Advertising and the commodified audience

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. 


Bauman, Z 2005, Liquid Life, Cambridge, Polity Press, pp. 80-115

Caraway, B 2011, ‘Audience labor in the new media environment: A Marxian revisiting of the audience commodity’, Media, Culture & Society, 33, 5, pp. 693-708, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 6 June 2013 

Croteau D, Hoynes W & Milan S, 2012, Media/society: Industries, images and audiences. Fourth Edition, California

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Killing Us Softly 2010, video recording, Media Education Foundation, Northampton, MA 

Klaehn, J 2005, A critical review and assessment of Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Propaganda Model’. Filtering the news: Essays on Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model, Montreal: Black Rose Books, pp. 1-20

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Ross, K 2003, Media and Audiences: New Perspectives, e-book, accessed 05 June 2013, http://deakin.eblib.com.au.ezproxy-f.deakin.edu.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=295455

Smythe, D 1994, ‘Communications: blindspot of western Marxism [1977] ‘, in T Guback (ed.), Counterclockwise: perspectives on communication, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, pp. 266-91.

Woodward I 2011, ‘Consumption and lifestyles’, in Germov J & Poole M (eds), Public Sociology, 2nd edn, Allen & Unwin, NSW.

Zimmerman, A & Dahlberg, J 2008, The Sexual Objectification of Women in Advertising: A Contemporary Cultural Perspective, pure.au.dk, retrieved 7 June 2013, <http://pure.au.dk/portal/files/10594/8_-_sexual_objectification_of_women.pdf>


Makeover Culture and the self-produced individual

Is makeover culture indicative of the self-managing and self-produced individual in consumer society?

The question of makeover culture being indicative of the self-managing and self-produced individual in consumer society can be seen as too simple in premise to answer. Regardless, if one were to answer yes or no, the answer would be no. However, it is not that simple. This essay will discuss the makeover and its culture within a consumer society in contrast to its effects on the individual. From this, the question of whether or not agency reigns over structure is one open for debate. Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (de Beauvoir S, 1988 p. 267). Her comment not only speaks about a self-produced identity but also about structural influences as a simultaneous cause. This essay will attempt to discuss this topic with an emphasis on dualism. That is to say that one can argue in favour of free agency within any given structure, and yet, simultaneously, argue that our choices in society are limited to normalised views and class positioning. Heyes suggests that ‘taking charge of one’s destiny […] or gaining the body that better represents the moral virtues one has developed, are all forms of working on the self within a regime of normalisation’ (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 28). This is a valid suggestion to make considering that, as this essay will argue, structure and agency are both interchangeable within a post-modern world; each acts off the other.

The term makeover was first used in an issue of New York’s Vanity Fair in 1860. It was utilised to reference a character named ‘Miss Angelica Makeover’ who, unsurprisingly, had the uncanny super ability of being able to beautify her hair with ‘miracles of art and patience’. In actual fact, the copy was ‘the men like her and the women wonder why’ (Miller T, 2006 p. 586). Of course, this was widely known as a satirical piece, playing on the notion that in order to be aesthetically beautiful, one must maintain a sense of wonder to be attractive within the boundaries of a heteronormative structure. Sadly, in 153 years, this notion of femininity is still a reality. The definition used to describe makeover today ‘has [proven] to be a device that is useful for the portrayal of almost any social practice, from hotel ownership to debt management and toddler taming’ (Redden G, 2008 p. 485). This includes the ethically debatable practice of cosmetic surgery. However, within this practice, ‘ideological complexes’ can be found (Jones M, 2008, p. 15). There are a number of contradictory discourses within makeover culture, both serving to strengthen and weaken an individual’s motivation for internal and external change; one of these being the conflict of oppression over liberation. That is oppression in regards to structure and liberation in regards to individualistic freedom.

For example, from one feminist perspective, ‘cosmetic surgery enables women to move beyond a body reduced to the function of reproduction’ and allows them to embody a self with the capability of being able to stage new identities (Brooks A, 2004 p. 209), thus liberating their self within a patriarchal society. This view allows the individual to take control of their identity, and yet, the question of whether or not these choices are due to the normalising gaze remains, that being the question of whether or not individuals self-regulate because of societal expectations. It could be argued that, for many, ‘choosing cosmetic surgery is not about trying to be beautiful but rather about becoming “normal”’ (Jones M, 2008 p. 21). The word normal itself refers to socially constructed ideals, thus bringing forth the theory that free will is a myth or, at the very least, is only limited to the boundaries erected by society and its occupants. To support this argument, Jones argues that ‘cosmetic surgery processes the bodies of women, who make up the vast majority of its pool, into man-made women’ (Wolf N cited in Jones M, 2008 p. 21). This begs us to ask the questions: who is it that makes the choice to undergo cosmetic reconstruction? Is it the participant or is it discourse within a patriarchal society?

One could postulate that the male gaze is an important contributor to these norms. That is the theoretical belief that perspectives in the media and other forms of discourse have been framed through that of men (Jones M, 2008, p. 21). Taking this into account, if one suggestion assumes that ‘all citizens are similarly positioned as agents of their own welfare, another is that it includes very little recognition that […] optimization is mediated through discourse’ (Redden G, 2008 p. 486) For evidence of the latter, you need only turn on a television to witness its effects. Take the Jerry Springer Show for example:

‘An obese woman appeared on stage wearing a micro-mini frock and high heels. Her waiting family members shook their heads in disgust and the audience booed and jeered. But then Springer said she had recently lost 100 pounds. Instantly boos (sic) changed to cheers and the woman sat down proudly, ready to defend her right to wear skimpy outfits.’ (Jones M, 2008 p. 11).

Here, the disapproving audience falls prey to the influences of societal norms, reinforced by the media and images of beauty associated within it. As a result of Jerry’s announcement, the audience applauds her effort to change and moves aside her physical appearance. This leads to the conclusion that transition is prized above all else, thus deducing that if the knowledge of transition was removed, they’d still be ‘booing and jeering’, based on their socially constructed views of beauty.

Jones claims that ‘makeover culture is a state [in which] becoming is more desirable than being’ (2008 p. 12). To further this notion, the makeover can also be perceived and described as a ‘fairy tale of identity becoming’ (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 21). Pick up any children’s book from the library and it is plain to see that the fairy tale narrative provides ‘metaphorical accounts of identity transition’ in which natural life occurrences such as adolescence or socio-economic determinants appear to be erased. ‘The motif and they all lived happily ever after describes a mature [and] flawless self’ after battling through the hardships of transition (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 21). This is an appealing conclusion to years of supposed abnormality, and this is why makeover culture is so widely accepted and embraced as a means to self-produce and manage our identities. However, the question of why this transition has become so important to the individual is one worth looking into. The need for individual change has become increasingly popular within the confines of post-modernity (Elliott A, 2010). As Bauman observes, the modern self is obsessed with stability and predictability, and yet the post-modern self is just the opposite as it lacks solidity and structure (Elliot A, 2012, p. 154). A direct cause of this could be due to the effects of living within the culture of ‘quick-change’ (Jerslev A, 2006, p. 133). With thanks to the expanse of globalisation, bodily transformation seems to be the norm due to its ease of access and the promise of pain free transition. However, again, change is limited to what is seen as normal within westernised post-modernity.

In support of Bauman’s claim, Atkinson argues that in a post-modern society ‘the symbolic fracturing of family, economic, political, educational, sport-leisure, technological-scientific and media power bases, masculinity codes have been challenged within most social settings’ (Atkinson M, 2008 p. 68). As outlined in Atkinson’s study,

‘Tom’s cosmetic surgery narrative is a typical one: he tells the story about cosmetic surgery as a pathway toward body enhancement, as a vehicle for fitting in and as a technique for building self-esteem. As part of his narrative, Tom expresses a clear understanding of his own interest in body enhancement; he simply wants to be present, recognized and very ‘commonly’ male’ (Atkinson M, 2008 p. 75)

Here, Tom’s motive for displaying an act of agency is influenced by the structural expectations of “common” society itself. From this, we can conclude that within structure, agency can be found, and therefore, both agency and structure are contributing factors in creating the self-produced individual. Lewis claims that ‘people’s sense of selfhood today […] is increasingly disconnected from fixed categories of social identity’ (2008 p. 68). This is evidently apparent but does not necessarily make it determined. People’s sense of selfhood might be perceived as being disconnected from the social structure but that is not to say that there isn’t a type of dualism at play here. Not just within agency and structure, but also between the internal and external self.

From a philosophical perspective, ‘many thinkers from Plato to Rousseau to Hegel have suggested in various ways that the body tells us something about the virtues of the soul with which it is conjoined’ (Heyes CJ, 2007 p. 18). This seems to be a popular discourse communicated via makeover television, stating that the body should be synonymous with a virtuous mind, as if to say that everybody thinks in terms of virtue, thinness, and normalised views of beauty. However, according to Heyes, many ‘feminists, anti-racists, and disability rights activists, for example, have all convincingly argued that bodies marked by sex, race, or physical impairment do not indicate an inferior intellectual ability or moral character’ (2007 p. 18). It could also be argued that according to the expectations of a contemporary society, and despite the supposed arguments against this claim, the physical body should be, as common discourse would have us believe, as pure as the mind. These expectations bring with them the concept of an aesthetically homogenised culture. To support this, Brooks argues that ‘as increasing numbers of women engage in [common forms of cosmetic surgery procedures], beyond looking more “beautiful” or “younger”, they also may begin to look more alike’ (2004, p. 225). This claim gives the inquisitive public no choice but to ask themselves where choice begins and where choice ends. Whether it begins from an individualistic perspective, a structural perspective, or from a place somewhere in between, is a question that begs to be examined.

In brief, free agency to change is evident but only works to serve in accordance to structure within the boundaries put up by society and its functions of normalisation. A number of factors have been mentioned in regards to how these aesthetic norms are enforced, thus the aforementioned nods to media discourse and our individual selves within a post-modern structure. We, as free agents, not only have the ability to change within the confines of class and structure, but our choices are also influenced by the gaze upon us.


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Brooks, A 2004, ‘Under the Knife and Proud of It: An Analysis of the Normalization of Cosmetic Surgery’, Critical Sociology, vol.30, no.2, pp.207-239

de Beauvoir, S 1988, The Second Sex, London

Elliott, A 2010, ‘Concepts of the Self’, Cambridge

Heyes, CJ 2007, Cosmetic Surgery and the Televisual Makeover, Feminist Media Studies, vol.7, no.1, pp.17-32

Jerslev, A 2006, ‘The Mediated Body: Cosmetic Surgery in Television Drama, Reality Television and Fashion Photography’, Nordicom Review, vol.2, no.27, pp.133-151

Jones, M 2008, Skintight: an anatomy of cosmetic surgery, New York

Lewis, T 2008, ‘He needs to face his fears with these five queers!’ Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, makeover TV, and the lifestyle expert’, Smart Living: lifestyle media and popular expertise, Peter Lang, New York, pp.67-87

Miller, Toby 2008, ‘The new world makeover’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol.22, no.4, pp.585-590

Redden, G 2008, ‘Economy and reflexivity in makeover television’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol.22, no.20, pp. 485-484