Let’s look at how the synthesis process works in media messages. An ongoing advertising campaign illustrates some of these techniques. One important use of background information is to identify trends in population and consumer preferences in order to develop products and ad campaigns.
The Dodge automobile company has, for years, used its understanding of the changing trends in automobile and truck ownership to design ad campaigns that cleverly synthesize several themes.
Notice the way the ad interweaves appeals to audiences by psychographic, demographic and lifestyle characteristics. The car is not just touted for its powerful engine but also for the way it can “convert” to a “wagon” to carry water skis, picnic supplies and other family-related gear.
When the Japanese automobile company Toyota ran into significant trouble with their vehicles’ braking systems and consumers and regulators started raising questions about their quality control, Dodge capitalized on the opportunity to distinguish their products from Toyota and the other foreign competitors that have always scored very high with U.S. consumers.
Notice how the ad uses a psychological appeal to the “home-grown” aspect of Dodge vehicles and to the patriotic theme of buying American. The commercial appeared on the usual television programs targeted towards men (sports programs, etc.) but it also appeared on sitcoms and programs with a female audience as well. The example points out how the ad staff used synthesis of information about who is buying cars to come up a way to communicate to a new audience through new choices for creative elements and media purchases.
News professionals also use their synthesis skills to tell stories. Synthesis skills help you get the story right, provide context, help the audience understand larger trends and put things together rather than seeing things as isolated, disconnected, random occurrences.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a story about the loss of 750 Minnesota jobs to Florida when the telemarketing firm Fingerhut decided they needed a bilingual work force in order to have successful telephone transactions with Spanish-speaking potential customers. (Berg & Apgar) The resultant news story used the Fingerhut incident to provide larger context for the event. Why did this major company feel it had reason to move its operation? Business forces showed the company an important trend, and the reporter and editors thought it was also important for the audience to understand that trend.
Reporters gathered background information about the makeup of the U.S. population, including census figures showing that Hispanics made up a substantial percentage of the population and would overtake African Americans in the next decade as the largest minority group. Data also showed both native-born and immigrant population growth among Spanish-speaking residents. Reporters used U.S. government figures to show that 32 million Americans spoke a language other than English at home and one-third of school kids in major cities spoke English as a second language.
Reporters also provided information about differences in cultures. Hispanics tend to be more reluctant than other immigrant groups to embrace English quickly. For evidence, reporters pointed to Spanish-language Yellow Pages issued in most Sun Belt cities and the fact that the number of Spanish-language radio stations had doubled to more than 400 in the previous decade. Univision and Telemundo, the top Spanish-language TV networks in the U.S., were strong promoters of their culture and of consumer products for the Hispanic community.
Fingerhut moved to Florida because, at the time of the story, the work force there was 18 percent bilingual and Spanish-speaking customers were the company’s fastest-growing market segment. The news story provided information about other companies that were scouting opportunities to sell to Hispanics, including local giants such as Target and Wells Fargo Bank.
The news story talked about government agencies that try to accommodate Spanish speakers, such as the IRS, which offers tax forms in Spanish, the communities that provide ballots in Spanish, and states that offer drivers’ tests in Spanish. Reporters also talked about the controversy that these accommodations engendered. Reporters consulted social scientists who discussed the history of cultural integration, close ties between the Spanish language, Mexican culture, and early U.S. expansion. The story also talked about laws established in 23 states to require English as the official language, and legal challenges to those statutes.
In short, reporters and editors used their information selection and synthesis skills to give an isolated news event greater context than it otherwise might. They used their synthesis of information to provide multiple perspectives, trends, and supporting evidence. The news event was not just a one-day story about Fingerhut moving jobs, but rather an opportunity to discuss legal issues, social and cultural issues, and economic issues in a way that was engaging and understandable.
The synthesis process also applies to you if you are writing academic reports and projects, an especially important point because the synthesis process in academic writing is often overlooked. When you are working on a scholarly term paper or project, you want to be able to understand and restate the meaning of all the information you have read and be able to draw conclusions from it. In addition, as you do scholarly writing, you need to apply the same skeptical eye when evaluating academic sources of information as when you would judge material for a media message. Try to organize material around themes, ideas, perspectives, and points of view.