Watching TV can change your life

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 23 November 2012

Does watching TV change your life? And in particular, do TV commercials change your consumption habits?

Of course they do, although we may not always be aware of it. Thankfully, we have economists who can shed some light on the strange ways TV works.

Two recent studies on the subject caught my attention. Both deal with the impacts of TV; both are big, real-world experiments; and both reach some rather unexpected conclusions.

The first study, authored by Leonardo Bursztyn (University of California) and Davide Cantoni (University of Munich), explored how West German TV influenced consumption patterns in East Germany. When Germany was divided, parts of the East were able to receive Western TV programmes – and with them advertisements for products that were not even available behind the Iron Curtain.

Bursztyn and Cantoni wanted to know what happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Did those East Germans, who could only watch Western brands on TV, rush to the supermarkets to buy them?

No, they didn’t. There were no differences in brand preferences, between the parts of East Germany with and without previous access to Western TV (and exposure to TV commercials).

However, Western advertising had a more subtle effect. The researchers found that it had altered the composition of household spending in favour of those product classes most heavily promoted: food, drinks and beauty products. Exposure to Western TV had made some East Germans desire different things compared to their fellow East Germans who could only watch East German TV.

Desiring different products may seem a rather harmless behaviour change, but can watching TV have more life-changing results?

Indeed it can, says the second study by Eliana La Ferrara (Bocconi University), Alberto Chong (George Washington University), and Suzanne Duryea (Inter-American Development Bank). They analysed the effect of soap operas on fertility in Brazil.

The topic may sound strange, but the question they were trying to answer was serious. Does it matter that families portrayed in Brazil’s popular telenovelas have fewer children than the national average?

Like East Germany, Brazil provided a perfect study ground because Brazilian TV networks showing these soaps could, for a short time, be watched only in some parts of the country. And indeed, where small-family telenovelas were broadcast, fertility rates were significantly lower than elsewhere.

What had happened was TV provided a role model that viewers aimed to emulate in their own lives.

But before you start watching TV with more suspicion, ask yourself: If watching TV can change your life, what do you think reading books and newspapers can do?