Subculture and Social Class

By Peter, J.P., Olson, J.C.

Edited by Paul Ducham


Americans like to think of their country as a melting pot, but the mass American market is a myth for many product categories. In different parts of the United States, the physical environment (topography, climate, natural resources) and social environment (economics, population demographics, lifestyles) are quite different, and these factors affect the culture and buying behavior. In reality the United States is a polycultural nation, a mosaic of submarkets and subcultures. In some ways, Boston and Houston are as different as Hamburg (Germany) and Milan (Italy).

 Marketers may find it easier to accept Europe and Latin America as separate cultural regions than to recognize Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana as different markets. For example, product ownership varies widely across the nation. Consumers in California own a much higher percentage of foreign cars than their counterparts in the Midwest or South. Very few brands enjoy uniform sales across the country. Many national brands get 40 to 80 percent of their sales in a core region, but they are specialty brands (with lower market shares) in other areas of the country. In the mid-1980s, for instance, Ford pickups were the favorite in a number of northwestern states, whereas Chevy pickups dominated in many southern states. 7 Wonder Bread sells best in New York (for reasons unknown), whereas snack nuts sell best in Portland, Maine. Seattle leads in sales of “healthy” foods such as Cheerios but is also tops in Hershey’s chocolate bars. Coping with this diversity requires attention to regional subcultures.

 There are many ways to analyze the United States in terms of geographic subcultures. In one creative approach, Joel Garreau divided the North American continent into nine geographic areas that he labeled the “nine nations” of North America. 8 U.S. marketers concentrate on the eight areas shown in Exhibit 13.2 . Garreau argued that a variety of environmental factors—including economic, social, cultural, political, topographical, and natural resource factors—combine to form these nine areas. The exhibit also summarizes the “personalities” of these areas.

 Despite criticisms, this framework may be useful for some products and services in developing specific marketing strategies to appeal to consumers in each area. For example, preferences for and consumption of various beverages vary dramatically in different geographic areas of the United States, and analysis of cultural differences in these regions may help determine which beverages can be marketed most effectively.

 Borderland Regions. Cultural and subcultural differences do not always coincide with national (or other artificial) boundaries. Consider the so-called borderlands along the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States. 10 About 5.2 million people (35 percent Hispanic) live in 25 borderland counties in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas that have grown about 30 percent since 1980. Another 3 million people live on the Mexico side. The borderlands constitute a geographic subculture with significant marketing potential.

 Consider the area called Los Dos Laredos (the two Laredos): Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Although separated by the Rio Grande River, residents on both sides give little thought to the border as they freely cross the bridges to shop, work, and enjoy themselves. A bank official puts it this way: “We’re not the United States and we’re not Mexico. We’re different. We think we gather the best of both cultures.” According to one citizen, “We’re more like Minneapolis and Saint Paul than the U.S. and Mexico, because we are the same people.” Some marketers create products specifically for subcultural groups such as this line of hair products for African American consumers

 The borderlands are an important regional market even though the overall demographics are downscale (residents have lower-than-average incomes). The U.S. side is swelled by thousands of Mexican citizens who cross the border to work and spend their pesos. Although some shopping areas are bordertown tacky, Laredo’s new retailing centers contain chain stores like Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and HEB of California. Successful marketing strategies recognize the Hispanic culture as the major influence in the borderlands. For instance, many of the signs and store names are in Spanish, prices are often given in both pesos and dollars, and most stores accept either currency. Because Hispanic families tend to be large, grocery stores usually stock big sizes, including 50-pound sacks of rice.

Exhibit 13.2


Age groups can also be analyzed as subcultures because they often have distinctive values and behaviors. However, marketers must be cautious about segmenting consumers based on their actual age. Many adult American consumers think of themselves as 10 to 15 years younger than they really are. 11 Thus, their behaviors, affect, and cognitions are more related to their psychological age than to their chronological age. Consider this statement from an 89-year-old woman: “I might be 89 years old, but I feel good. I feel like I could fly the coop. I do. I feel younger, like I’m 45 or 50. I want to doll up, and I like to fuss. . . . I don’t know I’m old. I feel like I’m going to live a long time.” This suggests marketers should analyze subjective or “cognitive age” (the age one thinks of oneself as being) rather than chronological or actual age. Many different age subcultures can be identified and analyzed, but we will discuss only three here: teens, baby boomers, and the mature market.

The Teen Market.  The American teenage population has been gaining affluence while fluctuating in size. In the mid 1980s, there were about 26 million people in the United States ages 12 to 19. This number decreased to about 25 million in the mid 1990s and increased to about 30 million by 2008. Teens are important not only because they have a major influence on household purchases but also because of their own discretionary purchasing power. Teenagers spent more than $115 billion in 2000.

 Several studies have found that teenagers do a large portion of the grocery shopping for the family: Estimates are that from 49 to 61 percent of teenage girls and 26 to 33 percent of teenage boys frequently perform this task. In addition, about 60 percent of teens help make the supermarket shopping list, and 40 percent select some of the brands to be purchased. It is no wonder that brand-name food marketers advertise in magazines such as Seventeen.

 Brand loyalty has also been found to form early among teenage shoppers. In a survey of women ages 20 to 34, at least 30 percent said they made a brand decision as a teenager and continued to use the brand to the present. Sixty-four percent said they looked for specific brands when they were teenagers. Thus, a final reason this market is so important for many products and services is the potential to develop brand loyalty that may last a lifetime. However, marketing certain products to teens, such as R-rated films, is highly controversial, as Consumer Insight 13.2 describes. Consumer Insight 13.3 describes the importance of the Internet for teenagers.

Baby Boomers.  Baby boomers are people born between 1946 and 1964. In 2000, there were about 80 million people in this group—roughly a third of the U.S. population. Boomers are in their late 40s to mid 60s and in their prime earning and spending years. The baby boomer market is the largest and most affluent in history and will have a major economic impact for the next 30 years. 13 Over the next decade or so, baby boomers will account for about half of all discretionary spending.

 Although the baby boomer subculture is extremely diverse, some general characteristics have been identified. The group is characterized as having a blend of “me-generation” and old-fashioned family values and as strongly influencing the values of other groups. 15 A study by the Cadwell Davis Partners ad agency found that many people who aren’t baby boomers feel as if they are. Baby boomers emphasize health and exercise, and have reduced their consumption of cigarettes, coffee, and strong alcoholic beverages. Forty-six percent of this market has completed college and two-thirds of baby boomer wives work, compared with about half the wives in the rest of the population. In terms of products, this group emphasizes quality and is far less concerned with bargain hunting than their parents were.

 Baby boomers have a strong impact on markets for housing, cars, food, clothing, cosmetics, and financial services. For instance, nearly one-fourth of boomers are single, creating strong markets for vacations and convenience packaged goods. In addition, although they had fewer children per household, the sheer size of the boomer group led to an increase in births in the 1990s—a “baby boom echo.” Boomers who were new parents were especially attractive to marketers. Given the large incomes and small family sizes of this group, spending per child was the largest in history. Markets for children’s products expanded accordingly. Toy sales, for example, are increased more than twice as fast as the population of children for whom they are intended. Other markets, such as child care services and computer software for tots, grew dramatically.

 The baby boomer market, then, is the most lucrative and challenging marketers have ever seen. Many firms have designed new products and redesigned and repositioned old ones for this market. Wheaties used to appeal to kids as “the breakfast of champions”; now it is promoted to adults with such slogans as “what the big boys eat.”

 Commercials for Snickers candy bars show adults rather than children eating this candy for a snack. Crest and other brands have introduced toothpaste formulas to fight plaque, an adult problem. Levi Strauss has redesigned its jeans to give a little extra room in the seat to accommodate “booming boomer bodies.” Even Clearasil, traditionally an antiacne medication for teenagers, developed Clearasil Adult Care to appeal to the growing number of baby boomer adults with skin problems.

The Mature Market.  As America ages (similar trends are occurring in other industrialized countries such as Japan and most European nations), marketers have recognized the economic importance of the mature market, defined as consumers over age 55. 16 Because the mature market is quite diverse, marketers often consider smaller subcultural groups based on narrower age ranges, such as older (55 to 64), elderly (65 to 74), aged (75 to 84), and very old (85 and over). The mature market is one of the most rapidly growing subcultures in American society. In 2000 there were 35 million consumers over 65, up from 30 million in 1987. Nearly 80 percent of the current U.S. population is expected to live until their late 70s. At present, about one in four Americans is older than 50; by 2020, about one-third will be. Between now and 2020, the number of people age 50 or older will increase by 74 percent (as baby boomers continue to age), whereas the number under age 50 will increase by only 1 percent. 17 By 2020, there could be as many as 58 million elderly (over 65) or as few as 48 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The exact number of older Americans expected in 2020 is hard to predict; it all depends on the mortality rate, especially gains made against specific diseases such as heart ailments, cancer, and stroke.

 The next century will see huge increases in demand for products and services for older consumers, including adult day care; home health care; prescription and overthe- counter drugs; medical care of all types; and foods low in cholesterol, sugar, salt, and calories. Other nonhealth-related products include planned vacation travel, restaurants, recreational vehicles, and hotels and motels. Recognizing that extended families will be larger, theme parks such as Six Flags–Great America created packages for grandparents, parents, and grandkids as a group. Older people are better educated than previous generations, which creates increased demand for educational programs, books, and news.

 Traditionally marketers have ignored the mature market, perhaps because it was assumed to have low purchasing power. However, in addition to its sheer size, the economic character of this market deserves careful consideration. Although many members of this group no longer work, they often have considerable discretionary income. Unlike younger groups, members of mature markets are usually free of most of the financial burdens associated with child rearing, mortgages, and furnishing a household. Given these differences, per capita discretionary income is higher for the mature group than for any other age group—about 50 percent of the nation’s total.

 It is also important to recognize how the mature market is changing. In 1985, only 9 percent of the elderly had a college degree and only 44 percent had graduated from high school. By 1995, the share of older people with college educations rose to more than 12 percent, and at least one-fourth had some college. The mature market is becoming more educated and thus has greater incomes. Increases in income will also come about because many of those in tomorrow’s mature market will benefit from pension and retirement plans.

 Finally, because many people in the mature market subculture are retired, they have more time to enjoy entertainment and leisure activities. Although this market historically has spent more money on food for home consumption than away-fromhome consumption, restaurants now cater to them with senior citizen discounts, earlybird dinners, and menus designed for the tastes and requirements of older people.

 The elderly represent a significant market for skin care products, vitamins and minerals, health and beauty aids, and medications that ease pain and promote the performance of everyday activities. In addition, they are a significant market for condominiums in the Sunbelt states, time-share arrangements, travel and vacations, cultural activities, and luxury items given as gifts to their children and grandchildren. Overall, then, the mature market subculture represents an excellent marketing opportunity that will become even better in the future.

 Developing marketing strategies that appeal to consumers in the mature market is more difficult than it looks. 20 Few companies are experts at it. Many marketers have inaccurate perceptions of this large and diverse group, including persistent images of frail, stubborn, and indigent people who, if not confined to bed, are tottering around on canes. Yet only 5 percent of Americans over 65 are institutionalized. People are staying healthy and active much later into their lives than ever before.

 Some ads are beginning to use themes and models that older consumers can identify with. No longer depicted as weak and doddery, older people are shown doing the things they do in real life: working, playing tennis, falling in love, and buying cars. McDonald’s, for instance, was a forerunner in this style with its “Golden Years” spots that showed an elderly man and woman meeting for lunch at McDonald’s and an elderly man on his first day of work at McDonald’s.

 Consumer Insight 13.2

The Movie Industry Targets Kids

For years the Motion Picture Association of America has operated with a rating system designed to protect kids from violent, sexually explicit, or otherwise inappropriate movies. However, some critics say the way in which the industry has marketed its movies has undermined its own rating system.

 For example, children under 17 cannot attend R-rated films unless accompanied by an adult. Nonetheless, Sony’s Columbia Pictures tried unsuccessfully to advertise the R-rated Bruce Willis film The Fifth Element on the kids’ cable network Nickelodeon. In an attempt to publicize its R-rated science fiction movie Mimic, Disney’s Miramax unit gave away promotional posters to the Boy Scouts and a Boys and Girls Club in the Kansas City area. In addition, a study by the Parents’ Television Council revealed that during a three-week span in 2000, some 83 percent of movie commercials aired on network television between 8 and 9 PM (the prime family viewing hour) were for R-rated films.

 Studios have even included kids in their market research. Columbia Tristar sounded out a group of 50 children ages 9 to 11 about their thoughts on a sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer, a film featuring a serial killer who slashes victims with an ice hook. MGM/ United Artists screened commercials for the R-rated thriller Disturbing Behavior before a group of four hundred 12- to 20-year-olds. The research results showed their favorite scene was one in which a woman smashes her head into a mirror.

 Moreover, it isn’t just R-rated films about which critics are upset. A PG-13 rating serves as a warning to parents that a movie may contain violence or language that may be unsuitable for children under 13. However, some studios have created toy tie-ins to promote their PG-13 films. These toy tie-ins reach children as young as 4 years of age.

 The studios admit their critics make some valid points, but they argue there are two sides to the story. For instance, the firm that conducted the research for the I Know What You Did Last Summer sequel says that it made economic sense to interview 9-, 10-, and 11-yearolds because kids that age made up a large portion of the audience for the original movie. Furthermore, industry executives maintain it is impossible to make sure young children don’t see any advertising for R-rated films. Plus, they say some films, despite their R-ratings, are quite suitable for young audiences. They point specifically to the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan, starring Tom Hanks, and Amistad, which deals with the brutality of the American slave trade.

 Do you believe the movie industry has behaved ethically in the way it has promoted its films to kids? Or are executives overstepping their bounds? Should some kind of mandatory restrictions be in place to protect children from advertising for potentially inappropriate films?

 Consumer Insight 13.3

Blogs, Podcasts, and Social Networking Sites Are Changing the Marketing of Movies and Music

The Internet subculture is changing the field of marketing. Young artists with little or no support from the entertainment industry can now reach a widespread audience, determine the depth of connection with their audience, and maintain the attention of their target consumers, all with a minimal budget. This is the opening wave of a new kind of grassroots marketing. More traditional marketers know about the power of grassroots marketing but find it difficult to implement, partly because the audience of mostly teenagers is a notoriously difficult demographic to keep captivated.

 Consider this example. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice created the film Four Eyed Monsters with nothing but a vision and a digital camera. Having no credentials and no way to gain distribution, they began building their own fan base with the help of the Internet. Through their MySpace page, Arin and Susan send out flyers and updates to their growing number of fans. Their film’s Web page, , offered a way for their fans to reach them. Fans could e-mail Arin and Susan requesting a screening of the film in their area. If enough people in the area request a screening, Arin and Susan would convince a venue to show their film. They kept their fans intrigued with updates on the behind-thescenes marketing drama through a series of podcasts and blogs. Their podcasts each drew roughly 65,000 downloads via iTunes, YouTube, Google Video, MySpace, and other sites. Knowing and learning about the film and the filmmakers let fans feel they are on the cutting edge of the art scene, gave them a sense of ownership and pride in the film, and made them more likely to talk about the film with their friends. All this worked together to create an extremely powerful buzz.

 Here’s another example of unusual marketing tactics. In spite of strict advertising laws for online casinos, the Golden Palace Casino developed a widespread audience through a set of unusual marketing tactics. The company purchased eccentric, nonregulated “ad space” on people’s ankles, foreheads, and even on a pregnant belly. The Golden Palace Casino made weird purchases on eBay, from buying a Cheeto that supposedly looks like Jesus to acquiring a set of popsicle sticks with heads of characters in the Michael Jackson trial, thereby generating media attention and creating interesting conversation starters. All this spurred people to check out their Web site for other news about and from the zany casino.

 How do you think the evolving Internet subculture in an increasingly networked world will affect marketing? Are these new forms of communication? How can marketers promote new trends and ideas by tapping into the interconnected consumers on the Internet?


In the past two decades, the ethnic makeup of the United States has changed dramatically. In 1980 one of every five Americans was a member of a minority group. In 1990 one in four Americans claimed to have Hispanic, Asian, African, or Native American ancestry. The increases were unequal across ethnic subcultures because of different immigration patterns and birthrates. For instance, the Asian subculture grew 80 percent during the 1980s, compared to increases of 4.4 percent in the white population, 14 percent for blacks, and 39 percent for Hispanics. Increases in these minority subcultures are expected to continue so that by 2010 about one-third of American children will be black, Hispanic, or Asian.

 Marketers must recognize that ethnic diversity is not distributed equally across the United States. The most ethnically diverse regions in the country are in the Southwest and the South; the least diverse are in the Midwest, where the proportion of whites may exceed 90 percent. The most ethnically diverse county in the nation is San Francisco, with approximately equal proportions of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. New York City and Los Angeles are highly diverse cities. Following we discuss the three major ethnic subcultures in the United States: black, Hispanic, and Asian.

The Black Subculture.  The black or African American subculture is the largest minority group in the United States, with some 40.7 million people and about 8.5 million families (about 13 percent of the total population), a market worth about $500 billion annually. 24 African Americans are a highly diverse group. Although many black Americans are poor, two-thirds are not. More than 41 percent of black families had incomes exceeding $50,000 in 1999, up from 18 percent in 1980. However, 9.5 percent of black families were very poor (incomes less than $10,000) in 1999. Although the 17 million relatively poor blacks concentrated in densely populated urban centers are more visible in the media, 8 million blacks live in suburban neighborhoods.

 Economic conditions for blacks vary considerably in different metropolitan areas. For example, about one-fourth of blacks in Washington, DC, are affluent, compared to only 1 in 25 in Miami. In San Francisco, 1 in 10 blacks is affluent and more than half are middle class. Middle-class blacks may have more in common with middleclass whites and Asians than with lower-class blacks. The diversity in the African American subculture suggests marketers should further segment the black market based on factors such as income, social class, or geographic region. Consumer Insight 13.4 presents an example of such a subsubculture.

 Increasingly, marketers are targeting African Americans with special products and marketing strategies. For example, Tyco, Hasbro, and Mattel are all marketing “ethnically correct” dolls designed for the black market (10 percent of U.S. children under 10 are black). 25 Mattel’s doll Shani (Swahili for “marvelous”) and her two friends, Asha and Nicelle, have different skin tones, hairstyles, and facial features that reflect the diversity of black women. Some marketing strategies directed at the black subculture have been highly controversial. G. Heileman Brewing Company succumbed to public pressure and canceled plans to market a high-alcohol malt beer, “PowerMaster,” to low-income, inner-city black consumers.

The Hispanic Subculture.  According to 2007 statistics, approximately 44.3 million Hispanics live in the United States (about 15 percent of the total population). 27 Hispanics are people with Spanish-speaking ancestry from such places as Mexico (at 66 percent, by far the largest group in the United States), Puerto Rico, Cuba, and various countries in Central and South America. When combined into a single subculture, Hispanic people account for more than $390 billion in purchasing power.

 Hispanics are distributed unequally across the United States, with most living in the border states of Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico (each state has a Hispanic population exceeding 500,000). The top six Hispanic U.S. cities are New York (mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans); Miami (Cubans); Los Angeles, Houston, and San Antonio (Mexicans); and Chicago (a mix of all). In these regions, the Hispanic subculture has a significant effect on the overall culture.

 The Hispanic subculture is diverse, and reaching Hispanic consumers efficiently and effectively can be difficult. Some Hispanics are third- or fourth-generation U.S. citizens and are well assimilated into American culture; they can be reached by traditional U.S. media (TV, radio, and magazines). Other Hispanics retain much of their original culture and may speak mostly or only Spanish. To oversimply, marketers can identify three broad segments (subgroups) in the Hispanic subculture: only Spanish speaking; bilingual, but favoring Spanish; and bilingual, but favoring English.

 Using Spanish in ads can be an effective way to reach all three groups. Recently developed Spanish-language media (TV channels, newspapers, and magazines) make it easier than ever to reach the Hispanic market. For instance, the magazine La Familia de Hoy is targeted at Hispanic women who speak English as a second language and have children at home. Several large companies have placed ads in Spanish in the magazine, including Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, Kraft, AT&T, and Kinney Shoes. Successful advertising campaigns tend to use large, colorful ads that combine the “American dream” with the traditional values of the Hispanic extended family.

 Many companies would like to develop marketing strategies targeted at the Hispanic market, but getting good information about Hispanic needs, values, and beliefs is difficult. Companies must decide whether to develop one general marketing strategy for all Hispanics or adapt the strategy for each segment of the Hispanic subculture. Coors, for instance, opts for the adaptive, tailor-made approach, showing ads with a rodeo theme in Houston but not in Miami. Goya Foods developed different products for Miami (Cubans prefer black beans) and New York (Puerto Ricans like red beans).

 Marketing to domestic subcultures requires a careful analysis of consumers’ affect, cognitions, and behaviors. For example, a telephone company once tried to target the Hispanic market by employing Puerto Rican actors. In the ad, the wife said to her husband, “Run downstairs and phone Mary. Tell her we’ll be a little late.” However, this commercial ignored Hispanic values and behaviors. For one thing, Hispanic wives seldom order their husbands around; for another, few Hispanics would find it necessary to phone if they are going to be late, because being late is expected. Similarly, Coors ads featuring the slogan “Taste the high country” were not effective with Mexican Americans, who could not identify with mountain life. The Spanish-language Coors ads were modified to suggest that mountains were a good source of beer, but one did not need to live in the mountains to enjoy it. The new slogan in its English translation became “Take the beer from the high country and bring it to your high country—wherever it may be.”

Asian Subculture.  Although only about 4.4 percent of the population in 2007, Asian Americans are perhaps the most rapidly increasing ethnic group in the United States. 31 The population of people of Asian ancestry increased 80 percent in the 1980s (largely because of increased immigration), growing from 3.8 million in 1980 to about 7 million in 1989 to about 13.3 million in 2007, representing a purchasing power of about $110 billion. Asian Americans are concentrated in a few areas of the country, where they have an important influence on the overall culture. Most Asians (56 percent) live in the West, particularly in California (13 percent of Californians were Asian in 2000). Asian Americans are highly urbanized, with 93 percent living in cities (three-quarters of the 3 million Californian Asians live in the Los Angeles basin or the San Francisco Bay area).

 The Asian subculture in these regions requires special marketing attention for many companies. Grocery stores in Koreatown in Los Angeles stock large bags of rice near the checkout counter (where stores in middle America put the charcoal). Understanding how Asian American consumers make purchase decisions is critical to the success of many products. One study found that country of origin and length of time in this country are critical factors in how Asian consumers make purchase decisions. 32 For instance, Vietnamese Americans are more likely to adhere to the cultural model in which the man makes the decision for any large purchase, whereas women in Japanese households tend to have more influence on their husbands. Gillette can place these two ads in English and Spanishlanguage magazines directed at Hispanic consumers

 Asian Americans are a prime market because they are more affluent than any other racial or ethnic group. In 1999 the median income of an Asian American household was $51,000, compared to $44,500 for whites, $33,700 for Hispanics, and $29,500 for African Americans. Asian income levels are high for two reasons. First, the education level is high (43 percent of adults have completed four or more years of college, compared to 26 percent of white Americans). Second, more Asian Americans live in married- couple households with two wage earners.

 It is tempting to think of Asian Americans (and other minority subcultures) as a single, homogeneous market, but this subculture is highly diverse. Some Asians are well integrated into American culture, whereas others live in Asian communities and maintain much of their original culture, including their languages. Because Asian people come from several distinctive cultural backgrounds—Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands—many marketers further segment the Asian community into subcultures based on language or nationality. MCI, for instance, developed such effective print ads targeted at recent immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan that the company had to hire additional Chinese-speaking operators to handle the influx of calls. Implementing such targeted marketing strategies is possible in communities where specialized media (newspapers, magazines, radio) can reach Asian subcultures.

 Consumer Insight 13.4

Targeting African Americans on the Web

Much has been made of the so-called digital divide. Indeed, the percentage of whites using the Internet is significantly higher than the percentage of African Americans who are online. But a closer look at those numbers tells a somewhat different story. African Americans are going online at a rate twice that of the general population. Moreover, 30 percent of African Americans plan to make purchases online, compared to 21 percent of the general population. The increasing number of sites targeted toward the African American audience is evidence that the Internet community is taking notice. is one of the pioneering African American–oriented sites. It features news, book reviews, chat rooms, and entertainment, along with an extensive listing of job opportunities. aims to create a virtual community of African Americans. It was founded in September 1999, and within four months had built a base of 200,000 registered users. BlackPlanet quickly attracted some big-name advertisers, including BellSouth, General Motors, and the United States Army. According to founder Omar Wasow, “Most African American sites are designed to connect you to information, while our goal has always been connecting people to other people.” BlackPlanet does this by providing its members with e-mail accounts, personal Web pages, games, and forums. Membership in 2006 was nearly 14 million. is a somewhat more highbrow site focusing on education. Founded by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a preeminent African American intellectual, offers lesson plans for teachers, African news, links to dozens of African radio stations, and noted guest columnists like Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka and Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree. From its inception in January 1999, has not accepted banner advertising (which Gates believed would detract from the site’s content and dilute its brand image), opting instead to sell “sponsorships” similar to those found on public television. In September 2000, Gates sold to Time Warner, a move that combined with BlackVoices to become .

 These are just a few of an increasing number of sites aimed at African Americans. But with so many sites serving such a relatively limited—albeit economically powerful—audience, how many can survive long term? Scott Mills, CEO of (a partnership between Black Entertainment Television, Microsoft, USA Networks, and News Corporation) is skeptical. “How many of the sites are going to be large, successful, viable? Three, at best,” Mills predicts.


Despite the modern tendency to downplay differences between men and women, there is ample evidence that men and women differ in important respects other than physically. For instance, women may process information differently than men and seem more “generous, more nurturing, and less dominating than men.” For some marketing purposes, gender differences may be significant enough to consider the two sexes as separate subcultures. For instance, research has found that women treat possessions differently than men do. Some men see ownership and possession of products as a way to dominate and exert power over others, discriminate themselves from others (status differentiation), and even engage in subtle forms of aggression over others. Women, in contrast, tend to value possessions that can enhance personal and social relationships. Compared to most men, most women seem to value caring over controlling, sharing over selfishness, and cooperating over dominating. Many marketers may find it useful to develop different marketing strategies for the male and female subcultures.

 By the late 1990s, more marketers began to see women as a distinctive subculture and key market segment. Women control approximately 60 percent of U.S. wealth and influence more than 80 percent of all purchases. Moreover, some 25 percent of working women bring home bigger paychecks than their husbands. This led Tom Peters, well-known business author, to declare, “Women are opportunity No. 1.” 35 In some markets, the changes during the past quarter-century have been dramatic. For example, women constituted only about 1 percent of all business travelers in 1970, but they accounted for roughly 50 percent by 1997. Recently executives were surprised to find that 60 percent of customers at a do-it-yourself building supplies chain were women and about two-thirds of PC purchases for the home were made by women. Today women either make or greatly influence most purchasing decisions, and companies that do not recognize this are headed for trouble. In response, the Westin hotel chain has developed strong marketing relationships with women by including irons and full-length mirrors in the rooms and conveying a respectful attitude in the restaurants (ask the woman to taste the wine), among other things.


It is possible to consider level of income as a subculture, because people at different income levels tend to have quite different values, behaviors, and lifestyles. Typically, however, income is used to further segment a subculture defined on some other characteristic (age, ethnic group, region). Many myths and misconceptions about income distribution in the United States can confuse marketers. For instance, if you think lower-income households are dominated by minorities, you are wrong; most poor Americans are white. Affluence doesn’t necessarily increase with age, either.

 Marketers often divide American households into three income categories: downscale (under $33,000 income per year), upscale (over $55,000 per year), and middle income ($33,000 to 55,000 per year). Demographic characteristics of these income groups illustrate one reason to stay in college and graduate: There is a very strong relationship between college education and income level. Nearly half of upscale adults have completed four years of college, but only 10 percent of downscale adults have done so. Nearly half (46 percent) of American households are downscale. Although the upscale subculture constitutes an excellent market for high-quality luxury goods, only one in five households falls into this category. The mass market is downscale, which partially accounts for the huge success of discount retailers such as Wal-Mart. Some American marketers have found that the downscale market can be very profitable.


A process of acculturation begins when a person from one culture moves to a different culture or subculture to live and work. Acculturation refers to how people in one culture or subculture understand and adapt to the meanings (values, beliefs, behaviors, rituals, lifestyles) of another culture or subculture. Consumer acculturation refers to how people acquire the ability and cultural knowledge to be skilled consumers in different cultures or subcultures.

 Acculturation processes are important in the modern world. Many societies face the problem of assimilating large numbers of immigrants from rather different cultural backgrounds into the host culture. For instance, in the United States, the Hispanic and Asian subcultures grew rapidly from 1990.

 Acculturation is also important for people who move to different regions within the same country and must adapt to different sub Cultural Meanings. In the United States, one out of six Americans moves each year. However, two-thirds of these move within the same county (the median distance moved is only 6 miles), and the subcultural changes in most of these moves are probably minor. In contrast, about 10 percent of Americans move to a different region of the country (most of these people are college graduates), and they are likely to face some acculturation problems as they learn a new regional subculture. Finally, acculturation is important for marketing managers, who must try to understand the cultural meanings of consumers in societies and subcultures different than their own.

 The degree to which immigrants, movers, and marketers become acculturated into a new culture or subculture depends on their level of cultural interpenetration, the amount and type of social interactions they have with people in the host culture. Social contact with people in other subcultures can occur through direct, personal experience at work, while shopping, or in living arrangements.

 Social experiences also may be indirect or vicarious, as in observing other people from a distance or on television. Some Americans may lack a cultural understanding of people in other societies and subcultures because much of their social contact with such people has been shallow and indirect. Many Americans learn about other cultures and subcultures largely through vicarious observation of subcultural portrayals in the mass media (movies, television programs, books, news media). When people have the opportunity for deeper cultural interpenetration (through work experiences or living in proximity to other types of people), they tend to become more thoroughly acculturated.

 When people come into contact with a new culture or subculture, they may go through four stages of acculturation corresponding to four levels of cultural interpenetration. In the honeymoon stage, people are fascinated by the exotic foreign culture or subculture. Because cultural interpenetration is shallow and superficial, little acculturation occurs. Tourists traveling to various regions of the United States may experience this stage.

 If cultural interpenetration increases, people may enter a rejection stage, where they recognize that many of their old behaviors and meanings may be inadequate for acting in the new subculture. Some people may develop hostile attitudes toward the new subculture and reject its key values and meanings. Cultural conflicts tend to be maximal in this stage.

 If cultural interpenetration continues and deepens, people may reach the tolerance stage. As they learn more cultural meanings and behaviors, they may begin to appreciate the new subculture, and cultural conflict will decrease.

 Finally, in the integration stage, adjustment to the subculture is adequate, although acculturation need not be complete or total. At this stage, people are able to function satisfactorily in the new culture or subculture, which is viewed as an alternative way of life and is valued for its good qualities.

 Consider the acculturation problem faced by immigrants who come to the United States with their own cultural meanings and values and must adapt to the different cultural meanings of American society. One study of immigrants from India found that transitional objects such as Indian clothing, jewelry, special furniture, movies, photographs, and music were highly valued as reminders of their home culture. 42 Educated immigrants may tend to become more acculturated because their high education levels lead to greater cultural interpenetration. Many Hispanics tend to maintain their cultural values and traditions, and full acculturation may take three or four generations. But even long-term resident Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or African Americans may never completely incorporate all of the values, meanings, and behaviors of mainstream American culture.

 An important aspect of the acculturation process is proficiency in the language of the new culture. Ability to speak English obviously influences the level of cultural interpenetration that an immigrant can achieve in the United States. For instance, Hispanic immigrants who live and work in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, surrounded by similar people, may penetrate little into American society and may become only partially acculturated. Immigrants with more education are more likely to speak English and can obtain better jobs, which in turn allows for greater cultural penetration and enables them to become more completely acculturated. Interestingly, immigrants who join families already living in the United States tend to be more passive and penetrate less deeply into American culture than the more innovative family members who were the first to come to the United States.

Social Class

 An expert in social class research has made the following observations:

 There are no two ways about it: Social class is a difficult idea. Sociologists, in whose discipline the concept emerged, are not of one mind about its value and validity. Consumer researchers, to whose field its use has spread, display confusion about when and how to apply it. The American public is noticeably uncomfortable with the realities about life that it reflects. All who try to measure it have trouble. Studying it rigorously and imaginatively can be monstrously expensive. Yet, all these difficulties notwithstanding, the proposition still holds: Social class is worth troubling over for the insights it offers on the marketplace behavior of the nation’s consumers.

 We agree with these observations concerning both the problems and the value of social class analysis. For our purposes in this text, social class refers to a national status hierarchy by which groups and individuals are distinguished in terms of esteem and prestige. Coleman recommends that four social class groups be used for consumer analysis in the United States: upper, middle, working, and lower class. Exhibit 13.3 describes these groups and identifies some marketing implications for each.

 Identification with each social class is influenced most strongly by one’s level of education and occupation (including income as a measure of work success). But social class is also affected by social skills, status aspirations, community participation, family history, cultural level, recreational habits, physical appearance, and social acceptance by a particular class. Thus, social class is a composite of many personal and social attributes rather than a single characteristic such as income or education. The four social classes can be considered as large subcultures because their members share many cultural meanings and behaviors.

 Although the members of each social class share distinct values and behavior patterns to some degree, each of the four major groups can be further differentiated. Although there are a number of similarities in values and behaviors within groups in a given class, vast differences can exist in family situations and income levels among subgroups.

 For instance, families in each social class can be further classified as relatively overprivileged, average, or underprivileged. Overprivileged families in each social class are usually those with incomes 25 to 30 percent above the median for the class, who therefore have “extra” money to seek better forms of the life preferred by the class. However, because these families continue to share values, behaviors, and associations with other members of the class, they typically do not move to a higher social class. The average families are those in the middle-income range who can afford the kind of house, car, apparel, food, furniture, and appliances expected by their social class peers. Finally, the underprivileged families have incomes that fall at least 15 percent below the class midpoint and therefore must scrimp and sacrifice to be able to purchase the appropriate products for that class.

 Social class and relative standing within a class are important sources of consumers’ beliefs, values, and behaviours. 45 Most of the people an individual interacts with on a day-to-day basis are likely to be members of that person’s social class. Family, peer groups, and friends at work, school, and in the neighborhood are all likely to be of the same social class. These people teach the individual appropriate values for the class as well as behaviors that are acceptable to it. This process can occur either through direct instruction (“You don’t have a chance anymore unless you go to college”) or vicariously (an individual sees neighborhood friends going to college, graduating, and purchasing new cars).

 At a conceptual level, social classes are useful for investigating the process by which consumers develop their characteristic beliefs, values, and behavior patterns. For example, the upper class may well be socially secure and not find it necessary or desirable to purchase the most expensive brands to impress other people. Middleclass people, on the other hand, often engage in such conspicuous consumption. As Consumer Insight 13.5 shows, even homeless people (perhaps the lowest social class in American society) engage in consumption behavior.

 Consumer Insight 13.5

The Lowest Social Class? The Homeless in America

For a variety of reasons, homeless men and women crowded many American cities during the 1980s and 1990s. Estimates in 2000 of the homeless population were 3 million and the number was rising. Without a home and seldom with a job, the homeless are at the bottom of the social class hierarchy. However, despite their very low socioeconomic status, homeless people are consumers. They exert considerable physical and cognitive effort performing various consumption behaviors: finding a place to sleep, getting food, acquiring simple possessions (warm clothing), and keeping their meager possessions safe. In a real sense, these consumption activities constitute a full-time job.

 One intensive study of the homeless learned much about this distinctive subculture or social class. For instance, most homeless individuals have a few possessions—a shopping cart is very desirable. Some of their possessions are scavenged from trash cans or abandoned cars and buildings, and some are purchased (hot meals are especially valued). Often individuals exchange possessions using barter. Some homeless people earn a small income doing odd jobs or, most frequently, by recycling (selling empty bottles or scrap metals). Others work sporadically as day laborers or washing car windows at intersections.

 Maslow’s needs hierarchy identifies the basic needs of homeless people: food, water, shelter, and security. By definition, all homeless people lack a house or an apartment, but some do have housing of their own. These can range from vacant buildings or abandoned automobiles to makeshift (self-constructed) shelters on vacant lots built from abandoned building materials to partially protected areas such as bridges and tunnels that provide useful shelter.

 The consumer product most often purchased by homeless people is food. But food can also be obtained from charitable shelters, by finding “road-kill” meat, and by scavenging food from dumpsters. Some homeless people become skilled at scavenging food, for instance, by checking the dumpsters of fast-food restaurants soon after closing.

 Clothing is particularly important in the winter, and homeless people try to accumulate layers of clothing to provide protection from the cold. Multiple layers of clothing also offer protection from violence such as beatings or rape. Clothing is often scavenged, although charity distribution centers can be a good source.

 Another need is personal hygiene and health care. Satisfying these needs is difficult for homeless people, partly because of their restricted access to water. Homeless people find it difficult to wash themselves and their clothes. Shelters are useful for these purposes. Of course, virtually no homeless individuals have any health insurance. Thus, they are likely to seek medical attention from emergency rooms or free clinics. One homeless person deliberately got arrested when he was depressed or sick to get medical attention in jail.

 Finally, various sorts of tools are important possessions for many homeless people. Shopping carts are useful to carry their possessions (to keep them from being stolen). Tools that aid in scavenging parts from cars or buildings (screwdrivers, flashlights, tire irons) are valued.

Exhibit 13.3


The social class concept aids in understanding consumer values and behavior; it is also useful for market segmentation and prediction of consumer behavior. However, there has long been a controversy as to whether social class or income is the better variable for use in consumer analysis. Advocates of each position muster a number of arguments for the superiority of their favorite variable and point out a variety of methodological and conceptual problems with the other one.

 Recently consumer researchers have recognized that each variable has its advantages and disadvantages, and the choice among using social class, income, or a combination of the two depends on the product and the situation. For example, consider the following generalizations:

1. Social class is more relevant than income for areas of consumer behavior that do not involve high dollar expenditures but do reflect underlying differences in lifestyle, values, or homemaker roles not captured by income (e.g., using imported or domestic wines). Social class is superior for both method and place of purchase of highly visible, symbolic, and expensive objects such as living room furniture.

2. Income is generally appropriate for understanding purchases of major kitchen and laundry appliances and products that require substantial expenditures but are not status symbols within the class.

3. The combination of social class and income is generally superior for product classes that are highly visible, serve as symbols of social class or status within the class, and require either moderate or substantial expenditure (such as clothing, automobiles, and television sets).

 In sum, determining whether social class, income, a combination of these, or other variables are most useful in a particular situation requires a careful analysis of the relationships between the product and the consumer. In other words, Consumer Affect and Cognition, behaviors, and the environment must all be analyzed to develop appropriate marketing strategies.