About Joel Penney, Ph.D.: Joel Penney is Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Dr. Penney’s research explores participatory politics and the relationship between politics and popular culture. His first book, The Citizen Marketer: Promoting Political Opinion in the Social Media Age, received the Roderick P. Hart Outstanding Book Award from the Political Communication Division of the National Communication Association and the Best Book Award from the Information, Technology and Politics Division of the American Political Science Association.

Dr. Penney’s latest book, Pop Culture, Politics, and the News: Entertainment Journalism in the Polarized Media Landscape, was published in 2022 by Oxford University Press. He has published articles in a number of leading journals in communication and media and technology studies, including Television & New Media, Popular Communication, Convergence, and Communication, Culture & Critique, and is the author of several book chapters that appear in edited volumes. Dr. Penney has also served as a reviewer for important journals like New Media & Society and Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Prior to entering academia, Dr. Penney worked in the entertainment industry. He received his Ph.D. in Communication from The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and, as a graduate student, received a Top Student Paper Award from the Popular Communication Division of the International Communication Association. Dr. Penney received his B.S. in Communication from Northwestern University where he majored in radio, television, and film.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in political communication and begin to study the significance of digital media for political advocacy and activism?

[Dr. Joel Penney] As an undergraduate I studied film and television, and that is when I became interested in media. When I graduated, I worked for several years in the entertainment industry, which was very eye opening. After that, I decided to pursue a graduate degree at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), which was a combined Master’s and Ph.D. program.

I have always had an interest in the relationship between artistic expression and political influence. I did not necessarily go into graduate school specifically thinking about myself as a political communication scholar. That evolved over time. My main orientation on the graduate level was in cultural studies and LGBTQ+ issues related to media, through the lens of cultural studies and critical, qualitative analysis. Ultimately, I became fascinated with slogan t-shirts and t-shirts as a form of public activism and expression, which became the subject of my dissertation.

That took me down an interesting road, particularly with respect to the 2008 presidential election. There was a phenomenon at the time of Obama shirts and Obama-related fashion. I became engaged with research on unofficial political campaigning and its relationship to official campaigns. I began to explore the merchandising of political campaigns and compared that to these more grassroots cultural expressions of support for candidates and other social issues.

I came to study political advocacy and participatory political communication, then, through a number of steps. I wanted to understand how citizens participate in political communication, including through material culture like shirts and bumper stickers. The connection between this form of participation and the booming digital culture became obvious. In my dissertation, I looked at the relationship between material culture in political campaigns and social movement advocacy. For example, people would often employ the digital to post pictures of themselves and others wearing campaign merchandise. The converse would also happen where a hashtag or a profile picture would become a t-shirt, and merchandise became a vehicle through which these digital objects were shared.

This generated my interest in digital political communication. After completing my dissertation, I began working here at Montclair State University, where I have been now for over a decade, as a professor in the School of Communication and Media, which was just getting started when I joined the faculty. In my research since then, I have looked at ways in which people participate in what I have called “viral politics,” through sharing memes, viral videos, and through profile picture campaigns.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Many of the themes of your research you just introduced come together in your first book, The Citizen Marketer: Promoting Political Opinion in the Social Media Age, which received the Roderick B. Hart Outstanding Book Award from the Political Communication Division of the National Communication Association. Would you introduce us to the concept of the “citizen marketer” and discuss what reframing online participation as a mode of “viral marketing” allows you to capture about how digital platforms have helped transform political communication?

[Dr. Joel Penney] This book, in some ways, presaged the era of the social media influencer. I was talking about that concept before the term influencer became widely adopted. Today, I think society is very aware of people who are not necessarily paid political operatives (though now sometimes they are) using digital tools to influence campaigns. A lot of The Citizen Marketer talks about political participation through material culture. It explores how citizens use their platforms — which could be their digital accounts, their physical bodies, or their car bumper stickers — to advance political influence messaging. This is both in terms of capital P politics like campaigns or elections and with respect to movement activism, which I explored partially in the context of LGBTQ+ movements.

The book is built around adapting the concept of the citizen consumer for an era in which people increasingly perform promotional labor through their everyday media interactions. The idea of the citizen consumer is that you use your role as a consumer to do political things, for example, boycotts and buy-cott campaigns. This book was heavily influenced by my professor at Penn, Kathryn Sender, and a book we read in her course by Lizabeth Cohen called A Consumer’s Republic, which talks extensively about the citizen consumer.

The citizen marketer was intended as an adaptation of this concept to account for the emerging digital phenomena of people donating promotional labor to various kinds of organizations including companies and campaigns, simply by sharing content and sometimes creating their own posts. In the world of social media almost everyone is a kind of marketer, whether they are fully aware of it or intend to behave in that capacity.

Many of the exposés on the digital economy have drawn more attention to the concept of free digital labor and how that is exploited by companies and has become a place where political and social movement organizations are very aware about how to draft supporters into working as participatory marketers. I was very interested in how this was transforming political communication.

Part of the book, for example, focuses on the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and their equal sign campaign at the time of the Supreme Court hearings on same sex marriage in 2013, which I had also previously published an article on. The HRC worked to get all sorts of folks who supported same sex marriage to share an image of a red equal sign. These grassroots ways of participating in the marketing of politicians, ideologies, and causes were taking place in very interesting ways in the digital landscape.

At the same time, one of the main points of the book was to historicize these methods, and to argue they are not unique to the digital era, which intensifies them and blows them up to a larger scale. Looking at political t-shirts and other forms of material culture, like 19th century parades in which people wore political sashes prior to the invention of campaign buttons, helps tune us into the long history of the citizen marketer.

I do want to clarify that the Citizen Marketer was not celebrating this aspect of politics, nor was it arguing that citizen marketing was advancing democratization. I wanted to problematize this concept and look at it critically, while engaging with the ideological pushback against the contact points between activism and marketing. That critique is more or less a Marxist one, which says activists need to resist the capitalist trappings of marketing when they are pursuing social justice. The book tries to take a more nuanced position. The tactics and techniques of marketing can be appropriated, even for class-based activism. AdBusters provides a template for this.

My ultimate message is that, no matter what one’s political criticisms of marketing may be, this is how political media works now. It is not something activists can set aside or ignore.

Reflecting on the book now, I find the parts where I discuss right wing activism significant. I am making the argument that the tools and techniques of the citizen marketer are quite adaptable to different groups and constituencies. As much as this can be a vehicle for social justice activism, it can just as easily be adopted by white supremacist groups and hate groups. The Trump campaign was a hallmark of citizen marketing in its use of shirts and hats, its “meme army,” and its subreddits. All of this brings us to our contemporary understanding of the digital influencer and their role in politics.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You just published your second book, Pop Culture, Politics, and the News: Entertainment Journalism in the Polarized Media Landscape. Would you provide us with some background on this book project and its thesis that entertainment journalism has emerged as an important site of political communication in contemporary culture?

[Dr. Joel Penney] This book extends my long-term interest in popular culture as a player in political affairs. It discusses the discourse around Hollywood and celebrity cultures as a platform for political messaging, argumentation, and discourse. The project was originally focused entirely on think-piece journalism as a form of entertainment journalism that engages with trendy pop culture subjects in the news and uses that as a basis to advance political ideas in the public sphere.

News articles loomed very large in those conversations. My research began to shift from participation and the people who were sharing messages online to the content, what was actually being shared, and where it came from. This led me to focus on media producers and media professionals. A lot of the book is built from interviews with professionals working in the field of entertainment journalism and cultural reporting to try to understand how that industry works and how it has become a player in political communication and discourse.

For current examples, we might look at think pieces on J.K. Rowling, Kanye West, and Dave Chapelle. These articles are widely shared and built for social media circulation. The core argument of the book is that we need to look at the journalism around popular culture and how it engages with hot button issues of our time, particularly what is often labeled identity politics — battles over race, sexuality, and gender. Media representation and representation in entertainment are major sources of that discourse, which includes other things like celebrity activism.

What perhaps interested me the most about this project was that there was very little research on it. Journalism studies had not afforded much attention to entertainment journalism. There was slightly more work in cultural studies scholarship. Overall, though, there was very little work on this, and that presented an opportunity to do descriptive research to understand what was going on and take a close look at how entertainment journalists use coverage of Marvel movies, rappers, and comedians to talk about the important political issues of the day.

Part of the reason this is so important is this type of content is extremely popular. People spend a lot of time clicking on this content and reading these articles. They are very accessible. The question becomes whether this is a bridge to get people who may otherwise not be politically engaged to care about these issues. Most existing work on “soft news” that probed this question had been conducted prior to the #MeToo movement, which used Hollywood as a springboard to discuss sexual violence.

There is, interestingly, a more robust tradition in the Scandinavian context that discusses these issues, which was quite inspirational for me. Attempting to ask about this connection between content and political engagement brought me to conduct audience interviews with people who share this type of content.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you describe the antagonistic agendas of right and left entertainment media you map in this book and discuss your examination of the way these agendas are shaped by the profit structure of media platforms and tendencies in audience reception?

[Dr. Joel Penney] The book explores entertainment journalism in the U.S. context, which includes a focus on right wing and left wing coverage. There is a chapter in the new book about conservative media and its engagement with entertainment coverage, which I explore as performing a backlash against Hollywood. This rhetoric continues today, as we see drag shows emerging as a focus of protest. It has become very clear how conservative movements use these entertainment topics to make cultural arguments about the woke left.

I was able to speak with some conservative journalists about this, which was very interesting. I talk a lot about Breitbart in the book, but the company rejected my request to speak with them for the project. I did speak with other right wing journalists, and that was very illuminating. It gave me access to research something that is not very well understood in existing scholarship. Conservative entertainment journalism cultivates backlash to Hollywood wokeness — for example, when Marvel makes a superhero movie about a woman, or Disney casts a Black actor to play a princess, or LGBT+ characters are featured in children’s cartoons — as a way to mobilize their base.

On the other hand, a big part of this book looks at how Hollywood is dealing with calls for increased diversity. Entertainment journalism has played a critical advocacy role in this process. On the left, we see many examples of this form of media being used to advance social justice, diversity and inclusion. Entertainment now exists at the center of political debates. In the book, I hope to draw attention to these trends. You have to look at entertainment news as an important element of the political communication landscape that has been almost completely ignored.

I do consider how this focus on celebrity can be a distraction from important issues in society, while it can also be a vehicle to get people interested in topics of racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia. That tension is more interesting to me than making a blanket normative argument around all this material; I try to elevate the tensions at play for the audience rather than making a pat claim about where it all may be heading.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Two of your recent journal publications explore youth participation online: “‘It’s So Hard Not to be Funny in This Situation’: Memes and Humor in U.S. Youth Online Political Expression, ” and “It’s My Duty to be Like ‘This is Wrong’: Youth Political Social Media Practices in the Trump Era.” What motivated you to focus your examination of political communication online on young people in particular, and how do the explorations of political citizenship and humor in these articles nuance our understanding of the political consequences of social media?

[Dr. Joel Penney] My interest in the youth demographic was partly inspired by a course I teach at Montclair State about youth culture. When I came to that course, I was interested in the way popular culture skews toward youth culture. I was familiar, especially, with youth culture research through culture studies. It is also an important area of interest for me because young people are, quite literally, the future.

In the digital context, their status as early adopters of these technologies is important. So is their level of disengagement. My questions about political citizenship and participation really stem from this concern. There is a large amount of current research around youth disengagement. Even though we talk about Gen Z as being extremely politically engaged, we still find voting rates from younger demographics are lower than other groups in the United States.

I was part of a really great pre-conference about this topic at the International Communication Association conference that was put together by Lynn Schofield Clark. Her book with Regina Marchi [Young People and the Future of News] is a major influence on my current work, where I explore youth political participation through focus groups.

This use of old-school qualitative and ethnographic methods sets my work apart from the increasing emphasis on data scraping and computational methods in studying digital politics. These approaches have value, but I do not think they can get at questions about political motivation and how people perceive what they are doing when they share news online or political memes, which is what I am interested in in the publications you mention.

I want to understand how people make meaning from these processes. My cultural studies background means that I am always looking at the processes of meaning-making. I follow Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall in thinking about meaning-making in everyday life and popular culture and apply this to thinking about how young people use memes to get involved in political discussions or deal with misinformation.

I went into these focus groups without any notions about what I might find, in an attempt to build my conclusions from the ground up. The level to which a lot of these participants discussed their duty to address perceived injustice and speak out, for instance, against the Trump administration was very pronounced. These findings led to the publication [“It’s My Duty to be Like ‘This is Wrong’”].

The other study is about humor. In my focus groups, I found, not the wholesale embrace of humor, but a complex relationship that young people had toward humor online. There was a push and pull between embracing political humor and concern about memes oversimplifying things or being an inappropriate response to what was in the news. I think that is an exciting thing about qualitative work; it is exploratory by design, and you do not know what conclusions your questions will lead to.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Many of your publications discuss media representations of LGBTQ+ people and LGBTQ+ media activism, either as their main focus or in the course of exploring political activism more broadly. Are there important insights from this focal point in your work that you would highlight?

[Dr. Joel Penney] This has always been a strong interest of mine. As a graduate student, my first publication was on the politics of Brokeback Mountain. My new book [Pop Culture, Politics, and the News] discusses LGBTQ+ issues quite a bit. Some celebrities have become lightning rods for political controversy, like Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling, because of their discourses on the LGBTQ+ community. Putting gay characters in Hollywood movies has led some to celebrate these films for their representation and others to lambast them as examples of out of control, woke indoctrination.

My focus on LGBTQ+ issues links up to my focus on media and politics in interesting ways. The relation between culture and politics is always relevant, but the politics of how people live their lives, form communities, and form families is explicitly a “cultural politics.” There is also the outsized role that entertainment has played in LGBTQ+ issues, from the era of extremely homophobic representations to this push toward visibility from Ellen DeGeneres onward.

A lot of gay politics, for example, has been about using entertainment television as a path toward drawing the sympathy of the public and cultivating acceptance and tolerance. I often take what is happening in LGBTQ+ media and use it as a model to explore what is happening in politics more broadly.

I will say that, in The Citizen Marketer, there is a whole discussion of coming out rhetoric and the way coming out rhetoric is used in forms of digital participation. On social media, people tell their coming out stories as a way of eliciting public sympathy and support. I make the argument that the coming out model has become extremely influential and has been adopted by other groups. Young Conservatives have appropriated this discourse and will “come out” as young and conservative as a means to generate public visibility. To make one’s social, cultural, and political identity visible through labeling tactics has become increasingly popular. A lot of what was happening in gay and lesbian politics from the 1970s onward established that model, which all kinds of political groups are adopting and often exploiting.

In the new book, I see something similar. In tracking the history of how entertainment journalism became more focused on diversity, inclusion, representation, and visibility by talking to journalists in the field, it became apparent that gay politics in the 1980s and 1990s — the politics of the AIDS crisis in the 80s that led to the coming out politics of the 90s — was one of the key turning points in entertainment journalism.

I quote from an entertainment journalist who worked in the field for many years, who told me it was the AIDS crisis that made people who cover Hollywood take on this advocacy role because of the visible presence of gay men in the entertainment and show business world like Rock Hudson, who were suffering and dying during the AIDS crisis. People on the Hollywood beat now had to talk about AIDS. That was one of the most important shifts in politicizing entertainment coverage in the media.

I have not been focused, then, on LGBTQ+ activism as a corner of the media with its own subfield in academic scholarship. I have wanted to emphasize how LGBTQ+ activism has been influential in these larger trends of culture and politics and has established models that different groups and constituencies have followed.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give students who are interested in political communication, digital media, social activism, and/or LGBTQ+ issues, who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Joel Penney] I was once invited to give advice to students interested in political science. My response was that, to study politics, you need to study culture: study popular culture, study cultural studies. Our last president was on a game show, and, going back to Ronald Reagan, we have had celebrity presidents. The writing is on the wall, if there was ever any doubt. Politics is not comprehensible or intelligible without understanding the role of culture, identity, and image — without understanding how identities are mediated and expressed.

This comes down to not siloing politics off from the rest of the media environment. Everything from meme culture to Hollywood cinema is politically consequential. Our current world is postmodern, or hyperreal, in its emphasis on the image and the manipulation of images to gain advantage and power. I think to produce scholarship that is going to break down barriers and help us understand our world, I would urge students to look at both of these things, the political world and popular culture, as cut from the same cloth.

What I am describing is not the easiest or most practical road. Our discipline is still very siloed, and political communication does not always look at questions of culture. The last ten years of big data research have also swung a whole generation of folks to think about research as data collection and put less emphasis on qualitative research. My example, then, may not be the most pragmatic for the people who are looking to get ahead in this field, because there are ways I am battling against the tides. But there are still opportunities to do this kind of work, and I think it is of tremendous value.

Thank you, Dr. Penney, for sharing your insight on citizen marketing in political campaigns, entertainment journalism, and youth political engagement!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.