Communication Currents

American Pickers: A Marketing Strategy to Control Secondhand Markets

February 1, 2016
Critical and Cultural Studies

With 5.7 million viewers nationwide, American Pickers is one of the most successful reality shows on the History Channel. The show, which launched in 2010, features antique and collectible pickers Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, who travel along the backroads of the United States seeking “amazing things buried in people’s garages and barns,” according to the show’s introduction. Wolfe and Fritz buy secondhand goods, which they resell through their individual businesses (Antique Archaeology and Frank Fritz Finds) or often keep in their personal collections.

Eric S. Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati, watches the show and admits to being a fan. Pickers brings back childhood memories of his own grandfather collecting in rural America. “It generated some nostalgia from my childhood,” he explains. This personal connection prompted him to take a closer look at the strategies the show is employing to market directly to viewers and make itself prominent in secondhand markets.

Jenkins says American Pickers is a great example of “consumer modes,” which he has been studying throughout his career. Consumer modes are the ways people partner with media to produce affect and desire. The hosts of American Pickers, in this case, linked up with television as a medium to create affect and desire for the secondhand goods market.

What Are the Critics Saying? 

As a fan of the show, Jenkins reads and hears many of the critiques of American Pickers. Both fans and critics of the show, he says, judge Pickers by comparing it with reality. Some critics suggest that the show does not represent real values, that the prices of the goods are exaggerated or false. Others say it’s “fake” because the searches and exchanges are staged before filming occurs. The critique that stands out most to Jenkins, however, is that far from being model consumers, Fritz and Wolfe are exploiters who rip off the bereaved, elderly, and ignorant.

In one episode, an 88-year-old man named Leland Bentley did not know the value of an antique saddle he owned. The episode sparked outrage when Wolfe and Fritz purchased it for $75. The saddle’s actual value was well over $5,000.

The problem with these critiques, Jenkins contends, is that they start with the assumption that the sellers on the show are victims of exploitation by the History Channel and the show’s producers. Exploitation is considered an individual act that could be resolved by the pickers offering sellers more money. However, the broader landscape here is that everyone, not just the sellers, is subject to economic exploitation. In fact, exploitation touches the hosts themselves, whose labor is bought by the television networks and sold for a surplus value. Both critics and the show treat exchange and surplus value as objective measures. But how does one measure the amount of money it takes to avoid exploitation? Where some see exploitation, others see good business. To see the show for the marketing strategy it is, an affection critique is necessary. People’s positive affections cannot be ignored.

Taking a Closer Look 

According to Jenkins, the criticisms of Pickers focus too much on the representations in the show. Taking a closer look reveals that American Pickers is the centerpiece of a marketing strategy designed to track, target, monopolize, and control the market of secondhand goods.

Jenkins points out that American Pickers works to transform the affections of buyers and sellers into images that portray “commodity fetishism” through which people begin to treat material things as if they had a magical quality—an inherent value separate from an item’s use or the hands that made it.

To make viewers feel as though the secondhand items featured on the show have inherent value, Jenkins contendsAmerican Pickers creates images in three ways:

  • Action-Images: The pickers are portrayed in search of places full of secondhand commodities. As the show develops, most images are action-images of affection, where the pickers express joy or disappointment over negotiation, searching, and acquisition. These action-images generate viewer affection for the pickers by presenting them as attractive individuals with signature styles. As viewers develop affections, the pickers gain cultural capital, which translates into profit.
  • Impulse-Images: These are images in which the pickers are shown to have natural impulses toward fetish objects—in this case, the secondhand goods. Wolfe and Fritz act impulsively, frequently claiming they saw a piece and “just had to have it.” Impulse-images orient viewers to specific goods shown, inflating prices by portraying them as having natural value responsible for generating feelings of joy.
  • Affection-Images: Affection-images serve to spiritualize commodities. A commodity is often used as a reflective surface and the picker’s expressions as a micromovement showing affection (such as a smile or oohs and aahs). The way the pickers and the commodities are portrayed together makes it seem as though fetishizing commodities can be a nearly spiritual experience. Affection-images prime viewers to expect positive encounters with secondhand commodities. This works a lot like product placement, except that instead of commodities simply being inserted into scenes, impulse-images make commodities the focus of both the camera and the participants.

Together, these images create the impression that fetishizing commodities, specifically secondhand commodities, is a reality, is natural, and is a spiritual possibility.

Jenkins’ analysis looks beyond the American Pickers episodes to examine how the show’s images function as control mechanisms to track, target, and channel consumers into profitable outlets such as the Antique Archaeology website or store, or to make secondhand exchange a topic of discussion.

Pickers engages in “priming,” a common marketing practice today, with practitioners conceiving images as tools for adjusting viewer expectations, orienting viewers toward their businesses, and generating feedback. Through action-, impulse-, and affection-images, Pickers primes viewers toward secondhand consumption. Contrary to the criticisms that focus on the representations on the program, the show is not just a false representation of value, but an active producer of it.


Through this analysis, it is clear that tracing marketing strategies is necessary to generate better understanding and critique of how capitalism works today. Jenkins’ analysis helps explain American Pickers’ mechanisms of control, inequalities in access (not every secondhand business has the same kind of marketing budget American Pickers enjoys), and prospects for resistance.

About the author (s)

Eric S. Jenkins

University of Cincinnati

Assistant Professor