Sunday, April 20, 2008
Manufacturing Desire at the Altar of Anxiety:
Materialism, Consumption, and Marketing the Spiritual Void
by Dianna Morton
In both public and private spaces, we are assaulted by a thirty second spell on an average of three thousand times per day. Under these spells, we are momentarily prompted to believe that objects have the power to transform us and to bring us everlasting happiness. As we have been raised under the barrage of these ubiquitous and incessant spells, the onslaught permeates the atmosphere and creates a progressive confusion about our reality. These spells, orchestrated by the most creative minds of the century, may be considered the most successful propaganda effort in changing public consciousness in the history of the world (Jhally, 2006, p. 100) .They are so powerful that even the most rational among us are at risk of being swallowed up in the belief in the magical potions of materialism and cast our faith to the promise- that our dream life will be made real. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels recognized the necessity of capitalism to expand the consumption of commodities at all costs: “All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” (Marx and Engels, 1978, p. 476). Advertising is the spell, and it progressively works its manipulative magic upon us, as consumers, to up hold the illusionary reality of capitalism to the tune of $260 billion in the United States annually. This figure does not include the Public Relations aspect of advertising, nor the advertising that is now merged into the general culture (S. Jhally, personal communication, March 22, 2008). We do not have the choice to turn advertising off because it is everywhere. Choice is taken out of the equation- choice is seen as an enemy, but at the same time, choice is a crucial illusion incorporated within the spell.
My primary texts of focus for this writing are The Spectacle of Accumulation: Essays in Culture, Media, and Politics by Sut Jhally, with a particular emphasis on his two essays Advertising as Religion: The Dialectic of Technology and Magic, first published in 1989 in Cultural Politics in Contemporary America and Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse, published in Critical Studies in Media Commercialism published in 2000, as well as Born to Buy, by Juliet Schor (2004). Sut Jhally is a Professor of Communications at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and founder of the Media Education Foundation. In the first essay, Jhally examined, through a Marxist lens, the development of the consumer society and the theft and reappropriation of meaning in advertising. Jhally (1989) claimed the development of the consumer culture born out of the capitalist mode of production as a cultural revolution. The second essay claimed that the powerful propaganda system of advertising, spawned from this cultural revolution, is in the process of piloting the consumer culture of the West into the destruction of the world, under the guise of leading us to individual happiness and a globalization in which all of the developing worlds’ people will be materially indoctrinated into this belief system. Schor is a prolific researcher and writer on consumerism in America. She also teaches sociology at Boston College. Born to Buy is based on Schor’s knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, and media. Through the eyes and practice of a social scientist, she examined our contemporary culture in which advertising has an immense effect on young people. The theoretical underpinnings of focus are defining human happiness and its sources, understanding the depths of the magical and supernatural world view that advertising proposes, while playing upon our anxieties, and discovering how these two meet in forming a consumer culture. Lastly, this paper will examine the effects of this commercialized culture on the future: our children. Advertising is a system of “magic” that exploits our human desires in convincing us that commodities are the way to happiness, yet our consumer culture reflects lives bereft of personal autonomy, deep human connections with other human beings, as well as inflicting future generations with severe emotional and physical health issues that may weigh upon our survival as a species, while providing us with a fantasy world that increases our anxieties by manufacturing desires that can never be met through the proposed remedy of consumption.
Preindustrial society, as seen through the works of Goldsmith (1770) in “The Deserted Village” was an agricultural society in which work and leisure were intermeshed and family relationships were at the core of the culture. Goods were produced locally and there was an intimate connection between the people and their craft and their labor. Works of fiction, such as Moll Flanders, showed the means in which industrial capitalist society shattered these intimate societal bonds. People transitioned to urban centers and a rampant disconnect between families, labor, and leisure became the social norm. As this revolution pressed on into twentieth century America, modernism brought to the forefront what Jhally termed “a major crisis in meaning.” He stated, “Feelings of unreality, depression, and loss accompanied the experience of anonymity associated with urbanization. Religious beliefs waned in strength as traditional Protestant theology underwent a process of secularization.” (Jhally, 2006, p. 88) The emotional and physical health of the people was in a state of upheaval, as if a literal and cultural state of schizophrenia. As a result, where a communal, ethical, and religious framework had previously been employed to heal and strengthen the people, the secular nature of this new culture fragmented and dismissed these former structures. In addition to the crisis in meaning, another crisis emerged- an economic crisis that confronted the immense amount of commodities being produced within the capitalist system: they needed to be sold and then disposed of.
In Social Communications in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace (2005), the authors explained that capitalists saw an open door into exploiting the emotional and pseudo-material needs of the people to their economic satisfaction. Advertising would solve these problems simultaneously:
The consumer society resolves the tensions and contradictions of industrial society as the marketplace and consumption takes over the functions of traditional culture. Into the void left by the transition from the traditional to industrial society comes advertising, the most prominent aspect of the “discourse through and about objects,” and the reconstitution of the population not into social classes as the primary mode of identification, but into consumption classes (as in Jhally, 2006, p. 89).
Jhally noted that in a capitalist society, commodities have been stripped of the meaning that was once based upon the integral connection with their creation. Therefore, the goal of the advertiser is to refill the goods with meaning. According to Karl Marx, the fetishism of commodities involves hiding the real social relation between the object and the labor of its production to create an imaginary symbolic meaning. Advertising steps in and does this, which is where its power lies.
In his book Deep Economy which creatively navigates a model for a post-consumer future, Bill McKibben (2007) wrote:
Traditionally, ideas like happiness and satisfaction are the sorts of notions that economists wave aside as poetic irrelevancies, questions that occupy the people with no head for numbers who have to major in something else at college. An orthodox economist can tell what makes someone happy by what they do. If they buy a Ford Expedition, then ipso facto a Ford Expedition is what makes them happy.” (McKibben, 2007, p. 30)
Advertising tries to get us to belief just this- objects bring us happiness. In a broad analysis, contemporary advertising acts as a system of magic. In order to understand the theoretical foundation of this analysis, it is essential to investigate the idea of human happiness and how advertising works in convincing us that objects will fulfill our desires and bring us happiness- or the cultural role advertising plays in the society, and how through this role society’s values are constructed. This is not to examine advertising in its effectiveness in selling product, but to examine advertising in terms of what stories are being told. These stories influence our behavior, our morality, and our ideas about what is important (Jhally, 2000, p.31). And these stories are presently inundating our society. Advertising, or the discourse through and about objects, has taken over our public and private landscapes (Jhally, 2000, p.29). As the greatest technologically based propaganda mechanism in the history of mankind, advertising pushes the myth that happiness is attained through consumption.
If we interpret the word “need” to mean something that we, as humans, cannot survive without, we would include items such as food, shelter, and clothing. We would also include those things that we need to fulfill us as participants in the human experience: love, safety, friendship, and sense of purpose. All of these needs can be met without advertising. In Jhally’s (2000) essay Advertising and the Edge of the Apocalypse, he refers to "quality of life surveys" in which people define what brings about happiness in their lives. Social values, including love, family, friends, far outweighed material values:
What people say they really want out of life is: autonomy and control of life; good self-esteem; warm family relationships; tension-free leisure time; close and intimate friends; as well as romance and love. This is not to say that material values are not important. They form a necessary component of a good quality of life. But above a certain level of poverty and comfort, material things stop giving us the kind of satisfaction that the magical world of advertising insists they can deliver. (Jhally, 2000, p. 32)
This is why the advertising industry, after the 1920’s, ceased selling us products. The pitch moved the relationship of objects to the social sphere of people.
One of the most prominent ways in which advertising works can be discovered through the analysis of its historical stages, which responded to the human psyche. Our relationship to products is twofold: (a) its use value and (b) its symbolic dimension. In anthropology, when humans bring meaning to a product, it is called the symbolic constitution of utility. This is inherent in human beings interaction with products. A historical and anthropological example of this would be the observations of Marcel Maus and the Maori’s ritualistic gift giving. For this African tribe, the ceremonial gift giving combined the appreciation of the natural raw materials (part of nature) and the life force of the person that produced it. The exchange of gifts is literally an exchange of persons- that is why reciprocity is so important in non-market, indigenous, societies. (Leiss, Klein, Jhally, Botterill , 2005, p. 243). Yet, our rational, technological communications systems offer us only the “facts” about the products we consume. Advertising is talked about as information- the central rational of advertising is that it is a complex industrial market society in which people need information to determine what goods are right for them. Business and marketing says advertising is a form of information that consumers need and require. If advertising is information, the objective features of goods are the information that advertising gives. This information includes what “it” does, how well “it” does it, and what “it” is made of- its technical performance features. The central motion of this starts off with the idea of rational consumers who know what their needs are; the job of producers is to relay this information to marketers who then forward it to consumers. The focus of the objective features of goods is a very narrow way in seeing what is important about goods.
In Advertising the American Dream, Roland Marchland wrote that in advertising’s emergence at the beginning of the 20th century, the initial focus was on the celebration of the grand quantitative production of the new industrial society:
Huge refrigerators tower above tiny towns of consumers; silhouetted against the starry sky, they stood guard over communities like giant sentinels. Immense cars straddled the rivers and towns of miniaturized countrysides below, symbolizing the command over the landscape obtainable through the automobile.
(as in Jhally, 2006, p. 90)
Jhally analyzed this view of advertising as a form of idolatry, and witnessed its progression as parallel with the evolution of religious belief. Jhally wrote, “What advertisers recognized was the nostalgia for the world that was passing, for a stable world of religious, family, and community life.” (Jhally, 2006, p. 90). Roland Marchland pointed out that the visual clichés at the dawn of the advertising age directly showed the object as sacred through the use of radiant beams glowing from the product as a “halo” effect. Following the idolatry stage of advertising up through the 1920’s, the stage of iconology emerged. These icons, or symbols presented through advertisements moved the consumer from the worship of commodities to bringing the meaning of objects within a social context (Jhally, 2006, p. 91). This transference of the consumption of goods into the social arena, involving social values or status, translated into social relationships. As the relationship of trust with local farmers diminished with the absence of local farms, original brands were comforting logos that were often images of people such as Aunt Jemima or Quaker Oats, symbols that invited a fake personal relationship with the product. This transferred the “feeling” of dealing with the real people that had represented the endorsement of the local products to imaginary people that stamped their mass produced product with the seal of value and reliability.
According to Jhally, advertising made a complete shift to the consumer from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. He cited this phase as the “stage of narcissism” in which the product’s power is at the disposal of individuals:
The product reflects the desire of the individual. Advertisements show the fantasized completion of self, of how the product can transform individual existence. The power of the product can be manifested in many ways but, predominantly, it is through the strategy of black magic, in which persons undergo sudden physical transformations or in which the commodity can be used to entrance or enrapture other people. (Jhally, 2006, p. 91)
In Sut Jhally’s debate with James Twitchell “On Advertising” (2006), Jhally exemplified this with the huge success of The DeBeers advertising campaign in which the power of advertising has structured our culture into responding to the belief that the diamond is directly correlated with meeting the needs of love and courtship. The bloody and violent history of the diamond trade never entered into the arena of this story. Jhally stated that The DeBeers example points out how advertising works, “by reaching deep seated human needs” (Jhally, 2006, p. 119). “A diamond is forever” is central to the ideas we think about when we contemplate the rituals of courtship and marriage in this culture, and to understand this value we must look at the history of diamonds. Until the 1870’s, diamonds were a rare stone and their value came from their scarcity. In about 1870, huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. The most important thing to know about diamonds is that they are not scarce. They are found everywhere in the world. But the owners of these mines were fearful that the market would be flooded and as supplies increased the prices would come down, so they formed a monopoly, or a cartel. The family that had control over diamonds was the Oppenheimers, and their goal was to gain control over the diamond trade. They have employed the most successful advertising campaign in the world. In 1938, there was a decline in sales in the diamond business. Vast quantities of diamonds were being unearthed in Africa, Russia, and Australia. Along with their discovery, the knowledge of their common existence was seeping out. Every time there were new discoveries of diamond, they needed to be either destroyed or controlled. What DeBeers had to do was to make sure wherever diamonds were found, they needed to gain control. (From an economic point of view, it is exactly what producers should do.) They needed to change public attitude towards diamonds and needed to make diamonds something beyond their economic value. In order to do so, diamonds had to be connected to the emotional life of people. The Madison Avenue N.W. Ayers Advertising Company was hired to capture the attention of both males and females in varying propagandist stories about the value of diamonds. Men were to be persuaded that diamonds were the gift of love and the greater the diamond the greater the love. For women, diamonds were a necessity to romantic courtship. The goal was to change public attitudes. The reason DeBeers could do this was because they had monopoly control of it. They never had to even mention the company or brand because they had control over the product; the sole need was to change the meaning of these “things” that can be dug out of the ground in vast quantities. They proceeded to do this through both the movies and British royalty. After WWII, the major medium was the movies. An internal menu from N.W.Ayers stated the following: “Motion pictures seldom include scenes showing the selection of or purchase of an engagement ring to a girl. It would be our plan to contact scenario writers and directors and arrange for such scenes in suitable productions” ( The Diamond Empire, 1994).They gave out diamonds to producers to put diamonds into the movies in a very favorable situation, which were staged renditions of the man surprising the woman with a piece of diamond jewelry and while simultaneously proposing marriage. Hollywood, in its Golden Age, was indoctrinated in this advertising campaign; their compensation was in diamonds. Entire movies were created around diamonds such as “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Diamonds are Dangerous”. To Americans, The British Royal Family represented the ultimate in aristocratic behavior. As diamonds came from British colonies, the royalty was more than willing to become the sales agents for DeBeers- almost as a coup. (Both of these situations illustrate the merging of advertising into the general culture.) In 1948, a Madison Avenue slogan “A diamond is forever” was created; the idea that a diamond is forever was to get people to store and hold them- so they would never flood the market and their value would not diminish. Within as little as twenty years, this agency was able to change cultural attitudes towards love and marriage. The diamond, at the cost of an average worker’s two month salary, entered the market of necessity in the cultural rituals of courtship.
Jhally’s analysis of the development of advertising moves into the stage where it presently exists today- totemism. In ancient societies, totemism “refers to the correlation between the natural world and the social world, where natural differences stand for social differences. In modern advertising, goods take the place of natural species” (Jhally, 2006, p. 91). In this final stage, all of the previous stages mix and merge. It is a cumulative progression in which utility, symbolization, and personalization meet under the sign of “group”. A consumption community emerges and products give the magic access to these communities (Jhally, 2006, p. 92). This appeals to the primeval needs that reside within the deepest human condition.
In totemism, contemporary advertising highlights personal ascetic values over social values, severing our relationships with one another. An ad for Blue Fly depicts a young woman shopping on line during a party. The copy reads, “It’s her party and she’ll shop if she wants to.” There is often a recycling or piggy backing of previous pop culture that has proven successful in creating an instant recognition and fulfills the need for symbolic meaning. One recent phenomenon in advertising is the human model as limp and lifeless, sending the message that humans, themselves, are commodities. In advertising, women are often objectified, a first step in justifying violence towards a human. Women’s bodies are often dismembered- another lead towards violence against women. They are photographed in sexually provocative and submissive poses. Last year, “America’s Top Model”, a network show in which women compete for modeling opportunities, required participants to send in photos of the model as “murdered and beautiful.” One image, in particular, showed a women in a doorway with her midsection carved open as illustrative of organ theft. Bondage is used to sell cars in a Lexus ad and watches on city buses. Pornography has entered the mainstream through advertising. Women are “silenced” in many ads, such as a Bonnebell ad that features a women with a turtleneck sweater covering her mouth with copy that reads, “I let my eyes do the talking.” It is also a “to be looked at world” and feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction are imposed upon us. As we are being sold a solution to our desire of freedom and transformation, we are, in reality, put into mental prisons. This is emphasized in advertising directed at women as the body is depicted as being a form of capital in and of itself that depreciates with age and weight gain. The magical remedy is a Lands’ End bathing suit. The copy in the catalogue reads, “You never have to feel self conscious on the beach again.” Women can “defy” their age by using Revlon products. Men are asked, “Would you rather tell her your secrets or be her secret?” The archetypical male is featured in advertising in an “Attitude is Everything” stance. A truck ad boasts, “When you drive a truck this frigging big, you don’t run from trouble, you run over it.” The message promotes dangerous driving habits, but also the concept that "might is right" and that conflict is solved through physical strength and violence, rather than negotiation (Tallim, 2002). The Media Awareness Foundation has identified these male archetypes found in advertising as masculine icons from popular history:
The cowboy, the pirate and the ancient warrior are all examples of violent, rugged manhood that support the premise that man is, historically, an aggressive creature. The Marlboro Man, the icon of the rugged, solitary male, is meant to suggest that men who smoke Marlboro cigarettes are equally rugged and masculine. With the cowboy icon comes many other (often stereotypical) associations of strength, bravery and 'noble violence' — the lone cowboy using violent behavior to protect the weak and defenseless (who are usually female). (Tallim, 2002)
These messages isolate males. They, too, are delivered, through advertising, to a mental prison in which masculinity is defined in a very narrow and limited way. Advertisers further remind readers of their power to continually transform. Ads urge the reader to, “live in the moment”; “create your own spotlight”; and “you can make it happen.” Risks are presented as an essential element in a life of novelty. Many of these ads push addiction to food, alcohol, and tobacco. The messages of advertising’s spell takes us further than ever from the warm family relationship, intimate friends, and romantic love that we all seek to satisfy our human needs. It indoctrinates us into a world of isolation, violence, and self-abuse.
In this realm of totemism, with the understanding that people’s relationships with objects is what defines us as human beings, advertising works through the illusion of catering to deep human needs. Schudson (1984) wrote in Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society:
IN THE FACTORY we make cosmetics," Charles Revlon of Revlon, Inc. said, "in the store we sell hope."An advertising executive told me, "We've convinced the mothers of America that they're not good mothers if they don't serve Minute Maid." Another executive, referring to AT&T's "Reach Out and Touch Someone" campaign said, "Advertising turned that instrument, a physical inanimate object, into an instrument of the heart." These are the sorts of statements, no matter how hyperbolic or self serving, that critics of advertising seize on as the inner worm of truth in the apple of the ad industry. ( Schudson, 1984, p. 129)
Advertising depended upon identifying the niche market and segmented audience, so that the stimuli that were created could evoke stored information: it had to resonate with the information that the listener processed. It needed to identify our anxieties, and then to wrap up our emotions and sell them back to us. As advertising drew its materials from the experience of the audience, it reformulated them in a unique way that did not reflect meaning but constituted it. The feeling of the message became the essential element of advertising. (Botterill et al., 2005) This is the symbolic meaning that advertising supplied as products entered the market in the industrialized capitalist economy.
Jhally noted that this system has been established as an essential part of Capitalism. He quoted retail analyst of the 1940’s Victor Liebow in his essay “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse” (2000):
Our enormously productive economy...demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and the selling of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in commodities...We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate. (in Jhally, 2000, p. 31)
It is this connection between goods and human happiness that the story of advertising tells us, and in the telling of this story, a culture is created. Based on this premise, humans become the product sold to advertisers, of value only as a potential customer.
Jhally called this “The cruel illusion of advertising” and quoted ad executive Jerry Goodis in stating, "Advertising doesn't mirror how people are acting but how they are dreaming." (in Jhally, 2000). The power of advertising exceeds the reflection of the dreamlife of the culture- advertisers create what Jhally termed “the fantasy factory”, yet as advertising does this, it brings us further away from human relationships, a true source of our human happiness. This irony creates great confusion and anxiety. People receiving the message that happiness can be got through consuming objects become negligent of collective values and interests. It speaks to our most base human instincts: selfishness and greed (Jhally, 2000, p.35).
The ironies are steep. Advertisers will argue against the fact that their purpose is to homogenize people and culture at the same time that commodities are often presented as a means to achieve individuality. Gap claims wearing their jeans will channel your life into one of distinction. Yet, the drive of advertisers is to merge the niche market and segmented audiences in order to build a constituency of the audience so the audience becomes a willing, consolidated mass market. This age of mass industrialization has become an “Age of Choicelessness” under this guise of individuality. Although commodity choices seem to exist, Klein noted that as we are “dazzled by the array of consumer choices, we may at first fail to notice the tremendous consolidation taking place in boardrooms.” (Klein, 2002, p. 129) In the same vein, we are confused into thinking we have an abundance of lifestyle options to choose from, while brand tribes define our lifestyles. Through branding, advertisers realized that they could sell back to the consumer the consumption of the product. An example of this is the contemporary television car advertisement. For young people, what they love most about cars is about hanging out with friends and listening to music. Advertisers have recreated this lifestyle image and used it as the sales pitch for the car. Advertisers understood that they could sell lifestyles by finding where our brand idea lives independently and then merging with it. Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Disney understood this. In the 1960’s, Coca-Cola was selling peace and happiness through manipulated song lyrics. Disney was selling the nostalgic American Dream, complete with messages of racism and sexism, Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, did not want to compete in a commodity market place. He wanted to run a sports company based on the idea of sports- not a fashion company (Klein, 2004).This lifestyle branding- or selling of an idea as commodity is damaging to a democracy. If one of the major sources of happiness includes personal autonomy- branding, by its nature, obliterates this. Virgin sells the idea of individualism and mass produces rebellious individuality. Apple invokes revolutionary icons such as Einstein, John Lennon, Gandhi, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ikea boasts their products as a form of democracy because you can choose and put together your furniture. In branding, these valued ideas are not connected to belief or action but are just commodity- which is key in devaluing them. Our most important ideas, democracy and revolution, have now become “brands”. In No Logo, Naomi Klein summarized that every facet of our lives is vulnerable to use (and abuse) in the theatre of the brand (Klein, 2002). As the values reflected in these ideas have been diminished, and as this chaotic cultural and economic landscape, “with its border defying flows of money, high speed information and imagery” (Earp and Devereaux, 2002) has left every aspect of our lives open to this branding, our autonomy has been robbed, a sham has been made of our sense of our own individuality, and our political ideals have been commoditized. If the equation of happiness consists of these attributes, it would be reasonable to assess that advertising has not interrupted our channels to feelings of contentment, but progressively works at brainwashing us into believing that we still have to buy more things to get “there” at the cost of annihilating our true sources of happiness.
The imperial powers of lifestyle branding now push against their own boundaries. The goal is now to stretch the brand in terms of selling more and different products. Warring megabrands want to be everywhere and everything. In actuality, Disney has reached brand nirvana in the creation of the first privatized town: Celebration, Florida. Ironically, there are no brands in the first branded town which was built as a monument to public space. Yet, as advertising does so well, what has been created is the antithesis of all that brings us happiness. The town of Celebration is a Disney monopoly. As companies try to feed off of meaning and space, everything is a potential prop. Even in capitalist culture, the commons should be the place where the rules of the market do not apply. In today’s consumer society, we have given up the commons for look-alike imposters (Klein, 2002). Because of our lack of communal values, schools have begun to look like malls, relying on corporate advertising money to fund basic educational programs. In public schools, computers lined up in educational spaces have Apple or Microsoft logos on their screens. Mathematic texts pose problems with photo illustrations of M&M candies. Vending machines advertise Coca Cola and Dasani. Just as public places take on the visual illusion of the private sphere, private spaces appear as public. Malls take on the physical attributes of the commons, designed to mimic the town square, but bereft of any constitutional rights. In this privatized illusion of the commons, all rights must be surrendered - and we are confronted with the question- what is real? “Branding works its magic only up to the point of sale, and then the actual human need returns, unfulfilled; the advertiser is always pleased to offer a new round of promise and failure.” (McKibben, 2007, p. 113) Advertising does not meet our needs, rather it creates an illusion of doing so, actually bringing us further away from chance of fulfillment.
James Twitchell (2004), who stated his belief that “The Industrial Revolution was a result of our materialism, not the cause of it.” (Twitchell, 2004, p. 35), celebrated the success of the advertising industry’s corporate transcendence in naming the phenomenon “Branded Nation”. Twitchell viewed this branding as a new form of community. In his essay Branding 101: Marketing Stories in a Culture of Consumption, Twitchell wrote, “Much of our shared knowledge about ourselves and our culture comes to us through a commercial process of storytelling called branding…ten percent of two year old’s nouns are brand names.” According to Twitchell, this “gives the consumer something to hold onto.” (Twitchell, 2004, p. 2) The very notion that one tenth of the primary and limited vocabulary of a toddler is brand names should be cause for alarm. As a child’s vocabulary reflects the child’s interpretation of the world, what we have done is to allow the cultural space to be taken over by very narrow capital interests. If we, as educated and life experienced adults are as vulnerable as we appear to be in our believe in the magical properties of materialism, a child is a blank slate.
Economist and social scientist Juliet Schor (2004) in her book Born to Buy, examined our contemporary culture in which advertising has an immense effect on young people, in particular children ages eighteen months through thirteen years old. Having posed the question, “What is happening to kids today?” in terms of well-being trends, Schor did not dismiss the discourse that crosses political spectrums including family structure, permissive parenting, the decline of morality, and ill performing schools, yet included what she named the “ 800 pound gorilla” in the room, an alternative explanation: Media and Consumer Culture. The basis for this claim is that children are spending more time with media than generations of the past. (In this context, it is essential to comprehend and clearly recognize the blurry merging of advertising and the general media culture.) Her quantitative research strategy was two-fold. First, she obtained a managerial position with a Madison Avenue children’s marketing group. There, Schor was tutored in all facets of children’s advertising; she met with those contacts for an additional forty meetings and interviewed people in the industry to find out what was going on and what the cutting edge of marketing to kids was. Schor’s second mode of research involved surveying three hundred children age ten through thirteen in five schools, both urban and suburban, and residing in varying socio-economic and racial/ethnic households, in the Boston area, to measure consumer involvement, media use, and a series of psychological variables including depression, self-esteem, headaches, etc. This research included twenty-six parent interviews. The purpose was to ask the question what is the impact of media and commercialization on children’s well being? Schor examined how the market targets children immersed in the consumer media culture to their detriment, in which they are offered false promises, yet are put into a metaphorical prison in which they are controlled, bereft of connection with caring adults, suffer severe stress and anxiety, become prone to obesity and diabetes, and are encouraged to develop addictive behaviors, all in order to meet the ever increasing demands of the market. The concept of the defense of advertising needs clarification when examining the detrimental effects of advertising on children. This defense is based on the belief that adults are rational and can detect truth and falsity in advertising. Yet, this argument cannot be applied to children because rationality is not something that exists, but develops. Based on the defense of advertising theory, it would be unethical to direct advertising to children, especially children under the age of twelve, as the younger the child, the more vulnerable to the message. Prior to the 1960’s, children were only exposed to ads that were made for adults. The reason is that a medium for the market did not exist until television entered as a commodity in the mainstream culture. This commercial media technology connected children directly to the market. Juliet Schor (2004) explained that up through the 1980’s, the messages of advertising were less directly sent to children, as the parent served as a gatekeeper to some extent. She noted how this historic shift in the triangle of children, parents, and marketers began to break down in the eighties, and that advertising firms pushed and disseminated this old regime in the 1990’s, where a direct market to kids, via advertising, created an alliance between the marketer and children. She stated that the corporate position made a claim to children in which the marketer is “going to take you to a free hedonistic place where everything is going to be fun.” (Schor, 2004, p. 202) The taste of a generation is being formed through a process of marketing and advertising. The lives, the development of meaning, and experiences are being constructed by a set of corporations who are turning children into commercialized children. The market’s claim is that it is empowering these children. Yet, Schor, based on a structural equation model of media exposure and physical and psychological health, argued that the negative trends in childhood well being are directly correlated to commercial media exposure.
Statistics that Schor was exposed to during her “work” on Madison Avenue was that the present generation of children is the most “brand” oriented. Her Madison Avenue “constituents” bragged that by eighteen months old, children were identifying logos, and by age two, they were asking for products by brand name. By age three, children were using brands to communicate aspects of their personalities. The growth of research on how to market to kids included marketers moving into homes to “study” kids and their activities. The scientific side of the research included “neuro-marketing”- actual MRI scanning on “consumers”, including children. In her direct research with children, Schor recognized that children were shopping 50 % more than the preceding generation, both with their parents and on their own. The supermarket was the predominant consumer arena. Schor also noted that commodities have become increasingly influential especially in the social dynamics within schools. Among youngsters who previously answered questions about future aspirations with career goals, the number one answer (75%) is now “rich.” (Hymowitz, 2007, ¶ 5) As I thumbed through a local high school newspaper this week, two out of three senior students interviewed stated “rich” as the future goal they wished to attain. A term used by Madison Avenue when discussing their target child audience is “Tweens”. The markets’ hype is the benefits of appealing to the children’s “aspiration age”. (Hymowitz, 2007, ¶ 5) Tweens are between six and twelve years old, and the term refers to a person who is between childhood and adolescence. According to the marketers, a six year old is no longer a child. If we are to return to the ethics of advertising, this concept takes the heat off the advertisers in a moral debate.
Through advertising and corporate media, there are several stories that are being told to children about the culture of childhood. The first is that children now have clout in the market place. Prior to this shift in the eighties, kids’ consumer culture was “cheap”. There was penny candy to be sold along with cheap plastic toys. When the paradigm began shifting, and children were spending more time with media, an advertising culture was set into place to reel the children into the consumer culture. In her article Childhood for Sale, Kay Hymowitz stated that, “marketers use the expertise of anthropologists, sociologists, brain-imaging specialists, child psychologists, and pollsters to plumb children's desires, analyze family dynamics, and develop techniques that seem consciously designed to make parents' lives miserable.” (Hymowitz, 2007, ¶ 5) Part of this alliance between marketers and children is the “nag-factor” or “pester power”, which results, according to Schor (2004), in seven hundred billion dollars of adult purchasing power being driven by children annually. As the Nickelodeon motto has it, "Kids Rule!"
In this defunct paradigm, food is a major product that is being pushed. A recent study done by the Kaiser Foundations Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States concluded the following:
The study combined content analysis of TV ads with detailed data about children’s viewing habits, to provide an estimate of the number and type of TV ads seen by children of various ages. The study found that tweens ages 8-12 see the most food ads on TV, an average of 21 ads a day, or more than 7,600 a year. Teenagers see slightly fewer ads, at 17 a day, for a total of more than 6,000 a year. For a variety of reasons -- because they watch less TV overall, and more of their viewing is on networks that have limited or no advertising, such as PBS and Disney -- children ages 2-7 see the least number of food ads, at 12 food ads a day, or 4,400 a year.
For each age group studied, food was the top product seen advertised. Thirty-two percent of all ads seen by 2-7 year olds were for food, while 25% of ads seen by 8-12 year olds and 22% of ads seen by 13-17 year olds were for food. Of all genres on TV, shows specifically designed for children under 12 have the highest proportion of food advertising (50% of all ad time).
“Children of all ages see thousands of food ads a year, but tweens see more than any other age group,” said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of the Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Since tweens are at an age where they’re just becoming independent consumers, understanding what type of advertising they are exposed to is especially important.” (The Kaiser Foundation, 2007, ¶ 2)
The study revealed that out of the types of food advertised, 34% are for candy and snacks, 28% are for cereal, and 10% are for fast foods. Of the 8,854 ads reviewed in the study, there were none for fruits or vegetables targeting children or teens. The appeals used in advertising food to kids include a push to view websites and a premium toy gift. One in ten of these toys are connected to a TV or movie character. Only fifteen percent of this advertising included depicting healthy habits such as physical activity. (The Kaiser Foundation, 2007, ¶5)
Out of all the battles between parent and child: food, drugs, sex, and violence, food is the one that has been lost, and may do the most harm to children over time. The extreme changes in the levels and rates in obesity in American children show that one quarter of all children are obese today. One third of these children will develop diabetes as a direct result. (Schor, 2004, p.128) There is a never ending increase of branding of junk food through toys. Junk food is even being produced to look like toys. Hymowitz (2007) highlighted the point that, “ They (the marketers) appeal to children's impulsiveness by introducing ever more exciting and more noxious products like "Blue Funky Fries" or "Mystery Color Ketchup." (Hymowitz, 2007, ¶5) While this advertising is going on, continuously pervasive is drug, alcohol, and tobacco advertising to kids. (Schor, 2004, p. 35-36)
Another story that is being told about the culture of childhood is that adults are the enemy. Schor claims that Nickelodeon is the prime pusher of this concept. Shows on Nickelodeon are disrespecting of adults, and sell children on the “cool” factor. To be connected to “cool”, you need to be disconnected from adults. Anti-adultism is rampant in this consumer kids’ culture. Schor’s research indicated that the more children watch Nickelodeon, the more they dislike their parents. (Schor, 2004, p. 51) A few months ago, an eleven year old child was a guest in my home for a week. She watched television (which is severely monitored in her own home), and often chose the Nickelodeon station as a novelty. I sat with her to view a show on a Saturday morning and was abhorred by the behavior of the animated characters. Teachers were portrayed as sadistic and evil; children were physically torturing their teachers in retaliation. My viewing experience leads me to accept Schor’s observation.
A third story being told is the need to be “cool” in order to be respected in the society. A shift in how products are marketed to children has changed. In the past, the nature of the product was advertised as in “It tastes good.” or “It is fun to play with.” Yet in this new world of marketing to kids, the adult approach of the symbolic and social significance of the product is what is being sold as in “You need this cereal to be cool.”
The move has been from the intrinsic qualities of the product to the branding of the product, and cool has become the central theme of all youth marketing. Although this idea has been present in adolescent culture for many years, making sense in terms of childhood development in which the adolescent needs to seek an identity separate from a family identity, (Merchants of Cool, a PBS documentary, examines the marketing to teens industry in depth) the idea that a six year old should care about being “cool” is radical. Another shift in marketing to children is that marketers are now taking products and themes (“cool”) usually marketed to adults and teens and are marketing these products to children. (Schor, 2004, p. 202) These include items such as make-up and iPods. Children are now weighing in on what type of automobile the family will purchase. As major automobile marketers attend the marketing for children conferences, companies like Toyota sponsors family safety pamphlets to schools. There has been an age compression in media marketing.
According to cultural critic Steven Kline (2004), marketers have always paid more attention to children’s imaginations than educationists. They recognized these attributes as the deeply planted roots of children’s culture, and that they could use them to communicate effectively with children. (Schor, 2004, p.203). In one sense, this marketing move does empower children. Consumer theory views the consumer as agent rather than consumer as manipulated, and children are now viewed as economic agents and consumer agents according to marketers- their defense is that they are empowering children. Yet this empowerment is taking place in a toxic media consumer environment.
As boundaries between adult and child break down- what will be the role of children in the future? The problem of what is happening today is that the world that children have been let loose into is the corporate construction of the market place, which includes tobacco, junk food, and alcohol. A very small number of powerful corporations, and through a discourse of empowerment, are making kids sick. Schor (2004) noted that the notion of sacred childhood, in which the field of childhood development sprouted from, fails to recognize its own social construction-the field of childhood development grew up simultaneously with marketing to kids. (Schor, 2004, p. 200-201) Kline lamented that, “Television kills children's imaginations with limited colonizing narratives; violates their innocence in relation to sex, violence, and commerce; and like a narcotic, numbs their innate curiosity about the world.” (Kinder, 1999, p. 121)
Schor’s research supports Kline’s observations between the amount of commercial media consumed by children and the direct correlation on children’s physical and emotional health. According to Schor (2004), 21 % of the population ages 9 through 17 suffer from emotional behavior /psychological disorders including depression and anxiety. (Schor, 2004, p. 152-172) Schor (2004) concluded that kids spend more time in consumer culture than anywhere else. Their average daily media use is six hours and twenty one minutes, and that reading magazines and books has also become a commercial medium to sell products, especially media characters. Schor (2004) also noted that the amount of exposure time with media could be considered a plus of two hours due to double exposure – daily TV use is 3hours and 4 minutes plus movies and videos 3:51, video games 49 minutes, recreational computer use one hour. Although it was anticipated that computer use would push out the television, this is not the case. Computer use is rising, but television use is not declining. (Schor, 2004, p. 154-162). The media has become an advertising delivery system for children. And based on Schor’s research, children are ingesting advertising and marketing for most of the child’s day.
The average American young person has the anxiety level equivalent to what was measured in 1957 within in-patient psychological hospitals. (Schor, 2004, p. 35) A study published in the Pediatrics Journal found that “the rates of emotional and behavioral problems among children aged four through fifteen soared between 1979 and 1996.” (Schor, 2004, p. 35) Among the high rates of anxiety and depression among today’s youth, suicide is now the fourth leading cause of death among ten to fourteen year olds. (Schor, 2004, p. 35) The worsening of these well being trends has occurred in a period of time when rates of child poverty were declining; a period of time in which should have been presumed a more healthy and hopeful childhood. Juliet Schor’s research concluded that the whole picture that is playing out in terms of kids well being in this immersion in media consumer culture is the underlying cause of emotional and psychosomatic illnesses in children and adolescents. The higher the level of consumer involvement the higher the level of depression, anxiety, etc-The higher media use leads to higher consumer involvement that then leads to psychological outcomes. The model does not go both ways. In order to resolve this situation, a developmental approach is only a starting point, as it fails to address and understand the cultural context, and the public health approach is too narrow. The social and cultural context in which kids are being raised needs to be considered. (Schor, 2004, p. 200)
In the twelve years from 1992 through 2004, the annual budget of direct child marketing moved from one billion to fifteen billion dollars in the United States. The consumer media market now saturates the landscape of childhood, from television to video games, to schools and museums. Congress “Tied the hands of the Federal Trade Commission in 1981” (Schor, 2004, p. 194) in regulating children’s media. The Children’s Television Act passed in 1990, yet it is a far cry from an alternative, basically requiring stations to include three hours per week of educational programming, yet with little oversight. In Advertising, Culture, Criticism, and Pedagogy: An Interview with Sut Jhally conducted by William O’Barr, Jhally (2006) went so far as to metaphorically compare advertising to children as child molestation. He also claimed the same of the media based on how commercial television is organized. Jhally (2006) stated, “What networks are trying to do is gather you together in the way a factory owner would gather laborers together. They are drawing value out of your watching, out of your labor.” (Jhally, 2006, p. 14) Jhally further explained that when this is done to children as early young as two years old, it becomes a type of child labor. (Jhally, 2006, p. 14) The networks need their captive audience to sell their product.
A de-commercialization of cultural would seem the way to correct these problems in children’s health. According to Schor (2004), this would include the de-commercialization of food, media space, and the outdoors. Schor advocates for a national comprehensive curriculum in gardening, menu planning, eco-literacy, and science and nutrition. She suggests a model of a government funded “National Kids Public Media Corporation”, (Schor, 2004, p. 203), and a national incentive to make outdoor spaces much safer for children, so that children will not be confined to indoors, only to become a captive audience for commercial media and sedentary media involved activities. Recently, after a year of co-teaching media literacy to high school students, a colleague of mine removed her television from her home. She noted that at first, her children, ages seven and ten, moaned and groaned about the house, nagging for its return. Within a week, she observed a shift in their behavior. Instead of coming home from school and fighting over program viewing, they ran outside to play, and soon made no mention over the missing television; yet these children are fortunate to reside in a relatively safe rural environment. Such a movement to de-commercialize the culture would take tremendous effort not just from legislators, but from parents and educators. There are currently numerous organizations, including The Action Coalition for Media Literacy, The Media Education Foundation, Stop the Commercial Exploitation of Children, The Center for Media Education, Commercial Free Childhood, and The Center for the New American Dream, that are working towards this very goal. Although their funding is small and limited, individuals and communities are moving towards involvement and support in these cultural movements as imperative in the future of our children, and ultimately humanity, rather than contribute to a media driven consumer machine that pillages the earth, the cultures of its peoples, the brains and mindsets of individuals: a culture that can only result in war over limited resources and the destruction of life on earth.
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Friday, October 12, 2007
Weighing in on Media’s Hunger Camps
Women’s bodies have been both objectified and commodified throughout the twentieth century via mass media and advertising. To weigh in on the ethics of contemporary media’s portrayal of cultural images of female beauty, body size must be heavily considered. Women have consumed images and verbiage via the mainstream media that has convinced them that their body size, among other physical attributes, is not up to par with the cultural standards of beauty. This information has not only pushed women into investing over $33 billion a year in the diet industry (Eating Disorders and the Media, 1999, ¶ 1), but has done extensive and sometimes irreversible damage to women’s mental and physical health. In addition, media manipulation of the female’s self image plays a key role as gatekeeper in the male dominated power structure. This message is now being sent to adolescent females and girls at younger and younger ages, when vulnerability to the message is at its peak. The media ideal image of the female beauty is inhuman and impossible to achieve. It is essential that our adolescent population learn to deconstruct and analyze media messages pertaining to female body image in the context of body weight in order to escape victimization of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as well as to become equal players in the power structure of the future.
Puberty and adolescents is a stressful time for both males and females. It is a time when body and brain chemistry changes at a rapid rate; It is also a time of a social move from family and community adult role models to the larger world of peers. Although adolescents thrive on the idea of rebellion, in actuality, they suffer from the anxiety of non-recognition, as they expend their energy trying to “fit in” to their peer social group. These teenagers are not developing their values through family and community, but rather through a new fangled national peer pressure derived from mass communication. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that today our children are not brought up by parents, but by the mass media. (Kilbourne, 1999, p. 129)
In entering adolescents, girls face a series of losses. Based on the works of psychologist Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia) and social anthropologist Carol Gillian (In a Different Voice), girls between the ages of eight and ten, who had previously radiated confidence in their own mental and physical powers, become silent, insecure, and often times withdrawn as they enter puberty. These pubescent females are ripe for messages that confirm and validate how they feel about themselves and their bodies, as they have previously been media trained to identify with their outer, physical selves. And the messages bombard them. In a mixed gender high school classroom of teenagers, when asked what messages the media has sent to girls, all agreed that the messages were consistently contradictory: They should be sexy, yet innocent. They should repress their power and be “nice”. They should be in charge. They should attract boys; as a matter of fact, this should be their primary goal. They should do this by wearing make up. They should do so by looking natural. All but one of the messages were contradictory: attractive girls must be thin. In seeking to achieve this goal, a type of self immolation takes place in which the adolescent girl voluntarily sacrifices herself for an ideal of beauty created by the media. In the “Media and Risky Behavior” category of the website Girls, Incorporated, “a 1999 study found that one-third of central female characters in situation comedies (sitcoms) were below average weight. The study also found that the thinner the character was, the more positive comments she received from male characters throughout the show.” (Burggraf, Kimberly and Fouts, Gregory, 1999, ¶ 1) These embedded values of entertainment media equating female thinness with approval, acceptance, and love is easily digested by the impressionable adolescent audience.
Although advertisers do not do so “intentionally”, research has shown that raising anxiety is a sure fire way to hook the consumer. And for the targeted female adolescent media consumer, much of this anxiety is created around weight, as the diet industry is such a profitable market. In 1999, the covers of more than seventy eight percent of popular teen magazines focused on messages about diet and exercise. (Malkin et al., 1999 ¶ 10) This anxiety pertaining to body image and the ideal of thinness has then been translated into what Carl Jung has called our societal “collective unconscious”.
It may be unlikely to be able to prove that advertising creates eating disorders. Yet, according to a study done by health researchers to assess the influence of the media on girls’ weight concerns, it was concluded that “pictures in magazines had a strong impact on girls' perceptions of their weight and shape. Of the girls, 69% reported that magazine pictures influence their idea of the perfect body shape, and 47% reported wanting to lose weight”. In addition, a study of adolescent girls in the Boston area concluded that those who read women’s fashion magazines have been compelled to diet as a result. (Field, Alison, et al., 1999 ¶7). According to studies done in 1990 by Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens,(as cited in Harrison, 2000), more than half of female television personalities meet the weight criteria for anorexia nervosa. This led to further research by Strice (as cited in Harrison, 2000),
In studying the effects of exposure to a severely thin body ideal on the eating behaviors of viewers, Stice conducted several studies on the relationship between media exposure and eating disorders. Stice tested the fit of a structural equation model, including media exposure, gender-role endorsement, ideal-body stereotype internalization, body dissatisfaction, and eating-disorder symptomatology with a sample of female college undergraduates. Media exposure was significantly related to disordered eating (standardized path coefficient = .30, p < .001). In another study of college women, Stice and Shaw found exposure to thin female magazine models to be positively related to bulimic symptomatology. (Harrison, 2000, ¶2)
Harrison and Cantor’s (1997) prior research examined the relationship between exposure to media that was specifically aimed at fashion and diet and eating disorders and other magazine and television media that used images of conspicuously thin females. Their findings concluded that both affected the media consumers equally, even when the female media consumer was not interested in diet and exercise. Harrison and Cantor (1997) found that exposure to TDP (thinness-depicting and thinness-promoting) media, especially magazines, predicted anorexia, bulimia, drive for thinness, body dissatisfaction, and ineffectiveness in women.(Harrison, 2000, ¶ 3) Although young adults were the subjects of the study, not adolescents, when disordered eating typically begins, it appears logical, especially recognizing the impressionability factor of adolescents, that a researched study on the younger age group may prove an even greater connection to media images and eating disorders.
Presently, our society is faced with obesity as a health risk factor for our youth; yet eating disorders that embrace starvation and purging among youth, primarily adolescent females, continue to flourish. Ninety-five percent of all anorexics and bulimics are women and one thousand women in the United States die of anorexia each year. At least fifteen percent of women go undiagnosed with eating disorders. (Dittrich, 2000, ¶ 2) Not an official (DSM IV) psychiatric diagnosis, “diabulimia” has been added to teen vocabulary, referring to diabetics who manipulate their intake of insulin in order to temporarily alter their weight. Many websites and blogs that focus on recovery for eating disorders include diabulimia in the discussion, revealing that it is far from a rare. “Gwen Malnassy, 21, detailed her struggle with diabulimia for three years in a diary she posted on the Internet. Doctors diagnosed Malnassy with both anorexia and bulimia at 13. In a recent interview she said, “I would look at magazines and think that if I looked like the models, I would have more friends and be more popular.’ ” (The Associated Press, 2007) This practice is instantly and consistently life threatening. Although advertising and media do not create eating disorders, they play a key role in the promotion of abusive and abnormal attitudes around food, particularly for the young female.
The harm done by this media, whose primary goal is to sell products and services, is unconscionable. Much of the harm is clear physical and emotional damage to the female population. Much of this damage is irreversible. The damage includes: “psychological and physical health, ranging from dental problems, cardiac and gastrointestinal problems to death. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders.” (Dittrich, 2000, ¶ 10)
The medical effects of anorexia include hypothermia, edema, hypotension, impaired heartbeat, growth of body hair, infertility, and death. Bulimia may bring on medical impairments including dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, epileptic seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, and death. Each of these disorders may also have prolonged effects that include tooth erosion, hiatal hernia, abraded esophagus, kidney failure, osteoporosis, and death. (Wolf, 1991, p. 183)
Yet, there is an equivocal societal harm. In Naomi Wolf’s national best seller, The Beauty Myth, the Rhodes Scholar begins her chapter entitled “Hunger” as an apocalyptic vision of wealthy white adolescent males falling victim to eating disorders at the alarming rate that their female counter parts were so doing in the 1990’s. She stated, “Up to one tenth of all American young women, up to one fifth of women students in the United States, are locked into one woman hunger camps.” At this point in time, there were over a million reported cases of anorexia and bulimia in the United States, ninety-five percent female. (Wolf. 1991, p.181). The stakes have only heightened in the past twenty six years, as studies have shown that between 40-80% of forth grade girls are dieting. (Kilbourne, 1999, p. 134). Wolf claims that “if anorexia is defined as compulsive fear of and fixation upon food, perhaps most Western women can be called, twenty years into back lash, mental anorexics.” (Wolf, 1991, p. 183) What Wolf is referring to is that the mental fixation on food, diet, and weight watching captivates the minds of women, holding them hostage in their progress of their life paths. An advertisement for A/X or Armani Exchange claimed, “The more you subtract the more you add.” In another ad for Tommy Hilfiger’s fragrance, Tommy Girl, the print stated, “A Declaration of Independence”, yet the image that accompanies the print, an emaciated model, is the woman detained in the one woman hunger camp. She represents the antithesis of liberation. Unfortunately, she is not an oxymoron or a paradox; she represents the pretense of the power structure: that self control over food consumption represents power in the larger society. It is actually the powerless who fall victim to eating disorders, those who feel that it is their only hope in grasping and garnishing any power what-so-ever. Yet starvation of the body quickly leads to starvation of the mind. On a political spectrum, it is essential to identify the specific point in history that the media image of female beauty shifted from the robust, healthy, curvaceous, or natural female model. Cross culturally, from birth, girls have 10-15 percent more body fat than boys, and the ratio of fat to muscle increases in adolescent girls: body fat ratio increases as females age, the norms of the species, (Wolf, 1991, p. 192). This image of the societal standards of beauty changed from women’s lush fertility including plump ripe bellies and faces to an emaciated, sickly, and poverty stricken model in the early twentieth century, specifically in the 1920’s when women achieved the right to vote. (Wolf, 1991, p. 184)
The 1920’s beauty was the flapper, boyishly thin and straight bodied. There was a brief hiatus of this movement in the 1950’s, when female models once again appeared naturally curvaceous, yet this was a time when domesticity was praised and the seclusion of the home served well in keeping females in their “proper place”. With the advent of the Pill and sexual freedom, the 1960’s media images of anorexic models stunned media consumers. Twiggy appeared in Vogue in 1965. Of this event, Wolf (1991) wrote,
Like many beauty myth symbols, she was double-edged, suggesting to women the freedom from the constraint of reproduction of earlier generations (since female fat is categorically understood by the subconscious of fertile sexuality), while reassuring men with her suggestion of female weakness, asexuality, and hunger. (Wolf, 1991, p. 184)
Following Twiggy’s arrival, the average weight of media stars plummeted in every arena, and newly “liberated” women began to suffer from feelings of extreme inadequacy. The standards could not be met in any sense that took health into account. As Naomi Wolf (1991) stated, “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.” (Wolf, 1991, p. 189) This obsession has viciously trickled down to younger and younger age groups, and the messages are being sent and received at an alarming rate.
In order to salvage the health of individual females, as well as that of the society, Media Literacy education should be a core course in all grade levels in the United States educational system. With the advent of television and the internet, mass media communication takes up tremendous space in our visual and aural environment. These prolific and consistent messages are received without analysis by most media consumers. For the most part, they are sent out, not sought out. Research has weighed in on media’s adverse effect on young women and girls in terms of their body image and self esteem. To ensure a true democratic freedom, that of freedom of the mind, young people need the skills to deconstruct and analyze these media messages. Looking specifically at young women and girls in relationship to the issue of food, food has been and continues to be the most treasured and valued resource in all cultures. It is substance; it represents family, love, and social worth. Girls need food physical. They also need to know that they are valued. They need to reclaim their bodies from the media’s hunger camps, and in doing so, make their minds their own.
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Wolf, Naomi (1991). The beauty myth. New York, New York: Harper Perennial.179-201.
Free Speech and the Media
In 2007, the stakes of preserving democracy in the United States may be at their highest since the founding of the country, and media is at the helm of this ship. Yet, the country is divided and confused. This is not by accident.
The mainstream media is driven by the specific goal of profit, thereby both instilling fear into its audience to behave in a certain manner— agreement with the officials of the society— and to numb minds to societal needs by focusing on the individual. Receiving this type of media does not require work. The receiver is bombarded by it. The work to be done is for the consumer to pay very careful attention to these messages in terms of who sent them, their political, social, and cultural effects, and what has been left out of these messages. Professor Sut Jhally (2005) has stated that “The most important thing about the message system is not what is in it but what is absent and that is the ultimate form of power.”(Jhally, 2005)
John Stuart Mill appealed to his audience, in his book of essays On Liberty (1869), to protect democratic freedom against tyranny accomplished through censorship. He claimed that the government has no right to use coercive power, and that this power is more injurious to the society when public opinion goes along with it. Mill realized that if the citizens are in agreement with the concept of being controlled, their minds must have been tainted in someway. He also stated that every single voice has the right to be heard.
Mill was correct that democracy would be forever under siege, and that those in power would endlessly seek to silence dissenting voices. Seven years following Mill’s publication of On Liberty, Karl Marx (1876) published The Capital, an insightful glimpse into the future world of industrial capitalism.Yet Mill had no way of foreseeing the impending economic changes from an agricultural society to an industrial nation, nor did he take into account the effect that these changes would have on free speech. Although the right to speak freely remains protected in our Constitution, it cannot rightly be termed “free speech”. Speech, via media, is not free. It costs. It is a hybrid form of fascist control when the media is dominated by corporations. In his article Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse, Sut Jhally (1997) stated:
“Indeed, commercial interests intent on maximizing the consumption of the immense collection of commodities have colonized more and more of the spaces of our culture. For instance, almost the entire media system (television and print) has been developed as a delivery system for marketers its prime function is to produce audiences for sale to advertisers. Both the advertisements it carries, as well as the editorial matter that acts as a support for it, celebrate the consumer society.” (Sut Jhally, 1997, ¶6 )
As the Industrial Revolution began to take hold in the United Stated, Mother Jones, an Irish immigrant, worked in vehement opposition to the lack of enforcement of newly established child labor laws. In 1903, she encouraged a strike of textile workers in Kensington, Pennsylvania. Of the 75,000 workers, 10,000 or more were children under ten years of age. These children were working long hours in dangerous factories where injuries, some life threatening, were a daily occurrence and included the loss of limbs. Jones questioned the press as to why they were not publicizing the fate of these children. According to Judith Pinkerton Josephson (1997) in her biography of Mother Jones, the newsmen simply stated, “They couldn't because the mill owners had stock in the papers.” (Pinkerton Josephson, 1997, p. 84)
This corporate media institution, born out of the Industrial Revolution, is driven by a profit motive; its purpose is to sell products and ideology that will justify the colonization of minds and territories to exploit the labor force and to lay claim to the natural resources, thereby committing atrocities against humanity, cultures, and the natural environment. The justification is a free market and a global economy that will improve the quality of life for those residing in underdeveloped countries, as well as ensuring an availability of inexpensive commodities for those residing in the West. The competing value of free speech, in this sense, is a draw between political ideologies that foster democratic, humanitarian, environmental, and social values and those that prioritize economic gain for an already wealthy few.
Jhally’s point of view was not new to opinions concerning a free society and media. In the late 1920’s, the decade that introduced the advertising industry, Edward Bernays coined the phrase “Corporate Journalism” and described this new found media as “an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country.” (Pilger, 2007, ¶1). In order to profit, this new corporate journalism needed to attract advertisers to fund production and sales, and therefore developed its own need to sell an image. The irony defies the ideology and ethics of journalistic free speech, where the purpose is to inform, while the sole purpose of this new corporate journalism is to sell. To do so, the image chosen by this new capitalist venture needed to appear respectable to the establishment. As a result, the image of a democratic perspective was constructed— an image that Robert McChesney, one of the leading scholars on media and ethics, has called “entirely bogus.” (Pilger, 2007, ¶1)
Under this new corporate journalism, the news as well as opinions were dominated by “official” sources, specifically government and financial interests. (Pilger, 2007, ¶1). To exemplify this point is the journalistic role of a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Judith Miller, writing for one of the most respected newspapers in the world, The New York Times. Because of the respectability of both the paper and Ms. Miller, her work was vital in promoting the United States invasion of Iraq.
Prior to the invasion, Miller wrote many articles, including her front-page article under the headline “Secret Sites; Iraqi Tells of Renovations at Sites for Chemical and Nuclear Arms” which told a story of knowledge of sites that were creating biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. (Rich, 2006, p. 40) These articles all confirmed Saddam’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction, backing up her journalism with seemingly reliable sources, and instilling fear in the minds of the worldwide readers of The New York Times. After the invasion of Iraq, it came to light that Miller’s primary source of information was a practitioner of fraud, Ahmed Chalabi, who was on his own political and economic mission, aligned with the Bush administration, to overthrow Saddam’s government.
Not only did Miller’s articles assist in “selling the war”, dissenting views were rejected from mainstream media. According to Mills (1869), a clear failure in the ethics of free speech occurs when a contradictory opinion is suppressed, the reason being that this contradictory opinion may be the truth, and if it is being censored, the truth of that message is being denied. The power structure “assumes that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty.” (Mill, 1869, ¶ 2)
In February of 2003, then Secretary of State Collin Powell went before the United Nations, using Miller’s self-serving source, Chalabi, as a voice of the absolute truth. This is not surprising, based on Mill’s analysis of the denial of dissenting voices. Later that year, Chalabi was exposed and accused in the London based newspaper, The Telegraph, “of feeding faulty pre-war intelligence to Washington.” He said, “Information about Saddam Hussein's weapons, even if discredited, had achieved the aim of persuading America to topple the dictator.” (Fairweather and La Guardia, 2004, ¶ 1)
The selling of the invasion of Iraq was an administrative propaganda ploy in which the mainstream, or corporate media, played a primary role while dissenting voices were silenced. FAIR (2003), or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, researched and presented statistics concluding that while the majority of U.S. citizens were hoping for their government to honor the United Nations Resolution and follow diplomacy, they were being bombarded by media messages that were banging the war drums. (FAIR, 2003) It is also essential to note that the images and voices of those promoting war were “officials”, and the manner in which the mainstream media presented the voices of anti-war activism was via biased images of nameless people on the streets, implying ignorance on the part of the messengers.
In addition to the absence of dissenting voices in mainstream media, other absences exist. These include the reporting of actions that change the power structure. Often fear, a charm of a seller for media, is used as a diversion tactic, as the threat of terrorism has been used against U.S. citizens post 9-11. If the public’s attention is diverted, the passing and signing of laws that give the powers that be further power encounter little to no opposition. An example of such a law that presently exempts the United States from Habeas Corpus and terms set forth in The Geneva Conventions is The Military Commissions Act, signed into law in October, 2006. According to this act, extraordinary rendition is an acceptable practice. On the same notorious day that this act was signed into law, President Bush also signed the John Warner Defense Authorization Act. This act allows the President to declare public emergency and dispatch federal troops to take over National Guard units and local police if he determines them unfit for maintaining order. (Morales, 2006, ¶2) This act grants the government permission to declare and enforce marital law, stripping U.S. citizens of all of their freedoms. It is a true attack on the freedoms granted U.S. citizens based on their Constitutional rights, as it is all encompassing, and immensely threatening to democratic freedom in that it is widely interpretive.
According to Project Censored (2007), several other top stories that grant further and sometimes unlimited power to the present United States Government include AFRICOM, a revised and upwardly aggressive form of Former President Carter’s CENTCOM, founded in his ideology that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” (Hunt, 2007, ¶ 3). This mission to colonize the oil regions of the globe is now in full throttle, and as Africa is the home of this essential resource, oil, the U.S. is putting the moves via a military presence on the continent. (Hunt, 2007, ¶ 3). This is occurring in “silence”, unbeknownst to the majority of U.S. citizens and bereft of their consent.
In her most recent book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism , Naomi Klein (2007) stated that, “the administration quickly moved (post 9-11) to exploit the shock that gripped the nation to push through a radical vision of hollow government, in which everything from waging wars to reconstructing from those wars to disaster response became an entirely for-profit venture.” (Klein, 2007, ¶ 15)
According to Thomas Jefferson (1816), “No man can be both ignorant and free.” To be a free thinker in our consumer culture dominated by corporate media messages, it is essential that citizens seek out information, and ask the right questions regarding the information: “How are messages constructed? How messages are made sense of by audiences? What social, political and cultural effects do messages have? and “What has been left out of media messages?” (Jhally, 2007)
Linguistic scholar, Noam Chomsky (2007), is among other scholars in his reasoning that the risks for a citizen of a democratic society to be mentally controlled compared to a person living in a totalitarian society are higher by the nature of each. In a totalitarian society, it is clear that the message is that of the state, while in a democratic society, the boundaries are unclear. “This involves brainwashing people who are still at liberty.” (Chomsky, 2007, ¶8 )
The internet offers hope in the challenging struggle to make and keep information available to all. Independent media is a media based on conscience, humanitarian voices, and strife towards truth via the subjective voices of many. If Mill were alive today, he would probably be a regular on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, he would most likely be a blogger, yet he most certainly would be monitoring the Federal Communications Commission like a hawk to assure freedom of speech and the protection of a healthy democracy. Although Mill could not have anticipated that the messages of corporations would dominate speech in the United States, he would surely recognize the biggest culprits, media conglomerates, such as News Corporation, Viacom, CBS, Disney, Time Warner, and General Electric, and the need to support Network Neutrality, which will keep the internet free of corporate control.
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