Saturday, November 12, 2011

Wealth Under Siege: Ads Constructing the Rich

How are audiences constructed by texts and authors? In this clip, Colbert mockingly praises the advertising angles for products in luxury yacht magazines that construct their readers as a threatened minority in response to the Occupy Wall Street protests. This offers a humorous introduction to how magazines offer advertisers niche markets. The products and ads in those magazines aim to reflect and direct the niche audience’s desires, fears, and even their identities. This particular segment is rich with possibility for discussing how media texts and products construct the identities of the “wealthy 1%.”

This discussion could launch students into their own exploration of how particular magazine and web advertising constructs their niche audiences. We should ask: Who is the target audience?; Who does the advertiser think the audience is?; As suggested by the ads, what does the audience want, what kind of people are they?; What production values and details of the ad tell you about the audience?; How does the construction of the audience in the ads compare to reality?

For this last question, the student is positioned as the cultural expert. I have had success allowing this to be a given for topics the student knows well and for niche cultures in which they have membership. However, I do feel responsibility to point out how their personal expertise through experience, and the cultural criticism that their assumed expertise may produce, are different from empirical research on culture. Textual analysis must make cultural assumptions, which other audience research can explore more directly. So, I’d take at least a few minutes to describe how survey, market, focus group, interview and participant observation research allow us to build empirical evidence from which to build cultural critiques of audience construction by media texts. With a more advanced class, research-oriented, assignments exploring magazine/web ads’ constructions of audiences could lead to original empirical research [although web ads are trickier to discuss in terms of target audience since they are often personalized by browser history]. Such explorations could take shape in assignments to produce essays, articles or multimedia presentations to share their findings about the audience of a particular magazine or website through analyses of ads, but students could also be assigned to create ads for particular products and magazine audiences, or to create collages of magazine ads that construct a particular representation of a niche audience.

To help you get started: here is a link to the ad blog featuring the armored limousine ad that Colbert discusses; a link to the Yacht magazine, and this is a pdf file of the yacht ad and a detail pdf of the yacht ad text from the video clip; a link to a luxury blog featuring the RV in the clip; a link to the Yahoo news article on the artificial libertarian islands.

And, if your class is a bit more in the know about the OWS movement, this clip can be a way to discuss how the plight and rhetoric of this group is co-opted by their adversary. In terms of civics, history and political philosophy, the idea of the tyranny of the majority and the concepts of majority and minority are important theme in the media texts targeting the rich. Are minority and majority matters of power or numbers, or both? How are these concepts used to influence hearts and minds? This Colbert clip would also make a great starting point for an exploration of the current OWS protest movement in terms of both their rhetorical/communication strategies and media representation. In turn, this could lead to an examination of the rhetorical strategies and media representations of historical protest movements.

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