I started paying attention to media when I was a kid, in the late 80s/early 90s. Think the era of Micro Machines, Strawberry Shortcake, and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but I distinctly remember seeing a commercial for a toy called Skip-It! that looked SO AMAZING! When I finally got a Skip-It! for my birthday that year and tried it out, I was…disappointed. It was really small, couldn’t fit two kids jumping at the same time, and the counter was never accurate. I was grateful, but soon shelved it for a simple jump rope or pogo stick and learned a valuable lesson: advertisements are not what they seem.
That lesson solidified a couple years later when I watched a fascinating video about how toy commercials are made, including how extreme close-ups are used with toy airplanes to create the illusion of flight, and how those Micro Machines commercials sped up the recording to make that guy talk . A lot has changed since then: Scrunch socks came and went, music went from grunge to garbage and then thankfully grew up, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 went into effect, dramatically changing the media landscape. If you’re not familiar, this legislation–signed by Bill Clinton–severely relaxed regulations on how many media channels one company could own and opened the floodgates for corporate mergers and acquisitions.
For context, media consolidation was already causing alarm in 1983 when 50 companies controlled 90% of the media; today, just six companies have a near monopoly on all the news, entertainment and content we consume as a nation. Clear Channel, a name you might recognize in the radio space, was restricted to owning 40 stations in 1995; today, now known as iHeartRadio, they own over 1,200 and counting. All this corporate consolidation has created what people have been calling the Corporate Media.
But what does Corporate Media mean exactly? Well the obvious answer is that these companies are all corporations that produce television, radio, and movies, while also owning the channels that distribute this content. But first let me back up and start by reminding you why television even exists: Commercial television’s primary purpose is to deliver audiences to advertisers (Biagi, 2016). Okay, good. Now on to the Corporate part. Corporations all have their own “Corporate Goals, Strategy, and Messaging”. An example of a Strategy would be “to capture more of the LGBTQ audience,” which would in turn cause an uptick in how many shows with LGBTQ themes and characters the company produces or promotes.
The Goal of this Strategy is simple: To increase profits–the more audience members they have watching/reading/listening, the more valuable their programming is to advertisers. But in the corporate world, it’s not just about profits, it’s about Growth. Always growth. Because every quarter the company presents their Earnings to the investment community – the folks who decide which tickers are hot to buy or sell – who care ONLY about growth. Not quality, not loyalty, not integrity, just growth. So the strategy to capture more audience members is critical to Corporate growth, because without always trying to capture more and more people, their growth stalls, investors jump ship, and a whole lotta very rich folks become quite a bit less rich overnight due to fallen stock prices.
I know that’s a lot of financial info for a post about media, but I thought you should know what motivates them and why. Like the Goals and Strategy, Corporate Messaging is carefully crafted based on a set of corporate values and determined by the Corporate leadership (CEOs, EVPs). Messaging must align with the Goals and enable the Strategy of the corporation. In our example, the Goal is to grow, the strategy is to target LGBTQ audiences, and the messaging would be “We care about LGBTQ people and we won’t tolerate hatred toward them.” This means you will see promos with their news anchors saying things like “We support PRIDE” and in the case of any actors or employees publicly displaying anti-LGBTQ sentiments, swift removals.
The lines between advertising and content have blurred so much in recent years, it is often impossible to tell when an advertiser is speaking directly to you. Just flip on your TV and you can find myriad examples of paid promotions on talk shows or news shows, and what you might not realize are word-for-word scripts your news anchors deliver to you as “news.” Add the effects of media consolidation and today when you watch, say NBC, you’re also watching a series of subtle mentions and blatant promotions of movies made by Universal, shows airing on USA, and other channels, shows, and theme parks owned by its parent company, Comcast, all without any disclosure of that fact.
We receive such a barrage of these messages over our lifetimes with no context, that people think of them as “normal.” But there is nothing normal about a corporation telling us what to think about, what problems exist or don’t, and what things we should buy to feel better about ourselves. It’s especially dangerous when what’s being sold to us is war. Some of the biggest profiteers of war are the same companies that fund corporate media via advertisements and paid placement. Just look at this Lockheed Martin financial report from 2015, stating “We depend heavily on contracts with the U.S. Government for a substantial portion of our business.”
And yet, commercials like this one appear on network and cable news programs to ensure that those channels won’t say or promote any negative stories about Lockheed Martin or to criticize the source of Lockheed’s bread and butter, U.S. war. Plus those jets look super cool, right? But we know better: advertisements are not what they seem.
Every day, this false narrative is being sold to you–“Trustworthy” people on television tell you what to think about and provide programming that appeals to you in order to sell you to their advertisers. Advertisers promote products and ideas that go unquestioned by anyone in the media. And you’re made to feel like a fringe weirdo if you disagree with any of it, because that point of view does not exist in the corporate media. Fortunately, we can do something about this! First of all, stop consuming corporate media.
Stop trusting those respectable looking line readers. Seek out and support (yes, with money) independent media and channels that are not beholden to major advertisers or investors. TALK about these issues with friends and family in person and on social media–you might be surprised when you start talking how many other people you know feel the same! It doesn’t matter what your political ideology is, we can all agree that WE should be in control of what messages we receive and how to interpret the world around us. So when it comes to Corporate Media, skip it. #MSMExit #TheSavageTruth
NOTE: While this article focuses mainly on television, the corporate media also comprises print, radio, and movies. I urge readers to remove all forms of corporate media from their diets.
Katy is a new writer to the Ghion Journal. Her segment, titled “the Savage Truth”, takes a look behind the currents of conventional wisdom and pop culture to present a perspective free of ideology and dogma. Katy’s views are not necessarily the views of the Ghion Journal, we publish the work of independent voices and journalists in our effort to give power to the people and be a voice for the the voiceless.
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