Advertising, as an increasingly valued field of study over the past fifty or sixty years, not only blurs the line between subject and object in its narrative discourses, but also paves way for an inquiry into the method of which audience reception is measured and exchanged. This essay, in part, will discuss advertising in relation to Smythe’s theory of the commodified viewer. In turn, contentions will be found and the focus will shift to the idea of resistance within a capitalistic structure. Primarily, the basis of this discussion will be centered on television and also the representation of citizens therein. I will argue that audience exchange theories are not only problematic in concept but also serve to act as a weak indication of structure reigning over agency. In turn, I will also shift my focus to the objectification of women and portrayal of lifestyles throughout advertising. By doing so, this essay will posit that the objectification of a subject through consumption has the capability to act as a method of commodification in itself but is not directly determined as a result of advertising.
The commodification of a product can be best described as the practice of treating goods and services as things to be bought and sold on the market (Woodward 2011, p. 510). With this definition in mind, Dallas Smythe, in the early 1980s, argued that advertising industries purchased audiences through the process of buying particular advertising spaces. Therefore, in selecting specific audiences for a purpose, the audience becomes a commodity in itself (Smythe 1994, p. 207). Broadcast advertising, ‘in a capitalist system, […] must focus on one underlying goal: the creation of products that will earn financial profits’ (Croteau, Hoynes & Milan 2012, p. 54). If one is to apply this observation to the audience in turn, the process of commodification is evident. Advertisers within the process of purchasing advertising space must carefully choose their spots in relation to the popularity of a broadcast in order to maximise their accumulation of wealth through the marketing of their products (Ross 2003, p. 51). As an example, the Aussie Rules grand-final is sure to have a much larger audience than a late night re-run of Gilligan’s Island. Therefore, the placement and type of advertising within this broadcast is of great importance. Through this assignment of value to an advertisement, the audience can be seen as an object to be purchased and placed in position to assist the accumulation of capital for both media industries and advertisers (Croteau, Hoynes & Milan 2012, p. 54). Nevertheless, this is not a view to be taken at face value. In contention to Smythe’s analysis of ‘audience commodity’, Caraway argues that this concept is a fallacy and requires revision (2011, p. 701). His argument claims that ‘advertisers are not buying audience power but a fabricated image of [it]’ instead (p. 701). Therefore, it can be postulated that audiences aren’t physically bought per se but figuratively loaned out as data. This brings into account the practice of audience measurement and its relation to the embodiment of the viewer base itself.
Advertising is included as one of five ‘filter elements’ in Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model (Klaehn 2005, p. 4). This model proposes the argument of self-censorship in media without external coercion, and for privatised broadcast media firms to accumulate capital, they must sell ‘markets (readers) to buyers (advertisers)’ (2005, p. 4). This process appears to commodify the audience as a means to increase capital gain, and yet, does not take into account the form in which audiences are represented. Advertising can be seen as a catalyst in generating audience exposure. This type of exposure can be measured by what is known as the calculation of ratings, and in accordance to its significance, can be deduced as a valued system through which media is structured. The calculation of audience exposure is based on techniques developed for counting and statistically analysing single audience behaviours (Ross & Karen 2003, p.45). Therefore, exposure data alone can be understood as a commodity produced by the advertising industry and, in contention to Smythe’s aforementioned view, is not to be seen as synonymous with the physical audience itself. However, as Croteau, Hoynes and Milan would argue, ‘because advertisers are doing the most important buying, the principal products being sold are the audiences, not the […] programs’ themselves (2012, p. 60). Regardless, one would be amiss to not realise that it is not the audience being purchased but the audience data as a set of guidelines based on previously calculated statistics. Nevertheless, despite the confusion between data as a commodity and its flawed correlation to the audience itself, the objectification and representation of citizens or lifestyles in advertising can act as a the promotion of a metaphorical product as well. This brings into account the concept of audience objectification.
While Mosco (2009) suggests that the ‘commodity is the particular form that products take when their production is principally organized through the process of exchange’ (p. 129), this perceived notion can be applied to narrative implications throughout advertising. ‘Modern marketing’, according to Hamilton (2003), ‘builds symbolic associations between the product and consumers, sometimes targeting known feelings of inadequacy, aspiration or expectation’, with unwarranted promises of rectification through acts of consumption (p. 81). For example, ‘a kitchen-cleaning product is promoted for its ability to clean, but in reality it is sold because it provides the customer with the sense of being a devoted home-maker’ (Hamilton 2003, p. 81). Therefore, one can deduce that advertisements promote a mode of living, a way to behave, and reinforce dominant patriarchal ideologies with the assumption that consumer agency is a myth (p. 65). In doing so, advertising discourses can be seen as circulating messages that aim to alter and twist the actualities of living, in order to facilitate the agenda of the elite (Croteau, Hoynes & Milan, 2012). As Bauman (2005) would observe, ‘the spreading of consumer patterns so wide as to embrace all life’s aspects and activities may be an […] unplanned side-effect of the […] “marketization” of life’ (p. 88). This concept of ‘marketization’ lends itself to the question as to whether or not a commodified audience is an ethical practice. Indeed, it also asks if this practice is plausible as well.
Advertising in the media is highly polarized in accordance to contemporary perceptions of binary perceived gender roles. The discourses contained objectify the human subject and are generally framed through the lens of heteronormativity (Kilbourne 2012; Zimmerman 2008, pp. 71-2). For example, the representation of female femininity in advertising serves to dehumanise and demoralise its audience, not liberate it. Advertisements that show the interchangeable connection between commodity object and female subject are easy to come by and, it could be said that, with the normalisation of this representation, the commodification of women is particularly evident. This is not the type of audience commodification Smythe aims to argue for, but is more suited to a figurative explanation in nature. As Lury (1996) suggests, through advertising, definitions of beauty and femininity have transformed from something which are innate to something that are constructed. As a means to accumulate economic capital, advertising states that these ideals of acceptance are achievable through acts of consumption (p. 135) and, in participating, the consumer’s identity is reduced to the purchased commodities themselves. From this, it can be deduced that an important goal of advertising is to promote and reinforce the norms of a consumer society, thus figuratively commodifying the consumer in the process. Of course, it goes without saying that if consumer society, a social construction in itself, relies on the promise to glorify and augment an individual’s existence, one can only assume that not all methods of practice would be ethical (Buman 2005, p. 80). Advertising is manipulative in practice, feeding off the insecurities of its audience by offering ‘emotional connection points’ (Cited in Bauman 2005, p.115). Nevertheless, one cannot assume that the audience, as one single entity, is necessarily blind to these false realities, and historical media models of audience reaction help to support this claim.
Theorists have long been studying the effects of the media on its audience. Whether or not the the ‘all-powerful media’ (Croteau, Hoynes & Milan 2012, p. 231) has the strength to override free agency or acts to work against it is a question that remains to be answered. However, certain theoretical models of audience reception are worth taking into consideration. Bernard Cohen notes that the media, and therefore advertising, may not be successful in telling its audience what to think, but instead is ‘stunningly successful’ in telling its audience what to think about (Cited in Croteau, Hoynes & Milan 2012, p. 232). This would bring into debate the inclusion of two models of audience reception, acting in direct opposition of one another over the years. Firstly, there is the hypodermic media model, in which the media injects a message directly into the ‘bloodstream of the public’ (2012, p. 231). From this assumption it can be seen that the audience has no choice but to tolerate what they see, hear, and read as truth. However, ‘the problem with the earlier hypodermic model,’ according to Croteau et al (2012), ‘was that it left out the active agency’ (p. 232). This model is flawed as it leaves no room for freedom of consumer choice, thus objectifying the audience in turn. In contention to this model, the minimal effects theory is a more likely view. This model suggests that ‘media messages act to reinforce existing belief rather than to change opinion’ (Croteau, Hoynes & Milan 2012, p. 232). This would imply that advertising and its discourses can be seen to have very little impact on the audience itself since interpersonal relations are of more value than the media messages shown. Therefore, the minimal effects model, when applied to advertising, seems to be a more valid theory in regards to the control advertising has over its audience. This model gives the audience free agency to either adhere or go against advertising methods of conditioning.
In summary, the audience is not be mistaken as either a set of statistically collected numbers or, in the same vein, as one single entity to be manipulated and pulled to the whim of those in power. This essay has shown that advertising does have a large role to play in contemporary consumer society but does not yet serve to control an individual’s perception of reality. We, as agents, are free to choose but only within the boundaries that limit us in doing so. Advertising, figuratively speaking, has the capability to commodify its audience but only if we as free agents allow it. Regardless, the collection of audience data, in this day and age, is an unavoidable practice sanctioned by advertisers and media corporations. However, common knowledge should indicate that data is not a personified concept and audiences, whether they are mindfully influenced by the media or not, are not directly bought and sold by advertising.
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