The rising significance of consumption (or consumer culture) in contemporary societies is often associated with the impact of advertising—the circulation of information and product endorsements that attempt to persuade people to consume particular goods and services. This is especially the case in the United States, which for many is the society that epitomizes consumer culture. Indeed, the omnipresence of advertising is widely recognized as one of the defining features of consumer culture.
Advertising is an integral part of every advanced country's economy and culture, but as statistics suggest, advertising plays an unusually important role in the United States. Robert Coen, a leading authority on advertising expenditures, estimates that worldwide expenditures for advertising in 2007 were approximately $630 billion. That same year, expenditures for advertising in the United States were about $280 billion. Table 1 shows the relationship between advertising expenditures in the United States and other countries in 2007. It shows that the 6.3 billion people outside of the United States who are exposed to $350 billion worth of advertising, with $280 billion of advertising aimed at the 300 million people who populate the United States: people in the United States are exposed to about twenty times as much advertising as people in other countries.
A considerable percentage of U.S. residents' exposure to advertising takes the form of television commercials. A typical thirty-minute television show in the United States has seven minutes of commercials. Statistics indicate that Americans spend the equivalent of nine years of their life watching television and see two million commercials by the time they reach sixty-five years old. The average child in America sees 20,000 television commercials in a typical year. What these figures reveal is that television viewers in the United States watch an enormous number of television commercials. To these figures on television advertising we must add other forms of advertising, such as radio commercials, advertisements in print media such as newspapers and magazines, billboards, advertisements on the Internet, on mobile phones, logos on T-shirts, labels on grocery products, signs on storefronts, and advertisements of one kind or another on just about any flat surface that is available.
|United States||Rest of World|
|Population||300 million||6.3 billion|
|Advertising||$280 billion||$350 billion|
Citizens of other countries don't, as a rule, watch as much television as people in the United States and aren't exposed to as many commercials. In many countries, there are also limits on the amount of time that can be devoted to commercials.
In 2008, American media usage, as reported by the United States Census Bureau, reveals the following figures (projected):
|Medium||Hours Per Year|
|Television (broadcast and cable)||1,704|
|Out of home media||117|
These statistics on media use, most of which carry advertising, explain why U.S. residents have an incredible amount of product knowledge—information about the price and features of various products—even though some of them may not know very much about history, literature, the arts, and similar topics. That is because they spend a great deal of their leisure time watching television and being exposed to advertising, which, whatever else it may be, is a form of persuasion.
The Latin root of the word advertising is advertere, which means “to turn one's attention toward.” Advertising can be defined as mass-mediated communication that attempts to persuade people to purchase goods and services sold by the company or entity paying for the advertising. Advertising may inform us and it may entertain us, but its main concerns are to attract our attention, stimulate our desire for whatever is being advertised, and, finally and most important, to generate action—that is, to sell something to us.
Advertising agencies are media businesses that are hired by companies with products and services they wish to sell. There are now huge, multiagency advertising conglomerates that dominate the industry. The typical agency is very bureaucratic, with many levels of administrators as well as secretaries, accountants, time buyers, technical experts, marketing departments, account executives, and highly important creative departments. It is the art directors and copy writers in the creative departments of agencies who actually make the advertisements.
The advertising industry is competitive, and there is a great deal of pressure and little job security, because when agencies lose large, major accounts, they often have to fire large numbers of workers. The pay for entry-level workers in agencies is generally low, while those with years of experience are generally paid quite well. It is not unusual for creative directors in large agencies to earn salaries of several hundred thousand dollars a year, plus bonuses and stock options.
Advertising uses a number of different techniques to persuade consumers to purchase products and often exploits sexuality, showing images of scantily clothed women, generally voluptuous with beautiful features, when selling products that men and women typically purchase. The “sexploitation” of women in advertising is a matter that many feminist critics have dealt with, and so far with little success. Many advertisements, especially in glossy-style magazines, still exploit women's bodies. Now advertisers exploit men as well, in selling clothes, fragrances, and other lifestyle products. Some advertisements for men's fragrances and other male or unisex products have a pronounced homoerotic significance.
There are a variety of rhetorical techniques used by advertisers to persuade viewers of commercials to purchase products. Some commercials scare people, whereas others are humorous and amuse them. Advertisers were afraid of using humor for many years, because they thought that humor somehow devalued their products. In recent years, however, advertisers have been more positive about humor because they believe humorous ads make people feel good and those good feelings have a halo effect that can be used by companies to sell their products and services.
Some advertisements use heroes, authority figures, and celebrities, hoping their status and fame will convince people to consume things. A French literary theorist, René Girard, argues that what we desire often imitates the desire of those we admire. In his book, A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, Girard claims that what he calls “mimetic desire” explains not only the behavior of characters in Shakespeare's plays but also consumer behavior. In effect, Girard suggests that people purchase things to imitate the desire of others, especially movie stars, celebrities, and sports heroes they admire.
Some advertisements use rhetorical techniques, such as comparison and contrast or list the positive attributes of products, and base their arguments for purchasing these products on logic and rationality. Some advertising promises success and the good life, holding out the likelihood of making a great deal of money and being able to afford to buy whatever one wants. Advertisements for products such as soft drinks and hamburgers are often based on the notion of rewarding oneself—“You deserve a break today,” from McDonald's—or of being part of a community of young and attractive people—“We are the world,” for Coca-Cola.
And some commercials have a confusing postmodern theme that doesn't seem to make sense. As Jack Solomon writes in his book Signs of Our Times: The Secret Meanings of Everyday Life, “In Calvin Klein's postmodern campaign for Obsession perfume, it's virtually impossible to tell just what is going on. A tormented woman seems to be torn between a young boy and an older man—or does the young boy represent a flashback to the older man's youth?” (1990, 228, 229). A number of postmodern advertisements puzzle us in an attempt to get us to think about and remember the product being advertised.
We can look at television commercials, the most powerful form of advertising, as minidramas—sometimes only fifteen seconds long, but generally thirty seconds and sometimes a minute or more in length. The cost of a typical thirty-second commercial made by an advertising agency is now around $400,000, an example of how those production costs typically break down is shown in the following table.
|Medium||Hours Per Year|
|$45,000||Television editing and postproduction|
|$1,000||Sound effects, narration|
|$11,000||Talent fees (actors, extras, voice-overs)|
|$16,000||Agency travel, casting, callbacks, etc.|
Most thirty-second commercials actually cost more than this to produce. This figure doesn't cover the time purchased on networks and local television stations to broadcast commercials, which can amount to many millions of dollars.
According to Norbert Wiley, one of the aims of advertising is to achieve “a willing suspension of disbelief” in people. This phrase comes from the nineteenth-century literary critic and writer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was describing what happens when people see dramas. They identify with the characters in the drama and willingly suspend their disbelief in the artificial nature of what they are observing. Wiley's argument is that when customers experience a suspension of disbelief, it is possible to convince them to purchase something. Advertisers all face the problem of clutter and of people's resistance to being manipulated or being told to do something; the notion that advertising helps generate the suspension of disbelief, or of resistance to being sold products, helps us understand better how advertising works.
This suspension of disbelief is often aided by the aesthetic qualities of advertisements. The actors and actresses who are shown in commercials often use exaggerated facial expressions and body language as they gaze at us, pleading with us to purchase a particular brand of hamburger, medicine, soap powder, or whatever item they are selling. Through the use of techniques and special effects such as dissolves, fadeouts, quick cutting, sound effects, music, and camera movements such as extreme close-ups, the creators of commercials are often able to generate powerful emotional responses in viewers.
In his book, Spots: The Popular Art of Television Commercials, Bruce Kurtz describes “Quick Cuts,” a television commercial created by Dan Nichols for McDonald's that had “65 different scenes in 60 seconds” (1977, 94). One seven-second segment of this commercial had fourteen different scenes, and what is interesting, Kurtz adds, is that viewers were able to perceive all of these scenes, even if they appeared faster than viewers could count them when first seeing the commercial.
What this quick cutting does, Kurtz explains is generate a sense of excitement in viewers. He writes, “Because of the sense of urgency and of presentness which the spots communicate, the viewer actually experiences the exciting lifestyle Nichols depicts rather than passively observing events which occur to someone else” (94). What Nichols does with this quick cutting is create feelings of excitement and pleasure in viewers of the commercial, which becomes connected in their minds with eating at McDonald's. These commercials portray an appealing lifestyle that is associated with McDonald's restaurants, which leads viewers to eat at McDonald's to obtain the gratifications they desire.
Technically speaking, the matter of associating excitement and pleasure with McDonald's is a rhetorical device known as metonymy. Metonymy and metaphor are two of the main rhetorical devices used in advertising. Metonymy works by association, and metaphor works by analogy. Both can be expressed pictorially as well as verbally. For example, using a Rolls-Royce automobile in a commercial for Dijon mustard uses the link in our minds of this automobile with wealth and perhaps with attributes such as sophistication and good taste.
Metaphor is a device that uses analogies and forms of the verb “to be.” Thus, an advertisement for Fidji perfume shows a fuzzy photograph of a nude woman and has the following metaphor for copy “Woman is an island.” We must realize that metaphors have logical implications, therefore accepting the notion that “woman is an island” leads to certain attitudes toward women. Metaphor and metonymy are efficient because they take advantage of information that viewers of the advertisements already have in their minds.
Television commercials and other forms of advertising can have powerful effects on individuals and large numbers of people. Corporations do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns unless they are effective in the long run and lead to increased sales. Advertising agencies often say they help “grow” companies. What this means is that they help increase the sales of products and services sold by these companies. When advertising campaigns fail, companies may fire the advertising agency responsible for the campaign and hire a different agency.
Although many people consider advertising to be little more than a nuisance and do what they can to avoid television commercials and other forms of advertising, it is one of the most important institutions in modern societies. Critics of advertising argue that it fosters materialism and privatism by directing our attention away from socially beneficial public investments to private consumption. Marxist critics maintain that if the manifest function of advertising is to sell goods, the latent function is to justify and support the capitalist political system that brings all these goods to people. Our lust for goods is, they argue, a function of the alienation that affects everyone in bourgeois capitalist societies, and advertising is the most important engine that helps generate that lust.
Ethicists criticize advertising for manipulating people and for advertising some products—such as cigarettes, when cigarette advertising was allowed—that are harmful and dangerous. Advertisers often used celebrities to sell cigarettes, providing role models for young people to imitate. Ethicists ask whether people who work in advertising agencies should use their skills and abilities to sell harmful and, in the case of cigarette advertising, carcinogenic products. Ethicists argue that not only is it unethical to make advertisements for such products, but asking writers and artists to do so creates personal ethical dilemmas for them.
Given the amount of binge drinking in the United States and in other countries, there is a considerable amount of controversy about beer advertisements. They are often aimed at teenagers and may play a role in generating this serious social problem. There are also many criticisms of advertisements for food products and fast food directed at young children. Though the advertising industry is not directly responsible for the large numbers of obese children and adults in the United States and other countries, the advertisements for these products must be implicated in the growth of this medical epidemic.
There is probably no area where advertising is more important than in politics in the United States. During American political campaigns, politicians and interest groups collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, mostly on television commercials. Advertising, by playing an important role in political campaigns, helps shape political order.
Ironically, when advertising agencies testify before Congressional committees, they often argue that they cannot shape human behavior and have a relatively minor role in the decision making of consumers. But when they talk with companies that wish to hire them, the advertising agencies claim that they can sell large numbers of people just about anything. It may be true that advertising agencies cannot convince a certain individual to purchase a particular product, but collectively, if we look at the effects of advertising, we can see that these agencies can have a considerable impact on people. There are numerous scholarly journals, websites, and hundreds of books on the social and cultural impact of advertising.
On the positive side, countries with well-developed advertising tend to be dynamic, democratic, and economically successful. So it may be that advertising, for better and for worse, is the price paid for a modern lifestyle. Advertising also has been used for many prosocial purposes, such as attacking racism and anti-Semitism, so it can be a powerful force for good.
Critics of advertising often suggest that something should be done to regulate advertising in various ways. They argue, for example, that government should prevent young children, who are gullible and easily manipulated, from being exposed to advertising on television programs, and advertising should be prevented from selling certain kinds of products, such as cigarettes and prescription drugs, if the consequences of doing so are harmful. Many people are ambivalent about advertising, admiring its aesthetic qualities and yet feeling negative about its intrusive nature. Advertising remains a subject of considerable controversy and an industry that plays a significant role—for better or worse—in shaping the economies, the cultures, the political order, and the lifestyles of people everywhere.
Branding, Broadcast Media, Celebrity, Communication Studies, Lifestyle, Markets and Marketing, Mass Culture (Frankfurt School), Postmodernism
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