What do media institutions make?

If you are a professional communicator and you go to work in a media or cultural institution each day: what do you make?

One argument is that professional communicators make shared ways of life. For much of the twentieth century we might think of this industry as producing a narrative about what it means to live a ‘good life’. Moreover, it produces a group of people – a population, a society, a public, audiences – who enter into, desire and practice this ‘good life’. Here’s where some critically important power dynamics kick in.

If you create collective identities around shared ideas of a desirable good life, then you need to have a system that can deliver on those promises. If you make a house in the suburbs, a new car and a range of household gadgets desirable, then you need to make those things attainable for the majority of the population. Societies break down when they cannot deliver what they promise.

The media and cultural industries appear then to reflect back to us the ways of life we already want and are already living. Media don’t so much tell us what to do as much as they reflect back to us our own lives. They demonstrate to us how we are part of a larger collective.

Media is locked together with the industrial system. It makes desirable what is already accessible and available. Go and check out 1950s Coca-Cola advertisements. What these advertisements promise is the kind of society that 1950s mass society was delivering. You’ll see women delivering trays of ice-cold Coke or beer to men in suburban lounge rooms as they play cards or on back patios as they BBQ.

While the gender norms in these images are not desirable to us today, they did affirm the social relationships of the time.

The first episode of the TV drama Mad Men contains the famous Lucky Strike pitch scene. Mad Men is set in an advertising agency in New York in the 1960s. In this scene the agency pitches a campaign to Lucky Strike tobacco. The tobacco industry is concerned because they can no longer advertise cigarettes as a health product.

At the end of the pitch the ad creative Don Draper says:

If you can’t make those health claims neither can your competitors. This is the greatest opportunity since the invention of cereal. You have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes?

The lucky strike owner explains: grow, cut, toast.

Don writes ‘its toasted’ on the board.

Everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous, Lucky Strike’s is toasted. Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car, its freedom from fear, it’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you are doing it’s OK. You are OK.

The scene illustrates four important aspects of the work of professional meaning-makers and the media and cultural industries they work in.

Firstly, what we are watching is professional communicators who are experts in using symbolic power engage with the owners of enterprise who have economic power to respond to a political problem. Professional communicators help the industry maintain their economic power. Professional communicators helped tobacco shift cigarettes from being a health product to a cool lifestyle product. The tobacco industry maintain economic power by drawing on the symbolic power of the advertising industry. Meaning making affects how goods circulate. If I want to live the good life, I need to smoke cigarettes.

Professional communicators have the power to construct meanings. There are many identical products, they are the ones that embed them in different ways of life. Professional communicators work for other powerful groups in society: corporations, governments, and so on.

Secondly, professional communicators are astute observes of culture and society. They understand the complicated nature of making and circulating meaning. They understand you can’t tell people what to think, you need to construct a lifestyle that people identify with. Professional communicators are engaged in processes of observation and research that closely tracks what kinds of meanings and lifestyles are circulating in specific places and times. There is a back and forth between social life and the institutions that seek to shape society.

Thirdly, professional communicators generate a story about the good life. Don Draper says advertising is based on happiness, the smell of a new car, a bill board that says you are OK. Advertising reflects back to us our own lives and ideals. Media is critical to that process because of its capacity to capture information, store it, process it and convey meaning to huge populations.

Finally, Don Draper is a creative rule breaker. Creating meaning relies on granting meaning makers a degree of autonomy. Media organisations are characterised by the tensions between creative impulses and strategic imperatives. This is the ‘creative tension’ at the heart of meaning making in media institutions.

Notes | The quote from Jackson Lears is from Lears, J. (2009). Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920.  Harper Collins: New York | The Lucky Strike pitch is from Mad Men episode 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' (season 1, episode 1).