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THE FAME SURVEY…

As part of my research for Fame Junkies, I teamed up with several academics and conducted a survey of some 650 teenagers in the Rochester, New York area. The survey yielded some interesting and disturbing findings on how teens think about fame. Some highlights are included below. Detailed information on how exactly this survey was administered is included at the bottom of this page.

OVERVIEW:
[1] I’d rather be famous than smart…
[2] Jennifer Lopez is more popular than Jesus…
[3] Forget being president of Harvard – Make me a celebrity personal assistant…
[4] Black kids are more desperate for fame…
[5] Teens who watch TV and read “glam mags” want and expect fame the most…
[6] Heavy TV-watchers are especially likely to believe fame will improve their lives…
[7] Lonely and depressed kids hope that fame will solve their problems…
[8] Lonely kids are also more likely to follow the lives of celebrities…
[9] Lonely kids prefer 50 Cent and Paris Hilton to Jesus…
[10] Kids believe that celebrities deserve their fame…

[1] I’d rather be Famous than Smart…
In one of the questions in the survey, teens were given the option of “pressing a magic button” and becoming stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful. As it turns out, boys in the survey chose fame almost as often as they chose intelligence, and girls chose it more often.

[2] Jennifer Lopez vs. Jesus…
As part of the survey, students were asked to choose which famous person they would most like to have dinner with. There were a range of options including “none of the above.” Among the girls who opted for the dinner, the least popular candidates by far were President Bush (2.7%) and Albert Einstein (3.7%). Far ahead of them were Paris Hilton and 50 Cent (both at 15.8%), who tied for third place. Second place went to Jesus Christ (16.8%) and the winner was Jennifer Lopez (17.4%).

[3] Forget being President of Harvard – Make me a Celebrity Personal Assistant…
Another question asked: “When you grow up, which of the following jobs would you most like to have?” There were five options to chose from and, among girls, the results were as follows: 9.5% chose “the chief of a major company like General Motors”; 9.8% chose “a Navy Seal”; 13.6% chose “a United States Senator”; 23.7% chose “the president of a great university like Harvard or Yale”; and 43.4% chose “the personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star.”
It’s worth noting: Research psychologists, like Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University, have long suspected that people with low-self esteem are the ones most likely to “bask in the reflected glory” of others. This appears to be true here. For example, among girls who indicated that they received bad grades in school (i.e., C’s or below), the percentage who opted to become assistants rose to 67%. What’s more, among both boys and girls who got bad grades – and who described themselves as being unpopular at school – the percentage who opted to become assistants rose further to 80%.

[4] Black Kids Are More Desperate for Fame…
African American kids were especially keen on becoming famous. When asked whether they would rather become famous, smarter, stronger, or more beautiful, 42% of them opted for fame whereas only 21% of whites did so. What’s more, almost 44% of African Americans said that their families would love them more if they became famous, while only 27% of white students said so.
It’s Worth Noting: Of course, there are many ways to explain this data, but one factor to be considered is that African American kids often have especially hard childhoods. According to a 2005 article in the New York Times, two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock and nearly half of those children who live in single-parent households are poor. All of this seems to suggest that hardship may be driving many African American kids to embrace fame as a remedy to their woes.

[5] Teens who watch TV and read “glam mags” want and expect fame the most…
According to the study, teenagers who regularly watch certain celebrity-focused TV shows – namely Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and Insider – are more likely to believe that they themselves will someday become famous. The same trend appears to be true for those teenagers who read celebrity-focused magazines like US Weekly, Star, People, Teen People, YM and J-14. There is also a strong correlation between how many hours of television that teenagers watch in general and how badly they want to become famous. One of the questions on the survey asked: “If you could push a magic button that would change your life in one way, which of the following would you pick?” The options were (a) becoming smarter, (b) becoming much bigger or stronger, (c) becoming famous, (d) becoming more beautiful, and (e) my life doesn’t need any changing. Among those teens who watched one hour of television a day or less, only 15% of the boys and 17% of the girls opted for fame. But among those teens who watched five hours or more a day – and a good number of them did – 29% of the boys and 37% of the girls opted for fame.
It’s worth noting: Admittedly, it’s unclear whether these TV shows are to blame, or whether the kids are opting to watch these shows because they already believe that they’re destined for fame. There is evidence, however, that some TV shows are to blame. One question in the study asks: When you watch TV shows or read magazine articles about the lives of celebrities, how do they make you feel? A number of teens commented that such stories made them feel like they could and would become famous. One wrote: “When I watch TV shows or read magazine articles about the lives of celebrities, this makes me feel like one day I will probably be in their shoes.” Another wrote: “They make me feel like one day I’ll be there on the magazine, talking or telling people about my life.”

[6] Heavy TV-watchers are especially likely to believe that fame will improve their lives…
Findings from the survey also suggest that teenagers who watch television frequently are more likely to believe that fame will improve their lives. For example, teens who watch five hours or more of television a day are significantly more likely than those who watch just an hour or less to agree with the statement, “Becoming a celebrity [will] make you happier.” Teens who watch five hours of television or more a day are also twice as likely as those who watch an hour or less to believe that their family will love them more if they become a celebrity.

[7] Lonely and depressed kids hope that fame will solve their problems…
According to the Rochester survey, there is some compelling evidence that children who feel lonely, depressed, and under-appreciated are more likely to seek fame in the hopes that this will make them happier or better liked. For example, teens who described themselves as often or always “depressed” were more likely than others to believe that becoming a celebrity would make them happier. Teenagers who described themselves as feeling “lonely” were also more likely to believe that fame would make a positive impact on their lives – though the results were slightly different for boys and girls. Lonely boys were more likely to reply that fame would simply make them “happy,” whereas lonely girls were more likely to answer that fame would make them better liked by kids at school.
Ultimately, some of the most compelling evidence about the relationship between loneliness and the desire for fame comes from question #20 on the Rochester survey, which asked: “If you suddenly became a celebrity – like a movie star or a rock star – what would be the best thing about being famous?” The answer for a number of teens was simply companionship. “If I was to become famous, people would probably think I was sooo cool and they would all want to be my friend,” wrote one participant. “A lot more people would notice me and my friends might want to be with me more,” wrote another. “I would have a lot of friends and I would have a lot of really, really, really nice clothes,” wrote a third.

[8] Lonely kids are also more likely to follow the lives of celebrities…
There is also evidence from the Rochester survey that lonely teenagers are especially susceptible to forming para-social relationships with celebrities. Boys who described themselves as lonely were almost twice as likely as those who said they weren’t lonely to endorse the statement: “My favorite celebrity just helps me feel good and forget about all of my troubles.” Meanwhile, girls who described themselves as lonely were almost three times as likely as those who said they weren’t lonely to endorse that statement.

[9] Lonely kids preferred 50 Cent and Paris Hilton to Jesus…
Another interesting phenomenon emerged in a question that asked teens whom they would most like to meet for dinner: Jesus Christ, Albert Einstein, Shaquille O’Neil, Jennifer Lopez, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton, or President Bush. For boys who said they were not lonely, the clear winner was Jesus Christ. For those who described themselves as lonely, however, Jesus finished at the back of the pack and 50 Cent was the clear winner. A similar trend exists for girls who feel underappreciated by their parents, friends, and teachers. These girls tended to favor having dinner with Paris Hilton, whereas those girls who felt appreciated were far more likely to opt for dinner with Jesus Christ. It’s hard to know exactly what explains these results, but one interpretation would be that lonely and underappreciated teens are especially desperate to befriend the ultimate popular guy or girl.

[10] Kids Believe that Celebrities Deserve their fame…
In the Rochester survey, teenagers were asked to choose the most likely explanation of why certain celebrities were so successful. There were a number of options including luck, innate talent, hard work, and even the possibility that the entertainment industry simply decides to turn certain people into stars. Of these options, however, more teenagers chose “hard work” than all of the other options combined.

Details on Exactly How this Survey Was Administered…

I. The Basic Information
Jake Halpern and Professor Carol M. Liebler of Syracuse University wrote a survey containing 32 questions, most of which were related to fame and pop culture. Copies of this survey were distributed to a total of 653 students at three different schools in and around Rochester, New York. The students were 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Meredith Height, a graduate student at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, input this data into an SPSS database. Summary responses were tabulated by Professor Elaine Allen at Babson College. Professor Grant segmented the results by demographic information and by several key variables including loneliness and amount of television viewing among others. Analyses were examined using chi-squared statistics, with results having a p-value less than 0.05 determined to be statistically significant. (Statistical Significance implies that there is a relationship between the categories that were being compared.) For good measure, these results were then reviewed and confirmed by Professor Richard McGowan at Boston College. In text below, the details and methodology of this study are explained.

II. Why Rochester, New York?
In 2004, Josh Herman – who works for a company called Acxiom – authored his “Mirror on America” study, in which he ranked those cities whose consumer demographics most closely reflect that of the U.S. as a whole. Herman did this by using a system called Personicx, which analyzes demographic information such as age, marital status, home ownership, number of children, estimated income, net worth and “urbanicity” (i.e., whether you live in the city, suburbs, or countryside). Using this method, Herman compiled a list of those 150 metropolitan areas whose demographics are the best “mirrors” of America as a whole. In September of 2004, Rochester, New York, ranked second on the list.
For the most part, Personicx is used by marketers who want to better understand the “consumer landscape” of a given city. Admittedly, for purposes of this survey, the Acxiom study it is not a perfectly ideal tool for measuring the comprehensive demographics of American cities – in the way that the U.S. Census Bureau does, for example – because it does not look at certain factors like race, national origin, or religion. Nonetheless, it does provide a strong indication of which cities are most quintessentially American, and Rochester is at the top of the list.

III. Information on the Three Schools in Rochester, N.Y.
Three different schools participated in this study, including one in the city of Rochester and two in the suburbs. Some basic information on each of these schools is provided below:

1. Monroe High School (Rochester School District): There are 1,192 students at this school. Surveys were given to 8th graders during class time. This school has a high percentage of poor and minority students. The total non-white population at Monroe High School is 88.1%. The poverty rate at the school is 89.1%, which is defined by the percentage of students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.
2. Twelve Corners Middle School (Brighton School District): There are 865 students at this school. It is situated in Brighton, which is a suburb of Rochester. The surveys were given to 6-8th graders during class time in health and “home and career” classes. At this school, the demographics are as follows: 75.8% Caucasian/White, 10.4% Asian, 6.8% Black/African-American, and 3.1% Latino.
3. Willink Middle School (Webster School District): There are 1,100 students at this school. It is situated in Webster, which is a suburb of Rochester. The surveys were given to 6-8th graders at the end of classes and during study halls. At this school, the demographics are as follows: 93.3% Caucasian/White, 6.6% Hispanic, 3.1% African American, 1.8% Asian.
 
IV. Demographic Information on the Participants
Of the 653 students who participated in the study, their demographic information is as follows:

Gender: There were 312 Males, 310 Females, and 31 subjects who did not indicate their gender.
Grade: There were 2 fifth graders, 76 sixth graders, 165 seventh graders, and 377 eighth graders.
Race: There were 329 whites/Caucasians, 95 mixed, 62 black/African-American, 58 Hispanic/Latino, and 14 Native American.