Studying Television Effects: Unrealistic Attempt?

ABSTRACT - This work is a response to sound invitations to investigate the invisible linkage between marketing and the media that have been articulated in the marketing discipline in recent years. Specifically, Varey (1999) encourages researchers to reread the writings by Marshall McLuhan to better deal Awith the consequences of the wholesale marketization of society.@ The Canadian-born communication Aprophet@ McLuhan introduced the term media and the metaphor global village in their current usage. In this paper, a forty-year old heritage is juxtaposed with the latest findings of an under-researched marketing area, by conducting the literature review of how television has been found to impact consumption behavior.


Maria Kniazeva (2003) ,"Studying Television Effects: Unrealistic Attempt?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 249-254.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 249-254


Maria Kniazeva, University of California, Irvine


This work is a response to sound invitations to investigate the invisible linkage between marketing and the media that have been articulated in the marketing discipline in recent years. Specifically, Varey (1999) encourages researchers to reread the writings by Marshall McLuhan to better deal "with the consequences of the wholesale marketization of society." The Canadian-born communication "prophet" McLuhan introduced the term media and the metaphor global village in their current usage. In this paper, a forty-year old heritage is juxtaposed with the latest findings of an under-researched marketing area, by conducting the literature review of how television has been found to impact consumption behavior.


The present work is a first response to the invitation to explore the socially vital relationships between marketing and media in light of the Canadian-born communication "prophet" Herbert Marshall McLuhan’s works. The scholar introduced the term media and the metaphor global village in their current usage and was the one who at the dawn of television foresaw the shift in the public’s preference from a print to a visual culture and the overwhelming popularity of an audiovisual communication channel.

An invitation to investigate the invisible linkage between marketing and the media has been clearly sounded in the marketing discipline in recent years (Hirschman and McGriff 1995; Lehmann 1999). Defining this area to be under-researched, scholars call for particular attention to integrated marketing communication and urge researchers to broaden their current narrow focus on mass advertising by examining the influence of subtle messages delivered by television. Specifically, Varey (1999) stresses the need for marketers to study the effects, and not just the effectiveness of media, and encourages researchers to reread the writings by McLuhan to better deal "with the consequences of the wholesale marketization of society."

In this paper, I attempt to juxtapose the latest findings of an under-researched marketing area with a forty-year old heritage by conducting the literature review of how televisionBwhich is believed to be the most popular and the most controversial media channelBhas been found to impact consumption behavior. Commercial advertising is purposely excluded from the scope of the review due to the substantial attention that television advertising has already received in marketing literature. In this way, attention is re-focused away from the omnipresent and often annoying and intrusive commercial messages to those equally ubiquitous, but subtle and hidden messages that customers deliberately expose themselves to. This review investigates which television messages consumers choose to receive, how these messages are interpreted, and their immediate and subliminal long-term effects with regards to consumption behavior. The findings are analyzed against the writings by McLuhan.


Today, television is attacked by public health specialists for the potential health risks that media exposure presents to children and adolescents, by sociologists for being "a time waster and social isolator" (Tonn and Petrich 1998), and by social scientists and public policy officials for the prevalence of violent content. Many of the sins attributed to television’s influence have either direct or indirect links with consumption behavior. Materialism, compulsive buying, smoking, and the antisocial consumption of drugs and alcohol are the "sins" that are referred to most often. The overall situation seems to be so critical that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that pediatricians take a media history from patients with regards to habits of watching TV, eschew televisions in their waiting rooms and provide guidance about media use in the home to parents and children during pediatric visits (Hogan 2000).

Yet about 40 years ago, McLuhan noticed how hard it was to "grasp" the effect of TV on people’s lives. The communication guru, recognized as one of the brilliant contemporary thinkers of his time, used the word "totality" to explain the phenomenon which resulted from the intervention of TV in personal, political, and social lives. In his works, the scholar expressed concern over the prospects of possible studies. "Since it [television] has affected the totality of our lives, it would be quite unrealistic to attempt "systematic" or visual presentation of such influence," wrote McLuhan. Instead, the scholar suggested what seemed to him a more feasible way of studying these effectsBAto present TV as a complex gestalt of data gathered almost at random" (McLuhan 1964, p. 317).

Reported research on the impact of television viewing on consumption has been scarce and fragmented, and conducted in several disciplines: communication (e.g., Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and Signorielli 1994), psychology (e.g., Bandura 1994), sociology (e.g., Fox and Philliber 1978), child development (e.g., Potts, Doppler and Hernandez 1994), preventive medicine (e.g., Cooper, Roter, and Langlieb 2000). The cumulative body of knowledge can be roughly divided into the following areas: 1) Why television matters (theoretical justification of the importance of study), 2) Who is watching TV (statistical description of the audience through surveys), 3) What is on the screen (contextual analysis of the television messages and images), 4) How it works (theoretical and empirical explanation of the mechanism of television’s influence), and 5) What happens due to exposure to television (mostly empirical study of immediate effects of television watching). Major findings suggest that the artificial reality perpetually portrayed on the TV screen serves as a subliminal frame of reference for the viewers in their consumption activity and affects both "good" consumption (e.g., making the right lifestyle choices, developing healthy eating patterns etc.) and "bad" consumption (e.g., smoking, consuming alcohol, doing drugs, practicing over-consumption).


The marketing discipline’s approach, narrowly favoring the advertising domain, lately appears to be changing due to the attempts of some marketing academicians to turn attention to a largely ignored area. One rationale behind this turnaround refers to a symbiotic relation between advertising and media. The most sound recent theory-building work is offered by Hirschman and Thompson (1997) who argue that advertising, though certainly a powerful influence on consumption, is not a dominant voice and is being supplanted by mass media non-advertising messages and images that largely define consumers’ beliefs and behavior. The strength of these subtle messages lies in their informal, unobtrusive nature, and "because such mass media texts are not viewed with the same cultivated skepticism as actual advertisements, they may have an even greater impact on consumers’ preferences." Hirschman and Thompson expand prior multidisciplinary research that ascertains that media enhances the effectiveness of some advertising through portraying certain products as more appealing than others. This theoretical framework finds further development when Hirschman and Thompson engage in a search for the motivational interpretations practiced by consumers to form relationship with mass media and, through an in-depth grounded theory investigation, expand on McCracken’s (1989) meaning transfer model. As a result, the authors define three interpretive strategies employed by consumers of televised messages and images in their relationships with the mass media: inspiring and aspiring, deconstructing and rejecting, and identifying and individualizing.

Proposing that "consumers relationships with non-advertising forms of mass media are an essential aspect of the perceived meaning they derive from advertisements," the authors imply that the process of decoding messages encoded on the screen is not a completely random and unpredictable affair. In that, they depart from McLuhan’s statement about TV as a "most arbitrary affair" (McLuhan 1964, p. 326). Together with communication scholars, however, they agree with McLuhan that the nature of television makes the viewer an active part of the process of consuming TV images. McLuhan views television "not so much [as] an action, as a re-action medium" (McLuhan 1964, p. 320) interpreting the viewer as an active participant in reactions versus as a passive consumer of actions. He describes the viewer’s work as "do-it-yourself participation," presenting it as the active creation of meanings on the part of the audience based on televised images. For this reason, he considers TV a medium that requires a high participatory involvementBa conclusion that is still debated among the communication scholars, who tend to refer to TV as a low participatory medium.

Arguing with McLuhan’s propositions, some scholars offer "technical" ways of assessing participants’ involvement while calculating the number of self-reported hours that viewers spend solely watching TV and comparing it with hours when they accompany watching with some other activities. However, Mcuhan’s assertions are probably much deeper in meaning. He talks not only about the immediate involvement in watching a particular show and its effect on the viewer but also about the effects of the involvement as a long-lasting process. He writes, "The banal and ritual remark of the conventionally literate, that TV presents an experience for passive viewers, is wide of the mark. TV is above all a medium that demands a creatively participant response" (McLuhan 1964, p. 336).

McLuhan’s statement is mirrored in the works of many marketing and communication scholars who try to define and interpret the character of participatory activity that the viewer is subconsciously involved in, and in the effects that researchers report to have captured. Thus, a number of studies have been designed to test whether television consumption can be argued to alter the perception of reality and subsequently affect consumer behavior. Several authors claim a causal relationship between viewing television and the formation of beliefs about social reality. According to their findings, heavy viewers of television do differ from light viewers in their perception of the real world, which in their mental construction closely reflects that portrayed on the screen. Thus, heavy viewers are found to place a higher value on the ownership of expensive products (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997), to overestimate the rate of crime (Gerbner et al. 1980a) and drug and alcohol consumption in society (Shrum and O’Guinn 1993), to negatively view the elderly as unhealthy and financially poor, and to perceive women as aging faster than men (Gerbner et al. 1980b). These works employ Gerbner’s cultivation theory (Gerbner et al. 1994), which suggests that heavy exposure to television results in largely viewing the world the way it is depicted on the screen.

In several attempts at exploring the mechanism of constructing the concepts of the social reality of consumption, scholars have examined the effects of television on perceptions of affluence (Fox and Philliber 1979; Shrum et el. 1991; O’Guinn and Shrum 1997) and report significant relationship between the two variables. Among the items considered to be over-represented on the screen as compared to real life, the researchers choose swimming pools, convertible automobiles, maids, and the percentage of millionaires. The overall results suggest that the surrounding world appears to be a more affluent place for those heavily exposed to television images.

Cultivation theory, though widely accepted and tested by scholars, elicits justified criticism for not providing a thorough explanation of its mechanism and not considering other variables (e.g., people’s socioeconomic situation or education) that could lead to the same social judgments and beliefs of the respondents (McGuire 1986). In response to this criticism, Shrum et el. (1998) provide empirical explanation for the availability heuristic processing model of cultivation effects (Tversky and Kahneman 1973). To them, the application of the availability heuristic is seen as "responsible" for viewers’ estimates of real frequency and probability of events portrayed on the screen. Thus, the heavy viewers of TV should have relevant images (those frequently sent through the media channel) more accessible in memory, and when it comes to estimating the real situation, they operate the information stored in the memory.

In addition to the role television plays in consumer socialization, there is some empirical evidence that it plays a role in consumer acculturation as well. The idea that the televised world is perceived as a close model of the real one and is deliberately turned to as a reference point for understanding society’s values and beliefs is evident in Reece and Palmgreen’s inquiry into the motives for watching television by foreigners (2000). In a study of Asian Indian graduate students enrolled at American universities, among eight motives for watching TV the authors distinguish those of acculturation and reflection on values. Having conducted a cross-cultural survey of the convenience sample of 99 students, scholars argue that those subjects ho wanted to learn more about current issues in their host country, understand the ways in which American people behave and think, and make American friends spent more time in front of the TV.

These studies are responsive to McLuhan’s metaphor about TV being "the Bauhaus program of design and living, or the Montessori educational strategy" (McLuhan 1964, 322). A German school of design, Bauhaus (1919-1933) was marked by an emphasis on functional performance, the Italian educational method named after its developer Maria Montessori, promotes self-motivational learning with an emphasis on sensory training. Deliberate use of the artificial televised world by foreigners for the purpose of searching out functional clues about the real and strange world they wish to join is just one of the examples of interpretation of TV images and messages.

It is also argued that consumers’ incorporation of television-mediated images of reality into their assumptions of how others live and consume is utilized during the making of lifestyle-related product choices. Thus, Englis and Solomon (1997) note that images of affluence transmitted via mass media become objects of desire for many who aspire to this quasi-mythical lifestyle. On the other hand, some symbolical images associated with lifestyles that consumers tend to avoid, are being stored as a negative mental set of objects. Moreover, the authors strongly assert that these pervasive consumption-rich images replete in mass media "are no mere shadows playing across the screen of popular culture" but become equally or even more important than actual behavior observed when consumers subconsciously engage in the construction of lifestyle meanings.


If we turn to McLuhan for guidance in "grasping" television’s effects, we find a strong advocate of research into the long-term "psychic and social disturbance" created by television (McLuhan 1964, p. 312). Moreover, he repeatedly highlights that it is the overall TV image and not the specific TV programming that is responsible for this disturbance. McLuhan believes that this change of attitude "has nothing to do with programming in any way, and would be the same if the program consisted entirely of the highest cultural content"(McLuhan 1964, p. 335), and explains it by pointing to the nature of TV, with its "unrivaled power" to totally involve and subliminally influence the audience. McLuhan asserts that people experience far more than they understand, and "yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effect upon him"(McLuhan 1964, p. 323). The proponents of cultivation theory evidently support this position. Thus, Gerbner insists that regardless of how much time, energy, and money is invested, the conceptualization of television’s effect as a short-term individual change has not produced research that helps understand the distinctive features of television. To him, these features include "massive, long-term, and common exposure of large and heterogeneous publics to centrally produced, mass distributed, and repetitive systems of stories" (Gerbner 1994). On the other hand, there is strong feeling among communication theorists that "televised influence is best defined in terms of the contents people watch rather than the sheer amount of television viewing"(Hawkens and Pingree 1982).

The studies in support of content’s predominance are usually conducted in controlled laboratory settings. A series of them have been designed to empirically test the short-term effects of television influence on behavior. An example is a study that investigates the impact of risk-taking by characters in television programs on children’s willingness to take physical risk (Potts et el. 1994). This problem not only has medical aspects, but a lot of social ones, as risk-prone behavior, especially prompted in immature children and vulnerable teenagers, may later have direct links to such antisocial consumption behavior as drug and alcohol use. Potts et el. assign a group of children to three experimental conditionsBtelevision stimulus programs with infrequent physical risk-taking, programs with frequent risk-taking and no TV stimuli. After analyzing data, they conclude that children exposed to high-risk TV programs self-reported higher levels of willingness to take risk. The authors interpret their results as "evidence of a small effect that may accumulate into a larger effect across the many hours of TV viewed routinely by most children." Moreover, they argue that even "relatively innocuous" and humorous animated cartoons may result in a previously unidentified impact on children via the observational learning process in which risk-taking television characters are rarely punished and even glamorized.

It is clear that for ethical reasons laboratory studies cannot be designed in order to elicit strong effects proving the negative influence of television watching. The body of research exploring negative impact is more inclined to apply survey and observational and interpretive methods. Consequently, the findings are usually suggestive. The typical example is a study by Distefan et el. (1999) that explores whether movie stars who smoke on and off screen may encourage adolescents to start smoking. After running a multivariate statistical analysis of data gathered in the 1996 California Tobacco Survey of over 6,000 teenagers, the authors claim that the effect of suggestive influence of movie star smoking on their fans’ tendency to start smoking is evident and only slightly weaker than the influence of smoking friends and family members. Though the findings are not reported to establish that smoking portrayed in films directly leads adolescents to smoke, the study supports the idea of the reversed causal order when adolescents accepting smoking tend to favor actors and actresses associated with smoking.

In this light, Hirschman and McGriff’s study (1995) provides a novel empirical attempt to examine possible therapeutic uses of motion pictures in drug rehabilitation programs. The study, designed to apply marketing theory and method toward assisting the treatment of addiction as a social problem, is conducted in a real life setting. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are exposed to films that they view on a television monitor, and then asked to fill out a questionnaire while evaluating the accuracy of the portrayal of addiction on the screen and the ability of the films to stimulate their recovery. The authors conclude that two factors define certain films’ stronger constructive effect: the stories are not overly graphic or violent, and the films model not only addiction but also a path to recovery.

In one of the first attempts to explore the domain of televised narratives under the marketing angle, Hirschman explores the ideology of consumption encoded within two, at the time, "immensely popular" television series, "Dallas" and "Dynasty" (1988). She investigates the messages the series transmit about consumption, how prominent characters behave as consumers, and what their consumption behavior signifies. Specifically, she claims that the two series provide encoded binary opposition between secular and sacred consumption and that a process of transformation from secular toward sacred consumption is observed in the programs. However, the research does not provide any parallels with real life in terms of whether or not the same tendency is exhibited there.

It is in the proposed model of the dynamic relationships between consumption practices and cultural texts, that Hirschman, Scott and Wells (1998) demonstrate a method of interpreting the symbolism of practice and its symbolic depiction on the screen. They use data on coffee drawn from advertising and television programming and incorporate a broad historical and sociological perspective into their discursive model.

With its power to transcend the boundaries and make our world a "global village," television programming conveys messages, including those with a consumption context, from country to country. It is no wonder that cross-cultural marketing studies have already been implemented. Thus, a content analysis of consumption imagery in music television shown in the United States (MTV) and Sweden (MTV-Europe) suggests that the American sample of videos contains more consumption imagery than those Swedish viewers are exposed to, with 73 percent of all American videos having some reference to consumption (Englis, Solomon and Olofsson 1993). It is also noted that more videos shown in the U.S. refer to a specific brand. Moreover, the findings reveal several differences in consumption imagery as a function of musical genre. Thus, rap videos consist of more "darkside" consumption images (alcohol, weapons and drugs), heavy metal "favors" band-related products, and dance music conveys more fashion messages. Considering music television to be an important agent of adolescent socialization, the authors highlight the importance of studying consumption-relevant content of music in order to better predict and understand the effects of music on consumers, particularly young consumers.

Adolescents have been long reported to be heavy consumers of both material goods and of television programming as well. McLuhan believes that youth in particular is attracted to television because of the "total involvement in all-inclusive nowness that occurs in young lives via TV’s mosaic image"(McLuhan 1964, p. 335). As a recent cross-sectional national survey led by the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals, the typical American adolescent’s household has three television sets, and two-thirds of the respondents aged 8 through 18 years old report having a television set in their bedroom, spending on average more than three hours a day watching TV with practically no parental guidance and involvement (Roberts 2000). As this audience is known to be especially vulnerable because of a lack of prior experience, the television becomes a particular powerful shaper of their minds and behavior.


A review of research on the effects of television on consumption behavior demonstrates that this relatively new topic in marketing discipline has been marked by the incorporation of both observable responses to TV exposure and strong attempts at theory building. But, because of its ubiquity, TV makes it really difficult to distinguish those effects caused solely to television viewing. McLuhan compares the functions of television with the "invisible operation of bacteria" when he writes that it only took ten years for the American public to express new tastes in clothes, in housing, in entertainment, and in vehicles after the arrival of TV (McLuhan 1964, p. 320). These observable changes, he argues, express the new pattern of interrelation between the "mosaic" messages conveyed by television and the "do-it-yourself" involvement of the audience whose job is to interpret the messages and apply them creatively.

Methodologically, the main challenge researchers face today is the fact that there is presumably no authentic control groupBpeople not affected by the phenomenon of television. For this reason, studies are often criticized for employing a non-representative sample. It is also evident that there is no clear agreement among scholars on the definitions of light and heavy viewers. Most research refers to calculations of the number of hours that the respondents self-report TV watching. This way the boundary between heavy and light viewing remains arbitrary and vague, and an individual who may only watch sports programs can easily be referred to as a heavy viewer.

Another challenging point is the choice of methods. While some scholars favor pure empirical studies, believing that laboratory-run experiments can test the power of V influence on its audience and thus arm the public with scientifically proven evidence, others question the limitedness of such studies. Thus, Brown and Cantor (2000) argue that "any experimental manipulation may be just a drop in the bucket compared with the massive exposure to the same kind of content" in everyday lives and that often the focus of research interest lies in long-term attitude or behavioral change rather than short-term effects. In a similar way, a generation ago, McLuhan attributed political scientists’ lack of awareness of TV’s effects to an unwillingness to study personal and social effects apart from their "content" (McLuhan 1964, p. 323).

Seen in this light, it seems especially suitable that marketing researchers studying television effects have experimented with methods themselves and have included in their operational set such methods as telethnograpy (Sherry 1995), hybrid structural-syntactical method (Hirschman 1988), historical discourse (Hirschman, Scott and Wells 1998), and application of grounded theory (Hirschman and Thompson 1997). This range of methods has helped explore not only immediate but also long-term effects of exposure to television on consumption behavior. Furthermore, as this literature review indicates, future inquiry into the topic should produce a multidisciplinary contribution in two general directions: empirical studies of short-time effects of specific television content on the audience; and interpretive studies of the effects of TV exposure, independent of the content of TV programming. But there is a strong need for both directions to examine what can be done to promote positive, and reduce negative, consumption behavior.

The recognition by marketing scholars of the importance of studying non-advertising television is only the first step. The next step should be the exploration of differential effects of TV messages and images on viewers. It is evident now that early models of mass media effects assumed a homogeneous audience, contrary to McLuhan’s view when he wrote that TV fostered "many preferences that are quite at variance with literate uniformity and repeatability" and proposed that "the uniform and repeatable now must yield to the uniquely askew, a fact that is increasingly the despair and confusion of our entire standardized economy"(McLuhan 1964, p. 323).

Invitations to conduct differential effects research and explore selective exposure more systematically have become more pronounced lately. Scholars call for an examination of the mediating effects of such variables as education, gender, social economic status, family life, ethnicity, and cognitive development, and for exploration of which attributes make messages more powerful and influential for different groups. They propose that television’s impact is often disputed not because it is not always visible, but because effects often accumulate over time and are obscured by the individual differences of the viewers.

Previous research indicates that "gender is one of the most fundamentally differentiating factors" in media use in terms of both quantity and content preferences (Roe 2000). Thus, boys are more likely than girls to have a television in their bedrooms, they tend to spend more time in front of the TV, and prefer watching action, crime, sport, science fiction, and war films while girls rate music, talk shows and "soaps" higher. Only comedy seems to attract equal attention. It is also known that boys watch more animated cartoons (Huston, Wright, Rice, Kerkman, and St. Peters, 1990), African-American and Hispanic youngsters are more likely than white peers to have TV sets in their bedrooms, and that TV viewing is the most substantial during the early childhood and declines in middle adolescence (Roberts 2000). And though McLuhan stresses that "the nature of the TV image is more important than statistics about number of sets in American homes and the number of hours of daily use of these sets," (McLuhan 1964, p. 329) these data provide a valuable starting point for further inquiry.

Hirschman and Thompson (1997), in their study of motivational relationship between viewers and televised messages, claim to have discovered age- and gender-based differences in the interpretations of television’s appeal. According to their findings, older people seem to express a more inspirational relationship with media images and more often refer to some of them as an ideal self to which they can aspire. The scholars also discern a major difference between men’s and women’s interpretations of media messages with regards to the perceived need to resist them on the ground of being unreal and artificial. While many of their female participants described themselves as resisting the distorting influences of televised messages, the male participants reported their ability to stand outside these influences.

Since the advent of television in 1946, researchers have actively speculated on the role of television in influencing people’s behavior, attitudes, and knowledge. McLuhan even suggests framing history into "pre-TV consumer days" and the post-TV era. His desire to understand the dynamic life of what he describes as the mosaic forms of the TV images "as they intrude upon us and upon one another" (McLuhan 1964, 334) is still shared today. The phenomenon of television is full of contradiction: it is depicted as a threat and as an opportunity, it can promote and deter behavior, it can encourage positive and negative attitudes, it can lead to socially desirable and avoidable effects, it can advocate consumption and or abstention from consumption, and television viewing itself can be intimate and social, global and local, innocent and evil, passive and active, cheap and expensive. Because of this conflicting nature, television poses a lot of public policy implications; after half a century of research scholars recognize they still know little about the extent or consequences of television’s influence and public health specialists are unclear about how best to advise parents and children about media use in the home. Public policy officials ask scholars to study the effects of TV portrayals of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug use, urge parents to be more involved in children’s media exposure, and encourage viewers to resist potentially harmful television impact.

In a changing media environment that embraces new channels of communication the "old" media of television has not yet been relegated to secondary status. In light of the increasing tendency to simultaneously use multiple media, television still remains a powerful shaper and mirror of consumers’ minds, lives, and experiences. It still functions, as McLuhan described decades ago, as an extension of the sense of touch, "transforming fragmented and specialist extensions into a seamless web of experience"(McLuhan 1964, p.334). The disturbing prediction is that because of information overload we may witness the decline of credible fact (Braman 1993), and for this reason it will become "harder to distinguish between what is on-screen and in reality" (Walsh 2000), what is experience and what is fiction. Thus, the characters in television programs and the products they will use will even more define the consumers’ perception of their surrounding environment.

This review of the body of knowledge accumulated by research into the effects of television on consumption behavior suggests that both marketers and public policy officials need a working knowledge of televised messages, in order to be able to communicate their goods and ideas. Because television viewing is argued to have a strong impact on associations consumers have with lifestyles, both aspired and avoided, media gatekeeper’s choices revealed on the screen should be constantly monitored for information about current and future consumption trends. This task becomes particularly necessary in light of assertions that producers of TV programs "read" from present consumer behaviorBa conclusion that leads to a two-tiered perspective on the encoding and decoding of lifestyle information from media sources (Englis and Solomon 1997). This perspective is analogous to McLuhan’s definition of the power of television when he argues about its ability to involve an entire population in a ritual process and credits TV with the power to "invest an occasion with the character of corporate participation," to challenge the values of consumer goods and create an obsession with bodily welfare (McLuhan 1964, pp. 337, 320, 328).

However, many research questions still go unanswered. Thus, what implications appear at the societal level, and is it good or bad for the public when TV viewers perceive the real world as a more affluent place that it is in reality? Does the heavy TV exposure of children and teenagers make them savvy, or more materialistic and greedy consumers? Does it teach them learn the value of money and how to spend it? Does TV promote compulsive and violent behavior by portraying risk-taking television characters? Though television violence has probably received more scrutiny than any other area, hot debates about possible contribution of television violence into antisocial behavior haven’t so far been explicitly linked to consumer behavior. Assuming there are causal relationships between the violent images abundant on TV screen and the aggressive behavior of their recipients, it is worth exploring how consumption behavior changes in a crime-ridden society, town, or a neighborhood.

The final and perhaps most socially important question is whether the reported findings can be used to reduce the antisocial consequences of televised messages and enhance their positive potential? Can academic studies, as some researchers optimistically hope, contribute to solving destructive social problems based on compulsive and addictive consumer behavior?


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Maria Kniazeva, University of California, Irvine


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30 | 2003

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