Learning From Others

As my final semester at Towson winds down, this is my last chance to talk with my enormous and loyal blog following.  If you can navigate through the sarcasm, the following blog is an interesting one worth reading.  I read the blogs of various classmates in my media criticism course, picked four of my favorites and left my own comments with various opinions about each post.

Collaboration makes us all richer.

Reading the work of my peers helps to reinforce everything I learned about media criticism while also opening my eyes to different ideas and perspectives.  Two heads are better than one, they say, so what do they say about over 30 heads?  It must be they-gravy.

Here are the four comments I left on my classmates’ blogs:

Comment #1: Jeffrey Woodruff

http://jeffreyscottwoodruff.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/the-naked-truth-about-tom-fords-fragrance-ads/

Jeffrey has done a wonderful job using semiotics to analyze an extremely risqué print advertisement for Tom Ford cologne.  While the overarching theme of sexuality is obvious, Jeffrey goes a little deeper and interprets almost every possible sign present in the ad.  His analysis is excellent, but I have some different interpretations and suggestions for improvement that I would like to mention.

The model’s red painted nails are a sign that Jeffrey missed.  Red represents sexuality and passion in both the fingernails and lipstick in this advertisement, but only the lipstick is mentioned in the blog post.  Also, the white background behind the model resembles bed sheets to me, not innocence or purity, and in my opinion Tom Ford is trying to make the reader imagine that he is personally engaging in intimate relations with the model.  Of course I didn’t design this ad, so I could be wrong.

Another brief quibble I have with Jeffrey’s post is the lack of any real hyperlinks.  The web addresses of his relevant links are just text and would need to be highlighted, copied and pasted in order for anyone to visit them.  It doesn’t take much time to apply an actual hyperlink; this slight addition would greatly improve the functionality of the blog post.

The print ad Jeffrey analyzed is, in the blog author’s own word, “shocking,” making it a very interesting subject for a post.  I commend him for spicing up his blog with such an explicit ad.

Comment #2: Molly Bartello

http://mollybartello.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/blog-3/

Molly, your blog post is quite interesting.  You make several valid points and really delve into great detail about the effects of certain portrayals in the media on American society as a whole.  Describing ideological criticism and political economy is difficult, and you did a nice job clearly conveying these concepts.  Kudos for doing a difficult job very well!

Unfortunately, I do see several improvements that you could make if writing this blog post again.  In the opening paragraphs, there are several typos, misused punctuation, fragments and other basic grammatical errors.  From your other writing, it is clear that you have strong writing skills.  I assume you were in a hurry submitting this post by the deadline and overlooked such mistakes.  If not, here is a link to a list of basic grammar rules for reference in future writing.

Another gripe I have is the length of the paragraphs.  Blog paragraphs are supposed to be very short and never longer than five sentences to ensure that readers can keep focused on the story.  I had trouble keeping focused on this post because of the paragraph length and am sure others will too.

The Simpsons makes any blog better.

The best part of this post is the Simpsons video.  That show will never stop being funny, and it was a great idea to include it in your blog to better explain your concepts.  Keep up the good work.

Comment #3: Paul Siegel

http://tupaul.wordpress.com/2011/04/07/ideological-criticism-and-the-consumption-of-childrens-culture/

Of all of my classmates’ blogs I have read, Paul’s post about Ideological Criticism and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles both entertained and intrigued me the most.  The post’s opening gives a very clear explanation of a complex subject, and Paul uses very engaging language.  The best blog posts are both amusing and informative; this entry meets both criteria.

I was impressed by Paul’s explanation of synergy.  Using the Jonas Brothers as an example, Paul vividly explains how the dominant elites sell their products by coming at consumers from all angles.  And defining synergy serves as a great transition to Paul’s humorous Ninja Turtle anecdotes.

I think I owned every one of these.

Ninja Turtles merchandise was also a weakness of mine, although unlike Paul it is one I have outgrown in my journey into old age.  I too had all of the action figures, videos and comic books for years until a fateful yard sale in my teenage years.  I never realized how big of a sucker I was at the time, and Paul’s blog conveys the same shock I felt when I learned the hard truth.

Concerning Paul’s blog, I see very little room for improvement on the content front but grammar could be better.  I posted this link on another blog too; it is a website with basic grammar rules and can possibly help.  But the style of Paul’s blog is fantastic.  Your personality really shines through!

Comment #4: Rhiannon Perry

http://rhidiculous.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/a-very-brady-criticism/

The first thing I thought when I read Rhiannon’s blog was, “what a title!”  Naming the post “A Very Brady Criticism” ties the subject matter into the theme from the Brady Bunch movies, namely “A Very Brady Sequel,” and instantly engaged me as a reader.  Call me a dork for remembering that movie, but it seems that Rhiannon has seen it, too.

The title grabbed my attention and the post itself delivered the goods.  Rhiannon gives great detail defining both narrative criticism and structuralism, followed by a perfect explanation and application of Todorov’s equilibrium concept.  She gives a link to a Brady Bunch episode followed by a clear breakdown into the five steps of Todorov’s equilibrium model.  If a reader didn’t understand Todorov before reading this blog, they certainly will after.

Rhiannon deserves extra credit for her awesome blog.

External links are plentiful and useful, further enhancing the blog post.  Rhiannon even closes the post with a humorous Brady Bunch blooper reel to leave readers laughing.  This extra attention to detail is rare among blogs for this media criticism course and places Rhiannon’s blog ahead of almost all of the rest.

The text is a little small and the paragraphs a tad long, but Rhiannon’s Brady Bunch blog post is clear, entertaining, informative and useful.  Hers could be an example of how a student’s blog should look.

Final Thoughts

This is not the first blog I have used for assignments here at Towson, but I have enjoyed maintaining it.  Posting assignments online is preferred to handing in papers because anyone can read them and they can be sent and reviewed electronically.  I prefer this method and am happy that Dr. Nichols integrated a blog into the course.

Reviewing the blog writing of peers is another part of this course that I recommend holding on to.  It’s educational to hear what others are thinking and to see the different styles in which they write, and using one blog assignment to learn from others was a great idea.

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Ideological Criticism and Consumer Culture

On this blog, we’ve already covered the basics of media criticism and applied a semiotic approach to a print ad for Breitling.  Now, I would like to delve into ideological criticism, particularly the consequences of actions by the current media industry.  After defining a few key terms, we will examine elements of hegemony through the eyes of a political economist.

Ideological criticism involves the production of media texts.

Ideological criticism has several key differences from the other approaches to criticism discussed on this blog.  It examines the production side of the cultural diamond (not the text side like narrative and semiotic criticism) and how those in charge of production in the media exert power over the masses. It also studies the ways the media conglomerate uses embedded ideologies to maintain existing power relations and keep up the status quo.

Ideology refers to a set of partial and selective ideas that give some unique account of the world.  After repetitive exposure, the masses view these ideas as common sense and see them as natural and obvious.  The media has the power to communicate these ideologies

Ideology is a set of ideas giving a certain world view.

over and over, eventually programming the audience to think a certain way.

Ideological criticism is not just about looking at the text, but also the production and structure of a text and how it communicates the dominant ideas and values of a culture.  It also looks at how texts serve the interests of the dominant elites, yet the messages remain unchallenged.  This differentiates ideological criticism from the previous types of criticism seen on this blog.

Any ideological analysis of a text must begin with a few assumptions.  To an ideological critic, there is value in understanding the relationships between media institutions and the general population and how the media protects existing power structures.  Value also lies with empowering the oppressed by promoting equality by exposing and challenging often taken-for-granted ideas.  As values are often ingrained deeper than a deer tick, ideological criticism is frequently confrontational.

Socioeconomic order involves the struggles of social classes.

Political economy is a branch of ideological criticism that examines the socioeconomic order of a society and how elites use hegemony to maintain their power.  In the case of the media industry, a political economist would examine roles of ownership and how production and distribution practices shape media texts.  In other words, political economists study the link between media ownership and the ideologies embedded in media texts.

The media has significant power over all who use it, and in modern American society it is impossible to avoid the media for any extended period of time.  This degree of media saturation renders the media more powerful; the very powerful few who control the media can also control how their audience thinks without the audience’s knowledge.  This hegemonic power is the main concern of a political economist.

Vivid examples of how the media industry uses hegemony to promote a consumer culture are available in the documentary Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood.  The film clearly documents the concerted effort of the major media owners to increase consumer spending on children by perpetuating certain ideals using television and the other media.

Raising a child in America has never been more expensive than it is today.  In the recent

To the media industry, kids are consumers too.

past, the value of materialism and ownership has been marketed to children through commercials and television programs, and children are watching more television than ever.  The idea of “cool” is transmitted by television, and children are taught that social meaning is gained by product consumption. The media industry wants children to believe that what they buy is who they are, getting children to start a life of consumption as early as possible.

Their role models, like Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears, wear jewelry and makeup, forcing parents to buy their children both or risk them being ostracized by their peers.  These teen idols also behave more like adults than children, teaching America’s youth that it is best to skip childhood and grow up as soon as possible.

Childhood is thus being squeezed out by the commercialization of children and the psyche of the youngest Americans is being remade.  The concept of “tweens,” a term invented by the media for those between childhood and their teenage years, now includes those as young as six years old.  Thus, a childhood is over at age six, according to the ideologies created by and embedded in American television.

Why does this matter?  The media industry is trying to create cradle-to-the-grave brand loyalty by marketing to an ever-younger audience. The benefits are clear to the elites: they will create a new horde of loyal customers for life to keep their coffers filled.  But a political economist is concerned with the children themselves.  Does living in a media-saturated environment where materialism is revered help them in any way?

Kids are the future and must be protected.

I don’t know about you, but I see value in understanding the world my future children will occupy.  In order to protect them, you must understand the world view they are taught by the media and, where appropriate, convince them that this view is wrong.

It would be easier if the message wasn’t sent in the first place.

REFERENCES

Gronbeck, B.E., Vande Berg, L.R., and Wenner, L.R. (2004). Critical Approaches to

Television (2nd Ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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Semiotic Analysis of a Print Ad

When searching for a cool print advertisement to analyze, I skimmed through the latest issue of Car and Driver.  I assumed I would find a car or truck ad that caught my eye, but instead I chose one for Breitling watches.  To critically analyze this text, I will utilize a semiotic approach to media criticism.

This Breitling ad was found in the April 2011 issue of Car and Driver magazine

The top half of the ad is a wilderness landscape featuring a very serious-looking Wayne Gretzky from the waist up.  The all-time hockey great is standing stoically in the top right corner with his arms crossed.   He is dressed like a cowboy or frontiersman, with a flannel shirt and a casual jacket, and is sporting a rather large watch on his left wrist.

The watch is presumably a Breitling Chronomat 01, the same watch that is pictured opposite Gretzky in the bottom-left corner of the ad.  These watches cost approximately seven thousand dollars, so this ad is clearly targeting the extremely wealthy.  The way Gretzky is dressed also indicates Midwest old money, reminiscent of George W. Bush.

In the background directly to Gretzky’s right sits a single-engine airplane parked on a private lake dock.  The scene is vacant of any people except for Gretzky.  Rolling mountains covered in evergreen trees surround the lake and the water is crystal clear.  In the pale blue sky, rays from the sun poke through thin clouds, illuminating the entire scene.  The whole setting is very serene; it is quite inviting to readers like me.

Gretzky seemingly owns the plane and has flown it to this lake by himself.  In the text of the ad, it says that Breitling is “closely associated with the world of aviation.”  Wayne Gretzky serves as a pilot with some serious star power.

Under the landscape the page is shaded pitch black.  On the black background lies a lot of text, a Breitling logo, and the aforementioned Breitling Chronomat 01.  The headline reads “The Great One,” insinuating that the watch, like Gretzky, is better than the entirety of the competition

The Breitling Chronomat 01: a symbol of old money and prestige

.

Two paragraphs of text – a lot for a high-end print ad – heap praise on first the hockey player and then the timepiece.  Most of it is puffery, such as Gretzky having “universal respect and admiration” and the christening of the watch as “the ultimate token of precision,” but the gist of the message is that anyone who is the best at their craft deserves the best watch, which is a Breitling.  In reality, though, it is a statement piece few can afford.

At the bottom of the ad is the address for the Breitling boutique in New York City, a phone number and the company logo.  The slogan “instruments for professionals” borders the bottom of the logo, which consists of an anchor and rope forming a letter “B” with a wing on each side.  The word “Breitling” is below the winged logo, with the year 1884 under that.  This is presumably the year Breitling was founded.

Breitling: a luxury watch company with aviation associations

The audience for an ad like this is male, likely over age 40 and certainly bringing home at least a six-figure salary and more likely a seven-figure salary.  They could be retired.  Most members of the audience are likely Caucasian, but income is the common denominator here and not race.

A semiotic analysis is best suited for a print ad because every detail is a potential sign.  With semiotic analysis, every minute detail of the ad is systematically analyzed and assigned meaning.  According to Daniel Chandler, a strong semiotic analysis attempts to make explicit what is usually only implicit, and a print ad has so few explicit characteristics compared to, say, a half-hour sitcom, that a thorough analysis requires a look at the unspoken.

Semiotics is about sorting through all the signs and their meaning

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty of semiotics: identifying the signs and their meanings.  The first major sign is Wayne Gretzky.  He is white, has chin-length brown hair reminiscent of his mullet from his hockey years, and is wearing a casual tan coat with a plaid shirt underneath.  His look is very American, which is ironic considering Gretzky is Canadian, but more importantly he is a symbol of the North American upper class.  He owns a private plane, perhaps even the countless acres surrounding the lake, and is wearing an extremely pricey watch, further indicating wealth.

The scenery resembles the Wild West frontier, suggesting that Gretzky is an independent trailblazer who follows his own drummer’s beat.  This sign of entrepreneurial predisposition further generates envy of membership in Gretzky’s elite pilot circle.

The stoic look on Gretzky’s face is also a sign of seriousness, suggesting that he doesn’t waste time and opts for only the best.  His crossed arms communicate a similar message.  He seems to be communicating, “If you have the money, why even waste time considering anything less than Breitling?”

There is a lot of empty space on the ad, including the large sky and thick border around the text, serving as a sign indicating an upper-class audience.  A thousand dollar watch is a luxury, and print ads for luxury items always have plenty of blank space.

The Breitling logo is another sign.  The anchor and rope represent sailing or yachting and the wings represent flying a plane, two exclusive hobbies of only the most financially comfortable among us.  Paradigmatically, Gretzky, his entrepreneur-casual clothes, his expensive watch, his airplane, the Breitling logo, and the property itself are all signs of the prestige and exclusivity of owning a yacht or private plane.  The empty space also symbolizes wealth while the setting conveys an entrepreneurial spirit.

Yachts are the ultimate symbols of exclusivity

Syntagmatically, this ad portrays Gretzky as a very specific type of person.  It is not clear without prior knowledge that Gretzky is a hockey player; it is clear that he is very wealthy, likely comes from old money and lives at the top of the socioeconomic scale.  It is also suggested that he is a trained pilot who likely also knows his way around a boat because the plane is amphibious. This ad says that if you have everything, such as 61 NHL records and an estate in the mountains with a lake and a private plane, what you need next is a Breitling Watch.  Wear it with pride and let everyone else know how awesome you are.

Crack the media's codes with semiotic analysis

You may be wondering how in the hell does any of this analysis matter.  It matters for several reasons as it serves to uncover both the hidden meanings of the text and the ways in which the texts affect our lives.

According to Douglas Kellner, the media helps shape our view of the world concerning such things as the meanings of gender, race, and nationality.  Without analysis, these hidden nuggets of wisdom would remain unknown.  Semiotic analysis of print ads helps us decode the cryptogram that is modern society.

REFERENCES

Chandler, D. (2009). Semiotics for Beginners. Retrieved from:

https://files.pbworks.com/download/s12cgtCVUY/comm156/16175128/Semiotics%20for%20Beginners_%20D.I.Y.%20Semiotic%20Analysis.pdf?ld=1

Gronbeck, B.E., Vande Berg, L.R., and Wenner, L.R. (2004). Critical

Approaches to Television (2nd Ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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Media Criticism and HBO’s “The Wire”

Hello class! My name is Jonny White and I am a senior at Towson University.  As part of my mass communications curriculum, I am currently enrolled in a media criticism course.  And if you are reading this, you have stumbled across my course blog!

The purpose of a media criticism course is to develop the ability to critically analyze media texts by identifying and applying critical theories and reviewing and critiquing media content.  By evaluating works in the media, a student like me can learn a significant amount about the culture and society from which the works were created.

Every medium is important. Analysis of each is valuable.

Media criticism plays an important role in any society. The media themselves, such as television and radio, serve to entertain, socialize and educate citizens of a society.  They also have the power to inform and can create community and consensus among very diverse populations.

Because we live in a media-saturated environment, very few, if any, institutions of a society have the clout that the media does in shaping a culture.  Thus, if you want to truly understand the world that you live in, you must develop media literacy skills.

I know what you must be thinking: it’s just TV! It would be a waste of my time to spend hours systematically studying a TV show!  But please put aside any reservations you may have and give me a minute to convince you of the importance of developing media literacy skills.

As Douglas Kellner preaches, we develop our sense of self, class, ethnicity, and even sexuality from media texts.  Our most sacred values and view of the world are influenced significantly by TV, films, and other media.  If such texts are so influential in our lives, shouldn’t we know the effective ways to analyze them?

To do so requires media literacy skills, the development of which is a major objective of this media criticism course.  If you don’t truly understand what messages a particular media text is trying to send, or in other words if you are media illiterate, then you surely will struggle trying to analyze such messages.

An example of an important media text that might influence our perceptions and shape our values and culture is the HBO series “The Wire,” in my opinion the greatest TV program of all time.

The Wire, a critically-acclaimed HBO series, ran five seasons from 2002 through 2008.

“The Wire” takes place on the streets of Baltimore, the city in which I was born and raised.  An ensemble cast skillfully weaves together the goings-on in the world of drug dealing; inside the Baltimore Police Department; with politicians in city hall; at an inner-city middle school; at the Baltimore Sun; and in one season even at the Port of Baltimore.  The most significant aspect of the series is that there is no good and evil; everyone lives in the gray area in between, and designation as a cop or criminal is anything but the moral barometer.

In “The Wire,” some of the most virtuous characters are murderous drug peddlers, whereas some of the vilest are top-ranking city police.

Another day, another murder in West Baltimore in The Wire.

While clearly communicating the moral ambiguity in Baltimore, “The Wire” and its creator David Simon masterfully show what the drug game, police department, schools, newspaper and politics of Baltimore are truly like.  Never has there been a show as gritty and authentic as “The Wire.”

David Simon paints a scathing and often angry picture of why things are as bad as they are in urban centers such as Baltimore.  And while it may be upsetting to see a state senator steal money from a housing project charity to contribute to his lavish lifestyle, it happens in the real world.  More upsetting is that the senator is later found not guilty by a city jury. This and many other storylines in “The Wire” are based on actual recent events in the city of Baltimore.  “The Wire” is powerful because it communicates the reality of inner cities in America, and in order to fix a city, you have to know what’s wrong with it first.

Though gorgeous at night, Baltimore is a city with serious problems.

I can only hope that my wonderful professor decides to use “The Wire” for in-class analysis, but even with another text, I am excited to learn what media criticism is all about.  Learning to better identify what a text is trying to scream at me, or even whisper to me, is intriguing.   Education is power, and nothing teaches us about the world in which we live better than the media.

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