Culture Industries, Media as

Ronald V Bettig. Encyclopedia of Communication and Information. Editor: Jorge Reina Schement. Volume 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.

In his essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (1975), Theodor Adorno recalls that Max Horkheimer and he first coined the term “culture industry” in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972; first published in Amsterdam in 1947). The specific reference is to an essay entitled “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Adorno points out that in early drafts of the essay they used the term “mass culture” but eventually replaced it with “culture industry” in order to “exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises from the masses themselves” (p. 12). Instead, Horkheimer and Adorno used the term to describe a commodified and industrialized culture, managed from above and essentially produced for the sake of making profits.

In “The Culture Industry,” Horkheimer and Adorno laid out the basic framework for the study of culture under capitalism associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. The essay was part of a larger theoretical project begun with the founding of the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University, Germany, in 1924. Other important associates of the school were Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. The institute’s original mission was to serve as a sort of think tank for the German labor movement, but this soon changed with the rise of fascism.

Most of the members of the institute were Marxist and Jewish, and they managed to emigrate to the United States in the early 1930s. As they observed the continuing rise of European fascism, the Frankfurt School Èmigrés were compelled to compare these developments to their new environment. They found disconcerting tendencies toward totalitarianism in the United States similar to those they had left behind in Germany.

Although the U.S. culture industries—movies, music recording, radio broadcasting, newspapers, magazines, and books—were not directly controlled by a state ministry of information, their ownership structure and commercial nature made them function much like the state propaganda system of the Third Reich. They mobilized the working class to support causes against its own interests while at the same time demobilizing it through diversion. Rather than coming into consciousness and overthrowing the capitalist system, the working class had become more incorporated into it than ever, for which the culture industry was largely to blame.

The Frankfurt School shared some of the basic premises of mass society theory first laid out by European sociologists in the mid-nineteenth century. These theorists were trying to understand the nature of emerging industrialization and urbanization processes, including their effects on culture. With urban industrialization, people go from making their own living to working in factories where they must sell their labor to earn a living. This new way of making a living also involves the emergence of new forms of cultural life. Just as households began substituting mass-produced manufactured goods for homemade goods, the culture industry began substituting a manufactured and industrialized culture for the traditional cultural activities of rural society that revolved around family, community, and church.

The industrialization process results in a certain logic that governs the production and distribution of commodities. They are produced first and foremost for their exchange value (i.e., the profits they generate when sold to consumers). In consumer-goods markets, mass production has resulted in the output of increasingly homogeneous products that are artificially differentiated through advertising, providing the illusion of choice. The same has occurred with the industrialization of culture but the ramifications of homogenization seem more significant because of their fundamental role in helping shape the way reality is perceived. This is where the Frankfurt School becomes distinct from mass society theory. The culture industries are not ideological merely because they are controlled by economic and political authorities but rather primarily because their output is governed by the logic of capital. The result is formulaic and escapist entertainment that distracts and immobilizes agency for social change.

The Frankfurt School’s Critique of the Culture Industry

By the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Horkheimer and Adorno began conducting their analysis of the U.S. culture industry, a small number of companies controlled each of the primary sectors of the mass media. Five companies controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies in the United States. Since they owned their own theaters, screen time was guaranteed. The Great Depression had left four companies in charge of the recorded music industry. The music industry developed a symbiotic relationship with the radio broadcasting industry, which logically replaced live performances with cheaper recorded ones. This, in turn, helped the music industry sell its records. Prime-time radio programming belonged to two main networks, NBC and CBS, which through their owned-and-operated stations and affiliates, reached most of the nation.

The U.S. government helped establish NBC’s parent company, RCA, after World War I to promote the development of a domestic radio industry. RCA went on to become one the of the media’s first conglomerates. In addition to owning radio stations and the NBC network, RCA owned RKO, one of the five major film companies, and RCA Records, one of the four major recording companies. RCA also manufactured radios, record players, and theater sound systems, as well as car radios in a joint venture with General Motors.

The print media also underwent similar processes of concentration. For example, national magazines became primary outlets for the promotion of products and lifestyles, through both editorial content and advertisements. The book publishing industry also discovered the mass market, exploiting genres such as the romance novel, western, crime drama, and science fiction. The structure of the newspaper industry was also undergoing change. More and more communities found themselves with only one newspaper as advertisers logically shifted their advertising dollars to the newspapers offering the largest number of readers for the lowest price. These local monopolies, in turn, began to be bought up by regional and national newspaper chains that were pursuing the benefits of horizontal integration, such as pooling of news stories, sharing of presses, and selling of advertising space across a number of papers, thus lowering transaction costs to advertisers.

Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) provided one of the earliest frameworks for analyzing how this oligopolistic structure of the culture industry influenced the production, distribution, and consumption of entertainment and news. They identified several of the basic strategies used by the culture industry to sell itself and its products. First, though weak in comparison to the major industrial sectors of the day—steel, petroleum, electricity, and chemicals—consumers had come to see the culture industry as a producer of essential commodities. The wealth amassed by culture industry owners and the high salaries paid to culture industry executives seemed to validate the industry’s contribution to the economy and society. Additionally, big-budget productions, what Horkheimer and Adorno called “conspicuous production,” sought to demonstrate the apparent dedication of the industry to quality; that no expenses would be spared in the service of audience needs and desires. They recognized, of course, that the “varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves” (p. 124). Yet the hype surrounding the marketing of the blockbuster movie or record made it so compelling that audiences simply had to attend to it or feel left out.

The conspicuous production sought to attract the largest mass audiences. However, a second strategy of the culture industry aimed at carving up audiences on the basis of demographics and creating cultural content aimed at their specific needs and interests. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) used the term “style” to describe what has more commonly come to be known as “genre.”

Style represented the artificial differentiation of cultural products along prefabricated lines that had been designed to attract specific audiences identified by marketers. They equated the differing styles of Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer movies to the superficial differences among the lines of cars produced by Chrysler or General Motors and argued that due to the logic of oligopolistic markets, movies and automobiles tend to be “all alike in the end” (p. 123).

Styles and genres are, in turn, based on yet a third strategy of the culture industry: imitation and repetition. Each cultural product follows a formulaic structure, whether a movie romance comedy, three-minute pop song, or star biography. Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) did acknowledge that there had to be some variation to keep audiences interested, but the formulas could not deviate too greatly from audience expectations. The result, they argued, was “calculated mutations which serve all the more strongly to confirm the validity of the system” (p. 129). They also recognized that audiences derived pleasure from mastering the various formulaic codes of their favorite genres but that this pursuit of pleasure left them with little room for reflection about the content itself, particularly the ideological messages embedded within it.

The last, and perhaps most essential, strategy used by the culture industry to promote itself and the capitalist system as a whole involves the use of stars. For Horkheimer and Adorno (1972), stars not only guaranteed the sale of a certain number of theater tickets or records, their life stories and lifestyles helped promote the ideology of success and the habits of consumption. Their life stories provided audiences with hope that they too were just a chance away from being discovered by talent scouts. Their lavish lifestyles depicted in celebrity and fan magazines and on the movie screen gave audiences something to emulate while their advertising endorsements told consumers what to buy. Indeed, they argued, cultural products had become increasingly designed to “lend themselves to ends external to the work” (p. 163), particularly to the sale of consumer goods.

Horkheimer and Adorno concluded that the culture industry had undermined the normative role of art in society, which for them meant questioning the existing social order as well as offering alternative visions of the good life. All that remained of this tradition in the mid-twentieth century was found in the works of a handful of avant-garde artists, such as Samuel Becket, Franz Kafka, and Arnold Schonberg. These artists belonged to the high culture of the day, and their influence was not felt by the audiences of the culture industry.

Alternative Perspectives

The Frankfurt School’s critique of the culture industry was not without internal dissent. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1969), Benjamin put the culture industry of the early twentieth century in a more positive light, arguing that it had helped to demolish the “aura” surrounding works of high art and so to democratize aesthetic pleasure. More people could now learn to appreciate a variety of artistic forms provided by new media technologies, making the culture industry a potentially progressive force for social change. For Benjamin, the mechanical reproduction of art transformed the reaction of the masses toward art: “The reactionary attitude toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin movie” (p. 234).

In his book One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse acknowledged that the consumption of mass-produced goods, including culture, brought pleasure to the masses. He argued, however, that this pleasure was based on “false needs” created by the consumer-goods and culture industries. This system provided consumers and audiences only with short-term gratifications, leaving their genuine needs unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Nonetheless, due to their total integration into this “one-dimensional society,” the masses continued to pursue happiness in the form of consumption. In the essay “Art as Form of Reality” (1972), Marcuse concluded that artistic and intellectual creativity could only be truly free under socialism. Then it would no longer be a separate sphere of activity belonging to media capitalists and professionals, but one that was integrated into everyday life and in which everyone participated.

Another associate of the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas, based his normative vision of a democratic communications system on the concept of the public sphere. In an essay titled “The Public Sphere” (1974), Habermas essentially reiterated the Frankfurt School position that the culture industry, including news and public-affairs programming, tended to promote the special interests of economic and political elites. The integration of big business, the media, and government undermined any possibility of democratic discourse about economic, social, and political issues because these institutions were not motivated by any general concern for the good of society and because they excluded genuine participation by the vast majority of the citizenry. Habermas concluded that establishing a new public sphere would require the dispersal of social and political power into the hands of a wide range of “rival organizations committed to the public sphere in their internal structure as well as their relations with the state and each other” (p. 55).

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who had only a brief association with the Frankfurt School, criticized the culture industry approach for being too economically deterministic. In his book The Consciousness Industry (1974), Enzensberger argued that the ideological nature of the culture industry was determined more by the direct organization of consciousness by economic and political elites and not merely derivative of the commodification process. Indeed, he substituted the term “consciousness industry” for “culture industry” to underscore this point. The consciousness industry played an essential role in neutralizing the radical potential guaranteed to the citizenry of liberal democracies.

Enzensberger (1974) stressed that the ruling class had to work to gain the consent of the dominated classes, and that culture industry workers played a primary role in helping it to do so. However, he also saw them as the weak link in the system of domination. He believed that culture industry workers could play a vital role in undermining this consent from within the media system because media capitalists were ultimately dependent on human artistic and intellectual creativity for delivering the ideas and products from which they earned their profits. Media owners were aware of this and had developed a range of tactics to suppress this potential, from “physical threat, blacklisting, moral and economic pressure on the one hand, [to] overexposure, star-cult, co-optation into the power elite on the other” (p. 14). Nevertheless, Enzensberger concluded that the relative autonomy of artists and intellectuals held the greatest potential for inspiring social change through the media.

Among the contemporaries of the Frankfurt School were English scholars F. R. Leavis, Richard Hoggart, and Raymond Williams. They sought to reconsider the negative connotations associated with mass culture as an industrial product imposed from above, by shifting the focus to how audiences actually used the products of the culture industry. In his book The Uses of Literacy, (1957), Hoggart found that the British working classes of the mid-twentieth century were quite selective in their consumption of the products of the culture industry, and actually relied much more heavily upon oral and local forms of culture left over from the beginning of the century to adapt to their ever-changing urban industrial environment. However, Hoggart concluded that the growing influence of the culture industry, and the seduction of consumerism, was gradually undermining traditional working-class culture. Finally, like the Frankfurt School, he viewed the increasing commercialization of the culture industry as a threat to any potential for its “progressiveness” and “independence” because it was required by its very nature to “promote both conservatism and conformity” (p. 196).

In his book The Long Revolution (1958), Williams agreed that the development of mass media technology was progressive to the extent that the working class had managed to gain some control over media output, for example, the working-class press. Furthermore, the increasing democratization of education and the spread of literacy gave the working classes new means by which to organize and express their interests. Williams stripped the critique of the cultural industry of its mass society roots and its nostalgia for some pure age of artistic and intellectual freedom, and refused the escape into high art. His response to mass society theory was simply that “there are no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses” (p. 289). His response to cultural elitism was just as simple: “creation is the activity of every human mind” (p. 17) and every human being therefore possesses artistic abilities that can be cultivated. He agreed that the industrialization culture had generally stifled this potential, especially the professionalization of intellectual and artistic creativity, which had produced an increasing division between producers and consumers of culture. Like Marcuse, Williams insisted that the separation of artistic and intellectual creativity from daily life had to be resolved, and this could only occur with the extension of public ownership of the means and systems of communication, along with the means of production in general.

Developing Perspectives on the Culture Industries

The debates about the role of the culture industry among the Frankfurt School and its contemporaries continued to influence media theory and research through the late twentieth century. These scholars, among others, not only generated the central questions for the study of the culture industry, they also opened the space for such an inquiry by providing criticisms of the dominant research paradigm guiding studies of mass communication from the 1930s through the 1960s, based primarily on survey and laboratory research on media uses and effects. They argued that prior-itization of such empirical approaches to the study of the media were too narrow to generate any thorough understanding of the role of communications in society. Indeed, Adorno’s involvement with quantitative research efforts led him to write an essay on “Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America” (1969) in which he concluded that the application of purely empirical methods to the study of cultural phenomena was “equivalent to squaring the circle” (p. 347).

The Frankfurt School also criticized the dominant paradigm for its orientation toward so-called administrative research, mainly its privileging of survey and laboratory studies on consumer and voter opinions and behavior produced primarily for use by business and government. This administrative orientation served two purposes for mass communications scholars. First, within the academy, it helped to establish the field of communications studies as a distinct and legitimate field of social science. Second, outside the academy, it facilitated efforts to attract funding from industry and government sources. While mass communications scholars could claim to be neutral and objective social scientists following the methods of normal science, their research agendas had turned the discipline into another pillar of support for the existing political-economic structure.

In an essay entitled “Historical Perspectives of Popular Culture” (1950), Lowenthal called for a critical alternative to the study of audiences as markets beginning with the still-unanswered and essential question: “What are the functions of cultural communication within the total process of society?” Lowenthal continued that a critical alternative would then proceed to two more specific yet vital questions: “What passes the censorship of the socially powerful agencies? How are things produced under the dicta of formal and informal censorship?” (p. 331). To broadly generalize, cultural studies has taken up the former question and political economy the latter.

Within the cultural studies perspective, a focus on culture industries follows the tradition of Hoggart and Williams and echoes the critical theory of Benjamin and Enzensberger. This approach tends to emphasize the relative autonomy of culture industry workers, media texts, and media audiences. It reasserts the position that the inherent tension between profitability and creativity allows culture industry workers significant space for advancing messages that challenge the status quo, but it also highlights media producers working outside the dominant communications systems, such as grassroots and alternative media resisting the processes of commodification.

The cultural studies approach to culture industries also insists on making the analysis of media content a specific mode of inquiry. This is based on the view that news and entertainment products are not simple reflections of media industry structures and practices. Rather, for a number of reasons—from the ambiguity of language and divisions among political and economic elites, to the aforementioned tension between profit and creativity—media texts contain within them many layers of meaning and therefore many potential interpretations that must be explored on their own terms. Some texts, such as news photo captions, leave little room for interpretation. Others, such as rock-music videos, are deliberately left open to interpretation. Accordingly, how audiences interpret the products of the culture industry must also be taken as a separate problem.

In their research on culture industries, cultural studies scholars employ audience reception theory to explore the actual interpretations made by audiences of media texts. Their research confirms that audiences are indeed capable of producing a variety of readings of news and entertainment content, sometimes even in opposition to the intended meaning of the producer. In addition to examining how audiences actually read texts, the cultural studies approach uses ethnographic research methods to look at ways in which audiences use the media in their daily lives. These studies demonstrate that subcultures are capable of making a variety of uses of culture industry output, again often in ways not intended by their producers. The results of studying audience interpretations and uses of media texts demonstrate that a variety of factors beyond the structure of the text are at work in shaping the responses of audiences, including class, gender, race, ethnicity, age, and so on.

The political economy approach has built on the critique of the culture industry laid out by Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s. The analysis of the structure and marketing strategies of the culture industry therefore remains central to this approach. This includes continuing to document the tendency toward concentration in the culture industry, which accelerated in the late twentieth century as the industry became dominated by a handful of global multimedia conglomerates. This period also saw the increasing convergence between media, computer, and telecommunications companies and a tightening of the vertical integration between producers and distributors of informational and cultural products.

This global culture industry continues to use the same basic strategies identified by Horkheimer and Adorno: the star system, style, genre, formula, and imitation. It also relies increasingly on remakes, sequels, spin-offs, and the recycling and repackaging of entertainment products. Additionally, the conglomerate structure of the culture industry facilitates the cross-promotion of cultural products through a variety of outlets. A feature-length movie comes packaged with a music video, a movie soundtrack, a novelization, a magazine review, and a promotional website, all produced under the same corporate umbrella. These practices are simply the logical result of culture industry owners and executives seeking to minimize risk and maximize profit. However, from the normative perspective of political economy, they also deprive audiences of a genuinely diverse range of informational and cultural output, first by crowding the media marketplace with similar products, and second, by deterring potential voices through oligopolistic control of production, distribution, and marketing.

From the political economy perspective, the commodification and industrialization of intellectual and artistic creativity significantly circumscribes the relative autonomy of culture industry workers, media texts, and audiences. Culture industry workers are constrained not only by the mandate to produce profitable commodities but also by the interventions of media owners seeking to protect or promote their specific economic and political interests, as well as the general interests of the capitalist class to which they belong.

Additionally, advertisers have significant influence over culture industry content. Advertisers shape both the structure and content of the media marketplace by the way they allocate their advertising expenditures. Advertising dollars tend to go to media outlets that reach audiences with the specific traits desired by advertisers, leaving undesirable audiences under-served. Advertising also affects media form, be it the layout of a magazine or newspaper, the dramatic structure of a prime-time television program, or a radio format based on three-minute songs. Finally, advertising affects media content. Producers of advertiser-supported entertainment and news cannot alienate either their sponsors or audiences due to the risk of losing advertising revenues. They are also expected to help promote consumerism. A magazine, for example, will specifically tie its editorial content directly to an advertisement in the same issue, while prime-time television must generally keep audiences in a buying mood and assure them that their problems can be solved through consumption.

The political economic critique of the structure and practices of the culture industry lead to the obvious conclusion that commodification of culture and information, intervention by economic and political elites, and the influence of advertisers result in the production of media texts that tend to reinforce the status quo rather than promote social change. Furthermore, audiences are predisposed toward the preferred interpretations intended by producers because the culture industry fails to provide them with the alternative perspectives required to generate oppositional readings.

Both cultural studies and political economy have sought answers to the central question posed by the Frankfurt School: What is the role of the culture industry within the social totality? From the cultural studies perspective, it can serve as a force for social change because there is much that escapes what Lowenthal (1950) called the “censor-ship of the socially powerful agencies” (p. 331). For political economists, the culture industry continues to be too interwoven into existing structures of economic and political domination to play any significant role in social change. Therefore, artistic and intellectual creativity cannot be truly free and spontaneous without the transformation of the social totality within which it is produced.