No industry exists without a product or service to offer to customers. For mass media organizations the product they offer is their content. The primary business of the mass media is to produce content – fill the broadcast hours, the print pages, the Internet site. Because of limits of time and space, selection of content is a necessary function. Mass media organizations have to make difficult decisions in evaluating their story options and determining which content to provide to an audience. Some stories never become “content” and are not exposed to a mass audience.
Many internal and external factors influence the mass media content decision-making process (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese 1996; Croteau & Hoynes 2001; Fortunato 2005). Primary among those factors is the economics of the industry. Advertisers are an essential external factor in any evaluation of the business aspects of the mass media because they generate all of the revenue for privately owned broadcast media and most of the revenue for the print and Internet media. The size and demographics of the audience help determine the amount of money that mass media organizations can charge advertisers. Because it is the audience determining the advertising rate, Wenner (1989, 22) points out “the content per se is not what is being sold; rather it is the audience for that content that is being sold to advertisers.”
Concerns About Commercial Influence
Because of this economic role, there is concern about the extent of advertisers’ influence dominating the content decision-making process (e.g., Shoemaker & Reese 1996; Croteau & Hoynes 2001; Jamieson & Campbell 2001). Jacobson and Mazur (1995, 206) contend “many producers, editors, and publishers alter or pull stories that might offend advertisers, write pieces expressly to appease or attract advertisers, avoid topics that create controversial ‘environments’ for advertising, and gear articles and programs to attract an audience that advertisers crave. In short, they often trade editorial integrity for the almighty ad dollar.” Picard (2004, 54) argues that “economic pressures are becoming the primary forces shaping the behavior of American newspaper companies” and this development is leading the “attention of newspaper personnel from journalism to activities primarily related to the business interests of the press.” He claims, “the result is that stories that may offend are ignored in favor of those more acceptable and entertaining to larger numbers of readers, that stories that are costly to cover are downplayed or ignored and that stories creating financial risks are ignored” (2004, 61).
Scholars argue that as a result of trying to deliver a mass audience to advertisers and not emphasize content that might lead to a reduction in audiences or advertisers, journalistic quality suffers (e.g., McQuail 2000; Jamieson & Campbell 2001). Croteau and Hoynes (2001, 27) claim “the consumers that media companies are responding to are the advertisers, not the people who read, watch, or listen to the media.”
Scholars emphasize that because the mass media play a prominent role in providing information in a democratic society, their operating in only the advertisers’ economic interests has negative consequences. Another chief concern is the continuing trend toward commercialization. As the media environment changes, so too will the advertising environment. Advertisers are always reacting to the audience’s media use and are developing their media placement strategies on the basis of audience behavior. With the technology of the DVR, Internet, cable television, and pay-per-view having made the audience more splintered, it is harder for advertisers to reach the large masses they were once easily able to, leading to more sponsorship and product placement initiatives. McAllister and Giglio (2005) claim there is a blurring of the distinction between program content and advertising.
Jacobson and Mazur (1995, 25) speak to the cultural concern of increased commercialization, claiming, “taken as a whole, the collective body of advertising sells a vision of the world, a way of life. Each ad is a parable that illuminates the same theme: All of life’s problems can be solved and happiness attained by buying things.” Schiller (1989) also spoke of the cultural impact of commercialization where advertising influence goes beyond simple economic support of culture industries (i.e., the mass media), and translates into the domain of support for ideas and images, and importantly who controls these ideas and images. According to Schiller, economic support through advertising becomes tantamount to support and validation for that entity and its existence within the culture. He contends that corporate speech is the “loudest in the land” (1989, 4).
Other scholars do not contend that the advertiser influence on media content is significant. For example, regarding advertising’s negative impact on democracy, Baron (2003, 67) comments, “it is a strange but powerful testament to the American democratic and market system to have one of its most important democratic institutions to be a resounding market success.”
Evidence On Advertisers’ Influence On Media Content
In evaluating the impact of commercialization, the question of what advertisers desire emerges. Advertisers pay large amounts of money because their investment guarantees them placement in the media outlet at the time and location desired, giving them access to the audience that participates in that mass media organization’s content. For that investment advertisers hope to achieve the following communication goals: (1) exposure to the desired target audience, (2) increase in product brand recall, and (3) increase in sales (e.g., Fortunato 2005).
The pivotal question thus becomes whether the achievement of these advertising goals necessitates control of the media content. It seems what the advertiser most desires is not necessarily to influence content, but simply to reach the largest possible numbers of its desired target audience as often as possible. In this philosophy, control or influence of media content is not a necessary condition for achievement of advertisement goals. Brants (1998) argues the evidence for the decline in journalistic quality and standard of media performance because of increased commercialization is not strong. To also support this idea, in a survey of network news correspondents from ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS Price (2003) asked if they felt any story influence from advertisers. She found that only 7 percent reported some advertiser pressure and 93.1 percent had never felt pressure from advertisers to report or not to report a story. No correspondents responded they were frequently pressured by advertisers to report or not to report a story, and only one respondent reported an occasional pressure of this sort from advertisers. With the purchase of advertising time well in advance, it is impossible for the advertisers who have bought time to know the exact topical content of that particular program or periodical. This also makes it difficult for the reporters, editors, or producers to tailor a story to fit the needs of an advertiser who they probably do not know has advertisements planned surrounding the content segments they are producing.
As evidence of advertiser influence on content, it has been pointed out that advertisers might pull out of certain media locations because they do not approve of the content (e.g., Jacobson & Mazur 1995; Richards & Murphy 1996). It is important to note that often such a pull-out is not a cancellation of the advertising contract with a mass media organization. Often the result of a conflict regarding content is a shifting of the location of the advertisement. If there is a conflict, an arrangement is made whereby there is a location or time shift and the advertiser will merely move its commercial to another segment of the television program or magazine, or possibly even to the next week’s issue or program. The fact that the financial commitment does not change, only the placement location of the advertisement, is an important point when evaluating the influence that advertisers have or even desire on the content decision-making process.
This time shifting of the advertisement within a magazine or even the shifting of a story to the following week’s broadcast is a minor adjustment and the editorial content of the mass media organization is not impacted at all. The tactic of time shifting, rather than completely pulling out of a program, is evidence that advertisers are not necessarily trying to intrude on the editorial process, but merely trying to use that media content vehicle to reach the audience. Time shifting does not conflict with the advertisers’ need for exposure to the audience or with the mass media organization’s editorial decision-making or their need for revenue.
The role of advertisers in the mass media industry is clear from an economic standpoint, as they provide the revenue to the mass media organization. For many scholars this arrangement allows for a clear connection to these advertisers strictly influencing and dictating media content decisions. To others what advertisers most desire is exposure of their brand to the audience, not necessarily control of the content. Therefore, the relationship between mass media organizations and advertisers does not appear to necessitate interference into the editorial aspects of content decision-making, as that level of influence is not a prerequisite for advertisers achieving their communication goals.
The arguments of many theorists that the mass media organizations are only trying to please advertisers is a little misleading in that advertisers most want an audience, particularly a desired target audience that might buy their product. Advertisers pay the mass media organizations and invest in locations only if that content delivers an audience. It is a large audience that generates advertising revenue and a profit for the mass media organization. If the mass media organizations are all about profits, they have to attract an audience – no audience, no advertisers, no profits. McQuail (2000, 105) points out that “the critique of commercialism is particularly difficult to reconcile with the redemption of the popular, since popularity is usually a condition of commercial success.” As Richards and Murphy (1996, 29) summarize, advertising “space or time is worthless without readers, listeners, or viewers.” They add, “a medium is only beneficial to advertisers if consumers use it, and consumers will not use a medium if they are unhappy with its content” (1996, 30).
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- Brants, K. (1998). Who’s afraid of infotainment? European Journal of Communication, 13(3), 315 –336.
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- McAllister, M. P., & Giglio, J. M. (2005). The commodity flow of U.S. children’s television. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 22(1), 26 – 44.
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- Picard, R. G. (2004). Commercialism and newspaper quality. Newspaper Research Journal, 25(1), 54 – 65.
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- Richards, J. I., & Murphy, J. H. (1996). Economic censorship and free speech: The circle of communication between advertisers, media, and consumers. Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 18(1), 21– 34.
- Schiller, H. I. (1989). Culture, Inc.: The corporate takeover of public expression. New York: Oxford University Press.
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- Wenner, L. A. (1989). Media, sports, and society: The research agenda. In L. A. Wenner (ed.), Media, sports, and society. Newbury Park: Sage, pp. 13 – 48.