Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Engineering and Freedom, Part 9

click here to read part 1 
click here to read part 2 
click here to read part 3 
click here to read part 4 
click here to read part 5 
click here to read part 6 
click here to read part 7 
click here to read part 8 
Commercial broadcasters refer to advertising, euphemistically, as “interruptions” of regular programming. 

But given that the customers of broadcast media firms are not the viewers, but the advertisers, it would be more useful to think of the programming as interruptions of the commercial “messages.” The raison d’etre of the commercial media are the ads, as seen in the fact that in mass-circulation magazines, the first thing a reader is presented with when opening the front cover is not its table of contents, but rather an advertisement. 

The glossier the magazine, the more impossible it is to find the table of contents; to get people to look at the ads is the reason also that most mass-circulation magazines, rather than placing the text of their feature articles in a serial fashion, almost always break them up, using the device “continued on page...”. 

Feature content, whether it is in magazines or on broadcast media, is what attracts consumers. The advertising, what pays for this content, is in psychological terms the associative stimuli to the primary stimuli of what is usually called programme “content.” 

Without the primary stimuli, no one would bother with the associative stimuli. However, because the primary stimuli, the programming, is entertainment which is offered virtually without charge, the associative stimuli is almost automatically guaranteed a vast audience. 

And, since this audience is given entertainment to “relax” to with virtually no effort on their part, they are at their most vulnerable to the conditioning power of the ad stimuli. Barry Skinner introduced his behavioural psychology theories during the 1930s, the decade in which commercial broadcasting over radio was institutionalized in the United States (Skinner’s master, John B. Watson, had been dismissed from a professorship, due to sexual impropriety, and then went to work for the J. Walter Thompson ad agency). 

The environment of broadcast media, the “media ecology” as some have called it, is really a vast “Skinner box,” the device the psychologist constructed in order to his demonstrate his theories of behaviour. Within this box, a lab mouse was conditioned to perform a certain behaviour, pressing a lever, and it was rewarded, on occasion, with a food pellet. 

Eventually, Skinner translated his ideas into popular works, in which he argued that human beings should give up their “freedom and dignity” in order to live in a conditioned utopia. 

Apparently, he didn’t notice that many of his countrymen, and to a lesser extent, those elsewhere in the Occident, had given up their psychic liberty, if not their self-respect, to the massive experiment in operant conditioning called commercial broadcasting. 

Except, perhaps, that where the lab mouse was expected to press a lever to receive his reward, the TV viewer is expected not to do anything, not to turn the channel and not watch something else, which would cause him to miss the advertising. 

When they do, programmers immediately remove the primary stimuli, the programming, and replace it with something that it will attract more viewers to the associative stimuli, the ads. Some critics refer, inaccurately, to the habitual use of TV and other media, as well as the consumer behaviour that follows from it, as an “addiction.” 

In fact, actual addicts usually realize their dependency on an alien substance. Those involved in and influenced by the “information” economy (which is, by now, practically everyone), do not realize that they have a dependency at all. 

And, where the addict will do almost anything to get his fix, consumers dependent on “the media” for entertainment would quickly reject it if they were made to pay its full cost. However, it is the goal of mass-media advertisers and programmers (not a conscious one, likely), to attract the youngest possible audience to what they have to offer. 

This is why, for example, commercial-television programmes can charge such a premium when they are rated as “popular” with young viewers, even for shows that have significantly less viewership than others that are popular with those over fifty years of age. 

The young, unlike the elderly, have greater psychic room to be persuaded by mass means, and thus are of much better use to the controllers of broadcast media. Commercial advertisers, without any real recognition of this fact, act in the same fashion as do ordinary propagandists of totalitarian regimes, in seeking to brainwash the young into diffidence of their elder kin relations. 

The “teenager,” who came into his/her own truly during the late 1940s and ‘50s, was the earliest of the market-research industry’s explication of society in terms of age-relative demographics. 

This category has now been joined by the similar fractionalizing of the progress of life into “twenty-something,” “thirty-something,” the “over-fifty”, and now, “tweens” and younger. Once, children’s programming was at worst merely cloying and ridiculous to adults. Today such shows serve as nothing but advertisements for the merchandise that yields their production companies profits far in excess of what they receive from putting together the actual television programmes. 

Indeed, since most children’s programming includes advertisements for other children’s products, they are advertisements paid for by other advertisements! This has occurred even as the “content” of the most popular children’s shows has become as non-violent and apparently innocuous than entertainment for kids has ever been. 

If kids’ shows consist of bright-painted, perpetually-grinning dinosaurs, cuddly animated bears, and most tellingly, alien babies wearing television heads with antennae sticking out, and if all these characters do is gibber and occasionally sing a song, their parents will fail to notice that their children are being conditioned by a constant barrage of ads to be demand-fed in the manner of a lab mouse in a Skinner box. 

People blamed the best-selling book by Dr. Benjamin Spock on baby and child care for “permissive” society of the post-‘60s generation. But could any instruction manual on child-rearing be more permissive than the electronic device the very existence of which was to stimulate the passion to consume in anyone that came into contact with it? If even grown adults require forbearance not to be taken in by its hypnotic glow, how are children to resist it at all? 

The lure of the television, for both adult and child, is summed up in the phrase, “TV is the cheapest babysitter.” Like nothing else, TV keeps kids out of trouble, by rivetting their attention and leaving them stationary for long periods at a time, whilst the parents do the necessary household chores and get some rest. 

Studies on the adverse behavioural effects on children of TV shows always focus on “content,” on the number of violent acts per hour, the relative number of “stereotyped” gender images in a programme, etc. missing the bigger point that the form of the medium itself, by encouraging physical sedation, with the simultaneous exposure of many advertised inducements for food with mal-nutritional value, is a formula for slow death by obesity. This is as much an adult as a pediatric problem, of course, first in the U.S. and then in any other country that possesses commercial television in any abundance. 

Part 10 of Engineering and Freedom 

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