TELEVISION: The Search for Meaning


This article originally appeared in Issue# 57

A Media&Values interview with cultural critic Sut Jhally

Sut Jhally, an associate professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society.

He recently spoke to Rosalind Silver, Media&Values' editor, about advertising's role as a source of meaning for our culture. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation. Media&Values Editorial Assistant David Ruth was the principal editor of the interview.

Media&Values: You have developed some theories about the ways television watching becomes a kind of addiction. In your view, why is television watching a compelled activity?

Sut Jhally: That's a difficult and complex question with a number of aspects to it. One is the way people actually behave in front of the TV. It seems to be pretty clear that if you look at people's television watching patterns, they do not seem to be free to turn the TV off whenever they want. To understand why, we have to look at the overall cultural context within which people arrive at answers to the questions of who we are, where we fit in and how the world works. Every society has its own institutions that give that type of meaning. And what has happened is that some of those traditional institutions that used to give that meaning, especially religion, community life, family and ethnicity, no longer have important things to say about modern life. However, you still have to get meaning from somewhere, and into that void has stepped television.

M&V: Why do we have to have that meaning?

SJ: Because we need to understand the question of identity. We need to understand how the world works. We need to understand who we are.

M&V: In other words, it's a human need.

SJ: Yes, meaning is essential — we can't live without it any more than we can live without food. In the past, a lot of discussion about people's needs has focused on the material answers. Of course, people do have basic requirements for food, clothing and shelter. But I think there hasn't been enough focus on the cultural component of human needs: both the way in which material goods are provided, and more importantly, the systems and institutions developed to meet spiritual, emotional and intellectual needs. One of the things we've learned from anthropology is that the cultural side of life — the social interactions of our daily life — is a part of every human activity. Therefore, the construction of meaning is not something any society can do without. The real question then becomes what are the institutional systems each society has set up to handle its questions of meaning? Those systems are always closely related to the power relations of the society. What we've done in our society is given control of one of our most important meaning creation systems-the media-to advertisers who what to use them to sell us something. People see the freedom to advertise as being in their own interest, but really the people who benefit are the sellers of products.

M&V: How did the advertisers take over this function?

SJ: They won the contest to see who controls the cultural realm. American society has become the most commercialized in the world, because we have said that advertisers can do anything they want to market goods. That's because we have a very special notion of what constitutes freedom. Americans identify freedom with lack of government control. Because advertisers are not regulated by government and are free to do whatever they want, they have turned all our cultural spaces in to marketing spaces. What separates capitalism from every other social formation is simply the number of things it produces. The immense accumulation of commodities creates problems for society, because the goods produced must be sold. The problems of marketplace circulation have come to dominate our cultural life.

M&V: To play devil's advocate for just a moment, there are people who would say that we have other cultural institutions and that advertising is just one part of our lives. How do you justify making advertising the most important aspect of culture?

SJ: By its sheer presence in our daily lives. Certainly those other institutions still exist, but their importance has been diminished, and their meaning transformed through their transmission by he media. A TV set is on for seven hours a day in the average household. That is an enormous amount of time that television is there spinning its stories. When we're in our cars listening to the radio, or reading magazines and newspapers, we're still hearing and seeing advertisers' messages. The spaces of our daily lives, billboards, even clothing such as T-shirts, anything that can be sponsored, is sponsored. Media-especially television-has become the mainstream of our culture and their influence comes form their constant presence. Their constant talk about what family, community and politics means even shapes what we think about these other institutions. Their power comes from their ability to permeate and define our present social relations.

M&V: You have stated that advertising is able to fulfill this role because the commodities, themselves, have been emptied of meaning, leaving an empty shell begging to be filled. Can you explain that more fully?

SJ: Human beings' need for meaning isn't merely passive. It's natural to all of us to create meanings for our interaction with the material world. There has to be a symbolic and cultural aspect to our relationship to commodities or things. Anthropology provides many examples of the symbolic significance of objects in all cultures. The real question then becomes, who has power over that symbolic significance? In the past, people made items of daily use themselves or perhaps had a personal relationship with the craftspeople who made them, they had ritual or spiritual significance. Today, increasingly, other forms of meaning have been stripped away from the commodities our society produces, so advertisers work their magic on a blank slate.

M&V: Your argument implies that it's the ads that people are drawn into, but many people would say that they're actually watching television programs or reading articles. Would you say then that the editorial or program content has no influence?

SJ: Not at all. Obviously, it's very important. In fact, it is television watching in general that is habitual, not just viewing the ads. Because television has taken over that cultural space, we are drawn into the world of television and media in general. And it doesn't just happen here. Fascination with television in other industrial or socialist-industrial settings tells us that here is a really important institution that fulfills some kind of very powerful cultural and social need. How are we going to organize this realm so that it fulfills the best function? My suggestion would be to treat this as a very important institution and, as a society, figure out how we want to use it most effectively. We do say some institutions-like education-are so important that we're not going to leave them up to the free market. Instead, we establish public standards for their performance and fund them with public money. This agreement requires an understanding within society of what we want education to do.

M&V: Do you feel this applies to other Western industrial countries that have well developed free markets, but may have government-sponsored television in one form or another? Is government-sponsored television an alternative in those countries that have it?

SJ: The syndrome of allowing market needs to dominate can be seen in varying forms. Government-sponsored television can at least provide another option in those countries that have it. The interesting question now is how this conflict will be viewed in the future. Western European societies certainly have had a different view of cultural needs than the United States. They have generally recognized that this realm simply cannot be left up to the marketplace. The lack of a debate about cultural policy in American society is very strange-in fact there's hardly an understanding of what the words mean. In Canada, there are hearings all the time about policies governing broadcasting and cable. Diverse views are debated in newspapers, and on the very media that are being regulated. One of the interesting things about American culture is the pervading notion that the complete freedom of media owners is somehow linked with democracy, and that any media regulation represents totalitarianism. This concept is so powerful that we can't even think about debating media regulation. We simply don't have a vocabulary for discussing it. People basically have only two models of what any medium should look like. If it isn't a commercial network, it must be as repressive as Pravda.

M&V: Can we move toward more serious discussion of our media needs?

SJ: Of course, it's possible, but actually that's a struggle that may well go in the direction of the model offered by the United States. In one sense, we may be the future of the world; we may be Europe's future when it comes to turning media control over to commercial interests.

M&V: You have sometimes referred to advertising as a religion. Would you elaborate on that?

SJ: Advertising has increasingly come to provide answers to those same questions that religion often raises. How does the world work? Where do I fit in? What is a moral life? But, I don't think advertising is a religion in the same way that Catholicism or Islam are religions. You can be Christian and at the same time practice the religion of advertising, because they operate at two different levels. The religion of advertising really operates at the level of the everyday. It's close to the kind of religious practice called fetishism that existed in West Africa, in which people believed in God but also worshiped magical spirits that populated the ordinary places in which they lived. Those spirits can influence, not the big problems, but the small problems. They can influence the questions about how to get better, how to heal yourself and how to enhance your sexual, romantic and family lives. That's where advertising fits in. It creates a world in which goods come to play all kinds of magical roles in our daily interactions. The religion of advertising is based upon a magic in which goods instantly can cure us of all kinds of ailments, instantly make you attractive or act as a love potion. Buying the right good can act as a sort of passport into a magical world of style.

M&V: Which religion is more powerful?

SJ: I would say it's the religion of advertising. We pay lip service to these other religions, we may go to religious services for an hour or two a week, but they don't dominate our lives. We live in the media culture 24 hours a day. This other vision is pumped at us constantly from all the media. It's not surprising that vision is what counts. And I think there's a generational aspect to this as well. As generations grow up whose members have lived with the advertising vision and myth from birth, these myths will become even more powerful. There simply will not be any other alternatives.

M&V: If you were to reform this religion, what would your prescription be?

SJ: It's an important question, because I actually believe the survival of the human race is at stake. We're now coming to a stage in human history when that notion of unlimited growth can no longer go unquestioned. The physical limits of the planet are literally bursting at the seams and if we keep producing at this rate, the planet will destroy itself. What we need now is a vision of society that is not based upon ever increasing numbers of goods. The reformation will be a questioning of the very nature of economic growth, the health of society, what we want a society to do and how to organize it. The growth ethic is about consumption. It says happiness is connected to the number of things a society produces and the number of things individuals have. We bought that decades ago. Ironically, now the same pattern is becoming a dogma in Eastern Europe as well. That's what the revolutions of 1990-91 were about. They're not only about freedom and democracy; they're about wanting the stuff Poles and Russians could see in the windows, but could never buy. The commodity religion has colonized Eastern Europe and large parts of the Third World.

M&V: Why did that come about?

SJ: For very good reasons. The Third World's experience is of empty stomachs and shelves. They look at what the First World can offer, and that becomes the vision to which they aspire. Any alternate vision has to compete with the consumption vision. It must be as fun, pleasurable, sexy and inviting. Progressive voices have not been very good at articulating what an alternate good life and society would look like. Unless we have that vision, one that is not a derivative of capitalism, then we're not going to be able to deal with the present problems. That's the terrain on which we have to fight. The advertising vision has mobilized people around a set of social relations in which they ultimately lose, but with which they identify very strongly. It provides answers to questions that they ask. The advertising vision is powerful because there's no alternative. I think for the future of the planet, we need to develop that alternative and mobilize people around it.

"Americans...become consumers through their own active adjustment to both the material and spiritual conditions of life in advanced capitalist society. Through consumption…they continue the quest for "real life" which earlier generations sought in the transcendent religions realm."
— Richard Wightman Fox, quoted in The Codes of Advertising

"Advertising is not about the qualities of the products being sold, but about the lives of the people being addressed."
— Stewart Ewen, Cultural Politics in Contemporary America