The Frankfurt School on Culture and Mass Media

1923 – 73: a group of German Jewish intellectuals founded an institute of Social Research in the University of Frankfurt, Germany 1923. However, this group fled Germany in 1933 following the rise of Nazism and relocated to USA in 1935 before returning to Germany in 1953. They then closed in 1973.

Intellectuals included: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Mercuse and Max Horkheimer.

The Frankfurt School believed that mass media/popular culture was bad for us. They believed that popular culture DISTRACTS us from the reality of our situation and ‘BRAINWASHES’ us through constant reinforcement.

  1. Capitalism
  2. Failure of the Russian Revolution
  3. Rise of Fascism
  4. Dominance of Elite Interests at expense of those of the working class
  5. Technology/science for the benefit of all? (no longer driven by search for truth and progress, an instrument of social control and domination, controlled by powerful groups to serve their interests, impact on society considered irrelevant e.g. weapons, no consideration of the environment)
  6. Rise of consumer society

Result: ‘One Dimensional Man’ (Marcuse 1964)


Mass Media and Popular Culture is considered bland, stereotyped and conservative. The Frankfurt School believed it inferior to high or ‘authentic’ culture.

The Culture Industry encourages conformity and consensus, ensures obedience to authority and stabilises the capitalist system. It indoctrinates the masses, promoting the one-dimensional thought and behaviour necessary for the smooth operation of capitalism and consumerism. The Culture Industry converts human needs into commodities. Mass media becomes a type of drug to the point where people in the 21st century wake up in the middle of the night simply to check into the world on social media and so on.

The result sees the working classes incorporated into the system.


  • demonstrates that the Culture Industry legitimises and stabilises the capitalist system = no revolutions.
  • identifies connection between economic power and cultural power.
  • highlights emptiness/ideological nature of much commercially produced culture.
  • shows that industrialisation of cultural processes impacts on: form, content & consumption of culture.


  • elitist: it assumes all media/popular culture is bad.
  • overstates standardisation and mass nature of media culture.
  • assumes audiences are passive and incapable of seeing through and resisting manipulation.
  • Overly pessimistic: ignores working class resistance.
These notes are from my year two semester two lectures and seminars. The image is from:

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