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Pretty much everything we do in Media is done with an audience in mind. Everything from writing an essay to making a poster to planning a music video should be done in the sure knowledge that you know who your audience is and what they want. Everything is made for at least one TARGET AUDIENCE. Your job is to understand how to describe audiences, how to find out what they want and how to make it for them.

Describing audiences

It's easier to talk about all these ideas if we have a few example texts to work on. So, here are a couple of car adverts; one for a Hummer, one for a Nissan.

Describing Audiences

The most obvious ways to describe audiences are by AGE and GENDER. The Hummer ad features a young woman climbing a mountain; so already we might think of a female audience, aged perhaps in late twenties to early thirties. Presumably, that's who the PRIMARY AUDIENCE is; it is very common for ads or texts to feature the people at whom the product is aimed. (And a quick bit of internet research tells us that GM, the company who make Hummers, are indeed trying to target young women as well as men.) The Nissan ad shows a young boy and girl. Obviously, it's not aimed at them! It's aimed at the parents of youngish children.


We can get a little more sophisticated than this; we can often identify audiences according to INCOME and OCCUPATION. Obviously, the usual point of advertising is to sell stuff to people, so it's a pretty obvious move to try to figure out what your audience do and how much they are likely to earn. To do this, we divide audiences into DEMOGRAPHIC GROUPS.

Is there any particular social class or demographic group implied in the Hummer ad? Not really. A confused student might suggest that Hummers are aimed at wealthier people - groups A or B - because they cost a lot, but that's focused on the product rather than the ad. Again, a bit of research tells us that GM are actually trying to broaden their target audience because of declining sales; they are making cheaper vehicles and trying to appeal to a less exclusive audience. So, demographics are of little use here because they are deliberately not trying to limit their appeal to certain groups. The Nissan ad shows a typically middle-class suburban environment; it seems clear that they are targeting people in the middle and slightly higher demographics; maybe C2, C1 and B.


Let's go further again; we can explore the psychology of our audience and try to divide them into groups according to the way they think. Now we are using PSYCHOGRAPHICS, and the particular version we are using, shown below, is the version created by Young and Rubicam.

Looking at the Hummer ad, we might notice that it uses iconography which is connotative of freedom, adventure, fitness, individuality and challenge. Even the design, with its slightly unusual split on the left hand third, seems a bit alternative and 'edgy.' As such, we might be looking at the 'explorer' category, and that is a perfectly valid suggestion. Another student, however, perhaps more familiar with the dominant representations and the conventional media language associated with car ads will realise that this is a very typical advert for cars, and as such it is very recogniseable and comfortable for the audience. To put it another way, it is very mainstream, and it might be designed to appeal to by far the biggest group; mainstreamers. Similarily, the Nissan ad represents the 'typical' family using very familiar ideas - suburban existence, 2 children, boys and girls in a binary opposition. It's all very typical, very mainstream and, like most ads, it's aimed at mainstreamers.


So - the Hummer ad is aimed at a fairly mainstream female audience in their late 20s/ early 30s, perhaps with a desire to be seen as an explorer. The Nissan ad is aimed at a mainstreamer middle-class audience, in demographic categories B - C2 who have young children.

Audience theory

We have a few ideas - theories - we often use to explain how the media address or seek to attract audiences. 




The oldest, simplest and least useful idea. This theory states that information is simply 'injected' into the audience's head; that there is a direct, TRANSMISSIONAL relationship between media and audience.




With some texts, this direct link probably does exist: here, for example, there is a very simple, direct message with little room for misinterpretation. (We call such texts, with little or no connotation, CLOSED TEXTS.)


However, most texts are considerably more complex than this and as such nobody really thinks the hypodermic needle theory is a very good explanation of how texts convey their meaning. It is sometimes useful in explaining very simple texts, or small parts of more complex texts.



This theory, introduced by Lazarsfeld and Katz in 1955, suggests that audiences can be divided into 'opinion leaders' and 'opinion followers.' Opinion leaders are those who seek out information, learn about subjects and thus create their own, well-informed opinions. They then influence the opinion followers. So, for example, a student in school who knows a lot about music (or computers, or fashion, or gaming) is very likely to influence the opinions of those he interacts with. It makes sense, then, for advertisers, or other sectors of the media, to target the opinion leaders since it is actually them who persuade the majority to think and behave in certain ways.



This BMW ad, for example, appeals in a number of ways, but in terms of two-step flow we probably need to look at the text at the bottom. It contains (slightly) technical information about transmission and acceleration times; information that most people won't really know how to interpret. It is aimed at those opinion leaders who understand what the claims being made actually mean; the idea is that they will then inform the opinion followers, either by word of mouth or via reviews, online forums and so on. People like journalists who write for auto magazines would be obvious targets, but also those who are heavily involved in relevant online sites and so on.



The third and most useful theory, this one starts by assuming that audiences are ACTIVE; they actually look for things in texts rather than simply receiving what they are given as PASSIVE audiences (which is what transmissional theories like the hypodermic needle model assume.) There are various versions of the theory, but we tend to favour the one devised by McQuail and Blumler, which identifies four things audiences look for (and which, of course, a clever advertiser will seek to provide.) They are:

  • DIVERSION (or entertainment)

  • PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS (to form relationships with people who consume the same media.)

  • PERSONAL IDENTITY (to express or explore ideas about their own identities.)

  • SURVEILLANCE (to learn about the world.)

So, if we glance up at that BMW ad again, we might look for how it offers Diversion. Look at the media language - the (heavily edited) photography is beautiful, in terms of composition, palette and so on. This alone offers some aesthetic pleasure and entertainment. There is no sense of personal relationships being offered; there is no attempt to offer the audience a place in a community or to sell the car as a 'popular' choice. Possibly they want to emphasise exclusivity instead. Personal relationships - what does this ad suggest to the audience about themselves? That they appreciate power, beauty, fine engineering; that they are an audience (probably in the top demographic group) who appreciate quality products. And finally, surveillance - does this ad seek to educate us about the world? No, not really - that would be more relevant if we were analysing a news broadcast or a documentary.

Audience Research

Audience effects

Possibly the most controversial area of Media Studies is in audience effects; basically, this is an ongoing debate about the possible effects that Media consumption might have on the audience. Several high profile cases - the murder of Jamie Bulger, the Bobo doll experiment, the Columbine killings - have all seemed to suggest that there is a link between observing violence in the Media and being violent in real life. Most people, indeed, seem to automatically accept that this is the case. We can identify several possible outcomes of media consumption if we choose to agree with the effects model.


  • MODELLING - copying what we see.

  • CONDITIONING/ CULTIVATION - our psychological state is affected and possibly permanently 'damaged' by the Media we consume

  • MEAN WORLD SYNDROME - a type of conditioning whereby we become convinced that the world is more threatening or dangerous than it actually is.

  • CATHARSIS - an alternative suggestion whereby we argue that tendencies towards violence, for example, are actually satisfied (or 'purged' - that's what catharsis means) by watching violent things. That is, if we watch them, we are less likely to do them.


However, be aware that there are several issues with this model. Firstly, it assumes that the audience is passive - that they will mindlessly copy what they see. We have already seem that this is considered an inadequate idea. Secondly, those who subscribe to the model are very selective about where they apply it. The Bible is extremely violent. Several murderers have listened to classical music. One novel, The Catcher in the Rye, has been associated with several killings. However, there are never calls to regulate or ban these things; only popular culture, usually a few forms of music and/ or computer games. Finally, a lot of the experiments used to support the idea - such as the Bobo dolls experiment - are very artificial. They do not necessarily predict real-world behaviour.


A huge part of audience work is research - given that producing media is expensive and time-consuming, a lot of work goes into trying to ensure that there is actually an audience willing to buy or watch or read whatever is being produced.


It is important to understand that there are several ways to research audiences and they usually produce different types of data. There are two basic types of data we want.



This is information which is exact, easily gathered and measured and easily displayed. It usually come in the form of numbers. If you were researching the potential audience for a car advert, for example, useful quantitative data might be the age range of people in the audience, their income range, the number of cars they own on average and so on.  This data can easily be gathered using questionnaires.



The numbers are a useful starting point, but they are rarely enough by themselves. Generally the more useful data is more subjective. This is qualitative data. It is harder to gather and measure, more challenging to interpret but generally richer and more revealing. We might gather this data by organising a focus group made up of people from our target audience and asking them for their opinions on the cars we are advertising. We might show them a few ads and ask for opinions or thoughts. We might try to find what connotaions those cars already have for them. We could show them our various plans for advertising ideas and se what works with them. We would record the conversation and go through the recording later for useful information.




Obviously, both qualitative and quantitative data are important. A basic principle of audience research is that we want different types of data, so we have to do different types of research; the usual minimum suggested is three, so we talk about triangulating the research. A good student will, for example, send out an initial questionnaire to get basic quantitative data, organise a focus group in the early stages of planning, and show their rough cuts or mock ups to a screening group. And, of course, they will actually listen to what their audience tells them and change their plans or work accordingly if they see fit.


Useful Docs




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