The Structure and Transfer of Cultural Meaning: a Study of Young Consumers and Pop Music

ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the movement of images and meanings from the culturally constituted world of young consumers (11-15) via a number of production subsystems in the British music industry to pop stars; and explores how these meanings and images are subsequently transferred to individual consumers. This study concentrates on one of the central components in the production of pop music cultureBimage; and focuses particularly on the second stage of the meaning trajectory: the instruments of meaning transfer which adolescents use to consume the images of pop stars. Six focus groups were held in two schools in Southern England.


Margaret K. Hogg and Emma N. Banister (2000) ,"The Structure and Transfer of Cultural Meaning: a Study of Young Consumers and Pop Music", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 19-23.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 19-23


Margaret K. Hogg, Manchester School of Management

Emma N. Banister, Manchester School of Management


This paper discusses the movement of images and meanings from the culturally constituted world of young consumers (11-15) via a number of production subsystems in the British music industry to pop stars; and explores how these meanings and images are subsequently transferred to individual consumers. This study concentrates on one of the central components in the production of pop music cultureBimage; and focuses particularly on the second stage of the meaning trajectory: the instruments of meaning transfer which adolescents use to consume the images of pop stars. Six focus groups were held in two schools in Southern England.

"Popular music is young people’s central cultural interest" (Willis 1990).


Pop music [The term 'Pop' music is often used interchangeably with the word 'rock' by the popular press and academics, although the radio industry distinguishes between the two, categorising 'pop' as top 40 and 'rock' as Album Oriented-Rock or AOR (Schlattmann 1991). The term 'pop' tends to imply a different set of values from other music labels and is predominantly associated with the mainstream or 'chart' music as opposed to that which is consumed at the margins by those with more minority tastes (e.g. jungle, hip hop, thrash metal).] with its mass production for a predominantly youth market, is an important sphere for the consumption of popular culture. This paper discusses the transfer of meanings and images from the culturally constituted world of young consumers (11-15) in Britain via a number of production subsystems in the music industry to pop stars; and examines how these meanings and images are subsequently consumed by individual consumers. Because pop stars share many of the characteristics associated with consumer goods (Adorno and Horkheimer 1979, Grossberg 1988:319, Burnett 1993:64) the study used McCracken’s (1986) framework to conceptualize the process of meaning transfer of pop star imagery. The empirical study concentrates on exploring the 'second stage of the trajectory’ (McCracken 1986:79): the set of instruments and rituals for meaning transfer from pop stars to adolescents.

We begin by discussing the cultural context for the study (adolescents and pop music); the development of a conceptual framework; and the production subsystems in the music industry and media which are predominantly responsible for the creation and transfer of pop star imagery. We describe the research design that employed focus groups to explore adolescents’ understanding and consumption of pop star imagery. We end with a discussion of the findings within the context of McCracken’s 1986 framework.


Adolescents and pop music

Adolescence is the period of growth between childhood and adulthood, with music functioning as "an important part of adolescent culture" (Rice 1981:268; Shuker 1994; Weinstein 1991). This culture is the sum of the "body of norms, values, attitudes and practices" recognised and shared by adolescents (Rice 1981:250) and represented by an area of "common symbols and meanings" (Hall and Whannel 1964).

Pop music is a cultural space which belongs predominantly to young people (McRobbie 1995; Thornton 1995) and where they have historically been the major consumers. Pop music is viewed as an avenue for creative expression and excitement, which is not available within the confines of home and school (Lull 1992). Earlier research has shown that music is important for two main reasons: "It is a means by which youth groups define themselves, and a source for determining and achieving group status" (Frith 1978:46). Adolescents are thus active in the production and consumption of meaning from pop star imagery, which supports McCracken’s observation (1986:75) that the consumer (denoted by McCracken as the 'viewer/reader’) "is the final author [and] essential participant in the process of meaning transfer".

Pop music consumption

The consumption of pop music embraces the purchase of recorded music, attendance at live performances, watching music videos, listening to the radio and the making of tape compilations. There are also secondary levels of involvement which include the reading of the music press, dancing (clubs and discos) and concert going (Shuker 1994).

Structure and movement of meaning

McCracken’s study (1986) will be used to develop a conceptual framework (Figure 1). McCracken (1986) argued that culture is transferred from the culturally constituted worldBthat of every day experience, via the fashion and advertising system (which represent the first stage of the trajectory)Bto consumer goods, and then through various instruments and rituals (which represent the second stage of the trajectory) until the meaning is transferred to individual consumers.

We use an industry review to identify and describe the main components of th first stage of the trajectory. In the empirical study we concentrate on the second trajectory: the ways in which the symbolic cultural meaning of imagesBresident in the product (the pop star)Bare transferred to individual young consumers. We examine the different channels used for the communication of pop star imagery; and the different rituals involved in the consumption of pop star images. Image involves both visual and non visual elements and is important for the success of pop stars, especially in the younger market.

Channels for the movement of meaning and pop star imagery

The first stage of the trajectory in McCracken’s model (1986) revolves around 'the institutions which are instruments of meaning transfer: advertising, and product design as practised in the fashion system’ (McCracken 1986:74). In our framework (Figure 1) advertising, youth fashion and music production institutions are the three main instruments in the transfer of meaning from the culturally constituted world of young consumers to goods, in this case pop stars.

The music industry together with advertising and media (e.g. press, magazines, radio, videos and MTV) play a key role in both parts of the trajectory: in the construction and investment of meaning from the culturally constituted world of the young consumers to the product (i.e. the pop stars); and in the communication and transfer of pop star images to individual adolescents. The actors (e.g. performers; agents and managers; publicists; marketing executives and disc jockeys) and instruments (e.g. music magazines, records and music videos) involved in the flow and circulation of meaning often appear in both parts of the trajectory.



The Components of the Music Production System

The creation and production of popular musical culture involves at least three components (Table 1).

A number of roles can be identified within the music production sub-systems (e.g. songwriting; performing; managing and promoting; recording and producing; music reviewing; presenting and playing music on radio shows). Two of the most visible influences on the creative process within the music industry (apart from the artists themselves) are the pop star’s management and the record label or company on which their material appears. The cultural gatekeepers for the music industry and young consumers include DJs, music critics, journalists, TV programme makers, and all those who have some influence on the types of music or specific artists that consumers are able to gain access to.

Media channels: newspapers, magazines, videos and MTV

Media represents the other important system in the construction and transfer of meaning and images. Since the 1980’s populist tabloid newspapers in England have dedicated an increasing amount of space to recording artists in news stories and front cover articles, with an interest in sex, drugs and corruption rather than in music (Negus 1992). Music magazines (e.g. Smash Hits) devote articles to the personality and style of artists, with details of pop stars’ opinions, lifestyles and clothing (Denski 1992).

Videos and music television are the other crucial channels for the communication of pop music and pop star imagery. Music videos represent an unparalleled marketing tool in attaching visual imagery to the 'sound’. Music videos were initially an advertisement for an artist and their products, and MTV provided the forum for their display (Lull 1992). Now videos have become products in their own right, and can be seen either as documentaries (Goodwin 1993), advertisements (Mercer 1991:302) or televised dramas (Fry and Fry 1987) which develop images in association with the sound and thereby "build on the visual codes already in play" (Lull 1992:119).






Focus groups were used to explore the visual and non visual aspects which constituted pop star imagery; the channels employed for the communication of images and meaning to individual consumers; and the different instruments and rituals used by adolescents to 'consume’ pop star images.


Two schools in the South East of England were chosen for the study. Apart from their ethnic mix, the schools were fairly similar (Table 2). Both were situated in relatively impoverished areas with high crime rates, with a catchment area with many poorer families (e.g. the number of pupils receiving free school meals).



Thirty six children took part in six focus groups over a period of one week; each focus group lasted approximately an hour and a half. 18 boys and 18 girls were involved across the two sites. Three groups (with six participants of mixed ages (11-15)) were held in each school.

In order to ensure that the topic was 'highly involving’, potential participants for the focus groups were recruited from self confessed pop fans. A recruitment advertisement was placed in the schools’ weekly news letters which are circulated throughout the school. The incentive to participate was the chance to enter a prize draw and win a record token. The selection of participants was purposive (Miles and Huberman 1994) to ensure an equal number of boys and girls and a fairly even spread of ages.


Respondents completed a short preliminary questionnaire about their demographic characteristics and media habits. The focus group discussions included visual prompts (eleven forty-five second clips from television performances and music videos of pop bands). These selections involved different kinds of performance styles and video techniques. All the discussions were taped and transcribed; and the transcripts were analyzed searching for themes (Miles and Huberman 1984); this strategy for data analysis and interpretation was supplemented by Spiggle’s (1994) framework of categorization, abstraction, comparison and integration.


We begin by establishing the importance of pop music in the context of these young consumers’ lives. We then examine the meaning of different aspects of pop star imagery; the transfer of meaning to young consumers and the instruments and rituals used by adolescents to interpret and consume pop imagery.

Role of music in young consumers’ lives

The participants unanimously agreed on how important music was to them. They listened to music "all the time": "I listen to it every morning and when I get home .. " (Daniel, 11). Listening to music often took place alongside other activities, with homework and computer games frequently mentioned: "I can’t do my studies without having music on in the background" (Ricardo, 14). Listening to music was favoured over and above television, which confirmed earlier research by Rice (1981) and Willis (1990).

Role of Imagery

Image represented a major influence on consumption decsions, both in the choice of pop stars and music. Image encompassed a pop star’s appearance, personality and lifestyle, and also included the sound or style of the music: "It’s looks and personality, reputation as well." (Rosie, 15). Perceptions of what constituted image was not restricted to visual elements but extended to the behaviour, attitude and personality of pop stars: "Sometimes it’s their attitude that puts you off, say with Oasis" (Beccy, 15).

Certain messages about pop stars are communicated through looks; which attracted both positive and negative comments: "They [Oasis] do good music, but he’s got all druggy eyes, he’s got them horrible glasses, he never shaves." (Vallis, 14). Of the visual aspects, physical attractiveness and dress sense were particularly important: "I think that most bands get where they are today because of their looks and dress sense, more than their singing or dancing really." (Beccy, 15). Whilst good looks were generally important for the artists’ success they were often not sufficient by themselves. Musical talent was also necessary to ensure success: "..if you are just good looking and you are not very good [as] a singer, you are not going to make it." (Ricardo, 14). The role of imagery in pop star success confirmed earlier research (Buxton 1983).

The Transfer of Meaning to the Young Consumer

A variety of channels, both directly and indirectly involved with the artist and the record company, are used to communicate meaning and images to young consumers.

Relationship Between Music and Fashion Systems

Clothes played an important part in pop stars’ appeal for fans, and clearly communicated certain messages about that pop star’s identity and also their music. When participants criticised the fashion sense of pop stars they were often voicing their disapproval of the kind of music produced by that artist. Pop stars have the power to make certain looks popular and fashionable: "when Blur .. wore the jumpers with the stripes, they were all in fashion" (Beccy, 15). Imitation of fashion trends was an important instrument for meaning transfer from the pop stars to the adolescents; and can be linked to the grooming ritual identified by McCracken (1986:79) for the transfer of meaning from products to consumers.

Fan Behaviour

One of the most important instruments for the transferral of meaning and imagery from the pop stars to adolescents is fan behaviourBbeing a fan involves liking, fancying or being influenced by the pop group, but does not require liking all the songs on a CD album. Exchange, grooming, possession and divestment can be seen in the consumption rituals associated with fan behaviour (McCracken 1986; O’Guinn 1991). Spending money, collecting and swopping things were important aspects of the exchange, possession and divestment rituals: "You want everything to do with them don’t you?" (Chantal, 15) [possession]; "There’s magazines with posters of them. I buy them. I swap my old posters for their ones" (Laura, 13)[possession; exchange]; "Listening to their music and buying their albums and records." (Ricardo, 14);[possession] "I buy lots of magazines, watch things, tape them, put them on my wall" (Charlene, 13); [possession; grooming]. "Buy their records, get their albums, posters of them on the wall" (David, 12)[possession; grooming]. Fan behaviour also extended into other areas of activity such as imitation, e.g. supporting the same football team as the pop stars. In other cases, participants joined fan clubs to bring them into closer contact with their heroes, i.e. 'touching greatness’ (O’Guinn 1991:104).

Concerts were another important aspect of fan behaviour: "Going to see them in concerts or wherever they are appering" (Rosie, 15). Concerts had "a great atmosphere [where] everyone feels the same", and seeing an artist play live was evidence of the strength of a person’s liking for an act: "you just feel like seeing them so you just think you’ll spend any amount of money on them, and all sorts of things" (Santina, 12)[possession].

Some girls described other behaviour which brought them into closer contact with pop stars: "Brian Harvey used to live at the bottom of my road. I used to go there every week" (Louise, 13); "My friend sent Mark Owen a birthday card before" (Cheri, 13) [exchange].

The transient nature of fashions in pop music and fan behaviour was recognized. Participants acknowledged that CD’s had a relatively short life span; and when artists had ceased to be fashionable then loss of interest in the artist was denoted by divestment rituals. This respondent described what happened to CDs once the artist had ceased to be fashionable: "I’d just put it [the CD] in my Mum’s pile, pretend it was like my Mum’s stuff"(Ryan, 13).

Peer influence

Peer influence was important(Rice 1981). Respondents described listening to and talking about music with friends and swapping posters with them. Opinions of peers was important; and attitudes to artists were often split down gender lines: "Normally the girls like the boy bands" (Leigh, 11); " some girls like romantic.... boys are into funky music and stuff" (Daniel, 11).

Both sexes cited the possibility of boys being ridiculed if they admitted to liking 'boy bands’: "I think some people think they are going to get teased if they like a certain group." (Ricardo, 14); "If boys put up men posters, they think they are gay." (Daniel, 11). The fear of disapproval and questions regarding sexuality appeared to be limited to boys: "Girls can like the Spice Girls and not get called lesbian or anything but if boys like boy bands they get called gay." (Tasha, 14). The pressure on boys to like certain types of music and resist liking others seemed mainly to include name calling, but could extend to physical abuse: "Do you remember in the juniors when that boy got beaten up for liking Take That ..... they were laughing at him saying you like Take That, that means you must be gay." (Tasha, 14).

Media channels for the transfer of meaning

Magazines with a high degree of pop music content featured significantly in the respondents’ reading habits: "I like Alive and Kicking and Top of the Pops. I buy those ones every month and if there’s like another magazine that I see that looks good, I buy it or wait for someone else to buy it, and then look at it" (Charlene, 13). The main incentive to buy magazines was to find out information about pop stars and obtain posters to put on the wall: "I think quite a lot of people ..want posters put up on the wall" (Chantal, 15). The purchase of posters and sticking them to the wall were part of the 'possession and grooming rituals’ in the second trajectory (McCracken 1986).


Videos shown on music programmes and music television were also important for communicating the visual images of pop stars as icons (Goethals 1981:30ff). However, videos were generally viewed as of secondary importance to the song: "The basic thing that I like is the music, and then the video comes after" (Santina, 13). This linked to the emphasis placed on the lyrics of the songs: "You need to know what they are saying.. because you want to be familiar with it.. you are going to be listening over and over again, trying to translate whatever they are saying, that’s important as well" (Sebastian, 13) [possession].

The pimary impression was that videos were for communicating and promoting a pop star’s image. Respondents identified the following functions for videos: as products in their own right, sold through retailers; to promote an artist on television; to entertain: "to keep you amused while you are listening to the song" (Laura, 14). And yet clearly videos promoted the stars as 'icons’ which were comparable to the ritual of 'integrating individuals into a social whole’ (Goethals 1981:33)Bin this case integration via the rituals of fan behaviour for 'possession’ of the star’s image.


Imagery is also communicated through performances. Many respondents had never been to a concert, so discussion centred around the performances of pop stars on television shows such as Top of the Pops. In some cases, pop stars mime to a backing tape rather than singing live vocals. This lack of authenticity led some participants to voice disappointment at this practice: "I think if bands can’t sing live, they shouldn’t be singing at all." (Beccy, 15). They felt cheated with the nature of the exchange here. However disappointment was also felt where some pop stars or groups sang live and did not sound as good as on their recordings: "when I saw Delores [of the Cranberries] on Top of the Pops live, she sounded really rough" (Danny, 14). Variations in performance technique provided one means by which pop stars could communicate varying messages about themselves. However, a number of times respondents expressed distaste at performers being too energetic on stage, indicating they preferred it when performers were more reserved: "I just don’t like it when they are dancing around as well, it looks a bit sad" (Danny, 14).


A variety of means or agents are used to transfer the meaning and images from the pop stars to the individual consumers. The tools of the music industry included videos, marketing departments and performance; and were complemented by various media which operate on the periphery of the music industry (e.g. radio, television, teenage magazines and the tabloid press). Meanings were consumed by individual adolescents via different aspects of fan behaviour. The possession ritual emerged as one of the main instruments in the second trajectory for the transfer of meaning (McCracken 1986). However although the agents in the music and media industry can seek to influence the 'message making’ of consumption, they can not determine it (Willis 1990) as these young adolescent consumers clearly emerged as the final authors (McCracken 1986) of the meaning of pop star imagery.


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Margaret K. Hogg, Manchester School of Management
Emma N. Banister, Manchester School of Management


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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