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Advertising is a form of mass media designed to promote a specific product, service, or idea on behalf of a business or organization. Advertisers ordinarily use media such as television, radio, print (magazines, newspapers, and billboards), sponsorship of cultural and sporting events, and the Internet.
From the Industrial Revolution to the mid-twentieth century, advertising in the United States and Europe was generally straightforward and usually included an image and description of the product’s function, price, and location to be purchased. According to William M. O’Barr in his 2006 article “Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertising,” ads were primarily directed toward women because they were responsible for the majority of consumer purchases, the exception being “big ticket” products like cars and major appliances. Since World War II, however, industries have increasingly courted the adult male consumer, and with the advent of youth culture, children, teenagers, and young adults have been targeted as well.
A common strategy for advertisers is to make the consumer feel as though the given product will remedy a specific problem or insecurity. Designers prey on a modern culture obsessed with status, self-enhancement, youth, body image, and gender identity, the latter being a favored theme now aimed at both men and women. Critics such as John Kenneth Galbraith (1969) and Christopher Lasch (1978) charged that advertising functions to create desires that previously did not exist and that advertising serves to promote consumption as a way of life.
A dialectical relationship exists between consumers and advertisers where ads face heavy skepticism and scrutiny, while at the same time receive access and appreciation in the form of high revenue, lavish award ceremonies, and TV programs devoted to airing successful commercials. In the United States, argued Michael Schudson in his 1984 book Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, the culture is amenable to advertising that is “more pervasive and more intrusive than in any other industrialized country” (p. 128). Millions watch the United States’s Superbowl programming not for the content of the football game, but rather just to see the premier of new, multimillion-dollar ads.
A crucial difference between previous eras and today is advertising’s saturation. In U.S. and European cities a conservative estimate of people’s daily exposure to ads is 250 messages a day, while others suggest that that number is closer to 5,000 messages a day. This ubiquity creates a more skeptical and desensitized audience. As a result marketers go to greater lengths to make their products stand out.
Advertisers now use more diverse and insidious mediums such as stickers on food, social networking websites like YouTube, motion sickness bags, and space within public schools. Guerrilla marketing practices like “product placement”—where the intended audience is unaware that they have been exposed to an advertisement, while the desired impression of the given product remains—are now everyday tactics. In 2007 blinking electronic signs promoting a television show were surreptitiously planted on highways and bridges in Boston and mistaken for terrorist bombs.
Given the use of more sophisticated technology and the expansion of the Internet, marketers can better assess the effectiveness of their pitches and the return on investment. Sophisticated techniques like data mining help identify (and subsequently create) niche consumption desires. Additionally hyperspecialized media outlets enable advertisers to target more precise demographics. For example advertisers now design ads for gay men and air them on gay-oriented cable television channels like “Here TV” and “Logo.” Targeted marketing and reliable measurements of effectiveness are the holy grail of companies seeking to reduce costs.
In an era of global capitalism, advertising agencies work for clients all over the world and target niche demographics in nearly all continents. Successful advertising for multinational corporations hinges on the familiarity with local habits, symbols, and cultural differences. According to Marieke K. de Mooij in the 2005 publication Global Marketing and Advertising: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes, for a global brand like McDonald’s—a company that sells its food via more than 30 thousand distribution points, in 119 countries, serving 47 million customers a day—particular attention must be paid to local culture for the pitch to be successful. For example, advertising for McDonald’s in France tied into “Asterix and Obelisk,” the most famous historical cartoon of the nation (Mooij 2005).
As more advertising proliferates in the globalized context, we are likely to see new, unforeseen forms of consumer reluctance and resistance. Companies will surely continue to manage this dialectic for their own financial advantage.
- Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1969. The Affluent Society. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Lasch, Christopher. 1978. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Mooij, Marieke K. de. 2005. Global Marketing and Advertising: Understanding Cultural Paradoxes. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- O’Barr, William M. 2006. Representations of Masculinity and Femininity in Advertising. Advertising and Society Review 7 (2).
- Schudson, Michael. 1984. Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society. New York: Basic Books.
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