Bill Moyers interviews communications experts about how the power of visual imagery in advertising challenges the notion of truth and shapes the way people view the world and themselves.
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NEIL POSTMAN, New York University: The environment created by language and the printed word has now been moved to the periphery of the culture, especially the printed word. And at its center, the image is taking over. Mostly the television image. But not only the television image. This is a culture that is inundated with visual imagery.
BILL MOYERS: Posters, billboards —
NEIL POSTMAN: Posters, advertising, the works
MARK CRISPIN MILLER, Johns Hopkins University: So, you’re flipping through a magazine, or you’re flipping through the channels, and these images just kind of flash onto your consciousness. That’s really all it takes, you see. ‘Cause you’re not meant to really scrutinize these things, you see. Once you do scrutinize them, then you can see just how destructive and inhumane this pitch has finally become.
HERBERT SCHILLER, University of California, San Diego: The images are the basis of our daily decisions, and our expectations and the way we view the world and how we think we should be in it, how our family, children, our close ones all of these kinds of relationships are not just affected, but most intimately managed by what our sense of what are the ways things should be done. These images create the patterns of what our behavior is going to be.
STUART EWEN, Hunter College, City University of New York: I think one of the things that people do when they create images around them is that they’re ascribing meaning to their existence. I think what happens within our culture is that those images that we produce for ourselves, insofar as we do that, their validity is almost always dependent upon their ability to be transformed into merchandise. In the process, of course, the meaning which may have driven us to create that image is lost.
BILL MOYERS: From our skyline to the subways, from the department store to newsstands, mass-produced images fill our everyday world and our innermost lives. They shape our private thoughts and the public mind. What are these images saying to us and about us, and why should we care?
I’m Bill Moyers. The mass producing and consuming of images has transformed the way you and I see and understand the world. In politics, in business, in journalism the visual media have taken center stage, shaping the public mind with powerful tools of fiction that both please and deceive. Dramatic visual effects, synthetic dreams, counterfeit emotions, preconceived spontaneity. Public life is a media show.
We could sit back and enjoy it if the stakes were not so high, but the stakes are our sense of meaning and language, our ideas of history, democracy and citizenship and our very notions of beauty and truth. Every age has had its graven images, but never before have human beings possessed such power to create as many different forms of unreality or the technology to reach so deeply with it into our consciousness.
Our most prolific visual form is the commercial. The average American, we’re told, sees more than 32,000 a year. Commercials now shape the way our politicians think and the way we get our news. Seeing is believing. A picture is worth a thousand words. And, of course, the camera never lies.
With the invention of the photograph a century ago, the great American essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that we were moving into a time when the image would become more important than the object itself, when appearance would be preferred to reality, and it would be ever harder to know the truth. He should see us now.
NEIL POSTMAN, New York University: We have recognized reputable ways of judging the relative truth or falsity of statements.
BILL MOYERS: Neil Postman teaches communication theory at New York University and writes about the impact of mass media on social behavior. With his students he explores how images challenge traditional ways of deciding whether an argument is true or false.
NEIL POSTMAN: We have means, to use a phrase from Bertrand Russell, he talks about, we need defenses against the seductions of eloquence. But we know more or less how to do that, how to deal, how to analyze with what people say to us. We know how to measure the truth and falsity of something.
Now, let’s take a McDonald’s commercial. And we see a young father taking his 6-year-old daughter into McDonald’s, and they’re eating a cheeseburger, and they’re ecstatic. Well, question: Is that true or false? Is the picture; is the image true or false? Well, the words don’t seem to apply to that sort of thing. That just is. I mean, we don’t we can’t there’s no way to assess that the way we assess statements, linguistic utterances.
And so we now build up a whole world of imagery, where basically we’re out of the realm of logic, and perhaps into the realm of esthetics. You either like Ronald Reagan or you don’t. You either like McDonald’s or you don’t. But you can’t talk about their truth or falsity. So we now need a different kind of defense against the seductions of eloquence.
PHOTO RETOUCHER: The eyelashes have to be more defined and cleaner looking. The loose hairs in this area here they want taken out. They want a –
BILL MOYERS: Images seduce us with visions of perfection. Here at Hy Zazula’s photo retouching studio in New York, photographs are altered to realize the ideal.
PHOTO RETOUCHER: Change the color of the earring to blue to match the other one.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] By the time this Revlon ad appears in print, eye bags and neck wrinkles will be gone. Almost all photographs that appear in mass circulation magazines are retouched in some way.
PHOTO RETOUCHER: The client doesn’t like the fingernails.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] It’s all part of the process of manipulating reality that begins when the photographer composes, lights and filters a shot. Now computers have given us a new power to create images.
MAN AT KEYBOARD: The famous floating car ad.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Through digital technology the elements can be arranged, rearranged, reduced, expanded, colored and refined to construct what in this case will be a car ad.
MAN AT KEYBOARD: Okay, maybe I should reduce them a little bit.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] News organizations change the photographs, too. Recently the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran this picture of the amateur photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize in photography. The picture editor decided to eliminate a Coca Cola can from the coffee table, causing a bit of a stir. If one purpose of journalism is to give us a picture of reality, is this journalism once the picture is altered? Just what is reality?
Soon after the camera was invented 150 years ago, the photograph was considered legal reality. Then the power of the picture to move human emotion was discovered by documentary photographers at the turn of the century. Lewis Hine in particular believed that if you could show people the true conditions of misery and of exploitation they would be moved to change those conditions. And it is that ethos, capturing reality with an image that communicates through feelings, that has inspired our most memorable documentary and news photographers.
Throughout our century we have witnessed such a proliferation of photographic images that they often seem to overwhelm us. Image-makers counter by increasing the intensity. Nowhere is this more potent than in advertising’s appropriation of the photograph.
STUART EWEN: People’s-experience of the photograph in particular is largely that what they are seeing is reality. And, I mean, it’s like Oliver Wendell Holmes talking about the photograph being able to skin the world and yet still be real. In other words, the photograph is able to separate aspect, image from mailer and yet at the same time, even though it’s immaterial it has a sort of claim to reality. So I think it’s an extremely persuasive language.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Stuart Ewen is chairman of the communications department at Hunter College in New York. In his books on the history of mass culture, especially in his recent All Consuming Images, he explores how the production of sumptuous images shape our notions of personal identity and our way of life.
STUART EWEN: One of the things that makes looking at, say, images in contemporary American society so interesting is that because of the relationship between the creative arts and commerce, and the fact that the image is most often designed to sell something, then one of the things that we have is the situation continually where images have built into them a strategy of persuasion. And where if you sit around with people in an idea session at an advertising agency or a network television program, or in an editorial room at a newspaper or wherever, the idea of persuading an audience, the idea of gathering a constituency through the use of the media is an acceptable norm. There is a great deal of very detailed analysis of the way they want something to look in order to provoke a certain kind of behavior on the part of the buyer.
WOMAN: What I think goes wrong I do like the body suit, but I think the context is wrong. And 1think the guy’s all wrong. I think he looks like her- sort of the delivery man —
ANTHEA DISNEY, Editor-In-Chief, “Self” Magazine: He looks like her trainer. I don’t know. It somehow disturbs me. There’s something kind of — she looks like a stripper. Looks like [crosstalk]
[interviewing] When you choose an image you’re choosing more than just a pretty face or a great body. You’re choosing an entire person. And with that person there are implicit messages. Part of the implicit message is a demographic. You’re looking at a woman and you’re making judgments you’re not even aware of about the social class she belongs to, the education she had, the kind of person she might be married to, the kind of conversation she might have if you had dinner with her. They’re not things you think about when you look at a magazine cover, but they’re the implicit messages which become part of that process of either buying or not buying a magazine.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Anthea Disney was hired in 1988 as Editor-in-Chief of Self magazine, part of the Conde Nast group of magazines that includes Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle and Brides.
ANTHEA DISNEY: We do a lot of demographic studies which tell us who the readers themselves are. They’re primarily in their late 20s, although there are some younger ones and some older ones. They are women who are onto their second or third job, some are managerial, some are a little lower. They’re achievers. So you caught them with stories or interesting ideas, with trends, with things that obviously are applicable to that group of women. But you also caught them with images. You caught them with reflecting themselves back to themselves.
EDITORS: Yeah, does this work? If there were another shot. Yeah, I think /crosstalk] I like that very much, too.
MAN: Plus, just that umbrella in the comer looks so great.
WOMAN: Yeah. The position.
ANTHEA DISNEY: Yeah, what I love is the message to the Self woman that, you know, she probably does take a bus to work if she lives in the city. She’s probably not able to afford a cab every day. But at the same time, you know, you can look pulled together, you can carry the umbrella and it can all work for you. It’s not the message of, you know, we expect them to live in limousines and taxis. It’s the real life message, which I think is important.
MAN: Well, the bag looks businesslike, too.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] At this meeting several editors of Self magazine are selecting pictures for what is considered an editorial piece in the magazine. But since it’s it fashion piece it also functions as advertising.
STUART EWEN: Most ordinarily within advertising the appeal is to feelings and, as I said, discourages thought. I think, by the way, that unfortunately that’s true, even of those media which ostensibly claim to be informational, that one of the sort of within or under the rubric of the commercial imperative, one of the things that image-makers have learned is that the most persuasive form particularly in the very sort of expensive thing called time on a medium like television is one which touches sort of basic primal kinds of feelings.
BILL MOYERS: You mention primal. Didn’t primitive people use images to convey their understanding of the world?
STUART EWEN: Well, one of the things which makes people people is that they act upon their world. And they represent their world, and they depict their world. And I would go even further, and that is to say all people make those images sacred. It’s part of this thing called human culture. It’s part of the nature of human community~ So there’s no question that people throughout history and pre-history began to make a mark upon the world which was not purely utilitarian and instrumental, but which was a way of depicting and looking at and saying something about their world. .
BILL MOYERS: How have images changed then?
STUART EWEN: Well, I think one of the things that people do when they create images around them is that they’re ascribing meaning to their existence. I think what happens within our culture is that those images that we produce for ourselves insofar as we do that, their validity is almost always dependent upon their ability to be transformed into merchandise. In the process, of course, the meaning which may have driven us to create that image is lost.
[film clip commercial]
BILL MOYERS: Millions of us, young and old, delighted in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters o/the Third Kind and E.T., movies that used mythic images to evoke the wonder which opens life to questions of faith and mystery. It’s our human nature to invest profane things with sacred meaning, to use images for calling the soul upward.
But what happens to the mythic imagination, to the notion that you and I are created in the image of God when advertising turns the image in another direction? Toward the sale instead of salvation? The commercial becomes the communion wafer of the marketplace. And the images our artists create gain significance only when they’re bought and sold.
[voice-over] The mass production of images is a dynamic process that uses art and artists for the creation of boundless illusions in a materialistic world. Any image ever made, sacred or profane, can be produced wholesale and used for any purpose, particularly to sell things.
Few have seen this more clearly than the late Andy Warhol. His images are the stained glass windows of consumer culture. He made icons of mass-produced commodities like Campbell’s Soup cans and mass-produced images like Marilyn Monroe, as if they were the same. In the end his art became commerce, too. A Manhattan department store recently used images of Warhol art to sell suits and jewelry. Warhol was uncanny. He knew that the world of images creates a reality of its own. He knew that we, too, could become images.
STUART EWEN: One of the things that happens within a society where we are continually having mass images paraded before our eyes television, film, newspapers, magazines, the whole phenomenon of celebrity is that in a world where many people feel very insignificant and anonymous and unseen and unimportant, one of the main ways that we have access to being important is to become an image. Pan of the ways in which we distinguish between people who are important and people who are not important is that those people who are known and seen, who are in fact, who do become images, that becomes the measure of their importance.
The imagery appears to be the way in to becoming someone. And I think, by the way, the primary argument that advertising makes that the whole celebrity system tends to make that much of the media makes is that you can become an image if you only follow the right instructions, if you only do the right things, if you dress for success. If you do what you need to do, you, too, can enter into the spectacle.
ANN KAPLAN, SUNY Stonybrook: Remember the look-alike Madonna contest where the one who looked most like Madonna won a whole lot of things. And won a lot of TV time MTV time, in particular. And then there were look-alike shows, slots, where people were — do a look-alike Prince, do a look-alike Michael Jackson.
MICHAEL JACKSON IMPERSONATOR: When you’re doing Michael you have to think Michael and become Michael at the time.
ANN KAPLAN: So I think there’s this way of saying, “What would it be like to be Madonna?” or “How would I be better than me if I were Madonna?” And it’s sort of a very close, I think, inviting, of the image. I mean, teenagers, if you’ve seen their rooms, not only do they look at the videos on MTV and listen to them also on radios in their bedrooms, but they have the walls plastered with huge blowups of the rock stars.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Ann Kaplan directs the Humanities Institute at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. She frequently writes about film and television. But her recent book, Rocking Around the Clock, explores the culture of music videos.
ANN KAPLAN: They often do it in certain phases, sort of plaster themselves with this other’s image. And in some sense try to be this image.
How you look, what your look is which means standing outside yourself and looking at how you look is the most important thing about many of us today. And I think very much a way that teen-agers kind of think of themselves is, “Have I got the look?”
STUART EWEN: People who sort of follow the road towards becoming an image which is, you know, a very powerful form of acclaim are continually caught in a situation where they’re measuring themselves up against the images which they see. Which by definition tend to invite invidious comparison. And, of course, the problem is the self is lost in the middle of this.
ANTHEA DISNEY: I hear a lot of people condemning the media for choosing images which are sexual, for choosing images which they seem to feel are increasingly sexual. And while I would say it is true that you are seeing women who have fuller bodies in both advertisements and in magazines and on TV and videos, I think a big piece of this comes from the fact that real women out there have chosen to buy those images, and have chosen that they want to look that way.
You only have to look at, for instance, the number of women in this country who have breast implants, the women who have their bottoms made higher and bigger and rounder, the women who have lip implants to get them big, luscious lips. Women somehow feel ready to be more luscious. And I think what the media is doing is responding as fast as they can to that.
ROCHELLE UDEL, Conde Nast: In order to create their own identity and to recreate their image and reinvent themselves, almost moment-by-moment today, because there are no roles for how they have how they should be, women are looking more toward the magazines.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] As second-in-command at Conde Nast, Rochelle Udel helps to design the look of all the magazines. She’s been art director of Vogue and Esquire, and she’s worked in advertising with Calvin Klein and Jerry Della Femina.
ROCHELLE UDEL It’s a life fantasy, so to speak. I mean, if we really showed what was really going on, I think people might be a little discouraged or put off. I get to see that every day. People are spending a lot of time investing in their images, investing in the labels that they wear, or don’t wear. The color of their hair, the cut of their hair. When you’re not wearing makeup you’re making one statement. When you’re wearing makeup you’re making another statement. And people have become very aware of the signals that they’re sending out by all Of this and the power that those signals have. So people are customizing themselves now. And that’s been very, very interesting.
STUART EWEN: A lot of what all of this is about is about the construction of a front, which will, in fact, be a sort of viable, sellable front for public consumption, which often is constructed at the expense of who one is..
Those kinds of relationships between who one is in society and the styles with which one surrounds oneself are very powerful, even in much of the world today. And so clearly what we have is a democracy of images. That is to say, for the proper cash price we live in a world of images which is available to anyone.
BILL MOYERS: You have a wonderful illustration here in your book. It’s the Bijan ad. Here are all of these Chinese communists wearing the same uniform, and here’s Bijan saying, “In a democracy you can be different because you can look different.”
STUART EWEN: Well, I think that in a world where government is becoming big, where production and wealth and finance are becoming bigger and bigger, and where, in fact, decision-making is becoming more and more consolidated within small groups it is in the realm of images and the availability of images that are a sort of play of democracy has sort of played itself out. That democracy begins to be understood as consumer choice over a given variety of goods, and is less and less about people, in fact, taking the process of history in their own hands, political processes in their own hands.
BILL MOYERS: Citizens historically are people who can help shape the destiny of their society, whereas consumers can simply buy what they want to.
STUART EWEN: And I think we found ourselves in a situation in, sort of an interesting one if we have an ear for language where the term consumer has become a substitute for the term citizen. Nobody talks about citizens anymore.
ANNOUNCER: > What are concerned citizens saying about Tropicana Twister?
“CONCERNED CITIZEN”: Sounds a little peculiar to me.
ANNOUNCER: Enticing flavors like orange-cranberry.
“CONCERNED CITIZEN”: Mercy!
“CONCERNED CITIZEN”: Mercy!
ANNOUNCER: And orange-raspberry.
“CONCERNED CITIZEN”: What, no kiwi?
ANNOUNCER: Tropicana Twister, flavors Mother Nature never intended.
“CONCERNED CITIZEN”: For sure.
BILL MOYERS: Once upon a time the idea of concerned citizen embodied the notion of free men and women thinking and acting for ourselves and taking part together in the civic life of our nation. But for millions and millions of Americans today representative democracy is nothing but the representation of democracy. Politics ends with consuming images.
One visitor to America noted the mass-producing of ready-made ideas, the divorce of politics from everyday life and the declining turnout of voters. And he concluded that Americans are now a permanent audience waiting to be amused. They look on more and more and join in less and less. In the marketplace, as in politics, our basic right as consumers has become the right to pick a product from an endless stream of prefabricated images. The rust designers of the consumer society realized that not only labor and technology, but images, too, would have to be managed. So the market has become the heart of the visual experience.
ANNOUNCER: This is a widget.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Earlier this century when PR and advertising were emerging as industries, their practitioners described their work as consumer engineering.
ANNOUNCER: And all the customers take the widgets home to all parts of the country.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Major corporations like GM produced dozens of films touting the benefits of industrial design. What later we would know as “the shaping of everyday life with the marketplace in mind.”
ANNOUNCER: Our homes acquire new grace, new glamour, new accommodations, expressing not only the American love of beauty, but also the basic freedom of the American people which is the freedom of individual choice.
ANNOUNCER: From electricity comes progress.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Television carried the images of products into what Stuart Ewen called “the eye’s mind.” Famous actors were often hired as voices of authority.
RONALD REAGAN: Good evening. I am Ronald Reagan speaking for General Electric.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Today we take for granted a total environment of advertising. But we had to be sold on this, too.
ANNOUNCER: Along the 122 miles of major boulevards, there you’ll find strategically located poster panels.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Some industry films touted the value of the new landscape of images. In 1988 corporations spent $110 billion on TV and print advertising, not only selling their products and images, but shaping through PR our popular rituals of culture.
ANNOUNCER: Here is the General Telephone Company of California…
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Almost everywhere we look today creative expression serves a commercial goal.
ANNOUNCER: American Honda sends an extraterrestrial greeting —
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The recent bonanza of mergers and acquisitions has reached the media industries, too, including advertising and public relations. The mass production of images has followed the trend toward concentrated ownership and control.
NEWSCASTER: the marriage will bring together two giants to form a mega company, Time-Warner.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This trend is the subject of a new book by media scholar Herbert Schiller, who teaches at the University of California al San Diego. His book is called Culture Incorporated.
HERBERT SCHILLER, University of California, San Diego: Concentration, of course, has progressed in all these other areas, but it has now moved at an accelerating tempo into this image and informational sphere, which is not the same as making steel, or not the same as making oil, or not the same as flour milling, baking or these other areas, Now, all of that other concentration had profound consequences for the work force and for the continuous expansion, or sometimes cycles of depression that happened. But now we’re talking about the making of the things that constitute consciousness. And when you begin to concentrate that, and when you begin to have these vast, what you can only call, factories of image-making. Factories, factories of cultural symbols. I mean, Time-Warner represents $15-$18 billion of assets. I figure that’s so far beyond our comprehension, but that’s all tied up in magazines, in cable companies, in book publishing, in special services like Home Box Office. So I’m saying we have had most of our understanding filled in with imagery, which is acceptable to, palatable to this far more dominant corporate system in this society.
BILL MOYERS: You use an example in your book that’s interesting to me. Walt Disney spends $45 million to make Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And then they spend another $10 million on ads to promote it. Then Coca Cola and McDonald’s get involved. They spend millions of dollars to try to link Roger Rabbit to Diet Coca Cola and Big Macs.
HERBERT SCHILLER: Taken by itself there’s nothing that one could find that’s exceptional about it. But it’s a practice that extends through the entire social arena. This is just a good illustration of it. Now, what does it represent at least as I view it? It represents a fact that you have a complete unidimensionality of imagery and so —
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that? .
HERBERT SCHILLER: By that I mean — let’s say kids. It doesn’t have to be kids, it could be adults, of course. But whoever gets swept up by this begins to have as the entire perimeter of their consciousness the imagery of Roger Rabbit taking this particular example —
BILL MOYERS: As a wonderful character in the movie.
HERBERT SCHILLER: Wonderful character in the movie. But then you see that same image either on a mug, on a tee-shirt, related to the plate on which you’re getting your hamburger, somehow or other connected to the time you take your Coke. And so in a sense I think this just constantly compresses, constantly reduces the range of imagination.
It may not be the most serious of all of these things. Because it also extends the power of these groups that have this enormous control to focus our attention into these relatively few kinds of images. I would say on the individual basis we’re absorbed by these kinds of package ideas and images, and all of that becomes a son of a continuously sealing off of a larger sensibility.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This video by Prince for the Batman movie illustrates Schiller’s notion of the vicarious imagination. Someone else creates our fantasies for us. Music videos have fulfilled the ultimate TV fantasy. The program is the commercial. The rock group sells and stars. The advertisement is the entertainment.
ANNOUNCER: You may have MTV.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] MTV, while pioneering rock videos as total programming. also pioneered the selling of commercial time on a channel that is all commercials.
ANNOUNCER: See MTV on a TV set you like to watch.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The product is the image. Stylistically music videos have had an enormous influence on the rest of film and TV. Yet the rock video directors draw on a media world itself for inspiration and content. So the experience is circular. Music videos project a world consumed with visual symbols and a world learned through the visual images that consume it.
ANN KAPLAN: The cars you might think is was very early started this. And perhaps is the best compendium of a video that pulls together images from a Renee Magritte surrealism through to King Kong and Hollywood movies. And it plays with the image “amaze me.”
There’s a Bryan Adams video, “Heaven,” where you see the star on the stage first of all, there are all kinds of videos back of him and then you tum around and we are in the position of the performer. We look out on these rows and rows of seats in which there are television sets instead of people.
It’s a terribly solipsistic world, a world that’s almost claustrophobic in that sense.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER, Johns Hopkins University: The fact is that the relationship between the other media and TV is a close one right now. You know, cinematic technique, for one example, is now televisual, because those who make movies now realize that you can’t lose on a project if you can sell the video cassette after the film has flopped in the theatres. This has changed the way that the image is composed. This means, you know, that the figures on the screen are put closer together. This means that a director can use more close-ups. In other words, the technique becomes more coarse, more jolting, you know.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Mark Crispin Miller teaches at Johns Hopkins University. His collection of reviews and e!;says about television and mas!; culture is called Boxed In: The Culture of TV. He’s now working on a book about the history of advertising.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Newspapers now have dwindled in number. You know, our major cities don’t have a lot of dailies anymore. Some of them have none. In the newspapers that remain are more and more televisual in their formats. More and more reliance on full-color pictures, shorter and shorter text!;. Magazines have been compulsively renovating their formats so that they stand out. That becomes the primary goal in the culture of T.V. —
BILL MOYERS: To look like television?
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, to stand out, yes, to stand out. That’s the great anxiety on the part of everyone who participates. And you know what I’m talking about. I mean, you have to break through the clutter, as the ad man always put it. We live under an astonishing barrage of images.
ANNOUNCER: The night belongs to Michelob.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: More and more people and more and more institutions have begun to internalize the advertising ethic. I think advertising has become the primary mode of public address. In politics it’s clear. I know some people would say it has to do with television. I think it I think television unquestionably is a commercial medium and as a pervasive image utility which pumps its product directly into people’s homes has extended that tendency within politics.
But it’s a tendency which goes way, way back, and which coincides with the rise of advertising as a phenomenon, the rise of mass journalism as a phenomenon. And it coincides-I mean, that same kind of marketing of politicians coincides with the early development of the marketing of almost everything else within the society.
ANNOUNCER: America today is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we want to return to where were less than four short years ago?
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: We have now a political culture that is not a political culture. It’s a spectacle. And I think the fact that fewer people registered to vote in this last election than ‘any time since 1924 represents a kind of critical response to that fact. What you simply watch on television although you might enjoy it or you might hate it, whichever is the case, what you simply watch is not that important ultimately to you.
Pres. GEORGE BUSH: And I hear them and I am moved.
ANNOUNCER: The President. The heart, the soul, the conscious of the nation.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: This is why Ronald Reagan had very high ratings, high approval ratings, for years while at the same time the same polls would show that people basically disagreed with his policies. The Presidency is a purely symbolic thing now, it’s a purely visual thing, it’s a spectacle.
NEIL POSTMAN: With Reagan, the issue was not whether the content of his statements were true, or even plausible. The question was, “Do you like that image on the screen? Do you trust it? Is that image sincere to you?”
Pres. GEORGE BUSH SR: You’re representing the country of the little guy.”
NEIL POSTMAN: The audience is having rather an aesthetic experience, looking at either an attractive image or an image which for some mysterious reasons looks like it’s a wimp. And then someone comes along and says, “Well, we can change that.” And then when people look at him they’ll say, “Well, that’s not a wimp, that’s a man of conviction.” Well, this is magic in a way. But whatever it is, it is a new form of discourse, Bill. And we need perhaps new strategies to confront it.
Vice Pres. DAN QUAYLE: Nobody should turn their backs on equality. Nobody should tum their backs on making sure that you have these equal opportunities. And if in fact there has been a lack of enforcement, which I don’t feel is the case, but if in fact there is, then we ought to take that accordingly in making sure that that doesn’t happen in the future.
Pres. GEORGE BUSH SR: I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.
Vice Pres. DAN QUAYLE: Not our nations but it will work, too. I mean, we all lived in this century-I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history, it is a —
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: It really doesn’t matter what a politician says any longer. you see. It’s not even necessary now for a politician to — lucid.
Vice Pres. DAN QUAYLE: I am beginning to learn the value of a script.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: If they look right, they have the right golden glow cast over them and if they use the right buzz words family, God, you know, city on a hill, blah, blah, blah then that politician can succeed. And I think it has to do with the power of the image. Certainly the last presidential campaign proves that, because it worked all according to clever and powerful visceral associations.
ANNOUNCER: His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape. And many are still at large.
Pres. GEORGE BUSH SR: I will keep America moving forward, always forward.
STUART EWEN: The advertising ethic is that the truth is that which sells. It’s the law of the market. If people buy it, it’s right. And one of the areas where this has had perhaps the most detrimental effects is in fact in the area of the informational media. Those news media, documentary media, to some extent. • And that is that it is built in to the job. It’s not like people are sitting around conspiring. Built in to the job of pulling on a news program is the recognition that the success or failure of that news program has very little to do with the coverage of events, with the way in which that program in fact empowers people, provides people with those with information which will allow them to think about what’s happening in their world, to understand connections between seemingly separate events. And as a result, from start to finish, the very construction of the news is designed to create the largest possible audience.
KATHRYN KIEFER, Newscaster, Channel 2 News: Good evening. An angry mob and an angry man with a rifle. That’s a bad combination.
STUART EWEN: I think that one of the primary techniques of news journalism is to play on the irrational to play on the fears, to play on the uncertainties. To play on those aspects of everyday life which people have fears about and concerns about, and to magnify them to a point where the only consolation available, the only refrain, the only release available arc those 30-second spots which punctuate the news program.
MICHAEL SINGER, News Director: And the news is a product. I mean, there’s not question about it. When I first got into television, a guy that taught me how to do TV said, “Just remember when you get too self-inflated about what you’re doing, just remember that you’re filling up the black space between the commercials. Just remember that. And it is important to remember.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-overJ Michael Singer has won numerous awards as an investigative reporter and producer. He was managing director of KCNS-TV News in Los Angeles for two years before becoming news director in 1989.
MICHAEL SINGER: I think there’s a terrible c1icheone of them is that local television news is awful, or that TV news is awful. The other one is that if you want to really do it well you’re not going to have any viewers. I don’t believe that. I think you can attract people to watch the newscasts and do a serious newscast. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of influences at work in a TV station and in a network to try and get viewers, and that often the attempts to do that are, you know, sleazy. And unprincipled. And I don’t like them and so forth and so on. But I guess I bury my head enough about those things. They don’t have a direct effect on me or the newscasts that we’re doing.
NEWSCASTER: Water cascading through bedrooms while people slept…
STUART EWEN: I think when the advertising ethic invades the news room, the truth becomes that which sells. And it’s something which affects the news from start to finish. First of all, the very setting in which the news takes place. You know, the huge banks of monitors, which have a very, I would say, authoritarian aspect to them. Son of stressing the knowledge through technology kind of argument. A command center which son of suggests high tech abilities to son of touch the world and have access to anything you need to know. So that’s one thing.
On the other hand you have news readers rather than journalists. You have people who are primarily picked because of an authoritative style.
MICHAEL SINGER: I don’t think it’s a big surprise that people are very interested in who’s presenting the news, and in many cases they’re more interested in who’s presenting the news than the news they’re presenting. And to the extent that we can cater to the market, to the extent that we can draw viewers to our newscasts by not compromising what we’re doing, but by presenting anchors to them who they do like, we’re going to do that.
I think that the relationship between people and television is much more complicated than talking about it in terms of consumer product. The relationship between people and information and images is not that simple. You can’t just buttonhole it. People are moved by what they see on TV. They’re moved to act, they’re moved to do things. I can’t tell you the number of times that we put a story on the air that we’ve gotten 80-100 calls from people. “How can I help’! What can I do’!” “This is an outrage. I’m glad you did that.” “I’m sorry you did this. What can we do about it’!” I mean, not that that’s going to solve the problems of the world, but TV and the images that it projects work on people in a lot of very complicated ways. And I think one of those ways is that it does engage people.
NEWSCASTER: “You give me 19 seconds and I’ll give you the world.”
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Television images do give us the world. But whose world? As with all visual images we have to ask who selects the images? Who decides how they are organized and for what purpose? To empower us as citizens, or to please us as consumers of images and products? And what reality is conveyed by all these images anyway? One answer is here at the Camerawork Gallery in San Francisco. News and advertising photography from popular magazines is organized to show how one mimics the other in attitude and ideas.
RICHARD BOLTON, M.I.T.: One of the more interesting concepts of propaganda at least propaganda in Western societies is that it’s a propaganda of integration. That it’s not an overt practice. That it’s something that has to take place over a long period of time. It has to be fairly common. It has to be integrated into everyday life.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Writer and editor Richard Bohon teaches in the Visual Arts program of MIT in Boston. Bolton, featured in this exhibition, selecting images from magazines of the 1980s and organizing them to show the influence of government agendas on news and advertising.
RICHARD BOLTON: The government itself has tried to construct several enemies over the last decade in order to exercise certain foreign policy objectives. The point of the work that you see here is to show how advertising helps construct those foreign policy objectives, how news reporting works to mirror status quo goals. Not just the news media, but advertising proper, is an important source of ideas about how the social world is constructed. Stereotypes of the Soviet Union that are used in these ads mirror things that were already being said in political discourse.
ANNOUNCER: Having no choice is no fun, so everyone who wants choices is at Wendy’s.
RICHARD BOLTON: Advertising isn’t the only source of stereotypes. News reporting is also a pretty fundamental source. For instance, these two covers that six months apart the magazine published an identical photograph of President Reagan taken in a completely different situation or so we believe a completely different situation. You can draw a couple of conclusions from that. First of all, you can say that President Reagan had a highly-developed sense of self, self-image. And presented himself stereotypically in a lot of photo opportunities. But you can also say that the magazine quite consciously is constructing a stereotype of the President.
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: The frightening thing is that it has become clear now that simply recognizing the artificiality of something does not ensure immunity to that thing. Simply knowing that you’re an object of propaganda, you know, is not enough in itself to armor one against the appeals of the propaganda. That’s really the message of 1984, George Orwell’s classic. I talk about it in my book. Everybody’s kind of aware that the propaganda’s ongoing. That’s what doublethink is. That’s what the concept of doublethink means. It means that with one part of your mind you can see that it’s just a crock, and you don’t fall for it. And you know that it’s ridiculous. But with the other part of that same mind you adhere blindly to it, you see.
We as children of the enlightenment have been brought up to believe that once you see through a thing you are on the way to defeating it. But in fact that’s not necessarily the case. So that what is really necessary is people begin to take a close, careful, critical, historically informed look at these images. Not just kind of glance at them and say, “Oh, yeah, well, I know it’s all just a bunch of nonsense.” Because that kind of knee-jerk skepticism is not really a defense, you see.
[to class] What’s striking about it for our purposes is that the setting’ is pastoral, the image is escapist, the act of smoking informed by a strongly erotic element.
Ito Moyers] What I do in my classes is to encourage multiple readings of all kinds of ads over a long historical period.
[to class] What about this?
STUDENT: Looks like a rape —
MARK CRISPIN MILLER: Well, it looks like that to me. Now, I want to prepare you by pointing out that although many of these images of male dominance can be grisly by implication, rest assured that the ones extolling female dominance are just as grisly. Okay? Because every segment of the smoking market has to be stroked with the fantasy of power.
[to Moyers] I know this is probably completely utopian thing to say, but people have to be laugh, how to use their own individual minds, you know, their own consciousness’s as a way to negotiate these images and gain some kind of true control over this really oppressive kind of atmosphere.
STUART EWEN: But I think from very early on students need to be educated into the idea that images speak, that images say certain kinds of things, that there are values and priorities and meanings imbedded in images. And they need to learn something about the vocabulary and the grammar of images. To be critical. To do critical readings.
[to class] Here we have in the next one the ultimate sophisticated liberated woman. I mean, here she is, she’s just landed at a heliport on the East River, she’s on her way downtown to pull off some great deals. You know, ultimately when the going gets tough in the deal, you know, strip. Right’! This is what it’s all about. Underneath, even underneath the liberated, emancipated, self directed woman is the woman of old. Advertising —
[to Moyers] I think that what’s valuable about that, making visual literacy a basic part of education, is it will take materials which are primarily currently directed at the emotions and the senses, and it will reposition them within the framework of critical reason and thought.
ACTOR: She was a fever from which I will never recover —
STUART EWEN: All we see is the erotic. All we see is the allure. All we see is the aesthetic side it. When in fact what those images are doing is provoking a kind of consumer behavior, which merely perpetuates an economy predicated on waste. The utility of these images is really about encouraging people to get rid of what they have and to buy something new.
ANNOUNCER: This year we’re introducing more of what America needs than any other —
STUART EWEN: I think part of the way in which these images work is that the destruction of the environment is silent within those images. I think that sort of beneath the image exists some of the most basic social, political, environmental, economic problems that we confront. I think it’s a survival question in certain ways. It’s a real question as we approach the year 2000 as to whether or not we’re going to continue in the direction that we’ve gone, or whether or not there is going to be a rethinking and a redirecting going on. Somehow or another people need to rediscover and reinvigorate a democracy of expression, and really begin to ask hard questions about a democracy of possession, a democracy of images.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] That won’t be easy, as we’ll explore in our remaining broadcasts. We’re up against a powerful combination of forces that want to control the images we see.
We also have to contend with our own personal capacity for self-deception, the comfort we take in denial. But unless we do learn to analyze and understand this new visual environment, others will do it for us and leave us with no role in the life of this nation but consuming images. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 14, 2015.