Media analysis is a common subject experienced in college classrooms. Often times it’s handled the same way. We are all shown media, such as popular video games or classic Disney movies, and we all discuss what messages are sent through them.
Many will advocate for better representation of women, people of color, the LGBT community and other identities in media. Others will argue the media is too crude, vulgar and devoid of “good old fashioned family entertainment.” There is no shortage of criticism about who is portrayed in the media. But when people try to change the direction of media and push political or social activism in their products, the results can be mixed to say the least.
How low can ratings go?
In many cases, creators will try to make media heavily infused with a political or social message. Some try to enforce standards such as the Bechdel Test to promote diversity. Others give whole studios grades and percentages based on how diverse their casting is. Yet year after year, no matter how hard many try to push their worldviews into entertainment, preachy media doesn’t work.
ESPN keeps facing ratings trouble after many have accused the station of pushing political viewpoints. Youtube Spotlight, an official channel of Youtube, is constantly dogged by massive amounts of downvotes when it releases political videos advocating on issues such as refugees, women’s rights and LGBT rights. Even ratings powerhouses such as the NFL have suffered from sliding ratings as a result of national anthem protests, according to a survey by JD Power.
This isn’t to say a show or program with political or social values can’t be successful. Steven Universe is an example of a show that has clear social values (in this case, progressive values) that achieves high viewership and critical acclaim. But if a show or form of media is deemed to be too ideologically preachy, it is often subject to ridicule and parody. So what is the difference between these examples? The answer lies in how the brain works.
The limbic system
Our brains work on two levels. One level is logical thought, which is controlled by areas such as the frontal lobe. With this area of the brain, we think, create arguments and engage in reason. It’s the part of the brain many people try to appeal to when they want to convince you of their argument; but another aspect of the brain exists, a level of simpler, more impulsive thought.
The limbic system is the part of our brain where emotions and sensory feedback take center stage. In the case of being a consumer of many products (including media) it’s the part that makes a lot of decisions for us. Robert Heath, a lecturer at the University of Bath, explains how the limbic system forces our decisions in advertising media.
“When we perceive an ad for a brand, we make an instant judgement of its emotional value… If the emotional value is positive we are subconsciously ‘conditioned’ to invest the brand with this positivity,” Heath wrote. “When we come to making a decision involving the brand, we find ourselves ‘seduced’ in favor of it, and provided there is no strong reason not to, we buy it.”
So if the main factor deciding media consumption is something as basic as which media makes you feel positive, why is it so many consumers, pundits and award shows praise media for more cerebral reasons? According to Heath, our rational side often makes up reasons afterward to justify our consumption.
“Of course if someone then asks us why we bought it, we invent all sorts of rational reasons for ourselves to do with price, features, performance, of the item in question,” Heath wrote.
The ability to appeal to the limbic system is a main factor in determining whether a piece of media will be successful. Media isn’t destined to be successful on the basis of its ideological goals, but rather it’s ability to keep an audience’s attention.
Tell a good story
Jane Praeger is a faculty member at Columbia University who teaches strategic storytelling. In an interview with the organization New York Women in Communications, she argues the ability to tell a good story is one of the most powerful talents a media creator can have.
“Researchers have found that most decision-making… is driven by our emotions. Stories offer a powerful way to engage those emotions, and thereby inspire decision-making,” Praeger said.
So how would this strategy of “story first” work a media creators want to advocate for a political or social cause in their media? According to this strategy, they should focus on telling a good story before putting their viewpoints into it. For example, instead of creating an LGBT character, create an interesting character who happens to be LGBT. It harkens back to the old filmmaking adage, “Show, don’t tell.” With so many focusing on aspects such as “diversity” and “inclusiveness” as the most important aspects of new media, they miss what truly influences the consumer.
“Stories create ‘stickiness.’ With all the competing information and media channels, communicators are challenged to find ways to connect and be more memorable with their audiences. Stories do just that,” Praeger said.
Shows such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” had a very diverse cast of multiracial men and women, and endeared them to it’s audience by giving them complex personalities and storylines. Through this method, the show was able to normalize other identities much successfully than if they had just pointed to a multiracial cast and said, “This is normal.”
One of the most successful media moguls was Walt Disney, a man whose media is often critiqued by those who object to some of the messages his older films pushed. While some might criticize these messages, they shouldn’t ignore the method Disney used to make his products so popular.
“I would rather entertain and hope people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained,” Disney said.