All the goods and services used in everyday life possess intrinsic qualities that meet human wants, and even those that cater to basic needs, like hunger, may also satisfy a desire for beauty or a wish to communicate. Food is more enjoyable if made with love or artistically presented and served with style. These material and aesthetic qualities, as defined by social convention, constitute a good’s value to its users: its use value. At the same time, in modern capitalist economies, goods also have a value in the marketplace: an exchange value. When a good is produced with the express aim of selling it at a price, it becomes a “commodity.” In order to expand, capitalism required all goods to be converted into commodities. Analyzing this process of commodification and its impact on the diversity and availability of cultural goods is central to the account of media systems in industrialized, market-economy countries from the perspective of political economy.
Political Economy And The Media
The professionally produced popular media that emerged in the nineteenth century had a double relation to the commodity system. All were commodities in their own right, sold for a price, but some, most notably the popular press and, later, commercial broadcasting, also provided the major spaces where other kinds of commodities were advertised and promoted. As a consequence, in the view of political economists, audiences themselves became a commodity to be traded between media organizations and advertisers, with the price being determined by the size and social composition of the readers and viewers. For Marxist analysts, commercial entrepreneurs were buying the work audiences devoted to paying attention to advertising in the same way as they bought their labor in the workplace.
Apart from firms making specialized or luxury items, companies paying for advertising demanded the largest possible audience containing the highest proportion of consumers with command over spending. This requirement for access to audience attention had consequences for the range of diversity of media production. In a striking metaphor, the Canadian economist Dallas Smythe compares commercial broadcast programming to the “free” snacks put out by barmen in pubs and clubs. They needed to be tasty enough to be enjoyable in their own right but their main purpose was to encourage the clientele to stay and continue drinking. As numerous earlier commentators had pointed out, a system comprehensively geared to maximizing either direct sales or advertising revenues was likely to offer little scope for genuine creative originality. The contrast between “art” as an authentic expression of individual insight and inner conviction and industrialized creativity tailored to recycling already popular themes and formats was central to the critique of mass culture developed by many intellectual commentators, most notably the critical theory developed by the Frankfurt Group.
Cultural commodification first happened in writing and book publishing. It was cross-cut by political considerations. In the nineteenth century public libraries opened in many countries. Where cultural commodities were only available at a price, these services were free. They were public goods in three senses: they were paid for out of taxation; they were designed for collective use rather than personal possession; and they were seen to contribute to the quality of social life as well as to individual pleasure and selfdevelopment. What exactly constituted “common culture” and the “common good,” however, was fiercely contested. Against a background of rising popular militancy and the extension of the franchise, many within the Establishment had two main ambitions for these initiatives: to encourage a sense of national unity based on a shared culture, and to provide the intellectual and imaginative resources that would support rational participation in the political process. The tensions between commodification and public intervention intensified with the arrival of broadcasting as a technology of mass distribution.
There were some early experiments with providing subscription radio services over telephone connections, most notably in Budapest, but the broadcasting industry soon became centered around the air transmissions. Because signals were universally and freely available to anyone with suitable receiving equipment, broadcasting offered unrivalled opportunities both to extend commodification and to create a new kind of public cultural good.
The first option was pursued with vigor in the United States; the second option was developed in its fullest form in the UK, where the BBC was constituted as a public service and charged with defending national culture and providing resources for citizenship. Variations on these basic templates were adopted around the world and were later carried over into the television era.
The legacy of the various political decisions taken on the financing and organization of cultural and communications services lasted until the 1970s, with most countries outside the communist bloc operating a dual system, with commercial enterprise dominating the publishing, music, and film industries and various public institutions, museums, galleries, libraries, and in many cases public broadcasters, offering an alternative network of production, distribution, and availability. Over the past two decades, however, this system has been progressively dismantled as governments around the world have pursued policies geared to expanding markets and promoting their operating values. This shift toward “marketization” has enabled a major extension of commodification.
Corporations have long wanted to extend their relation with programming beyond the confines of the 15or 30-second spot advertisement. One early, and well used, device developed in the United States system was sponsorship. In return for a contribution to production costs, firms were allowed to integrate their company or brand name into the title of the program in the hope that the positive attitudes and feelings generated by the performers and content would transfer themselves to the company and its products. At the same time, the film industry was experimenting with product placement deals inviting manufacturers to pay to have their brands featured in popular movies, and, where possible, used by the stars.
In many broadcasting systems, these forms of integrated advertising have been ruled inadmissible on the grounds that programming and promotion should be clearly demarcated and separated. As spot advertising has come to be seen as increasingly ineffectual, however, and the competition between brands has come to center on sign value, a commodity’s ability to communicate the personality and lifestyle of its owner, so this separation has come under increasing pressure. As a consequence, even where formal rules forbidding product placement remain in place, they are persistently circumvented. The consequence is a contemporary broadcasting system in which product promotion has moved from the margins to the center, locking commercial services ever more securely into the commodity system.
Impact Of Commercialization On Public Institutions
Nor have public cultural institutions been immune from this process. Persistent squeezes on tax funding have forced them to seek alternative sources of income. Some have had to introduce entry charges or to charge for services that were once provided free. Commercial sponsorship has become a necessity for museums and galleries wishing to mount major exhibitions, and literary prizes increasingly feature corporate names.
But arguably the greatest impact has been on public broadcasters. The result has been an increasing reliance on co-production arrangements with commercial enterprises, a more aggressive stance toward selling finished programs and program formats overseas, and concerted efforts to maximize returns on program investment by marketing an expanding range of tie-in merchandise, from books and CDs to games and toys. In the process, the logic of commodification has come to influence not only creative decision-making but also the language through which the organization’s goals are described and justified. Maximizing value has increasingly come to mean maximizing monetary returns rather than maximizing the intrinsic use value of programs.
Opportunities Offered By The New Media
The Internet offers public media and cultural institutions an unrivalled opportunity to revivify their public service remit, expand their reach, and forge new relations with their users and audiences. Digitization enables them to release themselves from the limitations of physical geography and make their archives and expertise universally available. The faculty of MIT have voted to make their lecture notes freely available on the Internet. The BBC is experimenting with a plan to open up its program archive, employing a creative commons rights arrangement that allows users to download material at no cost and to employ and adapt it for educational or creative activity, providing that they do not then sell the results of their reconstructions. These extensions of the principle of public goods provision are only one aspect of the Internet’s potential to counter the onward march of commodification. The other is the explosion of vernacular and amateur cultural production.
This had always co-existed with commercialized provision. The period 1860 to 1919 saw a boom in amateur singing and playing around the piano but the growth of the record industry and radio in the 1920s tipped the balance away from performance. Amateur playing revived with the guitar’s emergence as the key rock, blues, and folk instrument, but unless they caught the eye of record company entrepreneurs, most performers achieved only local circulation. The Internet provides enlarged and potentially globalized spaces for the exchange of music and other areas of creativity, expertise, and experience outside of the price system. Contributors to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, or to the myriad popular recommendation and rating and video and photo posting sites, offer their material free of charge in the expectation that other users will contribute in turn.
These collaborative creations rooted in the principle of reciprocity offer a powerful alternative to the logic of commodification. In response, commercial companies are making strenuous efforts to co-opt the commitment underpinning peer-to-peer initiatives, buying up sites and mobilizing social online networks as sales forces. These extensions of commodification into new modes of communication have been accompanied by their entry into geographical areas from which they were previously excluded. The collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s turn toward markets have opened up huge new arenas of operation.
For the first time, capitalism approximates to the global system foreseen by Marx. Whether the logic of commodification that underpins it will continue to determine the overall organization of the communications and media system will depend not only on the ambitions of the major corporations that currently dominate the cultural industries, but also on the strength of the countervailing principles of public goods, reciprocity, sharing, and collaborative production.
- Binsbergen, W. M. J., & Geschiere, P. L. (eds.) (2006). Commodification: Things, agency and identities. Munster: Lit.
- Marx, K. (1969). Theories of surplus value, vol. 1. London. Lawrence and Wishart. (Original work published 1862).
- Murdock, G. (2001). Against enclosure: Rethinking the cultural commons. In D. Morley & K. Robins (eds.), British cultural studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 443 – 460.
- Young, J. R. (1997). An investigation of the theory of the commodity and its application to critical media studies. Boca Raton, FL: Universal.