Individualism or Collectivism? Cultural Orientations in Chinese TV Commercials and Analysis of Some Moderating Factors

Article excerpt

Are traditionally collectivist cultures shifting to individualism due to economic and cultural globalization? This study addresses the question from a media message perspective by analyzing manifest individualism and collectivism in Chinese advertising. Drawing on the cross-cultural theory of Individualism-Collectivism, the study develops a measurement instrument and applies it in a content analysis of 523 TV commercials aired in 2003 in China. Results show that the predominant cultural orientation reflected in local-product Chinese TV commercials is still collectivism, but not in foreign-product commercials.

Cross-cultural research has identified individualism (IND) and collectivism (COL) as key dimensions of cultural difference.1 Individualism, a "world view... that centralizes the personal and peripheralizes the social," is assumed to be rooted in Western cultures.2 Collectivism, often conceptualized as the opposite of individualism, is believed to be prevalent in East Asian cultures.3 Although cultural changes occur gradually, cultural values and orientations do shift as a result of social, structural, and historical flux. For example, industrialization and modernization may contribute to a shift from collectivism to individualism.4 Indeed, differences in IND and COL at the individual level have been shrinking between Westerners and East Asians (e.g., Japanese and Koreans).5

Given China's recent history of rapid economic growth and unprecedented opening to the outside world, could it be undergoing similar cultural shifts? With the emergence of an ever-expanding middle class and the so-called "me-generation,"6 a move toward individualism seems plausible. This possibility has political implications, as individualistic values are believed to be related to preferences for participatory democracy.7 As China plays an increasingly important role in international affairs, the impact of any potential cultural and political reconfiguration will likely reach beyond its borders.

One entry point to examining a society's predominant (and shifting) cultural values and orientations is mass media. In particular, advertising as a form of social communication is said to reflect cultural values, generating a stream of research that examines manifest values in advertising content.8 Much evidence has been presented showing the prevalence of IND in Western and COL in non- Western advertising,9 as well as their congruence with consumer values and orientations in Western and non-Western cultures.10 However, recent scholarship has documented increasing levels of manifest individualism in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese advertising.11 The question then becomes whether individualism has overtaken collectivism to become the more prevalent cultural orientation reflected in advertising content from a traditionally collectivist society such as China, thereby signaling possible cultural changes. What factors influence the manifestation of IND and COL in advertising content?

This study developed a measurement instrument to facilitate the empirical investigation of manifest IND and COL in Chinese TV commercials. The ways in which two within-culture factors (advertised product origin and product type) affect manifest IND and COL in advertising content were also explored. Results may help reconcile conflicting findings in existing research by specifying the conditions under which IND and COL manifest in varying degrees in advertising content. They may also shed light on the complex cultural dynamics in today's China at the juncture of social transformation and globalization.

Literature Review

The following review considers the cross-cultural IND-COL framework and the concept of cultural values and orientations in advertising as theoretical underpinnings for examining and measuring manifest IND and COL in advertising content, beginning with the implications of IND and COL for orientations in self-concept, relationality, motivation, and affect, and how these orientations manifest in advertising content as IND and COL values and appeals. …