6. The Audience Commodity

According to Jhally, what advertising buys is access to audiences. The commodities that our media system produces is not content -- radio broadcasts, films, TV shows, etc -- but audiences.  In other words, an ad-funded media system first and foremost produces audiences as commodities (p. 75).

(Remember: a "commodity" is something exchanged in the marketplace; something that can be bought & sold)


Drawing from the work of Dallas Smythe, the sale of audiences as a commodity serves a specific function -- it works to reproduce the political-economic system. This occurs in three ways (Jhally, p. 70):

1) Audiences market goods to themselves
2) Audiences learn, through advertising, how (and for whom) to vote in the political sphere
3) Audiences reaffirm their belief in the political-economic system by legitimizing this system through the above actions.

However, this also means that audiences are performing work, or labor, for advertisers.  By sitting through commercials, we are donating our leisure time to advertisers. This is conceptualized as audience labor because the  "work" of watching commercials produces capital for the advertising companies. Meaning, they are making money from our labor of watching. As an audience, we receive our "pay" with whatever TV/radio show or other content we are watching.

Smythe argues then, that the consumption of ad-funded media cannot be considered leisure time because it's actually work.  The audience's work is reduced to consumerism; media content/entertainment is the "free lunch."

For Gandy, the problem of the audience commodity as it applies to race is that it works to fragment and divide people into consumer classes -- some of which are more 'highly valued' by advertisers than others.  This has direct implications for how we treat certain social classes or groups of people in the culture at large.  Further, by producing the audience as commodity, advertising creates a means of racial identity around the consumption of 'certain types' of products. Segmenting audiences in this way is problematic for Gandy because it serves to reproduce existing racial disparities in a similar manner -- if advertising assigns a lower value to certain races and classes, then it seems inevitable that the rest of society will take on this view, as well.  This only perpetuates the types of racial and class-based stereotypes that already exist today.
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