Monday, June 29, 2009

Representing the Unrepresentable: Advertising and Edit Integrated

This is part four in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.

In the complete process of making and distributing traditional documentary photography and photojournalism, there is a series of exchanges that, each building on the previous, culminate in the performance of the images in front of a broader audience. There is first the recognition of an issue, condition or event, then the interaction between the photographer and the subject being depicted (photographs are made in specific times and in specific places), followed by the exchanges between photographer and publication in the editing and selecting of images for release, and then finally the interaction between the audience and the images themselves within the context of a publication. This final exchange is the culmination of all the previous interactions and has the most political impact. Here the image meets the audience, and the exchange determines the net political action of the images in the world.

The primary means of viewing photographs for the public has been through magazine publications first, then newspapers and now online. It is the magazine industry that has most refined its use of photography and lessons learned there can be applied to new models going forward.

To do this let us first establish a means of looking at a magazine as a whole. Any publication can be seen as an aesthetic object; complete, integrated and interrelated, with each page contributing to the overall effect on the reader. We must accept the magazine, newspaper or book in its entirety as an integrated object where advertising and edit are bound together and interrelated. How could it be otherwise, when the editorial and the advertising are interspersed, interlocked, and following similar visual rules? Even though you can flip through a magazine and separate the advertising from the editorial, you are still “reading” it all, and both influence you simultaneously.

The basic purpose of the advertising is to create, identify or amplify perceived deficiencies in the audience that the product or service being advertised can supposedly repair or complete.

Through a series of seemingly pragmatic business decisions, newspaper and magazine publishers have come to rely heavily on advertising for revenue. In a publicly traded publishing company requiring profitability for stock holders, growth targets are set by the corporate leadership, and the cost of missing your quarterly revenue goals can be significant, starting with job cuts and ending with magazine closures. Subscription sales generate very little net revenue, newsstand sales generate slightly more, but the majority of income comes from advertising sales. Magazines have increased this reliance on advertising by offering subscriptions at such low rates that they barely cover production costs, with the goal of increasing readership and thereby raising the advertising rates. With reduced subscription prices come market devaluations of the edit itself, and a need for broader appeal to try and retain casual subscribers who picked up the subscription on impulse. To put it bluntly, the editorial pages exist as a kind of bait, to bring in readers in numbers that generate a profitable advertising rate base.

Continue reading with Part Five.

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