Oscar H. Gandy, Jr.
Audience segmentation is an increasingly common form of social construction. It is part of a complex process through which the exquisite diversity that defines us as individuals is stripped away or ignored in order to assign us to categories or groups. Segmentation is a social technology whose primary function is the creation of invidious distinctions. Segmentation is both the product, and the source of information gathered, processed and organized by strategic actors within the media industries who seek to reduce their uncertainty about the audience commodities they produce for sale in the market (Ang, 1991). Audiences may be segmented into a great variety of categories, but the focus of this article is on the segments produced on the basis of cues that indicate a person’s membership in a particular racial or ethnic group.
Clearly there are a variety of perspectives from which to view segmented audiences (Anderson, 1996). As a critic of mainstream commercial media, I tend to construct audiences primarily as publics, rather than as consumers; and as victims, rather than as autonomous agents with power. I see those who would divide audiences into racialized segments as engaged in constructing these audiences primarily as markets or products, and only occasionally as consumers with specialized needs (Webster and Phalen, 1997).
The construction of the audience as a public invites evaluations of media performance that emphasize the contribution that media make to the democratic process (McQuail, 1992). We may find room to disagree about whether the public sphere is enhanced, or placed at risk by the emergence of segmentation as a dominant characteristic of media planning (Katz, 1996; McChesney, 1999; Turow, 1997). Those disagreements are likely to emerge around our differences of opinion regarding the nature and extent of identifiable group interests, and the value or risk to the society as a whole when individualized interests are pursued from the perspectives of these groups. The existence of authentic groups and group interests can be recognized as distinct from the sorts of groups that have been constructed for the strategic purpose of marketing goods and services (Baker, 1998). I doubt, however, that these distinctions can be maintained as the technology of segmentation comes increasingly to dominate the media environment, including that which we refer to as cyberspace (Kang, in press).
The construction of the audience as a market grants some autonomy to individuals as rational actors who select those goods and services that have the greatest potential for meeting their needs within the limits of their budgets. The uses and gratifications perspective within media theory emphasizes the power and agency of consumers in this regard (Webster and Phalen, 1997). Even among the more critical observers within the tradition of cultural studies tend to emphasize the extent to which members of an audience actively engage in the selection of material from within the array of options that the market presents (Livingstone, 1998). Yet, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some segments of the population, especially those defined by race and ethnicity, are poorly served when decision-making within the market is dominated by advertisers, rather than by the consumers themselves. There is a sort of double-jeopardy which operates whenever consumers whose tastes or preferences are in the minority are also relatively poor. Both direct purchase and advertiser-financed markets will under-supply content of interest to these consumers (Wildman and Karamanis, 1998).
When the audience is constructed as a commodity and is ‘produced’ for sale to advertisers through a combination of marketing and editorial techniques, we may assume that those who are the most successful in producing audiences defined by race and ethnicity have the most sophisticated understanding of the tastes and preferences that govern the choices these audiences make. However, audience production process may contribute to a kind of cultural pollution in the same ways that the production of steel may pollute the air and streams in nearby communities. A critical by-product of efforts to produce racially and ethnically homogenous audiences may, as an unintended by-product of its use of formulaic content, reinforce stereotypes of the groups it seeks to attract (Astroff, 1988-89; Gandy, 1998).
The economic and political factors that generate risks for intended and accidental audiences in the realm of minority interest programming also increase the risks that those audiences face as consumers. The poor are understood to be at great risk from the consumption or abuse of dangerous products (Smith and Cooper-Martin, 1997). Yet, the economics of media makes it likely that the media that serve these populations will be dependent upon income from advertisers that have high-risk products like alcohol and tobacco to sell. This is especially ironic in the case of minority-owned media (Wolseley, 1990)
Understanding audience segmentation
We should understand audience segmentation as a marketing technology that emerged during the early stages of the effort to manage demand and shape consumer culture in industrial societies (Beniger, 1986: Ewan, 1976). Early segmentation efforts were based primarily on consideration of gender. Marketing specialists struggled to develop appeals that would resonate with what they understood to be of interest to the American housewife. More recently, segmentation within media, and in marketing more generally, has been focused on linguistic heritage, and the language used in the home. Rodriguez (1997) provides a valuable insight into the ways in which the construction of a ‘commercial ethnicity’ among Hispanics was facilitated by the development of a ‘Walter Cronkite Spanish’ for a linguistic market that included Mexican as well as Cuban immigrants. A Pan-Hispanic identity was also developed through the strategic use of references to an imaginary community of interest at strategic points throughout the evening news (Rodriguez, 1996).
Language, of course, is not the only basis for the formation of racial or ethnic identity. The mass media play an active role in shaping the boundaries between those who are to be considered within or outside the group. There are also a variety of social and structural influences that raise the salience of group identity (Cornell and Hartmann, 1998). There are differences within and between nations in terms of the role that the government plays in recognizing and heightening the importance of racial and ethnic group identity (Anthias and Yuval-Davis, 1992). The struggle over the official recognition of a ‘bi-racial’ identity for the 2000 Census in the United States is just one example. Castells (1997) also discusses the ways in which ethnic divisions are emerging among African Americans on the basis of religious differences that have become more salient in the wake of the growing importance of Islam in urban centres.
It has been argued that ethnic identification is more a matter of self-determination than racial identification has been because of the ways that race has been used historically as a basis for domination and control. Yet, the uses of ethnic identity for the purposes of audience segmentation still reflect a high degree of strategic rationalism. We might be concerned about the extent to which segmentation is based upon erroneous assumptions and invidious distinctions. Concerns that have been expressed regarding the imprecision with which audiences are measured in general are amplified in the context of racial and ethnic groups (Webster, Phalen and Lichty, 2000). Racial and ethnic segmentation is based on the assumption that similarity in the preferences for programme content is greater within than between groups defined in these terms. Television ratings demonstrate clearly that the top twenty television programmes among African Americans bears little in common with the top twenty programmes of White Americans (Schement, 1998). Thus, it appears that there is some basis for the claim that tastes and preferences differ between groups.
At the same time, there is also evidence that the boundaries defined by taste are quite porous. White male adolescents are counted among the fans of rap and hip-hop music. Because the number of White youngsters in the United States is so much greater than the number of African American youth, Whites may actually purchase the greatest number of the records produced by this segment of the music industry. While the leaders of this industry in the new millennium seems unlikely to make the kinds of mistakes it made during the era of ‘race records,’ the framing of the primary audience as a ‘high-status omnivore seeking out esoteric low-status cultural elements’ can only reinforce invidious distinctions within popular culture (Peterson, 1994, p. 181).
Economic considerations remain a critical determinant of the impact that segmentation by race and ethnicity has on the development of popular culture. On one hand, estimates of the economic value to be derived from any market segment are at least as unreliable as the estimates of its size and composition. At the same time, those estimates determine the willingness of advertisers and investors to commit resources to the development of content and distribution services. The belief that African Americans were not well represented among those who were ‘surfing the web’ and buying products on-line may explain the difficulty that Black entrepreneurs faced in attracting a share of the millions of dollars that were being invested in Internet start-ups (NTIA, 1999).
The fact that some segments of the market are not valued as highly as others raises the spectre of racism in ways that are hard to ignore. Recently, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) helped to finance an analysis of advertising rates that demonstrated clearly that ‘being No. 1 is not enough!’ (Ofari, 1999). If all members of the radio audience were valued equally, then those stations that attracted the largest number of listeners should receive the largest shares of advertiser revenue. The calculation of ‘power ratios’ makes just that assumption. However, available data demonstrated quite clearly that ‘minority-formatted’ radio stations had power ratios that were consistently below 1.0, demonstrating that minority audiences were under-valued by advertisers. Further evidence of racism in the industry could be found in the fact that even among minority-formatted stations, those which were actually owned by minority broadcasters had lower power ratios than those which were owned by Whites (Ofari, 1999).
The seemingly irrational tendency of these vendors to avoid minority consumers can be explained in part by the willingness of advertisers to make accommodations for the aversive racism of their primary customers. They assume that White consumers don’t wish to interact with Black customers, or in some cases, to be associated with products that have become identified with consumers lower in the racial and ethnic hierarchy. This behaviour is part of an emerging complex identified as ‘reasonable racism’ (Armour, 1997).
The reasonable racist is one who no longer bases his beliefs about racialized others on some outdated assumptions about inherent biological differences. Instead, the reasonable racist bases his quite similar views on the reported correlation between race and violence, criminality and trustworthiness. This contemporary racist assumes that some complex interaction of socio-cultural influences must have produced this correlation, but good sense, rather than racism demands that he reduce his exposure to the risks that an African American, or Hispanic youth represents. The reasonable racist is an essentialist. He or she assumes that membership within a racial or ethnic group automatically assigns any individual a value which is the average for that particular group. The reasonable racist sets aside her normal reticence with regard to stereotypes as averages surrounded with error, because she truly believes that there really is very little variation among those people. It is this same kind of instrumental rationalism that justifies the avoidance of some audience segments (Sunstein, 1997).
Racism or just good business
It seems clear, from my perspective, that racism continues to be good business within the context of societies in which racial and ethnic distinctions can be used to establish, reinforce, and justify inequality in the distribution of power and resources. Omi and Winant (1994) define racial formation as the process ‘by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed’ (p. 55). This process includes a number of strategic activities that they define as racial projects. In their view, a racial project is part of an attempt to ‘reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines’ (p. 56). They would characterize a racial project as also being racist if it ‘creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race’ (p. 71). I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that many contemporary forms of racial and ethnic media segmentation would have to be defined as racist, even if they were pursued by members of minority groups.
Media content that is produced in order to meet the needs of an under-served segment of the population could hardly be described as reproducing structures of domination. Efforts to increase the participation of racial and ethnic minority group members within the media industry only become problematic when they become exclusionary and deny the opportunity of others to participate because they are not ‘qualified’ by virtue of race or ethnicity. By the same logic, however, the use of racial and ethnic identification as the basis for the valuation of audiences can only work to reproduce inequality within the marketplace.
Race and ethnicity should be excluded from the list of variables that can be used in the demographic characterization of audiences. The inclusion of these variables is essentialist only at face value. While a concern with equality, fairness, and access may justify the use of data regarding the racial and ethnic characteristics of populations by regulatory agencies charged with eliminating racial discrimination, attention to such distinctions on the part of the producers and distributors of media content should invite our concern.
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Oscar H. Gandy, Jr. is Professor of Communications at The Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, USA.