisions are made within a very short time frame (typically within one day) on television (Faber 1978). Therefore, we may find that heavy viewers are less deliberate and thorough in their purchase decision making.

Final Note on Cultivation Effects

It should be pointed out that most studies on cultivation effects find that television has only a weak or moderate effect on beliefs especially after controlling for other variables. Similar levels of effects are likely in the study of the cultivation of consumption beliefs. However, this should not necessarily be taken as an indication that the media have only weak effects. It is important to keep in mind that television is so prevalent in our society that virtually no one can escape its influence. Even light viewers are likely to be effected by the images and values of television either directly through viewing or indirectly through interactions with others who have been effected. Given the similarity of content from place to place and the prevalence of television in American life, assessments of its effects are likely to produce much less variance across individuals than other sources of socialization (Chaffee 1976; Gerbner et al. 1986). Thus, we must assume that some of the influence of television may well be masked by its ubiquitous effect.

Cultivation analysis provides one way to examine some of the potential effects of the mass media on consumer socialization and enculturation throughout the life-span. Many of the findings may be strongest for children and adolescents who have limited real life experiences. However, cultivation may also occur for adults, both in situations where their real life experiences are limited, and through mainstreaming when direct experience is more common. There are many factors which may play important roles in mitigating the effect of cultivation and the development of a comprehensive model may still be in the distance. However, given the pervasiveness of television and other mass media, it appears to be worthwhile for consumer researchers to further utilize and develop models which incorporate the role entertainment media can play in fostering perceptions of consumption reality and how these perceptions ultimately influence consumer attitudes, values and behaviors.


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Thomas C. O'Guinn, University of Illinios
Ronald J. Faber, University of Minnesota
Nadine J.J. Curias, University of Illinois
Kay Schmitt, University of Minnesota


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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