Politainment refers to the blending of politics and entertainment into a new type of political communication. The portmanteau word is composed of “politics” and “entertainment,” analogously to the term infotainment. As well as infotainment, which is used as a label for a specific television program type, the term “politainment” denotes, in a broader sense, the entangling of political actors, topics, and processes with the entertainment culture. According to Dörner (2001), two different, though interrelated forms (or levels) of politainment may be distinguished: entertaining politics and political entertainment. Both take advantage of the mass media’s potential to attract wide audiences and to create celebrity. Politainment may be seen as resulting from an increasing mediatization and professionalization of politics that characterize modern democracies. Governments, parties, and politicians cope with these developments by adapting to the media logic, particularly to the selection criteria and presentation formats of television.
Entertaining politics serves political actors to get media access in order to enhance their public images and to promote political issues. This is quite obvious during election campaigns, when, for example, party conventions are staged by movie directors mimicking the dramaturgy of pop concerts, and when political candidates appear on popular television talk shows. Politicians presenting themselves in an entertainment setting, exposing their personal characteristics and private lives, are catering especially to voters with little interest in politics.
A certain type of politainment exploits for political purposes the popularity of showbiz celebrities. This is the case when pop stars engage in politics, endorse political candidates, or even move into political offices. For example, well-known singers such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as bands such as the Clash, Rage Against the Machine, and Public Enemy, are known for expressing political viewpoints. Others, like Bono and Bob Geldof, seek publicity in the context of world economic forums or G8 summits in order to advocate political goals. Famous movie stars like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger gained top political office in the United States and thus succeeded in transmuting popularity into political influence. Silvio Berlusconi’s career took him from solo entertainer to Italian prime minister, after having been successful in the television business. The Berlusconi case exemplifies how commanding television entertainment can be transformed into political power.
Political entertainment, a somewhat different type of politainment, refers to political topics in various entertainment formats of popular music, film, and television. The entertainment industry tends to exploit the world of politics with its sometimes interesting personalities, prestigious figures, and exciting scandals. Movies and television plays take up political matters as raw material for drama or satire plots, as illustrated by movies such as Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, and by serials like West Wing and Yes, Prime Minister. Late-night television, following the model of NBC’s Tonight Show (made famous by Johnny Carson) and now well established in many countries, presents political issues and celebrities in an entertaining format mixed with showbiz and comedy. It is assumed that Jay Leno’s Tonight Show had a decisive role in promoting Schwarzenegger’s candidacy for governorate of California.
This example illustrates quite well the symbiotic relationship between politics and entertainment. Politainment offers political actors effective means for reaching the public and pursuing political goals and, in exchange, provides the entertainment industry with celebrity figures and exciting stories. As a result, politics appears entertaining while public affairs enter popular media, so that the distinction between fact and fiction erodes. The Clinton–Lewinsky scandal and its media coverage are perhaps the best-known example of the blurring line between hard news and tabloid-style entertainment (Carpini & Williams 2001).
Politainment seems to serve political functions, as it brings political actors and issues to the attention of a wide and partly apolitical audience and may thus stimulate political participation and contribute to agenda-setting processes. The legendary Live Aid and Live 8 concerts reached millions of people worldwide and directed public attention to famine and poverty in the third world. The Live Earth concerts in 2007 followed this model to promote the issue of global warming. There is empirical evidence that the strategy of using entertainment as a vehicle for political matters is successful, particularly in media environments such as the US, dominated by entertainment formats and soft news (Baum & Jamison 2006). Van Zoonen (2005) draws a parallel between engaged citizens and the behavior of fans of popular music, claiming that entertainment makes citizenship pleasurable. Politainment may stimulate interpersonal communication and Internet interaction, give an emotional access to the world of politics, and thus strengthen political values.
More often, however, politainment is regarded as a problematic development, criticized for downgrading civic culture and for contributing to political cynicism. Politainment as a communication strategy designed by political marketing specialists is suspected of leading to excessive personalization, even “celebritization,” of politics and of fostering political populism. Staging political events as spectacles and presenting politics through the art forms of popular culture may create a fake picture of the political reality, a political “fantasyland” (Nimmo & Combs 1983), impeding rather than advancing citizens’ understanding and deliberation of politics.
- Baum, M. A., & Jamison, A. S. (2006). The Oprah effect: How soft news helps inattentive citizens vote consistently. Journal of Politics, 68, 946–959.
- Carpini, M. X., & Williams, B. A. (2001). Let us infotain you: Politics in the new media environment. In L. W. Bennett & R. M. Entman (eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, pp. 160–181.
- Dörner, A. (2001). Politainment: Politik in der medialen Erlebnisgesellschaft [Politainment: Politics as part of the mediated event society]. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
- Edelman, M. (1988). Constructing the political spectacle. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
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- Nieland, J-U., & Kamps, K. (eds.) (2004). Politikdarstellung und Unterhaltungskultur: Zum Wandel der politischen Kommunikation [Politics and entertainment culture: Political communication in transition]. Cologne: H. v. Halem.
- Nimmo, D., & Combs, J. E. (1983). Mediated political realities. New York: Longman.
- Street, J. (2006). Politics and popular culture, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Blackwell.
- Van Zoonen, L. (2005). Entertaining the citizen: When politics and popular culture converge. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.