Excerpt from Jessica Helfand, "Media Surveillance and the Modern Spectator." Eye, 6:26 (forthcoming, Autumn 1998) 8-9.

Much has been written about methods of measuring audience response, and this is perhaps nowhere more compelling a notion than in the minds (and pocketbooks) of prospective advertisers, though it might arguably be said that designers are just as preoccupied with this particularly over-fetishized aspect of contemporary culture: addressing the interests of one's audience is, after all, central to the designer's process. But advertising complicates this--perhaps even corrupts it. Advertisers in particular have long invested considerable amounts of effort into hiring media research groups to determine the most accurate ways of measuring, and selling to their public. Over time, data collection methods have grown to include everthing from diaries to interviews to telephone recall to personal metering, all ways of taking a kind of collective pulse of the public's viewing habits, one individual (or household) at a time. Such extensive--and invasive--research efforts typically target particular demographic groups in the interest of gaining a more accurate understanding of that audience’s viewing habits and, by conjecture, its assumed patterns of consumption. "Sell good things, things that people should have, and sell them with dignity--and taste," says Deborah Kerr to Clark Gable in the film The Hucksters. "That's a career for any man, a career to be proud of."

Today, the very notion of a targeted demographic is as outmoded as this film. The sheer abundance of programming options on television--or site offerings on the web--have led to a fragmentation not only among audiences themselves but also of the viewing habits that characterize them. Moreover, the notion of "demographic tonnage"--lumping viewers together by age, race and gender--denies the subtle, idiosyncratic details that often make for the most engaging ideas and, not surprisingly, some of the most successful ad campaigns.

Demographics are dangerous. To define an audience in such terms is to constrain its proportions: an audience, by its very nature, is a dynamic entity, not a static body. Its permutations--across time, space and media platforms--make it fundamentally impossible to quantify. Because they presuppose a static viewership, audience measurement tactics are, therefore, inevitably doomed to failure. The simple truth is this: audiences don’t sit still.

And therein lies the problem.


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