Thursday, July 2, 2009

Representing the Unrepresentable: Viewer Experience as Commodity

This is part five 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.

At the base of all magazine and newspaper templates exists a relationship that the publication has with its demographic. Each publication has a foundational formula that seeks to target their demographic and increase readership by speaking in their voice and reinforcing their worldview. Generally the publication seeks to generate an experience of self in the reader that is affirming and consistent with the reader’s perception of themselves as they are or as they would like to be. This is a consistent but subtle exchange. “When I read ‘X’ publication I feel empowered, knowledgeable, compassionate, generous, successful, actualized, rugged, self reliant, beautiful, popular, esteemed etc. The degree to which this exchange with the reader is a commodity worth paying for determines the likely success of the publication.

The generation of this basic reader experience is what determines the boundaries of the field within which the publication will operate. There is also a formal predictability involved in the exchange. The reader not only has a desirable experience of self but also encounters a familiar form in the publication. This will almost always be in accordance with the advertising that is targeted to the publications demographic. The inner and formal expectations in the readership must be maintained and updated to maximize the desirability of the publication both to readers and advertisers. The edit can only operate within the boundaries established by the advertisers’ need to achieve their goals.

Within the genres of lifestyle, pop culture, fashion and beauty, this would seem obvious. Content and advertising nearly are the same. But when the subject of the edit turns to humanitarian issues, images that convey war, disaster, famine, poverty, crisis, disease and so on have evolved a visual language that is compatible with advertising on a more subtle level. This relationship needs to be more fully understood in an examination of the effect the images have on the audience. To be effective, advertising must maintain its internal logic that consumption of a specific product is the answer to an implied problem, with the desired political outcome being increasing consumer demand.

Continue reading with Part Six.

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