Issue No. 3
Fall 1999
Issue 3 home page
Return to current issue of TBS
Archives main page

The Influence of U.S. Media Use and Demographic Factors on Argentine Men and Women About Perceptions of U.S. Lifestyle

by Mary E. Beadle

“All international business activity involves communication" (Martin and Chaney, 1992, p. 268). Thus cross cultural business communication has become increasingly important over the past decade and a half. A major factor is the growth of international trade. The combined value of import and export trade for the U.S. grew to over $1,500 billion in 1997, an increase from $857 billion in 1990 (International Financial Statistics, 1998, p.895). One of every six manufacturing jobs is related to exports (Martin and Chaney, 1992, p. 267). Another contributing factor to the increase is international trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT. As Ferraro (1997) reminds us "...a fundamental precondition to any successful international business enterprise is effective communication" (p. 42).

Communication across cultures is difficult because it includes more than language. U. S. firms have had between 45-85 percent of their expatriate U. S. citizens return early from foreign assignments because of their inability to adopt to a new culture (Martin & Chaney, 1992). Competing successfully in the global marketplace requires study and understanding of the communication systems of other countries. Barriers to intercultural communication include verbal and non-verbal messages, ethnocentricism, lack of empathy and differences in perception. Perceptions and how they are formed are critical in the understanding of the communication process. To begin to understand how people of different cultures perceive U.S. business professionals, it might be helpful to learn about other people's opinion of U.S. social reality and explore possible influences on perceptions.

The technology that allows the importation and distribution of television signals from around the world, combined with the exportation of U.S. television programming, presents U.S. cultural stereotypes and thus affects communication between cultures. With the increase in business activity between the U.S. and South America, understanding this factor in business communication is important; knowledge about another culture will help to decide on appropriate communication. Argentina can serve as one example. The International Monetary Fund reports the U. S. imports from Argentina for the third quarter of 1998 were 564 billion dollars and exports to Argentina were 1,510 billion dollars (Direction of Trade Statistics, 1999, p. 564). Like many South American countries, Argentina has low wages, raw materials, large energy reserves, and geographic advantages. Unlike Mexico and Brazil, Argentina has had less direct contact with American business people. However, Argentine television and media has been heavily influenced by U.S. programming from the 1950s. As U.S. markets continue to expand into South America, Argentina provides an illustration of a people whose business communication may be more influenced by exposure to U.S. media than by direct personal contact.

This paper is a report of a study conducted in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the summer and fall of 1997. The purpose was to discover if there is evidence of influence by U.S. media on the perceptions Argentine businessmen and women have of U.S. social reality. This is important for two reasons: first, little research of this type has been done with an adult sample; and second, there appears to be an increase in business contacts between U.S. businesses and Argentina. If a better understanding of conditions were known, suggestions to improve communication between U.S. business people and their Latin American counterparts could be made. Further, the United States is a major exporter of television and entertainment programs around the world. More research has been called for about the impact of U. S. television and influences such as personal contact and demographic factors on audiences in other countries to further the understanding of relationships between television consumption, use of media and viewer's perceptions of U.S. social reality.

Perceptions of North Americans and Others
Research in intercultural communication has studied differences in international business communication (Ruch and Crawford, 1991; Friday, 1997; Ferraro, 1994; Stefani, Samovar & Hellwig, 1997). These studies indicate differences in perception as to how U.S. citizens and foreigners see U.S. communication behavior. In general, people from the United States see themselves as warm, friendly, open and informal. A U.S. manager values promptness, efficiency and accepts impersonal relationships in business dealings. North Americans are known to be individualistic, assertive, and informal in dress, gestures and discussion.

Ruch and Crawford (1991) report that foreigners see U.S. citizens as overly personal and familiar before a proper personal relationship has developed, driven, getting right to the point, slaves to the clock, materialistic and valuing self over others. In general, they report that Latin American business cultures prefer face to face communication, are conservative and formal, direct and to the point in discussions, but require a sizing up period. Generally, confrontations are avoided and family matters would be placed above business matters. Communication difficulties between these two cultures may include perceptions that U.S. businessmen and women would be "pushy" or aggressive, not interested in family, and more interested in pursuing self interests.

Stefani, Samovar and Hellwig (1997) report that Latin American negotiators are expressive and spontaneous, share ideas and interrupt as often as North Americans. Latin American cultures first establish a friendships with those they do business. This means that often a direct "no" is avoided because of the risk of breaking a friendship. Although work on intercultural communication has been the topic of scholarly work for the last three decades (most notably Hall), international business communication is a "nascent field" (Limaye and Victor, 1991, p. 281). A difficulty in the field according to them is lack of empirical research specifically on business communication alone.

Television and the Cultivation of Perceptions
Initially, for many citizens of South American nations, their impression of the United States may be from U.S. media, particularly television. How are business people portrayed on U.S. television shows? How do American television producers present social stereotypes? A recent study done for the Media Research Center examined 863 network sitcoms, dramas, and TV movies from 1995 to early 1997. Of the 514 criminal characters found during the study period, nearly 30% were business owners or corporate executives. In contrast, less than 10% were career criminals and less than 1% were lawyers (Elber, 1997, p. 1). This study parallels a report on prime-time television from 1955-1986 that reported businessmen committed 40% of the dramatized murders (Elber, 1997, p. 3). Certainly, additional factors such as interpersonal contacts with the U.S., exposure to other U.S. media, and the viewers perception of the degree of reality of television programs are other important considerations to explore the influence of media on perceptions of social reality. Cultivation theory provides a framework to analyze this phenomenon.

Cultivation research focuses on "television as a socializing agent, or a continuing stream of reality" (Rubin, Perse, & Taylor, 1988, p. 107). In this view, television influences the perception of images about the real world. The relationship between images in the media, the amount of television exposure, and the viewer's belief in the reliability and reality of that message is the primary focus of cultivation study (Gerbner, 1990). Although first applied to viewers in the U.S., the theory has been used to analyze the effects of television viewing in other cultures with mixed results.

Elasmar and Hunter (1993) used meta analysis on 27 communication studies to investigate the size of effects of foreign television on domestic audiences. They discovered that the effects found are "very weak and could be due to some other factors that may be influencing the audience to seek and view foreign television programs" (p. 47).

Zaharopoulos (1997) studied the relationship between television viewing of U.S. programs and the perception that Greek high school students have of U.S. cultural values. He found that those students who watch U.S. programs more frequently tend to have more positive perceptions of the character of U.S. citizens. Gender was an important variable with males using more negative value orientations to describe U.S. citizens than females.

Tan, Li and Simpson (1986) studied Taiwanese and Mexican students, Tan and Suarchavarat studied Thai students (1988). Results of these two studies indicated that American television is the major source of social stereotypes about Americans. The amount of television viewing was the most important predictor of American traits.

Weiman (1984) studied Israeli adolescents and undergraduates. His findings indicated both heavy and light viewers overestimated the rates of wealth and income in America. Heavy viewers overestimated to a greater degree than light viewers. Heavy viewers tend to paint a better picture of life in the U.S. in terms of wealth and standard of living. Also, Hawkins and Pingree (1980) reported Australian children who were heavy viewers held television-like beliefs about the world.

Kang and Morgan (1988) studied the relationship between U.S. programs and the attitudes of college students in Korea. Differences were found between males and females. Females who viewed U.S. television were associated with more liberal attitudes about gender roles and family values. Among males, greater exposure to U.S. television was associated with hostility towards the U.S. and protectiveness of Korean culture. Morgan and Shanahan (1992) compared the cultivation effects of television on adolescents in Argentina and Taiwan. Their study found that the U.S. cultivation hypotheses was more predictive of the correlates of television viewing among adolescents in Argentina than in Taiwan. They attribute this difference to more television viewing and more entertainment programming in Argentina than in Taiwan.

Morgan and Shanahan (1991) studied the relationship between television and the development of political attitudes in Argentine adolescents. They concluded that heavy television viewers were more likely "to agree that people should obey authority, to approve of limits on freedom of speech, and to think that it is someone's own fault if he or she is poor" (p. 88). A more significant conclusion by these authors may be that cultivation research need not be limited to the United States. Some research has suggested that cultivation is inappropriate outside the U.S. (Morgan and Shanahan, 1992, p. 176). Morgan and Shanahan suggest that Latin America, in general, and Argentina in particular, is an appropriate subject for the use of cultivation theory as a legitimate research framework since the structure and programming is based on the U.S. television model (p. 102).

Meta analysis of studies by Elasmar and Hunter (1993) indicates that the effect of foreign television on domestic viewers is quite weak. Despite the controversy surrounding the use of cultivation theory to study the influence of U.S. media on perceptions of foreign audiences, many studies have been conducted that explore this idea. Further, other findings seem to be consistent in reporting differences between men and women and heavy and light viewers. Heavy viewers tend to have more positive perceptions of U.S. wealth and living conditions. Males often have more negative perceptions than females. Since much of the research has focused on adolescent audiences, there was a need to explore the influence of U.S. media on perception of U.S. social reality on older audiences. Similarity of Argentina’s media system to the U.S. media system and the amount of U.S. media found in Argentina over a long period of time provide an appropriate subject for this research.

Argentina and Media
Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, slightly smaller than India. In South America, only Brazil is slightly larger. Nearly forty percent of the country's thirty-three million people live in greater Buenos Aires, and there is considerable political and economic power located in the city. The Argentine economy is returning to a somewhat stable situation after inflation exceeded fifty percent in the 1970s and early 1980s. Argentina is one of the most literate countries in South America and supports a wide variety of books, magazines and newspapers. The most important media development in the last few years is the end of the government monopoly on electronic media, which has resulted in more variety. As early as 1984, Schement and Rogers described television as the dominant medium. The three major U.S. television networks helped establish the early Argentine television system and supplied programming and financing (Straubhaar and King, 1987). Broadcasting in Argentina has had significant time devoted to imported programs (Antola and Rogers, 1984). Since 1992, the widely adapted use of fiber optic cable in greater Buenos Aires has reinforced the dominance of the television medium and the use of imported television.

Cable television is very prominent and has developed rapidly since the early 1990s. Argentina has the largest cable penetration in Latin America, 51% compared with an overall rate of 12% for the continent (Cabled Up, 1997, 30). More people have cable television than telephones (Rionda, 1997, p.1). Competing cable systems offer up to sixty-five channels. Most of the programming is imported from other Latin American countries and the U.S. Fiber optic cable in Buenos Aires and competition between two cable companies (Cablevision-TCI and Video Cable Communication-VCC) has provided the citizens in greater Buenos Aires access to many foreign television programs. Programming from the United States, broadcast almost exclusively in English, include: CNN, MTV, Discovery Channel, Cartoon Network, Worldnet, TNT, ESPN, USA and Fox. Other imported programs are from Brazil, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Italy, and Germany. For example, VCC provides forty-seven channels: ten are U.S., seven are other foreign services.

In greater Buenos Aires, many AM and FM stations are available. In the Provinces (the area outside greater Buenos Aires), access is somewhat limited for both cable and radio, but does include television programming from around the world. The University of Buenos Aires provides academic courses over a radio network.

In general the influence of U.S. music and a D.J. style of announcing has been an important force in radio formats. More recently, the addition of talk radio follows the U.S. pattern. One of the more recent adaption is an imitation of David Letterman, host of a late night television program. Letterman’s format includes a live band, a background featuring a city skyline and a popular gimmick, the "Top 10 List." Roberto Pettinato hosts Duro de Acostar which features a talkative bandleader, a city backdrop, and a nightly Top 5 list. According to Ulanovsky the American influence in format development is so strong, that "all successful formulas have been adapted and copied from U.S. television (Ulanovsky, 1997, 102)." Some of the popular U.S. imports are movies, sitcoms, and drama (The Simpsons, ER and The Nanny). The cable channels also broadcast imported programs from around the world, including many news shows. continued

Next page
page 1 | 2 | 3

Copyright 1999 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo