Tag Archives: mass media

advertising AOL communication competition democracy digital divide ethics history internet journalism mainstream media marketing marketplace of ideas media images media law media ownership Microsoft

Does public relations perform a public service?

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 16

Although this chapter asks if public relations practitioners provide a service to the public, James Lukaszewski’s essay does not address the topic but instead gives tips about how to do PR better.  Stuart Ewen’s essay says that PR has swung between responding to public demands and trying to control the public and is now a tool used by those with wealth to keep it.

Lukaszewski’s essay, originally a speech to end a two-week seminar on PR, could just as easily apply to a seminar of secretaries or dentists.  It’s just a list of platitudes to make one more effective at what one is doing.  His seven are: be constructive, be positive, be prompt, be outcome-focused, be reflective, and be pragmatic.  He says this will help one become transformational but I’m not sure that necessarily applies to transforming public opinion through mass media but rather transforming your own business or job performance.

Ewen begins with a short history of PR, beginning around 1900 when large companies had to face an informed public and build up confidence in free market business.  It later changed to a matter of convincing or tricking the masses into doing what corporations wanted, though after World War II it went back and forth between these two goals.  Because of the social movements of the 1960s, PR moved away from toeing the party line and began advocating companies encourage different perspectives and groups, targeting African Americans, for example.  This has shifted now from advocating participatory democracy to studying and targeting special demographics.  Ewen says this can be divisive and that PR has helped corporations dismantle welfare capitalism.  Lately PR has become much more pervasive and demographics have identified and cordoned off minorities.  Ewen’s closing section points out that PR is most often used by those with all the wealth to perpetuate themselves.

These essays were a pretty weak look at the issue.  The first one was nothing but an inspirational speaker who could have been talking to any profession and the second only got to a real point near the end.  Also, this seems like a silly question.  Does PR provide a service?  Of course-to the company who hired the PR people.  Does it provide a service to the public or boost democracy?  Probably not, but it was never meant to.  Ewen touches on part of the problem right at the end of his essay-PR serves those with mass media access and money to hire them with, i.e. the elites and large corporations.  The only place a public service could enter into this is if the PR is for a non-profit or other group working for the public interest.

Is Advertising Ethical?

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 7

Examining issue 7, Is Advertising Ethical, John Calfree argues advertising has important and far reaching benefits while Russ Baker counters that advertisers exert unwelcome pressure on media outlets.

Calfree’s argument, though broken into several sections, is basically that ads provide the audience with more information and that competition will force companies into disclosing accurate and beneficial information (usually in the form of less-bad advertising).  His first main example is fiber-most Amercians were unaware of the health benefits of fiber until Kellogg’s started advertising about it.  Soon many food brands were advertising about their own health benefits and consumers soon knew about a slew of nutrients to watch for.  The second major example he uses is the way in which cigarette companies highlighted problems with smoking in order to boost confidence in their brand.  This ended up scaring away customers.

Calfee keeps on referring to the benefits of unregulated market forces and how the market itself necessarily marches toward more and better information for the consumer.  Unfortunately, all he gives are examples of highly regulated forces.  Without the Surgeon General, the FDA and the FTC, those pro-fiber ads would have shared the air with the same flim-flam snake oil ads that filled magazines in the 1800s.  Market forces themselves only drive advertisers to make incredible claims; government oversight and outside reporting is what forces those claims to be scientific.  Calfree acknowledges this in a way when he says effective advertising uses information people have from outside the ad-so how is the ad itself then informing anyone?

Baker provides ample evidence for his thesis that advertisers try-often successfully-to influence the content of what is printed in publications.  The letter from Chrysler demanding editorial review of anything socially provocative was specially chilling.  The automaker, the fifth-largest advertiser in the country, was more or less demanding a seat on the editorial board.  And many magazines gave it to them.  The more successful a publication is and the more advertisers it has the less powerful one advertiser becomes, of course, but not all magazines have this luxury.  Baker says the biggest danger is self-censorship by editors and publishers who do not want to risk alienating the people who pay the bills.

Personally I agree with Calfree only to the point that things like price competition really do benefit the consumer.  Baker is right about advertisers wanting to influence editorial copy, and though I think many publications can stand to lose a few big sponsors over and important story, many won’t simply because they’re more concerned with higher profit rather than independence.  And special advertising sections and advertorials I find especially disturbing; when I was in Naples the print paper did a special advertising section on plastic surgery filled with wire stories about the benefits with no other point of view represented at all.  There are definite downsides and risks to plastic surgery, but you wouldn’t know it from the very hard-news looking section in the paper that day.

Chasing Amy and media images of lesbians and lesbianism

I know I’m supposed to write about Chasing Amy from the standpoint of media images of lesbians and lesbianism, but this particular film is hard to extend in that way.  Writer and director Kevin Smith is hardly part of the mainstream media.  He gained notoriety with his first film, Clerks, which was completely independent and was noteworthy in a large part because he bucked mainstream film trends.  Smith never shies away from subject matter major studios shun (Chasing Amy is a case in point), uses frank, sometimes offensive dialogue, and refuses to adopt a visual directing style, instead letting the script carry the movie.  If we wanted to look at media images of lesbianism, it would be more valuable to seek out a mainstream Hollywood movie.

One of the benefits to looking at this movie, though, is that it’s so much better than your average Hollywood movie and Smith’s outsider status allows him to examine issues everyone else would be afraid of.  One great example is near the beginning when Banky starts a fight with a seemingly militant black member of a panel on minority comics.  After the panelist shoots Binky screaming “Black rage!” it turns out the whole deal was planned to drum up controversy for his book and that the panelist is flamboyantly gay.  This is one of the few times you’ll ever see a gay character satirizing a straight (and racial) stereotype, although movies and TV are rife with straight characters mockingly mimicking gay stereotypes.

The scene in the bar where Holden learns Alyssa is a lesbian is another striking image.  After singing a seductive song he thought was aimed at him, she makes out with another woman, with no hedging about it-the camera doesn’t cut away or leave anything to the imagination.  This is hardly Hollywood.  What’s most interesting, though, is the way in which Holden deals with this.  He’s not disgusted but reacts rather like he would had she started making out with a boyfriend.  Throughout the rest of the film the other characters react to his dilemma in a similar fashion-fell in love with a lesbian?  Poor guy.  It’s almost as if he fell in love with a nun or a married woman-there’s no real mention of turning her, or how someday she’ll see the light and go straight, or whatever, except maybe by Banky, who has his own issues to work through.  Throughout lesbianism and bisexuality are accepted rather matter-of-factly by almost everyone.

Despite this, Chasing Amy opened to a great deal of criticism from gays and lesbians.  The main issue what the fact that Alyssa fell in love with a man at all-the complaint was that by treating lesbians so seriously on the one hand and having one fall in love with a man on the other, they cheapened it and strengthened the old notion of lesbians as just chicks who haven’t met the right guy yet.  Personally, I don’t see that at all.  I find no indication that Alyssa was just waiting for the right guy to some along and show her the way.  Rather, their romance seems an illustration of how love can appear in places never sought and how difficult relationships can be in the supposedly open and honest 90s.  The scene where Alyssa tells her friends about Holden is telling.  As soon as they find out she’s met a guy, they’re shocked, offended and hurt.  They react as if she’s doing this to hurt them, and they skip out on her pretty quickly once they find out she’s not exactly like them.  Smith is not attempting to show lesbians the light and lead them to the godly path or anything.  He is merely using the oldest theme in the book-two accidental lovers separated by cultural barrier, with guys and lesbians filling in for Capulets and Montegues.

It’s unfortunate that this can’t be extended to a general discussion on media portrayals of lesbians.  The fact the Chasing Amy was a small commercial success may be an indication of things changing, but for the most part except for indie film and very rare notable exceptions (Boys Don’t Cry, for example), lesbians are either stereotyped or ignored.