Advertising, Consumption, and Welfare

Thomas C O’Guinn. Handbook of Advertising. Editor: Gerard J Tellis & Tim Ambler. Sage Publications. 2007.

The central question of this chapter is what is advertising’s role in consumption and collective welfare? What have been the effects of advertising on our collective well-being? Obviously, these are big questions. Perhaps not quite as obvious is the fact that the answers are so few, so small, and so qualified.

After opening up the questions that need answers, and some background history, this chapter addresses the central issue of wants, needs and materialism. Does advertising simply convert wants into needs? Is advertising an agent of social stasis, particularly where race and gender are concerned. Is advertising the thing that really made capitalism safe once and for all from revolutionary impulses? Is this made worse by the third person effect? Before the concluding summary, Ireview whether the case against advertising has been overstated and it is little more than noisy wallpaper.

Some Questions to Be Answered

What are the social effects of advertising? What constitutes the social welfare in which we are interested? For example, was our material abundance brought to us, at least in part, by advertising and the market capitalism it helps drive? Is the unequal distribution of that abundance a side effect of advertising? Are our homes and lives filled with so many things because of advertising? Are so many of our daily activities and even our language consumption centered because of the cumulative force of ubiquitous consuming messages? Are we more uncaring, selfish, carnal, vacuous, materialistic, fatter, thinner, smokers, drinkers, gamblers, over-spent and over-worked because of advertising? Or, are we generally better informed, more materially comfortable, healthier, freer, and happier? Are we better off, or have we been harmed? In sum, how have we fared after more than a century of modern advertising?

Ultimately, these are near-impossible questions. Those who seek to specify advertising’s precise causal contribution to some particular behavioral outcome such as increased childhood obesity prevalence assume a level and extent of scientific inquiry that is more wish than fulfillment. The bigger and deeper questions are much tougher still. To actually offer definitive answers to questions regarding the role of materiality in human existence, existential fulfillment and the marketplace is to do what world religions, philosophers, artists, writers, and the daily experience and pondering of billions of human beings have not yet done. Yet, their collective thoughts, their “naive theories” reveal an acceptance of contradiction, paradox, exception, and nuance that are typically absent in academic theories.

Addressing the question of advertising’s impact on the general social condition is also significantly hampered by the way in which these questions have typically been approached. Because advertising is simultaneously so many things, several academic disciplines make contact with it. But they do so sporadically, casually, and with too little meaningful engagement with one another. Interdisciplinary discourse on advertising is regrettably rare, ignorance of other literatures far too common. For example, promising literatures on advertising exist in the humanities but remain largely unknown to social scientists, even though they may be purchased in just about any bookstore in North America or Europe or checked out from any public library. Even more discouraging is the oft encountered attitude among some behavioral scientists that their “narrow-by-design” mode of inquiry makes a certain level of ignorance preferable, a good thing. Those in the humanities are almost (but not quite) as unaware of what has been produced on the other side of the great divide by behavioural scientists. Across the board there is also a too often hubristic underlying sentiment that it is “only advertising,” how hard could it be to study. The bias of deeming advertising as “low culture” is often conflated with an assumption of phenomenological simplicity. This is a truly depressing situation; broader reading habits and less moral certitude are strongly encouraged.

Where macro-questions regarding advertising are concerned the application of behavioral science has either been too occasional and restricted, or it just isn’t the right tool set in the first place. Although it shouldn’t need saying, let me say it anyway: advertising is neither molecule nor protozoa. Advertising is an object of study that is hardly an object at all, but a multi-layered and historically determined institution. Social psychologists routinely mistake stimulus material for ads; although some argue that they actually realize this and are really interested only in mental “process,” not generalization to real world advertising.

Even more to the point, just exactly what type of experiment(s) would one design to answer such big (social level) questions anyway? For the most part the big questions, certainly the ones about well-being and social welfare, are about the effects of years, decades, even lifetimes of acquiring, modifying, accommodating, negotiating, accepting and sometimes rejecting the consumption-related communication practices of a consumer society. How would these effects be detectable in experimental settings? How do you manipulate socialization? Where do you find the control group? When the big questions are chopped down to a far less meaningful series of small and disconnected ones, lengthy and tortuously specific literature reviews end with the accurate, but entirely predictable, “it depends.” Of course it does.

At the other end of the spectrum, critical theorists write about advertising sans data. Meaning is located in texts (ads) that are apparent only to the critical eye and result in the pre-determined conclusion (with various added twists and turns for critical club members): advertising is a hegemonic force of market capitalism and consumers possess little or no agency, and are ultimately victims. If consumers act upon information contained in ads they do so according to marketer’s directives and blithely bend to the will of the system’s incredibly clever and universally successful protection of capital. All this is said to occur under the nose of an utterly unenlightened mass public. Who says academics don’t practice religion?

Of course, the really big questions are as much philosophical and political as they are empirical. So, why should we be surprised that the everyday practice of behavioural science or the anti-science of critical thought could or would produce meaningful and stable answers: Because, on rare occasions, they do. There are a few meaningful findings, good arguments, and evidence to be assembled from these diverse literatures. You have to look long and hard, but there are some things we can reasonably (although rarely unambiguously) extract from the literature. Still, for many of the questions there are simply no clear answer to be had: we simply don’t know, and pretending otherwise does no one any good.

A Little History

One thing is certain: the question of advertising’s impact on social well-being and consumption with no sense of history is an empty one. All assessments of human welfare are set in time and are relative to social standards we have known in the past or come to expect of the future. It is the case that what advertising means now is significantly determined by its history. Advertisements are not simply fixed “information” sitting forever on a page to be processed by a computer-as-analogue mind, equally fixed in time outside of social context. This fact is doubly important when asking how it (advertising) has affected the general social welfare.

Modern advertising emerged in the mid to late 1800s (Fox, 1985; Wicke, 1988); it came into full bloom in the early twentieth century. Its rise corresponds to the fading of the Victorian era and the rise of the modern consumer. What we now call advertising is a product of modernity (Fox, 1985; Marchand, 1985; Lears, 1994; Wicke, 1988), and modernity is more than an epoch. It is a philosophy completely consistent with the ends of advertising and consumption: faith in never-ending progress, the promise of urbanism, science and technology, choice and plentitude. When we talk of advertising’s impact on the general social condition we are talking about its impact inseparable from modernity and its advance … and, very significantly here, inseparable from the counterbalancing academic critique of modernity that was fomenting at the very same moment. The entire discourse surrounding advertising, consumption and welfare cannot be separated from an on-going conversation about the appropriate role of material things, self, pleasure, authenticity, and morality in the context of advancing modernity and its close relationship to market capitalism. Advertising and social welfare debates have never existed outside that broader discourse; to argue otherwise is either historically unaware, naive, or disingenuous. Despite protests to the contrary, most writings and pronouncements on advertising and welfare are really, when you get right down to it, about who should have what or how much, what pleasure should or should not be derived from having these things, who will be in control of that pleasure’s allocation and distribution, who was unfairly influenced to acquire these things, which things are real and authentic, and who shall be charged with surveillance and sanctioning of the whole process.

Advertising, born on the cusp of waning Victorian morality and nascent modernity, was an awkward thing most properly associated with carnivals, sideshows and over-promised spectacle (Fox, 1985; Lears, 1981). It was not, however, out of place. This crude advertising fit the harsh realities of a harsh world quite well, a world with few of the things now assumed as minimal standards of daily life, an un-regulated and wide open market, and an aggressive style of capitalism that took few prisoners. This is a period in which none other than Thomas Alva Edison filmed and exhibited the public electrocution of an elephant (Jowett, 1976). This is the P.T. Barnum age. Advertising’s early reputation for hyperbole and spectacle was deserved (Fox, 1985; Lears, 1994; Marchand, 1985). In the US, early advertising was completely un-regulated: it was not uncommon for ads to claim to cure cancer, paralysis, and all sorts of human ills. Until 1906, American marketers didn’t even have to reveal the contents of their products. You could pretty much sell anything you wanted and say anything about it that you cared to, true or not (Fox, 1985).

At the very same moment early advertising was advancing, social thought in the US and Europe was developing around an essential critique of market capitalism. This is the period in which the shift to modernity, driven by early mass consumerism, is seen as the death of legitimate community, the source of anomie, and a litany of other social ills (Lasch, 1991). The foundational social thought flowing from this period rests on a basic critique of modern capitalism, and advertising is one of modernity’s very visible agents. To be fair, early advertising didn’t help its own cause; its often tawdry nature and sometimes bad behavior made an easy target. So, from its very beginning advertising is cast negatively in academe’s morality infused view. Later, when advertising matured, was more regulated and better behaved, finer distinctions did not catch up; old grudges and biases lingered. Babies went out with bathwater. This early view of bad advertising became the received view for decades of social theorists (Twitchell, 1999). In fact, advertising has never escaped the essentialist assumptions that fell forward from this period. The world changed, advertising changed, but the essential assumptions of social thought regarding advertising never fully did. It made too good astory, astory resonant with a central meta-narrative of the rise of consumer culture as paradise lost. No matter how it behaved, advertising would pretty much be seen in a negative light by social theorists from this point forward.

Modern advertising is “invented” because brands became the building blocks of modern market capitalism. In the late nineteenth century, brands replaced many unmarked commodities. While there were branded products prior to this period, it is during the last two decades of the nineteenth century that the ubiquitous branding we know today began. Between 1875 and 1900, a flood of branded products replaced unbranded commodities. Soap, previously sold by weight from a generally unbranded cake, becomes Ivory (1882) and Sapolio (circa 1875). Beer, previously drawn from an unnamed keg, becomes Budweiser (1891) and Pabst (1873). All across the spectrum of goods and services, existing commodities became brands, as did the flood of new things designed for the modern marketplace. The mass market promised lower priced, uniform, and higher quality goods. These things came in the form of brands.

It was a necessity of modern market capitalism to create and promote brands. Consider the economics. Commodities (beer, soap) have elastic demand functions. If there is no distinction between soaps, all soaps are completely interchangeable. The set of acceptable substitutes is large and the demand is price elastic; price increases are met with decreases in demand. But when soap became Ivory in 1882, all that changed. Procter and Gamble began to impart different, additional, and particular meanings to the previously unmarked commodity. Due to the new marketplace meanings of Ivory brand soap (purity in particular); there were far fewer acceptable substitutes at any given price. Ivory’s demand function became more inelastic. Ivory delivered more value through purity, packaging, and all the other bundle of meanings that the modern Ivory brand communicated, and it delivered more profit than mere soap: consumers began to demand the soap that floats (O’Guinn and Muniz, 2005).

Brands made good economic sense, and modern market capitalism became reliant on branding. It is no coincidence that this period is also known as the birth of the modern advertising industry and the rapid growth of mass market magazines. Advertising expenditures increased tenfold between 1864 and 1900 (Fox, 1985). Magazine circulations produced a similar arc. Mass media flourished as a means to project national brands into national consciousness. The word “mass” here is not insignificant. Advertising is, as was the media that carried it, for the masses, another sin for which it has never been completely forgiven (Marchand, 1985; Twitchell, 1999; O’Guinn and Muniz, 2004).

Over its history, advertising has often leveraged existing social concerns and imparted social meaning to brands in attempts to sell things. For example, Ivory would claim purity during a period when purity was of vital concern to Americans. The average life expectancy in the US in 1900 was 49.2 years; infant mortality was twice what it would be just 25 years later (Sullivan, 1926). A concerned public pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Purity was more than a word; it was, at that time, one of the few things the public believed might prevent them, or their children, from dying young. So, Ivory floats. Its purity was demonstrated by a market logic. No one really had to understand the physical mechanism that related purity to floating. Social context gave meaning to Ivory’s branding, its advertising claim, its marketplace logic, and the meaning of a bar of soap that floated. Ivory meant something, something socially agreed upon, and something important. It was pure, 9944/100 pure. Ivory was no longer a commodity; its set of acceptable substitutes shriveled. The same mechanisms of meaning were applied to countless other branded goods and services.

Do not, however, get the impression that this was all ad-hype; it was not. It is very possible that advertiser’s efforts to promote cleanliness and hygienic practices may have actually saved a good many lives. Media and demographic analysis indicate that advertising was a significant vector for public health practices in early modernity, admittedly for a profit motive, but with an undeniably positive outcome: saved lives (O’Guinn and Swicegood, 2008). Ivory was actually pure. Unlike other soaps of this period, Ivory neither went rancid nor burned the skin with lye. By separating (early usage segmentation) soap for the bath from soap to wash the floor, Ivory and a few other competitors promoted modern washing and bathing practices. These practices saved lives while they made profits for companies.

There are other positive outcomes as well. Too often we too easily dismiss the demise of drudgery that the world of modern goods yielded. Although it makes comfortable theorists uncomfortable, the modern world of goods made life a lot easier for a great many, particularly during the early days of the twentieth century. Even the “underclass” upon whose backs this progress was supposedly strapped had real positive changes in daily existence in the reduction of very real drudgery. And these changes for the good, like it or not, came from an advancing consumer society pushed along by modern advertising.

Advertising discovered many of its rhetorical forms by the beginning of World War II (Fox, 1985; Marchand, 1985). One of those forms was to artfully leverage social concerns, anxieties, dislocations, and other conflicts in mass society (Frank, 1997; Lears, 1994; Marchand, 1985). In times of rapid social change there are no shortages of anxieties. Shifting social roles and expectations produce anxiety, and these same social shifts provide opportunities for advertisers. Advertisers often offer their goods and services as remedies or “therapies” for the trials and tribulations of modern living (Lears, 1981; Marchand, 1985). This “therapeutic ethos” has been a staple of the advertising industry for well over a century (Lears, 1981). It is an exceptionally efficient rhetorical strategy (O’Guinn, 2008). Market economies require ever expanding demand, and without the cycle of problem–solution–new problem– new solution, market economies would have a hard time sustaining growth. The exact nature of the problems and solutions vary with time and circumstance, but the basic mechanism does not. Consumers sometimes accept and sometimes reject the specific appeals of advertisers, but the general strategy endures. Social change has been good for the advertising industry and modern market capitalism.

Significant advertising regulation did not occur in the US until the Wheeler-Lea Amendment to the FTC charter in 1938. This was precipitated by the generally antibusiness spirit of the Great Depression and advertising’s overall tawdriness and occasional misbehavior during the same period (Marchand, 1985). It was not until the 1960s that a second round of significant reform occurs. From this point forward most everyone accepts that “special audiences” such as children deserve some protection from advertising abuses. This is significant in that we now officially codify the belief that advertising can be powerful enough to be harmful to some. Public attitudes toward advertising have remained ambivalent to generally negative (Calfee, 1997).

Over the last 30 or 40 years advertising has continued to grow in dollars, minutes, space and clicks, but the public’s view of advertising has not changed appreciably. It is still regarded as essentially self interested and occasionally dishonest, but paradoxically providing “valuable information” (Calfee, 1997). Advertising’s own history coupled with a long-standing cultural ambivalence toward the intersection of money, the marketplace, wealth and mass consumption, has as much to do with these conflicting attitudes as anything. Critics also allege more specific harms: advertising is responsible for millions of smoking related deaths, drunk-driving carnage, and obesity, just to name a few. Defenders of the institution claim there is little hard evidence to support such claims (e.g., Calfee, 1997; Luick and Waterston, 1996). Most recently, Thomas Frank (1997) asserts that advertising is now a force that makes meaningful social movement virtually impossible. According to Frank, advertising has turned revolutionary language into hip ad-speak, and thus neutralized it.

Running counter to this, others scholars have offered support of advertising on various fronts, including being a generally good source of product information (Schudson, 1984), a contributor to the general prosperity of market economies and their citizens, and even a force of limited liberation (Twitchell, 1999; Chambers, 2007). Yet, it is fair to say that strong academic supporters of advertising are scarce (Rotzoll et al., 1986).

Wants, Needs, Materialism

A familiar chant in the critical modernist mantra is that advertising turns what would otherwise be mere wants into needs. According to this fable once wants become needs; consumers become lemmings, resistance is difficult, if not impossible. Underlying this very familiar myth is the assumption that if left alone by advertising consumers would behave rationally and consume only the things they truly need, or at least a much smaller set of things, and only things good for them (as determined by cultural elites, and other would-be parent figures). This claim is problematic on several fronts. First, the very idea that advertising turns “wants” into “needs” is to believe that there is some small set of “true” or “real” needs distinct from the less true (and less “real”) wants. Schudson (1984) and Twitchell (1999) among others have held that this is simply wrong. The difference between wants and needs is either non-existent, much slipperier than typically thought, and is entirely socially constructed, highly variable, and determined by relative social, not absolute material standards. To buy into this simple model one would of necessity have to believe in some Eden like myth in which pre-modern (and pre-advertising) societies behaved in a thoroughly rational and utilitarian way and (although contradictory with the first two attributes) altruistic manner. How could this be? It can’t. The human record consists of no place where materiality and meaning are strangers. Goods have always had social meaning, often important ones. As Schudson (1984) notes, there is no record anywhere of a society that did not have a very special place for things, there has never been a society without luxuries. This begs the question: just exactly what is materialism, and why is it supposed to be such a modern malady? This would require a separate chapter.

But what of matters-of-degree; has advertising pushed consumption more to the center of the human experience? That is a much more reasonable question. Is it possible that advertising, en masse, has less direct, but still significant macro effects, and some of these push materiality more to the fore of contemporary human existence? These effects may be missed by the brute force of economic or cross-sectional survey analysis or by the typical social psychology experiments with middle class college sophomores. But are they still there, just less detectable, more subtle? For example, O’Guinn and Shrum (1997) demonstrated that a simple measure of hours of television viewed per week significantly affected consumer’s perceptions of what other people had and consumed, particularly people outside their own social milieu. This was true even when stratification variables income, education and age were accounted for, and most significantly as these mediated visions interacted with actual direct experience. Most of their dependent measures came directly from television program content, not advertising. But, was the world as revealed by programming content all that different from that constructed by TV ads? Probably not, and it is certainly less likely today as programming and advertising merge (Donaton, 2004). It thus seems likely that advertising is one of many cultural agents providing the mental materials by which consumers construct their social worlds, worlds of aspiration, and expectation, and of consumption norms. So in this way advertising is resonant with a mediated mental world that is consumption friendly and consumption rich, and provides easily accessible images of aspirational target lives.

Advertising is the wallpaper of a consumer society, but how much impact it really has, apart from that resonance, is a particularly elusive answer. Even decades of longitudinal empirical study would still be overmatched by the vagaries of shifting cultural sands, and the multitudes of interaction forces. It certainly makes sense that a primary agent of consumer society (advertising) helped locate modern consumption near its center. Yet, it just as certainly had a great deal of help from other social forces and a generally eager group of consumers (Twitchell, 1999; Muniz and O’Guinn, 2005).

Agent of Social Stasis: The Problems of Race and Gender

A common criticism of advertising is that it acts to protect the existing social order: keeping things as they are, and people in “their place.” According to this charge, advertising is an agent of social stasis, a defender of inequity, particularly in terms of race and gender.

While not dismissing the claim at all, the evidence for it is, at best, equivocal. Over the long haul, the advertising industry and its clients have benefited far more from social change than by protecting the status quo. It is when society moves beneath consumer’s feet that new anxieties and problems arise and new opportunities for advertisers are created (Marchand, 1985; Frank, 1997; Holt, 2004; O’Guinn, 2007). Advertisers have a vested interest in social change; it is generally good for business. And given advertising’s modernist impulse it has generally favoured change over stasis. The 1950s may be the only good counter example (Friedan, 1963; Briens, 1992), and even there the case may be a bit over-stated. After all, advertisers benefited greatlyby the emergence of the “teen” market, the birth of rock-and-roll, cultural rebel icons such as Elvis Presley and James Dean, and the sexual restlessness of the late 1950s (Halberstam, 1993; Heath and Potter, 2005).


In terms of race, it is simply unarguable that US advertising for two thirds of the twentieth century employed racial stereotypes and presented an overly white world (Fox, 1985). While a separate black press and advertising industry existed, “mainstream” American advertising was very white until the mid to late 1960s. Up until this time people of colour were largely relegated to servants and trade characters, if they were represented at all. To put it in context, while the sixties white suburban flower children were celebrating free love and mind expansion, Madison Avenue was still afraid to put a black person in an ad in a non-servant role. Brand managers were sometimes terrified of their brand becoming the “negro brand” (Fox, 1985; Chamber, 2007); Pepsi is a good example of a brand where racial overlays were of significant concern to a major brand (Smithsonian Oral History Archives). Since the late 1960s things have changed, but the advertising industry is still considered to be one of the whitest in America, and debates about racial representations in advertising have not gone away (Sanders, 2006). In fact the issue has been prominent in the trade press (e.g., Advertising Age) in this very year.

Now, to the social welfare question: what have been the effects of these representations? While content analyses have yielded valuable statistics regarding relative representation and prominence of various ethnic minorities in ads (e.g., Seiter, 1994) meaningful, long-term effects of this content have not been significantly demonstrated. We simply do not have the longitudinal studies to know what effect years of stereotyping or critical absence has had on racial attitudes, assumptions, self image, social expectation, and prejudice. Again, the problem is not with science per se, but the simple dearth of long-term studies with measures sensitive enough to pick up meaningful effects. Laboratory studies demonstrating treatment effects of various racial representations are very valuable in terms of processing effects, as small scale cross-sectional surveys are alerting us to likely long-term effects (see Williams et al., 2004), but are by their nature inadequate to assess the larger long-term effects of such representations on the general social welfare. It is certainly intuitive to believe that these larger social welfare effects exist.

Some recent socio-historical work has offered a different and more nuanced argument. Chambers (2007) argues that advertising actually served a libratory role where race is concerned. The argument goes something like this: by not picturing blacks in ads, the absence became visible, noticeable, so much so that it helped define a meaningful civil rights front. Out of sight had been out of mind. When getting people of colour on television (including advertising) and into magazine advertising became a civil rights objective, advertising became more important in the context of race, and more pressure was brought to bear. Chamber’s argument is supported by work by Hale (1999) and to a lesser extent by Cohen (2003). It should be abundantly clear that in many ways the black civil rights movement of the twentieth century was fought on battlegrounds of consumption: lunch counters, busses, theaters, housing, and retail. The “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” protests in NewYork’s Harlem and Chicago of the 1930s demonstrated the power of the consumer sphere for civil rights (Greenberg, 1999). Given that we are a consumer society, denial of access to consumption venues or second class treatment within those venues, makes these the front lines.

Chambers (2007) argues that advertising can be an effective instrument of shared everyday-ness, and thus normalization of race relations. He believes that it was seeing black people washing clothes, brushing their teeth, drinking sodas, and putting their children to bed that made the ordinary visible and demystified the “other.” Then, and sometimes now, ads were one of our only glimpses into the “backstage” (Goffman, 1959) lives of “the other,” in this case black American consumers. In a segregated world para-social interaction through media and advertising let us glimpse inside what was otherwise cut off to us: aspects of the mundane and everyday life of otherwise marginalized people (Gates, 1994). O’Guinn and Shrum (1997) have empirically shown how people use television to form consumption worlds in their heads that they never directly encounter. Certainly something similar must have happened with advertising in the early days of integration. When someone is missing or hidden from view they can be constructed in all sorts of ways, when they are there and visible, then the ordinary has to be dealt with. Advertising provided this opportunity.

Yet, there are still plenty of concerns with racial representations in advertising and its presumed effects. To the extent that stereotyped and skewed social representations still exist, the body of socialization theory, taken as a whole, would predict negative effects on self concept, bias, and a restriction of the mental world we as consumers construct around others and ourselves (O’Guinn and Faber, 1991).


The social welfare question of advertising and gender is similar to the racial one but hardly identical. The vast majority of critiques of gender and advertising involve representations of white women and are focused on issues of beauty and objectification. From advertising’s very beginning women accounted for a sizeable majority of consumer purchases. The industry has talked openly about this for over a century; Marchand (1985) and Fox (1985) extensively quote major industry figures in the trade press. This is hardly a secret or a controversy (Fox, 1985; Laermans, 1993; Lears, 1981; Marchand, 1985; Schudson, 1984). Put simply, advertising is more about women than it is about men. Men, as Marchand (1985) has shown were so peripheral that they were largely undifferentiated as targets. It was not until the late 1950s or early 1960s that we see men, even at home, without being dressed in a business suit. In other words, according to the visual rhetoric of advertising, men were just visual clichés, a guy in a suit: dad, the provider. Mom ran the house, raised the kids, took care of the home, and bought most of the things that came into the home. Women’s representations were, despite the stereotypes, more varied, had more lines colored in. What effect has all this had? What is advertising’s contribution to the social welfare of women … and men?

It is also an empirical reality that early twentieth century advertising targeted women with several strategies that are widely seen as problematic (Fox, 1985; Leiss et al., 2005; Marchand, 1985; Schudson, 1984; Sheehan, 2004). For example, women were commonly pitted against other women for the grand prize: the well-to-do husband in the “beauty contest of life” (Marchand, 1985). Mothers are told to take care of their daughter’s looks from day one … begin the beauty regimen in infancy. Women were warned about being left behind by their more modern (and working) husbands. Clearly, some not-insignificant-number of ads attempted to use feelings of responsibility and guilt in a myriad of ways: anxiety over their housekeeping and cooking abilities, their attractiveness and their social graces (Friedan, 1963; Marchand, 1985; O’Guinn, 2007). The existence, prevalence, and revealed strategy of these ads are hardly a matter of controversy. One need only go to any of the major published histories (Fox, 1985; Marchand, 1985; Scott, 2004), or better yet to the data themselves, the actual ads to observe this (O’Guinn, 2008). The extant data are anything but equivocal.

However, the question at hand, the effects question, is a more complex one … a much more difficult one. Where does representation meet significant social effect? A core feminist criticism of advertising is that advertising yielded unrealistic expectations of beauty and attached all manner of social anxiety to various gender role enactments (Courtney and Whipple, 1983; Friedan, 1963; Sheehan, 2004). Women in most ads are not of modal proportion or weight, and advertising often plays on women’s anxieties in the pursuit of marketplace goals; put benignly; it offers solutions to gender related problems. Advertising points to and exacerbates these problems, while minimizing others (O’Guinn etal., 2004). Of course, the problems are rarely created out of whole cloth, but from existing social fabric. Even the problems that are more “ad-created” would not seem like problems at all unless they had some attachment, no matter how remote, to an underlying social dynamic and anxiety. Leveraging women’s social anxiety is one of the oldest advertising strategies around (Lears, 1981, 1994; Fox, 1985; Marchand, 1985).

What are the effects of repeated exposure to these gendered representations? Again, if we rely on the social science we have a very hard time getting from x to y. Think of the enormity of the problem. Careful longitudinal research is required for this and for reasons we know all too well (like getting tenure), it rarely gets done. Certainly, there are survey and experimental studies suggestive of negative consequences (e.g., Richins, 1995), but taken as a whole the case cannot be made definitively. One can either say that this is merely a failure of method, or one can argue that advertising is a relatively weak force in terms of overall gender socialization.

It seems to me, however, that it is more likely than not, based on socialization theory and on what we do know of long-term media effects in general, that the effects of advertising on gender stereotypes and self esteem are non-zero. For example, advertising, until just recently, rarely showed women eating, and when it did, it was often presented as “guilty pleasure” (Bordo, 1993). Men in ads, on the other hand, are much freer to yield to their appetites, appetites of all sorts. Does repeated exposure to these different gender representations with respect to food, which are likely essentially consistent with real world differences in food behavior, have an impact on normative beliefs about women and eating? They probably do, but again, it has not been demonstrated empirically? The truth is we just don’t know what the long-term exposure to this type of advertising representations produce (Percy and Lautman, 1994), although we can theorize and speculate. If all the published consumer socialization and social reality effects research is valid, then we have to believe that, at a minimum, these representations along with others become part of assumed norms, of constructed, and relied upon assumptions about the world, and the attractiveness, desirability, and happiness of those people “out there.” But just as certainly it is not a simple causal relationship. One should also note the stance of Scott (2004) who asserts that advertising from time to time has actually been a force for liberation where gender is concerned. She believes that advertising has actually pushed women toward a form of lipstick feminism and has often been surprisingly progressive in its treatment of alternative lifestyles, and sometimes legitimately liberating. Hers is the conventional view, but significantly points out the polemic, anti-empirical, simplistic and a historical nature of the “standard” feminist critique of advertising.

Social Control

One of the more important books to be written on advertising is Thomas Frank’s 1997 Conquest of Cool. The book advances a general cultural theory of advertising, and has been received by many as a significant advance in theorizing modern advertising. It asserts that advertising emerged from the 1960s Cultural Revolution fundamentally changed in that from that time forward, most if not all, revolutionary impulses are played out in a consumption motif. Advertising played a significant role in this shift. According to his reasoning, this makes advertising powerful and capitalism safe. People act out revolutionary impulses by buying the revolutionary-approved accoutrements, revolutionary utterances become hip ad copy, but structurally nothing is challenged because now nothing is outside the ad-commercial-sway, not even politics. Because advertising so completely appropriated the language and look of revolution, youth and cool, consumer culture and market capitalism are now immune to serious threat. Frank views the sixties as the tipping point, a point at which advertising completed its appropriation of everything important culturally, including its enemies. “Youth has won (Frank, 1997: 235; quoting Steir, 1967); advertising has won.” In the 1960s advertising began to market the safe accessories, the props, the set dressing of revolution (“John Lennon glasses,” “Hippie Ponchos,” etc.) and learned that as long as you speak the language and project the look of revolution, revolution (even anti-capitalist revolution, as long as it doesn’t go too far) is good business. It’s a strategy of giving the kids what they want because we all know that someday soon they will have a mortgage, so let them play revolutionary now; they will work for us later.

Frank makes good points, and his evidence is sometimes convincing. But with Frank, as is true with most all critically inspired commentators, the parable can have only one end, one moral: resistance through the marketplace is illusory; all commercial utterances regarding popular resistance are really marketing strategy; hegemony is all. How rhetorically convenient is this? How does one counter argue such a stance? If you do, as Twitchell (1999) suggests, you are dismissed as just “not getting it.” Frank precludes even the possibility that consumers are meaningfully aware of the difference between an ad slogan and a cry for social justice, or that they make important distinctions between purely fashion politics and purposefully self-aware political action. More fundamentally troubling is the essential critical blind spot: that there can be meaningful discourse and resistance within the commercial sphere, that the merger of market and politics is neither new nor futile. Frank’s thesis is itself wrapped in hip nihilism; the idea of market populism is repulsive to the hip advisers (see Holt, 2004), to the politically hip, and the self proclaimed above-it-all critic.

While I can readily accept the argument that radical sentiments are often (too often) reduced to fashion, and that often, maybe even very often consumers are primarily interested in the fashion and delude themselves softly into thinking that wearing the symbol of revolution is the same thing as revolution, I do not think that most consumers are that unaware most of the time. It is also the case that fashion is sometimes as meaningful as politics; sometimes fashion is politics, real politics. Further, consumers appear to have a more sophisticated and self aware view of these two domains and their boundaries than Frank admits. Also, Frank may, like so many, over-estimate the 60s influence. Due to shear demographic weight, its inhabitants’ self absorbed legacy often noted self absorbed nature (cite), and an increasingly tiresome question: were the sixties revolution or mere fashion, the appeal lingers. But the sixties are over, and advertising during the next half century has been far more variable on more dimensions than Frank acknowledges. His argument could be more nuanced, his history less sweeping, and his analysis of the actual ads more systematic, empirical and fine-grained. Further, the critical stance, particularly where advertising is concerned, is hardly courageous on a college campus (or for that matter most any place), nor anything new. Helping people believe that they are more enlightened, informed and generally “in-on” what advertisers are doing to the less intelligent and informed is simply good business, which is, ironically, consistent with Frank’s thesis.

It does not, however, seem to me that advertising has done-in meaningful politics, not even radical politics. If anything it seems that brands are becoming more politicized, as well as public opinion regarding the corporate culture of brands. When activists want to protest US policy on foreign soil they now look for a McDonalds instead of an embassy. Wal-Mart has become a bona fide political issue in American politics. This politization of brands certainly seems more meaningful than the kind of play-revolutionary hipster Frank describes (O’Guinn and Muniz, 2004). It needs more attention.

Third Persons

One of the most robust findings in communication research is the “third person” effect (Davidson, 1983; Gunther and Thorson, 1992). It has been demonstrated in scores of papers, and in many content domains. It is a very real effect. It says that individuals will believe that others (third persons) are much more affected by media (including advertising) than they themselves are. Even more revealing is that the effect is its strongest in an up-to-down SES context: the effect is greatest when people of higher education and higher income are asked to estimate the effect of advertising on those with less education and income. The more educated and affluent believe that advertising affects them relatively little, but is very powerful for those less educated and less affluent. These consumers are often coded as “the information poor.” Some consider this term and its underlying philosophy patronizing. No matter how noble the motives, a group of more educated and wealthier (typically white) people assuming that they are less susceptible to advertising by virtue of their education, wealth and other places in relative strata hierarchies, simply begs the change of elitism, paternalism and patronization.

The third person effect is highly significant in the general social welfare question. How do we negotiate this question when the tendency for the highly educated (academics, policy makers) is to believe that the “underclass” and other “vulnerable consumers” are the most significantly affected, and they themselves are relatively immune? How do we address these stratification-based personal immunity myths? Is this a place where well-done social science could contribute? Yes.

Noisy Wallpaper

As Figure 6.5.1 indicates one of the issues of advertising and social welfare is addressed by simply looking at just how much of it there is. A recent Advertising Age editorial as well as other volumes (see Donaton, 2004) termed this a “death spiral of disrespect.” Some, including prominent CEOs, actually believe it possible that advertising will simply kill itself off from overexposure (Donaton, 2004). In the meantime, what should we make of the sheer volume of advertising? Does it adversely affect us, or is it just a mild annoyance?

One of the great advertising personages of all time was Howard Gossage. Creator of many famous campaigns he also more or less invented socially aware advertising. Besides being Marshall McLuhan’s publicist, Gossage did things like help launch what was then a new environmental organization called the Sierra Club. He helped campaign against a government plan to flood parts of the Grand Canyon. One of the government’s sillier arguments in support of the proposal was that with the canyon partially flooded boaters could get a better view of the beautiful canyon walls. Gossage created an ad that said that by applying the same logic, we should flood the Sistine Chapel to get a better look at the ceiling. In some part due to his effort, the project went no further.

One of Gossage’s biggest concerns about advertising was just how much of it there was, and when he wrote this in the 1960s, there was roughly one third of what there is now. In his famous essay entitled “Is Advertising Worth Saving” he said:

Yes, if we can learn to look at advertising not as a means for filling so much space and time but as a technique for solving problems. And this will not be possible until we destroy the commission system and start predicating our work on what is to be earned rather than on what has to be spent. (Gossage, 1995: 11)

Well, the simple 15% commission system died about 20 years ago (O’Guinnetal., 2004). Before it died it was simple … a flat 15% commission on media buying. The more ads an agency advised a client to buy, the more money the agency made. Not surprisingly, agencies seldom advised less advertising. Gossage was right, a very simple reason there is so much advertising was a simple “15% more money for me” system. Now that it is gone, agencies more commonly wring their hands about “the end of advertising.” But there is still a lot of it and more and more of it is appearing in alternative (e.g., branded entertainment, placement, promotion) and other “below the line” forms (Advertising Age 2005; O’Guinn et al., 2004).

To me and to Gossage one of the biggest problems of advertising is its sheer volume, its ubiquity. It is everywhere. Ironically, this may have decreased advertising’s power and actually produced fewer sales (see Donaton, 2004; and Section 3 of this volume). Advertising has become background noise, maybe easier to tune out, and this is not just the opinion of cultural critics, but also of CEOs, one of their often stated reasons for leaving traditional advertising behind (Donaton, 2004).

But does advertising still present a significant social ecological problem beyond clutter? Although theory, intuition and cross-sectional research (e.g., O’Guinn and Shrum, 1997) point in the direction of social-construction effects, the production of normative beliefs about what others possess and desire. But to really nail this down will require several longitudinal studies over the life-course. If we had included even a few good measures on surveys such as the General Social Survey even a decade ago, we would have some better data at this point. It is my view that in addition to committing to long-term empirical inquiry we must also open ourselves to other forms of evidence and other approaches. Good histories and extended engagement field work offer promise (see Chapters 3–7, this volume). Ritson and Elliot’s (1999) foundational ethnography of British adolescents showing how advertising copy and commercial logic infuses everyday reality is a great example. Creative data-mining and meta-analysis of existing longitudinal data could also yield meaningful findings. Commercial environmental background effects remain important in the social welfare question.

British economists Luik and Waterson (1995) conclude that advertising is a generally weak force in the marketplace. They may be right, but it may be advertising’s ubiquity that yield individually small but collectively significant background effects, effects that color our daily perceptions of consumer reality and quality of life. Generally speaking, the social science data come down on the side of the defenders of advertising (Calfee, 1997). Yet, we should not be too quick to see null effects as a conclusion of no effects. The very things that makes advertising so intriguing, its multifacets, layers, generally weak effects, and its amoebic nature, are the very qualities that researchers avoid, those that make the research inconvenient. Toreally see the effects of advertising on society empirically will happen only after the capture and summation of many small and individually weak effects that may add up over time to something very significant … or not. But one thing is certain, until we try, and quit doing business as usual, we will never know.

We should also remember that criticizing advertising takes no social courage at all, quite the contrary. To invoke the memory of millions of parents: just because it’s cool, doesn’t make it right. Much of the criticism is, in fact, a well rehearsed chant, an unexamined bias, and a form of requisite cultural capital. Knowing that to criticize advertising is fashionable is like knowing that the sky is blue. Yet, its critics, both academic orthodox and lay pat themselves so much on the back for their “bravery” as to certainly be at risk of elbow injuries. This is, as philosophers Heath and Potter (2004) note, is not only hypocritical, but based on the meta-myth of counter-culture to begin with, the self-congratulatory mythology that by criticizing consumer society and its trapping, one is taking a brave, enlightened and even revolutionary stand. They argue that nothing could be further from the truth; this is merely a comfortable illusion, and a profitable one for the cultural studies industry and all the Neiman-Marxists who profit so handsomely from it (Twitchell, 1999).


To come full circle, these questions of advertising’s interaction with its social context are as much political and philosophical as they are empirical. I have tried to address some of the more stubborn and important ones. First, I do not see compelling evidence that advertising as asingular social agent has made humans any more materialistic than before. Humans were materialistic (again, whatever that means) long before advertising’s very recent appearance on this planet. Materiality has always been central to human existence; it always will be, with or without advertising. The causal order is reversed; humans are not materialistic because of advertising; humans have advertising because we are materialistic. Humans like material things: collect them, horde them, share them, ritualize them, worship them, and otherwise make them special, and have been doing so centuries before advertising existed.

Secondly, advertising’s role as a social agent is, however, more troubling, the scholarship more mixed. Advertising may, as Fox (1985) suggests, have been out in front of (leading) society only during the 1920s, when it acted as an “an apostle of modernity” (Marchand, 1985), but rarely since. Advertising has lagged behind on many important social trends, but were happy to catch the cultural wave when it looked profitable. When waves of change occur, advertising is more than happy to ride them and take advantage of the turbulence. But, it rarely produces the waves. Advertising is happy to be safely revolutionary when there is money to be made in revolutionary rhetoric, otherwise it’s happy to sit and wait on the beach.

Obviously, humans struggle with pleasure and the social sanctions against it; its relationship with things and consumption practices has a long history (Schudson, 1984; Twitchell, 1999). It is no accident that advertising began to flourish as Victorian morality, a system not so friendly to public displays of consumption and hedonism, faded (Marchand, 1985). Nor was it an accident that Madison Avenue had a well-publicized affair with neo-Freudians in the frightened and repressed 1950s, a time of belief in hidden persuaders, subliminal advertising, mind control, the power of repressed sexual desire and all things unconscious (Fox, 1985). Just below the surface of the on-going advertising discourse are always questions about the rightness and wrongness of desire and having, power and control. We should never pretend that questions regarding social welfare and advertising are absent a moral component whether in the form of classical social theory or elite editorial.

Advertising, as a part of a larger affluent consumer culture, probably has contributed to the social construction of a world of things, and consumption-centred solutions. It is hard to imagine consumer culture without advertising. Advertising helped train consumers in the 1920s and 1930s to expect stylistic changes, model years, the ensemble, and other aspects which lead to the institutionalization of planned obsolescence (Marchand, 1985). Advertising repackaged social movement on top of social movement in order to sell stuff (March, 1985; Frank, 1997; Fox, 1985; Scott, 2004; Holt, 2004; Twitchell, 1999; O’Guinn et al., 2004; O’Guinn and Muniz, 2004; Lasch, 1991). The historical record is abundant with evidence.

Still, advertising, in my view, as part of an advancing consumer culture has contributed positively as well. It has, on balance, been a good source of consumer information. It has represented a world of material aspirations for over a century, and some of that resulted in more people demanding consumer comforts from their societies. Some of those demands were impossible under the planned economies of that era. I truly believe it helped produce a proliferation of market democracies, flawed certainly, but democracies none the less. The ideas of plentitude and choice are not easily contained within the marketplace; they have a tendency to spread. True, advertising has brought this new world unequally to its inhabitants, or at least to a world well acquainted with material inequality. Further, it has not always been good to those upon whom it tried to leverage anxiety; it undoubtedly made some people feel bad, some very bad. Yet, it brought a more honest and open acknowledgment of our relationship with things and an honest striving for a better material existence, and that isn’t all bad.