Music Television and Its Influences on Consumer Culture, and the Transmission of Consumption Messages

It is notable that little has been written in the consumer research literature concerning music television. At the same time there has been much coverage in the popular press (e.g., NYT 1988; Pareles 1989, Pendleton 1988) and in the communication literature (e.g., the winter 1986 issue of the Journal of Communication) about the music television revolution. What is so striking about this disparity is that one pervasive theme in what has been written concerns the impact that music television might have on the marketing of products, as well as the music. Music television has become a force which influences popular culture in ways that are important for consumer researchers to understand. It presents viewers with a new "televisual experience" (Kaplan 1987) that includes among its elements real and surreal portrayals of the "personal style" of the icons of teen popular culture -- rock stars. Thus, it has the potential to act as a consumer socializing agent especially for teenaged viewers.


Basil G. Englis (1991) ,"Music Television and Its Influences on Consumer Culture, and the Transmission of Consumption Messages", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 111-114.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 111-114


Basil G. Englis, Rutgers University

It is notable that little has been written in the consumer research literature concerning music television. At the same time there has been much coverage in the popular press (e.g., NYT 1988; Pareles 1989, Pendleton 1988) and in the communication literature (e.g., the winter 1986 issue of the Journal of Communication) about the music television revolution. What is so striking about this disparity is that one pervasive theme in what has been written concerns the impact that music television might have on the marketing of products, as well as the music. Music television has become a force which influences popular culture in ways that are important for consumer researchers to understand. It presents viewers with a new "televisual experience" (Kaplan 1987) that includes among its elements real and surreal portrayals of the "personal style" of the icons of teen popular culture -- rock stars. Thus, it has the potential to act as a consumer socializing agent especially for teenaged viewers.

Music television has also influenced advertising in several ways. Music videos are highly impactful and emotionally arousing; they provide a new viewing context within which consumers are exposed to advertising. In addition, television commercials have in some instances adopted structural and executional elements from music television. Thus the recent development and enormous popularity of music television has the potential to influence consumers via its power to shape consumer culture and also through its influence on commercial structure and positioning.

The music television cable network MTV was launched in the summer of 1981, and brought music videos to the cable television audience. MTV has rocked audiences ever since. The station was created when Robert Pittman, now executive vice president and chief operating officer of MTV Networks, came up with the idea of putting music videos on cable TV. Music videos had already existed; they were primarily used as promotional tools for the sale of albums. Today, nine years later, music videos have evolved into an art form, selling more than just the music. As a result, MTV has become an increasingly attractive medium for advertisers, especially those trying to reach the elusive teenage audience.

MTV targets audiences between the ages of twelve and thirty-four, with a median age of twenty-three; an age group which has proven highly elusive for other media. According to MTV's own research, 54% of its audience is in the 12 to 24 age group. This group watches MTV an average of a half an hour to two hours a day (Sun and Lull 1986). Although music videos originated as promotional tools for record albums, the videos themselves present the viewer with far more than music: they provide information about fashion and cosmetics, lifestyles, and social roles and behavior.

The purpose of this session was to present recent work concerning the influences of music television on the manner in which consumption messages are transmitted to and received by consumers. Because of the potential power of music television to reach young consumers, and thereby socialize consumption behavior, it is a medium that demands more research attention. The issues currently being studied by consumer researchers include the structural properties of music television, the consumption messages embedded in music videos, the effects of music video elements in advertising, and the properties of music television as a viewing context.

Crossing the Boundaries: A Comparison of Music Videos and Commercial Advertisements (Fry)

On the surface, music videos are a means for marketing music (e.g., Fry & Fry 1987; Kaplan 1987). Indeed, it is widely noted in the industry that a top hit in mainstream popular music is now unlikely without a music video as part of the promotional mix (e.g., Pareles 1989; Pendleton 1988). It is not surprising therefore that producers of music videos would initially borrow elements of executional style from television advertising (e.g., Aufderheide 1986). Indeed, Pry and Fry (1987) show that music videos are structurally very similar to television advertising, and that they also are related to televised drama. Their analysis suggests that music videos are a hybrid of the two forms; not a "hard sell" as one might expect from television advertising and yet not a linear unfolding of a story line as one might expect from a typical television drama. This hybridization of form and content has blurred the boundary between the program and the commercial message.

Although the hybridization of styles may in part be due to the intentional borrowing of form early in the history of MTV, the crossover of style may have also been due the sharing of creative personnel between advertising, hollywood, and music television (Pendleton 1988). It clearly was an approach that worked to the extent that music videos have themselves affected the structure of television commercials (e.g., NYT 1989; Pareles 1989). In addition to the crossover of production personnel the stars of music videos are often featured in commercials that run on the network. For example, Michael Jackson's and Madonna's soda commercials and Paul McCartney's ads for the Visa credit card all appeared on the network along with current videos by these stars. The close relationship between the production of advertising and music videos is also exemplified by a Louise Mandrell video, which was financed by RC Cola in return for scenes of Louise sipping the product in the video. Often both the structure and star of the television commercials seen on MTV are very similar to the videos. The viewer has a virtually seamless transition between intentional and unintentional consumption messages.

Adolescent Sexuality and Music Videos (Brown)

Music television may function to socialize consumer behavior. The research conducted by Brown and her colleagues (Brown and Campbell 1986, Brown, Campbell and Fischer 1986) suggests that socialization of adolescent sexuality may be influenced by music television. The development of sexual identity has many components, several of which involve consumption. For example, young teenagers are highly motivated to acquire a "personal style": individual and yet acceptable to the peer group. "Personal style" is often the focus of music videos and can be characterized by preferences for distinct groupings of products and types of language and behavior. Elements of personal style include clothing and fashion, make-up and hair styling, as well as patterns of values and behavior. In the development of adolescent sexuality, Brown has shown that viewing motivation varies between male and female adolescents and that the portrayal of male and female characters is markedly different and often includes highly stereotyped images (Brown and Campbell 1986). For example, this sex-role stereotypy is characterized by the portrayal of females as passive or as predatory (a sharp "virgin"/"whore" dichotomy) and by the portrayal of males as dominant and active. It is interesting that although such sex-role stereotypy is pervasive, it does not serve to turn off female members of MTV's potential audience. In fact, although music videos often present a distinctly "male"-preferred viewpoint (e.g., Kinder 1984, 1988), surveys have revealed that young girls are watching more music television than young boys. They report that their motivation in watching is to learn about the latest trends in fashion (and dance). Thus teenage audiences are aware of their own attention to the unintentional consumption messages offered by music television.

The pop-rock group New Kids On The Block provides an interesting current example of how music television may provide unintended consumption messages for its audience. The messages conveyed by this group are not linked to a particular product, but to a particular style. The clothes and lifestyles which this group represents have had such an impact on their teenage audiences, that New Kids On The Block "propaganda" is popping up everywhere. Furthermore, products which contain New Kids On The Block logos and pictures have become a big success in the marketplace. A notable feature of these products is that they are rarely, if ever, advertised: they sell themselves due to the popularity of the group and the exposure of the audience to music television.

Music Television as a Viewing Context and its Effects on Consumer Responses to Advertising (Englis)

Music videos are quite impactful for viewers (Rubin et al. 1986): they create a state of sustained tension and attention to what is likely to come next (e.g., Kaplan 1987). The visual imagery of music television is often dreamlike and highly ambiguous (Kinder 1984), which should also serve to heighten arousal and attention. The findings from one recent study show that music videos are associated with qualitatively distinct emotional responses among viewers (Englis 1989). Groups of videos were identified which evoked happiness, poignancy, disgust-anger-scorn, confusion, anxiety and disgust. The emotional responses of viewers are somewhat attenuated by previous exposure to music television such that those who have watched a great deal of music television are less emotionally aroused, but nonetheless distinct emotional reactions to the several types of music video identified were found.

It is plausible to assume that the emotions induced in viewers by the viewing context should influence their responses to the products advertised in that context. A recent experiment examined the effect of pairing product ads with music videos in an associative learning paradigm. Two products (beer, automobile) were separately paired with different types of music video (happy, poignant, or scornful feelings). Five pairings of product ad and video were presented for each condition. As expected consumer attitudes toward the high-involvement product (automobile) were not affected by viewing context. However. attitudes toward the low-involvement product (beer) became more favorable following exposure to the poignant videos and least favorable following exposure to scorn-inducting videos. There was no effect of viewing context on recall of product information. Although these findings are preliminary, they suggest that music television, as a viewing context for commercials, may have unanticipated effects on viewers' responses to commercial messages.

Ambiguity and Complexity in Music Video Commercials: The role of Film Dimensions in Enhancing Commercial Recall and Persuasion (Thorson, Hitchon and Duckler)

As noted earlier, there has been a great deal of crossover in structure between music television and television advertising. One consequence of the influence of music television on the production of television commercials is to include more ambiguous and complex visual images into television advertising. Recent research has examined the effects of including ambiguous and complex elements from music videos on consumer responses to television advertising. Both ambiguity and complexity have been identified as important dimensions in music video production (e.g., Aufderheide 1986, Kinder 1984, 1988). In this research, ambiguity was defined as the absence of a clearly understandable narrative structure with the presentation of images which are often incoherent and unrelated. Such ambiguous material has the potential for multiple interpretations (Ha and Hoch 1989). Complexity was defined as the amount of information per unit time (Thorson et al. 1987). This is exemplified in music video production by the many fast editing cuts and rapid shifts of camera angle and perspective.

In this research "music video ads" were manipulated in their levels of complexity and ambiguity by incorporating music video elements into existing television commercials. Visual material from actual music videos was used to product high and low levels of complexity and ambiguity. Six different products were included in the stimulus set. Pretest and manipulation check data indicated that viewer ratings of ambiguity and complexity reflected the intended modifications of the ads. In addition, attitudes toward the brands advertised and toward the ads were more positive following exposure to high levels of ambiguity and low levels of complexity. Recall was poorer following exposure to high levels of complexity or low levels of ambiguity as compared with low levels of complexity or high levels of ambiguity. Although the pattern of results varied somewhat across product, the findings suggest that including specific music video elements into television commercials influences consumers' responses.


In conclusion, these initial studies suggest that music television presents consumers with a great deal more in the form of consumption images contained in the videos themselves. Music television presents viewers with information concerning the products consumed and the lifestyles lived by highly attractive role models, especially for the teenaged audience. Music television presents consumers with powerful consumption images. Consumers view rock stars in settings other than the typical concert stage. In many instances these "rock idols" are seen using a wide array of products, ranging from clothing, to food, to entertainment products, to automobiles. This may provide information for young consumers concerning the product groups that are associated with various social roles to which they may aspire.

Music television is itself a new "televisual" experience, and is therefore a medium whose properties need to be studied apart from other forms of television programming. The short length of music videos and their ad-like executional style tend to blur the distinction between program and advertising material. The blurring of boundary between program and commercial may influence consumer receptivity to advertising messages presented within the context of music video programming. This may be particularly true for commercials which themselves contain elements of music videos. Music videos have high impact: they instigate strong emotions in viewers. These properties of music videos as a viewing context should influence how consumers respond to advertising that appears on music television.

Rather than providing any strong conclusions, it was our hope that this session would stimulate additional research and serve to focus the attention of consumer researchers on the influence of this new medium on consumption.


This paper is a summary of a special session presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Consumer Research, New York, NY, 1990. The contributors to the session were Jane Brown, University of North Carolina, Peter Duckler, University of Wisconsin - Madison, Basil G. Englis, Rutgers University - New Brunswick, Donald L. Pry, Emerson College, Jacqueline Hitchon, University of Wisconsin - Madison, and Esther Thorson, University of Wisconsin - Madison.


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Baxter, Richard, L., Cynthia De Riemer,-Ann Landini, Larry Leslie, and Michael W. Singletary (1985). A content analysis of music videos. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 29, 333-340.

Brown, Jane, D. and Kenneth Campbell (1986). Race and gender in music videos: The same beat but a different drummer. Journal of Communication, Winter, 1-15.

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Basil G. Englis, Rutgers University


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