Reflections on Cultivation Theory and Consumer Behavior


Timothy P. Meyer (1989) ,"Reflections on Cultivation Theory and Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 786-789.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 786-789


Timothy P. Meyer, University of Wisconsin

In many areas of communication theory and research, cultivation theory has enjoyed considerable popularity over the past decade. The three papers that comprise this panel represent important extensions of some of the underlying themes of cultivation theory to consumer behavior. For this, the authors should be commended for their efforts.

As I offer my comments on cultivation analysis and its applications to consumer behavior theory and research, allow me to focus briefly on the nature of the task facing researchers seeking to apply a broadly based and only partially defined theory to a directly related sphere of human behavior. I would then like to discuss the list of topics which I feel should be closely examined in future research that will make use of cultivation theory and its underlying assumptions. In this part, I will point to key areas of clarification that need to be addressed before cultivation theory can serve as a solid anchor for consumer-related research. I will also integrate the contributions of the three papers on this panel regarding their potential future research. With this agenda in mind, let met proceed.

Theories in communication (and in the rest of the social sciences as well) usually suffer from one of two inherent problems: they are either too narrow and specific; or they are too broadly conceptualized. Narrow perspectives suffer because they fail to account for the host of complex variables and intrinsic processes that make up the social phenomena the theory purports to explain. Conversely, broad or grand theories error in the opposite direction, attempting to explain or account for all major elements while failing to clearly explicate any components of the theory with sufficient detail. Most often, grand theories use terms that (perhaps purposely) do not lend themselves to being operationally defined; constructs are frequently defined in simplistic and/or arbitrary ways that render results of empirical investigations as being obvious or severely constrained by conceptual and methodological limitations.

Researchers in communication have chosen to pursue one of these two directions in their theory building, opting for a strategy that takes a narrow focus and works to broaden it or choosing instead to embark upon a program that pursues verification of specific, operationally defined propositions deduced from broadly conceived hypotheses. Both directions have experienced limited success, due in large part to the newness of the field, limited methodologies, and the task of seeking to explain an extraordinarily complex nexus of interrelated processes that seem to make up our rich arrays of communication behaviors.

Cultivation analysis springs from one of those broadly based theories in communication. As such, it has of course been guilty of committing the errors that all grand theories make as they develop from infancy toward maturity. Previous research has advanced essentially to the stage where certain degrees of media exposure (mostly television) are correlated with predicted differences in cognitive, affective or behavioral measures. Exposure to large does of TV generally or specifically to violent, crime-laden programming is linked to higher rates of fear of being victimized by violent crime, overestimates of actual crime rates, and chances of becoming a victim of crime, etc. This line of research focuses on the associations between content and subsequent indicators of behavior. The research agenda develops along the lines of additions to the kinds of content studied and/or the kinds of consequences for such rates of exposure to that content. The key point to remember about this research is that the study of cultivation effects is largely driven by the search for which associations exist and how strong those associations are. What the research has lacked to date is the empirical investigation of how such associations come about, under what conditions, and how consequences ensue as part and parcel of a complex, on-going process. This discussion of what future cultivation research needs to consider in its development as a useful and viable theory with meaningful relevance to consumer behavior forms the next part of my commentary.

In their review of nearly fifty studies dealing with cultivation effects and perceived reality of television, Hawkins and Pingree (1982) concluded that the evidence in support of cultivation " relatively supportive of television's influence on some aspects of social reality, especially in areas related to violence" (p.244). They added, as have others since, that the relationships reported are indeed very small and often disappear when other variables are controlled for statistically. Research by Potter (1986) has concluded that cultivation effects even in the area of violence are better explained by the degree and type of perceived reality of such television content, as compared to traditionally used measures of exposure to violent content. These researchers point to two important limitations of cultivation research: 1) When cultivation effects are present, the evidence that supports them is weak but persistent; most of the evidence is also limited to the area of perceived violence in viewers' real worlds (chances of becoming a victim of violence and perceived frequency of the occurrence of violent crimes); 2) The use of a traditional global measure such as degree of exposure to TV (overall or to certain types of content) is of limited value in establishing relationships and in being able to support the explanations of why the relationships seem to exist.

The papers on this panel present evidence which is consistent with both of these limitations. The pilot study reported by O'Guinn, Faber, Curias, and Schmitt (1988) produced results which were generally consistent with cultivation theory. Students from wealthier backgrounds who were heavier TV viewers perceived less affluence in the real world, while those from backgrounds with average or less than average wealth who viewed a great deal of TV perceived more affluence in real world. The strength of the evidence was weak, but most importantly, persistent, suggesting that future research could begin to build underlying sets of related variables which would more accurately explain the relationship between what is viewed and how often and the perceptions of real world wealth. Future research should also continue to incorporate measures of materialistic attitudes and other similar consumer value indicators as possible links to viewing perceptions. Measures of TV viewing need to become considerably more sophisticated in order to allow for a more predictive measure of cultivation effects.

The paper by Lee (1988) holds a great deal of promise for understanding cultivation effects as they manifest themselves on those who find themselves in a new environment as they become enculturated. Her research, like all previous research in cultivation, shows preliminary evidence of persistent cultivation effects. Improvements need to be made in the measures of TV viewing (perceptions of specific content and more accurate, reliable indexes of amount of TV viewed) and in the impact of perceptions and viewing on various aspects of consumer attitudes, values, and behavior.

In the paper by Tims, Fan, and Freeman, (1988) the level of analysis (global or macromeasures) produced impressive amounts of agreement between media reports of economic news and consumers' attitudes toward and assessments of the state of the economy and what the future holds. While there is a high degree of correspondence between the two global measures reported, future research will need to incorporate actual mediated news about the economy as received and perceived by various groups of consumers and the degree to which the nature of such economic news predicts the attitudes and opinions of consumers about the economy. Global measures usually produce statistically significant but small associations. This study has produced associations of impressive magnitude. But, what the associations mean, how they occur, and with what specific consequences have not been investigated to date. The future in this area looks very promising.

In countering these two limitations, researchers will have to consider the application of cultivation to content domains other than TV violence and to media other than television (various typical combinations of media which present overlapping content). While television is certainly an influence agent, it is certainly not the only one, nor does it function in a vacuum devoid of other media. Advertising especially cuts across the various media, and its influence, therefore, would best be treated as a function of a media mix. Both fictional and news content also play roles in influencing consumer expectations and desirable styles of appearance and behavior. The entire nexus of media content should be considered in terms of how this content is accommodated by different individuals in different ways. This panel provides three excellent examples of how cultivation theory might be usefully tested in the consumer behavior arena. We certainly need more and more diverse tests of cultivation theory in other dimensions of social behavior portrayed in the media and displayed by media audiences. The authors of the papers on this panel should also be commended for describing their plans for future research. All three papers, individually and collectively, represent a "good start" in identifying the occurrence of cultivation effects. Building on this start will depend upon a clear sense of what major gaps in cultivation theory need to be addressed and filled.

Researchers also must become concerned with how cultivation effects manifest themselves. Potter's work shows that viewers' perceived reality of the content they view is a better predictor of cultivation effects than traditional indexes of exposure. His conclusion about future research: It appears that cultivation- of beliefs may take place, but the process is much more complex than that specified in the cultivation hypothesis as it is now framed. The amount of exposure to television seems far less important than the attitudes and perceptions of the individuals exposed (p.172).

Once again, we hear the now-familiar cry for researchers to stop talking about the need to study complex processes and start doing it. Social scientists are all east to talk about the complex processes that are involved in identifying the interrelationships among the three major sets of variables: audiences, social environments, and media. But their research only rarely studies process in the dynamic, real-world way in which it actually occurs. Cultivation effects undoubtedly involve this same complex set of interactions among these three key variables. Yet, no process-oriented investigation to date offers insights into how cultivation effects take root, when, and how they manifest themselves in different ways. Moreover, research to date has not allowed us to examine. how different individuals in different environments will accommodate various kinds of television content in different ways and how such accommodations change over time for the same individuals. Certainly, future cultivation research will need to study process in its dynamic forms.

The research methods of social action theorists need to be seriously considered and adopted in some fashion if cultivation theory is to develop in sophistication. Global variables and contingent variables that represent dimensions of media content and human behavior have produced unimpressive evidence. While it is true that complex underlying relationships are neither easily discovered or comprehended, researchers need to address themselves to procedures that are ideally designed to assess dynamic processes involving individuals acting as part of a social environment which includes others as principal influences on the interpretations and actions of those individuals. These methods are those that involve participant observation and other ethnographic procedures.

Social action theorists (e.g., Lindlof, 1987; 1988; Anderson and Meyer, 1989) have observed that human beings make sense of their surrounding environment (of which the media are obviously a part) through referencing others in what is termed an "on going, emerging performance." Anderson and Meyer's (1989) recently published text on mediated communication provides an extended detailed explication of how media and media content are accommodated into the on-going daily social routines of individuals. Their ideas have a direct bearing on how cultivation effects need to be examined.

Anderson and Meyer posit that human sensemaking or interpretation of the world in which we operate is a changing, emerging process. There is never a single understanding of meaning, but a continual re-creation of meaning as the various sources of influence are accommodated within everyday life, within a particular social context. They make several important observations.

The individual is incomplete. Social action theory breaks off most decisively from traditional social science by claiming that the individual is made whole only in reference to an other. No individual is ever permitted to be solely responsible for his or her cognitions. An individual's knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values, and so on are always framed within the alternatives presented by the social action.

Social action theorists hold that we are born into a preexisting framework of social action routines that provide the alternatives of our behavior and the meaning of our acts. To understand the effect of violent content on an individual requires the study of where and how aggression is manifested within the routines of the community in which that individual participates to discover how such violent content is accommodated within them. To understand the effect of violent content on a society requires the study of how that society creates and reproduces the routines of aggression and the study of the everyday performance of aggression. Being a criminal (or one who regularly commits violent acts), in this perspective, is as much a way of life as being a college professor.

Questions of meaning are at the center of social action theories as meaning is a situated coproduction of text and action not the spasm of a cognitive reflex. When social action theories are turned to mediated communication, the questions addressed concern the empowerment of texts in action and the process of reinvention of the premises of action that include the application of texts. Such questions would include the achievement of meaning, the manner in which mediated texts become significant in our lives, and the incorporation of mediated texts in the premises of action.

For Accommodation Theory, (see Anderson & Meyer, 1989, for a complete explanation of this theory) the organizing principle is the social action -the performance of the relationship between self and other as a valid expression of the mutually held theme(s) of performance; the focus can be on the relationships or the themes of performance but is often on the individual as a relating member, achieving understanding in interpretive performances; and the examination of effect is taken from the premises of the action in place.

Individual human behavior can be understood as a local production that is both a representation and improvisation of partial, fragmented, conflicted, emergent, ongoing, and evolutionary premises of action. Our understanding of human behavior will, therefore, be partial, fragmented, conflicted, emergent, ongoing, and evolutionary. In short, there will be no final statements on the progress of social reality, as that reality is always in the process of becoming in one view and dissolving from another. This argument may appear to be disabling to the researcher, but there is a great deal of work to be done in the middle of things -- work that will necessarily be done again and again as the premises of action evolve.

Phenomenologically based ethnography holds that the proper explanatory targets are the premises of action; the proper object of study is the performing individual situated within these premises; and the manner of accomplishments is through the achievement of a member's understanding. For social action theories, ethnography is the methodological center. Survey and experimental methods are used inside of or in support of the ethnographic claims. They are, nonetheless, used, (contrary to popular myths held be those who are not well versed in such procedures and theories). The focus of study is thus not on the individual but on the situated individual.


These central ideas of social action theory are wholly applicable to the study of cultivation effects. Researchers need to stop adding to the "catalogue of relationships" weakly linking exposure to television with a list of "effects." Cultivation, like any other kind of mediated effect, occurs embedded within a dynamic process of human social interaction. How various kinds of mediated content are accommodated or cultivated by different individuals situated in different social environments should become the focus of future research. To accomplish this end, appropriate process-oriented empiricism should be implemented. And, as my comments have indicated, how one goes about accomplishing this end is amenable to a variety of different methodological approaches. These different methods, however, need to be applied to some common research agenda. If future research remains a fragmented endeavor with research programs going blindly along separate paths, cultivation theory and its application to consumer behavior is destined to remain another on the lengthening list of potentially insightful areas that should be further investigated. A variety of methodological approaches brought to bear on a common agenda of research topics could propel cultivation theory to the forefront of consumer behavior theory.


Anderson, J.A. & Meyer, T.P. (1988). Mediated communication: A social interaction perspective. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Hawkins, R. P. & Pingree, S. (1982). Television's influence on social reality. In D. Pearl, L. Bouthilet, & J. Lazar (Eds.), Television and behavior: Ten years of c progress and implications for the eighties (DHHS Publication No. ADM 62-1196, Vol.2, pp.224-247). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Lee, W. (1988). The mass-mediated consumption realities of three cultural groups. Paper presented at the Association for Consumer Research Conference, Hawaii.

Lindlof, T. (1987). Natural Audiences: Qualitative Research of Media Uses and Effects. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

O'Guinn, T., Faber, R., Curias, N., & Schmitt, K. (1988). The cultivation of consumer norms. Paper presented at the Association for Consumer Research Conference, Hawaii.

Potter, W.J. (1986). Perceived reality and the cultivation hypothesis, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,30:2, pp. 159-174.

Tims, A., Fan, D., & Freeman, J. (1988). The cultivation of consumer confidence: A longitudinal analysis of news media influence on consumer sentiment.



Timothy P. Meyer, University of Wisconsin


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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