THE HISTORY OF ADVERTISING
Advertising, in a broad sense, has been part of economies since at least the
beginnings of trade. Merchants have always sorted out the advantages of their goods
in the marketplace. The oldest known written advertisement is a 3000-year-old
Babylonian tablet requesting the return of a slave. Shop signs and broadsides
affixed to walls, posts or trees were common advertising devices in all civilizations
prior to newspapers. The invention of printing by movable type ushered in a new
age of commercial communication. The first printed advertisement in English appeared in 1477, the year after William Caxton set up his first press in England. By
the middle of the seventeenth century, British newspapers had adopted advertising
as an intrinsic part of their contents. The first daily newspaper in the American
colonies devoted as many as ten of its sixteen newspaper columns to advertising.
The styles and objectives of these ads stood as models -- in English-speaking
countries, at least -- for the first period of the modern era of advertising.
Modern Advertising: An American Phenomenon
Industrial mass production began in England, but the assembly line and other innovations pushed the United States into the forefront of industrialized nations in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, consumer culture began in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Later it spread to the general population of France and England in the expositions and department stores of the nineteenth century. But consumption, like production, found its most fertile ground in North America.
As America became more industrialized, especially from the 1880's to the
1920's, mass-appeal advertising paralleled the mass production of goods. Nationwide advertising directed the public's attention to the increasing variety and quantity
of products distributed on a nationwide basis. Mass production gave urgency to the
creation of a mass market, so that all that was made could be sold, rather than piling
up in warehouses. Agencies appeared in France and the United States in the 1840's.
By the 1870's, they were using relatively sophisticated marketing surveys and
The Evolution of a Cultural Institution
Most advertising during this period focused on the product -- its construction, its performance, its uses, its price, and its advantages. Product-information advertising aimed both to familiarize the newspaper reader with the national brand and to introduce new products and educate the consumer as to their purposes. Many of the claims made for products were excessive and often mendacious, bringing advertising into disrepute well before the turn of the century.
After the 1920's, the product information model was replaced by a model of competitive mass advertising that stressed product imagery and product personality. This advertising placed commodities within natural or social settings -- a garden, a home, a party attended by sophisticated people, etc. -- in order to project the meanings and values associated with those settings onto the commodities. Similarly, product-personality advertising equated the personal attributes of individuals with the qualities of the commodity: "The cigarette of discriminating smokers".
Influenced by the new forms of advertising, the meaning of the commercial exchange altered fundamentally: people paid money for product image and personality instead of product utility, as in earlier transactions. A combination of factors interacted to promote the mergence of product-image and product-personality advertising between the 1920's and the early 1950's. Among the most significant were technological innovations, especially photography and radio, the rise of parity products -- manufactured items so nearly identical that special efforts had to be exerted to discriminate one brand from the other -- and the beginnings of statistically-based audience demographics and market segmentation strategies.
The technological developments offered better opportunities for product presentation. Radio's sound transcended distance and time limitations in transmitting commercial messages. The realistic representations of photography conveyed images in ways that the older forms of illustrations could not. Advertisers used the possibilities of photography by intensifying the symbolic association between goods and the consumer's self-image. These possibilities in advertising stimulated the development of emotional, affective, or "mood" advertising. Under the influence of photography, facts about the product had to give way to product fictions, and utility became less important than fantasy. Likewise, marketers exploited the potential of radio by commercializing its content and revolutionizing advertising's form.
Products which were physically indistinguishable and were set apart only by their brand names still could differ in the image given to the product. A fictitious distinction, a belief, became a product attribute. Marketers began to differentiate goods less by describing the real or reputed character of the product itself and more by product imagery. Audience demographics and market segmentation strategies developed out of this urge to set the product apart. With data about prospective consumers -- including geography, social and psychological characteristics and buying behavior -- the advertiser could more easily reach distinct market segments with appropriate commercial messages.
All these factors distanced advertising from product information. Product identity and product identification became important, rather than the character and quality of the product itself. In the 1950's and 60's, notions of lifestyle also became increasingly important. Greater affluence and the popularity of television, among other things, made it easy for advertisers to promote the lifestyle ethic. Advertising told commercial stories that linked the individual to a social group or an economic class and associated products with the style of consumption of that group or class. The lifestyle format widened even more the gap between advertising, on one hand, and the utilitarian messages and their "reason-why" logic, on the other. Commercial television and refined demographic research strategies stimulated lifestyle advertising. Programs were delivered in a format suited for the sale of advertising blocks. Time became expensive when commercial television was the medium. The original one-minute commercial, replaced by the thirty-second one, became a fifteen-second flash because of rising costs. This had significant impact on the presentation: little time was left for a reasoned argumentation, comparative analysis, or meaningful product information.
Consumers are now divided into market-lifestyle-sectors characterized by "psychographical" features which describe all their buying preferences. The ultimate goal of this research approach is to develop a group's so-called psychographic portrait, consisting of generally applicable personal values, attitudes and emotions. Using such a "portrait", advertisers could better identify and exploit the wishes and fantasies of potential consumers. Like earlier demographic research, psychographics identified blocs of people for advertisers, who then targeted them as buyers of their products. Psychographics continued the process by which lifestyle images were given priority over the presentation of facts about the product.
Advertising today uses all the many arrows in its quiver: information, image, personality, and lifestyle. How it mixes these for a particular campaign also depends on what factors are present: the kind of product or service being sold, the intended audience, the character of the actual audience, the product or service type, the context in which it will be used, the medium by which it will be used and the medium by which the message will be transmitted.
As a result of all this, changes have occurred in the way products are
consumed. Today's advertising and consumer-culture have roots in the changing
nature of the market in the late 19th century. Those changes paralleled changes in
the modes of transportation and communication, urban growth and a cultural
climate for social and geographical mobility. In the 1950's, people had more money
and could afford to purchase more goods. Slowly the companies started to sell in a
different way. From the selling concept, "Try to sell everything you produce
without considering if there is any need for it", manufacturers came to use the
marketing concept, "Discover and appeal to the existing needs and wants". But,
only a small range of needs were appealed to. Many of the needs satisfied were
environmentally wasteful, materialistic and short-term. Other needs were and still
THE BENIGN CHARACTER OF "AMERICAN-STYLE" ADVERTISING
Advertising can be approached by two main research paths.
One deals with ways to devise more effective advertising. Its point of view is that of business which is responsible for the bulk of the material published on advertising: books on consumer behavior, how-to-advertise, marketing guides, and even semiological approaches that explain the complex world of the consumer's preferences.
Many of the research methods used in the study of advertising's effectiveness just after World War II have been called into question by the methodologists of the various academic disciplines involved. One big stumbling block was the large number of factors, apart from advertising, which affected sales. As computers came into widespread use in the 1960's, sophisticated computerized models were increasingly used to refine theories and procedures.
The other path is a critique of advertising more from the consumer's point of view. Advertisements are analyzed and their influences on the public are measured, not in terms of buying behavior and sales as would the business-oriented researcher, but in terms of psychological, social and cultural changes attributable to advertising.
With few exceptions, the critical scholars are negative toward advertising.
The business point of view often claims that advertising only mirrors the society in
which it exists and is unable to create wants and needs other than those which
consumers already experience. Studies from the critical viewpoint nearly all deny
this, and a positive or neutral stance seems almost impossible to achieve if one
assumes an initially critical perspective.
The Nature of Advertising
"Advertising", as we usually understand it in contemporary society, is a process of persuading a mass audience through the mass media to buy commercial products. It is distinguished from direct selling-the hawker of merchandise in a public market, on the other hand, and from "public service announcements" such as the times of church services, health warnings sponsored by non-profit organizations, etc., on the other.
Such local advertising as announcements of food prices in supermarkets or of sales in department stores is ethically less problematic than the expensive, wide ranging advertising campaigns of national or multinational corporations. The main criticisms leveled against advertising deal with ethics in the narrow sense of conscious distortion and manipulation, or in the broader sense of what forms of advertising are doing to human discourse in general. By its nature, advertising changes and directs human behaviour and culture, although its only intention is to sell. The critics, even those who do not doubt the general morality of that effect, call into question the ethics of many of the means employed and the appropriateness of particular campaigns.
Large-scale commercial advertising is characteristically Western. Moreover, even if it is carried on by local advertising agencies in Tokyo, Singapore or Nairobi, its pattern is overwhelmingly American in origin. Furthermore, the driving engines of much contemporary advertising are those large American corporations that perceive advertising as an indispensable element in their companies' profitability. Their dependence on advertising has set a precedent which others feel they must follow in order to remain competitive. The kind of advertising being discussed therefore can be appropriately called "American", even if it is used to sell the products of Sony, Toyota, Hyundai, Nestle, Shell, Volkswagen, or Volvo.
Both the manufacturer and the advertising agency share in advertising. The
manufacturer devises the marketing strategy, and the agency develops ways to carry
it out. The ultimate responsibility for advertising, however, lies with the
manufacturer, who purchases it. An agency only devises a format which the
manufacturer can accept or reject. If dissatisfied with one agency's approach, the
manufacturer can go another until satisfied, or can devise its own campaign. Since
the manufacturer's role is so great, ethics in advertising is essentially tied to ethics
The Defence of Advertising
Industry has laid itself open to criticism in the past by not assigning a high enough priority to ethical considerations. Such criticisms are mainly:
"Show Window": This highlights one of advertisings' most important functions as making the products of industry visible to the public. It is the most visible activity of business, its show window. By showing people their products, producers are making claims for them, but also they are inviting public criticism and attack if their products do not live up to their promised benefits. For this reason, proponents say it is safer to buy advertised products than unadvertised competing products. The makers of the advertised product put their brand names and reputations on the line. They will try harder than others to fulfill their claims and maintain their good reputations.
"Materialism": In response to the charge that advertising makes people too materialistic, the authors admit that advertising affects our value system by suggesting that the means to a happier life lie in the acquisition of goods, more materials things. But they point out that different consumers have different needs and desires. Advertising presents the possibilities, it is up to the consumers to determine which are among their more urgent needs. Some enjoy a simple lifestyle: others want to indulge in the material pleasures of a modern technological society. There are advertising sponsors making appeals at both poles of this continuum. A whole industry exists -- and advertises -- to sell products designed for those who want to live "more simply"! Material satisfaction may even serve as a means to create a wider range of opportunities to achieve higher cultural and spiritual values. For example, advertising informs the public about upcoming cultural events like opera and drama, thereby making them more accessible. In the Spring of 1994 Gregorian chant, promoted by advertising, was near the top of the pop music charts in some countries!
"Manipulation": According to the critics, "Advertising manipulates us to buy things we don't need by playing on our emotions. The persuasive techniques are so powerful that consumers are helpless to defend themselves". The defense says that advertising cannot make us buy things we do not need; that people who say the opposite have little respect for consumers' common sense and their ability to make decisions; that many advertised products fail; that subliminal advertising, which has inspired many fears among critics, has never been proven effective; and that some products are successful even without advertising. In short, advertising's influence has been exaggerated. People are skeptical and do not pay that much attention to advertising.
"Artificial Needs": To the complaint that, "Advertising creates artificial needs", the defense says that if there is no need for a product then people will not buy it. Advertising does not create needs; it helps the consumer decide which among the various brands to purchase. Marketers have found that the way to advertise and sell products is to satisfy genuine needs and wants, rather than to invent needs.
"Too Much": Many complain that there is too much advertising, but the defense says we will just have to put up with it, because the dominant economic system demands a high level of mass distribution of products. Advertising volume will stay high because mass distribution supports our free enterprise system. It is the price we have to pay for free television, freedom of the press and our high standard of living.
"Offensive": It must be acknowledged that many find advertising to be ineffective and in bad taste. What is "offensive" is often subjective, determined by time and culture. Many things hat used to be offensive in the past are no longer so. Liquor ads can be offensive for some, while others take them for granted. Often the products themselves are not offensive, but the advertising offends in order to gain attention. Benetton, a clothing manufacturer, in 1991 literally plastered Europe with billboards showing nothing but a blood-soaked newborn baby, with no further comment and no evident relation to the product. The same company simultaneously staged a similar, "distraction marketing" magazine ad campaign in the United States -- arguing that it wanted to stir up discussion of controversial issues. One of the ads featured a nun kissing a priest; another portrayed a dying AIDS victim, a corpse in a pool of blood on a street, etc. However, if a campaign does not in some way attract people, it is the standard opinion of advertising experts that it will fail. The audience has the veto and can ignore the offending advertisements. But advertisers are aware of what the general public finds distasteful and, for the most part, try to avoid it, the Benetton example apparently notwithstanding.
"Stereotypes": It must be admitted that advertising does perpetuate stereotypes, as many critics claim. However, great changes have occurred in this regard in recent years. Advertisers have become sensitive to stereotyping population groups, because these groups constitute business for them, just as much as other groups. Minority advertising has become niche-making, instead of the use of stereotypes. The image of women in ads also has changed significantly so that men and women are portrayed equally. This is due not to feminist pressures, according to the defense, but more to changes in the marketplace which make the exploitative representation of women counterproductive.
"Deceptive": To the complaint that "Advertising is deceptive", it must be said that continued deception would be self-defeating because it causes consumers to turn against a product. `Puffery' -- "the best", "greatest", "premier" -- if sometimes believed is therefore deceptive, but there is little evidence that deceptive advertising helps sales. It is in the interest of the advertiser to stay honest.
"Adds to the Cost": In Spain, it was said that a car of the Seat Audi Volkswagen Company would cost, theoretically, 100,000 pesetas less if the cost of
advertising were omitted. Consumers might cry, "We are paying to have something
sold to us.!" But the defense says this is not true because advertising makes possible
mass production, which in turn reduces prices through the economy of scale. There
are many other factors in the cost of an automobile which are equally intangible, but
of acknowledged importance: aesthetics, psychological satisfaction, etc.
Social Benefits and Social Responsibility
Advertising also stimulates the development of new and better products, gives us a wider choice, holds prices down, encourages competition, subsidizes the media, supports freedom of the press, and provides means of dissemination of information for health and social issues as well as for products. Although advertising sometimes is misused, the Federal Trade Commission has reported that 97 percent is satisfactory. It is up to both advertisers and consumers to ensure that advertising is used intelligently and responsibly.
Advertising is bound by laws, but it also is tempered by ethical responsibility and the canons of good taste. You can act unethically without breaking any laws, but the community may impose its own informal sanctions for such violations. Most advertisers claim today to maintain high ethical standards and socially responsible advertising practices, but the sins of the past haunt them. Still, the pressures to make a strong and innovative impression are so intense that the temptation to strain limits of good taste and even morality often becomes too strong to resist. Ethical considerations tend to be an afterthought in the planning of most advertising campaigns.
Previously free of formal restrictions, advertising is now a heavily regulated
profession, due to earlier excesses and shortcomings. Consumer groups, specially
interest groups and government, can review, check, control and change advertising.
In the United States, federal regulation of advertising imposes strict controls on
advertisers through law. There are a number of institutional bodies which look after
THE NEGATIVE CRITIQUE OF "AMERICAN-STYLE" ADVERTISING
The Mirror Theory
According to the "mirror theory" put forth by some defenders of advertising, the industry simply takes its contents from the culture, transforms them and throws them back. But a metamorphosis occurs when culture's symbols are associated with goods. The meanings of images and ideas are infused into products and services, just as the meanings of products and services are infused into images and ideas. Advertising then releases the altered meanings back into a commercialized world ready to deliver products and services. This process is somewhat parasitic, feeding on the products of noncommercial culture -- ideology, myth, art, sexual attraction, even religion -- for commercial ends.
Others describe it similarly. The selling function of the advertising message limits what is mirrored. Promotion is always positive; commodities are presented as the road to happiness. In short, advertising uses existing values and symbols rather than reflecting them. It typifies what is diverse, filters out what is antagonistic and depressing, and naturalizes the role of consumption. The picture presented is flat, one-dimensional and habituates the audience to its interpretation of what is "normal".
It can go even further. Commodity imaging constructs the precise ideological focus most appropriate for a certain market situation. It builds dense semiological systems out of a selection of cultural items. In this way commodity imaging can, to a degree, be ideologically creative, and it may bring about a real change in the culture's symbols.
Advertising does contribute something by reconstituting meaning, rather than merely reflecting it. The devoured cultural contents retain their affectivity, but are stripped of their context and are "sold back" to the consumer as a new cultural system -- with new, commercial values replacing the original noncommercial values. For example, women are commodified to sell almost everything: cars, perfumes, etc. Their bodies, sexuality and mystique are traded. Today's mass advertising has less to do with products than with lifestyle and image, not reason but romance. Therefore, it is a cultural system instead of an informational system. But it is an incomplete cultural system, since the real values of its noncommercial contents have been drained out, leaving only their affects attached to commodities. Furthermore, only the pleasant side of life is shown, not the unpleasant and painful experiences with which a complete sociocultural system must cope.
The distorted image reflected by advertising is conservative, an effect of
appealing to the lowest common cultural denominators, with which all will agree
and which can offend as few as possible. In the constructed world, the safe compromise but false unity of perspectives which advertising shows is represented as
our deepest and natural desire. The middle-of-the-road approach, the fear to offend
any group, has been politically institutionalized. Therefore, as an ideological
vehicle, advertising is not just constrained by the logic of hugging the middle of the
road, but also becomes subject to the pushes and pulls of cultural politics, and is
punished when it blunders too far off the track.
Ramifications of Commercialized Communication
According to certain authors, there are seven cultural ramifications of the
commodification of discourse-consequences which follow when the values of
communication are fused to the market:
- The logic of discourse changes and becomes distorted.
- The recontextualization of images and ideas debases their former normative values. Logical relationships are destroyed when there is no longer any real connection between the product and the images and emotions used to sell it. The use of images from religion, art, patriotism and similar noncommercial dimensions of culture trivializes and debases not only the images, but also the noncommercial institutions themselves.
- The identity of the consumer is reshaped as a relationship to goods and services, which themselves are turned into "fetishes" with unrealistic symbolisms of power. People become regarded as "economic animals" when the real relationships of life are distorted, as human nature is devalued and defined only in relation to the goods and services humans consume. Values far beyond what they really possess are attributed to the commodities being sold.
- The reliance of mass media on advertising revenues gives advertisers direct influence on media contents, so that they can reshape almost the entire spectrum of the media to meet their needs. Consciously or unconsciously, those who pay for advertising come to control the media. The financial "bottom line" becomes the only criterion of "worthwhile" programming or publishing, and both the artistic and moral values of the media are inevitably degraded. The waste of resources becomes a virtue under this influence, as product "turnover" to inflate the "bottom line" overshadows even the most urgent demands of environmental conservation.
- The constant urging to change products and services contributes to waste.
- When messages are disseminated largely because of their market value, the ideals of citizen-democracy succumb to those of consumer-democracy.
- Finally, politicians' imitation of mass marketing strategies makes political
discourse undistinguishable from advertising. If people are only "economic animals", it follows that they have no rights except as contributors to the economy, and
the central principles of democracy become gravely threatened. This threat would
be made greater by the assumption, gained from the advertising-dominated culture,
that the selection of political leaders should be guided by the same mindless process
by which advertisers now sell their commodities.
This is a disturbing vision of an advertising-dominated world.
MEDIA RESEARCH, EDUCATION AND ADVOCACY
Research for Education
An important concern of those involved in the growing movement for media-awareness education (sometimes called "media literacy" education) is with advertising and how people can "defend themselves against it". There is need to determine the adequacy of the usual methods used to study advertising and to make and test a research model of beliefs and attitudes towards advertising and to study the factors in belief structures about advertising and their importance. Among the many strands which have to be sorted out before media education can be properly carried on, however, is the need to find out just why and how people object to and distrust, advertising. A partial answer has been given by the empirical study of the ways people perceive the social and economic effects of advertising.
The results reported some positive and some negative impressions of advertising. It was regarded as communicating product information, thereby promoting market efficiency and improving the economy. On the other hand, it was seen as misleading, as promoting materialism and corrupting values. While shaping the kind of person who will buy goods and therefore contribute to the economy, advertising also was thought to undermine children's education and to promote sinful inclinations.
An earlier, two-dimensional model of advertising's perceived effects was found to be deficient, since it gave inadequate place to personal uses of advertising, such as for product information and amusement. The new research also delineated three kinds of cultural effects more sharply than had been done earlier: materialism, value corruption and falsity. Public attitudes towards advertising were found to be increasingly critical and distrustful. The proliferation and intrusiveness of advertising were especially annoying to many.
One survey studied the work of some of the most significant scholars in the
humanities and social sciences who have written on advertising's social and cultural
consequences. Their views were classified by discipline:
- psychologists think advertising is a source of learning or conditioning;
- sociologists see it as establishing role models and as impacting social behavior;
- anthropologists view it as ritual and symbols, giving meaning to artifacts and other objects;
- educators are concerned with its influence on child development, and
- communication scholars often equate it with propaganda and analyze its role within the mass media and its influence on the media.
Advertising is subtly seductive, causing a preoccupation with material
concerns and the assumption that these lead to happiness. There are a number of
reasons for advertising's effectiveness. It is pervasive, it is repeated over and over, it
systematically uses research designed to improve attention, comprehension,
retention and behavioral impact. Finally, its impact is heightened by the fact that its
audience is increasingly living in a cultural vacuum, away from traditional sources
of cultural influence such as family, church and school.
In view of the relative cultural vacuum in which it operates, advertising has a strong "mainstreaming" effect, especially for more greedy and materialistic consumers. To the many effects of advertising voiced, must be added that it raises expectations -- showing the "grass to be greener" elsewhere. It also romanticizes the past. It uses only moderate sexual stimuli, because excessive sexual provocation would not be controllable for the advertiser's purposes. Advertising promotes passiveness. It changes the norms of public decency by showing all kinds of social phenomena and expressing indifference to them. Consequently, collective political priorities decline. As long as consumer demand and GNP are up, we do not need social and economic justice, according to the political value system advertising encourages. The distorted emphasis in the language taught by advertising reduces the credibility of language and also advertising's own credibility.
Whether from a Biblical perspective or from that of secular humanism, advertising appears to be a social force opposed to religion. Some of what it sells is, by the standards of many people, sinful. It promotes a morality of materialism and a gospel of goods. It must be acknowledged that materialism preceded advertising, but the appearance of the latter coincided with the rise of other influences, such as urbanization, industrial expansion, increasing literacy, and widespread education, all of which worked with advertising to promote materialistic values.
All these influences -- together with the influence of the nonadvertising
contents of the mass media -- work together in complex ways to cultivate the social
meanings by which we organize our lives. The relative share of advertising in
carrying out this process remains ambiguous and impossible to measure with any
certainty. Nevertheless, its tendency to focus on certain values to the neglect of
others must have some impact on those heavily exposed to advertising. There still is
hope that advertising agencies may recognize the fact of this selection process and
take steps toward a good, rather than bad, influence on the moral climate.
The origin of the use of pictures of women as sex symbols in advertising is lost in the early history of the industry. The motives are obvious, but they represent an assumption on the part of the advertiser that the majority of potential buyers of that particular product are men. Changes have occurred in the use of gender references in advertising in recent years which are owed more to the advertiser's perception of their audience than to any considerations of morality, decency or good taste, or even to the influence of the feminist movement. Most advertisers now realize that women have at least as much buying power as men, and consequently take pains to avoid offending them. This does not mean that there is less sex in contemporary advertising, just that it is used more subtly.
Gender stereotypes and myths are interwoven in beer commercials and their contexts. Drawing on research on the relationship between alcohol advertising and drunken driving, we can discuss the ways in which the myth of masculinity is expressed in beer commercials. The advertising works both as a mirror and as a reinforcement for the myth. Beer commercials are only one form in which the myth appears, since it is found in ordinary non-mediated communication as well as in all sorts of mass media contents. The ads both reflect and reinforce the culture's conception of "the man's man". Also, myths take different forms each time they are related; so beer ads "reshape the myth of masculinity, and in this sense, take part in its continuity construction".
Myths in any culture tell the boys and men of that society what it means to be a man, what kinds of things men do, how boys become men, what environments are to be preferred by men, how men relate to each other and to women, etc. Each of these concerns is defined in beer commercials. Challenge, risk, mastery over nature, technology, others, self, dominate the image of masculine activity portrayed by the commercials. Beer is a reward for challenges met and overcome. Beer-drinking itself is never portrayed as a challenge, even though it poses many challenges. Alcohol affects judgment, slows reaction time and threatens self-control. Therefore, beer-drinking is a challenge in itself, but it would be self-destructive for the beer industry to advertise it as such.
In the world of beer commercials, masculinity revolves around the theme of challenge, an association that is particularly alarming, given the social problems which stem from alcohol abuse. For the most part, beer commercials present traditional, stereotypical images of men, and uphold the prevailing myths of masculinity and femininity. Thus, in promoting beer, advertisers also promote and perpetuate these images and myths. Furthermore, the commercials are highly accessible and attractive to children and offer answers to their questions about gender and adulthood. They have real impact on social learning and attitude formation.
The myth of masculinity has a number of redeeming features, but the beer
commercials present only one dimension of masculinity, which is clearly antagonistic, possibly laughable, but without doubt sobering.
Some authors have studied how advertising contributes to building "strong" brands, i.e., favorable audience responses to brand names and the logos and other imagery associated with a particular company or product.
Two of the most interesting cases are those of the advertising of Marlboro Cigarettes and Absolut Vodka. The construction of product charisma is not about functional or instrumental utility; it is about manipulating emotional meaning, which is different from rational function. It also avoids questions of "truth in advertising" because there can be no literal way to taste Marlboro Country or verify that Coke adds life.
Marlboro Country is "metaphysical" in the negative" sense of the term as used by positivists. It is a social construction of reality which exists only if people participate in its construction and maintenance. But if such an image is firmly related to the product it can radically change its value and lend charisma.
"Imagepower" study shows us that brands are very important in the marketing process. In the beginning there is only a company, which creates, manufactures and sells a product. Next comes the product, with certain physical features, and certain functions and attributes which characterize what the company is selling. After that comes a long-term communication process which establishes brand identity through creating and positioning symbols which will define the product in the minds of the audience. Finally come individual advertising campaigns and other promotional measures cumulatively to build up the brand's presence to, and desirability for, the public. Careful and consistent brand building can result in greater sales. In different cultures, brands are built up differently. Brand building in Europe needs individual attention for each country, and "branding" in Japan is different from most Western practices. Branding is a vital stage. Whether the product is good or not, if people do not believe in the brand they will not buy it again. This sums up the ultimate aim of all "image" and "lifestyle" advertising. It also suggests why advertising is so essential to free enterprise marketing, and why that kind of advertising is unlikely to disappear as long as that economic system lasts.
Strangely, just as some followers are willing to die for a charismatic leader who is associated with a glorious cause, some consumers exhibit extreme behaviors towards artifacts imbued with compelling meaning. An example of this is the case of a young teenager being killed for his Nikes.
"Charismatic" brands develop an ethical problem. Strong brand identity is, at
the same time, one of the most important objectives of advertising and one of its
most troublesome attributes.
Children and Advertising
At the age of five or six, children have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality and make-believe from lying. They do not distinguish programs from ads, and may even prefer the ads. Between seven and ten years-old, children are most vulnerable to "televised manipulation". At age seven, the child can usually distinguish reality from fantasy, and at nine, he or she might suspect deception in ads -- based on personal experience of products which turned out not to be as advertised -- but they cannot articulate this and still have "high hopes". By ten, this has begun to turn into the cynical view that "ads always lie". Around eleven or twelve, the child begins to accept and tolerate adults lying in ads. This is the real birth of the adolescent's enculturation into a system of social hypocrisy.
Due to their lack of experience, young children have less resistance to advertising, and it may be especially harmful because of their inability to distinguish it from other programming. But the frame of reference for judgements of "reality" or "fantasy" can shift. Children asked whether a "realistic" drama about a school was "real", replied that it was not, "because it was not like their school". The considerable similarity of the television portrayal to their own experience, but with discrepancies, had actually increased the children's perception of it as "unreal".
Another problematic area is advertising's tendency to view only positive aspects, avoiding ugliness, pain, and other negative dimensions of real life. In this it differs from education, other contents of mass media, and similar, more balanced modes of presentation.
The content of advertising has long been subjected to much criticism. This was discussed earlier, and is accentuated in its impact on children. Stereotyping and raising children's expectations higher than can be fulfilled might be stressed. So might the way advertising plays on existing fears and constructs irrational fears. These visions of advertising see it as a malignant, rather than a benign influence, as pervasive and often as immoral.
Television, in general, has also changed the image of the child in modern
society, and advertising may amplify that change. In earlier times, children were
regarded as "sweet" and "different", incapable of adult responses. Now there is a
tendency to portray them as "kids", streetwise, amusing, interested in excitement
and fast action. Kids really know more than we give them credit for and should not
be talked down to. If that stereotype comes to affect adult-child interactions, little
leeway would seem to be allowed for either discipline or education. From another
perspective, children are seen as living in an "age of innocence" -- trusting, naive,
uncritical. Adults who act upon this stereotype are likely to regard television as
unmitigated evil, seducing and taking advantage of the innocent and defenseless.
The Global Perspective
One more negative scholarly view of advertising is that there may be no use in studying the social and cultural effects of advertising alone. They are part of a larger system in which large conglomerates control our culture. One of their tools is advertising. This view certainly is correct in insisting that advertising must be studied in its proper context and as one influence interacting with many others.
Advertising is a product of industrialized society. Since a coherent and viable
economy, today, is largely dependent on mass industrialization, advertising will
continue to be a factor in our lives.
Effects as "By-products": But advertising is what we see and hear all day long. All conceivable media are filled with it. The study of the social and cultural effects of commercial advertising is in itself a negative one. Social and cultural effects are not the intended effects of advertising, because it is not designed to change social behavior or cultures.
Advertising functions only to sell products or ideas. Therefore, it is not
surprising that this topic is not dealt with much in advertising textbooks, which
stress "how-to-advertise". Social and cultural effects are by-products of advertising,
but they are central to the interest of those who are fearful that advertising has too
much influence on our view of the world. And it does. Exactly how advertising
works on consumer's minds is still a matter for continuing research, but that it
works cannot be denied.
America, the Laboratory: The critical study of advertising in the United States is especially welcome, because that country is the Valhalla of advertising, or as others argue, the country most "littered" or "polluted" by advertising. At least the effects are more obvious there than in most places. The U.S. is the laboratory of advertising research, and what has been happening there may soon be happening elsewhere.
The Distorting Mirror: Defenders of advertising say that advertising only mirrors culture in order to create sales appeal. But the mirror is distorted. Every critic on the subject describes the way in which the mirror selectively uses only parts of culture, linking values and symbols to commercial products. Advertising is so all-encompassing that this clearly faulty mirror has become an authority on what the culture "should" be. The mirror tells us about an ideal life, toward which we all should strive using the products recommended. Advertising functions as did the story teller in ancient times; by telling us its stories, it transforms culture into a consumer culture. The commodification of culture is the result of linking the culture's symbols, norms and values to good.
The rationale for dealing separately with American or Western advertising and advertising in the rest of the world is that advertising has become such and integral part of Western culture. Also, American society has become the model for that way to advertise all over the world. When operating globally companies advertise in non-western parts of the world using the same Western mirror for their advertising, though they will sometimes use indigenous models as well.
Global Frustration: This makes the mirror even more biased. By showing Western advertising in non-Western countries, the ideal Western lifestyle and culture are proclaimed. The critics of "cultural imperialism" say that this leads to cultural alienation. Others see it as a tendency to globalization, for companies operating and advertising globally represent a tendency toward a global culture. Advertisers say that it does not make sense not to target indigenous culture because in that way they will lose sales, whereas sales are their ultimate goal.
But Western advertising can and does lead to frustration. Many cannot afford
the goods of the ideal life. And, whether using local symbols or not, the distorted
mirror of advertising will still be linking culture to products and therefore
stimulating consumer culture wherever it is shown. Criticisms of advertising are
less criticisms of capitalism than of its result: consumerism. People do not need all
the products shown in order to be happy. We can do without the "materialism"
which is used so often to stereotypically describe American society, but which in
fact describes most of the Western industrialized world.
A Survey of the Literature on Advertising
Some parts of the world are not represented in the works discussed below. But the overall conclusions of scholars dealing with advertising and culture are amazingly consistent. Advertising all over the world is operating in much the same way, and all over the world, it is increasing in volume and probably in influence. The tendency to globalization, first in economy, and gradually also in culture, gives advertising free rein.
More Active Critics: A few general comments can be made about developments in the literature on advertising. Over the past decade the amount of advertising has increased. As a result, the criticisms have changed, becoming even more severe. Organizations like The Centre for the Study of Commercialism (CSC), The Foundation for Media Education (FME) and its magazine, Adbusters, and the Cultural Environmental Movement (CEM), stand up to advertising "pollution" by creating awareness among teachers, communicators and others who disseminate information. They have developed an active role, which can be considered as new, distinguished from the more general consumer protection of the past.
Also there are those who hold moderate views which consider advertising
not to be as bad as other critics make it seem. But they, too, warn of its harmful
effects. This tendency describes the information environment in which people live
as crucial for social and cultural effects. The more access one has to information,
the less influence advertising is likely to have. Conversely, the less information one
has, the more influence advertising will tend to have.
More Dialogue: Law is not an issue here, because there can be no law against showing only the "good life" while leaving out its deficiencies. There is no way to escape advertising, but at least we can strive for advertising that is more responsible in restoring the true reflective power of the mirror, whose distortions have been the source of much of the evil.
The business point of view has changed little. In consulting typical textbooks to see how they deal with criticisms of advertising, we find that they use most of their space to respond to the easier-to-answer difficulties and pay scarce attention to the more central and critical issue of the "faulty mirror theory". Some complaints are easy to rebut, but the distortion of reality seems to be an essential trait of most contemporary advertising and needs to be faced squarely.
A serious dialogue between advertising and its critics is important. Advertising has a responsibility. It must be possible to sell goods without devaluing
cultural symbols or the values held by a culture. That advertising is leading to
consumerism is largely a result of mass-production by industries which have to sell
large quantities of their manufactured products to show a profit. Still, there is no
need to present that as the highest goal attainable. Responsible advertising should
try to achieve its economic goals while keeping them in proportion with greater
More of the Same: Despite the vast technological and political changes sweeping the world, it seems that nothing really new has happened in advertising over the past decade except, according to critics, that the situation has deteriorated. The world has become Westernized. Global corporations have expanded to different regions of the world where they cause more of the same complaints heard so often in the past. Advertising is still growing, and therefore growing in importance. The critics of advertising have grown with it.
Some relatively small organizations make an active effort to attack advertising by education, and consumer groups have gained in power. But it seems also that governments are not cooperating with the critics. There is a worldwide tendency toward liberalization, deregulation, and privatization favoring the advertising industry, which results in the critics sharpening their views.
In the meantime, there have been more nuanced reactions as well, from scholars who see the benefits of advertising, along with its bad aspects, and who are somewhat less critical. The arguments in defense of advertising remained, overall, the same. This is somewhat unfortunate since they so frequently miss the main points raised by the critics, on which then little dialogue takes place. But it does seem that the advertising business is listening more attentively to critical views and takes suggestions from them in order to produce better advertising. There is room for the presentation of critical papers in meetings of advertising specialists, giving hope that broader dialogue will develop.
The Commodification of Culture: Whereas earlier critics concentrated on advertising's creation and use of unwanted persuasion, in 1994 the critics are attacking the commodification of culture, the all-encompassing presence of advertising, and the cultural changes for which advertising is held partly responsible. Advertising has changed people into consumers. Some ads are clearly an insult to people's intelligence. Fear at these tendencies and indignation about then still run high, and are even growing in some circles.
The development of advertising is a "success" story whose end is not in sight. New media have been invented which will create new possibilities for advertising. It is doubtful that the "information superhighway" will be free of advertising for it is the perfect vehicle to reach millions of people. And good marketing sense demands the use of culture and cultural values for efficiency in targeting audiences. The often-heard complaint that the mirror of advertising is a distorted one remains serious, but a true reflection of reality would not sell many products; so some distortion seems inevitable. Most criticism is directed against this faulty mirror.
In the end, even if it is hard to admit, were it not for advertising we might not
have the marvelous opportunity to see the Olympics, or many other unforgettable
moments in our lives and in our country.
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Clark, Eddie M., Timothy C. Brock and David W. Stewart (eds.). Attention, Attitude, and Effect in Response to Advertising. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Eribaum Associates, 1994.
Collins, Ronald K.L. and David M. Skover. "Commerce and Communication," Texas Law Review. Vol. 71, No. 4 (March 1993), pp. 697-743.
Communication Research Trends. A quarterly Information Service from the Center for the Study of Communication and Culture. Vol. 14, Nos. 1 and 2, 1994.
Himmelstein, Hal. Television Myth and the American Mind. New York: Praeger, 1984.
Maloney, John C. "The First 90 Years of Advertising," Chapter 2, in Clark, Brock and Stewards (eds.), pp. 13-54.
Martínez Terrero, José, S.J. "The Economic and Value-Centered Approach to Advertising Research in Latin America." Privately-distributed paper, February 17, 1994.
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Wernick, Andrew. Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression. London: Sage, 1992.