A central concern of media studies is to understand the transactions of meaning that are established between the encoders and decoders of media messages: senders and receivers, authors and audiences, producers and consumers. More precisely, this discipline has aimed to describe the semantic disconnects that occur when organisations, governments, businesses, and people communicate and interact across media, and, further, to understand the causes of these miscommunications and to theorise their social and cultural implications. As the media environment becomes complicated by increasingly multimodal messages broadcast to diverse languages and cultures, it is no surprise that misunderstanding seems to occur more (and not less) frequently, forcing difficult questions of society’s ability to refine mass communication into a more streamlined, more effective, and less error-prone system.
The communication of meaning to mass audiences has long been theorised (e.g.: Shannon and Weaver; Schramm; Berlo) using the metaphor of a “transmitted message.” While these early researchers varied in their approaches to the study of mass communication, common to their theoretical models is to characterise miscommunication as a dysfunction of the pure transmission process: interference that prevents the otherwise successful relay of meaning from a “sender” to a “receiver.” For example, Schramm’s communication model is based upon two individuals sharing “fields of experience”; error and misunderstanding occur to the extent that these fields do not overlap. For Shannon and Weaver, these disconnects were described explicitly as semantic noise: distortions of meaning that resulted in the message received being different from what was being transmitted.
While much of this early research in mass communication continues to be relevant to students of communication and media studies, the transmission metaphor has been called into question for the way it frames miscommunication as a distortion of otherwise clear and stable “meaning,” and not as an inevitable result of the gray area that lies between every sender’s intention and a receiver’s interpretation. It is precisely this problem with the transmission metaphor that Derrida calls into question. For Derrida (as well as for many post-structuralists, linguists, and cultural theorists) what we communicate cannot necessarily be intended or interpreted in any stable fashion. Rather, Derrida describes communication as inherently “iterable … able to break with every given context, and engender infinitely new contexts in an absolutely unsaturable fashion” (“Signature” 320). Derrida is concerned that the transmission metaphor doesn’t account for the fact that all signs (words, images, and so on) can signify a multitude of things to different individuals in different contexts, at different points in time. Further, he reminds us that any perceived signification (and thus, meaning) is produced finally, not by the sender, but by the receiver.
Within Derrida’s conception of communication as a perpetually open-ended system, the concept of noise takes on a new shape. Perhaps ambiguous meaning is not the “noise” of an otherwise pure system, but rather, perhaps it is only noise that constitutes all acts of communication. Indeed, while Derrida agrees that the consistency and repetition of language help to limit the effects of iterability, he believes that all meaning is ambiguous and never final. Therefore, to communicate is to perpetually negotiate this semantic ambiguity, not to overcome it, constrain it, or push it aside.
With these thoughts in mind, when I return to a focus on mass media and media communication, it becomes readily apparent that there do exist sites of cultural production where noise is not only prolific, but where it is also functional—and indeed crucial to a communicator’s goals. Such sites are what Mark Nunes describes as “cultures of noise”: a term I specify in this paper to describe those organised media practices that seem to negotiate, function, and thrive by communicating ambiguously, or at the very least, by resisting the urge to signify explicitly. Cultures of noise are important to the study of media precisely for the ways they call into question our existing paradigms of what it means to communicate. By suggesting that aberrant interpretations of meaning are not dysfunctions of what would be an otherwise efficient system, cultures of noise reveal how certain “asignifying poetics” might be productive and generative for our communication goals.
The purpose of this paper is to understand how cultures of noise function by exploring one such case study: the pervasive use of commercial stock images throughout mass media. I will describe how the semantic ambiguity embedded into the construction and sale of stock images is productive both to the stock photography industry and to certain practices of advertising, marketing, and communicating corporate identity. I will begin by discussing the stock image’s dependence upon semantic ambiguity and the productive function this ambiguity serves in supporting the success of the stock photography industry. I will then describe how this ambiguity comes to be employed by corporations and advertisers as “filler content,” enabling these producers to elide the accountability and risk that is involved with more explicit communication.
Ambiguous Raw Material: The Stock Industry as a Culture of Noise
The photographic image has been a staple of corporate identity for as long as identity has been a concern of corporations. It is estimated that more than 70% of the photographic images used in today’s corporate marketing and advertising have been acquired from a discrete group of stock image firms and photography stock houses (Frosh 5). In fact, since its inception in the 1970’s, increasing global dependence on stock imagery has grown the practice of commercial stock photography into a billion dollar a year industry.
Commercial stock images are somewhat peculiar. Unlike other non-fiction genres of stock photography (e.g., editorial and journalistic) commercial stock images present explicitly fictive, constructed scenes. Indeed, many of the images of business workers, doctors, and soccer moms that one finds through a Google Image search are actually actors hired to stage a scene. In this way, commercial stock images share much more in common with the images produced for advertising campaigns, in that they are designed to support branding and corporate identity messages. However, unlike traditional advertising images, which are designed to deliver a certain message for a quite specific application (think ‘Tide stain test’ or ‘posh woman in the Lexus’), commercial stock images have been purposely constructed with no particular application in mind.
On the contrary, stock images must be designed to anticipate the diverse needs of cultural intermediaries—design firms, advertising agencies, and corporate marketing teams—who will ultimately purchase the majority of these images. (Frosh 57) To achieve these goals, every commercial stock image is designed to be somewhat open-ended, in order to offer up a field of potential meanings, and yet these images also seem to anticipate the applications of use that will likely appeal to the discourses of corporate marketing and advertising. In this way, the commercial stock image might best be understood as undefined raw material, as a set of likely potentialities still lacking a final determination—what Derrida describes as “undecided” meaning:
“I want to recall that undecidability is always a determinate oscillation between possibilities (for example, of meaning, but also of acts). These possibilities are highly determined in strictly concerned situations … they are pragmatically determined. The analyses that I have devoted to undecidability concern just these determinations and these definitions, not at all some vague “indeterminacy”. I say “undecidability” rather than “indeterminacy” because I am interested more in relations of force, in everything that allows, precisely, determinations in given situations to be stabilised through a decision … .” (Limited 148)
A stock image’s ambiguity is the result of an intentional design process whereby the stock photography industry presents the maximum range of possible meanings, and yet, falls artfully short of “deciding” any of them. Rather, it is the advertisers, designers, and marketers who ultimately make these decisions by finding utility for the image in a certain context. The more customers that can find a use for a certain image, the more this image will be purchased, and the more valuable that particular stock image becomes.
It is precisely in this way that the stock photography industry functions as a culture of noise and raises questions of the traditional sender-to-receiver model of communication. Cultures of noise not only embrace semantic ambiguity; they rely upon this ambiguity for their success. Indeed, the success of the stock photography industry quite literally depends upon the aberrant and unpredictable interpretations of buyers. It is now quite explicitly the “receiver,” and not the “sender,” who controls meaning by imbuing the image with meaning for a specific context and specific need.
Once purchased, the “potentialities” of meaning within a stock image become somewhat determined by its placement within a certain context of circulation, such as its use for a banking advertisement or healthcare brochure. In many cases, the meaning of a given stock image is also specified by the text with which it is paired. (Fig. 1) Using text to control the meaning of an image is what Roland Barthes describes as anchorage, “the creator’s (and hence society’s) right of inspection over the image; anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility in the face of the projective power of pictures-for the use of the message” (156). By using text to constrain how an image should be interpreted, the subjects, forms, and composition of a stock image work to complement the textual message in a clear and defined way.
Fig. 1: Courtesy of Washington Mutual. Used by permission.
Barthes’ textual anchorage: In advertising and marketing, the subject, form and composition of a stock image are made specific by the text with which the image is paired.
Filler Content: Advertising and Marketing as a Culture of Noise
In other marketing and advertising messages, I observe that stock images are used in quite a different way, as filler content: open-ended material that takes the place of more explicit, message-oriented elements. As a culture of noise, filler content opposes the goal of generating a clear and specific message. Rather, the goal of filler content is to present an ambiguous message to consumers. When stock images are used as filler content, they are placed into advertising and marketing messages with virtually the same degree of ambiguity as when the image was originally constructed. Such images receive only vague specificity from textual anchorage, and little effort is made by the message producer to explicitly “decide” a message’s meaning.
Consider the image (Fig. 2) used in a certain marketing design. Compared with Figure 1, this design makes little attempt to specify the meaning of the image through text. On the contrary, the image is purposely left open to our individual interpretations. Without textual anchorage, the image is markedly “undecided.” As such, it stages the same ambiguous potential for final consumers as it did for the advertiser who originally purchased the image from the stock image house.
Fig. 2: Courtesy of VISA.com. Used by permission.
Filler content: What meaning(s) does the image have for you? Love? Happiness? Leisure? Freedom? The Outdoors? Perhaps you rode your bike today?
While filler content relies upon audiences to fill in the blanks, it also inserts meaning by leveraging the cultural reinforcement of other, similar images. Consider the way that the image of “a woman with a headset” has come to signify customer service (Fig. 3). The image doesn’t represent this meaning on its own, but it works as part of a larger discourse, what Paul Frosh describes as an “image repertoire” (91). By bombarding us incessantly with a repetition of similar images, the media continues to bolster the iconic value that certain stock images possess. The woman with the headset has become an icon of a “Customer Service Representative” because we are exposed to a repetition of images that repeatedly stage the same or similar scene of this idea. As Frosh suggests, “this is the essence of the concept-based stock image: it constitutes a pre-formed, generically familiar visual symbol that calls forth relevant connotations from the social experience of viewers…” (79).
Fig. 3: The image repertoire: All filler content depends upon the iconic status of certain stock photography clichés, categories and familiar scenes. Perhaps you have seen these images before?
As a culture of noise, stock images in advertising and marketing function as filler content in two ways: 1) meaning is left undecided by the advertiser who intends for customers to create their own interpretations of an advertisement; 2) meaning is generated by the ideological constructs of an “image repertoire” that is itself promulgated by the stock photography industry. As such, filler content signals a shift in the goals of modern advertising and marketing, where corporate messages are designed to be increasingly ambiguous, and meaning seems to be decided more than ever by the final audience. As marketing psychologists Kim and Kahle suggest:
Advertising strategy … may need to be changed. Instead of providing the “correct” consumption episodes, marketers could give … an open-ended status, thereby allowing consumers to create the image on their own and to decide the appropriateness of the product for a given need or situation. (63)
The potentiality of meanings that was initially embedded into stock images in order to make them more attractive to cultural intermediaries, is also being “passed on” to the final audiences by these same advertisers and marketers. The same noisy signification that supported the sale of stock photos from the stock industry to advertisers now also seems to support the “sale” of messages that advertisers pass on to their audiences. In the same way as the stock photography industry, practices of filler content in advertising also create a culture of noise, by relying upon ambiguous messages that end customers are now forced to both produce and consume.
Safe and Vague: The Corporate Imperative
Ambiguous communication is not, by itself, egregious. On the contrary, many designers believe that creating a space for thoughtful, open-ended discovery is one of the best ways to provide a meaningful experience to end users. Interaction designer and professor Philip Van Allen describes one such approach to ambiguous design as “productive interaction”: “an open mode of communication where people can form their own outcomes and meanings … sharing insights, dilemmas and questions, and creating new opportunities for synthesis” (56). The critical difference between productive interaction and filler content is one of objective. While media designers embrace open-ended design as a way to create deeper, more meaningful connections with users, modern advertising employs ambiguous design elements, such as stock images, to elide a responsibility to message.
Indeed, many marketing and organisational communication researchers (e.g.: Chreim; Elsbach and Kramer; Cheney) suggest that as corporations manage their identities to increasingly disparate and diverse media audiences, misunderstandings are more likely to bring about identity dissonance: that is, “disconnections” between the identity projected by the organisation and the identity attributed to an organisation by its customer-public. To grapple with identity dissonance, Samia Chreim suggests that top managers may choose to engage in the practice of dissonance avoidance: the use of ambiguous messages to provide flexibility in the interpretations of how customers can define a brand or organisation:
Dissonance avoidance can be achieved through the use of ambiguous terms … organisations use ambiguity to unite stakeholders under one corporate banner and to stretch the interpretation of how the organisation, or a product or a message can be defined. (76)
Corporations forgo the myriad disconnects and pitfalls of mass communication by choosing never to craft an explicit message, hold a position, or express a belief that customers could demur or discount. In such instances, it appears that cultures of noise, such as filler content, may service a shrewd corporate strategy that works to mitigate their responsibility to message.
A Responsibility to Message
This discussion of “cultures of noise” contributes to media studies by situating semantic noise as productive, and indeed, sometimes vital, to practices of media communication. Understanding the role of semantic noise in communication is an important corner for media scholars to turn, especially as today’s message producers rely and thrive upon certain productive aspects of ambiguous communication.
However, this discussion also suggests that all media messages must be critically evaluated in quite a different way. While past analyses of media messages have sought to root out the subversive and manipulative factors that resided deep down in our culture, cultures of noise suggest that it is now also important for media studies to consider the deleterious effects of media’s noisy, diluted, and facile surface. Jean Baudrillard was deeply concerned that the images used in media are too often “used for delusion, for the elusion of communication … for absolving face-to-face relations and social responsibilities. They don’t really lead to action, they substitute for it most of the time” (203).
Indeed, while the stock image as filler content may solve the problems faced by corporate message producers in a highly ramified media environment, there is an increasing need to question the depth of meaning in our visual culture. What is the purpose of a given image? What is the producer trying to say? Is it relying on end users to find meaning? Are the images relying an iconic repertoire? Is the producer actually making a statement? And if not, why not?
As advertising and marketing continues to shape the visual ground of our culture, Chreim also warns us of our responsibility to message:
What is gained in avoiding [identity dissonance] can be lost in the ability to create meaning for stakeholders. Over-reliance on abstract terms may well leave the organisation with a hollow core, one that cannot be appropriated by [customers] in their quest for meaning and identification with the organisation. (88)
While cultures of noise may be productive in mitigating the problems of dissonance and miscommunication, and while they may signal new opportunity spaces for design, media, and mass communication, we must also remember that a reliance on ambiguity can sometimes cripple our ability to say anything meaningful at all.