15 December 2010

Television as a Selling Machine

In 1922, an American farmer and electronics tinkerer by the name of Philo T. Farnsworth invented a scanning device that would lead to the development of television. Farnsworth’s ‘image dissector’ solved many of the problems faced by European and American technicians who sought a way to electronically transmit images, and control of Farnsworth’s invention would chart the course of television development. In 1939, Farnsworth licensed his device to American media mogul David Sarnoff of RCA. At the time, TV was a novelty but by the late 1950s it had grown into a powerful form of mass communications. When later asked what he thought about how his invention had progressed, Farnsworth, who died in obscurity in 1971, said he refused to watch TV and expressed disgust at its crass commercialization and the manipulation of the medium by the advertising industry. During Farnsworth’s lifetime, creeping commercialization came to infect every aspect of TV, and consumerism had become a way of life for most Americans, and increasingly the world over.

This relationship between consumerism and television is examined by Robin Andersen in Consumer Culture and TV Programming (Westview Press, 1995). Setting the stage for much subsequent research, Andersen addresses questions about the extent to which the advertising industry controls and shapes television, and the cultural environment that permits corporations to manipulate public perception. She sums up a key dimension of the relationship she seeks to reveal: ‘It is to say... that in selling commercial time to advertisers to sell products, broadcasters are also selling a product – their audiences.’ In other words, in the world of TV broadcasting, the product is the audience, or more specifically, carefully segmented parts of the broader audience for television. By way of sophisticated marketing surveys, advertisers and broadcasters profile audiences which are then targeted with specifically designed campaigns aimed at particular demographic segments of the audience. These profiled audience segments are then bought and sold like any other commodity in the American economy, except that most Americans do not realize that their attention spans and viewing habits are being traded for high profits.

In the first three chapters, Andersen provides some necessary background on the broadcasting and advertising industries. Especially useful is chapter Three, ‘Emotional Ties That Bind: Focus Groups, Psychoanalysis, and Consumer Culture.’ Andersen uncovers an army of smug technocrats with PhDs in psychology who are mobilized by the advertising and broadcast industries to define, profile, segment and target audiences according to viewing and consuming habits. Most of the data is gathered directly from consumers, by way of focus group studies, questionnaires and other social science research methods. Based on the way that these academics talk about audiences much of this process appears to be quite guileful and it is a wonder that Americans are not out in the streets to protest the way they are cajoled and manipulated by advertising, whether to sell personal hygiene products or the latest political figurehead.

Toward her goal of offering a general model to help explain the discourse of advertising, Andersen looks at how product campaigns are developed. For example, an advertising campaign for a male baldness treatment ‘evokes feelings of regret, anxiety, and frustration by depicting an unpleasant childhood memory’ and then ‘promises relief from such long-held disappointments’ by offering the product as a form of ‘psychic healing.’ She concludes that this ‘pseudotherapeutic discourse, common to many advertisements, promises emotional comfort through the use of products that are inherently incapable of providing such comfort.’ Once this technique has become widespread, it creates a sort of generalized psychic climate through media that has a power and influence beyond the success or failure of any particular product campaign. In the overall view of TV advertisers, Americans appear to be a miserable lot, suffering from baldness, bad breath, body odor, obesity, indigestion, headaches and hemorrhoids, and also from a host of emotional anxieties and psychological disorders, for which a vast array of products is offered as relief. But, as Andersen notes, from a sociological perspective ‘the product and its functional qualities are irrelevant.’ Rather, it is the linkages that are important: ‘Keying into psychic desires, needs, frustrations, and anxieties, and then tying those feelings to products, has become the strategy of choice for an industry always searching for the most effective mode of persuasion.’

Part of Andersen’s work is also to detect changes in advertising strategies. In the early days of advertising, the product features were primarily promoted, but as advertising become more sophisticated the emotional and psychological linkages became increasingly important. Ongoing marketing research throughout the 1980s developed what has come be known as the ‘soft sell’ as a preferred mode of persuasion for advertisers whose products would otherwise be virtually indistinguishable on the basis of their function alone. In elaborating on how these linkages between products and emotions are made in the industry, Andersen exposes the specialists working behind the scenes: ‘Anthropologists and psychologists employed by ad agencies spend hundreds of hours probing their subject to determine the hidden desires that motivate behavior.’ For example, researchers at Saatchi and Saatchi, one of the largest global advertising firms, ‘strive to find ways to connect cigarettes with relaxation and to associate fast food with a feeling of safety.’ Such insidious connections have become standard fare in advertising, that has almost taken on a therapeutic function in the society. Although her generally materialist analysis overlooks the spiritual dimensions of culture, Andersen suggests that the:
lack of resources and of meaningful mental health care has left a void in American life. And many people have no means of learning the discursive and emotional strategies necessary to achieve emotional and personal fulfillment. It is no wonder that, given the great need for psychological assistance but with so few providers of those services to the general public, the media in the 1980s became the main forum for expressing such needs. The discourse of therapy is now particularly pervasive on television, where talk shows, dramatic series, and advertising language have capitalized on human dissatisfaction and picked up the mantle dropped by the therapeutic profession.
Subsequent chapters cover specific instances of programming content geared toward selling products. Of particular interest is the fairly recent phenomenon of ‘product placement.’ Not satisfied to simply interrupt programs with advertising spots, sponsors have sought ways to weave products into plot lines, a practice which became pervasive in the 1990s and which is completely commonplace today. A vast middle-man industry has emerged that previews television scripts for potential product references, and solicits advertisers to pay for having their products featured. When a celebrity drinks a certain brand of soft drink, or drives a particular style of automobile, this is all presented by design and through contractual obligations. Each product appearing in a TV program, and also more recently in Hollywood movies, is there because of sophisticated negotiations and careful planning, even down to how many seconds or from what viewpoint the product will be visible. While junk food and trendy items turn up frequently in situation comedies, the scripts for dramatic programs frequently sell hi-tech products, such as computers, mobile phones and automobiles. This process is absolutely insidious and done with the utmost care to convince consumers that product placement simply makes programming more true to ‘real life.’ But perhaps in believing this to be true avid television viewers have become unable to distinguish between real life and fantasy, and the advertising industries, collaborating with broadcasters, have constructed this public perception.

In addition to the more obvious incidents of product placement, advertising intervenes in programming in other subtle and indirect ways. For instance, it is important to sponsors that television programs provide the ‘proper atmosphere’ for their product messages. One cornerstone of the consumer edifice is the notion that all problems are individual problems, and that they are therefore subject to individual choices and remedies. In this way, individualism – rather than social solidarity – is absolutely necessary for the survival of a consumer-based society. At the same time, this is a false sense of individuality. The contradictory message of most advertising is to construct a sense of individual identity through consumer choices, but which amounts to buying product like millions of other consumers who also want to express their sense of individuality through the commodities they purchase. Personal identity is intertwined with product consciousness to such a degree that American youths pay for the ‘privilege’ of wearing logos on their clothing as a marker of status and personal style.

In addition to fostering a contradictory sense of individualism, another advertising mainstay is its reliance on an artificial sense of ‘family values.’ Andersen suggests that:
for American culture, as everyday life is ruptured from the political context, the family has become the site of struggle for meaning that embodies all the contradictions of the discourse of persuasion. Presented as Utopian fantasy, it is simultaneously the source of all dysfunction. Even if pleasure is to be found within its confines in the present, family structures of the past are responsible for our dysfunction... As the flashpoint of our culture, family life backs us into a corner, trapping us in a search for happiness within a fantasy built from fragments of the shattered dreams of our childhood.
These shattered dreams are exploited by television talk shows, especially those in which ordinary people bear their souls in front of an audience and often with a pop psychologist urging them on, which have in many ways become public forms of psycho-therapy. In a chapter on ‘The Television Talk Show: From Democratic Potential to Pseudo Therapy,’ Andersen shows that any potential for talk shows in contributing to meaningful public discourse and creating social spaces for dialog and discussion is lost in the rush for ratings and advertising revenues. Initially conceived for stars and celebrities to brag about their latest accomplishments, talk shows in the 1980s and 1990s also became forums for people to vent their personal tragedies disconnected from social, political or economic realities. In the final analysis, as Andersen suggests,
talk shows – like advertising and entertainment programming – address real needs but do not fulfill those needs. Talk shows respond to the need for a public forum on issues of common concern, but, like traditional news formats, they fail to connect personal experience with the larger socioeconomic context. Therefore, they cannot help individuals understand their own lives in relation to the social, political and economic forces that shape them. The TV therapist has come to replace the expert (or political official) as the voice of wisdom. Talk shows speak with a therapeutic language that examines only a privatized landscape of human experience, further rupturing individual needs from collective solutions. Instead of understanding and knowledge, television talk offers its viewers the voyeuristic pleasure of gazing into the private lives of society’s victims. In essence, television’s therapeutic discourse prevents the public from understanding social issues and participating in the answers to social problems.
After chapters on ‘Reality-based Police Shows,’ ‘Privacy and the Culture of Surveillance,’ and ‘Advertising the Persian Gulf War,’ Andersen returns to the talk show format and its relationship to the 1992 US presidential elections that brought Bill Clinton to power. The same problems with the therapeutic format persist: ‘The discourse of TV therapy is now so pervasive that it penetrates the formulation and definition of public problems. And politicians have learned to stay within its parameters. For instance, the amount of time taken up with the talk-show testimonial style left Clinton no time to answer the question about drugs in broader political terms. In effect, the talk show strategy allowed him to avoid relating the problem of drugs either to social or economic issues such as unemployment, poverty, and rage or to substantive policy proposals.’ It is in this way that Andersen has suggested that the methods and techniques initially developed to sell commodities have now become major anti-social and anti-political forces in American society, which is even more apparent as political campaigns since 1992 have further devolved into personality contests devoid of actual social substance.

Although somewhat dated by today’s standards, Consumer Culture and TV Programming remains an engaging and provocative work. Readers will no doubt enjoy Andersen’s discussion of programming content, but the real value of her work is in identifying the therapeutic nature of television in a dysfunctional society and in offering a way to think about advertising as a contentious social force. Advertising and programming have become intertwined in ways that insure big profits for corporations while excluding citizen-consumers from participating in meaningful public discourse. Television and consumer culture work together to ease the burdens of living in a consumer society and a pseudo-democracy, while simultaneously contributing to and perpetuating the severe social, political, cultural and economic problems that plague modern industrial civilization. For that reason alone, this book should be essential reading for students, teachers and activists alike, particularly those living in areas where American-style commercial TV programming is becoming pervasive. What was once perhaps a particular pathology of American society has now become global, to the extent that the assumptions, methods and techniques of advertising have transgressed national borders and boundaries, creating a sort of transnational consumer society. Andersen also provides insights that can inform decisions that many NGOs might face regarding the role of television in their social and political activities. Discussions of television that focus only on using the medium for broadcasting an overt message of some sort, or to insist on avoiding only the morally questionable programming content, miss the real influence of television on society. Because television has constructed a framework for situating social problems, duties, behaviors and opinions within a limited framework, this volume can help concerned activists and teachers avoid the self-deceptive ruse of taking the discursive conventions of advertising and television at face value. This work may inspire local discussions that will take the general analysis offered by Andersen on the American context and apply it globally to other local contexts, especially in those places where the media have taken the sharp turn toward consumerism.

Further Reading
Antonio V. Menendez Alarcon, Power and Television in Latin America: The Dominican Case (Greenwood, 1992).
Michael H. Anderson, Madison Avenue in Asia: Politics and Transnational Advertising (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984).
Arthur Asa Berger, Ads, Fads, and Consumer Culture: Advertising’s Impact on American Character and Society (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).
Consumers Association of Penang, Beyond Consumer Culture: Other Possibilities, Potentials and Practices (2007).
Karl Gerth, China Made: Consumer Culture and the Creation of the Nation (Harvard University Asia Center, 2004).
S.M. Mohamed Idris, Malaysian Consumers and Development (Consumers Association of Penang, 1986).
Koichi Iwabuchi, Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2002).
Naomi Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs (Picador, 2002).
Bill McKibben, The Age of Missing Information (Random House, 2006).
Neil Postman, How to Watch TV News: Revised Edition (Penguin, 2008).
Alissa Quart, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Our Teenagers (Basic Books, 2004).
Juliet Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner, 2004).
Peter Stearns, Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (Routledge, 2001).
Rob Turnock, Television and Consumer Culture: Britain and the Transformation of Modernity (I.B. Tauris, 2007).

[This review is extracted and slightly edited from Books for Critical Consciousness by J. Progler (Penang, Malaysia: Citizens International, 2010). Robin Andersen's book A Century of Media, A Century of War (Peter Lang, 2006) won the Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award for 2007.]

1 comment:

  1. An interesting related story from Reuters: Professor is dumpster-diving urban Robin Hood