Monday 16th October 2017,
Televisual

Who Made It and Why? A Market-Centered Critique of Representation

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:

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

4 Comments

  1. mpg February 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    ajc —

    Can you help me understand why the “market made me do it” rationale is exempt from identity-based critiques of representations? It would seem to me that to reduce a representation to the economic context of its production is as problematic as to ignore it altogether. After all, don’t identities have different cash values–whether we’re talking romantic lead vs. character actor, blonde vs. brunette, all-American vs. its deviations.

    I am excited to see an understanding of “who made it and why” that speaks to the _aspirations_ of the producers. You make such important points about their constraints, but I think it is just as valuable to think about the cultural materials that they before them. Producers are attempting to tell coherent stories. To do so, they have to draw upon or tap into recognizable figures and narratives, right? In that sense, the text of the representation is out of their hands, anyway, and their intentions, good or ill, matter little at the point of reception.

    BTW, have you read Phil Harper on _Paris is Burning_? It can be a bit dense, but I think it’s worth it as one way to analyze that treats identities as themselves part of the economics of cultural production.

  2. filmfledgling February 8, 2011 at 4:10 am

    Another thought provoking post, love your work 😉

    I agree that the market/economics of a project should be considered when critiquing it (my favorite film critics are able to do that anyway), but ultimately the producer(s) must take credit/blame/responsibility for the social impact of the representations/images being put forth… but then, that begs the question, what is the social impact of a particular production, and how do you measure that impact if not in economic terms?

  3. AJ February 21, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Hi MPG! Sorry I missed replying to your comment. Yes, everyone draws from basically the same cultural well. My issue is most critiques of representation imply intent — perhaps the best don’t — if only because critiquing the way something “is” implies a way it “should be” or “could be,” which is a question as much about broader cultural discourses as about the resources available to producers.

    I’m biased here, and am admittedly fueled by a fear of ‘picking on the little guy’ that I think many minorities have, especially minority cultural producers. Anyone who’s produced anything without resources knows there are shortcuts and compromises you make, many times made regardless of/in contradiction to your cultural biases. And in that vein I’d love to talk about Livingston, myself and what I’ve heard from other producers in private.

    Clearly this is a think-piece, and the idea isn’t completely mature. For one, I’m focusing more scripted content, which are more deliberately constructed and where producers are assumed to have greater control. For another, I’ve yet to tackle *how* theories change when considering practice, but I’m not a theoretical purist and think nuance is rarely for naught. If there’s no space for nuance in criticism, then I honestly don’t know the point of the practice.