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 purchasingadvertising 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 Rulesgrand-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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Beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century, the economic systems of the United States and to some extent most Western societies transformed from modern industrial economies to post-modern, postindustrial economies based on the consumption rather than the production of goods. In such societies, people use commodities to shape their identities. Like other forms of identity, ethnicity and race are socially constructed with the use of commodities. Some people embrace a voluntary, convenient form of ethnic identity that is largely symbolic, while others — mainly people of color — have visible racial or ethnic markers that make their group membership a matter of ascription, not of choice. While people use commodities to express ethnic and racial identities, other relationships form between ethnicity and the commodity culture. Ethnicities become marketed through festivals, race-specific products, clothing and ethnic cuisines. The commodification of ethnic cultures has led people to question the authenticity of the ethnicities they "consume."
Keywords: Achieved Characteristic; Ascribed Characteristic; Assimilation; Cathedrals of Consumption; Ethnicity; Fetishism of Commodities; Invented Traditions; Melting Pot; Race; Symbolic Ethnicity
The study of the commodification of race and ethnicity brings together several fields of sociology. Sociologists use the term "ethnicity" to refer to a shared background, origins or culture. "Race" refers to a socially constructed category loosely based on ancestral background and appearance. Sociologists believe that racial categories are for the most part biologically meaningless, although they have great social significance. While these terms are used for different analytical reasons in sociology, a person's race and ethnicity may overlap and in mainstream culture the terms are often used interchangeably.
Commodity culture is also a concern of sociology. As Western economies have transformed from manufacturing-based productive economies to systems based more on service industries and information, consumption rather than production has become the major focus of social institutions. For example, families consume together rather than produce together, leisure time is spent consuming, commodities are treated almost as magical objects or fetishes, and people shape their identities through use of products. The study of the social construction of race and ethnicity and the development of commodity culture illuminates several contemporary trends: people use commodities to shape their own ethnic identities and to label and sometimes stereotype various others; commodities are developed and marketed to groups on the basis of their race and ethnicity, and ethnicity itself is treated as a product to be sold.
Identity Formation through Consumption
The economies of many post-industrial Western economies such as the United States are based on high levels of consumption. In a consumer society, people do not define themselves by their relationships to the means of production, but in relationship to the market — that is, people define themselves according to what they buy. While in traditional societies and even early modern societies, people are defined largely through their roles and relationships, in consumer societies, a heavier emphasis is placed on visual statements of identity, fashion, and identity construction through the use of commodities. Culture becomes "prefabricated and mass marketed" (Dunn, 2000, p. 117) and ethnic identity can be purchased in the same way as other commodities. This simultaneously has the positive effect of giving people more choice in their own identity construction and the negative effect of destroying traditional bonds and fragmenting society.
Sociologists point out that some personal characteristics are ascribed; they are given to people at birth, such as gender. Others are achieved; people "earn" them as they move through life. For example, age is ascribed and marital status is achieved. Race is generally an ascribed characteristic. Although a person may pass as someone of another race, more often racial sorting based on appearance assigns people to the racial group with which they identify. Ethnicity is also ascribed, but there is a sense in which it can be achieved. People who exhibit physical characteristics associated with their ethnicity have that ethnicity ascribed to them, but others must actively display their affiliations for people to correctly identify their ethnic identity. In this sense, ethnicity can be said to be achieved.
Gans (1979) said that many people experience their ethnicity not through participation in ethnic life (for example, living in an ethnic community or attending religious services with others of the same ethnicity) but by identifying through individual acts with an ethnic category. For many people (particularly those who are descended from white ethnic groups) ethnicity has become largely voluntary and unlikely to affect life chances or important decisions. To "feel ethnic," that is, to feel connected with older traditions and meanings associated with a particular ethnicity, people engage in activities of a more symbolic nature. Ethnicity becomes an attribute associated with personal identity rather than group identity. Gans noted that using consumer goods (especially food) and celebrating ethnic holidays were easy ways of practicing symbolic ethnicity. In contemporary society, there are few costs and many benefits to symbolic ethnicity; it can provide people with a sense of uniqueness and help them distinguish themselves from others and from mass culture. Conversely, it can give a sense of belonging and provide a sense of common identity. In consumer societies, because people use commodities to construct their identities, symbolic ethnicity becomes shaped by commodities (Bankston & Henry, 2000). Ethnicity becomes expressed through ethnic festivals, foods, clothing and music -all commodified forms — whereas in the past it was expressed through maintenance of traditional culture from religious practices to folkways, through endogamous marriage, ethnic voting blocks, and labor market niches.
A group's culture may be commodified because it is being assimilated into the broader culture, or conversely, commodification may signal a renewed interest in maintaining distinct aspects of an ethnic or racial subculture. Commodification may be imposed on a group from the outside, for example, Mattel created sari-clad versions of Barbie to increase their market share in India (Grewal, 2005). Or, people in a group may market their culture to outsiders as a means of preserving it and keeping it alive. There is no limit to how an ethnicity can be packaged and sold. Ethnic culture is sold through foods, drinks, toys, clothing, and music; often, ethnic stereotypes are part of the marketing. For example, in some Irish pubs, the product being marketed is an imaginary Irish identity and also "a particularly 'Irish' way of having a 'good time'" based on the old stereotype of the Irish as heavy drinkers (McGovern, 2002, p. 79). What these examples have in common is the extent to which ethnic identity becomes inseparable from commodities. "Significantly, many of the transactions by which ethnicity is made 'real' are economically grounded: festivals, restaurants, art galleries, clothing outlets, and musical venues" (Lu & Fine 1995).
Examples of Commodification
Ethnic festivals may center on agricultural products associated with a group, foodstuffs, religious holidays, or a variety of ethnic practices such as dancing, production of indigenous products (Navaho blanket weaving), historical reenactments, or other activities (Cajun alligator calling). Staging ethnic festivals serves as a means of creating a symbolic ethnic identity in consumer society. Ethnic festivals are designed to re-enchant the world. They offer a multitude of commodities that ostensibly provide an authentic representation of an ethnic culture, and offer these for sale as a means of participating in ethnic life or as a means of constructing an ethnic identity (Bankston & Henry 2000).
Sometimes ethnicity is commodified in an attempt to move products. For example, the producers of Guinness began cooperating with the O'Neill's Irish pub chain when they realized that many people ordered Guinness in specific social settings — Irish-themed restaurants and bars — but rarely outside of these settings. Guinness began to cooperate in efforts to expand the number of Irish pubs in Britain and worldwide as a marketing tool....