Advertising is defined as a persuasive message to buy a product or change one’s behavior. It is also seen as a paid, one-way communication through a published or broadcast medium. Augie Fleras, however, argues that the definition of advertising is more multi-faceted, arguing that there are structural, functional and ideological elements in its definition. (1995) Fleras also describes it as a “powerful social force” with the ability to mold a society as well as reflect its culture. As Fleras quotes from McLuhan, advertising may be perceived as the cave art of the 20th century, because it depicts the social reality of the times.
As a discourse or a back and forth exchange or effect (advertising has an effect on culture and vice versa), it provides a window of insight into the word of values, belief, structures, inequalities and social dynamics. (Fleras, 1995) As such, advertising is not just commercials and billboards or announcements, it has many social implications. The first advertising agency was built in 1841 in Boston by Volney Palmer. It commissioned 25% for newspaper space for advertisements and acted as brokers for newspapers.
In 1875, the first full time advertising agency was put up by N. W. Ayer. The late 1800’s also saw the concept of “branding”. Due to the prevalence of dangerous and illegal drugs, brands assured the public of quality and safety of products. Branding today is better understood as applying a name to a product and developing awareness of the product. Around 1900’s, although jobs in the business arena did not cater to women, they played an important role in the advertising field since they built up most of the consumer group.
It was a woman who first used a sexual sell in advertising in America, using a couple with the tagline, “The skin you love to touch” in a soap advertisement. With the advent of radio broadcasting in the 1920’s, began a shift in the medium with which advertisements worked through. Radio station owners soon learned to sell sponsorship rights in small allotted times to different businesses during the course of their radio programs. This behavior was carried over to television programs in the 1940’s. During WW1 and WW2, several governments used public advertising meant to inform the listeners and viewers.
Radio and TV stations usually used time slots in the late evening and early morning and left prime-time slots to private and paying advertisers. Government ads uses different kinds of persuasion such changing people’s behavior to reinforce a policy, framing issues to reflect national interest, etc. (Klein, 1999) The 1960’s saw an enlightenment period, if you may, for the advertising industry. Artistic creativity and scientific methods were used to make advertisements more appealing and impressionable to consumers.
Bill Bernbach’s Volkswagen ad was a great example to this “Creative Revolution”, connecting products to images in people’s minds that created a lasting impression. The introduction of cable tv in the 80’s and 90’s ushered in channels that were solely devoted to advertisements such as ShopTV. Music videos also ushered in a new type of advertising, using product placement or the usage of brand names as props in music videos, movies, etc, targeting the need of the young to be “cool” and accepted by their peers. The internet opened limitless possibilities for the advertising industry.
From obvious banners in websites and pop-ups to discreet ways such as in blogs, the internet provided many avenues for advertising to boom. From the one-way communication definition, advertisements have also become interactive by letting the consumers participate. Other types of advertisements include mobile types, advertising through texts, using internet social networks, among others. Through the years, it can be seen that aside from reflecting the ideologies of a group of people at a certain point in time, advertising has also its economic processes – sometimes compromising public interest.
As some would say, between advertisers and the public, media will consider paying businesses as direct clients. This is apparent in how businesses use media to peddle their products to consumers. As such, advertising is also seen as a capitalist propaganda becoming a tool in capitalist expansions throughout the world. This propaganda encourages the consumer culture which means a culture which places emphasis on consumption. This concept puts advertising as a manipulative concept, which often “glamorizes” consumption by fostering discontent in the public.
As Fleras puts it, advertising uses personal insecurities and dormant desires in the public to make them feel that they need to buy a certain product to make them feel happy and socially acceptable. This is also how ideologies are being molded by advertising. By telling the public what to aspire by equating their product with images of positive cultural and social experience, advertisements can shape people’s values and ideologies. In this regard, advertising has the power to distort human values, thus the need to be wary and for regular checks.
Some of the criticisms that are raised are the issues on racism, gender and environmental consequences. Many advertisements put emphasis on certain races and depict a certain race as inferior or superior. Even in a sublime way, ads can have the capacity to induce ideas to the public resulting to a stereotype or an oversimplified concept of a certain nation or group of people resulting to discrimination. The concept of “othering” is characterized by such behavior, in which people secure a positive identity of themselves through undermining another group.
This can be dangerous in terms of how people will treat others in reality. Similarly, gender issues come up when women are mostly treated as sex object. Women in skimpy clothes often accompany products for it to sell, rendering women as an accessory. Advertisers also take advantage of this mentality because sex sells. Buy the product and get more sex. A common example comes to mind. Watch companies always depict watches in advertisements with the hour and minute hands at 10:10. Most explain this as depicting women’s legs that are apart.
Advertising also contributes to the degradation of the environment by encouraging people to buy more thus, accumulate more waste. It encourages a lifestyle on the fast lane with the advent of products that reflects such a lifestyle such as disposable products. Although, there is the advent of green advertising, people are still encouraged to use more products by buying more of the supposed environmentally-friendly products. Another social consequence of advertising is its effect on the self-perception of individuals. As explained above, advertising can manipulate aspirations and self-esteem.
As it is regularly inculcated in the public’s minds that material things or commodities are the basis of one’s happiness and acceptance in society, society can put so much importance on the acquisition of these products and less value on integrity, education, etc. As explained by Fleras and Klein, advertising is a very powerful tool as it can affect a society in various facets. It can affect a society’s dominant ideology and influence them to act in certain ways. With the advent of globalization through the internet and erasure of global lines, its impact is magnified as its effects reaches farther.