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The Audience Commodity in a Digital Age

Revisiting a Critical Theory of Commercial Media


Edited By Lee McGuigan and Vincent Manzerolle

This edited collection comprises foundational texts and new contributions that revisit the theory of the «audience commodity» as first articulated by Dallas Smythe. Contributors focus on the historical and theoretical importance of this theory to critical studies of media/communication, culture, society, economics, and technology – a theory that has underpinned critical media studies for more than three decades, but has yet to be compiled in a single edited collection.
The primary objective is to appraise its relevance in relation to changes in media and communication since the time of Smythe’s writing, principally addressing the rise of digital, online, and mobile media. In addition to updating this perspective, contributors confront the topic critically in order to test its limits. Contextualizing theories of the audience commodity within an intellectual history, they consider their enduring relationship to the field of media/communication studies as well as the important legacy of Dallas Smythe.
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Chapter Twelve. Capital’s New Commons: Consumer Communities, Marketing and the Work of the Audience in Communicative Capitalism: Detlev Zwick & Alan Bradshaw


Detlev ZwickYork University, Toronto

Alan BradshawRoyal Holloway, University of London

Perhaps Dallas W. Smythe’s most central insight from his analysis of the role of mass media in monopoly capitalism relates to how the superstructure (the Consciousness Industry) has become engaged directly in production. This production is two-fold: first, mass media produces the audience commodity, and second, mass media “beckons” into action the production of commodities through the production of the audience as commodity. By discovering the role of mass media in the development of an audience market, Dallas identified a key contradiction in the logic of this mode of commodity (re)production: audience commodification in turn commodifies people in audience markets who are consciously seeking non-commodified group relations. This contradiction between the needs of capital for managing demand and the desire of people to remain outside of capital relations, in the sphere of communication has become markedly more acute and visible in the age of participatory media. Resolving this contradiction has become the great challenge for contemporary marketing managers and, in their search for innovative ways to commodify the audience without antagonizing it, marketers turn increased attention towards the idea of consumer communities. The language marketers produce around such communities is particularly noteworthy as it appears to borrow more from Gerald Winstanley and Karl Marx than Milton Friedman and Michael Porter. So the question ← 157 | 158 → arises: are marketers becoming the new communists? Towards developing some initial answers, this paper considers the recent rise in marketers’...

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