Media Saturation II

Yesterday I wrote about recent studies which suggest that we expose ourselves to media anywhere from a third to two-thirds of each day — and that people so underestimate exposure that observers had to track subjects to get accurate data. Today I will think out loud about the impacts or affects of this exposure, and raise questions none of which I suspect can yet be answered.

That media exposure has powerful behavioral effects cannot be debated in at least one sphere: advertising. About $245 billion was spent on all forms of national and local advertising in the United States in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Given a U.S. Gross Domestic Product of $11.7 trillion in 2004, total ad spending came to about two cents on every dollar. If advertising exposure does not influence purchasing behavior then by all means let us conceal that from ad buyers lest they quit supporting our industry!

So if media exposure, in the form of advertising, influences one form of behavior, i.e. purchasing, is this the only such effect? Not likely. Surely fashions and fads are media spread. (Did or did not Clark Gable’s bare-chested scene in the 1934 movie, “It Happened One Night” devastate t-shirt sales? You decide ?)

More sensitive questions arise when some people believe that media promote negative behavior in others and then want something done about these suspect media. Senator Hlilary Clinton caused a stir in this regard over the summer when she called for an investigation into how explicit sex scenes came to be offered as downloadable extras to the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Some years ago Tipper Gore, wife of then senator and later vice president Al Gore, joined several other prominent people in arguing for the labeling of explicit music lyrics. Actor Ed ( Lou Grant) Asner, appearing on a panel last year to discuss coverage of stories involving celebrities, reportedly called television news as “horrifying” and said it contributes to moral decay.

It may be some time, if ever, before “moral decay” can be traced to some root cause in media, in the way that sweets cause tooth decay, cigarette smoking is linked to lung cancer, and car and smokestack emissions are known to contribute to air pollution and ultimately global warming (or are we still arguing about that last point?).

My advice is to expect more complaints, criticisms and calls for media oversight as media use becomes more pervasive and media forms become more realistic, powerful and intrusive. (The day may not be far off when you’ll be seated on the train, and a sideways glance will reveal the person at your elbow viewing something smutty on their hand-held device; but perhaps the market will solve that problem with the equivalent of the brown book covers that used to be used to wrap porn novels.)

Meanwhile, there is a practical lesson to take from this media saturation data: getting attention will remain the challenge facing any new media venture. The larger questions of what all this means will pale alongside the struggle to get people who are plugged in, turned on and maxed out to pay us any mind.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media