News and notes from the Communication program @ Fairfield

Prof. Serazio Presents in South Africa

This summer, Assistant Professor Mike Serazio made the journey to Durban, South Africa to take part in the IAMCR‘s annual conference. The conference, which this year carried the theme of “South-North Conversations,” focused on communication between those empowered by their economic, social, racial, or gender-defined conditions and those who find themselves marginalized by them, all against the backdrop of globalization.

“IAMCR annually gathers together some of the most diverse and international media scholars of any conference around,” Serazio said of the event. “Personally, I was delighted to network with a few new contacts who work in the areas of political economy and global consumer culture and have some exciting upcoming projects planned that I’ll be keeping tabs on.  And Durban itself – and South Africa more broadly – is a rich, complex place for those who study and are fascinated by the intersection of culture and politics.”

He presented two papers that are summarized in the following abstracts, one of which he co-authored with a former Fairfield 2011 undergraduate, Wanda Szarek:

Crowd-Sourcing Consumer Governance:
Social Media Marketing and the Web 2.0 Populism of Viral Culture

This paper offers a production-of-culture exploration of the growth in social media marketing practices witnessed in the past decade.  Through a textual analysis of hundreds of articles in the popular and trade press and in-depth interviews with 48 agency CEOs, creative directors, and brand managers, this study goes behind the scenes to examine the tactics and processes informing this approach to consumer governance – an approach that assumes networked interactivity, as opposed to mass broadcasting, as the organizing principle for contemporary media ecology.  By highlighting a series of case studies drawn from viral and social media strategies, online self-publishing, consumer-generated video contests, and alternate-reality marketing scenarios, I identify a Foucauldian mode of power central to diverse crowd-sourced strategies: the effort to embed promotional messages in ostensibly amateur creative flows and voices so as to authenticate the collaborative, decentralized management ofconsumer subjects.  I further emphasize the presumed persuasive capacity of these new media enthymemes that rely upon a continuum of open-to-closed media content as a way of understanding how brands oblige that engagement.  The paper also represents an opportunity to update and adapt Marshall McLuhan’s taxonomy to reflect the advertising phenomena of our digital era (“the cool sell,” as I term it) and their capacity to conduct audiences through ambiguity, discovery, and engagement rather than that of the aggressively overt practices endemic to interruption marketing (“the hot sell”).  Yet the free labor interpellated that underpins this move toward populist credibility and “brand democratization,” as some have hailed it, equally heralds a dematerialization of the creative industries and a flexible, contingent, if not precarious instability that defines a more heterarchical media world.  In sum, the project contributes to anemerging school of research that seeks to critique both the marketing discourse and practices of “empowerment” and “participation” that function so commonly as buzzwords within the creative industries – and, more broadly, highlights how audience agency is increasingly co-opted by and coded into commercial structure.

The Art of Producing Consumers:
A Critical Textual Analysis of Post-Communist Polish Advertising
(co-authored with Wanda Szarek)

This paper offers a critical textual analysis of Polish advertising at a pivotal historical juncture: following the collapse of communism and at the rise of a capitalist market economy.  With its rhetoric and imagery about goods and services, advertising simultaneously summons into being, through competing parables of social ideology, loaded assumptions and expectations about the consumer subjects it seeks to cultivate.  By investigating the “secondary discourse” or “meta-narratives” that course throughout such textual material, we might better understand the larger cultural, political, and economic undercurrents of a given time and place.
Thus, by deconstructing hundreds of advertisements that appeared in Polish magazines in the late 1980s and early 1990s – an era of radical change – we argue that such commercial messages attempted to conjure a new sense of self for individuals living within an embryonic consumer society.  These messages thrust new demands of status envy upon the Polish psyche – seeking to engineer self-consciousness, to cast judgments about social differentiation, and to nurture elitist exclusivity in contrast to the egalitarian and collectivist exhortations that would have marked communist propaganda.  In a commercial act of strategic amnesia, that heritage of Soviet influence was elided behind a resolutely forward – and westward – looking entrepreneurial ethos, wherein English words tantalized with the cachet of triumph, power, and wealth.  At this critical transition in Polish history in which widespread advertising was effectively being invented from scratch, these daydreams invoked – of techno-capitalist opportunity exploited, post-rationing luxury and excess indulged, and borderless horizons with Europe and the West (indeed, a new sphere of interconnected solidarity) – sought to interpellate the prospective consumer in a “valuable” position.
In this paper, we decode these ideological premises by looking at the “common sense” advertisers attempted to instill through their visual and rhetorical data – excavating the subject advertising minted within an emerging hegemonic model of neoliberal popular discourse.  At that “end of history” moment, new ambitions, envies, and orientations were being inscribed upon these commercial subjects.  By studying the aspirations and apprehensions represented in this symbolic material, we might better understand how new consumers were ideologically shepherded through a moment of profound political transition.  This archival work represents a starting point for future investigations into how advertising “produces” its subjects in the aftermath of communism(s); moreover, it helps clarify the function of popular culture in post-socialist societies.

Congratulations to Mike and Wanda!

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