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By Liz Warren-Pederson

The process through which viewers identify with elements of television shows – such as actors, characters, or settings – has significant implications for cultural diversity from a social justice perspective, according to a new paper by Hope Jensen Schau, Munsinger Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Eller College.

Schau and coauthors Cristel Antonia Russell of American University and David Crockett of the University of South Carolina examined the underlying dynamics that drive a viewer who identifies with a TV show to “poach” the narrative when he makes a purchasing decision. “At its most simplistic, that might mean that a viewer who identifies with a character thinks that character would be likely to purchase the same brand of shampoo,” Schau said.

Hope Jensen Schau

Hope Jensen Schau, Associate Professor of Marketing and Munsinger Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Photo courtesy Hope Jensen Schau.

But, she pointed out, it’s not simple. The authors call the process through which viewers contrive similarities between themselves and TV characters – which could be physical similarities, behavioral attributes, or belief systems – homophilization. They identify several patterns at work.

“Aspiration and imitation are the ones that most people think of when they consider how viewers might identify with TV shows,” she said. “A viewer may project herself into the shows she loves, and may actively imitate some aspect, such as lifestyle, dress, or personality – think about die-hard Sex and the City fans, for example. Viewers with this type of relationship to a show may be very receptive to product placement.”

Alternatively, viewers may use TV narratives to legitimize their own behavior. An interview subject in Schau’s paper describes how the over-the-top fashion on Sex and the City makes her fashion addiction to “fast-fashion” chain Forever 21 okay. “Her attitude is morally superior because she isn’t buying expensive luxury brands at high-end retailers,” Schau pointed out.

In a more subtle pattern, viewers define themselves against a particular narrative. “One way this plays out is when a viewer relishes the bad behavior of a character they have no intention of mimicking,” Schau said. “Or a viewer may reject the whole medium, like one of our informants who discussed how watching television as a teen made her feel insecure.”

Because television can play such a central role in the formation of consumer identity, and because network executives and advertisers retain control over what shows are aired, Schau said that the paper holds insights for public policy, beyond regulation and censorship.

“We look at viewers as consumers whose choices are limited based on what shows the networks make available,” Schau said. “They have little input into the production of narratives that represent diversity – or any other topic.”

Accordingly, media advocates have tried to exert influence on networks to produce more culturally diverse programming. “Our findings are most relevant for media advocates, industry, and the public, rather than the regulators,” Schau said. “In the broadest sense, we’re suggesting that public discourse needs to move beyond ‘aspire and imitate’ assumptions about viewers. They just don’t swallow these narratives whole, but have very nuanced relationships with them.”