Media and Advertising

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  • by Anup Shah
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Advertising is the art of arresting the human intelligence just long enough to get money from it.

Chuck Blore, a partner in the advertising firm Chuck Blore & Don Ruchman, Inc., quoted by Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p.185.

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.

On this page:

  1. Free media channels have a cost
  2. The Audience as the Product
  3. The Audience also as the Consumer
  4. Manipulating images of people in commercials
  5. Advertorials — Advertisements disguised as News!
  6. Advertainment — Advertisements disguised as Entertainment!
  7. Product Placement
  8. Political influence
  9. Military in Movies — Less Shock, More Awe
  10. Globalization of consumers

Free media channels have a cost

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.

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The Audience as the Product

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.

[T]he New York Times [is] a corporation and sells a product. The product is audiences. They don’t make money when you buy the newspaper. They are happy to put it on the worldwide web for free. They actually lose money when you buy the newspaper. But the audience is the product. … You have to sell a product to a market, and the market is, of course, advertisers (that is, other businesses). Whether it is television or newspapers, or whatever, they are selling audiences. Corporations sell audiences to other corporations.

Noam Chomsky, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream3, Z Magazine, June 1997.

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The Audience also as the Consumer

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:

The influence of advertising on magazines reached a point where editors began selecting articles not only on the basis of their expected interest for readers but for their influence on advertisements. Serious articles were not always the best support for ads. An article that put the reader in an analytical frame of mind did not encourage the reader to take seriously an ad that depended on fantasy or promoted a trivial product. An article on genuine social suffering might interrupt the buying mood on which most ads for luxuries depend. The next step, seen often in mid-twentieth century magazines, was commissioning articles solely to attract readers who were good prospects to buy products advertised in the magazine. After that came the magazine phenomenon of the 1970s — creating magazines for an identifiable special audience and selling them to particular advertisers.

Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p.138.

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Manipulating images of people in commercials

It has long been known that advertisers will photoshop (slang for editing photos to touch up or airbrush out imperfections) photos to make the subject more attractive. But many have pointed out that this subtle manipulation often goes too far.

Photoshop: The Perfect Lie4, ThisIsRedVideo, November 27, 2008

For example, young people — girls in particular — are often bombarded with imagery of the perfect bodies. Younger minds are more malleable and impressionable, so even when it may be known that these images are manipulated, the constant message everywhere a young person turns says the same thing: this is how you should look and behave and something must be wrong if you are not achieving these (unrealistic) expectations of perfection.

As such it can contribute to anxieties and stress when growing up and even last into adulthood.

Globally, there is very little regulation about this kind of manipulation as there are many grey areas making it difficult to provide definitive guidelines. However, some very obvious cases are easier to target.

For example, in 2009, France introduced advertising legislation that retouched images had to be explicitly identified.

In the summer of 2011 in UK, two advertisers had their adverts banned for airbrushing an actress and a model excessively to the point it was too misleading. A campaigner against this kind of misleading and a Scottish member of parliament, Jo Swinson added6 that the concern here is half of young women between 16 and 21 say they would consider cosmetic surgery and we’ve seen eating disorders more than double in the last 15 years.

Megan Gibson, writing for Time, added7 that Swinson’s concern was that, The ads are purporting the effects of make-up, when in reality they’re showcasing the effects of Photoshop.

PetaPixel reported the above UK ban too, also noting that it came about a month after the American Medical Association called upon ad agencies8 to stop the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.

PetaPixel quotes an American Medical Association board member:

The appearance of advertisements with extremely altered models can create unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image. In one image, a model’s waist was slimmed so severely, her head appeared to be wider than her waist. We must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software.

Barbara L. McAneny, Quoted by Michael Zang: American Medical Association Speaks Out Against Photoshopped Ad Photos9, PetaPixel, June 24, 2011

In December 2011, Extreme Tech reported that the American advertising industry’s self-regulating watchdog, the National Advertising Division (NAD), has moved to ban the misleading use of photoshopping and enhanced post-production in cosmetics adverts 10. (Extreme Tech also added that this brings it closer in line with regulations in the UK and European Union.)

Swinson, the American Medical Association, the NAD, are all making the point that in these cases companies are showcasing the effects of image manipulation rather than the product itself. So this is exactly what filmmaker Jesse Rosten’s spoof ad does:

This commercial isn’t real, neither are society’s standards of beauty 11, JesseRosten, January 9, 2012

To some people there shouldn’t be government intervention; parents should be able to teach their children how to see reality from advertising. Unfortunately, as also mentioned on this site’s section on children and consumption12, children have not developed the cognitive ability to do this. Furthermore, even when responsible parents are to work with their children in this way, how will two people fair against an army of psychologists, advertisers, marketers and lawyers trying to teach their children the opposite?

Media Ethics — The ethics of retouching photographs13, May 13, 2010

The expectation amongst young people that photos and adverts create by using images of real people is that what they see is therefore also real. It may take many years, perhaps much later into teenage or adulthood to realize and come across information that these images are manipulated, by which time most of the effects may have been internalized.

To live in a society where you have to constantly be told everything you see may not be real is surely more damaging than to live in a society where most things are real but the hopefully few unreal things can be identified. That would hint to a truer form of freedom.

Some other examples:

  • ABC news has a number of examples where photo manipulation has been used14
  • Fourandsix technologies also showcases many examples of photo tampering throughout history15, showing how it has been used for propaganda as well as commercial effect.

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Advertorials — Advertisements disguised as News!

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:

Protected by the free speech provision of the First Amendment, corporations marshal huge public relations efforts on behalf of their agendas. In the United States the 170,000 public relations employees whose job it is to manipulate news, public opinion and public policy in the interests of their clients outnumber news reporters by 40,000. A study in 1990 discovered that almost 40 percent of the news content of a typical U.S. newspaper originates as public relations press releases, story memos, and suggestions. The Columbia Journalism Review reported that more than half the news stories in the Wall Street Journal are based solely on corporate press releases (cited in Korten 1995:146 [When Corporations Rule the World]). United States corporations spend almost half as much on advertising (approximately $120 per person) as the state spends on education ($207 per person).

Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999) p. 138

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.)

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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.

In fact, brand-sponsored content as Steve Golin likes to call this, is as old as television. Today, many gripe that the World Wide Web is nothing but a World Wide Commercial for which securing eyeballs for advertisers is the first and last concern. Lest we forgot, TV was also invented to sell to us in the comfort of our home. Content has always been an after thought. At the dawn of TV, soap operas got their name from the soap that was hawked by the show’s sponsors, who exercised a good deal of control over the show’s themselves, (which existed merely to fill the space between commercials.)

Erika Milvy, Advertainment’s New Frontier22, AlterNet, June 25, 2001

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Product Placement

As Milvy has noted above, advertisements in television programming goes back to the beginnings of television. These days, whether you are watching a film from Bollywood (India’s film industry), or Hollywood, there will be some obvious advertisement, and some not-so-obvious ones.

This product placement is becoming more pervasive. Also noting the old-age of product placement in films, the BBC also adds that it is now also extending to other forms of entertainment:

Cinema-goers will be familiar with product placement in films: those countless examples where the camera lingers just a little too long over a logo before shifting back to the main action. Now, more than 50 years after Hollywood wised up to the fact that companies will pay to have their brands featured within the narrative of a movie, advertisers have begun to extend the principle to formats such as books, pop songs, videos and computer games.

Jonathan Duffy, Well Placed23, BBC News Magazine, BBC, March 30, 2005

This therefore begs the question (as Duffy also asks), Who is in charge — the producer or the product brand manager?

Duffy also adds, research shows that in programmes recorded, two-thirds to 80% of ads are skipped. That is, people don’t want to watch advertising. Hence, the increased interest in placing brands in actual programming where it is sometimes less obvious.

British television has long resisted explicit product placement in its television programs (a limited form is allowed to be realistic, where the company is not allowed to profit from it). Now, as the same BBC article reports, it seems that the British regulator is considering allowing more product placement because the industry is losing money as people try to skip ads where possible. A question that the BBC article does not raise however, is why a regulator — supposedly there for the public interest — is helping save an industry. Market forces are supposed to govern if some industries and companies are viable or not. Markets are meant to adapt to changes in consumer behavior (though markets also try to create consumer behavior24)…! Similar companies often complain when regulation restricts their freedom, often in the public interest, yet are happy to use those regulatory bodies to help them.

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Political influence

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:

Advertising [in oligopolistic markets] provides a way to protect or expand market share without engaging in profit-threatening price competition.

Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media Poor Democracy; Communication Politics in Dubious Times, (University of Illinois Press, 1999), p.139

In addition, corporate influence has affected what gets reported and what doesn’t, as John Prestage highlights:

Even some mainstream journalists are sounding the alarm…. Henry Holcomb, who is president of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia and a journalist for 40 years, said that newspapers had a clearer mission back when he began reporting. That mission was to report the truth and raise hell. But corporate pressures have blurred this vision, he said.

Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a news media watchdog group, told the American Free Press that 60 percent of journalists surveyed by FAIR admitted that advertisers try to change stories.

Some advertisers kill some stories and promote others, she said, asserting that there is an overwhelming influence of corporations and advertisers on broadcast and print news reporting.

The trends are all bad, worse and worse, Nichols said. Newspapers and broadcast journalists are under enormous pressures to replace civic values with commercial values.

He labeled local television news a cesspool. Local broadcasters are under pressure from big corporations to entertain rather than to inform, and people are more ignorant after viewing television news because of the misinformation they broadcast, he said.

Jon Prestage, Mainstream Journalism: Shredding the First Amendment25, Online Journal, 7 November 2002

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:

Mass advertising is no longer solely a means of introducing and distributing consumer goods, though it does that. It is a major mechanism in the ability of a relatively small number of giant corporations to hold disproportionate power over the economy. These corporations need newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting not just to sell their goods but to maintain their economic and political influence. The media are no longer neutral agents of the merchants but essential gears in the machinery of corporate giantism. And increasingly they are not only needed but they are owned by the corporate giants.

Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Sixth Edition, (Beacon Press, 2000), p.150.

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.

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Military in Movies — Less Shock, More Awe

Of course, as well as advertising and product placement within media products such as films comes the opportunity to advertise the military.

Films such as Top Gun included heavy involvement of the Pentagon and others to provide an awe-inspiring film, showing the many amazing aspects of fighter pilots, high tech weapons and what it would supposedly be like to be part of the US Navy. What was not commonly known was the level of military involvement in the film.

The Center for Defense Information, a military think tank in Washington D.C. long ago produced a documentary about this, noting the mutual benefits such involvements entail:

  1. Philip Strub (Pentagon, in charge of reviewing the scripts and helping to determine which ones are going to get military cooperation):

    When Hollywood comes to us with a request for production assistance, we have an opportunity, an important opportunity, I think, to tell the American public something about the US military and help recruiting and retention at the same time.

  2. Narrator:

    When a moviemaker wants to make a war movie, or even a film that just incidentally includes the military, the natural place to go for props is the Pentagon.

  3. Dr. Lawrence Suid (author of several books on the history of military cooperation with the movies):

    Each side is using the other for its own ends. Filmmakers want to get cheap equipment or free equipment, free use of men.

  4. Narrator:

    It’s a relationship of mutual exploitation. Moviemakers save money — where else are you going to get an aircraft carrier, for example? — and get instant production values from the presence of authentic military hardware. In exchange, the Pentagon gets to influence how it is portrayed on the silver screen.

The Military in the Movies26, America’s Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, January 27, 1997

And on the impact that films like Top Gun had:

  1. Narrator:

    This process of rebuilding the military’s image in the wake of Vietnam reached its peak with the release of Top Gun in 1986, that year’s top-grossing movie. The Navy saw this peacetime story of naval fighter pilot school as an opportunity to significantly boost its image and lent unparalleled support in the form of a carrier, aircraft, and technical advice.

  2. Mr. Trento (of the National Security News Service, a nonprofit news organization that investigates military issues):

    How did they get the cooperation? They allowed the military to rewrite their script. They essentially gave them the script and anything in the script that the military did not like or didn't think reflected well on the military was edited out and rewritten.

  3. Mr. Strub:

    Top Gun was significant to me and to others because it marked a rehabilitation in the portrayal of the military. For the first time in many, many years, you could make a movie that was positive about the military, actors could portray military personnel who were well-motivated, well-intentioned and not see their careers suffer as a consequence.

  4. Narrator:

    On top of glamorizing the image of Navy pilots and stimulating a surge in flight training candidates, Top Gun also served to boost public confidence in American weapons technology, in general — technology that would be extensively tested in battle just four years later.

  5. Dr. Suid:

    Top Gun also in large measure, in my view, prepared the American people for the Gulf War. Before the completion of the rehabilitation, the American people had more or less decided the United States military couldn’t do what it said it could do. Top Gun showed that we could shoot down airplanes, that our aircraft carriers could go anyplace, and that our pilots were the best. And so, when the Gulf War comes along, there's no reason for any American civilian to believe that we can't beat Saddam Hussein.

The Military in the Movies27, America’s Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, January 27, 1997

As the documentary noted, some movies, even when they depicted the military in an overall positive light, would not get military support if they contained scenes or language that the military would prefer not be shown.

In other cases, the documentary adds, the films that were popular created a high expectation of the military, so any subsequent scandals would therefore gain a lot of negative attention.

Skipping forward to 2007, the hit movie, Transformers, included a mix of product placement and military involvement. From clearly advertising certain laptop brands and memory cards as well as other products, to the awe inspiring military technology and resolve against the odds (as the US military was overcome by transforming robots!) in awesome settings (often an amazing sunset, often with scenes in slow motion for dramatic effect, etc), the film helped further enhance the image of the military.

Certainly, the movie was thoroughly entertaining (I remember enjoying the cartoons and a transformer toy as a child). Most movie-watchers probably realize that such films also lead to cross-selling toys from Hasbro and others. Even fast food outlets typically sell toys while mentioning the film all as part of the overall promotion, benefiting both the movie producer and the food outlet.

Yet, the film credits explicitly listed a product placement adviser as well as a military adviser, in addition to thanks to the Pentagon and others. Of course, most don’t read the credits (I only did so out of curiosity at what seemed obvious product placement and excessive military awesomeness shots), so many may not realize that a fascinating movie contains advertising of additional products and view points in addition to the toy sales. (For sure, many may note the additional product placement and not feel there is anything wrong with that.)

It may be too early to tell, at time of writing, but this could be important for the US establishment and military as public perception of war and military is at least a mixed bag in part because of the Iraq invasion28 and subsequent myriad of issues for the US and its military.

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Globalization of consumers

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:

Globalization is integrating not just trade, investment and financial markets. It is also integrating consumer markets. … [Economically, ] there is fierce competition to sell to consumers worldwide, with increasingly aggressive advertising.

On the social side local and national boundaries are breaking down in the setting of social standards and aspirations in consumption. Market research identifies global elites and global middle classes who follow the same consumption styles, showing preferences for global brands. There are the global teens — some 270 million 15—to 18-year-olds in 40 countries — inhabiting a global space, a single pop-culture world, soaking up the same videos and music and providing a huge market for designer running shoes, t-shirts and jeans.

… At the same time the consumer receives a flood of information through commercial advertising. An average American, it is estimated, sees 150,000 advertisements on television in his or her lifetime. And advertising is increasing worldwide, faster than population or incomes. Global advertising spending, by the most conservative reckoning, is now $435 billion.

Human Development Report 1998 Overview29, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Also worth quoting at some length is part of a paper looking at democracy and transnational media, labeled promotion of consumerism at all costs:

The leading transnational media giants are often American or at least Western corporations. To expand markets they must continue to look for new regions for expansion. Southeast Asia, for example, may be one of the last major regions to be affected by international satellites.

It really was not until the 1990s, for example, that Southeast Asia saw Western television enter on a massive scale. Advances in technology plus market liberalization were reasons. Asia, of course, is the largest worldwide market (2.8 billion) and has one-third of the world’s television sets. While Asia has been known to foster a distinct culture and linguistic heritage, this specialty is now in jeopardy. We see MTV, Western news and movie channels, and other Western media influences spreading across Asia. The cultural heritage of these countries is being threatened by trans border data flow, media images moving across national borders thanks to new electronic forms of media delivery. People are told they need products they never realized they required. They are told via media that Western styles and habits may be better or more desirable than their own traditions and customs. Young people in particular now grow up with stronger ties to New York and Los Angeles than their own capitals and families.

Then there is the danger that comes when making money is more important than quality of information flow. China’s 1.2 billion people are a very desirable audience. Consider what happened when News Corporation purchased STAR TV in 1993. A controversial program on the Chinese government on BBC Work Television News lead to PRC official complaints. Murdock simply pulled the plug. Note that he also was an investor in the Beijing People’s Daily. Similar pressures caused him to pressure Harper Collins of London to cancel a book contract with a former ambassador to China because it too was critical of the regime.

The problem goes beyond economic concentrations. Because the product of media industries is cultural programming, the concern centers on the very fabric of life.

As stated earlier, the movement is toward grabbing attention and creating a desire for things that people never knew was needed. It also is about using the media to homogenize culture. It involves the world’s children, even in the most communication-savvy communities where children below the age of ten are targeted with clever media campaigns. Yet these children are incapable of cognitively understanding what media does. Hence we have animated television programs as those developed several years ago, He-Man and She Ra, where the programs primarily were introduced to market massive lines of toys for the Christmas season. We are submitting innocent children to strategies of a mega-million dollar advertising industry and most parents are incapable of responding to sales campaigns of this magnitude. MTV is another example. Here we have entertainment programming which doubles as a continuous commercial for music CDs, clothing lines, talk shows involving music personalities, and a variety of other marketing ploys.

Richard C. Vincent, Transnational Media and the Survival of Democracy30, Department of Communication, Indiana State University, 16 March 2001. (Emphasis Added)

In this web site’s look at media in the United States31, there is further discussion on how the market imposes its desires on the media. In the next section though, we see how this power to influence consumers also affects the perspectives and ideologies portrayed in the mainstream when it comes to international political and economic issues.

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Document revision history

Added small note that under-representation of black women in the US mainstream media may have helped them have higher self-esteem according to a recent survey
Added a section on manipulating images of people in commercials
Added some notes on the involvement of the military in movies
Product Placement is extending from films to other formats, such as books, television programmes, pop songs, and computer games.