Friday 20 December 2013

Advertiser Control Over Content

In my post Probabilistic Needle Theory, I gave two reasons why cultural goods are becoming increasingly homogenized:

  1. In meeting their shared objective of maximizing profit, they all try to appeal to the widest possible audience. If lots of media producers are trying to reach the widest possible audience, then we should expect there to be a lot of overlap in the methods they employ to do this.
  1. The established powers of the present thrive in a certain kind of political, economic, and cultural environment. It is in the best interests of the multimedia corporations and the other organizations (such as the advertising agencies that influence their content) to promote conservative and capitalist values. We should expect all of these corporations to produce ideologically similar content in their rational attempts to cement the environment that is best for their corporations.

Brian Tomasik commented on the post, disagreeing with the second point:
"...Unless there's robust collusion among many parties, the selfish value of preserving capitalism is tiny compared with the prospect of more profits for you specifically. It's like the tragedy of the commons. If anti-capitalist media would sell well, some big media company would start doing that."

Companies are not inherently in favour of capitalist messages, they are in favour of maximizing their profits. It so happens that strategies for maximizing profit overlap heavily with pro-capitalist and pro-status quo messages but that is only the natural by-product of companies trying to make money. If there was a way to make more money by spreading anti-capitalist and anti-status quo media, then companies would sell that.

This view is more or less correct but it leaves out the intricate relations among the world's power networks. Most notably, the need to appease advertisers in central in determining what content gets airplay.

In Culture Jam, Kalle Lasn writes about the power of advertisers to control content:

"In 1997, Chrysler, one of the five largest advertisers in the US, sent letters to one hundred newspaper and magazine editors demanding to review their publications for stories that could prove damaging or controversial. 'In an effort to avoid potential conflicts, it is required that Chrysler corporation be alerted in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial content that could be construed as provocative or offensive.' According to a spokesperson at Chrysler, every single letter was signed in agreement and returned. This kind of editorial control is widely, quietly practiced throughout the industry."

It's difficult for a company to act in their own best interests when a more powerful company is able to make them instead act in their best interests. So even if a network could make money publishing anti-capitalist and anti-status quo content, that doesn't mean it's advertisers would support that content. Without advertisers, it's difficult for a media outlet to survive.

Advertisers are specifically in the business of getting people to buy stuff. Usually, it's pretty typical stuff that serves pretty typical needs in a particular culture (e.g. cures bad breath, makes silky hair, conveys status to peers). Advertisers are thus more likely than the average organizational body to oppose anti-capitalist and anti-status quo content.

In the same chapter, Lasn relays his experience trying to sell his "Buy Nothing Day" commercial to major TV stations. These are some of the responses he received:

"There's no law that says we have to air anything - we'll decide what we want to air or not." - ABC New York station manager Art Moore 
"We don't want to take any advertising that's inimical to our legitimate business interests." - NBC network commercial clearance manager Richard Gitter 
"I dare you to get any station manager in this town to air your message." - CBS network's Libby Hawkins in New York 
"We don't sell airtime for issue ads because that would allow the people with the financial resources to control public policy." - CBS Boston public affairs manager Donald Lowery 
"This commercial ["Buy Nothing Day"] ... is in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States." - CBS network's Robert L. Lowary

Buy Nothing Day is oppositional to the values and environment that makes these stations - or at least, their advertisers - so successful. It's this dominance of the advertisers over media content that makes it so difficult for oppositional messages to overtake conventional messages.

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