Media, Technology, and the Market:
the Interacting Dynamic

Herbert I. Schiller

This essay was originally published in Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology, eds. Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey (Seattle: Bay Press, 1994): 31-46. It is used here with the permission of the author.

In a slumping, perhaps declining U.S. economy, one sphere, the media-informational, retains uncontested global primacy. It has another unusual characteristic: it has been nearly totally appropriated for a sole objective--marketing. This relationship, namely, a powerful media apparatus linked tightly to salesmanship, creates a general condition that in time threatens the viability and sustainability of human existence itself. How and why this apocalyptic prospect is unfolding is the subject of the discussion that follows. The starting point is the nature of the American market in the postwar years and some of the major developments that have affected it: notably war, the militarization of science, and the emergence of a transnational business system that seeks ever more powerful ways to sell goods.

The Market in the Postwar Years

Leaving aside the drastic drop in production during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States was a powerful producer of consumer goods before World War II. During the war, the U.S. industrial machine, unmatched at the time, concentrated on the production of war goods: tanks, munitions, aircraft, military supplies, and so on. But the Depression remained a vivid memory, and few would have predicted the continued expansion of industry that followed the hostilities. In fact, many were anxious the economy might recede into the prewar economic crisis.

Withal, the deferred domestic demand and the forced savings accumulated during the war years--for example, war bonds--pushed output in America to unprecedented levels. To this was added the orders for goods to replenish Europe, stripped bare during the Nazi occupation. Accordingly, the industrial plant that had been built up during the war and later converted to civilian production, supplemented with massive capital investment and expansion of industrial capacity in the early postwar years, provided a powerful productive base. From it flowed a huge volume of consumer goods in the late 1940s, '50s, and '60s.

The ability of Americans to buy these goods kept up with their output at least until the early 1970s. U.S. personal consumption expenditures (in constant 1982 dollars), fueled by the hot wars--Korea, Vietnam--and the Cold War in general, rose from $503 billion in 1940 to $2,682 billion in 1990, a fivefold increase over the fifty-year interval; the population merely doubled in size in the same period. By decade, the percentage increase in personal consumption expenditures was as follows: between 1940 and 1950, 46 percent; between 1950 and 1960, 37 percent; between 1960 and 1970, 49 percent; between 1970 and 1980, 34 percent; and between 1980 and 1990, 34 percent. [1]

The income to sustain these rapidly rising expenditures was heavily supplemented with the growth of the credit industry, which discovered all kinds of imaginative ways to induce the acceptance of staggering personal debt burdens. Completing the infrastructure of the consumer society in the making was the parallel expansion of the advertising industry and advertising expenditures over the period.

The advertising industry is the chosen instrument of the unplanned yet heavily concentrated American economy to clear the inventory off of corporate shelves. As a special bonus it also supplies strong and pervasive doses of systemic ideology. This is more flatteringly expressed by advertising authority Robert Coen:
Unlike the European societies, the U.S. had no established rigid marketing system, guilds or hierarchies, and U.S. entrepreneurs were not constrained in developing their enterprises. They discovered that they would prosper if they spread the word about their goods and services. The advertising industry, as known today, has mainly evolved from the American experience. [2]
It is precisely because American entrepreneurs historically have had fewer constraints that this model of economic development, in its purest capitalist form, has occurred in the United States. And in this model, advertising occupies a central position. It is to be expected and, in fact, is confirmed that "in the case of advertising, most of the advanced developments have occurred first in the United States." [3] That this continues to be the case will be made evident further along.

For advertising to fulfill its systematically crucial role--getting the national output of goods and services into the hands and homes of buyers, and reaffirming daily, if not hourly, that consumption is the definition of democracy--it must have full access to the nation's message making and message--transmitting apparatus. Over time this means the transformation of the press, radio, television, cable, and every such subsequent technology into instrumentations of marketing.

This is done with single-minded devotion. It has succeeded so well that the nation's image- and message-making machinery has been almost fully directed to salesmanship. The press is dependent on advertising for approximately three-quarters of its income. Commercial radio and television are totally reliant on advertising revenues, and the public channels, too, are increasingly dependent on this source of support. As each new media technology has appeared, it has drained off some of this marketing income. Broadcast and cable television are now the primary, though by no means exclusive, vehicles for the sales message.

All of this is well known, amply documented, and analyzed in trade and academic literature. What the record reveals is an almost total takeover of the domestic informational system for the purpose of selling goods and services. What is not so familiar, however, is the extent to which this marketing function has influenced the form and shaped the content of the new information technologies to suit its purposes. This can better be appreciated by reviewing the history of the new information technologies that have arisen since World War II.

War and Business: Recent Stimulants to Technological Development

The production of imagery and messages relies on institutional structures and relationships, as well as on instrumentation. What is produced is decided upon by a complex interaction of processes, techniques, and social relationships, all of which are in constant flux with changing weights for each component. The U.S. message and image machine, in response to two separate but related forces--military and corporate--has developed very special features over the last half-century.

Henry Luce's "American Century" was a corporate vision, revealed to and proclaimed by Luce in 1941. It was a design thoroughly dependent on a greatly expanded international network of communication. It also foretold the placement of armed forces around the globe to defend the emerging system of American economic power and ideological persuasion. [4]

When the Cold War ended (whenever that date is authoritatively established), the United States maintained 375 foreign military installations worldwide, staffed by more than a half-million service people.

It also had a powerful scientific and technological establishment that had been created in World War II and expanded in the postwar years. This decisive element of national power was the offspring of the astronomical Cold War budget that for more than forty years channeled massive funds into scientific research and development. These sums poured into federal, corporate, and academic installations. A science reporter put it this way:
By some measures, the cold war was the best thing that ever happened to research. The explosion of money, talent and tools far exceeded anything in previous eras. Over the decades [an] army of government, academic and industry experts made the breakthroughs that gave the West its dazzling military edge. Since 1955, the Government has spent more than $1 trillion on research and development of nuclear arms and other weaponry. [5]
From this almost inconceivable outlay came, among other products, laser weapons, spy satellites, precision armaments, weather satellites, computer chips--in fact, the reporter asserts, "the whole industries of aerospace, communications and electronics."

Out of this proliferation of scientific and technological projects of military and corporate parentage has also come what is reassuringly called the "information society," in which we are now living. Yet the main beneficiaries of the new capabilities in information production, transmission, and dissemination are, not unexpectedly, those who were the main initiating agents of the Cold War era--the transnational corporations, the intelligence, military, and policing agencies. Especially well rewarded have been the big businesses with worldwide operations. With new facilities they have the means to manage their global activities, move capital, shift production locales, and, on the basis of these new capabilities, weaken organized labor. At the same time, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies have built intercontinental satellite networks for monitoring the flow of messages of friends and foes alike, and for mapping the world for possible future interventions--Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Cuba, inner-city Detroit, and so on.

While this new technological capability might have been expected to strengthen and perpetuate American domination of the international realm--and for a brief time it did--other developments intervened, notably the war in Vietnam, to erode U.S. power. In recent years, the growth of rival industrial systems in Germany and Japan has further diminished American influence around the world. But not in all sectors--especially not in the increasingly central sphere of communications.

The new information technologies enhanced the vigor and production quality of the American cultural industries, conferring on them a marked technical edge. But this was no random transfer of technical expertise: a familiar and pervasive force, the marketing imperative, initiated and guided the adaptation of many of the new technological processes into the cultural industries. The process responded closely to the growing pressures on the overall American economy.

In the first postwar decades there was scant need for American marketers to take into account either the domestic or the global buyers' tastes and preferences. American goods had few competitors. The early postwar boom years enabled U.S. products to be marketed with effective but (by current standards) unexceptional advertising. American media products were pumped into the world market with few constraints.

These "good times" for American industry began to falter in the late 1960s. Though at first a seemingly temporary irritant, the pressure on the economy of renewed foreign industrial competition, along with the exhaustion of the postwar replenishment boom, continued to build. In the late 1980s and early '90s it has become relentless. The slowdown of industrial production, so clear domestically, is occurring across most of the industrialized world as well.

New Means for Bolstering the Marketing Message

The marketing imperative has taken on a new urgency. Beginning in the 1970s, the search for consumers became increasingly feverish. Messages addressed to potential consumers have multiplied and intensified. As the overall U.S. power position deteriorates, its one sphere of unchallenged mastery, media-driven pop culture, receives mounting dosages of adrenalin from technologies and processes developed originally to serve the empire. Now they are aimed at producing consumers. Popular culture is, in fact, fusing with merchandising, and adapting and using the instrumentation and techniques that appeared earlier in the research labs of the cold and corporate warriors.

Indeed, an entirely new economic sphere, the special-effects industry, has emerged, difficult as it is to place into the standard industrial classification. What, for example, is the product of George Lucas's commercial special-effects company, a Hollywood shop aptly called Industrial Light and Magic? Yet it is not some hidden or mysterious sphere. As the screen credits for any typical high-budget film unfold, a battalion of names appears in one or another highly specialized fields, generically now considered "special effects."

The use of special effects long precedes the current period. But although they were certainly evident in the early development of film, the elevation of special effects into a primary constituent of film is much more recent. It can probably (and arbitrarily) be assigned to their use in Star Wars, produced in 1977, although a case could also be made for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which, when it was made in 1968, achieved a startling pseudo-environment.

The actual date that marks the full emergence and use of special effects in the cultural industries is uncertain at best. It is sufficient to note that sometime in the post-World War II period, centered around the late 1960s and early '70s, the provision of special effects became a powerful and observable component of popular cultural forms and products. Though no one factor explains this development, and several have believability, it is the contention here that one contributing stimulus stands out: the intensifying effort to maintain and extend personal consumption and to develop it abroad.

In a word, the big consumer-goods producers, a.k.a. "the national sponsors," and their advertising agencies have been pressing unremittingly to target consumers with ever-more powerful sales messages. It is probably true that this many-pronged effort would have been undertaken routinely, in the day in-day out operations of corporate business as it continuously jostled for market share. But the additional pressure, and the time in which it has become manifest, coincide with the onset of fierce global industrial competition and creeping domestic economic stagnation.

Conveniently, there were available, thanks to the trillion-dollar research and development expenditures, a constellation of new techniques and technologies--some applied to other uses--that could satisfy the most extravagant expectations of corporate marketers and salespeople. These technical capabilities for use in visual, optical, photographic, and audio forms offered improved ways to intensify excitement, organize audience attention, and capture and hold interest. What better way to describe the objectives of advertisers on behalf of their sponsors, or of record producers hoping for platinum disc sales, or movie producers seeking box office blockbusters?

The special-effects industry is an extraordinarily acquisitive and derivative industry that actively searches out advanced technologies from elsewhere--the sciences, medicine, computer graphics, personal computer developments--and puts them to astonishing use. In a related way, the marketing effort was applied to stimulating personal acquisition of a growing number of electronics products that became available at about the same time. This served, conveniently, to make existing record collections and record players, for example, obsolete. The introduction of personal computers on a mass scale, the phenomenal popular embrace of VCRs, and the promotion of compact discs opened up new consumer markets and launched new entertainment products. These new electronic goods also enabled individuals to draw spectacular techniques into their own living rooms. Looming now is High-Definition TV (HDTV) in the parlance. HDTV, if and when it is introduced, promises to make America's existing stock of television sets--hundreds of millions-- instantly out of date. Planned(or not) obsolescence with a vengeance.

And so it has developed. In recent years, TV commercials, movies, TV programs, and recordings have called increasingly upon special effects to rivet an audience's attention. Special-effects sound and imagery short-circuit the brain and hit the gut. Content recedes as technique flourishes and reflection disappears. This may be the defining feature of what is called postmodernity.

Philip Hayward writes about these developments in music video and MTV, where he sees "the impact of special effects as stimulating and retaining audiences" and bypassing "concern with textual profundity in favor of technological 'magic' and rewarding highly competitive forces." [6] More pointedly still, another writer sees the ultimate effect of special effects techniques in pop-cultural forms as the triumph of commercialism:
The wedding of pop music and video has shifted the balance of power between a song and the image of its performer. When once that image augmented the music, nowadays the music serves the image, which in turn, often serves a fast-food or cola advertising campaign and ultimately a whole line of advertising. Pop stars have always endorsed products, but it has been only in the age of music video that the star image and the product have become indissoluble ... pop music is no longer a world unto itself but an adjunct of television, whose stream of commercial messages projects a culture in which everything is for sale. As the image has taken precedence over the song, the songs have become fragmentary and charged with electronic beats. [7]
The writer, Stephen Holden, concludes from this that the "wondrous technology" has "tricked us." Yet is this galloping phenomenon merely a matter of smoke and mirrors? Are special effects just surface phenomena that willy-nilly contribute to confusion and mystification? More convincing in explaining why this has been happening, I believe, is Martha Rosler's on-the-mark observation that "the confusion of style with substance is fostered by any medium that allows advertising to be integrated into its fabric and format." [8] Is not what Rosler calls attention to exactly what has been occurring across all media? Advertising, with the closest cooperation of the new technologies, has been integrated increasingly into film, television recording, and news itself.

Admittedly, this trend preceded the new technologies. In film, for example, the widespread use of the "built-in plug," examined so deftly by Mark Crispin Miller, [9] allows actors to clutch a can of Coke or a Bud or cleaning fluid, seemingly as part of the natural setting. More generally, many movies, in addition to routinely and endlessly promoting consumption, continue to offer the bromide of rags-to-riches sexual liaisons with humanistic billionaires transformed into social workers who disinterestedly assist working-class women--Batman, Pretty Woman, Working Girl, and so on. Two systemic objectives are realized with this formula. Along with the consumerism--almost as a bonus--comes a happy escape from economic anxiety and deprivation. The long running American dream show is revived and re-energized.

In another way, television from its inception has had its drama and sitcom programs written around the commercial break. The climaxes are scheduled carefully either just before or just after the sales message.

Now the new technologies enable imagery to take a giant step beyond this mode of commercialism. In recent years the actual form of a presentation is structured for a commercial objective--to hold the viewer/ listener captive to the product message. MTV is the purest example of this development: " 'Atmosphere advertising' is the term for ads driven by music and visuals, with no hard sell." [10] MTV is nothing more than an advertisement for musical groups and record labels. Stuart Ewen points out that "part of the magic formula embedded in MTV is the fact that viewers[are] looking at an advertisement without really noticing it." [11]

The impact of MTV is not limited to advertising, important as it is in this domain. It has served as a successful model for the rest of the media as well, including print. USA Today, for example, offers its news in one or two small paragraphs, print capsules surrounded with color copy. The brief sound bites of television news reporting get shorter from year to year. One MTV "news program" for young viewers--MTV's basic audience--boasts three-second interviews with political figures. [12]

As the information gets compacted, so does the general programming. Time-compression machines, introduced in the early 1980s, are used routinely to "make room for more commercials by accelerating the speed of movies and old television programs." Their use is especially attractive to broadcasters because "the additional minutes of advertising time come without increased costs for additional programming." This technique "can cut 8 percent of a two-hour movie by speeding it up [and] gain almost ten minutes without cutting any scenes." [13] What this practice does to the integrity of the original film or TV program is not a consideration for those benefiting from the sale of more commercial time.

The application of special effects to film, TV, and recording in the effort to secure viewer/listener attention for a commercial message results inevitably in the evacuation of meaning. One film reviewer writes, "One of the most numbing things about many movies today is how wildly out of scale they seem to go: the way visual and technical virtuosity is juxtaposed with silly, vacuous stories." [14] The same reviewer reflects further on the usage of special effects in film: "There's something dispiriting about the wide disparity in quality between words and images in current American film-making.'' Writing about a recent movie, The Lawnmower Man, it is noted that "every scene in this cautionary tale about science running amok has spectacular views, unusual camera angles and moves, or dazzling outre computer effects. And every scene, story-wise, gets mushier and more outlandish or perfunctory. [15]

This could be said as well about most of the razzle-dazzle film productions that run up huge budgets. Indeed, special effects techniques are more and more often applied "wall to wall" in order to sustain the desired sensation throughout the entire film, TV program, or recording--notable examples being Blade Runner, Terminator 2, Roger Rabbit, and Jurassic Park. Yet this inverse relationship between technique and content arises directly from the commercial imperative. If the primary aim of the sponsor is to capture the attention of the audience with an emotional jolt, why distract or depress them with a serious story line or lyric?

Export of the American Model

Media-cultural developments in the United States preview their adoption abroad. This occurs in the "normal" course of transacting global business. The very expression "world market" now means that globally operating corporations produce and sell their wares in scores of countries. Most of the market is shared by a handful of giant companies in specific spheres-- electronics, recordings, cereals, home products, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, and so on. Following this pattern, it is possible to detect in recent years a complex unfolding of media, technological, and market relationships across a good part of the world market. It is clearest in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, South Korea-- in fact, wherever a national economy has reached a certain level of industrial production.

Each national locale has its own specificities in this evolving pattern, but the common course of development, at least approximately, can be sketched. It runs something like this: Advanced communications technologies--including computers, satellite communication, broadcast, and cable television--have become available. The transnational corporate sector, with its supporters inside each national configuration, presses for and succeeds in achieving what is called "deregulation" or "liberalization" or "privatisation." One way or another, these variants remove national oversight and open the door to commercial use of broadcasting and telecommunications. This means financing TV and cable increasingly by advertising, and the private(corporate) use of telephone lines and computer networks for heavy-volume(business) data flows. With these arrangements in place, the framework is established for the creation and utilization of cultural space in the American mode. And this is the way it has gone! One media-cultural sphere after another has been seized for corporate marketing goals, sometimes byway of media product imports from the United States, sometimes by imitating American cultural production styles, often a combination of the two. A report on European TV developments is illustrative: the Hollywood-focused Los Angeles Times described a new European TV soap opera, "Riviera," as having a "decidedly American feel to it." No wonder! he executive producer and creative director of the show are American. U.S. consultants were hired and brought to Paris for sets, music, lighting and engineering ... All taping is done first in English before the show is dubbed into French and other European languages. Yet most of the actors, directors and studio technicians are Europeans. [The show was] conceived in a Paris advertising agency." The French producers acknowledge that "the Americans know how to capture and hold an audience. This business can benefit from tricks invented in Hollywood. Young French writers [for example] are taught how to structure plots in the American way, which means inserting mini-climaxes before commercial breaks." [16]

Not only are European TV and film yielding to--perhaps welcoming-- the marketing call. The total packaged commercial environment also is becoming familiar: witness Disney's opening of a huge theme park outside Paris in April 1992. Business Week, only partly joking, described the event: "And you thought Europe's big happening of 1992 was the creation of a borderless market. The event that really counts is coming April 12. That's when Europe will join the U.S. and Japan as a truly advanced consumer society: It's opening day for EuroDisneyland." Hyping the opening, a $6 million newspaper, funded partly by corporate partners including Mattel, Coca-Cola, and American Express appeared in seven major cities. Business Week asks, "How can Europe resist? Chances are it won't. Cultural imperialism or not, millions of Europeans will soon be careening down Big Thunder Fountain, celebrating the Old World's coming of age." [17] Most of these installations are notably proficient in shepherding the happy throngs who pay for the privilege of being exposed to commercial messages: through artfully integrated and carefully constructed space.

In 1988, MTV European satellite service was introduced. This network brings together the communication satellite, cable TV, and advanced visual and sonic special effects to transmit the marketing message to an audience in the most effective way. One of the first shows it carried claimed this distinction: "We see Ultratech as a very global idea because there is no language, there is no plot, there are no characters....It's just sound and light, TV taken down to its essence." [18] In other words, the perfect sales tool! With deregulation achieved, cable and satellite TV installed, American special effects techniques imported or copied, the Europeans, and many Asians as well, can look forward to world-class--that is, American--levels of commercialism. The international advertising industry is already drooling: "On a per-household basis, four times as much is spent in the United States on television advertising as in Europe. The potential for growth in television advertising revenues in Europe is [seen as] enormous ... the industry still looks like a pot of gold to many." [l9]

But is it only gold that is at the end of the advertising rainbow? Not yet fully visible but certainly accompanying the short-term profits is the escalating waste of limited natural and human resources. As car sales rise, gas consumption soars, highways encircle the earth, and Coke bottles and disposable wrappers lie alongside the road, cultural pollution, too, gushes forth from the global cultural industries.

Autonomous and Neutral Technology?

Calling attention to these developments, it should be emphasized, is not intended to sound still another antitechnology warning. "Technophobia," as Neil Postman put it, is not the issue. [20] What the evidence here demonstrates is the strong, if not determining, influence of the social purpose that initially fostered the development of new technologies. The social uses to which this technology is put, more times than not, follow their originating purposes. When military or commercial advantage are the motivating forces, it is to be expected that the laboratories will produce findings conducive to these objectives. If other motivations could be advanced--for instance, the general welfare--different technologies might be forthcoming. The customary argument that commerce and profit-seeking go hand in hand with social benefit is yet to be demonstrated--after hundreds of years of experience.

Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explain television's alleged inherent technological imperative this way:
This is a good place to debunk the much-repeated idea that television is a medium best suited to transmitting emotions, and that it either "cannot" or is not "good" at transmitting ideas. The answer to why we see what we see on television lies in a combination of how audiences have come to conceive of the medium, what audiences want to watch (or have grown accustomed to watching), and what the people who control and sponsor television believe needs to be created and broadcast in order to maximize profit. [21]
Each one of their criteria clearly is a social construct. They are not the outcomes of an autonomous technological determinant. The TV that is transmitted, the movies that are made, the music that is recorded and played, and the images that have been captured and displayed increasingly are shaped to serve the marketing imperative. This driving force, most pronounced in the United States, is now being experienced in much of the rest of the world.

To recapitulate: The strongest sector in an otherwise declining U.S. economy is the cultural industry. Its exported product constitutes one of the few favorable components in the country's foreign trade. Additionally, the styles of the industry provide the model that is copied everywhere. Seemingly, this great success, and the rich returns that flow from it, should be a source of satisfaction and security; yet a very different reaction is warranted, and therein lies a paradox. A buoyant cultural industry is responsible for a looming social disaster.

The media-entertainment industries flourish; their revenues rise from year to year, and their value to the consumption goods industries continually increases. But the virus of mindless consumerism accompanies--in fact, is embedded in--the cultural product that now reaches nearly every corner of the world. The waves of merchandising exhortation carried by, and built into, the popular media crash against the earth's finite resources. Whether it be the disposition of atomic wastes, the widening holes in the ozone layer, or the desperate search for waste disposal sites, underlying each crisis is the misuse of resources. In the fall of 1991 a group of world-renowned intellectuals, attending a symposium titled "Approaching the Year 2000," indicted the waste and despoliation of the earth's resources, noting a grotesque distortion in global resource allocation whereby "20% of the world's population consumes 80% of its wealth and is responsible for 75% of its pollution." The symposium found the source of this shocking phenomenon to be "the cultural pollution and loss of tradition which have led to global rootlessness, leaving humans, through the intensity of mass-marketing, vulnerable to the pressures of economic and political totalitarianism and habits of mass-consumption and waste which imperil the earth." [22] The main miscreant in this deepening global crisis is the model of acquisitive behavior and consumerist attitude constructed and circulated worldwide by the powerful and deadly combination of media, technology, and the market.

I would like to acknowledge the research assistance of Judith Gregory.