TV As Ideology Talk

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(1) Hi everyone, my seminar is focused on the Adorno and Horkheimer article, “The Culture Industry” and this is seminar is entitled, The Culture Industry: TV As Conformity Machine?

(2) My name is Tanya Pobuda, I am a PhD student in the Communication and Culture program.

I used to work in the media, marketing and advertising sector. And today, I come not to praise North American TV advertising but to …question it.

(3) As I noted, we are looking at “The Culture Industry, Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in combination with another article by K.M. Torrens, I can get any job and feel like a butterfly! Symbolic violence in the TV advertising of Jenny Craig from the Journal of Communication Inquiry.

(4) Starting first with the Adorno and Horkheimer piece, I will be drawing on some of the historical context offered in Joshua Rayman’s “Adorno’s American Reception” from the Quarterly Journal of Politics, Philosophy, Critical Theory, Culture, and the Arts. 

All images used in this seminar are Creative Commons unless otherwise attributed.

We’ll also be looking at a series of short media pieces throughout to illuminate some of the points in the readings, to put into practice some the things the pieces argue. 

(5) At the 3/4s mark of the seminar we are going to play a game called ‘Spot the Ideology’ where we will view a TV ad relevant to our readings, analyze what is really going on and see if you can you spot the ideology? We will specifically delve into what institutions have created these TV products and what they are trying to say …and get us to do.

And all along the way, we’ll be asking ourselves, “Is television a conformity machine?” and look at some examples. 

(6) Our focus this week is on the institutions that make television. As Dayo (DIE-YOH) will share, television is a product of the organizations and institutions that create them and television studies has become increasingly sophisticated in its understanding and analysis of how television products are formed. 

The Adorno and Horkheimer piece is a seminal work in communication and culture analysis. As Dr. Bruce shared last week, this is a piece that those who have studied media or communication would have encountered in some form or fashion during your studies. 

There’s no mistaking that this piece takes a very decisive, unequivocal, even polemical stance in looking at the specifically U.S. and European culture industry. It rails, it rages. It is a warning. And we’ll get to that in a moment. 

(7) Theodor Adorno was born in 1903 in Frankfurt, Germany. He was a composer, a philosopher and sociologist. He was a leading member of the Frankfurt School and I’ll do a very brief primer on the Frankfurt School in the moment.

(8) Max Horkheimer was born 1895 in Stuttgart, Germany. He was a philosopher, sociologist, member of the the Frankfurt School. He was, with Adorno, credited with the development of critical theory of society.

(9) How many of you have heard of the Frankfurt School? How many understand critical theory? Okay, I will do a quick recap. To understand critical theory or social critical theory as it is called, and the Frankfurt School …you have understand Marx.

(10) There’s Marx with an exclamation mark.

Marx believed that history was only changed through changes in the means of production. 

What does that mean?

(11) Well, we get a very solid idea of that in at the beginning of the article when Adorno and Horkheimer bemoan the loss of the quaint village corner store? Where is the baker, the artisan and the artist?

With the coming first of the industrial revolution and then rampant mass production, these individual actors were swept away. Why buy handmade items when you can by cheaply made items created through mass production. 

People went off to work in factories and where did all these individual creators go? Where did human agency go? And where, they argue, did the individual go?

(12) In the world of mass production, you are a cog in the machine. You no longer get the satisfaction of your craftspersonship or your artistry. You are a part of the machinery.

(13) And as in Marx, as the instruments of society, the base goes, so goes the superstructure. That’s the high, rarefied symbology of that society. This is the arts, culture, the music, the language. To loosely quote a movie I don’t love, Forrest Gump, “Mass production is as mass production does.”

(14) So like the dark Satanic mills of mass production churning out cheap shoes and industrial foods, mass culture – the film, music and radio business becomes a mass production. A commodity. As Adorno and Horkheimer argue, mass media takes the individual out of the equation. Remember this is the mid-40s and the authors are talking about the changes in media. They state that at least with phones you get to play a role in communication. You play the role of a subject with agency and the ability to shape the message. Not so with mass media. In those times and even now, you can’t simply decide to mount a mass media, broadcast television production on your own. This privilege is owned by institutions. The owners of the means of the production. 

And these institutions serve their own masters which we will talk about a bit more later in the seminar.

For Adorno and Horkheimer, there’s also the problem of how mass media – and in this, they single out film – crowds out the individual’s ability to think independently. The audience is literally spoonfed banal, bourgeois cliches and tepid, unsatisfying emotion.

Again, the individual artist is lost in that mass production model. Institutions are the ones who own the means of cultural production.

But for Adorno and Horkheimer it isn’t just music, radio, film. It is everything. It is the spaces where people live. The architecture, the things we look at. And eventually, this mass commodity changes people. And that we’ll get to in much greater depth in a moment. 

Now, reading this again. I was struck by two things. This is a very dark, even bleak view of society and the cultural industry. Critics of Adorno and Horkheimer have accused them of being negative. 

(15) Both Adorno and Horkheimer were essentially living in exile in the U.S. while Hitler was rising in Germany. This is an election poster for Hitler from 1929 using images of Germany’s military losses in WWI and calls upon electors to help make Germany great again. When the Culture Industry article was written, Horkheimer and Adorno were working in California University of California, Berkeley on a Public Opinion Study Group on Studies in Prejudice.

Both men were Jewish and Horkheimer in specific worked on studying authoritarian personalities.

Both had seen the situation in Germany. Both had seen the impacts of ideology on a population and had extremely good reason to be negative. And strong motivations to warn their readers about the negative impacts of ideology.

What’s also very interesting, according to Rayman’s analysis, is Adorno and Horkheimer was not widely taken up by North American academics for quite a long time. They were more likely to be read by empirical sociologists during the late 50s and 60s. In fact, there were only 15 references to Adorno prior to 1970. This critical approach to media studies was a slow burn. 

(16) In California, Adorno and Horkheimer were both exposed to the U.S. cultural industry. They reference the film at the time. The music. Adorno and Horkheimer seem to really have it out for jazz. Did you notice that?

(17) They even make specific reference to 1920-30s film star Greta Garbo of ‘I vant to be alone’ fame in their piece. While they say that her face does not conform to the Hollywood taste, even she is made to seem more approachable as though this person might smile in welcome to a, “Hello sister.” Nothing is too unusual or edgy in the mass commodification of culture as we will discuss more in a moment. 

They were witnessing the growth and entrenchment of the Hollywood machine. 

And here the Marxist ‘means of production’ – mass industrialization and production of goods – is use to inform cultural production. 

The creation of cultural artifacts becomes the same as a cheaply produced rug or end table. The human actors in this process must conform to the needs of the machine that creates the culture. Everything become uniform like an industrially produced cookie. Arts, culture takes on a uniformity. 

(18) But it is worst that that sounds. We start to change. The people start to assimilate that into their everyday lives, they start to change. 

As Adorno and Horkheimer says, “Even during their leisure time, consumers must orient themselves according to the unity of production.”

What does that mean? Well, here’s a little clip from one of my favourite movies, Fight Club, about how that might look (and might look just a little familiar). 

(19) (33 seconds)

(after clip) Are you defined by your Ikea furniture? Do you find yourself defining yourself or your life through brands? No spoilers here but that apartment doesn’t make it. 

(20) There’s a vested interest in changing people’s minds. There’s an unseen hand in the culture industry. If people are docile and conforming, the powers that be, ie. the owners of the means of production, can stay in power. If there’s no individuality or independent thought, there’s a decreased chance that the dominant powers that control society will be usurped. 

(21) But as Adorno and Horkheimer points out, things have gotten more subtle, more manipulative. More under the surface. 

As in this quote: “The ruler no longer says: Either you think as I do or you die. He says: You are free to not to think as I do. Your life, your property, ALL THAT you shall keep, but from this day on you will be a stranger to us.”

Conform. Or be an outcast.

The big ideas here are that the hegemonic power in a society spreads its ideas or ideology and the individual either conforms to that “common sense” ideology or that individual is cast out. 

(22) A terrific visual aid for ideology comes from John Carpenter’s 1988 “They Live” when thinking about ideology. The film’s hero wrestler Roddy Piper don his special sunglasses and the ideology of downtown LA is revealed to him.

These messages keep the human population compliant and servile to the overlords of the society. 

(24) Adorno and Horkheimer would argue that the ideology from the dominant powers that be are all around us. Today, they would tell us that very magazine stand, every web ad, very television program you watch.. Ideology is everywhere. As the old Palmolive TV commericial used to tell us, “you are soaking in it.” There’s Madge, the body shaming, manicurist…

Does anyone remember these ads?

McLuhan said in War and Peace in the Global Village, “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”

Ideology is the water in which we swim.

(25) So as we will hear from Dayo (DIE-OH), institutions make television. So let me ask again who makes culture today? Right here and now in Toronto?

What do we think? 

Who makes television? The answer there is very few institutions. Or more accurately, mega corporations. 

6 companies make 90% of the content we watch

(27) Disney, CBS, GE, News-Corp…

(28) And you don’t get to be a mega-corporation if TV wasn’t big business. 

And it is driven by advertising. 

(29) TV advertising worldwide is 182.7 billion U.S. dollars in 2017. And this will become very important when we look at the second article. 

(30) Adorno and Horkheimer anticipated a world where things are run by functionaries, bureaucrats doing demographic analysis, algorithms, focus groups and mass market production. They state: “Culture today is infecting everything with sameness.”

What does that mean in practice? 

(31) Here’s a satirical example of shows most like to be ‘greenlight’ or accepted by U.S. Networks today. 

(1:53 minutes)

(32) But wait, you say …. what about all the unique, special television shows with quirky characters that are anything but standard TV tropes and cliche, Adorno and Horkheimer?

They’ve headed you off at the pass with on that objection. They allow for some “individuality” produced by the culture industry. But it too is an manipulation. It is “mechanically differentiated products are ultimately all the same.”

(33) In the same way that members of a boy or girl band are all “different” and there’s a “type” for everyone … it is reality just a huckster trick. It is the illusion of choice.

(33) They call it “pseudoindividuality.”

(34) This brings me to a real-life story of that in play. Comedian Margaret Cho was offered a sitcom in the late nineties.

It was exciting at the time because it was touted as one of the first prime time sitcom featuring an all Asian American cast. It only lasted 16 episodes.

I remembered the promotion. I really looked forward to it. 

If you know Margaret Cho’s comedy, you will understand how the show is nothing like this sitcom. It was a pretty conventional TV family sitcom typical of its time. This was at the same time other female comedians were being offered their own shows. Comedians like Roseanne Barr were being offered show development deals.

I was looking forward to it at the time because it was promoted as a Korean-American family drama. The trouble was, Cho, whose comedy is very, very edgy and boundary-pushing had no creative control. 

It got savaged critically. Her TV family weren’t Korean. A very young B.D. Wong from Law and Order Special Victims Unit played TV Margaret’s dutiful older brother, a doctor. Her TV mother had a mid-Atlantic U.S. accent but had to fake a very poor Korean accent.

They were playing a cliche “Asian” family. My apologies in advance for this.

(35) 1:36

What did you think of All-American Girl? Any impressions?

(36) And here’s Cho talking about the experience. 

(1:30 seconds)

Now, we have to ask ourselves, have times changed since the 90s? Researcher Gregory Fouts in an article on the Canadian Digital Media and Literacy site,  has found that underweight women on TV sitcoms in North America are considered over-represented while only 5 per cent of women on these programs are overweight. 

That same researcher noted overweight characters are often mocked or depicted as isolated or unpopular.

Cliches and stereotypes. A production of ideology. Adorno and Horkheimer would say …yes. 

(36) So this is a perfect segue into the K. M. Torrens piece and our second reading, I Can Get Any Job and Feel like a Butterfly! Symbolic Violence in the TV Advertising of Jenny Craig. It was published in 1998

(37) Torrens takes the critical theory of Adorno and applies it to 1990s Jenny Craig television ads. She also takes a social theory of control grounded in symbolic violence based on Murphy (1994) and uses that as a lens with which to view these television commercials.

(39) Torren’s cites Adorno and Horkheimer noting that “advertising plays a key role in cultural production.” It, like the shows that it surrounds on network TV, influences behaviour. 

 Here again is the “mechanically differentiated products” from Adorno and Horkheimer. And this time, these diet ads are a little something for the ladies.

(40) But it goes further. As she states: “(the) feminist agenda is co-opted… to sneakily infer women will achieve strength, equality and success through altering their physical shape.”

You can go anywhere and do anything and SUCCEED if you just agree to lose weight, change your appearance. But you can’t do that alone you need their product.

Incidentally, this is big business. According to a 2015 CBC article, Jenny Craig’s pre-made meals will run you $600 US monthly.

(41) In this, these Jenny Craig ads also commit symbolic violence by promoting an ideology and a product that arguably asserts a dominance over the female body, promotes a denial of basic need and affects a corrosion of self-worth in the female viewer.

(42) There is a long and un-proud history of violence on female body in the culture history. The article starts with the physical violence inflicted on female bodies with the corset which was advertised and reinforced through the fashion industry. The corset made breathing difficult and displaced organs, reinforced the myth of female fragility.

(43) In the same way the Jurik and Cavender (2009) Prime Suspect article on Week Two provides a guideline for deeply analyzing television, this Torrens article gives us a checklist guide for the ‘close watching’ of television.

Torrens starts with a surface reading:

  • Who (is in the ad, to whom does it appeal?)
  • How is it made? (voice overs, camera angles, lighting, acting, setting, casting)
  • What is happening?
  • What is it promoting?

Then she really digs in and conducts a critical reading

  • Ideological analysis
  • Who are the producers? 
  • What is the product?
  • Power relationships?
  • Rhetoric?

(44) So we are going to play a game and try our hand at a close watching of this 1963 Metrecal Diet Drink Ad. 

See if you can spot the ideology. Please write down the product name M-E-T-R-E-C-A-L

(45) Okay, here we go. 

(46) Okay, back to our questions. 

  • What happened in that ad?
  • What were your first impressions?
  • What kind of techniques are being used?
  • What is it supposed to make you feel?
  • What is the call to action?
  • Any rhetorical techniques at work?
  • What is Metrecal?
  • Who made it?
  • Did anyone look it up?

Was there an ideology at work in this ad?

What vested interests or institutional interests are satisfied by keeping women thin?

Do you think there’s a symbolic violence in play in this ad?

 As we’ve uncovered, Metrecal was created by Mead Johnson and Company. They are the makers of Enfamil infant formula. They saw an opportunity to diversify their audience and market a similar formula to women. The product was meant to help women manage a diet that restricted their caloric intake to 900 calories a day. 

The average woman needs 2,000 calories per day. 

The product was linked to 59 deaths between 1977 and 1978. It was taken off the market.

(47) Here’s another example. This time, it is a little softer sell from Jenny Craig in the mid-nineties.

(48)n Okay, back to our questions. 

What happened in that ad?

What were your first impressions?

What kind of techniques are being used?

What is it supposed to make you feel?

What is the call to action?

Any rhetorical techniques at work?

Appeal to emotion?

What do we know about Jenny Craig?

Was there an ideology at work in this ad?

Symbolic violence?

Thanks everyone for a good discussion. 

(49) So to wrap up, Adorno, Horkheimer and Torrens argue that there’s hegemonic symbolic dominance at work in the production of our cultural artifacts. That mass production at the instrumentation or base level of our North American society gives way to a superstructure (the arts) that reflects this mass production. The institutions that make television …make product, not art. 

They thrive on cliche, standardization. 

We have heard that Adorno, Horkheimer and Torrens suggest the culture industry SPITS out culture artifacts that demand that we conform.

Even deviations from the tropes and cliches that Adorno and Horkheimer rail against are merely another con. In Torrens case, the TV advertisement are specific to career women looking to “have it all” are merely waving a pseudo-feminist flag to sell this “liquid chalk” ….as Betty Friedan, feminist writer and activist, once called the deadly Metrecal.

Being an individual, like the example of Margaret Cho, might not be acceptable in the culture industry whose focus is creating cliche and demanding societal conformance. There is only pseudoindividualism, the illusion of choice.

Now it must be said that the Adorno and Horkheimer view of media and television has been questioned. As we have heard last week, messages are not received like ‘hypodermic needles’ where the messages are simply absorbed by the receiver in the way the sender intended. 

There is significant value in the ‘follow the money’ political economy analysis  of TV content. But that’s only part of the story. There’s a complexity today. Today’s sophisticated audiences are unpredictable and in the world of mash-ups and prosumers, mass media is no longer the monolithic, monopoly it once was. 

Do we accept this assessment of television? Or is a more nuanced view necessary? 

(49) Can you think of another movement that has been co-opted by TV advertising?

Do you agree TV advertising is product of ideology and makes/reinforces ideology?

Does TV create conformity?

(49) With that I’ll leave you the wisdom of the Simpsons a great vehicle for poking the ideology of North American ideology in the eye and speaking of co-opting feminism… 

Thanks everyone! Any further questions?

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