Advertising is a social institution
that produces advertisements within a political economy of technical
specialization and bureaucratic organization.
An advertisement is any public form
of announcement about any entity, usually but not exclusively
a commodity, aimed to promote the acceptance or purchase or at
least a toleration of, if not a preference for, the entity.
The advertising agency is the advanced
technological means of soliciting, creating, and placing advertisements
as well as, frequently, of measuring their effects. The advertiser
is the client of the agency and pays the bills. Usually a corporate
seller of commodities, the advertiser can also be a political
party, a government, a public utility, a religion, a social movement,
a charity. Any entity, in other words, which chooses some medium
of the public forum to reach large numbers of the public with
a message and is willing and able to pay to do so.
The advertising agency began in the nineteenth
century with the advertising agent, usually just a middleman
between an advertiser and a medium, most usually the newly mass
produced large circulation newspaper. The agent bought up a large
quantity of newspaper space in blocks and then sold those blocks
in pieces to various advertisers at a mark-up. In time, the agent
expanded his services to include composition of the advertising
copy and eye-catching art work. The modern agency retains this
distinction in the account executive as opposed to the creative
director. With the addition of more and more services, including
research of public wants, needs, fears and hopes as well as follow-up
studies of advertising effects on sales, votes, or simple acceptance,
the more general term marketing has grown in use to signify
all the varied parts of an orchestrated campaign to "move"
any entity, from soap to Senators, into a market. Advertising
in this context is narrowly construed as that part of marketing
which creates and places announcements of whatever complexity
in whatever mass medium. Marketing goes further not only in services
to clients but also in use of more varied media as well, such
as direct mail and telephone calls. A further distinction is
often accorded marketing as a quasi-science of analysing what
a given market (i.e., regional or income group or other
demographic slice of the general public) can be persuaded to
buy, accept or prefer, whereas advertising merely follows an
advertisers' need to push an already accomplished product, idea,
or program on a given public.
In practice, however, the distinction between
marketing and advertising is without much difference since most
advertising, except for the basic price-availability announcement,
is done within the context of marketing and most often through
the same agencies, which are still called advertising agencies.
The lis de verbis can verge on the self-serving and spurious
when it is claimed that advertising serves producers while marketing
serves consumers, on the disingenuous grounds that marketing
gives people what they already want. Marketing is only used to
move objects which people need to be persuasively told they need
or want, usually at a price. There is no marketing of fresh air
unless it comes with a mountain resort or sea cruise.
The confusion is averted if one defines advertising
as the multimedia language that marketing speaks, thus making
it an integral yet rationally separable part of the industrialization
The vast bulk of advertisements are simply
price and availability announcements about basic commodities.
A much smaller but culturally significant portion of advertisements
promote political parties, candidates for office, public policy
positions, favorable acceptance of various industries, unions,
or other entities, particularly if they are unpopular for some
reason. A fraction, but a most visible fraction, of all types
of advertisements compete for attention by adding emotional appeal
and differentiating information in an attractive form - anything
from the color red to a full-scale musical comedy television
minute. The announcements become elaborate and go far beyond
information about the entity. In a context of low demand, high
competition, or actual public antagonism, advertising agents
may seek to exploit psychological needs that may be only factitiously
joined to the entity by the advertisement itself. Excesses in
this direction have led advertising to be called the art form
of bad faith.
As in much else, the social issues raised
by advertising are not based on the number of advertisements
placed, but on the cultural and social impact of the influential
visible advertisements in advanced media that go far beyond the
mere announcement of price and availability of commodities. Ponderantur,
The social and moral issues raised by the
great majority of advertisements are for the most part
no different than the standard issues raised by buying and selling
(honesty and reliability) or any other form of human intercourse
(obligations of truth and faithfulness, compassion, respect for
the integrity of individual rights, and so forth.) Bargaining
and barter were and are known in all the cultures that have developed
moral and religious traditions, most of which have well-known
maxims and principles that deal with the vast spectrum of social
and moral issues, from fair weight to marriage contracts, bred
in the marketplace.
An example of one of these common moral problems
found in advertising but not by any means restricted to it or
newly created by the modern industrialization of persuasion is
the obligation of the speaker to be sincere. Sophists in ancient
Greece were condemned by some because they sold their eloquence
to the highest bidder. Do the copywriters or art directors for
a conservative politician have themselves to be politically conservative?
Whatever the answer to this moral question, if it deserves one,
it need not spring from special inside knowledge about advertising.
Advertisers may lie about the reliability, or true price, or
utility of their commodities. These are serious moral and social
issues, but not particularly confined to, nor made special by,
the context of advertising. People may commit adultery in the
back seats of automobiles. This does not raise a special question
of automotive ethics.
The issues raised by the abuse of advertisements
are real, even urgent, but they are issues long with us and long
understood. In other words, clear moral wrong is done in situations
where the common moral expectations of obligations met and crimes
avoided are not fulfilled. But the language spoken by modern
marketing, the institution of advertising, may cause social ills
unforeseen or unplanned, perhaps even unapprehended, when it
works as common expectations suppose.
The institution of advertising, in other words,
is something different from the mere sum of all advertisements.
It has evolved into a complex structure of its own, intimately
interlaced with other institutions of great antiquity, from churches
to governments, and in some measure has actually altered these
greater, but dependent, institutions. Advertising has grown into
the predominant industrial process of communicating with a public
in order to obtain its cooperation with or, at very least, its
passive acceptance of, whatever the advertiser wants. Advertising
is the technological management of modern media in the service
of the advertiser. It has evolved methods for effective persuasion
that put it at the heart of modern propaganda.
Modern advertising is not unlike total high-tech
nuclear warfare. Both carry on hoary practices from the dim past
but each has so industrialized the process with advanced technologies
that the fundamental activity is transmuted into something new
that raises questions beyond standard discussions of right and
wrong on battlefields or in the marketplace. One might say that
just as nuclear war has made of the whole planet a potential
battlefield, thus raising new questions about war itself, so,
too, has modern advertising made of the whole planet an actual
constant marketplace, thus provoking radical changes in the practice
and theory of human intercourse.
In the largest single market, the United States,
explicit advertising constitutes sixty percent of newspaper copy,
fifty-two percent of magazine pages, eighteen percent of radio
time and an average of twenty-seven percent of television time.
More importantly, most influential media are dependent on advertising
income. They therefore reinforce, in non-advertising copy or
time, the subtexts of conformity, narrow immediate gratifications,
and non-critical acceptance of established institutions. This
is called offering a supportive environment for advertising,
which the advertisers have come to expect. Advertisers don't
like to waste money on people who cannot afford their products
or who do not vote and thus do not support media that might aim
at the politically or economically disenfranchised. This force
has narrowed the spectrum of aesthetic and political diversity
as effectively as outright authoritarian censorship.
Advertising is the principal employer of writers,
musicians, composers, artists, and actors. The effect of this
is to subordinate the independent vision of the artist to the
social interests of his current or likely future employers. Looking
back through history it is obvious that great art has outlasted
its patrons' immediate self-interests, but the themes of the
art clearly reflect the world views of the patrons, be they Italian
Popes, Dutch businessmen, English dukes or the French bourgeoisie.
There is no denying that some of the most
clever, brilliant, witty, even awesome, art is directly connected
with advertising. There is also no denying that much art would
not exist if there were no advertising. But the avowedly persuasive
marketing context distorts the styles and and narrows the range
of the admitted cornucopia.
While it is true that advertiser-supported
news and opinion media, such as the The New Yorker magazine
in America and Great Britain's Guardian or Independent,
may be of higher quality than reader-supported tabloids like
the American National Enquirer or British Mirror,
the former generally share the same viewpoint and values while
the latter have a much greater range and scope from admitted
trash to scholarly quarterlies and alternative journals of opinion
like Granta or x. Despite the range, readers (or
viewers) who support their own media are few in number and this
limits the resources of any communications outside of advertising
or state sponsorship.
Advertising, as noted, has made an art of
hyperbole and its overwhelming presence has desensitized people
to measured statements. It thus inflates public discourse and
creates expectation of, and resignation to, exaggeration, misdirection,
prevarication, even outright contradiction. Loud and insistent
advertising for state lotteries trumpet "You've got to be
in it to win it!" with bells and whistles, while a lightning
whisper, "Bet with your head, not over it," follows
as a disclaimer and sop to moral objections. Virtually invisible
fine print, in other words, has come to television and radio.
The circus barker sets the tone for public debate.
Advertising is the capital pump that fuels
global media. No broadcasting system in the world is without
advertising. It is obvious in the total or mixed market systems
that now characterize most of the world; it is less obvious but
just as pervasive in mixed market systems such as China or Bulgaria
or Zaire, where the state is the principal advertiser. Advertising
agencies are increasingly international organizations with specialists
who study local cultures for the appropriate "hook"
or "angle" that will be effective and inoffensive.
The collapse of central planning in the East had its own internal
dynamics, but the long reach of advertised and advertising Western
music, film, television, fashion - the sacraments of consumerism
- played an acknowledged role in making centrally planned economies
appear unbearably shoddy and barren. The force of Western advertising
in Russia, where basic necessities are scarce and expensive,
is breathtaking in its ability to get people to spend a month's
salary in an hour on designer jeans or cosmetics.
The Third World, incorrigibly plural as it
is, is as one in being affected by advertising's seductive pictures
of the good life through consumption. Thus, elites squander scarce
resources on Western luxury items and others scramble to migrate
to a better life. This is not to deny the original sin of the
powerful pampering themselves nor the substantive rationality
of seeking escape from poverty, disease and political instability;
it is to underscore the enormous power of Western mass culture,
the seamless garment of advertising, to legitimate material success
as identical with human worth.
This power can override previous powerful
allegiances. During the Falklands War, the fiercely anti-British
Argentinian populace were flocking to the current James Bond
film in Buenos Aires. Bond films, a media pioneer in successful
international marketing, are of course a much parodied vehicle
for outrageous excess in brand name luxury. Whether one is amused
or awed by the spectacularly supplied superspy, one humbly emulates
his love for and dependence on gadgets. The Anglo-American political
freight of effortless superiority in both morals and money that
this glitzy comic strip carries is of course the subtext of all
The traditional defense of advertising agencies
for their work is that it is a needed service for what has become
a confusing and impersonal market. The village greengrocer or
pharmacist has disappeared and one has only ads and packaging
and trademarked franchised services to guide one. A growth in
candor or a decay of shame may account for the latest industrial
apologetic: advertising serves the public and its clients because
it adds value to a product by altering purchasers' perception
of its value! A car, drug, home, appliance is only as good or
bad as you can be made to think it is.
This may account for the ho-hum reaction of
electorates to the revelation of corruption and deceit in candidates
successfully marketed for high office.
There is no doubt that advertising, as a special
industrialized language of persuasion aimed at researched psychological
vulnerabilities of a mass audience, cut off from traditional
trusted sources of advice, is successful. No greater mark of
its achievement is the rush of good causes, like Amnesty International
and many others, to utilize its methods and outlets.
Can such means corrupt such ends?