|In 1962, the British poet W.H. Auden remarked of the media of his day, “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” Though not the first to state this concept, his comparison of the media, which has often been described as a form of art or information, to food, something literally consumed by the body and disposed of later, described the actions of the mass media superbly. The same truth they held then is still valid in today’s media environment.
The media today wields massive power over its audiences. The rise of multinational corporations has increased the power of media corporations by creating a market for them to fill. Multinational corporations need global media outlets to address the markets they serve worldwide.
Using cheap, instantaneous, interactive communications, these corporations compose a production process out of a global base. Choosing cheap labour in one place, low taxes in another, good services elsewhere, these transnational corporations, it is argued, have broken free from the complex political ties and obligations of operating from one nation; of being national. Then, using the global media to sell their goods everywhere, they create new cultures. – Jean Seaton (1997)
Multinational corporations interested in addressing larger groups of people, for reasons of financial profit, have helped to create multinational media. Over time, as these media entities have grown to encompass even more geographic area, they have come to be called “global media.” The result of this is beneficial to a media company in two finite ways: firstly, the more people they reach the more people are hearing whatever messages they choose to broadcast; they gain more influence. Secondly, the larger an audience is, the more attractive, and thus valuable the audience becomes to an advertiser. We will explore in greater detail how the mass media directly and indirectly uses its power for financial gain and in so doing, promotes consumerism.
Media companies make most of their money from sales of advertising, rather than sales of content. This means, “Commercial broadcasting is based, not on the sale of programmes to audiences, but on the sale of audiences to advertisers” (Curran/Seaton 1997). Advertising is the epitome of consumerism. It serves only one purpose, to stimulate the viewer’s desires to purchase a particular product or service. Even if actual programme content became completely devoid of consumerist ideology the existence of advertising would be enough to maintain the ideology of consumerism the mass media has embraced.
With the technological advances of recent history media is delivered to audiences quickly and efficiently. With the advent of satellite broadcasting the media of one locality is no longer confined to that particular region. All that is required is the financial backing to pay for the programme to air on one of many television or radio channels that broadcast internationally. All that is required to attract that financial backing is evidence of a market, an audience, a tangible object that can be marketed to advertisers. In this way programmes that are successful in one geographic area can meet success worldwide, and attract audiences of gigantic proportions, something invaluable to both advertisers and the media outlets that profit from that advertising money.
Since the beginning of broadcasting the power of having a mass media has been realized and utilized by many different groups seeking to gain popular support. In their book Power Without Responsibility, James Curran and Jean Seaton recount, “Although the Nazi’s emphasized the importance of oratory and public meetings, they were also fascinated by the emergence of the new technologies of mass communication in the USA and Britain. In particular they saw radio and film as a means of extending the influences of demagogy.”(1997) Since World War 2, all governments throughout the world have used the media to deliver their desired messages to The Public as it is both a highly efficient tool for delivery but also a powerfully effective method of guiding the population’s opinions and beliefs.
In his book Media Control Noam Chomsky talks about “manufacturing consent” (1997). Chomsky explains the control that media has over the public in a political and financial context. “The people who are able to engineer consent are the ones who have the resources and the power to do it – the business community …” (1997). If a government wishes to take action in any way those actions will be seen, and judged by the public. If the public does not agree with the way the government is handling various issues it will take action against the elements of the system they are dissatisfied with and the politicians that are perceived to have disobeyed the public’s desires will be in some way reprimanded. This may involve loss of position, and thus power, for the political figure involved, or it may mean less support on other issues in the future, or a great deal of other negative results. Quite simply the government must keep within what the public considers to be certain boundaries of conduct or face negative consequences. However, according to Chomsky it is not out of the question for those certain limitations to be manipulated by certain individuals or groups that possess enough resources, even to the an extent that actions once considered controversial or wrong can go unchallenged by the public after a period of exposure to a particular campaign of advertising or sponsored broadcasts directing the viewers opinion about a certain issue. He cites as an example the propaganda campaign implemented by a team in the United States, called “The Creel Commission”, formed by the government prior to their involvement in World War 1 and the massive affect the campaign had on public opinion. After only 6 months the public had changed from being almost completely pacifistic in nature to an overwhelming feeling of hatred for “The Hun” and willing as a nation to fully engage in the process of warmongering. The main media used in this instance were radio broadcasts and printed material appearing in newspapers and magazines but the same principles are relevant to today’s technology. Mass media is harnessed by powerful entities within society and used as tool to directly channel public opinion to a desired end.
One of the major reasons that the media is able to have this sort of effect in on the public is that the individuals that make up the audience of mass media are not merely being entertained, or in some cases informed, by the media they choose to experience. The ubiquity of the media in everyday life and throughout the modern world has made the media more than simple entertainment to the vast majority of its audience, and indeed the majority of the world. French Postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault believed that certain “discourses” exist in society concerning self-representation, life styles and identity in general. He also noted that the media “enthusiastically” spread these ideologies throughout society by depicting them in their content.
The mass media provides content which lets individuals view these various elements, or discourses, and as a person experiences these elements the individual can make decisions on how they will incorporate them into their life, or if they will utilize them in any way at all. Through the mass media, individuals can experience culture or rather a depiction of a culture or subculture. Programmes about real life must take place in some sort of society or culture. Since most media that reaches a global audience is produced by western, capitalist societies the objects that are depicted in the programme are necessarily available for purchase. If a character in Friends or Hollyoaks is wearing a shirt that a viewer thinks looks especially nice that viewer can assume that the shirt in question was at some point in time purchased from somewhere, as that is the way objects are generally acquired in modern capitalist societies. By extension, the majority of the time the viewer can correctly assume that they will also be able to purchase that shirt. The only questions at that point are “how much money will it cost?” and “how much time and effort are required to locate and purchase the item?” In this way the media becomes consumerist simply by portraying capitalism on screen.
Of course the producers of media are not oblivious to this happening. The media does not leave the details of their content to chance. Knowing that the audience will notice things like the items of clothing the characters are wearing, the cars they drive, the interior design of their offices or houses and everything else that appears in a given programme, the producers do not base their decisions of what shall appear on just the symbolic meaning of the objects and what they convey about the character they are attached to. They also consider how much money they may be able to charge a particular company for showing their product in the context of their programme. Many companies accept that viewers identify with characters of popular programmes in the media and that to align your product with one of these popular characters or programmes is a good business strategy. Product placement has reached all forms of visual media and has proven to be lucrative for both the companies with products being featured and for the producers of the media, after collecting the fees for featuring the products. In doing this however, the programme is no longer simply entertainment or information, or a simple expression of any kind. The piece becomes another commercial, a fashion show, a showroom, a catalogue of products that the viewer is forced to view and thus judge for purchase, either subconsciously or consciously.
Even subcultures, although possibly non-consumerist or even anti-consumerist in ideology, become consumerist is some sense when they are portrayed by the media. In reality the physical elements that define them and set them apart, such as clothing, music albums, luxury items, etc., must somehow be acquired. Again the viewer is able to assume that the mode of acquisition will be purchasing, and that this acquisition is hypothetically within their capability as they live in a capitalist society.
To facilitate the task of depicting cultures and subcultures, the media uses a common language to convey identity portrayed within its content to the audience. The language is a process of stereotyping, applied to the many forms of identity the media utilizes on a regular basis. If identities are viewed as stereotypes, symbolic representations of a larger, more generic identity, then this makes their portrayal easier for the producers. It is not necessary to observe real world examples the subject matter, studying them to ascertain the various details that define the subject matter. Only the elements dictated by the stereotype need be used to convey the identity of a character, and they do not necessarily have to be accurate or even based in reality.
For instance, there is no need to actually study an actual motorcycle gang if, as a producer of a programme, I want to portray a motorcycle gang in a programme. Simply add males, preferably with big muscles, on motorcycles, with long hair and beards, wearing classic “biker fashion” such as leather, skull-embellished jackets, headscarves and studded belts. The audience, upon viewing this portrayal, will fully accept that the characters are “bikers” as they possess the symbols that they have learned to associate with “bikers”.
As people view more and more a stereotypical identities portrayed in the media they begin to accept, either consciously or subconsciously, the physical elements that define that identity. Eventually, after repeated viewing of these elements, the identities they represent become indoctrinated by the viewer. It matters less whether or not the symbols are valid or even accurate to real life, and more that they are consistent both with each other and the personality of the character as portrayed within a programme, and consistent with all other similar depictions viewed in the media and society, over time. Over time these symbolic representations are in fact compared themselves, and to other symbolic representations of the same object rather than to reality. The symbols can move away from being a realistic depiction of that object, even to the point that they are completely detached from any real facts or accurate information whatsoever. For example the movie Casablanca is very famous and considered by many to be a classic. The movie has been referenced a great many times by a very wide range of media. However, as famous as the movie may be, many of the most famous, and most frequently quoted lines are in fact misquotes, paraphrases or completely made up all together. The most quoted, and thus most “recognisable” line from the movie, “Play it again Sam…” a quote attributed to the main character Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, and referring to the piano player Sam, played by Dooley Wilson, never actually appears in the film at all. The line certainly could appear, it is not incongruous with either character or the storyline of the movie, but never the less, it is not a quote, but has been reflected as such so many times in various forms of media that it has become symbolic, despite any valid relation to the original.
The end result of the control and commercialisation of the media is that in favour of profitability and simplicity of production, which also amounts to increased profit, the mass media, something that could be used to express and proliferate a great number of truths or ideas, is reduced to a little more than a factory production line. Companies seeking increased profits are not interested in man, but men. Interested in acceptance rather than truth, and above all mass coverage. Society, desperately searching for identity, begins the cycle of imitation. People imitate the ideals observed in the media, and the media imitates the ideals it perceives in society. With each iteration the symbols become further and further removed from their originals, until society itself is based not on truth or fact, but as Baudrilliard depicted, based on themselves and each other. Simulations, a society existing beyond reality, a Hyperreality constructed from fragments of our own identity reflected back to us through the media we have created, and now, bought into.
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Curran, James and Seaton, Jean. (1997) Power Without Responsibility: The Press and broadcasting in Britain. 5th ed. London, Routledge.
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Bounds, Philip. (1999) Cultural studies: A student’s guide to culture, politics and society. Plymouth, Studymates.
Curran, James. (2002) Media and Power. London, Routledge.
Gauntlett, David. (2002) Media, Gender and Identity: An introduction. London, Routledge.
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