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.
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 market.
The Audience as the Product
Additionally, as Noam Chomsky points out in his article, What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream, 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.
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:
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.
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 added 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, added 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 agencies 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:
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. (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:
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 consumption, 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?
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 used
- Fourandsix technologies also showcases many examples of photo tampering throughout history, showing how it has been used for propaganda as well as commercial effect.
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 advertorials.
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 movie (Disney owns ABC), which some have even described as propaganda. Examples abound, and it would be a futile effort to attempt to list them all here. Such use of news time to promote entertainment has come under criticism of late.
Richard Robbins also captures this well:
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 Consumerism.)
A number of scandals errupted in 2005 revealed all manner of fake news and media manipulation. (The previous link, from this site, goes into this in further detail.)
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.
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:
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 behavior)…! 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.
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:
In addition, corporate influence has affected what gets reported and what doesn’t, as John Prestage highlights:
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:
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.
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:
And on the impact that films like Top Gun had:
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 invasion and subsequent myriad of issues for the US and its military.
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:
Also worth quoting at some length is part of a paper looking at democracy and transnational media, labeled promotion of consumerism at all costs: