advertising culture

What is the Function of Commercial Culture ?

Digital television was progressively rolled out over a period of several years. I find it ironic that although I now have several dozen channels to choose from I still remain fairly exclusively interested in the content of about four or five non-commercial channels. I find myself for the most part irritated, distracted and annoyed by commercial television (also: radio and, to some extent, websites). Commercial culture and media with all its schmaltz and glittering, distracting, noise and shiny things is a little like fizzy drinks – they are fine in small irregular doses and but the sugary layerings of purposeless gloss and sensationalist, attention-grabbing utterances and graphics do not engender themselves well to healthy, effective or purposeful communication or story-telling.

Granted, a large number of people prefer to set themselves adrift upon this directionless and frothing, burbling cauldron of incessant noise and colour as it is (or can be) in it’s own way soothing and relaxing to have mental focus and processing all but entirely handed over to an external control. The external guidance and consciousness-massaging salve of prime-time commercial television has a tendency, in it’s angularity and attention-seeking method to incessantly self-interrupt, to self-dissolve any successful communication or message generation in its medium and method. The messages delivered by commercial television are so constantly and incessantly interrupted by it’s own semantic disruption that it appears to generate an intrinsic Attention Deficit of narrative discontinuity. I tend to wonder if any narrative system, structure or message so inextricably perforated with intermissions and flashing, garish advertisements can ever achieve any primary goal or function. What, then, is (or could be) the function, the purpose of commercial culture ?


The function of commercial culture is akin to the function of culture as a whole – it is to bind together, to engage its participants in a psychological security defined through a unity of narrative and a shared experience. In the context of commercial culture its many roles include engaging the largest possible cross-section of society in its razzle dazzle and largely lowest-common denominator of consumer desire. The structure of commercial drama, sitcoms, news/entertainment, game-shows and miscellaneous media white-noise is generally sharply episodic, angular, discontinuous. An environment in which a message or narrative is likely to be interrupted by five minutes of advertisements every ten to fifteen minutes is not one where an in-depth, intelligent or subtle message is likely to flourish. The message is that our culture is a function of our economic existence. The question for me here is to what extent is culture a function of economic existence when our economic existence could just as readily be understood as a function of our culture ? Although commercial culture must literally be definable as profit-making it performs one central and particularly well disguised deception.

This central deception is that commercial television is not TV shows with ad breaks: commercial television is advertising with TV show breaks. Drama, news, entertainment, documentary – they are all fundamentally secondary in any context in which advertising and selling is imperative. The structure of the narrative of TV shows produced in a context where regular and incessant interruption and advertisement is mandatory is a structure of discontinuity, of a shattered unity and its reflexive psychological insecurity. What is clever (and this is not so much by design as by natural, organic growth and development) is that this discontinuous narrative and its reflexively insecure viewer is patched up, salved, mended and renewed by the healing power of a simple, ordered message of belonging and consuming. The regularity, the repeatability, the reinforcement of the need for constant interruption brings the viewers back to realise the message of participation in economic systems and other systems of desire.


Of course, consumerism and economic activity are in their own way essential and not negative entities: economic growth and development is a necessary part of societies and of healthy, complex systems which thrive on the interactions of their participant members and their various collective interdependent interactions and transactions. What all this commercial culture does do, though, is structures its participants (as though by stealth) through entertainment and commercial(-ised) dramas in a particular way. Participation in a discontinuous commercial narrative reflexively defines the participant as a discontinuous entity who can only be remediated by constant interruption and direction as given through commercials. The inversion here where the commercials and commercial culture are themselves primary is not noticed, is not noticeable in a general sense and largely due to the pre-hypnotic state of susceptibility induced by games shows, schmaltzy news shows, entertainment and the other generally stultifying dribble mass-produced by television networks in order to sell advertising slots.

Commercial culture succeeds in its fundamental role of unifying and binding us together by experientially unravelling us each individually and then reweaving us back into a larger discontinuous narrative. This reconcatenation of the individual or group into the whole creates a dependent, potentially addictive, personality-type. Out lives are mediated by a commercial culture that portrays itself as partial, unobtrusively entering our world through soundbytes, poorly or well-crafted audio-visual pastiche and montage designed to distract and seize our attention. The commercial culture which binds us so successfully and which appears in many ways so secondary and incidental is actually the primary narrative of our age. We are nodes in this commercial network and all of our lives, our hobbies, our ambitions and loves may be themselves just brief intermissions in the broader commercial narrative. We are the intermissions between the advertisements.



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