Chapter 2: Consumer Cultures A Cultural Critique of Advertising
Consumer Cultures Defined
Consumer Culture and Privatism
Neiman Marcus and “Couthification”
Needs Are Finite, Desires Are Infinite
Chapter 3: Advertising and The Communication Process The Lasswell Formula
Focal Points and the Study of Media
The Lasswell Formula and Focal Points
A Problem with the Lasswell Formula
John Q. Public’s Daily Media Diet
Television Viewing and Exposure to Commercials
Our All-Consuming Passion for Consuming
The Price We Pay for “Free” Television
Chapter 4: Running It Up a Flagpole to See If Anyone Salutes Tiffany’s Morning: A Fiction
The Illusion of Control
Being a "Branded Individual"
The Problem of Self-Alienation
We Can Choose as We Please, but Can We Please as We Please?
Chapter 5: Sexuality and Advertising
Sex in Advertising
The Peach That Became a Prune: A Cautionary Fable
The Pseudo-Poetic Appeal to the Illiterati
Sex Sells Cigarettes
The Case of Joe Camel
Sex and the Problem of Clutter
Chapter 6: Political Advertising Kinds of Political Advertisements
The 1998 California Primary: a “Virtual” Campaign for Governor
Questions Raised by the “Virtual” Campaign
The Code of the Commercial (and Other Political Advertising)
The Death of the Tobacco Bill
Chapter 7: The Marketing Society Statistics on Advertising
More Comments on the Illusion of Freedom
The Marketing View
The VALS 1 Typology
Using the VALS 1 Typology: A Case Study
VALS 2: A Revision of the VALS 1Typology
Zip Codes and Kinds of Consumers
Magazine Choice as an Indicator of Consumer Taste
Types of Teenage Consumers
A Typology for Everyone in the World
A Comparison of the Different Typologies
A Conclusion in the Form of a Question
Chapter 8: Analyzing Print Advertisements
or: Six Ways of Looking at a Fidji Perfume Advertisement Lotman’s Contributions to Understanding Texts
What’s There to Analyze in an Advertisement?
Analyzing the Fidji Ad
A Semiotic Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
A Sociological Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
A Marxist Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
The Myth Model and the Fidji Advertisement
A Feminist Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
Chapter 9: Analyzing Television Commercials
The Macintosh “1984” Commercial Analyzing Television Commercials
A Synopsis of the Text
George Orwell’s 1984 and Ridley Scott’s “1984”
The Image of the Total Institution
The Prisoners’ Boots
The Blond as Symbol
The Brainwashing Scenario
The Big Brother Figure
The Brainwasher’s Message
The Big Explosion
The Inmates’ Response
The Macintosh Announcement
The Heroine as Mythic Figure
Psychoanalytic Aspects of the Commercial
The Blond as Mediator
The Big Blue
A Clever Marketing Strategy
The "1984" Commercial and a Bit of Scholarly Research
Some measure of greed exists unconsciously in everyone. It represents an aspect of the desire to live, one which is mingled and fused at the outset of life with the impulse to turn aggression and destructiveness outside ourselves against others, and as such it persists unconsciously throughout life. By its very nature it is endless and never assuaged; and being a form of the impulse to live, it ceases only with death.
The longing or greed for good things can relate to any and every imaginable kind of good--material possessions, bodily or mental gifts, advantages and privileges; but, beside the actual gratifications they may bring, in the depths of our minds they ultimately signify one thing. They stand as proofs to us, if we get them, that we are ourselves good, and full of good, and so are worthy of love, or respect and honour, in return. Thus they serve as proofs and insurances against our fears of emptiness inside ourselves, or of our evil impulses which make us feel bad and full of badness to ourselves and others.
Joan Riviere, “Hate, Greed and Aggression”
Preface: I Stink Therefore I Am
A number of years ago I wrote an article about deodorant advertising entitled “I Stink, Therefore I Am!” My thesis in this article was that our bodies, which give off odors, confirm our existence and that deodorants, which mask our bodies odors, reflect an unconscious desire to be “perfect,” to escape somehow from the physical aspects of our existence. The title is a parody of René Descartes’s famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” It is humorous because I have used and subverted, to an extent, Descartes’s words. I have not abandoned my interest in smells. In this book I deal with a fascinating advertisement for Fidji perfume. I think you will be interested in all the things I find in this advertisement.
To Buy Is to Be Perceived
I also wrote an essay on advertising based on another well-known quotation from a philosopher. The great English philosopher Berkeley once wrote “To be is to be perceived.” I “adapted” that idea and wrote, “To buy is to be perceived,” explaining that one reason people buy things is that when they purchase products or services, salespeople pay attention to them. Salespeople confirm, if only for a brief moment, our existence when we buy something. And as soon as we're done, they tend to ignore us and pretend we don’t exist. The bill in the mail or on the list of credit-card purchases is an additional confirmation of our existence. We are not conscious of these things, of course.
We do not recognize the “real” reason we do any number of things. If we did, we wouldn’t need all the psychiatrists, psychotherapists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and others who spend a great deal of their time trying to figure out:
1. what people do and
2. why they do what they do.
People are very complicated, and there are no easy answers to these questions.
My Ambivalence toward Advertising
I must admit to a kind of ambivalence about advertising. (The convention is that commercial messages in print are called advertisements and those on radio and television are called commercials.) Many advertisements and commercials are brilliant works of art: They are funny; they are moving; and they use avant-garde cinematic techniques. But their purpose, generally speaking, is to get people to buy products and services, and thus there is an ethical problem connected with the advertising industry: People are not treated as ends in themselves but as means to an end--consumption, doing what the advertisers want them to do. In some cases, such as with cigarettes, people who work in advertising agencies have a real ethical dilemma to deal with.
In this book I consider the matter of the degree to which people can resist advertising. We may think we are not affected by advertising, but we may be wrong.
As Leo Bogart pointed out many years ago in Strategy in Advertising:
The real significance of advertising is its total cumulative weight as part of the culture--in the way in which it contributes to the popular lore of ideas and attitudes towards consumer products. The information and impressions which people have about branded goods represent folk wisdom: they are part of the landscape of symbols with which people are familiar from childhood on, and which they play back to each other in the discussions that precede a major purchase. (1967:78)
That is, advertising is an important part of our culture, and many of our ideas and notions have been influenced by the enormous amount of advertising we are exposed to as we grow up.
Just before I wrote this preface, I happened to meet a neighbor in a supermarket. He told me about the problems his son was having with his wife--she could not stop buying things and this was causing them all kinds of problems, because she was spending more money than they could afford to spend and going into debt. My neighbor wondered whether his son’s marriage would last much longer. “They get along Ok,” he said, “but she just can’t seem to understand that they have limited finances.” This story is not unusual. And I’m not suggesting that advertising is the villain that might lead to the breakup of this marriage or other marriages. But advertising plays an enormous role in our society of consumption, and young people are trained, one might say, by the advertising industry to be consumers.
The Goals of This Book
I wrote this book to do a number of things:
1. to teach you something about how advertising works,
2. to suggest how advertising has affected American society and culture, and
3. to help you learn to analyze and interpret advertisements and commercials in more interesting and profound ways. This should help you learn to resist them better.
Since advertising is so pervasive in our culture, this book deals with a number of different topics--sexuality, politics, market research, consumer culture, and many other things. I hope you, my reader, will find it interesting and useful and that it will help you see the role advertising has played, and is playing, in your life.
My list of topics to consider on print advertising and television commercials draws upon, but is a modification and enhancement of, material in my book Seeing is Believing: An Introduction to Visual Communication. (1998). In Run It Up a Flagpole I focus on a more general analysis using some of the basic critical techniques. The interpretive techniques I use in the Fidji analysis are dealt with in more detail in my books Media Analysis Techniques, Cultural Criticism, Seeing is Believing: An Introduction to Visual Communication, and Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics. They offer more amplified discussions of the various methodologies and concepts I will be using here, and they also have bibliographies for those interested in pursuing these interpretive methodologies in more depth. The glossary is an adaptation, revised and tied to advertising, of my glossary in Essentials of Mass Communication Theory.
Advertisements sanctify, signify, mythologize, and fantasize. They uphold some of the existing economic and political structures and subvert others. Not only does advertising shape American culture; it shapes Americans' images of themselves.
Katherine Toland Frith, Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising.
The loyal customer is worth more than the sum of her purchases. A faithful
General Motors customer can be worth $276,000 over her lifetime, including the 11 or more vehicles bought plus a word-of-mouth endorsement making friends and relatives more likely to consider GM products.
"Marketers Put a Price on Your Life"
Advertising in American Society
Advertising is really quite puzzling. It is a $200 billion a year industry in the United States and employs a goodly number of the brightest and most creative people in American society and other societies as well (often at very high salaries, to boot). Curiously, people who work in the industry have difficulty proving that it works--especially in the long term.
Advertising as a Puzzlement
One advertising executive told me that "half of the money people spend on advertising is wasted . . . but we don’t know which half."
Also, advertising agencies are forced to talk out of both sides of their mouths at the same time. They have to convince clients that advertising is really effective...in generating sales, holding on to the customers a company already has, or attracting new customers. But when governmental agencies or consumer groups ask advertising agencies about what they do when it comes to advertising products such as cigarettes and alcohol, for instance, the advertising agencies argue that they have very little impact on people.
The situation seems to be that although nobody in the business world is certain how advertising works, there is a consensus that it is necessary and that campaigns are worth the enormous amount of money they often cost. Thus, for example, commercials broadcast during the 1998 Super Bowl cost approximately $1.3 million for 30 seconds and the cost of commercials during the 2000 AD Superbowl was around $2 million for a thirty second spot.
We must always keep in mind the difference between the cost of making a television commercial and the cost of purchasing airtime to show a commercial. It might cost $350,000 to make a thirty-second commercial but purchasing the airtime might run into the millions of dollars. Naturally, advertisers want to run effective commercials so it's worth spending a bit more money for a commercial that will work. Of course, advertisers and advertising agencies never know which commercials will be effective and why they are effective. Though there is often an enormous amount of data about target audiences "behind" a given commercial, all the data in the world doesn't mean anything when it comes to making a commercial that is effective.
Insights Learned from Advertising Agencies The psychological profile of people in advertising is that they love the drama involved in working in agencies and the excitement generated by making ads and commercials. Also, planning is about demonstrating that it’s not just about logic. It’s not a linear process. In the United States, business people are rewarded for being extremely logical…and having statistics to back themselves up. This produces dreadful advertising that often fails to make any impact. Advertising agencies are refuges for people who don’t think only in a linear fashion and who recognize that other people – consumers of advertising--don’t think that way, either.
These figures represent a breakdown on the cost of a 30-second “Got Milk” commercial. They were supplied by a former student of mine who works at the advertising agency that created the commercial. A typical thirty-second spot costs between $300,000 and $400,000; this spot cost $362,000.
$281,000 Television Production
$45,000 Television Post-production (editing)
$6000 Music (usually much higher)
$1000 Sound Effects Search/Narration
$11,000 Talent Fees (3 principal actors, 5 extras, including voice-over)
If we believe what advertising agencies (and the companies they make advertisements and commercials for) tell us, we have to conclude that advertising works in strange and mysterious ways and that although nobody is sure precisely how it works, it does have an impact though its power to shape any given individual’s behavior is (or seems to be) really quite minimal.
We each like to think we (perhaps "uniquely") can resist advertising and it has no impact on us. This notion, which I will discuss in more detail in chapter 3, makes light of the power of advertising and helps us preserve our sense of autonomy and individuality. Others are brainwashed by ads and commercials, but not us, we think--as we find ourselves purchasing products we feel, somehow, we must have. Thus, we play into the hands of advertisers who use our illusion that we are not affected by advertising against us. As the president of a large advertising agency told me, "even lousy advertising works!"
We cannot show that a given commercial or campaign makes a given individual buy a product or service being advertised or is the primary force in shaping that person's behavior but we can see that advertising has a collective impact; that is, it affects people in general. Corporations don’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year because they are Good Samaritans who want to make sure that radio stations and television networks are very profitable. And politicians, who spend millions of dollars on their election campaigns, aren’t Good Samaritans either.
I believe that advertising is a very powerful force, one that plays a major role in the economy (it has replaced Puritanism in motivating people to work hard so they can earn money and be able to buy things) and, increasingly in recent years, the political sphere. Advertising has the power, I believe, to influence and, in some cases shape, people's behavior, broadly speaking.
For example, in the 1994 campaign by forces against the Clinton health care plan, the "Harry and Louise" commercials are credited with eroding support for the plan by something like twenty percentage points. In these commercials, Harry and Louise criticized the Clinton plan for making major changes in the medical system and lamented the way big government would be telling them who their doctor had to be and would be depriving them of their freedom to make decisions about medical matters. I’m not suggesting that campaigns always work or that they always work the way advertisers and advertising agencies imagine they will. But if we take a broad look at human behavior in the long run, it seems quite obvious that advertising exists and has been flourishing because, somehow, it works--that is, it works a good deal of the time the way those paying for the advertising want it to work.
This is the way the advertising industry works, most of the time:
1. Advertising agencies purchase space for print advertisements in newspapers, magazines, or other kinds of publications, or time to broadcast commercials, made for companies selling products or services. Some organizations and corporations do their own advertising, but this is not usually the case. There are other ways of advertising, such as putting ads on billboards, in bus shelters, on buses and taxicabs, using the Internet, sponsoring events, and placing products in films and television shows.
2. These commercials or print advertisements are generally designed to attract the attention of people with suitable demographics and the proper psychographics--values and lifestyles--for some product or service. Advertising agencies tend to concentrate on people, roughly speaking, from 18 to 49--assuming they are the ones who buy most of the products and services advertised. Certain products are aimed at children and others at older people, but most advertising is aimed at the 18 to 49 cohort, give or take a few years on either end.
3. Advertising tries to attract the attention, create the desire for, and stimulate action that leads to the purchase of products and services advertised on the part of those reading print advertisements, listening to radio commercials, or watching and listening to television commercials. That is, advertisers hope to convince, to persuade, to motivate, and most importantly, to get people to act, to do something. This something generally involves moving from the desire for products and services to the actual purchase of the products or services.
There are, as I pointed our earlier, a number of different forms and genres of advertising. Advertising pervades the American media and our lives--from the billboards on our highways to the print ads in the publications we read, the commercials on radio and television, and the designer logos on T-shirts and other kinds of clothes we wear. Advertising is also used by charities, labor unions, and organizations of all kinds to get their messages to the public. In consumer cultures, it seems fair to say that just about everyone is advertising, which creates a major problem--clutter. There are so many messages being sent to us that sometimes, as the result of information overload, we get them all mixed up.
The box that follows, which I wrote in 1978, deals with many of the issues about advertising that have occupied my attention, as you can see, for a number of years. It shows the problems one faces in trying to live according to the dictates of competing advertising campaigns.
"Don't Go Away, We'll Be Back with More Ads"
As I sit at my typewriter, considering the commercials on television this fall season, I find myself possessed by an overwhelming urge to make a long-distance phone call and join the Navy. Who can resist a bargain like being able to call anywhere in the continental United States and talk with "loved ones" for only 85 cents for five minutes (as long as you place the call at the right time--mostly the wee hours of the morning)? And who doesn't want a life of "adventure and excitement" instead of just a job?
I had always thought that sailors spent most of their time with mops and buckets, but that must have been the old Navy. The new one seems as technologically advanced as "Battlestar Galactica." And "Homeward Hound," the new Navy's new commercial, scripted to the tune of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, is one of the more interesting and attractive advertisements on national television this fall. The commercial plays very cleverly on our romantic attitudes about the sea and our fascination with futuristic technology.
While "Ma Bell'"s appeal to our homing instinct is equally clever and imaginative, the campaign is cloying in its not-so-subtle attempts to make us feel guilty for failing to "keep in touch" often (monthly, weekly, daily perhaps?) with all of our relatives and each of our old college pals.
Of course, such efforts to make us, the viewers, feel guilty for not using a given service or buying a certain product are nothing new to the world of the TV commercial. Because of their televised pitches, I know that "sooner or later" I will own General tires, that my next television set probably will be a Zenith System 3, and that I simply must get my hands on a Toyota.
In my mind's eye--and in yours--flit hundreds and hundreds of broadcast-advertising images, impinging upon one another in a cluttered mosaic of mediated desire: of beautiful young women blazing with sexual passion generated by Old Spice, of gorgeous damsels sensuously smoothing baby oil over their childlike skins, of nondescript homemakers in wonderment about how to get their husbands' underwear whiter-than-white, of rugged men joyful in their new cars, of modish kids on souped-up motorcycles. I find myself drooling slightly--and who doesn't--as colorful images of sizzling steaks, thick slabs of rare roast beef, and even humble hamburgers with secret sauce flash before me in my living room.
The commercial is probably the most important single genre carried on the television medium. In his book Spots: the Popular Art of American Television Commercials (1977), TV researcher Bruce Kurtz writes that the so-called average viewer witnesses more than 150 commercials a day (including promotional spots for upcoming programs) and more than 1,000 a week. That adds up to approximately an hour and a quarter per day or nine hours each week devoted to commercial watching. Even if the commercial is not the most dominant genre, it is certainly the most intrusive, and no other kind of programming has the power to convince people to buy something while simultaneously propelling them toward the bathroom or refrigerator.
The current battle of the light beers is one in which the advertising industry has shown considerable success, as well as imagination and inventiveness. Taking a drink that bombed when it was first marketed a number of years back as a kind of diet (read: ladies') beer and selling it to men by giving them super-masculine tough-guy role models is quite an achievement. The Miller Lite beer slogan--"Everything you've always wanted in a beer . . . and less"--has a nice touch of irony about it. I also like actor James Coburn's cheeky commercial for Schlitz Light. He gives an image of menacing machismo to this beer and in just a few seconds projects a steel-like hardness as he sidles up to the bar, his face grim and resolute. The other male figure in the commercial, spellbound and overcome with admiration, orders the same beer--and so, by implication, should we. There aren't many Westerns on television anymore, and fans of the genre have to be grateful to Coburn, who seems to condense an hour's worth of adventure into an entertaining half a minute.
There are several other excellent, action-packed ads for light beer, featuring heavyweight boxers and huge football players who rip open beer cans as if they were hand grenades. Thus we males are reassured that drinking a light beer will not make people think we are sissies. The massive authority of the National Football League and assorted toughs from boxing, the movie industry, and the world of accounting all guarantee our masculine identity and virility.
The guarantee seems to be working wonders on the typical male ego, for the market share of the various light brands has been growing by staggering proportions. Although there certainly are viewers of both sexes who find the macho thrust offensive, the tough-guy commercials also seem to be having what the advertising industry refers to as a "tag-along" effect on many women.
Could it be that these rough-and-tumble beer commercials are so effective because they provide more arresting entertainment than do today's criminally boring police-action shows? I have been asking myself this kind of question often since deciding to take a close look at the genre of the TV commercial.
I also find myself faced with many dilemmas. Should I be drinking the beer of kings or the king of beers? Should I feed my dog nutritionally balanced crunchy nuggets or nutritionally balanced soft 'n' chewy morsels? Should I combat the anxiety and pain generated by all the conflicting commercials with 100 percent aspirin or with a product that has no "upsetting" aspirin? (Will I ever discover what it is that Anacin has more of than any other leading pain remedy? Or should I use Bufferin, which promises me "protection" as well as relief?)
Theoretically, I suppose, like the donkey caught equidistant between two stacks of hay, I should be immobilized. But life doesn't seem to work that way, and, even with the commercials that fight it out in the open with their competitors, I find myself choosing sides. And sometimes for the underdog food.
The commercials I like most reflect my "seduction" by such elements as interesting dialogue, humor, beautiful images, clever cutting, fine acting, and so forth--including subliminal factors of which I may not be conscious. Among the fall season's entries, those I favor include: the Boeing 747 Japanese kite flyers, Juan Valdez picking Colombian coffee beans, Perrier water bubbling up from God-knows-where, United Airlines' Barry Fitzgeraldian Irish priest, the inner workings of La Machine by Moulinex, the Harlem Globetrotters' Sherwin Williams paint extravaganza, the Berlinetta "heartbeat" ad, Tuborg's vikings "going for the gold," the Make That Dessert spoof of game shows, the Porsche ad with the bored young woman, and (on the West Coast) most Wells Fargo Bank bits of Americana.
Some of the current commercials I hate, because they are dull, unimaginative, crude, sexist, vulgar, trite, obnoxious, and/or irritating are: Geritol's she-takes-it-because-she-loves-me campaign, National Rent-A-Car's "Green Team," Gillette Trac-2, Stovetop Stuffing, Special K, Brush Your Breath With Dentyne, That's My Dodge, Kentucky Fried Chicken's "It's so nice to feel so good about a meal," and Kenner Toys' "Baby Heart Beat." I could go on almost endlessly here.
Like other television viewers, I long resented having to watch commercials and considered them pernicious and, at times, dangerous to our mental health and general well-being. But many commercials are works of art--mini-dramas created to persuade and convince--that use the talents of some of our most imaginative and creative writers, photographers, directors, lyricists, and actors. In thirty seconds or so, they have to engage our interest, tell us some kind of a story, and leave us with a resolution to do something. They must accomplish all this by overcoming our inattention, our desire not to be bothered by them, and the clutter of competing commercials. They cost an enormous amount to produce, often many times that of regular programming on a cost-per-minute basis, and they cost a great deal more to air.
When I started watching television for the commercials it carries rather than the programming (or "fill" between commercials), I felt uncomfortable. The programming itself became a source of irritation to me, and I found myself anxiously waiting for the next commercials to come on. There seemed to be enormous gaps between commercials, and during them I reached an important insight.
I think we've been watching television the wrong way. Since advertising is the source of the television medium's profits and much of its artistic experimentation, we should face up to reality and watch TV primarily for its commercials. When we regard the commercials as the essence of television and the programs as mere interruptions, the medium takes on an entirely different dimension. The absurdity and triviality of most television programs becomes understandable.
Who knows--we might all be better off if we went to the bathroom and ran for snacks during the program and returned only for the commercials. We might even have time to read a few more books and magazines.
This book focuses on print advertisements and television commercials and the role they may play in stimulating the consumption of products and services by people. Traditionally we call sales messages in print “advertisements” and sales messages on electronic media, that use sound effects, music, and actors, “commercials.” Thus, though there are many sales messages on the Internet, most of them are really print advertisements. The methods of analysis I discuss can be used on all forms of advertising.
It is worth noting some of the ideas mentioned in the most common definitions of advertising. We find such terms as "arouse" and "desire," which suggest there are very powerful "affective" and perhaps even unconscious or "irrational" elements at work in advertisements.
In this chapter I will do a number of things. Having broadly defined advertising, I will offer a model of advertising that deals with advertisements and commercials in terms of their cultural impact rather than their effects on individuals. Then I will discuss how advertisers attempt to deflect criticism and tie this in to "weak" and "strong" theories of the media offered by communication scholars. Next I will discuss the techniques used in commercials, which I consider to be the most powerful form of advertising. Finally, I will relate commercials to "teleculture" and argue that television has become the dominant means of socialization in American culture and many other societies as well. We must always keep in mind that from a business point of view, what television does is deliver audiences to advertisers.
A Psycho-Cultural Perspective on Advertising
The model many social scientists have used in studies of the impact of advertising is a psychological one (or perhaps a social psychological one). People are tested to see whether they recall advertisements or whether their attitudes or opinions have been changed by having been exposed to advertisements. Figure 1.1 shows the social-psychological model.
Exposure to advertisement or commercial
Recall, attitude change, opinion change
Fig. 1.1: Social-Psychological Model
This approach, which often is quite sophisticated in terms of research design, frequently indicates that advertising has little or no effect on respondents. Or, to be more precise, none that can be detected or measured...or, in some cases, no long-term effects that can be measured.
I would like to suggest a different model, which focuses not upon attitude or opinion change but upon the effect upon the culture of advertising in general and in some cases, or a particular campaign. This model is shown in Figure 1.2.
People's psyches (the unconscious)
exposed ¯ to
Cultural behavior of people
Fig.1.2: Psycho-Cultural Model
This model focuses not on opinion or attitude change but instead on two different matters: One can broadly be defined as cultural behavior and the other as people's or perhaps the collective unconscious. Focusing on individuals or groups of individuals in test studies frequently concludes that advertising plays no significant role in decision making. An examination of advertising as a cultural phenomenon, on the other hand, suggests something quite different, a conclusion that might explain why revenues for advertising keep growing and why businesses continue to advertise.
Running It Up a Flagpole to See If Anyone Salutes
Corporations and organization that advertise are not irrational; they do not spend money "running flags up flagpoles to see if anyone salutes" out of idle curiosity. (On the other hand, while companies that advertise may not be irrational, they assume people are irrational. Or more precisely, that people respond to messages that avoid ego-dominated "rational" decision making, that have an effect on unconscious elements in their psyches that often shape their behavior.)
The devaluation of the power of advertising by advertising agencies and by businesses that use advertising is generally an attempt to escape from regulation by governmental agencies and to escape from criticisms of being manipulative and, in some cases, antisocial, by consumer groups and other interested parties. Communication scholars, I might point out, have wavered in their assessments of the power of media. Thirty years ago, scholars concluded that the media were powerful; then they changed their minds and concluded that they are weak. (A famous scholar said something to the effect of "Some media sometimes have some effects on some people.") Now, it seems, the notion that the media are powerful is once again gaining acceptance.
Given this situation, when the media were seen as weak, advertisers could argue that advertising was relatively trivial a service to inform or entertain the public, but little more than that. Yet at the macro level, when we look at collective behavior, it seems that advertising does have power. It isadvertising's role as a cultural and political force that is significant. We may lack the tools in the social sciences to show how advertising affects specific individuals or small groups of people in tests, but when we look at advertising as a social and cultural phenomenon, the situation is strikingly different.
One argument that advertising people use to defuse criticism is the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" argument. Just because something happens after something doesn't mean it was caused by it. That is, just because Y follows X does not mean that X caused Y. Thus, if John sees a beer commercial on television and then drinks a beer, it does not mean the commercial caused John to drink the beer. Nobody can argue with this. But when you move to the collective level, and have lots of people drinking beer after having seen lots of beer commercials, there is good reason to believe that the beer commercials might have play some role in the behavior of the beer drinkers.
That is, commercials for alcoholic beverages may not be the sole causative factor responsible for people drinking, but they may play an important contributing role. Since the public airways are held "in trust," so to speak (and are supposed to broadcast "in the public interest") by television stations, the question we must ask is whether this trust is being abused.
One reason it is so difficult to establish via experimental methods a direct causal link between television commercials and consumption is that television is so ubiquitous that it is very difficult to find a "control" group, a group of people who are not exposed to television. That is why I think the anthropological model is more useful than the social-psychological model.
Commercials as Mini-Dramas and Works of Art
Commercials--in my opinion the most interesting and powerful form of advertising--should be seen as works of art that have their own conventions; they might best be thought of as mini dramas that employ all the techniques of the theater and the cinema to achieve their aims. At their best, they use language brilliantly, they are dramatic, they employ the most sophisticated techniques of lighting and editing, they have wonderful actors who use body language and facial expressions to get their messages across, and they often cost enormous amounts of money, relatively speaking to produce many times the production costs (on a per minute basis) outstrip those of the programs during which they are shown.
The power of the human voice is well-known. When it is added to strong narratives, music, sound effects and superb writing, it is easy to see why the commercial is such an incredible means of persuasion. Commercials (and advertisements in print and other media, to an extent) also make use of many of the following:
Heroes and Heroines Young people often identify with heroes and heroines and try to emulate their behavior, their "style," or their images--if not in the real world then in the world of consumption. Some of these heroic figures are show-business personalities--singers, dancers, comedians, actors, and athletes.
Sexuality Many commercials overtly connect sex and consumption. These commercials often feature extremely beautiful women; they are shown as an integral part of the consumption experience. One hopes, in one’s unconscious, that by purchasing the product, one will get the beautiful woman (or some beautiful woman) as well. Or in some cases, an attractive man. In recent years, advertising has used homoerotic appeals for gay men and lesbians.
Humor At one time, advertisers were afraid of humor. Now they realize that humor sells and many commercials are extremely funny. This humor generates what might be called a “halo effect,” a feeling of well-being that becomes attached to the products being advertised.
Fun Many commercials appeal to what might be described as the "fun ethic" of most young (and many not-so-young) people. Consumption becomes connected to having fun and enjoying life.
Success In many commercials, we see (and it is suggested we emulate) people who use a given product or service and who are successful. One aspect of being successful is knowing what to consume--having “product knowledge,” which has replaced regular knowledge in all too many people in America. They don’t know history, are not well-read, have no appreciation of art, music, philosophy...you name it. But they have incredible product knowledge; that is, all they know is what they can buy.
Reward Purchasing various products--such as soft drinks and automobiles--is often shown as a "reward" for people who have worked hard and who therefore "deserve" their drinks and sports utility vehicles. This appeal works at both the blue-collar and at the white-collar levels. The rewards one gets are fun, comradeship, pleasure, and sex. Especially sex. Our print advertisements and television commercials are pervaded by sex, and most Americans live in a sexually saturated media environment, in which men and women are used as sex objects to sell everything from trucks to cruises.