The entertainment industry has been around for so long now that nearly everyone understands the mechanics of hype and manipulation which drive the business. Or do we? Particular books, movies, television, or music might be resisted by audiences as “too commercial,” but all of them, no matter how they’re perceived, have been commercially marketed to prospective customers. Considering the way our mediated age has permanently conflated advertising with the advertised artifact and made paid promotion virtually indistinguishable from neutral reporting, it’s worth re-examining just how the language of publicity functions, how deeply we comprehend its grammar, and how subconsciously we have learned to speak it ourselves.
For one thing, nothing we get from print, through a speaker, or off a screen hasn’t been at least a little bit pre-digested for us. Film studios will push their new release as a “feel-good comedy,” a “gritty drama,” or an “edgy horror story,” just to prep potential viewers and reviewers on what they should expect; indeed, it’s noticeable how entertainment journalists only paraphrase the text of press packages when they offer supposedly objective information on the latest superstar album or Netflix series. Even in the more cerebral field of publishing (which I know firsthand), jacket blurbs and other sales strategies will steer readers or critics toward a desired reaction before they open the first page. You don’t get just basic data that the title is English-language nonfiction about politics, for example – which is as much as you’d learn from a library catalogue entry – but enthusiastic prompts that it’s a provocative and compelling insight into our most pressing political problems. Maybe the book isn’t, sure, but the work of persuasion is already under way, whether we’re aware of it or not. The same process attends the output of every other medium: subtle suggestions as to how the material should be received and how it compares with competitors in the same genre.
Another recurring ploy that’s been around for generations is the everyone’s-talking-about angle. New acts, artists, authors and performers will often be introduced as if they have already developed a popular following somewhere off the media grid and are just now allowing another round of entrants into their fandom. Sometimes this is close to the truth: in early 1964 the Beatles enjoyed big successes in Britain and Europe, but most North Americans were unaware of them until Capitol Records launched an intensive marketing campaign to play up the band’s novelty and their fame across the Atlantic (it worked). More often, though, unknown talents – and unknown brands of toothpaste, for that matter – have a manufactured demand built around them, implying to consumers that they should beat the rush and spend their money lest they miss the opportunity to fit in with the rest of the public. Countless singers, actors, and comedians have been announced as “the fabulous…,” implying there’s a settled constituency somewhere that’s long since recognized the individual’s fabulousness and everyone else should strive to catch up. This is what Daniel Boorstin meant in his 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, when he tagged Eva Gabor and similar celebrities with the characterization of “famous for being famous” – people whose real achievement was getting themselves publicized, rather than completing any independent action which warranted public attention.
Again, all of these trends have existed since the rise of mass-produced media in the late Nineteenth Century and throughout the Twentieth. But they accelerated in the 1980s with television programs like Entertainment Tonight. ET and its imitators were formatted as newscasts (and were often scheduled immediately after 6:00 PM news coverage), thereby presenting what were really corporate plugs from Universal, Sony, or Disney in the manner of objective journalism. Since even “hard news” was largely a construct anyway, it could easily merge with thinly disguised sales pitches and few would spot the difference. In 2022, traditional newspapers and magazines dispense feature stories about binge watching, summer blockbusters, and Hollywood controversies which just happen to coincide with the central figure’s recent video or concert tour, while social media has distilled that constant overlap of entertainment and information into a whole new phenomenon. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and other forums are comprised not so much of single users but of ready-made markets at which algorithms can target promo feeds, to a point where the underlying movie (or the show, or the song, or the streaming special) is but one of several revenue streams and the trailers and teasers are themselves monetized. The old showbiz adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity can be updated. Today, given the deluge of electronic messaging in which we’re submerged almost every waking moment of our lives, there’s essentially no such thing that’s not publicity.