Teenagers seek to define themselves through their clothing, jargon, experiences, hairstyles, and, most of all, group associations. In all, this experimentation suggests that the adolescent attempts to discover himself/herself through external—rather than intrinsic—stimuli. Accordingly, images from popular culture often provide the external basis from which teenagers will benchmark their thoughts, opinions and associations. Indeed, adolescents will forge their identities largely in conformance with these pop culture images. They perceive such images as the social norm and, thus, as a means to attain the social acceptance that is so vital to their personal maturation.
Furthermore, such pop cultural figures as P. Diddy, Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez create intangible brands that help establish these norms. Not only does each celebrity market tangible brands through their various products and clothing lines, but each also enjoys a social acceptance that extends well beyond the sales revenue of their name-emblazoned products. The celebrities themselves constitute, in fact, their own name brands. Indeed, they can sell magazines, capture massive audiences and have a strong fan following based solely upon their individual popularity.
When people associate themselves with a particular brand or branded image, they immediately assume a new identity that is in some senses, confined to the societal viewpoints of that brand. Teenagers exemplify this phenomenon. When they wear an article of clothing that says GAP or listen to music by Eminem, they are creating a brand of themselves. But do brand images presented in popular culture really create social norms that affect how teenagers formulate social groups and societal acceptance?
Just how vital are these reference groups to teenagers? Teenagers would not be able to critique groups relative to one another, nor would they be able to scale themselves to others within their own group. Critical analysis is crucial in determining how teenagers decipher what brand images they should accept or reject. Such analysis is the primary objective of Social Learning Theory (SLT). SLT theorizes that individuals either accept or reject images and thoughts by watching other groups engage in particular experiences and activities to see what results of those experiences.
Social Learning Theory is also attributed in a common cliché: “Don’t learn mistakes on your own – learn through the mistakes of others.” .
Many factors such as demographics, psychographics and geographic area can determine how intensely teenage groups will adhere to brand images. Teenagers living in more affluent areas have greater exposure to popular images and to the resources needed in obtaining items associated with a particular image. Oppositely, Teenagers who attend schools in more rural areas may not be as influenced by popular images since such resources are not readily available in areas. Also, income levels shape how those teenagers perceive certain brand images. A teenager who grew up in a wealthier home with easier access to pop culture images (televisions, cable television, shopping malls, etc.) would be more likely to succumb to societal norms than teenagers who grew up in lower household incomes.
Primary research with eighth grade students ages 13 and 14, the ages most sensitive to popular culture images, will provide qualitative information in explaining why teens perceive certain brand images as acceptable or not. Their input will identify the thought processes that decide what images teenagers consider socially acceptable and how these images affect the structure of socially acceptable reference groups. The formulation of these reference groups also alters their attitudes and opinions. When teenagers mimic a particular reference group, they categorize themselves with that group. And if they fail to continuously maintain that disposition, they could be ridiculed as devotees of a passing fad.
Brand images presented by popular culture play a significant role in the creation of social groups and social norms. This phenomenon is addressed in the material to follow.
Opinion Leaders in Pop Culture
Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, P. Diddy and Justin Timberlake all have one thing in common, other than their successful music careers: they all have the ability to coerce individuals, especially teenagers, into buying a particular product. These celebrities are a few just who hold the power to structurally impact social groups, which places them among a group of highly influential persons in society.
Celebrities possess three essential factors of social stratification that help create their status of grandeur: property, power and prestige (Zgourides & Zgourides, 2000). Owning the first two usually leads to the latter. People believe that celebrities have the ability to purchase whatever their hearts desire, capture large audiences, initiate change and contract with large corporations for endorsements. All these perceptions feed into the media machine. The media’s detailed attention to the movements of celebrities further increases their societal status (Lasn, 1999).
In some instances, these movements are orchestrated by public relations practitioners in order to manipulate how the public will perceive a particular person (Rushkoff, 1999). Rushkoff noted a three-step process in how famous individuals create and establish their brand image: first, learn the dominant myths of the target people and, in the process, gain their trust; second, find the gaps or superstitions in their beliefs; and third, either replace the superstitions or augment them with facts that redirect the target group’s perceptions and allegiance.
The Law of the Few describes how persons of particular social groups influence others (Gladwell, 2000). The law encompasses three types of persons who have the ability to create personal links among certain audiences: connectors, mavens and salespersons. Connectors focus on establishing personal connections among many groups and initiating word-of-mouth –both reflections of their intrinsic personality combined with curiosity, self-confidence, sociability and energy. Connectors usually are a means to an end and the closer a person gets to a connector, the closer he/she moves towards power and wealth. Mavens gather information, find it beneficial and communicate the beneficial information with their audiences. Mavens do not try to persuade one group out of their established thought; instead, they enlighten their comrades by sharing advantageous information. Salespersons explicitly attempt to persuade others who are unconvinced of what they have been hearing and viewing. Whether the persuasion act is through their employment, social behaviors or common ideals, salespersons have the ability to create a change among persons already entrenched in their beliefs.
Celebrities are most like salespersons. Though they may not explicitly try to persuade their audiences, they are subconsciously altering the thoughts of their publics. This is noticeable through celebrity endorsements, press interviews, apparel worn during public events, items favored by celebrities, celebrity-branded products and celebrities’ overall brand image all of which create epidemics of societal acceptance among various social groups. In creating societal epidemics, celebrities have the ability to create stickiness. They can do so by assuming nature of the messenger and making sure audiences remember what was said by speaking with emphasis (Gladwell, 2000). In regards to Hollywood, “emphasis” would include the frequency a celebrity name is mentioned in headlines, repetitiveness of a celebrity image flashed on magazine covers, and the consistency of a celebrity’s brand image in stories.
Popular persons in pop culture provide a benchmark as to how individuals should measure themselves. Few celebrities hold the three “P’s” (property, power and prestige) as well as the ability to act as salespersons within society. They aid in the creation of social groups and determine how society will then perceive the individuals within those particular social groups. In addition, their behaviors and attitudes contribute to formulating cultural norms.
How Teenagers Tick: Personality and Persuasive Ideals
Teenagers are the most susceptible group to images presented in popular culture (Boykin, 2003). Since adolescence is the stage when children are beginning and establishing beliefs of their own. They are more focused on inclusion in groups and on forming peer relationships. As a result of this need for peer acceptance, teenagers are receptive to certain characteristics (personality, attitude, behavior) form particular social groups.
The role of personality is vital when teenagers create peer relationships. When forming these relationships, individuals investigate others’ personality dynamics as well as what they can achieve within that relationship-basically, their peer acceptance potential (Caprara & Cervone, 2000).
Individuals make distinctions among one another by their “surface tendencies,” which are the observable variations in styles of behavior affect and cognition (Caprara & Cervone, 2000). As a means of displaying their personality, teenagers will wear clothing from particular stores or with a particular brand. . Teens also express themselves through the places they hang out with friends and what television programs they watch.
How a teenager communicates with others also shows the type of personality a teenager possesses. For example, a popular form of communication among teenagers is instant messaging. Digital communication became a digital stamp of a person’s personality through the use of emoticons, which are punctuation marks combined to show emotions within the message. One result of the popularity of instant messaging among teenagers is text messaging on cell phones that allowed teenagers to express themselves in a mobile fashion.
The impact of culture goes beyond structuring how people perceive society and themselves. Rather, it creates a set of instructions that pervade virtually every aspect of the human experience (Caprara & Cervone, 2000). Culture identifies what practices will take place within a society, what societal norms are established and what customs will formulate how a person interprets himself/herself. The significance of popular culture in a teenager’s growth process is its ability to provide information about what society accepts and expects of them an individual.
Cynicism exists among some teenage groups because of the images displayed in popular culture (Ng, 2003). Teenagers are more sophisticated now and have the intellectual ability to distinguish among the various brand images presented to them via popular television shows such as Friends, hit interactive shows like MTV’s TRL and advertisements flooded with celebrity endorsements (Boykin, 2003).
When a panel of students was asked various questions regarding popular culture and their viewpoints on its effects on their lives, many students disagreed with the stereotypes presented in popular culture. Though the students acknowledged that the behaviors expressed in popular culture (music videos, television shows, artists clothing) were being mimicked in their social group, they disparaged those who succumb too easily to social pressure. The cynical viewpoint expressed by many teenagers is that corporations attempt to exploit teenage fads. This is noticeable in the number of product endorsements by young celebrities, the continuous introduction of homogeneous music artists, and publicity stunts by young celebrities. All of these events seem geared to teenagers and have caused some to polarize themselves from the brand images presented in popular culture. This polarization could be a result of a teenager’s attitude of skepticism when they evaluate whether every image or message presented in popular culture is valid.
Teenage behavior is most noticeable when brand images become integrated into their everyday lives. Evidence exists on how many teenagers wear GAP clothing or listen to music by 50 Cent or how many teenage viewers watched American Idol.
Teenagers' decisions to either accept pop culture images and adapt them to their lives or to disregard them and exude individualism could determine their placement in social groups. This behavior could manifest in their attempts to buy into brand images (Sewell, 2003). If they are perceived by their peers for wearing one piece of clothing rather than the other and receive rewards, the teenagers would be more likely to continue wearing that article of clothing in hopes of gaining social acceptance.
The underlying factor why teenagers mimic pop culture images is their need for social acceptance. Society determines what is acceptable or not, and it is up to the teenager’s discretion where he or she wants to be placed on the society acceptance scale (Birley, 2003).
Teenagers primarily desire the acceptance of their peers. Teenage acceptance is categorized into subgroups or cliques. Individuals have always been associated with particular social groups (racial, ethnic, gender, class, etc.). But peer associations during adolescence are a direct representation of their intrinsic values rather than a known external fact.
In evaluating their own opinions, people judge their opinions against reference groups, which are groups used as standards for self-appraisal (Zgourides & Zgourides, 2000). Reference groups for teenagers include school organizations, labeled groups such as “jocks” and “nerds,” and groups within particular percentages of a given class, i.e. “honor roll.” Two types of self-evaluation exist in reference groups: one, the normative effect, evaluates the reference group as a whole and those who compare themselves to the group; two, the comparison effect, looks at particular members of the group and the behaviors of others in the group in comparison to those particular members. A teen not associated with a reference group may base his or her self-evaluation on a normative effect since they have yet to establish him/herself within a particular group.
After a teen establishes himself/herself within a particular group, the leader of the group holds the most influence on how members perceive themselves in the group. The Zgourides provides two examples of leaders. One is the expressive leader who maintains friendly relationships, whereas the opposite is found in instrumental leaders who are more goal-oriented. Celebrities play a more expressive leader role in reaching teenage audiences by creating fan clubs for teens, signing autographs at concerts, and manufacturing products tailored towards young adults –all of which help establish a relationship among teenagers.
Groups also engage in group conformity and group-think, which occurs when the group comes to a single explanation or answer at the expense of group consensus. When answers become so homogenous that diversification no longer exists in groups, group conformity often exists. Group conformity could also be the result of an instrumental leader whose main goal is to get other members of the group to solely agree with his/her ideals. This is another example of certain celebrities’ ability to influence teenage groups. In a sense, group conformity could signify the creation of cults. When popular culture influences teenagers to the point where social groups and social norms are formed based on images from popular culture, then a typical cult transitions into “culture cults” where social norms formulated from images presented in popular culture create a strong following of culturally-hungry individuals.
Teenagers behave like cult members while popular-culture and branded-image celebrities act like cult leaders. Rushkoff explains his theory of cults using a 20-step process. There are five significant steps of the 20-step process that pertain to how teenagers may be coerced by brand images in popular culture, where this coercion of pop culture has created “culture cults”.
Step Five: Positive Results Through Commitment. Newcomers are informed that he/she will experience satisfaction only when he has made a financial or equivalent commitment. When teenagers purchase clothing emblazoned with a celebrity brand image such as GAP jeans endorsed by Missy Elliot and Madonna, they are financially committing themselves to that group of teenagers that are in tune to the latest fashion trends in popular culture.
Step Nine: Confusion and Transference. Leaders will cause confusion by rewarding those that do not comply and punishing those that do comply. This is noticeable when teenagers wear a particular piece of clothing in an attempt to upkeep with a particular branded image but instead of receiving social acceptance, they receive rejection for conforming to the behaviors of the group.
Step Eleven: Goal of Inclusion. Relationships with the leaders are established at this stage. When a teenager listens to music by Britney Spears, purchases Britney dolls, visits Britney websites and joins Britney fan clubs, the teenager is creating relationships with the celebrity that help identify his or her personality.
Step Eighteen: Act Automatically. Members must strive to act in accordance with the cult leader’s wishes without thinking and adapt a new set of behaviors that take the place of what normally might be called intuition or instinct. Teenagers adapt to new behaviors every time they alter their attitudes or behaviors in accordance with shifts of the popular culture. For example, they might update their wardrobe according to the trends established by celebrities.
Step Twenty: The Cult Leader is Perfect. The final stage where members see no flaws in their leaders and accept everything proclaimed by their leader as true. During this stage, teenagers find that any statements or actions made by celebrities are unconditionally acceptable as social norms.
Teenagers identify themselves with reference groups that are associated with particular brands. Teenagers represent themselves through these associated groups. The brands of these social groups are congruent with an aspect of self-concept or potential self (Bettman, 2003). A teenager’s potential to become a member of a group that has a reference leader creates a newfound identity of that person through the association of that social group.
Through social experiences, individuals record what behaviors or attitudes result in desired outcomes or cause dismissal from society. The theory that looks at a person’s behaviors and experiences and analyzes the outcomes is discussed in social learning theory. How a person views situations and imitates the personal characteristics of them identifies social cognitive theory (Eyal & Rubin, 2003). However, both theories interrelate with one another.
Social Learning Theory
When teenagers watch others perform certain behaviors and see which result in rewards or punishments, they are engaging in observational learning (Kindred, 1999). This type of behavior is exhibited in the cliché phrase, “Everyone else is doing it.” Depending on the result, people are inclined to try behaviors acted out by others.
Two criteria must exist for this theory: a model and a result of the model’s behavior. Persons with branded images, celebrities, are the model figures and their behaviors are the references used by viewers when determining which behaviors result in rewards or punishments.
Kindred provides four stages that formulate observational learning. First, attention stresses people cannot learn unless they accurately perceive important features within the model’s behavior. Second, retention signifies people cannot be influenced unless they recall or internalize the behavior. Third, motor reproduction converts symbolic representations of the behavior into action. Fourth, motivation engages someone to act in accordance with a particular behavior if it results in a desired outcome. Going through each stage leads to a structural understanding as to why certain behaviors result in certain outcomes.
Learning through observing helps explain as to why individuals desire membership with a particular group. Through experiences in observing how the group behaves and interacts, outsiders can determine if the rewards of joining that group outweigh the punishments. This is most noticeable when teenagers create cliques that share similar interests and behaviors, therefore, creating their own models for others to use as references.
Social Cognitive Theory
Internal determinants affect behavior. External stimuli are not the sole reasons a person will perform a particular behavior in hopes of receiving a desired result. Instead, a person’s beliefs and ideas, or cognition, contributes to the overall act.
Both the internal and external stimuli from the model motivate actions by the observational learners. Personal characteristics from both the viewer and model affect the relationship between observing the desired outcome and actually performing the behavior that results in the desired outcome (Eyal & Rubin, 2003).
A person’s ideologies will determine if the behaviors will even stimulate the viewer’s attention. If a person does not agree with the underlying motives of a particular behavior, the viewer won’t even attempt to decipher if the behavior of the model could result in a desired outcome or not. For example, teenagers who listen solely to hip-hop music would not be interested in viewing country music artists’ images since these behaviors conflict with their preexisting beliefs.
A person’s beliefs reflect to their self-efficacy and self-reinforcement. Self-efficacy describes what people believe they are capable of accomplishing whereas self-reinforcement occurs when standards people set act as substitutes for external rewards or punishments (Kindred, 2003). Incorporation of self-efficacy and self-reinforcement with an observed behavior provides the linkage between one’s thoughts and actions. This link exists when a teenager believes he or she is capable of interacting with a particular socially acceptable reference group. As a result, his or her continued interactions with the members of the reference group reinforce his or her preconceptions of social acceptance and provide intrinsic gratification.
Teenagers attempting to adhere to images presented in popular culture to gain social acceptance and self-reinforcement categorize themselves in particular groups. These groups become the reference points for many teenagers in evaluating themselves according to the popular culture standard at the time. Determining the essence of a teenager’s behaviors and attitudes influenced by popular culture images has sparked research questions that will be addressed - hopefully solved - through primary research data gathered from a study. The questions that guide this study include:
1. Do teenagers measure their status according to the social norms created by images in popular culture?
2. How important are reference groups in teenagers measuring their level of social acceptance as established by images in popular culture?
3. What factors contribute to the creation of these reference groups?
4. Are there particular public figures that have stronger influential abilities than others? If so, who and why?
5. Are reference groups created based solely on groups adhering to social norms and images in popular culture or is there another element beyond the external stimuli that cause the formulation of these groups?
6. How do teenagers establish which images in popular culture are considered socially acceptable? What sources provide for this mentality?
I chose to conduct a focus group with eight different teenagers at a suburban middle school in Mesquite, TEX. All the teenagers, ages 13 and 14, were gathered in a classroom and seated opposite one another. Seating the students in this format allowed them to interact with and bounce opinions and ideas off one another. The questions were organized into six different subparts of the study: images in popular culture, attitudes, behavior, personality, social groups and sources of popular culture.
All students were given name cards at their designed seats. The focus group lasted 30 minutes, however; due to technical errors, a follow-up focus group was necessary and the latter focus group lasted only 15 minutes. The second focus group was recorded successfully and notes were taken during this session.
I used a qualitative method in gathering data. Students were asked various open-ended questions according to the relevance of a particular category. Each grouping of answers was separated into each category.
I. Images in Popular Culture
I asked the teenagers to name the first celebrity off the top of their head and describe why that name was of immediate recall. Three of the respondents (two boys and one girl) answered Jennifer Lopez immediately. They said she was known because of her “assets.” All the students continued discussing Lopez and how her “assets” gained her popularity. The constant media coverage of Lopez in the headlines made the students feel that she was of importance. Also, the multitude of magazine covers and broadcast feature stories exposed her name and image to the public.
The students followed by saying that the images in popular culture are popular because everyone talks about them. I then asked the students to describe “everyone”. Respondents gave different answers such as “popular groups,” “the majority,” and “groups everyone knows about.”
“Groups everyone knew about” were those who were conscientious of what happenings occurred in popular culture. These groups were the ones most likely to mimic an image presented in popular culture. Their attitudes would shift according to the trends presented in popular culture.
The respondents also described how celebrities’ endorsements play a major role in establishing what clothes become popular. They described t-shirts with “Ozzy Osborne” emblazoned on it signified particular groups such as the “rock” and “gothic” groups. Also, students who wear “bling-bling,” which are flashy pieces of jewelry prevalent with artists of the hip-hop and rap community, are attempting to engage in the lifestyle of their reference celebrity.
I asked the teenagers to define popular culture. Some of the responses included:
“ Everyone knows about them and talks about them.”
“ Rich people.”
“ Everyone knows the person and talks about the person.”
“They change their attitudes around certain people.”
They elaborated on their responses by stating that popular people are those that are most likely to listen to what occurs in popular culture. They create a known presence in any atmosphere due to their surplus of friends. Popular groups are most likely to listen to what “popular culture says.” Those in these groups are more influenced by images in popular culture than vice versa. These members wear clothes promoted and/or seen on major pop stars. The students named celebrities that influence popular groups, some were Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, P. Diddy, Ozzy Osborne and 50 Cent.
All of the artists listed have one thing in common: money. As noted from above, they also have monetary means of gaining popularity. The student who made this statement elaborated by stating that their financial gains equalize to their power, which is a kind of “monetary power.” The power these persons hold garners them more class and more style, as described by the respondents. I asked how this could occur. They responded by saying monetary power allows celebrities to “purchase whatever they want,” “have more houses,” “buy the clothes that are in style,” “have more uses of their money” and “buy more stuff that are in style.”
When I asked them to follow up their comment about popular group members purchasing items “in style,” the respondents described these as items found on fashion lists, seen on magazine covers, seen in movies and, mainly, worn by their favorite celebrities.
The students said those in popular groups are labeled by others because of the popular groups’ clothing choices, attitudes, personality and the similarities in their clothing within the group. Respondents said that those in the groups wear similar clothes to differentiate themselves from other groups. However, their simulated appearance still correlates to images presented in popular culture.
Popular groups adjust their behaviors according to popular culture images as noted by the respondents. Members of the popular groups “follow the crowd.” The “crowd” is described as, according to the respondents, those that everyone knows, talks about, listens to others and does what celebrities say. Popular groups also act differently around certain other groups of people. Their behavior changes according to varying environments. For example, a respondent described how popular students will alter appearance and attitude at public events solely to obtain attention from others not linked to their group. They conform to what is necessary for differing environments.
Oppositely, members of other groups not labeled as popular groups are more independent. They are independent by “doing things on their own” and “not caring what others think.” They associate themselves with a particular group that is not considered a popular group for this primary reason of establishing their independence. Respondents labeled one group in particular at their school as the “gothic” group. This group consists of students who wore all black, believed in Satan, had body piercings, rode skateboards and wore dark makeup or had dark-dyed hair. Essentially, the details of students within the “gothic” group do not parallel any trends presented in popular culture currently. All of the characteristics of the gothic group created stereotypes of the way they behaved and appeared to others. These stereotypes helped the students formulate preconceived opinions of the members in the group, therefore devising labels for each group differing from the popular group.
As seen with labeling the “gothic” group, a trend existed whereby the students labeled every group they described according to three features: clothing, attitude and behaviors. These three elements appeared to be the opinion-forming standards the students used in establishing group labels.
Another group the students labeled were the “wannabe thugs.” These were the students who wanted so desperately to be like their admired musical idols, that they mimicked the movements of hip-hop/rap artists. One respondent summed the reasoning for students engaging in this form of behavior by stating, “they are trying to establish themselves through the image of celebrity.” In their attempt to understand their identity, the “wannabe” students needed to act a certain way to better define their individuality. The “wannabe” students establish their individuality through the behaviors of others. The respondent made clear that a “wannabe” student is not a “copy cat” but rather a person struggling for self-identification.
Respondents stated that students seeking self-identification behave in certain ways because “that is the way they are,” there is “no way of being yourself” and that “you have to be somebody.” Self-identification will occur after the student learns how the idol’s actions are accepted or rejected. One respondent said, “you can take the clothes but not the images – who you are is who you are.”
Oppositely, another reason for students responding to images in popular culture is the teenager’s need to "hide something.” Respondents supported this point by claiming those teenager’s who do this “don’t want anyone to know” that they are “hiding secrets.” As a means of finding their self-identification, the “wannabe” suppress their true identity in order to form a more acceptable temporary one.
The students described those in the popular groups as having outgoing and loud personalities, whereas non-popular groups were more timid. Their personality characteristics get them noticed. Other groups, non-popular groups, are more independent of popular culture images. Since they differ from popular culture images, they were labeled as “outsiders” and “weird.”
V. Social Groups
Respondents stated that group members are actually heterogeneous and very different but are similar once formed into their groups. Groups differ by their clothing, behavior and personality. But the members of the groups also have differing styles and attitudes from one another.
The initial sign in identifying a group is through their clothing, since it is most visual. Clothing selection signifies their attitudes, how they interact with other groups, and their relationship to pop culture images. The respondents said that through others’ clothing, they could establish the behavior and attitude of the other individual. Respondents used “surface tendencies” in recognizing members of social groups.
Also, the locations where groups congregate help to categorize them. Designated places are not assigned - they simply occur. But group members repeatedly returning to the particular location created acceptable assumptions to other group members. An example of locations designated for particular groups is the “gothic” group sitting in the corner of the gym, whereas the cheerleaders are found in the center –more visible to all students. The respondents considered this practice a custom among the teenage groups. This custom is ritualistic to the students. The respondents could not determine a good reason as to why they performed this repetitive behavior, but the students understood that it needed to be done. Anyone who violated this process would be considered an outsider.
The group as a whole acts similarly, but if broken into individual persons, each person acts different to the behaviors performed as a group. This is noticed when the respondents stated how they, personally, do not behave according to popular images in their groups. But when formed into groups, their actions become more homogeneous than heterogeneous.
Size also is a factor in establishing how influential pop culture images will affect the behaviors of groups. Respondents noted that smaller groups are more influenced than larger groups.
VI. Sources of Popular Culture Images
Sources that the respondents listed as channels of popular culture images include all major forms of media such as television, newspaper, magazine and Internet. The Internet determines the importance of popular culture images because of the placement of the image and accompanying story. The respondent stated that he knows a celebrity’s significance by the location on the homepage of a news site. If the name of a celebrity is at the top of the news alert list, the student assumes the celebrity is significant; otherwise, the celebrity is of no importance. Also, respondents mentioned the credibility of certain publications and networks that determined a celebrity’s popularity. If the celebrity is seen on magazine covers such as Glamour, Cosmopolitan and Maxim, then that particular celebrity has established himself/herself as a popular image.
I discovered teenagers do use images presented in popular culture as factors in their character development. However, these images are not significant in establishing reference groups and creating acceptance levels within the aggregate teenage group; instead, the images posses a deeper meaning of social.
Teenagers measure their status not by comparing their attitudes and behaviors to other social groups; they compare their worth through their monetary status. Respondents felt that those who did not possess financial means to acquire items found in popular groups were not worthy of association with the popular group. This notion that social acceptance comes through purchasing items found in popular groups and items popularized by celebrities parallels to step five, positive results through commitment, of the 20-step process to creating cults that Ruchkoff outlined. It seems as though money plays a more significant role in establishing social groups.
Teenagers also measure their status level based on their individuality. Students who conform to standards from popular groups are more likely to be rejected among teenage groups. However, those who act completely opposite to popular groups also receive ridicule for being too different from popular culture, as was the case with students labeled as “gothic.” This process of teenagers engaging in social adaptation but experiencing social rejection describes step nine, confusion and transference, of Rushkoff’s 20-step list. The “wannabe thug” students attempting to simulate attitudes and behaviors of their idols did not grant them social acceptance but instead caused rejection from their peers. However this rejection of those who in a sense, “try too hard” further implies the methodologies teenagers use in evaluating the level which they will attribute popular culture images to their own individualities. This process of dual rejection where, on one hand, a teenager who completely snubs popular culture images experiences social rejection, and on the other, a teenager who absorbs popular culture images receives social rejection - further mystifies the process of social acceptability by their social groups. In learning from those who are on either end of the spectrum, teenagers find themselves stuck in the middle, confused about what extremities could lead them to social rejection.
In determining an underlying factor of a rejected teenager’s confusion, I asked the students whether an influential link occurred more from teenagers to celebrities or celebrities to teenagers. Most of the respondents said an interrelated relationship exists between celebrities and teenagers. Teenagers admire celebrities for their popularity among the public, which causes teenagers to desire the same type of attention from their own social groups. Teenagers learn through the actions of celebrities what behaviors garner popularity and in an attempt to experience similar popularity, teenagers perform similar acts. Some of the respondents admitted to purchasing items that are either marketed or endorsed by celebrities such as P. Diddy’s clothing line, “Sean John” and drinking Pepsi because Britney Spears was the spokesperson. Teenagers shadowing of celebrities’ actions is supported by the principles of social learning theory. The positive feedback celebrities receive from the public contributes to teenagers performing in this manner. If public feedback were negative, teenagers would deter from engaging in such activities in hopes of not becoming associated with “outsider” groups. However, celebrities would not experience such popularity without the replicated acts of teenagers. The respondents stated that celebrities are popular because “teenagers go out and buy their stuff” and “talk about them all the time.” They further mentioned that when teenagers make these purchases, it is because of a particular appeal of the celebrity. If the celebrities did not have this appeal, teenagers would not feel inclined to purchase their items. So as a result, celebrities must know what appeals to teenagers and adjust their self-image to what would be most marketable to the teenage market. For example, the controversial method of sex appeal is being applied to many celebrity marketing campaigns. The respondents mentioned how entertainers’ lack of clothing and suggestive poses influence the “images” appeal to teenagers; and since some celebrities see the positive effects of this tactic in reaching their target market, more popular figures are adjusting their strategies to appeal to teenagers. After teenagers witness the effect of using such a tactic to gain popularity, teenagers then attempt to replicate these images to achieve recognition among their social groups. In this cycle, the popular culture images created or influenced by either group create an interrelated relationship that dictates the extremities both teenagers and celebrities will take to achieve popularity among social groups.
When teenagers create their groups, they seek more individuality than conformity. In speaking with the students, I discovered that they look for what uniqueness each person can bring to the group. This allowed for creativeness and spontaneity. If groups were created with people of extreme similarities where no differences existed, groups would be boring, as noted by the respondents. However, homogenous groups are necessary for teenagers to use as learning tools from which to evaluate their behaviors within their individual social groups. For example, when the respondents described the “gothic” group members as students who wear all black, believe in Satan, ride skateboards and wear black makeup, they did not pinpoint the members’ differences from one another; they simply categorized members into a conformed group. The respondents knew not to socialize and associate themselves with this group because of the negative social feedback that “gothic” group members receive from other social groups. If the group being described received positive feedback from other socials groups, maybe the respondent’s attitudes would have differed.
Group sizes play a major role in group conformity. Respondents described how cliques, groups of typically no more than six persons, were more likely to have a person that set the standard of how the group will coexist among other groups. The leader of the group usually had more persuasive powers than other group members. As a result, the members conformed more to what the leader established. This type of leader is an instrumental leader – one who makes the theme of the group more goal-oriented. Also, larger groups tend to be more cult-like in orientation. These cults do have an individual leader but rather one influential factor such as an interest, topic, hobby or action that centralize the group. Groups adapting to social norms as a result of popularity buzz, are measuring their social acceptance by how much their behaviors correlate with popular groups, or reference groups. This behavior is especially prevalent with fads. An example is the “W.W.J.D.”(What Would Jesus Do) fad that existed a few years ago. Teenagers across the country wore bracelets, t-shirts, backpacks, shoelaces and even book covers emblazoned with this slogan. The slogan was one of individual teenage empowerment but eventually garnered a lot of buzz and instead became a popular item based on its popularity than its individuality. A great number of teenagers toting the acronym on their apparel did not desire teenage empowerment; they solely wanted to sustain their status as a trendy teenager among their peers. No celebrity or public figure endorsed the products– it just became a popular trend with a very strong following. The strong following caused the popularity of the “W.W.J.D.” products to become more cult-like in that if a teenager did not own any “W.W.J.D.” product, he or she would be shunned by teenage groups. Though not every teenager purchased the products to become trendy, those who did compromised a part of their individuality to become a member of the majority.
The struggle for teenagers to find middle ground in establishing themselves as an individual and associating themselves within a social group is not solely a matter of conformity or acceptance by others, but also of survival— survival of teenage ridicule or acceptance and self-growth. Though it is challenging for a teenager to determine which survival strategy to emphasize during adolescence, the most rewarding part of a teenager identifying with social groups is becoming an individual in the process.
The preconceived notion that popular culture images play a primary role in altering a teenager’s view about himself or herself neglects to consider the thought process teenagers’ experience in formulating their own sense of self. They struggle to find their own distinctiveness and as a means of testing their self-worth and uniqueness, teenagers link themselves to a desired image. Through this mock-identification, teenagers finally discover their true individualism.
During their self-evaluations, teenagers act in a normative manner more than a comparison state. Hence, they are more likely to alter themselves to the lifestyles of others who receive positive social feedback than compare themselves to members within their own social group. Celebrities admired by the teenagers create relationships with teenagers making them more expressive leaders who have the ability to lure the teenagers into mocking their lifestyle. As a result of teenagers buying into the celebrity’s influences, celebrities become more connected and form stronger influences over teenagers. Teenagers connecting this to their identity provide self-reinforcement that in substituting a temporary socially acceptable identity will grant them social rewards rather than punishments.
Teenagers will continue to find self-identification through the lifestyle of others. Their individuality comes from their self-efficacy, what they believe they are capable of achieving: independence. Teenagers believe they can be independent. But during their growth process, they know they must rely on celebrities and images in popular culture to act as connectors to their individualism. Popular culture is a paradox with teenagers: the more they desire individuality, the more they rely on reference groups to help attain their individuality. Celebrities will continue to be salespersons as long as teenagers continue to desire individualism and social acceptance by adhering to the lifestyle and attitudes of reference groups.
Some limitations occurred in completing this study. These include:
- Allotted time to conduct survey. One, the time allowed to conduct the survey at the school and, the other, the lack of duration of days to conduct a continuous study over a week to see how the teenagers in the study adjusted to popular culture trends and view how they adjust to the evolving images.
- The type of teenager selected for the study. Since the study will be taken at a suburban middle school, the viewpoints may be a bit more skewed.
- Some respondents not engaging in the study discussion. When I attempted to probe certain persons in the group for deeper reasoning, he/she still prohibited himself/herself from divulging more into their answers.
- The responses from the respondents do not correlate with my desired goals. This occurred when the respondents spoke about body image and the affects of popular culture on the female self-esteem.
- Recordings were not successful. The tape recorder did not record statements from the respondents the first try nor did I take notes during this session. I was required to complete a second session that resulted in as shallow responses from the students since the subject matter was the same as the previous study.
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 Members of a group where the leader personifies the ultimate goal and the members task is to journey up the pyramid of commitment and devotion in order to move closer to the idealized but unattainable goal (Rushkoff, D., 2000).