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Film Theory And Criticism: Film in Crisis

Updated on April 3, 2015


  1. What Is Film Theory?
  2. Semiotics and Structuralism
  3. Apparatus Theory
  4. Case Study- Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'.
  5. Is there a Crisis in Film Theory
  6. References and Bibliography
  7. Links to More on Film Criticism

What is Film Theory

Film theory is a compilation of interpretative frameworks established over time to better understand the way films are both made and received. It is not a self-reliant field, instead borrowing from the disciplines of philosophy, social science, cultural theory, psychology and political science. Early film theory arose during the ‘silent era’ of cinema and was largely concerned with defining the critical components of the medium. Theorists emerged at this time, such as Sergei Eisenstein, Rudolph Arnheim and Bela Belazs, emphasizing how film differed from reality, and analysing the unique methods and effects in film, while simultaneously fighting for its legitimacy as an art form. Many theories developed as cinema matured, and new ones were cultivated in order to understand every aspect of cinema and film. Such theories include Semiotics and structuralism, influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of semiology, which tried to define film language as a set of codes and structures that organises meaning in ways predetermined by the medium itself, rather than the filmmaker. Ideology theory, which was largely influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, analysed cinema as an ideological apparatus that deceives spectators into misrecognising the relation in film to the actual circumstances of their existence. Apparatus theory, examined by Jean-Louis Baudry, claims that film’s technological characteristics have inherent ideological effects, while also analysing the conditions of spectatorship, such as the darkness of the theatre’s, the silent audience etc. Feminist film theory focuses on the stereotypes of women in film, drawing attention to the previously misrepresented women of early cinema. Later feminist film theorists also described the patriarchal dynamics of spectatorship, such as Laura Mulvey. This essay will be examining three different works of film theory; Structuralism and Semiotics, Apparatus and Spectatorship Theory and Psychoanalysis in film theory, and will investigate what the crisis in film theory is, and what it means for film theory.

Semiotics and Structuralism

Structuralism is an intellectual movement of the 1960’s, which was a method used for analysing the deep structuring logic of cultural products and practices, instead of analysing the meanings at the surface, structuralist’s were committed to finding the hidden relations beneath the surface, which they believed provided more substantial and scientific understanding. Structuralism had four key influences (after Ferdinand de Saussure); Claude Levi-Strauss (who studied myths in a structuralist manner), Roland Barthes (who argued that cultural objects accepted systems of deep structures through social meaning), Jacques Lacan (who procured Freud’s ideas and transformed them under the influence of structuralism) and Louis Althusser (a Marxist philosopher influenced by methods of structuralism).

Semiotics on the other hand, largely analysed by Christian Metz, argues that cinema or film is structured like language and examines the roles of signs/messages in film, it does “not want to repeat what the text (of film) says, rather it hopes to isolate all the logical mechanisms which permit the raw material to speak such messages” (Andrews, 1979). In general it is the science of meaning behind which a film embodies and signifies to audiences. I will be analysing Raymond Bellour’s essay ‘Systems of a Fragment’(Bellour, 2000) as it accurately represents both the intentions of structuralism, its method of analysis and the semiotic approach to film theory. Bellour centres on one scene for his textual analysis of Hitchcock’s film ‘The Birds’ (Hitchcock, 1963), the scene in which Melanie (the female protagonist) steers a boat across Bodega lake away from Mitch (the male protagonist). The scene is roughly six minutes long and Bellour examines the structures of this scene which are hidden from conscious view, i.e. editing, codes etc. For Bellour, the key to understanding this scene, at such minuscule levels, transpires as a result of the relation between shots, as in accordance with structuralist principles, each shot gains its meaning by virtue of its difference from surrounding shots. He argues that the scene is ordered by means of alterations between two series of shots: the ‘Melanie seeing’ shots against the ‘What Melanie sees’ shots. Bellour realizes that due to the nature of each (the ‘Melanie seeing’ shots are close-ups of her, while the ‘what Melanie sees’ shots are distant shots) the scene unfolds primarily from Melanie’s point of view, thus the viewer’s perceive the scene in the same way (Bellour, 2000). In a more significant observation, he notes that there are disruptions in the shot alterations which he refers to as ‘Centre A’ and ‘Centre B’. These disruptions in the sequence occur as “Not part of Melanie’s vision, [rather] it simply underlines a detail of her action” (Bellour, 2000). The first instance of this occurs when Melanie sneaks into Mitch’s house to leave two caged love-birds. The disruptive shot is important because it offers a close up of Melanie’s gloves, a factor that will become more significant by the end of the sequence of events, and also due to it being a close up shot. What viewers had witnessed up until this point was the alteration of ‘Melanie seeing’ (close up) and ‘What Melanie sees’ (distant), yet this disruptive shot, ‘Centre A’, comes between both as a close up. The second disruption, ‘Centre B’ , comes at a point when the regular alteration between shots begins as Melanie makes her way back across the lake. This time, the disruptive shot is a close up of ‘Mitch seeing’. What we are presented with is a shot of Mitch looking through binoculars, so instead of simply being a distance shot of ‘Mitch seeing’ it is simultaneously one of ‘Melanie sees’ too. The finale of the sequence is perhaps the most notable, according to Bellour, who examines the meanings behind the close up shot of Melanie’s glove after she has been attacked by a bird. This shot is one of ‘what Melanie sees’ and is important because she herself is now the object of the gaze, “she sees herself; and if she does not see Mitch, preoccupied as she is with her wound, she knows that she is seen” (Bellour, 2000). Bellour is arguing that Melanie is punished for her looking, and for her directness in approaching Mitch and this is the cause of the attack. Bellour certainly goes to great depths in order to explain that the attack of the birds is due to Melanie’s sexual boldness, however, it is his complex and intricate structuralist analysis of the sequence that proves his point. By analysing the fragments of the sequence of shots, he has captured the structuralist approach to film theory and portrayed the semiotics (or codes) at play within the short scene.

Apparatus Theory

Apparatus theory examines aspects of cinema that surround the mechanisms behind film, and views cinema as an apparatus. Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz wrote about cinema as an imaginary signifier to explain what happens to the viewers as they gaze at the screen in the theatre. According to Baudry (Baudry, 1986), the cinematic apparatus produces an ideological position through its system and mechanics of representation (camera, editing, projecting, spectator before the screen). The position is ideological because dominant narrative cinema hides the labour behind the creation of the film and the spectator is given the illusion of reality. He surmises that the position of the spectator in the theatre (as in a dark room, before e huge screen, with a projector positioned above and behind the spectator) results in an ideological effect upon the viewer, which also lends itself to the theory of ‘Spectatorship’. Due to this position the viewer experiences an identification process, that is, he is interpellated by the filmic text. The viewer is thus, created as a subject to which the meaning of the film is inferred upon.

However, the more significant feature of the Apparatus theory is its construction of a ‘Dream state’ ( Burgoyne, Stam, & Flitterman). There are particular circumstances in viewing a film that are similar to that of dreaming i.e. sitting in a dark room, reduced brain activity and motor functions, no control over what is being shown and the streaming of images that are being unconsciously taking in. Due to these conditions, the spectator (Baudry, 1985) enters a state of belief, where the scenes being projected are accepted as real or reality, “the cinema can achieve its greatest power of fascination over the viewer not simply because of its impression of reality, but more precisely because this impression of reality is intensified by the conditions of the dream” ( Burgoyne, Stam, & Flitterman). Like film, dreams are streams of images that the viewer has no control over. Due to this the spectating of a film feels like a dream, because there is no control over what will be portrayed. According to Baudry, this impression of reality is parallel to Jacques Lacan’s concept of the ‘Mirror Stage’, where a child first notices themselves in a mirror and consequently recognises their own bodies and ‘self’. Baudry compares the mirror to the projection screen at a theatre “and the mirror, as a reflecting surface, is framed, limited, circumscribed” (Baudry, 1985). Therefore, the mirror or screen projects images, rather than actual reality, as the mechanical work put into creating the illusion of reality, can only be framed, and is thus restricted to portraying predetermined scenes, “The ‘reality’ mimed by the cinema is thus first of all that of a ‘self’”(Baudry, 1985). This is what makes viewing a film similar to dreaming. Like dreams, it creates the impression of reality, and reduces viewers to an “artificial regression” ( Burgoyne, Stam, & Flitterman) where they find themselves entombed in the womblike effects of the film viewing situation. This is an activation of the desire to return to the earliest stage of development where a child has not yet discovered its ‘self’, i.e. before the “formation of the ego” ( Burgoyne, Stam, & Flitterman). It is before this formation of ‘self’ that the lines between perception and representation are blurred and for Baudry, it is parallel to the cinema experience, where reality and representation are confused.

Embracing Baudry’s notions of Apparatus and Spectatorship theory, Christian Metz also describes the ‘filmic state’ in which the spectator experiences while viewing a film. This state causes the viewers to be lulled into a fantasy condition or Baudry’s ‘dream state’, which has access to the unconscious. Through the use of psychoanalysis, Metz attempts to discover an original event (such as the Primal Scene) that would analytically explain the nature of the film spectator. Although Baudry drew on ideas from psychoanalysis, Metz goes much further in incorporating psychoanalytic notions into his theory of film spectatorship. Both theorists agree that the spectator is constructed and positioned by the cinematic apparatus. For Baudry it was the cinematic apparatus as a technical instrument while for Metz it was the general notion of the cinematic institution as a whole. Metz also believed that the film spectator exists in a state of hallucination and regression (similar to Baudry). It is the interlocking mechanisms of cinematic institutions i.e. production, editing etc., that work to mould individuals into dreamlike states in order to allow for fantasy and desire to emerge. The spectator believes, on an unconscious level, that the events and characters on screen are portrayals of reality. It is due to this that Metz believes the two oppositional states (reality versus representation) were based on more primal rejections, more specifically, castration anxiety in young male children. According to Metz the spectator’s capacity to hold “two contradictory opinions” (Metz, 1986) is fixed in the early experience of the child’s denial of castration by preserving a belief in the maternal phallus. This denial is established on the male child’s determined belief in the phallus of the mother despite the image of her lacking one. This can also be said of film viewers who, on one level, can acknowledge that what they are seeing are simply moving pictures projected from a device, yet on the other hand, they are also, unconsciously, under the illusion that what they are seeing is a reality, or at least a representation of a reality.

Metz also believed in the ‘Mirror Phase’ being parallel to cinema viewers. Due to the fact that the child identifies with its own image in the mirror, Metz agrees that the spectator too finds identification in the characters or events taking place on the screen in front of them. Just as the child finds satisfaction in the recognition of ‘unity of self’, the spectator too finds pleasure in the identification of film. Both Baudry and Metz appear to have similar ideas of Spectatorship and Apparatus theory, since there are many resemblances in their works, such as the ‘Dream state’, the regression to the pre-oedipal phase due to the ‘Dream State’, an identification process due to the regression and finally, the impression of reality which was created from the identification process. For both theorists the film screen serves as a mirror through which the spectator can identify himself or herself as a coherent and supreme ego. The sense of power that spectatorship provides originates from the spectator's primary identification with the camera itself. Though the spectator is a passive viewer of the action on the screen, identification with the camera provides the spectator with an illusion of power over the screen images. The camera initiates a system of visibility from which nothing escapes, and this complete visibility allows spectators to believe themselves to be all-seeing and therefor all-powerful, and like a godly figure, the spectator see’s all but remains unseen in a dark theatre.

Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'.

Another article that deals with the pre-Oedipal/ego phase is the psychoanalytical examination of David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (Lynch, 1986) written by Sam Ishii-Gonzales (Ishii-Gonzales, 2004). In his systematic approach to analysing both the Wolfman case and ‘Blue Velvet’ (Lynch, 1986), Ishii-Gonzales finds the meanings behind some of Lynch’s choices during production and the comparisons between said choices and Freud’s analysis of the ‘Primal Scene’. The primal scene to which Freud refers to is the scene in which a child witnesses his parents having sex for the first time, which causes a series of mental developments, such as castration anxiety, acknowledgement of difference of self and occasionally, neurosis in maturity. The Wolfman was a case in which the patient suffered from dreams of wolves, standing and staring at him. Freud concluded that the dream was a consequence of witnessing the ‘Primal scene’ and that the wolves the patient perceived were representations of himself watching the scene. This also proves that it is not just the witnessing of the scene which can cause trauma, rather it is the consequence of seeing it, as in the Wolfman’s case, it is his dream that causes disturbance. What is interesting about the scene is the effect it has on the child, and this is exactly what Lynch experiments with. Firstly, Ishii-Gonzales explains the comparison between the film’s antagonist Frank Booth and Freud’s ‘Primal Scene’, which is the “ceremonial breathing’ (Ishii-Gonzales, 2004) of the Wolfman. That is, the taking in and exhaling of breath, which started when he first saw his father ill. From that point on, he exhaled whenever he saw “cripples, beggars or poor people” (Stallybrass & White, 1986). This peculiar characteristic is portrayed through Frank Booth in ‘Blue Velvet’ (Lynch, 1986) as he carries around an oxygen tank and exaggeratingly breaths through it whenever he is emotionally unstable. Yet this is only one of Lynch’s subtle associations to Freud’s analysis. At the very beginning of the film, we are given a scene where a man is watering his garden, and falls suddenly, obviously sick. This is the protagonist’s (Jeffrey) father, erasing the paternal authority and opening space for others to occupy it. As Jeffrey is immature and infantile in nature at the beginning of the film, his journey has now started to allow him to occupy this space. Ishii-Gonzales recognises the ear found in a field by Jeffrey as the secondary starting point in this journey to adulthood. It connects to Freud’s interpretation of hearing the primal scene, rather than witnessing it. When this occurs, the child may misinterpret what he hears to be sounds of pain and distress, which can confuse the situation. This is interpreted by Lynch as he places an ear at the beginning of the film, because Jeffrey is confused about his place within society and the family, because of overhearing the primal scene. This is what pushes the plot forward, as Jeffrey then begins to investigate the ear, or the reality behind what was heard. It leads him to Dorothy’s closet, where he witnesses the scene from behind closed doors.

The scene itself, to which he views, is the most perverse perception of the primal scene, portraying the notion in the child (or Jeffrey) that it is an act of violence from the father because of the limited frame of reference. Lynch accurately represents the child’s perceptions of the scene, as Frank breaths heavily into his machine and forces himself on Dorothy, while calling her “Mommy” and himself “baby” (Lynch, 1986). This vicious sequence portrays many different aspects of the consequences of the Primal Scene. Firstly, it exposes Frank as being stuck in the pre-Oedipal phase of development, i.e. calling himself “baby”. Secondly, it captures the rite of passage for the child (Jeffrey) into the symbolic order of the law of the father, as Jeffrey sees Dorothy as weak and submissive and Frank as controlling and violent. He thus acknowledges his place within this symbolic order. Ishii-Gonzales notices that during the scene, the camera moves to inside the closet where Jeffrey watches, allowing audiences to experience what he is feeling, “horrified, yet unable (or unwilling) to remove our eyes from the screen” (Ishii-Gonzales, 2004).

According to Ishii-Gonzales, the scene in ‘Blue Velvet’ conjures two fantasy scenarios identified by Freud, namely the fantasy of castration and seduction. Jeffrey is confronted with both of these. He is threatened with castration when Dorothy brandishes a knife in front of him and sees her as castrated when Frank holds a scissors between her legs (Ishii-Gonzales, 2004), and he is seduced by Dorothy who asks him to touch her “you can feel it” (Lynch, 1986). He also recognises Frank Booths vulnerability towards Dorothy, as the scene unfolds as a terrifying dramatic gesture, created (by Frank) in order to hide his impotence. Frank also represents the paternal figure as seen in the sequence when he beats Jeffrey. He both physically attacks him and kisses him portraying two sides of the paternal position, both the enforcer/punisher and the loving father. While Dorothy embodies the maternal, submissive to the paternal figure, yet authoritative to the child or Jeffrey. Overall, the article analyses the psychology behind witnessing Freud’s ‘Primal scene’, in accordance to the representations of it in Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ (Lynch, 1986). What he finds are remarkable implications of the importance of witnessing such a scene, for the mental development of children. The transition from maternal haven, to phallus as power is a crucial component in recognising that the wider cultural symbolic order is structured around patriarchy and phallogocentrism and can have disastrous effects if not experienced, as seen in Frank Booths psychotic behaviour. While, when experienced by the child, they can develop these notions of the cultural symbolic order of the father, thus taking their place, which Jeffrey finally does as he partners with Sandy.

Is There A Crisis In Film Theory?

After summarizing three key features of film theory, the crisis (or crises) is recognisable. Firstly, there is no over-arching theory of film as a whole, instead there are many different areas of study towards the theory of film. Each main feature captures a particular aspect of film, be it the spectating of film, codes within film, mechanics behind the process, meaning imbedded in the texts or psychological issues at play. As Dudley Andrews states; “Film theory is another avenue of science, and as such is concerned with the general rather than the particular” (Andrews, 1979). Yet film theory currently presents numerous concepts and systems, each analysing the specifics of film, which may be damaging to achieving an accurate and in-depth understanding of film or cinema. By focusing on precise details, is it possible, that others are left out? For example, in ‘The Birds’ (Hitchcock, 1963), when Bellour analyses the sequence shot by shot, he examines the mechanics behind the images, how they were sequenced and the codes within. Yet what he didn’t analyse were the lesser aspects of the scene such as the actual journey Melanie takes to get to Mitch’s home. Like her attempt to get close to him (by delivering the birds herself) her journey is difficult, as she takes the water rather than the road. Travelling by water shows that her trip will be a rocky one and could be seen as a premonition of bad water ahead for her. Instead Bellour uses the codes and sequencing of shots in the scene to determine the meaning behind the scene.

Another issue with the current state of film theory is the overusing of parental theories or notions such as Freud’s Oedipal Complex. This is a subject constantly utilized by theorists in analysing film, as seen in Metz’, Baudry’s and Ishii-Gonzales’ work. The overuse of this matter has caused numerous issues in film theory, primarily due it only focusing on the male subject. In Freuds’ study of the ‘Primal scene’ he deals only with the male child, however, would it not have varied consequences when experienced by a female child, since the anxiety of castration would not be present? Due to Freud limiting his studies to the male subject, so too has film theory, portraying the phallogocentric views of film theory (feminist film theory excluded). As with most theories, the subject or viewer is either an object or a male. This overuse of parent theories could also be damaging the creation of new ones, with many theories drawing from older ones, it implies that the phallocentric views may also be passed on to the new theories. Instead of analysing the female perspective, film theory may always examine cinema from a male point of view.

Other issues surround the study of film, concerning the vast amounts of theories available, which persistently merge into other theories. This is proven in the work of Bellour who utilizes both semiotics and structuralism in order to understand the underlying meaning behind a sequence of events in Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (Hitchcock, 1963). It is also observed in Baudry and Metz’ articles as they combine Apparatus theory, Spectatorship and Psychoanalysis to locate the effects of film viewing. Another example of this can be seen in Lynch’s ‘Blue velvet’ as while it portrays the primal scene and the effect it has on the three people involved (psychoanalytical), it can also be seen as a dream film linking to Apparatus theory and Spectatorship theory. Like a dream, the film is seen as one dimensional, represented in the small town the story takes place in. The lifelessness to which the town embodies creates the impression of a dream world, where the only characters are the ones directly involved in the narrative. So while the film can be psychoanalytically examined, it can also be analysed as a dream film. While I would agree that there are issues with the current state of film theory (phallogocentrism, over-used theories, merging of various theories etc) I would not agree that there is a full blown crisis. Although film theory appears to be largely phallogocentric, feminist film theory is an enormous field and one which is growing, suggesting a change in the way we understand film theory. While it may be overly phallocentric presently, the female subject is a growing concern in film theory and could soon have an impact on both the way film is perceived and analysed. While some theorists appear to agree on the subjects they examine, this is unusual, as they tend to disagree or refute other notions of theory (Andrews, 1979). This can be seen as a positive aspect of studying film, as it expands the areas of analysis, allowing for more in-depth understandings of film and cinema as an institution. If every theorist had agreed with each other, the likelihood of completely understanding film would be reduced. Due to these positive aspects of film theory it appears there is no crisis, rather, there are separate problems with particular areas of the field. There are issues with numerous individual theories (e.g. Freud being phallocentric) which does not have an impact on the theory of film as a whole, rather it limits our understanding of the specific areas of study, not our understanding of film.


Burgoyne, R., Stam, R., & Flitterman, S. (n.d.). New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism,Post-Structuralism and Beyond.

Andrew, D. (1984). Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford universtity Press.

Andrews, D. (1979). The Major FilmTheories; An Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Baudry, J.-L. (1985). The Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic. In B. Nichols, Historical Criticism : Genre Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Structuralist Semiotics, Psychoanalytic Semiotics, Contercurrents, Volume 1 (pp. 531-548). University of California Press.

Baudry, J.-L. (1986). The Apparatus: Metaphysical Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema. In P. Rosen, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. Columbia University Press,.

Bellour, R. (2000). Systems of a Fragment. The Analysis of Film, pp. 28-68.

Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1963). The Birds [Motion Picture].

Ishii-Gonzales, S. (2004). Msteries of Love: Lynchs Blue velvet/Freuds Wolfman. In The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nigthmare Visions. Wallflower Press.

Lynch, D. (Director). (1986). Blue Velvet [Motion Picture].

Metz, C. (1986). The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and The Cinema. Indiana University Press.

Miller, T., & Stam, R. (2008). A Companion to Film Theory: Vol 3. John Wiley & Sons.

Stallybrass, P., & White, A. (1986). The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Taylor and Francis.

© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide


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