In recent weeks, Unilever—the company behind a swag of domestic and personal care brands like Ponds and Lynx and Vaseline—announced that it would abandon “excessive digital alterations” in its advertising.

This isn’t a new public preoccupation for the company: in the 2010s one of its brands, Dove, aimed to position itself as a progressive corporation passionate about self-esteem and body image. Cue soap sales pitches packaged up with messages about hair-love and the perils of Photoshop.

I’m less interested in Unilever’s latest marketing gimmick, and much keener to examine the cultural debates that such a move contributes to.

In conversations with students about pop culture it quickly becomes apparent that most are convinced that The Media is a problem. Entertaining, enthralling, escapist, sometimes even educative ­­– but a problem nonetheless. Students are always exceedingly well prepared to talk about the ways that The Media impacts self-esteem and are often armed with data on the extent of digital manipulation, ready to share robust views on “bias”.

Admittedly, I quite love that media literacy is like fluoride in the water for a generation and thoroughly appreciate that they can spot a filter or digital liposuction-induced wall-warp a mile away.

Being able to detect these things is an essential skill in navigating the glossy touts covering our screens. But such skills often lead to overconfidence about the next bit of the equation: what happens after we view all these artfully tweaked photos. About the consequences.

Such ideas aren’t new. Debates about the power and influence of media have kept scholars busy for over a century: radio was going to dangerously distract us, television was going to morally corrupt us, and the addictive properties of the internet would prevent us ever again turning away from our screens.

In discussing media content, in recognising a digitally altered photograph, we seem to dramatically overestimate our ability to predict what’s done with this information. Somehow apparently, instinctually, we just know that these images contribute to how we feel about our bodies, our relationships, our happiness. We just know that if The Media did a “better job” —reflected our lives more accurately, portrayed us in our full diversity and complexity —we’d have a better, more tolerant, less violent and vitriolic world.

In recognising a digitally altered photograph, we seem to dramatically overestimate our ability to predict what’s done with this information.

In talking about The Media as though it’s just one thing, one entity, and that the meetings are held on Thursdays to plot an agenda, overlooks not only the enormous variety of content—produced by different people in different countries with different budgets and different politics—but with the overarching agenda of just making money.

The output that we’re discussing when we refer to The Media —films and television and advertisements and news —are commercial endeavours. Content can absolutely be commercial and creative, or commercial and ideological. But when the primary goal is making money, suddenly all the social engineering often speculated upon is, in fact, just ways of interpreting content made purely to capture and hold our attention long enough to pay the bills.

Add to this, the nature of contemporary media consumption means not only are we getting a broader range of content but we’re dipping in and out of different eras of productions too: new episodes of shows stream on the same platforms as decades old movies and series. Add to this our ready access to content created all over the world. Such a broad catalogue complicates the idea of homogenous messages about anything, let alone beauty standards or cultural values.

The nature of pop culture means its content is consciously created for a broad audience. This doesn’t mean it’s not artistic or political or renegade —it can and sometimes is all of these things. But material produced for a popular audience is primarily made to make money; everything else it might achieve is an externality. Presuming all content producers are somehow in cahoots on an external cultural agenda is misguided.

Kidding ourselves that it’s the job of entertainment media to educate or flatter, overlooks the commercial underpinnings of pop culture.

Placing blame on The Media for our fraught feelings about our bodies, bank balances, love life overlooks there is no single Media entity but rather thousands of individual views, clicks, and likes that we electively undertake and which each play parts in shaping our world views, and which validate the very production decisions we often decry.

This project is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.