Ever since mass media became mass media, companies have naturally used this means of communications to let a large number of people know about their products. There is nothing wrong with that, as it allows innovative ideas and concepts to be shared with others. However, as the years have progressed, the sophistication of advertising methods and techniques has advanced, enticing and shaping and even creating consumerism and needs where there has been none before, or turning luxuries into necessities. This section introduces some of the issues and concerns this raises.
Various free media such as the numerous channels available in America and other nations are naturally subsidized with advertising to help pay the costs.
As corporate competition has increased, so too has the need for returns on massive expenditures on advertising. Industries spend millions, even billions of dollars to win our hearts and minds, and to influence our choices towards their products and ideas. This often means such media outlets attract greater funds than those outlets funded through public funding or TV licenses. It can mean that such outlets can also then afford better programming of key events and programs.
Given the dependency media companies can have on advertising, advertisers can often have exert undue influences (knowingly or tacitly); if something is reported that the advertiser doesn’t like or the media company has funded a documentary that exposes bad practice by an advertiser, the media company can risk losing much needed revenue to stay alive.
As a result, the mainstream media is largely driven by the forces of the market1.
Additionally, as Noam Chomsky points out in his article, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream2, for a company such as the New York Times, it too has to sell products to its customers. For the New York Times and other such companies, Chomsky points out that the product is the audience, and the customers are the corporate advertisers.
This at first thought doesn’t seem to make sense. However, although readers buy the paper, he argues that readers fit a demographic and it is this that is valuable information that can be used by advertisers. Hence, to the advertisers, the product that the New York Times and such companies bring to them is the audience itself and it is the advertisers that bring the money to the media companies, not the audience.
Ben Bagdikian, a prominent media critic, and author of the well-acclaimed book The Media Monopoly, provides more detail and examples. In Chapter 6 of his book, for example, Bagdikian describes in detail the pressure on media companies to change content (to dumb down) and to shape content based on the demographics of the audiences. Slowly then, the content of media isn’t as important as the type of person being targeted by the ads.
He also shows that the notion of giving the audience what they want is also a bit misleading because, if anything, it is more about targeting those readers that can afford the products that are advertised and so it is almost like giving the advertisers what they want!
The dumbing down of the content also acts to promote a buying mood. Hence, as Bagdikian summarizes, programming is carefully noncontroversial, light, and nonpolitical (see p. 133). As he traces briefly the history of advertising in magazines he also hints that this has happened for a long time:
Sometimes, news stories or editorials are often subtle product advertisements, even with a rise of new terms in critical circles, such as advertorials16.
In other cases, due to large ownership, a news company will advertise another program belonging to the parent network and highlight it as a news story, as some reality TV programs in America, such as the Survivor series, have shown. Another example is the hype on ABC News of Disney’s Pearl Harbor movie17 (Disney owns ABC), which some have even described as propaganda18. Examples abound, and it would be a futile effort to attempt to list them all here. Such use of news time to promote entertainment19 has come under criticism of late.
Richard Robbins also captures this well:
On April 7, 2002, UK’s BBC aired a documentary called Century of the Self looking back at the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. In discussing the role of the media, it was pointed out how journalism also changed as big business started to gain more influence. Many, in order to get stories that would attract readers, would have to agree to editorial content being dictated by business, such as placement of specific advertising in the pictures, placing certain sentences and paragraphs, and mentioning key products related to the story, etc. (More about consumerism in general can be seen on this site’s section on Consumption and Consumerism20.)
A number of scandals errupted in 2005 revealed all manner of fake news and media manipulation21. (The previous link, from this site, goes into this in further detail.)
Advertainment — Advertisements disguised as Entertainment!
We are also seeing more sophisticated techniques, such as short films where the aim is to sell a product but to cleverly do the advertising in a subtle way. These mini films can be very entertaining and exciting, but also promote a product behind the main theme.
While it could be argued that there is nothing wrong with this, it is just a more sophisticated way to sell products, more forthcoming and explicit mention that this is a commercial would be good for more people to be aware of what they are watching. (Although, that might be as hard as asking a government to tell their audience that they are about to watch some propaganda and to take it in appropriate consideration!)
Also, the enormous sums of money that can back up this sort of entertainment versus others, can in the long run further affect the type and diversity of the content we receive.
Bagdikian also goes on to show that mass advertising also introduced a new factor in selling: It began to prevent competition and that it would negate the classical theory of supply and demand that was described by Adam Smith (see p.143). And this isn’t just an observation limited to Bagdikian. Robert McChesney, for example also observes similar things:
In addition, corporate influence has affected what gets reported and what doesn’t, as John Prestage highlights:
Bagdikian also points out that as economic and political influence also becomes a factor for large businesses, ownership of media companies is often a result:
UK’s Channel 4 aired a documentary on September 27, 2002 about the photographer James Natchway, who has produced pictures of poverty, famine, war etc and has been published in many magazines. In that documentary he also highlighted a growing issue of concern, whereby advertisers were increasingly pressuring publications to not put their adverts next to such harrowing pictures, because it would affect the buying mood of the readers. As a result, Natchway has felt that this has contributed to a large decline in coverage of such issues, making way for less controversial issues of entertainment, celebrities and fashion.
As globalization becomes ever more prominent, the role of media and advertising and consumerism also increases. This is ideal for the large multinationals that can take best advantage of globalization as they see an even larger market to which products can be sold.
However, diverse cultures could sometimes be an obstacle to easy selling. From the multi-national’s perspective, the more that people have similar attitudes and consumption habits the easier it is to sell en masse. Quite some time ago, the United Nations Development Program’s 1998 Human Development Report summarized this quite well:
Also worth quoting at some length is part of a paper looking at democracy and transnational media, labeled promotion of consumerism at all costs: