The audience commodity is the main product produced by media that earn their primary revenues from advertisers. Traditionally, advertiser-supported media have included newspapers, magazines, and commercial forms of radio, broadcast television, and cable television. Advertiser-supported media are often contrasted with media whose primary sources of incomes are audiences: books, recorded music, and films. Depending on which source is the principal source of revenue, a media company will tailor its content to satisfy the demands of either advertisers or audiences.
In essence, the primary source of revenue functions as the proverbial customer exerting demand in the marketplace and thereby shaping the product. In theory, then, films should tell us more about what people want to see and television programs should tell us more about what advertisers think will increase the sales of their goods and services. For advertiser-supported media, the task is to assemble an audience commodity – that is, a group of persons to whom advertisers want to sell their wares (Advertising, Economics of ).
The implication is that advertisers will target consumers of brand-name products: people with the disposable income and access to the retail system who believe that brand names enhance their social status and who buy brand-name products both habitually and impulsively. Not targeted by advertisers are consumers who research products, identify products that are interchangeable (fungible) except for brand name, and make purchases on the basis of the lowest available price and fungibility. Such rational buyers are relatively unswayed by advertisers’ emotionally charged claims. This suggests that advertiser-supported media will not target rational consumers by providing content designed to attract them. This implication is quite significant for media that provide news, information, and analysis if, indeed, the audience commodity for such media is made up of irrational consumers.
From 1950 to the present, advertisers have increasingly narrowed the audience commodity in demographic terms. The most significant demographic categories describe youthful audience commodities: 18 –34 year olds, 12 –17 year olds, and 9 –14 year olds (the so-called “tween market”). These categories are further refined according to gender, social identities, and economic status. Typically, advertisers pay higher prices for youths who are male, white, and upscale. For example, in television, the audience commodity for which advertisers pay the highest price is comprised of white males who are 18 –34 years old, and living in upscale households that subscribe to cable. As that cluster of categories becomes naturalized into the target audience commodity, all other viewers are treated as specialty audience commodities. Among them are downscale viewers, women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and people older than 34 or younger than 12.
For companies that own advertiser-supported media, the principal economic challenge is to efficiently assemble content that will attract an audience commodity for sale to advertisers. In economic terms, the notion of efficiency has two important dimensions: the cost of assemblage should be as low as possible and the sale price should be as high as possible. That relationship insures that company profits will be high. In contrast, as active consumers of audience commodities, advertisers seek the highest quality and largest quantity of targeted audience commodities at the lowest price. These economic concerns shape the operations of firms that measure audience commodities.
Executives representing media companies, advertisers, and advertising agencies avoid publicly discussing the implications of the audience commodity for their operations. Instead, they claim that advertisers want to reach as many people as possible and so support media outlets that give audiences what they want and need. This view was (and is) often repeated by cultural scholars analyzing the symbols, images, narratives, etc. embodied by media artifacts.
Political economist Dallas Smythe (1977) argued that such a focus on ideology constituted a “blindspot” that drew attention away from the actual product manufactured by commercial media: the audience commodity. Content was the “free lunch” that lured people into spending time with media so that they could be packaged and sold to advertisers. The existence of the audience commodity was confirmed by information commodities like the A. C. Nielsen Company’s television ratings. Because the audience commodity was assembled in order to learn what products to buy, entertaining or educating the audience commodity was largely irrelevant. Audience members thus “performed essential marketing functions for the producers of commercial goods” (Smythe 1977, 000). Although unpaid, these activities were productive: they made sales for advertisers (Jhally 1982; Livant 1982).
Smythe provoked considerable debate. Graham Murdock (1978) posited that Smythe’s argument should be limited to purely commercial media and ought to recognize that the audience commodity could also use the cultural materials embodied in the free lunch. Responses noted the increasing commercialization across all media (Smythe 1978; Livant 1979), which intensified under deregulation (Meehan 2006). Research into the ratings industry demonstrated similar economic constraints on the manufacture of ratings, refining Smythe’s view of information commodities and confirming his main argument regarding audience commodities (Meehan 1993). Smythe’s contribution to the field’s understanding of media’s raison d’être as businesses continues to shape research.
- Jhally, S. (1982). Probing the blindspot: The audience commodity. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 6(1–2), 204 –210.
- Livant, B. (1979). The audience commodity. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 3(1), 91–106.
- Livant, B. (1982). Working at watching: A reply to Sut Jhally. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 6(1–2), 211–215.
- Meehan, E. R. (1993). Commodity audience, actual audience. In J. Wasko, V. Mosco, & M. Pendakur (eds.), Illuminating the blindspots: Essays honoring Dallas Smythe. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 378 –397.
- Meehan, E. R. (2006). Why TV is not our fault. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Murdock, G. (1978). Blindspots about western Marxism: A reply to Dallas Smythe. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 2(2), 109 –119.
- Smythe, D. (1977). Communications: Blindspot of western Marxism. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 1(3), 1–27.
- Smythe, D. (1978). Rejoinder to Graham Murdock. Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory, 2(2), 120 –129.