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The Captive Audience

( Originally Published 1952 )

`In proportion as die structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.'

George Washington.

'Still the best mousetrap . . . at an average cost of approximately 85 cents per thousand people: The Columbia Broadcasting System.'

Advertisement of CBS, addressed to commercial program 'sponsors'.

October, 1949.

ON THE UNITED STATES' 176TH INDEPENDENCE DAY, JULY 4, 1951, a newspaper reporter in the university town of Madison, Wisconsin, canvassed signatures for a popular 'petition'. It was made up entirely of extracts like these from the covenants of American democracy, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: 'We, the people . . . to promote the general welfare . . . do ordain . . . that Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. . . . That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . . That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. . . .'

`Only one person out of 122 he approached would sign the document', reported the United Press from Madison, the old centre of American progressive tradition, about this sadly revealing test of the people's mind,

`Most persons who refused to sign said it was "for fear of consequences". . . . Twenty persons asked [the reporter] if he was a Communist. A woman reading a section from the middle of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence said: "That may be the Russian declaration of independence but you can't tell me it is ours". A man said: "Get the hell out here with that Communist stuff. . . ." The first man the reporter approached said: "You can't get me to sign that. Pm trying to get a loyalty clearance for a government job". An elderly man said: "I see you are using the old Communist trick—putting God's name in a radical petition".

The only person who signed the petition was Wentworth A. Millar, an insurance man. He said: "Sure, I'll sign the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. We were never closer to losing the things they stand for".'

Two decades before, during the Great Depression, the country had been alive with those sacred avowals of American democracy. They were freely cited against an economic order which it was 'the Right of the People to alter or to abolish' since it infringed their 'inalienable rights' and, so evidently, held up the 'promotion of the general welfare'. Big Business, at that time, suffered the worst of its defeats in the so-called idea market. Many Americans lost faith in the corporations' twin gospel of 'success' and 'free enterprise' and turned against them with demands for economic and political reform that would provide material security for all and give sounder ethical values to the nation's life.

Even six years before the Madison test, at the end of the war, most Americans would still have been eager and unafraid to put their names to such a 'petition'—although war prosperity had helped business regain some ideological ground, mainly by means of the new device of 'public service' or 'policy' advertising, intended to 'sell' the people `the corporations behind your goods' and 'the economic system behind your corporations'.

Ever since, however, Big Business has been carrying on a steadily swelling campaign to discredit the ideal of the 'Welfare State', to replace free, liberal thought with illiberal, unreasoning emotion, and to condition the people for the conflicts that were bound to arise from the great counter-offensives of free enterprise at home and in the world.

As a result, the minds of many Americans have been confused more than they ever were. Fear has subdued many others, and millions, among them most of their political and intellectual leaders, have become victims of 'the infantile mentality, the movie-magazine mind, which thinks a crisis like the crisis of our age can be the work of a handful of conspiratorial Communists, and can be resolved, and therefore must be resolved, by weapons', as Archibald MacLeish, former Under-Secretary of State, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1950. Others, who still realize that only a reformed American democracy can face the Communist problem with success, have been made to seek personal safety from the new intolerance that sweeps the country, in rigid self-censorship of their own actions, words and even thoughts.

It is not the post-war clash between the Communist and non-Communist worlds which, by itself, has brought about this change in America's mental atmosphere. It has been caused by the concerted effort of the mass opinion industries to support the physical might of Big Business with greater psychological power and thus to save the economic system from the threat of reform. In this effort, the Communist issue has been playing the role of the club with which to beat down liberal upholders of the basic principles of American democracy —designed to maintain its essence by allowing the United States to move with the times in progressive change.

Gradually, the mass opinion industries have been turning ever larger numbers of Americans into their Captive Audience, as the advertisers' jargon calls a crowd inescapably subjected to the spell of commercial sales messages.

They Wave moulded their views and feelings and conditioned them to the basic attitudes and reactions business requires. They have used that artificially created mass opinion to censor, ostracize and intimidate dissenters on its apparent own. Year after year they have made up the nation's mind on all important issues of public policy. And in all these ways the mass opinion industries have given the results of their systematic efforts the appearance of democratic origin, democratic initiative and democratic purpose.

It is a bane rather than a blessing for Americans that they have the world's richest and most versatile mass media, the most profuse advertising, the biggest newspapers, the most alluring magazines, the fastest news services, the most diversified radio and television networks, the most profuse wealth of films, and altogether the most potent techniques of spreading word and image cheaply and plentifully into every corner of the nation. For, this, rather than making the American people the most enlightened citizens, the keenest and best equipped to rule themselves in an active democracy, only tightens the grip of the opinion industries over their thoughts and feelings.

The very combination of all those gushing pipelines into the people's minds makes the system so surprisingly effective in a society which, as a whole, is still far from political and economic literacy. Whatever corner of their minds one medium may not reach and adjust to the requirements of the economic order, another will gradually conquer. 'Whatever bias or illusion, taboo or fear the constant hammering of one may not be able to establish, the endless drumming of another eventually will. For most Americans, in the long run, there is no escape from the Captive Audience. One may switch on one's radio only for music or the news but one cannot help hearing the commercial-ideological by-play that infiltrates every programme. One may only scan one's daily paper but one cannot help taking in the headlines that make policy more surreptitiously than editorials. One may try to shut one's mind to the explicit or implicit messages of films, magazines and 'comics', and one's eyes to the obtrusive advertisement scenery of town and country; but one still breathes the all-pervading atmosphere of Big Business ideology which, more than ever, shapes the views and emotions, the talk and reactions of nearly everybody else.

It is a perfectly integrated mechanism, inherent in the economic order, that puts into the mind-moulding service of business everything from the advertising of cigarettes and whisky, underwear and motorcars to the radio's suspenseful 'soap opera' serials and the evening's comment on the news, from the escapist fiction of films; television, magazines and 'comics' to the information on home and world affairs in the daily newspapers and their mammoth Sunday editions. What makes this mechanism function in perfect unison is no primitively coercive method. No Morgan, Rockefeller or du Pont lays down a common 'line' for the often fiercely competing individual enterprises of the opinion industries. They are in fact much freer from any central directive than one might suspect, considering the extraordinary conformity of basic thought that characterizes their vast and varied output.

The Captive Audience system needs no co-ordination from above; conformity of thought and purpose among all its parts is implicit in its nature. The essential fact is that 'the agencies of mass communication are big business, and their owners are big businessmen', as the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press stated.* 'Like the owners of other big businesses', they 'ate bank directors, bank borrowers, and heavy taxpayers in the upper brackets. . . . Through concentration of ownership the variety of sources of news and opinion is limited. . . .

* A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspaper; Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines and Books, 1947, by the Commission on Freedom of the Press. The inquiry that led to this report was suggested by Henry R. Luce, owner of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, and financed by grants of $200,000 from Time, Inc. and $15,000 from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

The Commission—more or less disavowed by the Luce publications and the rest of the press when its rather mild report came out—was headed by Robert M. Hutchins, Chancellor of Chicago University. Some of its members were Beardsley Ruml, Chairman, Federal Reserve Bank of New York; Harold D. Lasswell, Professor of Law, Yale; Reinhold Niebuhr, Professor of Religion, Union Theological Seminary; George N. Shuster, President, Hunter College, New York.

In many places the small press has been completely extinguished. . . . Only approximately one out of twelve of the cities in which daily newspapers are published now have competing dailies. . . . Altogether 40 per cent of the estimated total daily newspaper circulation of forty-eight million is non-competitive. . . . Rival newspapers exist only in the larger cities.' And their rivalries are outside the ideological field.

The same Big Business structure prevails in the other mass media: `There are eight majors in motion pictures, four national radio networks, eight to fifteen giants among magazine publishers, five to twenty-five big book houses. . . . About a third of the radio stations in the United States are controlled by newspapers. The opportunities for initiating new ventures are strictly limited.'

`The right of free public expression has therefore lost its earlier reality', the report continued. 'Protection against government is now not enough to guarantee that a man who has something to say shall have a chance to say it. . . . Owners and managers of the press (including all mass media) determine which persons, which facts, which versions of the facts, and which ideas shall reach the public.'

Like other Big Business enterprises, those of the opinion industries are of course run for profit. But profit, in their case, has to be two-fold: dollar profit from the sale of the word and image they print or screen or broadcast; and goodwill profit, in terms of strengthening the status quo of the economic order. For the opinion industries are the ideological exponents of that order, its professional defenders. The only change in their brilliant career from modest professional beginnings to unprecedented ideological and political influence has been that, with the danger of radical reform that threatens the nation's economic order and with the increasing concentration of economic power in their own ranks, these industries have become more and more conscious of the need for goodwill profit. 'Sell more than a product', the National Conference of Public Relations Executives repeats over and over again, `sell the system that that product represents as the symbol of individual freedom.'

The very basis of the Captive Audience system is commercial advertising, financially as well as ideologically. Financially, it supports the opinion industries with about $5 billion each year—as much, according to official figures, as Americans spend on all private education and research, political organizations, religious and welfare activities, and legal services.

Advertising patronage is largely concentrated in a relatively few Big Business concerns. 'Fewer than a hundred-and-fifty advertisers now provide all but 3 or 4 per cent of the income of the radio networks, and fewer than fifty provide half the total', stated the Hutchins report. 'One advertiser gave the A.B.C. network [American Broadcasting Company] one-seventh of its income; two gave it a quarter, and ten more than Go per cent.' Even the small advertiser's dollars come to the opinion industries largely through Big Business concerns—a few powerful advertising agencies acting as experts for those who want to sell their goods. Three of them, J. Walter Thompson, Young and Rubicam, and N. W. Ayers & Son, have been responsible for nearly one-third of their total business. 'A dozen and a half' of these agencies, the Hutchins report found, provide 'about half the income' of three great national radio networks.

The financial influence of advertising money on editorial policy is sometimes direct, as in the case of ex-Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia of New York and the publisher of Liberty, Mr Paul Hunter, who tried to increase the circulation of his magazine by 'sponsoring' LaGuardia's extremely popular, outspokenly liberal Sunday news commentaries over the A.B.C. network. 'Mr Hunter called me in Washington yesterday', LaGuardia announced on May 3o, 1946. 'He told me the advertisers didn't like my Sunday night radio program. They were pressing him hard. He didn't know what to do. He stated he was frantic and couldn't afford to lose the advertising. He begged me and apologized that he had to terminate it at once.' Thus began the nationwide political 'self-censorship' of the radio.

Another example was given by the Hutchins report: The American Press Association, advertising representative for about four thousand weeklies and small-town dailies, obtained from the U.S. Steel Corporation and American Iron and Steel Institute a big order of "policy" advertising in connection with the steel strike, which was placed in fourteen hundred small-town newspapers. The advertising representative thereupon wrote a letter to the fourteen hundred publishers, saying: "We recommend that your newspaper be put on [the Steel Institute's] schedule, as the best territory; and we are counting on you to give them all the support that your good judgment dictates. This is your chance to show the steel people what the rural press can do for them. Go to it, and pave the way for more national advertising".' But as a rule such crude action is unnecessary since the same general outlook prevails among publishers and radio and television managements as among advertising clients and agencies.

Even more important than the financial hold of advertising over the opinion industries is its own ideological role. Not only because nearly half of the contents of newspapers, magazines and radio programmes, according to the Hutchins report, is advertising; but because it has literally bought radio and television, body and soul. The large advertising agencies 'not only place the contracts', the report confirmed, 'but also write, direct and produce the programmes'—the mystery and suspense features, the fun and music, education and information, news and news comments, all that cleverly presented foil for some twenty-million commercial 'spot announcements' sent over the air during an average year. In consequence, broadcasts have become 'such a mixture of advertising with the rest of the programme that one cannot be listened to without the other', and that 'the great consumer industries . . . determine what the American people shall hear on the air'.

Moreover, commercial advertising in itself sets the psychological pattern for the mind-moulding efforts of all the mass opinion industries. It is the perpetual kindergarten of the Captive Audience, scientifically conducted for the purpose of preventing the American people from reaching mental maturity, of making them into good, docile, gullible children, whom their mentors, who know what is best for them, can smoothly guide wherever necessary.

In this basic shopping sphere, as in the higher, political grades of the Captive Audience system, the first rule is to give people the illusion that they, really, are the masters of business. 'How many times did you "vote" today?' a typical advertisement of the National Association of Manufacturers asks a pretty, young housewife. 'Each time you buy a bar of soap or a loaf of bread or a necktie . . . you cast a "vote" .. . it's really you—not the manufacturer or the retailer—who sets the size of prices and profits.'

The model 'voters' of this ideological kindergarten are a homunculus couple with their homunculus children who, from millions of advertisements that sell all kinds of goods, haunt the American scene: synthetic million-dollar smiles on their vacuous faces, the bounce of utter wellbeing in their, buoyant strides, songs of deep-down self-satisfaction in robot hearts that throb under immaculate clothes to the exuberant melody SUCCESS. They are `Mr and Mrs Average American' with the 'Generation of Tomorrow', more familiarly referred to as `Joe Doakes', the 'Little Woman', "Junior' and `Sis', frequently in the company of a wise 'Granny' who firmly supports the advertiser's claims, and a Truman-like, equally affirmative 'Grandpa'. Those homunculi have all the traits Big Business tries to implant in American mentality: they are naive and uncritical, conformist and escapist, 'sold' in advance on whatever is pressed on them or easily enough shamed or frightened into buying a certain breakfast cereal or under-arm deodorant, necktie or motorcar which will make them successful, well-liked and happy; a brand of whisky that will raise them to the social status of the nation's 'distinguished'; or, 'if you are over thirty-five', a laxative called Serutan because 'if you spell Serutan backwards, it reads "nature's".'

Behind the primitive drumming techniques used to standardize the minds of Americans—first on commercial and then on social and political matters—is the realization that people 'make decisions in large part in terms of favourable and unfavourable images, . . . relate facts and opinion to stereotypes', as the Hutchins report put it. Thus, `the motion picture, the radio, the book, the magazine, the newspaper and the comic strip' have become 'principal agents in creating and perpetuating these conventional conceptions', serving not only the purpose of each particular opinion business but also the higher ideological purpose they all have in common. With the result that, in the words of the report, 'much of what passes for public discussion is sales talk'.

The basic psychological approach of all mass opinion industries to their public is well characterized by the 'trade ad' of the advertising agency Schwab and Beatty, which points to the significant changes of popular attitude already, achieved and to be further exploited by 'slanting advertising copy in line with the preference of the mass audience'.

Leading businessmen frequently elaborate on the theme of fostering the people's negative emotions, dissatisfaction, insecurity, envy and fear, in order to sell them their remedies and escapes, their goods, ideas, and finally their policies for the nation as a whole.

'Only by creating dissatisfaction among the public with the products it now has can industry keep the United States economy functioning at a high level', stated Paul G. Hoffman (New York Times, October x6, 1947), before he became Marshall Plan administrator in what he called the 'tired old countries of the old world', where business has not succeeded quite so well in diverting the people's minds from dissatisfaction with basic conditions to an escapist wish for new gadgets and possessions they do not need or can ill afford, and where citizens, despite their greater want and their equally great desire for material betterment, still manage to keep part of their minds free for thought about the fundamental means of achieving genuine progress and security.

'We must make these women so unhappy that their husbands can find no happiness or peace', B. Earl Puckett, president of the Allied Stores Corporation, said in June 1 950, trying to stimulate the lagging garment business. 'Most women lead lives of dullness, quiet desperation . . . cosmetics are a wonderful escape from it. . . . The reason women buy cosmetics is because they buy hope', Business Week of August 12, 195o quoted a prominent sales manager. 'It's enough to scare 'em into buying a pair of "fresh" shoes', the trade magazine Leather and Shoes advised shoe salesmen about the 'discovery that "the average pair of worn shoes carries 8,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 potentially harmful germs. . ."

' "Aw gee, Pop, why can't we get a television set?"' read an advertisement of the American Television Dealers. 'You've heard that. But there's more you won't hear', it tried to frighten parents and to stir children reading this argument over their shoulders. 'Do you expect a seven-year-old to find words for the great loneliness he's feeling? He may complain "that the kids were mean and wouldn't play with me". Do you expect him to blurt out the truth that he's really ashamed to be with the gang—that he feels left out because he does not see the television show they see. . .?'

Big Business, in its 'public service' advertisements uses the same methods to make the people 'buy' its creed. A. typical news release of the National Association of Manufacturers of March 1, 1949 urged sales executives to use 'the greatest sales opportunity in the world', `to 'sell the American people "the truth of freedom" [of enterprise.] Russia has invaded the American market . . . and many of us have bought samples . . . by accepting government controls.' The president of the American Newspaper Publishers' Association called on the press to 'sharpen its vigilance against "insidious forces" working to "undermine our democracy", .. . evils of government by directive, the welfare state, communism disguised as democratic socialism, all the threats to the principles Americans hold dear'. (New York Times, April 27, 195o.)

The mass opinion industries follow these well-tried recipes of frightening the people into accepting the desired domestic and foreign policies. In the radio's daily murder mysteries and soap operas, demented Communists have taken the place of the customary hijackers and adulterers, and dashing young reporters, `G-men' and counterintelligence officers that of Wild West 'bronco busters' and Horatio Alger 'rags to riches' heroes. The magazines print—side by side with advertisements about the dangers to health, life and prestige, to happiness and success in career and love that can be allayed by this or that product—garishly illustrated 'semi-fiction' stories about atom war, such as 'Hiroshima, U.S.A.', showing how New York's skyscrapers may some day bend and totter, 'their molten tracery illuminating the heavens', and 'an ugly red-brown scar' indicating where a vast population used to live. And dangers like Red parachutists suddenly breaking out of the woods somewhere in a United States at peace, now provide the suspense element in love stories which, otherwise, stick faithfully to old stereotypes.

In Hollywood, already in November 1947, 'one important executive hazarded privately' to the New York Times, that 'the prevailing attitude in public opinion will stifle for several years hence the production of films containing any "social significance", lest they be considered "red".' By 1950 his prophecy had come true to such an extent that a studio `cancelled a movie dealing with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Hiawatha" who "smoked the calumet, the peacepipe, as a signal to the nations",' the same paper reported on September 17, I950; for, 'the picture might be regarded by some as Communist peace propaganda because Hiawatha had tried to bring peace to the warring Indian tribes of his day.'

Washington, too, has been using the sales method of fear, employed with such success to make the people buy goods, escape, and the economic status quo—to 'sell' them armament appropriations and foreign policy decisions. The most successful way to introduce a foreign policy in Congress is to oversell it piecemeal in an atmosphere of crisis', wrote the New York Times on March 16, 1947. A Colonel of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, lecturing to 'selected civilians' in New York on June 13, 195o, characteristically demanded not an enlightened but 'an aroused public opinion', since 'the proper mobilization of the public viewpoint was one of the most important phases of all economic mobilization for war'.

There is indeed a 'new fatefulness attaching to every step in foreign policy and to what the press publishes about it', the Hutchins report observed. The preservation of democracy and perhaps of civilization may now depend upon a free and responsible press . . . if we would have progress and peace.' But the press, on the whole, has been failing sadly in this duty: 'the few who are able to use the machinery of the press have not provided a service adequate to the needs of society • . the news is twisted by the emphasis on firmness and the novel and sensational; by the personal interests of owners, and by pressure groups.. .. Too often the result is meaninglessness, flatness, distortion.

The citizen is not supplied the information and discussion he needs to discharge his responsibilities.'

The report gave special mention to American reporting about the creation of the United Nations at San Francisco, because it set the tone for the fateful years that followed. 'On many days during the weeks the Conference was in session there was nothing to report. But the reporters had to send in their stories. Somehow there had to be news. The result on the lower levels was a series of personal items modelled after the Hollywood fan magazines and on the higher levels a distorted account of what took place. Because drama and tension were demanded by the editorial desks back home, drama and tension were manufactured at San Francisco. Hence calm was turned into the calmbefore-the-storm. Silence became the silence-of-impending-conflict. The passage of time became a portentous period of delay. So completely was the task of manufacturing suspense performed that, when after some weeks an acceptable charter was signed, the effect on newspaper readers was one of incredulous surprise.'

Six years later, on June 12, 1951, Paul G. Hoffman, the former administrator of the Marshall Plan, confided to the New York Herald Tribune (international edition) in Paris: 'I could break into every newspaper in America if, when I return to New York, I said: We ought to drop an atomic bomb on Moscow right away. But if I say that peace can be won through patience and firmness, it wouldn't get into a single paper.'

The more the world's peace came to depend upon sane and enlightened public opinion in the United States, the thicker grew the walls of the Captive Audience that isolate it from the outside world, and the more irrational became the tunes that were played to it.

'Instead of persuasive reason, evidence and candor, the people get only pronunciamentos, handouts, ipse-dixits, hot adjectives and stale platitudes on the issues of life and death', Walter Lippmann—probably the most serious and conscientious political analyst among American conservatives—wrote on January 1, 1951.

A while later, he warned in vain: 'Democracy does not have to be sold like a deodorant.'

The World The Dollar Built:
The World The Dollar Built

Corporate Power

The Captive Audience

Business Of Government

The Dangerous Drift

America Needs Foreign Aid

The Urge To Arm

Cold War At Home

Too Little - But Too Much

Income Pyramid

Read More Articles About: The World The Dollar Built

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