For years I and other scholars have noticed a problem in media studies: too many critiques don’t take production and marketing into account.
Last week, the Internet gave me case #4,125: the gay Dorito’s “Super Bowl” ads.
At the end of January, gay groups and conservative groups alike were outraged by two ads presumably from Doritos that toyed with male-on-male desire. We’ve seen these ads before for the Super Bowl; they mix fears of same-sex attraction with turning it into a joke. It’s an annual tradition.
Except! As AfterElton pointed out, these ads weren’t for the Super Bowl and weren’t created by a major ad agency. They were entrants in a contest for Super Bowl ads. “But they’re not even finalists,” AE’s Brent Hartinger notes. “There’s nothing many readers like so much as a fat, high-profile, very-simple-to-understand “controversy” they can spout off about, even if it’s not an actual controversy, just a completely manufactured one.”
No More Down Low, a black gay web show whose host I profiled awhile ago, caught up with the black actor in one of the commercials (video above), who gave the low down on the production.
Among the numerous problems the ad generated was its portrayal of black masculinity and, um, “size.”
But as the actor explains above: he was cast not for his race but his size — and his friendship with the director — who had no budget because it’s not a Super Bowl ad.
What’s my point? We have to take production and marketing into account when critiquing media images.
There’s a difference between an independent company with no money for casting, set design, script doctoring, editing services or market research and a large company (network, advertiser, studio) who is much more calculated in how it produces and markets its films, books, TV series and, yes, advertisements.
As someone who studies niche media (web series) and often interviews producers with little or no budget, I think about this all the time. Casting is among the biggest issues. Independent productions often cast friends or the few people who are willing to work without pay. Is it possible to do critique of racial representation on such productions? Maybe, but not with the same tone. And it doesn’t stop at casting. A story might not be the most PC or progressive, but without script doctors, market research firms and multiple screenings (and re-shoots, re-edits) in advance of the release, how much room do we have to critique it?
Current theories for critiquing representation — especially for visual media — arise from critiques of mass media industries, when companies were aiming to get the broadest, mainstream audience and had a lot of money to do it.
But in an increasingly niche-driven economy, such models fail to capture the nuances of how media are produced and marketed, not to mention the complex relationship between indie producers and big companies. Something that looks like it’s from NBC could have just a tiny production team behind it; an ad for Doritos could be upscale user-generated content.
We need to start asking more questions of the media we write about.
And, of course, I’m not reinventing the wheel here. What I would call a “market-centered critique of representation” has also been called the “political economy of representation.” (That phrase emphasizes mass production, though, and power.) Scholars like Larry Gross have called for an attention to the “of, by, for” of media: who made it (by whom), who is it made for and what is its object (of whom is it about). Jersey Shore, for example, is a show of young people, made by MTV/Viacom, for young people. The ads below were of gay people, made by independent producers, for corporate approval. And of course those questions don’t always have simple answers (does MTV really “make” Jersey Shore or does the cast? Who has more power? Etc., etc.).
A “market-centered critique of representation” asks the same questions and employs a sensitivity to what markets a piece of media is participating in, and how much control, power and capital it has to participate in it.
Some market-centered questions would be:
How much (and with what resources) was it made for?
Whom was it made for?
What cultural conceptions/biases is it channeling?
How powerful/significant are they?
Where is it being shown? (And how much did it cost to be shown?)
How many people are seeing it? Who is seeing it?
How are people reacting to it?
It is simply not possible to evaluate a primetime network series the same way we do a web series. Or a real, expensive Super Bowl ad versus a cheap one made for a contest or the web.
A little nuance might take us to new and interesting places.
Here are the two ads in question: