The issue of the relationship between the mass media and the popular culture has always been a controversial issue in social sciences. While the political economists insist on the role of the media industry in the creation of this phenomenon of the twentieth century, its advocates such as John Fiske argue that popular culture is actually the creation of the populus itself, and is independent of the capitalist production process of the communication sector. Basing his argument on the immense interpretive power of the people, Fiske believes that the audience are able to break all the indented meanings within a media message, and by giving new meanings to that specific message they can oppose the power bloc that is trying to impose its ideology to the public. Consequently, this anarchistic activity of the audience creates the popular culture as a defense mechanism.
Even when we accept Fiske’s ideas, we can not disregard the manipulative power of the media and its effects on cultural and social life. Everyday, we are exposed to millions of different visual messages which tell us what to eat, what to wear, what to listen and what to watch. No matter how hard we try to avoid being influenced by these directives, only up to a certain point we can protect ourselves, and after that, no interpretive power can be helpful. Media, then leads us to a path that ends up in the same department store with our neighbor, with whom we have probably never talked before, but holding the same pair of socks or CDs, and we might never want to recall the TV commercial that had opened the gates of this path.
United States is the biggest economical power in the world today, and consequently has also the strongest and largest media industry. Therefore, it is essential to take a look at the crucial relationship between the media and the popular culture within the social context of the United States for a better understanding of the issue.
For a simpler analysis of the subject we shall divide the media industry into three main branches: Entertainment, News and Commercials (which is the essential device for the survival of the industry, and shall be considered in integration with Entertainment).
Researches have shown that the most popular reason behind TV viewing is relaxation and emptying the mind. Therefore, the entertainment programs, being the only choice for relaxation, are the most effective tools of influence, since during these programs the viewers are least busy with conscious mental activities.
The TV series (mostly soap operas) are the most popular programs within the entertainment group. The easiness of viewing them is the reason behind their popularity. Each of them is created for a certain type of audience profile: housewives, working men, teenagers, children etc. Within these categories they are also divided according to social and economical bases. While Dallas would appeal to any average American, Thirty-something would mostly be popular among the yuppies, and Young and Restless among the housewives. However, this distribution is not intended to satisfy the viewer, but to satisfy the advertisers. Since, lets say an importer of French vines, is sure that mostly the viewers with high income and luxurious tastes would be watching Thirty-something, he can confidently advertise in the commercial breaks of this program, rather than of Married with Children.
However, the most striking characteristic of the series does not come from their commercialist structure and their power of encouraging consumerism, but from the cult that they create. In November 1980, 70 million Americans turned on their televisions to learn the murderer of J.R in the Dallas series, and after the show, 150 TV stations 3500 professional and 2500 amateur radio stations announced the murderer in the news headlines and broadcasted commentaries about the issue. During the specific episode of the series, a one minute commercial was sold for 500 000 US dollars (Senyapyly, 112). The fate of an imaginary character had become the most important subject of discussion in the United States. In other words, 70 million Americans were not able to interpret nor change the message of the series, and while back in the February of the same year, 30 to 50 thousand people in Washington were protesting the reestablishment of the registration for the draft, now they were mostly curious about J.R (Vietnam and America, 301).
On the other hand, a TV channel that was fully established on the purpose of entertainment, MTV, took a mission that was totally not expectable. In 1992 the channel started two campaigns called “Chose or Loose”, and “Rock the Vote”, in order to increase the voting rate among the young generation. The result was highly positive; polls taken in late October showed that 75% of the 18 to 29 age group said that they would vote, compared to the 40% in 1988. In addition the votes were heavily in favor of Clinton who had accepted to present himself on MTV, unlike Bush (Edelstein, 110). Although the picture may look positive at first, with a deeper perspective it becomes dramatic. The only way of appealing to the young generation seems to be through a music channel, which is based on the creation and consumption of a popular culture. They get interested in politics only when their idols tell them to do so. Their free thinking ability is limited with the mediated message that appeals to them, and they act mechanically according to these messages, highly contradicting with the “free your mind” slogan of MTV. When we talk about the successes of TV campaigns, we shall always consider the inverse process that can also easily take place. Therefore, the picture can be viewed more critically.
At this point a question comes to mind. Why are we so much influenced by TV; How can it ever be such a powerful device? To understand this, we shall consider Festinger’s theory on social influence: “If one believes that a sheet of glass is fragile, one can test that belief by hitting it with a hammer. The subjective validity of this belief depends on physical reality testing. However, a belief like socialism is the way forward for humanity can not be tested the same way. Such a belief is correct, valid and proper to the extent that it is anchored in a group of people with similar beliefs, opinions and attitudes” (Turner, 19). This hypothesis by Festinger is supported by three additional points: 1) If other people agree and share our attitudes, then we are more likely to consider them as subjectively valid. 2) We prefer to join groups of people with whom we agree, which in the end causes a stronger agreement of a specific issue. 3) And finally, the less we are able to make physical testing the more important becomes the agreement of similar others to validate our beliefs (Turner, 20).
To get to a point where television takes its place as an instrument of conviction, we shall add a final hypothesis about influence. According to Deutsch and Gerard, informational influence is influence to accept information from another as evidence about objective reality. Conformity is motivated by the desire to form an accurate view of reality and to act correctly, and is increased by the uncertainty about the correctness of one’s judgment and the ambiguity of the stimulus situation (Turner, 34). We always have a considerable amount of uncertainty about our decisions, and always look for conformation from a friend or an authority. The role of the television at this point is its being the collection of all possible organs of conformation.
It is obvious that when we take two newspapers, say The Guardian and The Daily Mirror, we are more intended to believe the news covered in The Guardian. However, as Giddens puts it, according to a research, if a news report on TV differs from a newspaper account, more than twice as many people will believe the televised version as the newspaper one (Giddens, 79).
The listeners of the Nixon- Kennedy debate on the radio saw Nixon as the obvious winner. However, the ones who watched the debate on TV were sure that Kennedy would become the new president of the United States (Hughes, 4). The TV viewers were right, but what made them think that way if it was the ideas that mattered?
According to Giddens, if the current trends in TV watching continue, by the age of 18 the average child born today will have spent more time watching TV than in any other activity except sleep (Giddens, 449). In 1947, there were 170 000 TV sets in US homes, by the year 1991 the number reached to 750 million, and considering the fact that an average 18 year old American is exposed to approximately 350 000 TV commercials, the picture becomes more dramatic (Coupland, 182).
The persuasive affect of the television, therefore follows two steps. First it is the synthesis of video and audio, which means that it involves action and sound as the most realistic forms of communication making it the most popular electronic device ever prodced. We are more likely to accept what it tells us as the truth than any other medium. It is in the most respectful corner of our living rooms, where once our grandfathers use to tell fairy tales. It is a member of our family, that holds some magical ties with the outer world, through which we learn the deeds of our times. It is the head of the household in the traditional sense, that tells us the right way to behave, the right goods to consume, the right people to choose. It survives with our confidence, that lasts forever despite all our criticisms. It socializes our lives, which we deliberately try to hide behind the curtain of the fast city life. It does this by visually integrating our materially disintegrated society, with its promotion of a stereotyped consumption fetishism. It is the most favored mean of communication which “demands not to be spoken to while it is speaking- in the name of the TV- a law that any child will invoke against its stuttering parents” (O’Neill, 13).
The second step in the visual influence process starts at this point. For all the reasons described above, television is the most trustworthy medium to give us the subjective validity of our beliefs which can not be proved physically. It is the ultimate source from which we can get evidence about objective reality, motivated by our desires to form an accurate view of this reality and to act correctly. Our uncertainty about the future and more importantly about our own time, which is expressed by individualism and the loneliness of the individual itself, increases our dependency on the television, and the role of this magical machine at this point is giving us the feeling of being part of a well functioning and united system. As O’Neill writes; “the specular function of TV lies in its ability to individualize the mass while treating the individual only as a member of the masses” (O’Neill, 181).
However, the most important effect of media, and especially TV, is not derived from the exposure of visual images and commercials that tend to create a popular consumer culture, but actually from what we are not exposed to. The gate keepers of the news industry control all the information, and decide on what to publish or broadcast, based on the ideology and the structure of the institution. This is not censor in classical sense, but rather an auto-control mechanism that functions for the survival of the system and the controlling of the public. Therefore, whatever is presented in the news would rather be a part of the popular culture (created by the entertainment industry) or would serve it, since the popular culture itself is created for the growth of the capitalist economy and the homogenization of the society, which are essential elements for a stable system.
In 1961, president Eisenhower talked about an acquisition of unwarranted influence by what he called the “military- industrial complex”, and stated that measures had to be taken to guard against this “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” (Roach, 17). Colleen Roach makes an addition to this analysis, and underlines that since 1961, a new component has been added to the military- industrial complex; communication, and gives the following example: “In 1986, the intersection between communication, industry and the military became most apparent when General Electric (GE), one of the world’s major defense contractors, bought RCA and with it NBC” (Roach, 17). Lee and Solomon give supporting evidence about the integration of the media and the military- industry:
The boards of directors of the Big Three (CBS,ABC,NBC) are composed of executives, lawyers, financiers and former government officials who represent the biggest banks and corporations in the U.S., including military and nuclear contractorsThere are numerous interlocks between the board of directors of the New York Times and the nuclear industry, which partially explains why it has been a fanatical supporter of nuclear weapons (Roach, 18).
Understanding the connection between the media and the military- industry gives us something more than its war promoting function, but shows its role in the decision making mechanism of our age. Any capitalist regime, not considering a dictatorship, needs the private enterprise for survival, therefore the extent that it can act against the private sector is very limited, and television lives with advertisement and sponsorship, rather than audience. Therefore, what we mostly see on the screen is what the sponsors promote, which are usually mechanisms to keep the society stable. As Mosco puts it; “electronic communication and information systems (from ATMs to TV) make it possible to gather massive amount of information about the choices of different groups of people, so as to better manage and control group behavior (Roach, 46). Lets, now look at different examples of the use of TV as a mean of control over the society.
Before January 1991, public opinion polls showed that the American public was split into two groups, 50% each, about whether the U.S. should attack Iraq or not. However, says Roach, if any antiwar voices had been heard in the mass media at this time, the outcome could have been completely different (Roach, 20).
The second example turns out to be a more tragic one, when we talk about the freedom of speech. After, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the pictures of the irradiated Japanese were not made available to the American public until 1980’s (Roach, 25). The following is an example of this “hiding” policy of the gate keepers.
In November 1983 the Americans had the chance to watch ABC’s The Day After, which was about the survival of a small number of Americans after an atomic blast. The film dramatically showed the dark side of the nuclear technology, and in 1982 a Canadian director, Terri Nash made a documentary called, If You Love This Planet, and won the Academy Award. In his work, he used the Japanese films about the effects of the atomic bomb. However, “as of 1987, the U.S. Justice Department requires registration of screenings and persons viewing the film which it classifies as political propaganda”, says O’Neill, and continues:
The difference between the two films is one that nuclear TV cannot stand, namely, that in one case we see the actual horror of a bomb dropped by Americans and that, in the other case, we see the fictional horror of a bomb imagined by Americans to have been dropped upon Americans by someone else. Thus TV is engaged in a retrospective political history on the nuclear front which parallels the current remaking of the Vietnam War and America’s re-humanization of military adventure (O’Neill, 190-91).
In both cases, we see the stabilizing function of the television. Through an auto-control mechanism, and the promotion of what the authorities define as suitable, it manipulates reality into a socially comfortable and acceptable rhetoric. As the audience, we consider the tales of the television to be the most reliable ones, for now it is our new grandfather. Therefore, the control of the society through TV, by those who control it, and directing the society towards a certain destination, which is found to be the “way forward for humanity”, and keeping the system together by creating a popular culture based on consumerism; turns out to be a post-modern way of practicing authority in our post-modern lives. After all, we breathe visually; we live with images, both of ourselves and of other people; we talk with the symbols of a mechanized life, “everything is under control” ; we pet the remote-control, not our little puppies; and we thankfully worship our TV set, for He has enabled us to be what we are today. We are the children of a new clan, and TV is the Good Shepherd of the post-modern times, preaching the virtuous American way of life, and He has long established “His Kingdom on Earth”.
Hughes, Elizabeth M.B.G. The Logical Choice, How Political Commercials Use Logic to Win Votes. Lanham: University Press of America, 1994.
O’Neill, John. Plato’s Cave: Desire, Power, and the Specular Functions of the Media. New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1991.
Roach, Colleen. Communication and Culture in War and Peace. Newburry Park: Sage Publications, 1993.
Senyapyly, Onder. Toplum ve Yletibim. Ankara: Turhan Kitabevi, 1981.
Turner, John C. Social Influence. California: Brooks/ Cole Publishing, 1991.
Edelstein, Alex. Total Propaganda: From Mass Culture to Popular Culture. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X, Tails for an Accelerated Generation. New York: St. Martin Press, 1991.
Giddens, Anthony. Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.
Gettleman, Marvin E; Franklin, Jane; Young, Marilyn B; Franklin, Bruce H. Vietnam and America. New York: Grove Press, 1995.