Horkheimer and Adorno’s Culture Industry:
Marketing Counterculture and Implications of ICTs
University of Colorado at Boulder
In this paper, I will explain Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industry as a self-perpetuating system of centralized power, where culture is commodified to serve the interests of the few. I will apply this theoretical frame to a Luv’s diaper television commercial to examine how the system produces certain types of individuals in order to prevent discursive reflection. Finally, I will suggest that the theory be revised to recognize the potential of ICTs to disrupt the self-perpetuating power cycle.
Horkheimer and Adorno (1976) observe that cultural outlets in a capitalist system, like film and radio, are funded by private corporations that dominate the industrial sectors—energy, raw materials, chemicals. These elite players control the commodities that support public infrastructure, and consequently they profit tremendously. Thus, the public interest is dictated by private interest. Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory frames the production of culture within “the whole sphere, whose individual branches are themselves economically interwoven.” They claim that culture is not an independent outcome resulting from interactions between individuals within the system; rather, it is a commodity produced by the web of industry. The small minority at the top, the executive fat cats, controls culture as a means to one end alone: maximizing profit.
The centralization of power is a self-perpetuating system marked by mass production and fueled by technology (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). As the demand for goods increases, production locations must become larger and more specified. This inverse relationship between the number of distribution points and the number of consumption points demands centralized control as the only feasible way to provide the necessary financial investments and consolidated management required by mass production. In such a market the largest corporations accumulate all the means of production, turning everyone else into a dependent consumer. “The result is the circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger.”
Horkheimer and Adorno claim the system is not merely the result of a materialistic public attitude. They explain how the dominant class actually manipulates public attitude to fashion as an integral component of consumerism. The existence of the culture industry depends on the ability of those with power to persuade those without power that they need the system. Today, the proliferation of teeth whitening products provides a brief example of how the culture industry is self-affirming in the public eye. The question is not: to buy or not to buy? The question is: overnight gel tray or twice daily adhesive strips? Consumers have been convinced that white teeth are necessary, and so they look to the dominant class to provide whitening products. The culture industry interprets the ideal of dazzling white teeth not as a reflection of public desire but as a campaign, strategically disseminated by the corporations that profit from it.
One result of the culture industry is that cultural products lose any intrinsic worth, or “use value,” as they are turned into commodities coveted for their “exchange value” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). A consumer cannot enjoy a painting, a symphony, or a film for the experience it brings him. Instead, he values art to the extent that he can exchange it for something else. “[I]n place of enjoyment there are gallery-visiting and factual knowledge: the prestige seeker replaces the connoisseur.” The system turns art into a commodity, marketable in terms of its ability to elevate one’s social status. Similarly, purchasing teeth whitening gel reflects not a concern with the inherent beauty of a bright smile but the desire to fit certain cultural ideals.
Technology makes nearly all goods affordable. But the culture industry so strongly defines a product’s worth in terms of its exchange value that consumers find themselves in a paradox. The easier it is to buy, the less they want it because “they suspect that the less anything costs, the less it is being given to them” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). Advertising resolves this tension. Advertising is no longer a consumer’s tool for informing himself about the market. It takes the form of a strategic campaign that capitalizes on consumer susceptibilities. The success of advertising depends on costly scientific studies and thorough market analysis by expensive agencies. Only the largest companies can afford to play in this new arena. The persuasiveness and ubiquity of commercials, billboards, and endorsements propagates the idea that a product is only as good as its advertising. No longer able to compete by taking out ads in the local paper, small business die. The means of production are further consolidated, and the corporate elite entrench themselves in the position of centralized power.
Having deciphered the consumer psyche, the handful of media conglomerates distribute essentially the same information—that which sells products most effectively. Any perceived difference between the sources or their messages is a guise (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1976). And because consumers define themselves through the products they buy, which are limited to the products available, any perceived difference between individuals is a guise, too. Just as the culture industry mass produces products, it mass produces people who are differentiated only by “accidental details.” Just as the culture industry markets culture as a commodity, it markets the idea of the individual. “The peculiarity of the self is a monopoly commodity determined by society; it is falsely represented as natural.” Horkheimer and Adorno identify a major communication problem posed by the culture industry: the system prevents discursive reflection by producing the kinds of individuals who will not question the system.
In this section, I will analyze a Luv’s diaper television commercial using this critical frame. I will show how the commodification of culture produces kinds of individuals incapable of questioning the system.
The advertisement plays the iconic 60’s song, “Get Together.” Babies of all shades, clad in Luv’s diapers, dance in a sunny field by a stage—a blatant allusion to Woodstock. Picket signs abound, proclaiming: “YES to ultra leak protection” or “NO to pricey diapers.” Bumper stickers read the same, pasted onto VW vans rolling over a rainbow road.
Stuart Elliot (2007) observes a contemporary advertising trend of marketing a romanticized version of the 1960s. The Luv’s commercial exemplifies this strategy, condensing the decade’s potentially controversial aspects into a message that appeals to a wide audience. Elliot writes, “During the ’60s, mass marketers avoided such [controversial] language, fearful of alienating mainstream consumers.” The dominant class saw hippie counterculture as a threat to consumerism and tried to push the movement to the fringe. Some time thereafter, the corporations found a more effective way to deal with dissent: turn the values of a movement into a commodity. The Luv’s advertisement does not merely sell a product; it sells an image of the kind of baby that wears Luv’s (or the kind of parent that buys Luv’s.) The implicit message is that buying this diaper is a way to define oneself as a happy, loving, free, and independent person. Instead of actually aligning oneself with ’60s values (by using cloth diapers perhaps) the culture industry enables consumers to purchase their desired identity.
The VW bus is a powerful symbol that merits further examination. The creators of this advertisement recognized that consumers have been using products to identify with the ’60s spirit of counterculture since, well, the ’60s. In a 2000 interview, former VW bus owner Chalo Colina stated, “The more [the VW bus] got a reputation for being a bohemian vehicle, the more bohemian-type folks you had riding in them, and using them in that kind of particular way and building that reputation” (Burnett, 2002, pp. 93-94). This statement explains how consumers build identities through the cultural goods they buy. In a 2001 interview, David Woodland claimed that he bought a VW bus because it was “a symbol of freedom” (Burnett, 2002, p.99). Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory claims that a product’s symbolic meaning is constructed through a “rapidly spreading repetition of words with special designations” (1976)—words like “freedom” and “bohemian”—and becomes inextricably linked with the actual product. Thus for many, buying a VW bus meant buying freedom.
The bitter irony, of course, (which speaks to the thrust of Horkheimer and Adorno’s observations regarding communication problems) is that the culture industry can turn even anti-consumerism into a commodity. Essentially, some consumers are tricked into believing that they are rebelling against the system when they are actually reinforcing it.
The Luv’s commercial is an example of advertising based on a perceived connection between a good and the image that it promises to provide—the tactic that grew the culture industry into the pervasive system that it is today. Horkheimer and Adorno worry that individuals have become complacent in their acceptance of “individuation”—VW busses, tie die shirts, hemp-based hygiene products, Luv’s diapers—“at the expense of the individuality in whose name it occurred.” By producing consumers who instinctively turn to material goods to express themselves, the system strips individuals of their means to resist (or, arguably, it never gives it to them in the first place.)
In order to examine the power relationships at the societal level, any critical theory will ignore the interpersonal interactions that don’t seem to be directly influencing the greater system. This macro frame is unable to observe how significant counterculture movements grow from the micro level up. Often, such movements are completely void of financial motivation. They rise above the secular interests propagated in the culture industry to promote noble values. Because these values—like equality, justice, freedom—are called inherent rights and not something one should have to buy, they cannot be turned into tradable commodities. Often, these values challenge the dominant ideology propagated by the ruling class. Culture industry theory cannot explain the process by which some social movements move from the grassroots level to overthrow the established power structure.
Horkheimer and Adorno overestimate the ability of the ruling class to produce only the desired kind of consumer. In reality, the system will always produce a few radicals. Sometimes, these anomalies build a culture of their own, a culture based on shared attitudes and beliefs that arise organically and not as the result of manipulation by the ruling class. What kind of culture is feminism, or civil rights? Were they produced by the system, within the web of the culture industry, or did they emerge in spite of the system? The fact is that culture industry theory cannot explain how individuals, like Martin Luther King Jr., are able to unite other individuals and empower them through sacred, not secular, values.
This limitation becomes especially significant considering the proliferation of modern information communication technologies. According to Best (2005), new ICTs like the internet provide a non-hierarchical flow of information and enable new ways to organize and participate in networks. This kind of society is fundamentally different from the one envisioned by Horkheimer and Adorno. No longer limited to a handful of media conglomerates (identical in all practical purposes), Best claims that individuals turn to a variety of small, independent information sources, drawing from a diverse pool of ideas and discourses. Independent media sustains certain alternative beliefs and identifications that do not conform to the mainstream ideology spouted by the dominant class. This new kind of society does, in fact, produce individuals marked by significant, rather than incidental, details.
This trend marks a decentralization of the culture industry’s power structure. Bypassing the traditional media outlets, individuals are free to adopt personal or local values. They begin to form “new social movements” marked by two major trends. First, these movements represent multiple interests and identities; they move beyond the old class disputes to reflect the values of diverse groups. Secondly, these movements are fractured into loose coalitions; they are no longer bound to traditional parties, such as labor unions (Best, 2005). The result is that our capitalist society becomes more democratic, “more cultural, more mediated now than ever before through an expansion of channels and modes of participation and representation” (p. 232). If this is true—individuals produce and reproduce their culture and every day experiences through communication—then culture industry theory overestimates the power of the system to control individuals. It seems that individuals are not merely consumers of culture, but they are producers too.
In light of Best’s observations, I suggest that culture industry theory at least be modified to recognize the potential of ICTs to disrupt, if not altogether dismantle, the self-perpetuating power cycle. The impact of these ICTs, however, has changed communication so fundamentally that perhaps a more radical revision of the theory is necessary. I believe that Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of culture industry is most applicable as way to frame the obstacles that face a socio-cultural conception of contemporary democracy. For example, Best describes how advertising companies sometimes purchase websites from major past protests to capitalize on “slightly behind the times activists” (p. 224). These companies turn ideals into commodities just like Luv’s markets the ’60s, turning citizens back into consumers. We should conceptualize the culture industry as a constant force that is working against the realization of a contemporary democracy, marked by free and open information and participation.
Best, K. (2005). Rethinking the globalization movement: Toward a cultural theory of contemporary democracy and communication. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 2(3), 214-237.
Burnett, D. D. (2002). From Hitler to hippies: The Volkswagen bus in America. Unpublished master’s thesis. The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.
Elliott, S. (2007, December 10). The ’60s as the good old days. The New York Times. [Electronic edition].
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1976) The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception [excerpts] (J. Cumming, Trans.). In Dialectic of Enlightenment, 120-124, 154-167: Continuum International Publishing Group.