Advertising: A Synthetic Approach

Todd Holden. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.

Introduction: The Growing Centrality of Advertising

What was once a localized industry associated with a certain kind of economy in specific societies has now become a core societal institution in a wide range of contexts around the world. By 2000, advertising had grown from an American-centered industry in the 1950s into a mega-billion-dollar global industry. In the process, advertising has been transformed into a medium through which many of society’s key entities and their publics communicate. O’Barr (1994) states that “advertising both reflects and constitutes social order” (p. 4), but I think we must go even further: Advertising has become a major force in ongoing societal re/production.

This re/productive role is rendered all the more weighty as society globalizes. To highlight but two examples: Today, we witness the increasing use of political spots as a major form of electoral communication in countries outside America and Europe (Holden, 1997b, 1999b; Sabato, 1981); so too are we experiencing the pell-mell insertion of symbols indigenous to one cultural context into product appeals in another (Holden, 2001b).

This burgeoning presence has meant that advertising has become a magnet for communication researchers, political scientists, psychologists, marketers, semioticians, sociologists, social philosophers, anthropologists, and cultural historians. At the same time, likely due to the great differences among these practitioners and the disciplinary, balkanized tendency of contemporary social science, a large amount of high-quality work in the field has gone mutually unrecognized. Bridges have remained unbuilt, channels of connection untraversed.

A certain core set of themes has emerged. These include gender, cultural history, organizational practice, marketing, branding, audience, and commodification. Many studies of advertising reduce the subject to a specific topic, such as the language of advertising, the art of advertising, or its historical development. Areas that have been identified, but in my view have yet to be adequately explored, include cultural and political nationalism, comparative political values, race, identity, the changing nature of the sign, advertising’s agenda-setting function, and the presence and operation of the advertising institution on ad readers’ perceptions and practices.

All of these are projects worthy of future attention. Yet in general, and unfortunately, advertising research has rarely proceeded in a comprehensive, synthetic way. For those seeking to clarify the wealth of disparate literature that has accrued over the years, the task is certainly formidable. It is just this project I believe media studies must take on. I wish, with this chapter, to offer a start.

Toward a “Total Conception” of Advertising

From Marx, among others, sociology incorporated a holistic, totalizing vision—society as a complex composite of structural elements operating at numerous “levels” in simultaneous, cross-cutting, interlocking, often contradictory ways, defying facile reduction. Among these levels are the political and economic, above all, but so, too, are the social, cultural, moral, and spatio-temporal. One element of the Marxist legacy is embodied in what Golding and Murdock (1991) call a “critical political economy of communication,” a perspective that has come to exert an increasing presence in advertising scholarship.

What separates the totalizing conception argued for here from the kind of critical approach espoused by Golding, Murdock, and others is that a considerable amount of advertising research has illuminated aspects other than political economy or even cultural history. Although critical writers often argue that such studies miss the point, the fact is that a wealth of significant advertising information is generated outside the critical perspective. To accommodate such voices, a framework is required that is flexible enough to observe the many sectoral and institutional phenomena that may emerge within, but are not mere reflexes of, the larger system of capital reproduction. By sectors, I mean the dimensions of society as categorized by academic disciplines, such as sociology, political science, and the like. By institutions, I mean coherent sets of ideas, practices, roles, and norms that are regularized in social structure, such as “the institution of religion,” “the institution of the family” or “the institution of advertising.”

Sectoral Dimensions and Totality

Although totalities are very difficult to articulate in single analyses, a number of advertising studies excavate at least the footprints of other dimensions buried within society’s complex architecture. In Baudrillard (1981/1994), for instance, one discerns the cultural and economic; in Mattelart (1991), the economic, spatial, and historical; in Williams (1980), the social, historical, and economic; in Habermas (1962/1995), the political and social; in Kellner (1995), the social and economic; and in Schudson (1984), the cultural, economic, and moral. Advertising research has all too often contented itself with focusing on but one. What is needed is more of the kind of scholarship hinted at by Ewen and Ewen (1982/1992) in their social history of mass-mediated consumption in America: “Built on expanded production and the economic potential of consumer markets, advertising created the imagery, the aesthetic, of a social-democratic capitalism, one that understood and would claim to solve the most basic contradictions of modern life” (p. 20).

Advertising as a Societal Institution

Through its network-like connections not only to but also between the various sectors of society, advertising can be seen as linking various institutions, organizations, and publics; it serves as a re/productive mechanism through which various laws, rules, practices, conventions, beliefs, and ideologies flow. This mediation process is quite complex. It entails advertisers deriving the materials of their commercial communications from the social knowledge they gather about the audience, then translating this knowledge into information products in ways (formats, codes, signs) that can be understood by that audience. Leiss (1994) maps the dimensions of the advertising institution thus:

[Advertising] incorporates a threefold process of mediation. One type occurs between producers and consumers, wherein advertising agencies assist producers in encoding products with symbolic meanings; another, between producers and the media, wherein agencies assist producers in choosing the right “media mix” (and the media content—advertising content relation) for attaining the strategic objectives of their marketing campaigns; and a third, between media and their audiences, wherein agencies assist both producers and the media in understanding the decoding processes of audiences. (p. 131)

The complexity of the mediation equation provides further ground for a synthetic approach. For now, though, let us review some of the research literature’s dominant perspectives on advertising, commencing with an ongoing, sometimes paradoxical dispute.

The Paradox of Advertising within Media Studies

“Today,” Baudrillard (1981/1994) has written, “we are experiencing the total absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising” (p. 87). A second French theorist, Mattelart (1991), opines, “Our society is immersed in advertising as the dominant mode of communication” (p. 214). Hyperbole? Perhaps. Yet these views are far from unique. There is, among those who contemplate advertising, a tendency to ascribe great power to it. This presents a paradox, of sorts, for in media studies—which includes advertising as its research object—the trend over the past 40 years has mostly been away from attributing direct, powerful effects to media. And yet throughout that period, there has been steady public clamor about advertising’s tremendous, malign influence. The litany is familiar to those in the field—generally seen as beginning with Packard (1957), who gave voice to popular anxieties about “subliminal seduction” and mass manipulation by characterizing advertisers as “hidden persuaders” capable of influencing unguarded consumers. In a few years, Raymond Williams (1961/1993, p. 334) would posit advertising to be a “magical system,” without which capitalism would surely collapse.

Two decades later, having just entered the period of audience-mediated “negotiated” and “aberrant” readings of text (S. Hall 1980), Schudson (1984) produced a widely circulated book on advertising bearing the provocative subtitle Its Dubious Impact on American Society. Yet Schudson too saw fit to echo Williams’s (1961/1993) line that advertising is “the official art of modern capitalist society.” Even to Schudson, this “capitalist realist art” possesses “a special cultural power” for it “picks up some of the things that people hold dear and represents them to people as all of what they value” (p. 233). It has become commonplace to articulate this view of advertising as moral culture (e.g., Fox & Lears, 1983; Pope, 1983; Marchand, 1985): the notion that, under advertising’s influence, society has become narrowly circumscribed by consumerist values.

Even at a point when some deemed the audience all-powerful (e.g., Fiske 1989), advertising was still perceived as potent. For instance, Habermas (1995/1962) advanced the view that advertising (rendered aspublicity by his translators) possessed the power to transform public life by altering relations between political leaders and their public(s). He argued that the reduction of political messages to the form of ads meant that political and social affairs were no longer discussed collectively by rational citizens. Instead, public matters were aired in private spaces, if at all, by atomized consumers of mass culture.

No less sweeping have been claims by those who assert that “advertising is as concerned with selling lifestyles and socially desirable identities, which are associated with their products, as with selling the products themselves” (Kellner, 1995, p. 252). In the process, these critics allege, consistent images of gender and race, interpersonal relations, sexuality, health, body, age, and nation (to name only a few) are constantly reproduced. Crucially, it has been argued, rival images have been effectively barred from circulation. The result is a narrowing of discourse through the “agenda-setting function of advertising” (Holden, 1995).

Paradox Squared: Minimalist Views of Advertising Power

To be fair, the notion of advertising as an omnipotent medium of communication is far from universally held. There are those who find advertising’s effects tempered, contingent, negligible, if not entirely absent. Schudson’s (1984) book produced sharp reactions because it argued, in part, that “[advertising’s] power is not so determinative nor its influence so clear” (p. 11). Patterson and McClure (1976), in earlier path-breaking work, had studied voter reactions to political commercials and concluded that “the vast majority of Americans are immune to advertising’s propaganda. They are not manipulated” (p. 130). Diamond and Bates (1984) observed an obvious but underrecognized reality: “Less than half of the advertising done in any specific election year will be for successful candidates and more than half for unsuccessful candidates” (p. 350). In light of such inefficacy, can one contend that advertising is influential?

For media researchers, witnessing a world ever more fashioned around the rhetoric of advertising, this dispute is a puzzle in need of unscrambling. Because advertising is a media institution, it has been subject to the currents that historically have coursed through media studies, including the long-running “paradigm wars” between competing camps of “process” (or “effects”) and “meaning.” Neither model has been fully persuasive or completely shakable. Most often, now, the view of effects is that they are longer term or indirect, whereas the notion of audience power has become more situational—tempered by medium, locale, social group, or specific issue (Dahlgren, 1998; Hay, Grossberg, & Wartella, 1997; Morley, 1988). Advertising research tends to adopt one of the two perspectives but often does so with little recognition that it is contributing to or being shaped by particular long-running but contested paradigms. Let us now proceed to assess more specific traditions of research, beginning with two that pivot as much on a difference of objectives as of methods.

Research Traditions

Harms and Kellner (1990) contend that two broad traditions have characterized advertising research: (a) administrative studies and (b) critical studies. The former focuses on the collection of data as a means of learning how to use advertising to influence audiences, sell products, and promote politicians. The latter centers on how advertising articulates with the institutional structures of contemporary capitalist societies, with an eye to grasping its negative effects.

The Administrative Tradition. Market research exemplifies the administrative tradition. In this approach, a range of methods (including focus groups, projective techniques, and association tests) are employed, all aimed at gaining feedback from potential consumers about themselves, products, or possible ad campaigns. Physiological responses, recognition testing, and attitude-tracking tests may also be employed. Much of these data are collected “in-house” at advertising agencies. Academic researchers also study a range of focused phenomena with applications to ad form and content: everything from whether subliminal perception alters consumer behavior—highly unlikely (Merikle, 2000)—to whether negative political advertising can change voting behavior (in specifiable cases, it does).

The Critical Tradition. Critical media studies originated with the Frankfurt school. In more recent years, the label critical political economy has become more common, the avowed aim of which is to trace the interplay between the symbolic and economic in communications. This project can be found in Baudrillard, but applied specifically to advertising, it is best embodied in the sophisticated work of Williamson (1978). This approach has also been pursued by Jhally (1990) and Goldman (1992). Not all critical approaches, however, are Marxist or even centered on political economy. Goffman’s (1976/1979) work—though critical of the gender system—centers on the socially reproductive function of ads (i.e., focusing on social definitions and roles) while de-emphasizing (or altogether ignoring) the economic dimensions.

Although the kinds of studies denoted by the administrative label are not “critical,” it is unwise to insist on strict separation. A synthetic approach to advertising certainly would do well to keep all these traditions in mind without blindly favoring or derogating either. For this reason, other research traditions should also be considered. These are often not full-blown traditions as much as perspectives, as we will now summarize.

The Semiotic Tradition. Many media analysts have argued that underneath ad text (i.e., beneath the level of “primary discourse” or what the advertiser is trying to sell) lies a “secondary” discourse, consisting of social, cultural, or political meanings embedded in “sign-text.” Semiotics, the method of analysis that explores this deeper discourse, saw its popularity steadily ascend during the 1980s and 1990s.

Barthes’s (1957/1972, 1967) formulation has probably been the most influential version of this approach. He argues that individual signs can be excavated from social text and, if systematically demonstrated as recurrent, can be linked together in “chains of signification” that may reveal the deeper ideational structure of society, which he labels “myth.” This formulation has proven quite fruitful in academic advertising research, even in cases where Barthes is not accorded explicit mention.

The full Barthesian lexicon of “signification,” “orders of connotation,” and “myth” has proven unnecessarily abstruse for many analysts. Consequently, they have favored a more straightforward coding of underlying cultural meaning. Two models in particular stand out, the studies already cited by Williamson (1978) and Goffman (1976/1979). Each in its own way has served to establish systematic semiotic analysis as an important tool for advertising research. Williamson’s study served to lay the foundation for much of the critical studies of advertising, whose political-economic bent has become popular in the past decade; Goffman’s not only worked to spotlight gender as a major genre in advertising research but also served to inspire qualitative content analysis of other social groups (e.g., O’Barr, 1994).

The Cultural Studies Perspective: Insistence on the Negotiation of Meaning. The practitioners of cultural studies asserted that message production was an open process in which ad “readers” could (and did) negotiate multiple meanings encoded in the commercial message. The crux of this view is captured in the following statement by Tomlinson (1999):

Advertising texts … though part of what Horkheimer and Adorno (1979) referred to disparagingly as the “culture industry” linked to the instrumental purposes of capitalism, remain significant cultural texts. The way people make use of advertising texts may often be similar to the way they use novels or films. This is because they [ads] offer narratives—however ideologically suspect—of how life may be lived, references to shared notions of identity, appeals to self-image, pictures of “ideal” human relations, versions of human fulfillment, happiness and so on. (pp. 18-19)

Such a view stands a significant distance from strong effects models of media, for it perceives that advertising has an indeterminate effect. Whatever impact ads might have are mediated, if not wholly determined, by the message recipients themselves. Postmodernist writers, as we will now see, occupy much of the same ground.

Postmodernist Perspectives. In the 1980s, with the popularity of postmodernism and its application to reflexive ad products, the focus turned to tracing the unending routing and rerouting of signifiers and signifieds in ad text. As elements in the sign became detached from their referent systems, signifiers often become more important than the signifieds, it was argued, and in this way images come to rival—if not dominate—the intended message.

For analysts, this often meant tracing the implications of meaning exchange: the relative interpretations, use, or power, for instance, between message encoders and decoders. As an example, Fowles’s (1996) widely cited study of the links between popular culture and advertising in America included the claim that ad consumers derive as much use from the images in advertising as the ad creators derive from consumers’ attention to specific ad messages. In particular, the meanings contained in such communications (often unrelated to narrow product communication) can serve to prompt message recipients in negotiating the personal dilemmas of contemporary existence.

To postmodernist analysts, the polysemy of ad texts, coupled with greater sophistication of ad readers, means there is greater equality between encoder and decoder, an “opening up” in meaning transference and construction. We shall explore this line of argument later in the work of O’Donohoe (2001). To other writers, however, the “insights” of postmodernism have amounted to nothing more than irksome, even pointless, mental calisthenics. Goldman (1992), for instance, ends his critique of this interpretative “era” in advertising studies by writing,

The culture of the image is, indeed, all surface; unfortunately, postmodernist critiques are as flat and one-sided as the world of simulations they refer to. In a world of free-floating signifiers that advertising celebrates and poststructuralism criticizes, the critiques become as free-floating as the celebration. (p. 231)

It would be fair to assert that this genre of advertising research has proven less definitive than suggestive. It may be true that ad “readers” have more latitude to construct meanings than advertisers might intend and that the ads currently crafted embody an array of practices (such as fragmentation, de-differentiation, hyperreality, pastiche, intertextuality, and pluralism) that would encourage less unity in meaning construction. However, advertising’s agenda-setting function also helps determine the contextual frame within which ad messages circulate. For ad readers, cultural history, social values, economic organization, political institutions, and practices prove highly directive. Thus, provocative as postmodernist theorizing may be, the reality is that encoding and decoding do generally articulate with one another and in ways consistent with national cultural parameters. The process is far less random than postmodernism would predict.

The Question of Levels of Analysis. Part of any totalizing conception is integration between levels. For critical scholars, this often has meant contextualizing communications, embodied well in the “cultural studies” approach that has emphasized the manufacture, transmission, reception, and use of messages. This linkage of producer and consumer is a project that Moeran (1996) rightly notes advertising studies must take on. Unfortunately, his study offers no glimpse of the message consumer in context. Other studies err on the opposite side, by focusing almost exclusively on the message recipient. A cottage industry of consumer-sensitive studies has arisen, showing that message recipients are becoming more favorably disposed to advertising (Meadows, 1983), although this appears to vary to some degree by geographic location (Bonnal, 1990). Moreover, ad recipients are apparently becoming more literate about ads (Goodyear, 1991)—to the point of understanding the motives of message producers and the aims of their messages (Mintel, 1998; Tynan & O’Donohoe, 1998)—although this level of sophistication evinces geographic patterning (Goodyear, 1994). Such focused, audience-centered research is often the province of the advertising agency, and thus either does not make it into the public domain or else fails to address linkage between levels.

In between these two ends of the “cultural circuit” (S. Hall, 1980) are the messages themselves. A staple research methodology on this front has been content analysis. Initially a strictly quantitative approach, more recently it has been wedded with semiotics. These approaches, which have become standard in advertising research, are not without flaws. As Harms and Kellner (1990) observe, the study of content often eschews discussion of the political-economic structure of mass media and neglects the audience. Overall, they assert, semiotics fails to

adequately articulate … the linkage between the macro political economic structure of mass media and the micro mass communication forms and techniques so as to reveal both the socioeconomic functions of advertising and the ways that ads actually shape and influence perception and behavior which reproduce the existing social system.

Such criticisms are important to bear in mind in evaluating advertising research, the bulk of which—whether it is producer, consumer, or content based—generally neglects the synthesis of levels.

The Geography of Advertising Research. One way of working toward a synthetic portrait is to piece together research in a number of contexts. This is particularly imperative as advertising globalizes, intersecting national culture. Unfortunately, one of the most distinctive aspects of work on advertising in the English language is its Western skew. As the ship lists, it does so decidedly toward the shores of America, with few English-language accounts of advertising research in other regions. Some binational comparisons can be located, with the most common pairings being the United States and the United Kingdom (Katz & Lee, 1992; Nevett, 1992), France and the United States (Biswas, Olsen, & Carlet, 1992; Taylor & Hoy, 1995), and the United States and Japan (Holden, 1996, 1997a, 1999a; Lin, 1993; Mueller, 1987; Ramaprasad & Hasegawa, 1992; Sengupta, 1995; Tanaka, 1994). Overall, cultural differences continually emerge—differences that often are expressed via stylistic elements (such as soft-sell, rational, personalization, and lifestyle appeals) and communication tropes (such as natural imagery, the use of humor, or a focus on emotions).

One such study that bears mention is De Mooij’s (1998). Although the bulk of her conclusions are inferential and/or analogical, she does manage to cull a large number of cross-cultural studies in service of her claim that, when it comes to advertising, national culture is central. Working in the main with other researchers’ statistical studies on communication and cultural values, she then applies a number of parameters to a sample of print ads from 20 countries (from Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and South America), as well as 5,000 television ads from 13 countries. Although she discerns eight basic forms of advertising (accompanied by numerous subcategories), she asserts that there is a geographic patterning to the forms. Importantly, though, format appears to be associated with the culture of origin of the advertiser or else the stage of development that the company is undergoing (either a “standardization” or else a “local adaptation” phase).

In a conclusion, De Mooij (1998) underscores this thesis of cultural difference by highlighting the “advertising styles” of America, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Poland, Japan, China, and South Korea. The author ends by asserting that failure to recognize cultural values will have demonstrable, deleterious consequences for marketers and advertisers. Above all, communication models built for one context cannot be applied to (or imposed on) another. Advertising forms, as well as the specific symbols and ideas embedded in their content, will, of necessity, have to be crafted to the imperatives of each place.

Media Technologies and Advertising. A major goal of synthesis is to facilitate advertising studies’ treatment of complex societal phenomena. This is achieved by providing a methodology that can simultaneously strike a variety of analytic postures. It is here that I wish to ask, “Does this flexibility extend, as well, to a focus on specific media technologies?” It is not uncommon to encounter advertising scholarship that rather indiscriminately fuses them. To offer a few examples, although Williamson (1978) employs magazine and newspaper advertisements to demonstrate how meaning is placed in service of ideology, Harms and Kellner (1990) invoke her work—along with other print-based analyses such as Leiss, Kline, and Jhally (1990)—to assist in arguing against the effects of television advertising as an institution of ideological reproduction and control. Similarly, Goldman (1992) rather indiscriminately draws on magazine and television advertisements in America—but inferentially generalized to alladvertising contexts—in the course of arguing that advertising has generally precipitated an evolution toward a “privatized discourse of commodified desire.” In her otherwise laudable effort to study advertising contextually, De Mooij (1998) mixes print and television ads to assist in comparing particular variables (such as “power distance” or “individualism/collectivism”) across contexts.

The point here is not that media ought to be strictly segregated but that analysts should be sensitive to validity concerns that naturally arise as media are mixed. One has to ask whether it really is the case that all ad forms operate in the same way—either as a reflection of institutional linkages, in the transmission of cultural values via content, or else in terms of longer lasting societal effects. It must quickly be acknowledged that in working to model synthesis, this chapter has crept down the same path a tad. However, the aim here is to offer a panoramic snapshot of contemporary advertising research. In effecting actual synthesis, however, greater care would be called for.

So far, this chapter has focused on the varying perspectives that have been brought to bear on advertising, ultimately in service of my argument that careful synthesis is necessary to truly see advertising as a core societal institution. In the remainder of the chapter, I organize specific advertising research studies under three headings, any of which can help move us toward synthesis: (a) an inventory of 10 standard findings concerning advertising effects, (b) an assemblage of what I have termed sectoral studies, and (c) investigations that address advertising as a societal institution.

An Inventory of Effects

One effect of the emphasis on meaning has been to cast doubt on the notion of advertising impact. Nonetheless, the view that it does have influence still persists. After so many decades, precisely what do we know, or think we know, about effects? First, they are not only measured in terms of a message recipient’s perceptions, attitudes, or behavior; they are also reflected in the institution itself, its practices and behaviors. By this standard, the following 10 claims currently appear rather well settled among researchers:

  1. Advertising’s impacts are longer term and indirect. Ads do not generally make someone immediately buy a product; rather, the logic of consuming things, of defining people in relation to commodities, appears to have been built up from a steady diet of advertising over decades.
  2. Advertising operates at two levels of discourse: the primary (or messages about product) and secondary (or messages about society). Most academic researchers focus on the latter.
  3. Advertising possesses an educative function. This is obviously true of primary discourse but runs as well to secondary discourse. In ad dicta, one finds social history, along with society’s basic cultural patterns and deepest values—however truncated and discontinuous the presentation may be. In the repeated encoding of expected behaviors, cultural definitions, societal rules, and human possibilities, advertising socializes.
  4. Advertising focuses priorities. In this role as socializer, advertising tells receivers less what to think than what to think about. Ads, like news media, work as agenda setters.
  5. Advertising is directive. Primary and secondary ad discourses narrow viewers’ focus to a consumer way of life. As a consequence, viewers are constantly operating within the parameters and with the vernacular of a conversation about goods. Other areas to which message recipients’ attention is directed include body, sexuality, gender definitions and possibilities, and local cultural practices and values. Less explored by research but likely foci also include awareness of racial and national differences, as well as collective and personal identity.
  6. dvertising is selective. Although ads direct recipients toward particular themes, they are also excluding others. This is especially true when, in secondary discourse, they privilege hallowed cultural values and social history.
  7. Advertising sets the agenda for much of what appears on television. As such, it has an invisible power that exerts influence over the types of shows and, by extension, the themes or specific content transmitted for viewer experience. Less clear is its effect on the content of other media, particularly newspapers, magazines, radio, and the Internet (although some impact would seem likely).
  8. The ad form has become a dominant mode of expression in an increasingly mediated, consumption-oriented, spatiotemporally condensed world.
  9. Advertising has contributed to the proliferation of signs globally. This is due to the pell-mell spread of capitalism as well as the dramatic proliferation of communication media, which in many cases has wrought increasing interconnectivity between once highly disparate societies. In turn, this has led to a greater dispersion of local sign/content from advanced economies that, when forged with indigenous signs in other local contexts, has become “reengineered” and then often retransmitted to still other contexts.
  10. Advertising affords greater audience agency. Paradoxically, despite all the direction and narrowing of discourse, the symbolic explosion that modern advertising has assisted has meant that users not only have more communication content at their disposal but have also become conversant with an array of communicative forms, codes, and devices. This, in turn, has meant that they have been able to become much more savvy in their encounters with advertising text.

Sectoral Approaches to Advertising

The listed effects lend themselves to synthetic studies of advertising, particularly when wedded to sectoral analysis. Below I indicate some areas in which sectoral analysis has been fruitfully pursued to date.

The Cultural. Culture is typically reduced to the shorthand “way of life.” Remmling and Campbell (1976) specify eight universal elements, all of which are evinced in advertising. Not only are ads “material culture.” Their status as a shared form of communication and virtual presence across the globe certainly qualifies advertising for inclusion on the short list of “cultural universals.”

Since the 1980s, a major tradition in advertising scholarship has been the historical/cultural approach. Reflecting the geography of scholarship already noted, these books have centered on America, Canada, and England (cf. Fox, 1984; Pope, 1983; Turner, 1952). In certain cases, such studies simply recount the evolution of an industry. Yet, more recently, efforts have been made to place that history in cultural context as a means of providing deeper cultural analysis (e.g., J. Lears, 1994; Leiss et al., 1990; Marchand, 1985). Such work moves toward synthesis in that it links development of an industry (the economic) with societal values (the cultural) and consumer practices (the social). And although all accounts have almost singularly centered on the advertising industry within the burgeoning consumer society of late 19th-century America up into the 1980s, what they reveal are intimate sectoral connections. Specifically, they assert the emergence of what might be called a “public morality”—an ethic of consumer praxis.

A major contribution in this vein was Fox and Lears’s (1983) collection, The Culture of Consumption. There, advertising took center stage—due to its status as “the central institution of consumer culture” (Fox & Lears, 1983, p. xiii). At the same time, advertising was part of “a network of institutional, religious, and psychological changes” (T. J. J. Lears, 1983, p. 4) assailing America prior to the 1920s. Not only did the consumer culture require a “national apparatus of marketing and distribution,” Lears (1983) argued, but “it also needed a favorable moral climate” (p. 4). Above all, this meant a shift from Protestant salvation in the coming world to therapeutic self-realization in the present—a present in which “all overarching structures of meaning had collapsed,” save for the well-being of the self. Advertising, in his view, served to accelerate that breakdown. Quick on the heels of this work came Marchand’s (1985) Advertising the American Dream. This is, without doubt, the most prominent book in the historico-cultural vein. Thoroughly researched and well supported, the book argues, in part, that advertising educated consumers to embrace modernity. Through repetition of moral parables and visual clichés, tradition became trivialized and the new enhanced. A consumerist way of life was sold to the viewing public. Marchand writes,

Perhaps more than any other institution, American advertising adapted itself to the possibilities for exercising both a dynamic and stabilizing influence during such an age. Advertising served as the spokesman for modernism. It exalted technological advances and disseminated the good news of progress to the millions. It promoted urban lifestyles and sought to educate consumers to master the new complexities of social interaction. (p. 359)

A further work with this focus is by Leiss et al. (1990), a richly detailed study consisting equally of empirical observation and social theorization. For instance, one fascinating dimension is a content analysis of more than 15,000 magazine advertisements from two Canadian popular general-interest mass-circulation magazines, published over the course of 70 years. The results reveal a historical sequence, from aproduct-information format in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to a product-image format from the 1920s to 1940s, then a personalization format in the 1950s and 1960s, and finally a lifestyle format in the 1970s and 1980s. Reflecting the claim by Lears (1983)—and underscoring a major theme of this chapter—it seems fair to conclude that the move to personalization was possible only in relation to a particular, changing conception of self. In the same way, the later emphasis on lifestyle is consistent only with a society that has “achieved” a certain measure of political freedom and economic growth, capable of enabling its citizen-consumers to pursue their own private desires.

Institutional developments also seem to have played a role in social transformation. As Leiss et al. (1990) suggest, the move away from rational appeals toward symbolic representations of products in consumers’ lives appears to have been abetted by greater development of the visual dimension of ads. As a consequence, products became more tangible, more visible in the ad. Moreover, the development by which the product came to be presented as a totem within a consumer’s life appears linked to advertising’s increased demographic research and strategies of market segmentation. Such approaches suggested that agencies needed to address the questions of the social relationship associated with the product, questions such as the following: “What does this product mean in my life?” and “Who am I in relation to the others in my consumer tribe?” Obviously, the practice of social segmentation and the question of product meaning in everyday life have become even more pronounced since.

Applications Across Cultures. A comparison of cultural contexts is very suggestive. For instance, Holden (2000c) collected a sample of Japanese and Malaysian television ads and coded them in terms of format. He determined that although all four forms of ads were present in both countries, Malaysian ads were disproportionately of the “lower end” formats (product information and product image), whereas Japanese ads were overwhelmingly of the “higher end” variety (personalization and lifestyle). In addition, a fifth format was uncovered in Japan—an approach that, for want of a better word, was labeled postmodern. This format consisted of seven characteristics and required an exceptionally high degree of “semiotic literacy” to decode the ad’s primary discourse.

This contrast raises interesting questions about the capacity of ad readers in the respective information milieus. The issue of reception is consistent with a parallel line of research that has sought to document so-called “advertising literacy” (e.g., Ritson & Elliott, 1995; Tynan & O’Donohoe, 1998). For Goodyear (1991), the differential senses made by message consumers situated in differing locales correlate with (a) the amount of exposure to TV and film, (b) the amount of exposure to advertising, (c) the level of industrialization/consumerism, and (d) national cultural factors. Absent are the elements of state policy present in Holden’s (2001a) study of Malaysia. Nonetheless, what is clear is that advertising’s messages about what society is and the place of consumers and products within it appear strongly associated with socioeconomic development and, by association, consumer sophistication.

The Social. Leiss et al.’s (1990) work is about culture, but it carries the title “social communication.” Marchand’s (1985) book is about the creation and rooting within culture of a consumer ethic, yet he casts certain ads as “social tableaus”—ads that present relationships between those depicted and also their place in a larger social structure.

When advertising research consciously addresses the social structure, it often does so by focusing on representations of identifiable groups and the relationships within and between groups. Racial stereotyping is an area that has been identified, although it has gone surprisingly understudied by advertising researchers. Reflective of current intellectual foci, of greater recent interest has been the question of cultural identity, which obviously has a close bearing on how advertisers define and seek to communicate to target groups. In general, such group-centered research has been effected via semiotically attuned content analysis, although the study of message consumers in context would seem equally important.

Advertising’s Gender Obsession

Of all the categories selected for attention in advertising research, men and women are first and foremost. Despite a wealth of work on this subject, it is Goffman’s (1976/1979) that receives universal mention. Although his work fails to mention semiology or the French tradition of structural analysis, it is symbolically based, is systematic, and, through its aggregation of commonly repeated codes, delivers us to the stratum of deeply ensconced myth that Barthes (1957/1972) proposed for analysis. Goffman’s study concentrated on magazine pictures depicting men and women in various activities, poses, and interrelationships. Following coding and sorting, Goffman was able to demonstrate distinctive patterns of what he called “genderisms.” Among these invariant representations of men and women were “relative size,” in which social rank, weight, and authority are expressed in social situations; “feminine touch,” in which women were depicted in poses of ritualistic (as opposed to utilitarian) touching; “functional ranking,” whereby men performed the executive role in face-to-face encounters with women; and “ritualized subordination,” where women nearly always deferred to men.

Although Goffman’s is the most detailed study, his was not the first research on gender in ads. A handful of studies conducted in the 1970s focused on sex role stereotyping in magazines (Belkaoui & Belkaoui, 1976; Courtney & Lockeretz, 1971) and TV commercials (Courtney & Whipple, 1974; Culley & Bennett, 1976; Dominick & Rausch, 1972; McArthur & Resko, 1975). Typical of the findings were those by Courtney and Whipple (1974), whose secondary analysis of four studies concluded that women were overrepresented in family and home settings and most often depicted performing domestic chores involving the product advertised. Men were inordinately presented as entertainers, businessmen, managers, and sellers and, unlike women, rarely demonstrated products. Moreover, they more often benefited from the tasks and activities performed by women. The other studies consistently found men depicted as authorities, more independent than women, less tied to the home, more scientific (or persuasive), and rewarded socially by career advancement.

Since the 1970s, many more studies have been conducted on gender. Typical of this focus are the following: (a) Archer, Iritani, Kimes, and Barrios (1983) measured the proportion of a picture in newspapers and magazines devoted to the model’s face (65% for men, 45% for women). (b) C. Hall (1994) counted the number of bust shots in television beer ads (49% have at least one shot focused on a woman’s chest, as opposed to 24% for men). (c) Coltrane (2000) determined that portrayals of male and female characters (as measured in terms of aggressiveness, passivity, instrumentality, and daily activity) systematically differed in about one third of the ads studied, depending on the target audience.

Such associations have been researched less often outside of the United States. The few studies that have been conducted suggest that gendered discourse is extant in ad text but differs depending on the cultural context. For instance, Wiles, Wiles, and Tjernlund (1995) showed that Swedish magazine advertisers appeared to display both men and women in a greater variety of nonworking roles than Dutch and U.S. advertisers. Cutler, Javalgi, and Lee (1995) found that although Korean women were portrayed in stereotypical ways in magazine ads, when compared to American ads, they were less likely to be shown as sex objects and just as likely to appear in ads for durable goods as men. Das (2000) assessed more than 1,100 magazine ads from a wide range of Indian magazines in 1987, 1990, and 1994 and found that portrayals of women and men had changed over the period studied. In particular, men were portrayed in a greater variety of roles and also in more traditional ways than in the past, whereas women were depicted as housewives less often. At the same time, women were not cast in nontraditional or career-oriented modes. Most often, their appearance did not seem to be determinative; rather, it was neutral. Nonetheless, sex role stereotyping remained high. This differs considerably from findings in America or Japan.

In Japan, Holden (2000b) sought to replicate Goffman’s (1976/1979) magazine-based findings in a sample of television ads from the 1990s. He established that every American genderism was present, in virtually identical codes of representation. Japanese ads, however, were found to partial female bodies more than male bodies, to emphasize women’s sexual characteristics more, to transform women into objects more often, to depict women as sexually aggressive (with men as sexually passive), and (surprisingly) to treat men as objects for the woman’s gaze. In short, when it comes to gendered discourse in ads, wide zones of complementarity—even homogeneity—exist. Still, a certain measure of contextual variation suggests that researchers should pursue a carefully contextualized strategy of case-by-case comparison.

The Political. Of all the sectors touched by advertising research, the political has historically been treated the least synthetically, despite its linkage to other sectors and institutions. Undoubtedly, this stems from the field’s strong American orientation, a society in which university disciplines have strongly emphasized the separation of societal sectors. In addition, segmentation may stem from the field’s historical association with mainstream political communication research, again virtually an American creation. The most frequently explored format has been the polispot, and this has meant, in the main, a focus on technique and an emphasis on short-term effect.

Thus, the concern that has guided most research over the past three decades is the degree to which advertising influences voting behavior. The signal early work in this area was by Patterson and McClure (1976), which advanced the counterintuitive claim that political advertising manipulated very few voters. They found that ads (a) were rather effective at informing voters about issues—itself a surprising finding; (b) served to confirm what voters felt they already knew about candidates; and (c) activated their partisan sentiments. These were all significant effects, indeed, but by the standard of opinion change (still pervasive in political communication circles), ads ended up appearing to be rather ineffective.

Today, however, the view of effect has shifted, if only slightly. Summarizing recent literature, Iyengar and Valentino (1999) reckon “there is an emerging consensus about the efficacy of (campaign) advertising” (p. 108). One reason for this is that there has been a move to reconceptualize effect in ways other than persuasion or behavioral change. Iyengar and Simon (2000), for instance, assert that advertising influence might be measured two other ways: (a) voter “learning,” or the acquisition of information about the candidates and issues, and (b) “agenda control,” or the use of campaign rhetoric to set the public’s political agenda. Advertising effects might also be seen in terms of the voters’ decision to disengage. In parallel work, Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995) suggest that negative political spots have the ability to polarize an electorate along (extreme) partisan lines, turning off independent voters and thereby depressing voter turnout. Clearly, such effects have significant implications for political contexts in which advertising increasingly has become a central means of political communication. Such is the case in many of the postindustrial societies in the world today.

Although most research on political campaigning is focused on contemporary political processes, some is historical. Jamieson’s work (1984/1992) presents a capsule account of the major media campaigns of American presidential candidates from 1952 to 1992. Diamond and Bates’s (1984) book covers the same historical ground, but what recommends this effort is an extended analysis of the major “persuasive” techniques and visual styles employed in American political ads. In addition, attention is given to whether and how polispots actually work to influence viewers. Although they conclude that political advertising will remain a “problematic art,” they also identify major social, cultural, economic, and political negatives ushered in by political advertising. These include (a) the escalating costs of campaigning, (b) the increasing weakening of the parties, (c) the rising prominence of political consultants, (d) the increasing estrangement of candidates from political affiliation, (e) reduced citizen participation in politics, (f) the debasing of political argument, and (g) the shift in political discourse toward entertainment and frivolity.

Spero (1980) also surveys the same historical terrain, with highly caustic conclusions: “Political advertising,” he writes, “is without peer as the most deceptive, misleading, unfair and untruthful of all advertising” (p. 3). For this reason, he concludes, it should be legislated out of existence. His distaste is likely influenced by McGinniss’s (1969) best-seller The Selling of the President 1968, whose steady undertow was concern about democratic political practice in the advertising age. McGinniss’s work was significant because it ushered in a spate of books centered on the technocrats crafting the ads. Robinson’s (1973), Sabato’s (1981), and Blumenthal’s (1980) studies stand out for depth, balance, and insight. What they revealed was not only the growing power of the consultants but also the relationship between their values, the messages they create, and impacts on the American political process. The consultancy phenomenon persists, and, if anything, ads increasingly dominate the electoral landscape. This is increasingly true globally, with political spots settling in as fixtures outside the United States. Fresh research is needed comparing polispot craft and impact across various national contexts.

Each of the works mentioned above moves in the direction of synthesis. Recent scholarship has sought a similar end via different means. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, for example, has developed an “online tracking study of issue advocacy advertising.” The Web site contains profiles of advocacy organizations that broadcast issue advertisements in America, as well as a running estimate of the amount of money spent on issue advocacy advertising. In addition, the site contains a primer on issue ads, a glossary of key terms, and a list of issues and groups that have advertised on those topics.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the sustainability and accessibility of Web sites, the Annenberg site spotlights the advantage of the Internet in political advertising research—above all, its immediate, interactive, multitaskable, multimedia nature. As of 2002, a limited number of sites served as repositories for polispots and provided critical analysis (almost exclusively for American ads). Perhaps the most polished is PBS’s site, based on its award-winning TV series The 30 Second Candidate, with a history of polispots, key examples from the past 50 years, and expert analysis of select ads and famous cases. A more limited site, containing nearly a dozen of the more famous spots, has been assembled by CNN/Time. In recent years, newspapers, such as The Washington Post, and research institutes, such as the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University, have developed sites during the course of campaigns. There, one can access an extensive number of ads by candidate or issue, though only for a particular election cycle. The Internet, then, is an excellent tool for synthetic political advertising research.

The most fecund work in this sector to date may be Westbrook’s (1983) effort to place the development of electoral politics within the larger panorama of American consumer culture. In his view, the consultants who shape the messages and place them into ad/products are themselves commodities for sale. Furthermore, the transformation of electioneering toward an institutionalized advertising model is considered part of the increasing rationalization of American society over the course of the 20th century, a rationalization incorporating surveillance, commodification, and information management (Westbrook, 1983, p. 146).

Although it is common to associate political advertising with commodification, one area that has been little explored is how commodity advertising is politicized. This would seem an essential area for research, given the consensus developing about advertising’s long-term power to set the ad reader’s agenda. Such research posits that product advertising selectively communicates a narrow range of political values for symbolic consumption. One study in this vein was by Holden (1995), who discovered that in a sample of more than 1,200 U.S. television commercials, about 12% contained clearly identifiable political values, such as equality, liberty, and community. In all, more than 700 distinct political codings were found, and, contrary to expectations, it was not liberty (84 instances, or 12%) or individualism (84 instances) that appeared most frequently. Instead, community appeared more often (206 codings, or 29%). Even more surprisingly, social control—in the form of laws, rules, displays of order, or other governmental organization—registered the highest number of appearances (247 instances, or 35%). The study requires replication, not only in American ads but also cross-nationally, as a means of comparing the form, content, and relative presence of specific political values in ads of various societies.

The Economic. Although we have explored numerous connections between advertising and various societal sectors, it is at root an economic entity. Although it has expanded into various forms and serves other purposes, it began as a simple industry aimed at promoting goods for sale. Not surprisingly, then, this economic function still commands a large part of scholarship. Textbooks, manuals, and consumer studies aim at transforming the persuasive arts into science. Specialized professional journals such as the Journal of Advertising Research, the Journal of Advertising, the International Journal of Advertising, the Journal of Marketing Research, the European Journal of Marketing, and even Public Opinion Quarterly (among numerous others) are valuable clearinghouses for results about ad form, content, and audiences. Trade journals such as Advertising Age and AdAge Global offer statistics, trends, and inside information about the industry. In addition, there is an enormous literature on advertising and marketing by practitioners: “How-to” books abound—ranging from writing better ad copy to tips on prospering in the trade.

Such professionally oriented approaches, however, tend to be more piecemeal and less synthetic than other lines of economics-focused scholarship, which generally fit into the critical studies tradition. Studies that focus on the structure and operation of the media institution are common, as are those centering on how audiences are conditioned by ad content. Within the latter, the semiotics approach has been particularly strong. Let us consider these threads in greater detail.

The Political Economy of Meaning. The origins of this approach lie distantly in Marxism but are traceable directly to statements on symbolic activity by Lefebvre (1971/1984) and Baudrillard (1981/1994). The true breakthrough, however, came with Williamson’s (1978) work. This view has evolved to maintain that “advertising is an institutional process in a political economy of commodity-sign value” (Goldman, 1992, p. 224).

One of the assertions at the heart of Williamson’s (1978, pp. 12-13) text was that advertising translates factual use value of products into their humanly symbolic exchange value. She also spoke of a kind of sleight of hand in which commercials substitute false categories for real ones: Social class, for instance, gets replaced by consumer preferences. Consequently, what people consume is how they come to identify themselves, rather than what they produce or their role in the larger system of production. Through this process, advertising gives “things” an additional (and alternative) social meaning.

Williamson (1978) explored technical issues in semiotics: how ads work by using symbols, referent systems, magic, and history. However, the most important contribution—at least to the political economic genre—was the idea that the signs in the ad have a currency that is transferred. The transfer occurs both within the ad (between an element of a referent system and the product), as well as outside it (in terms of buying and consuming). This transference is a process conducted by the audience: They derive meaning rather than having that meaning imposed on them externally. In this respect, Williamson observed, the audience “works” to produce meaning.

It is here that Williamson’s (1978) writing resonates with later developments. For the idea that sign readers are workers who make value underlay the thinking of Smythe (1980), who saw audiences as laboring for advertisers. This, in turn, inspired Jhally (1990) to argue that “commercial time is labour watching time… subject to the same process of valorization as labour time in the economy in general” (pp. 111, 120). To Jhally, this means that the study of advertising messages can and should be approached from a “proper materialist perspective” (p. 121); just as is true in the economic realm, the constitution of meaning in advertising involves the subjugation of use value by exchange value (p. 121).

This Marxist/semiological treatment of signs is also present in the work of Haug (1971/1986). Looking at the development of the advertising industry in Germany, he identifies what he calls “commodity aesthetics”—“one of the most powerful forces in capitalist society” (p. 10). Commodity aesthetics is “the sensual appearance and the conception of (a product’s) use-value” (p. 17). Appearance becomes attached to the product and becomes just as important—if not more so—than the object itself. Thus, the role of advertising is to enhance or elevate the consumer’s perception of the commodity’s aesthetic. To achieve this, Haug reckons, the consumer is offered the promise of use value. As he explains,

[Use value’s] opposite (i.e. exchange-value) interest elicits from the standpoint of exchange-value an exaggeration of the apparent use-value of the commodity, the more so because use-value is of secondary importance from the standpoint of exchange-value. Sensuality in this context becomes the vehicle of the economic function … Whoever controls the product’s appearance can control the fascinated public by appealing to them sensually. (p. 17)

This line of analysis has achieved some synthesis. As Goldman (1992) argues, ads not only embody commodity culture but also structure social relations. In the quest to locate and attach meanings that will add value to their product or service, advertisers succeed in colonizing the sphere of cultural life. The symbols produced and exchanged are the province of those who control the means of cultural production. But who is in charge? Possibly the information producers and distributors (i.e., the television networks or publishers), but possibly also the advertisers. In the case of television, we know that advertisers are searching for specific audiences, and because networks seek advertisers to garner profits, this places pressure on them to develop programming that will deliver audiences the advertisers will invest in. If this is true, it would mean, in essence, that advertisers dictate the overall types of content transmitted.

Whether or not this is so, there is growing support for the view enunciated at the outset of the chapter that “precisely because … the circulation of symbolic values becomes integral to the circulation of commodities, advertising is growing in importance” (Garnham, 1990, p. 13).

Global Political Economy. Two factors, in particular, appear to be fueling this growth. The first is the proliferation of media technologies as outlets for advertising’s messages, with the Internet and satellites being but the two most recent developments and thus the greater frequency with which the symbols and images of advertising are circulated and experienced.

The second factor stoking change, as noted, has been the increasing globalization of the advertising industry. A key dimension has been the transnational presence of a number of ad agencies. This has resulted in standardized advertising techniques often applied to singularly shared products and delivered to once-unique local contexts, with a concomitant explosion in the universe of symbols present in any one culture. However, early research on ad-induced globalization suggests that cultural/psychological filters exist capable of offering ad consumers some defenses against exogenously framed ad messages. This occurs for at least two possible reasons: Either ad readers are too sophisticated to fall prey to many appeals, or else the framing features of their context insulate them from “alien” communications.

Nonetheless, the internationalization of advertising has remained an underexplored phenomenon. One study on this theme is Mattelart (1991), which moves toward deeper questions of democracy in the age of a communications-based “network society.” In the main, though, it traces the multiple strategies approached by advertising agencies in globalizing their products and brands. Deregulation—the pressures exerted on governments to liberalize their markets—is seen as playing a major factor. So, too, are the twin developments of advanced techniques in audience measurement and the steady ascendancy of public surveillance. The effects, Mattelart concludes, are profound: above all, “the absorption of the market in collective and individual life ceaselessly push[ing] back the limits of the intolerable” (p. 159).

Mattelart (1991), however, also posits advertising as now commanding “greater social legitimacy” (p. 206). If so, this carries some potentially troublesome implications, not the least of which is that the advertising form has given rise to information condensation (e.g., McLuhan & Fiore, 1967; Ranney, 1983), preeminence of the image (e.g., Baudrillard, 1975; Boorstin, 1961), ascendancy of “schizophrenic” narrative (e.g., Jameson, 1983) or “pastiche” (Goldman, 1992), and the swelling of private symbols—whether in the guise of the commodity itself or the design, logo, symbol, or packaging (Mattelart, 1991). Not only has this worked to elicit from message recipients a general desire for products and a motivation to engage in consumption (Haug, 1971/1986), but it has served to blur the bounds between the economic and cultural sectors—a “profound modification in the public sphere [that] needs to be theorized” (Jameson, 1990, p. 109).

This reminds us of Habermas’s (1962/1995) claim that the logic of advertising (which his translators render as publicity) has led to significant transformation in the public sphere. In his words, “the public sphere has to be ‘made,’ it is not ‘there’ anymore” (p. 201). It is made through political discourse that has become “staged display” (p. 206); political “transactions are stylized into a show” (p. 206). Under these conditions, the rhetorical form of advertising has come to predominate. Such rhetoric has wrought change in terms of the stakes, expectations, and goals enumerated through political discourse. These represent effects of the greatest magnitude. The fact that these claims are being advanced globally suggests that they are unlikely to be evanescent. This only increases the imperative to accord them greater consideration in the years to come.

We turn finally to advertising as a societal institution and studies that have treated it in such a way.

Analyses of Advertising as Societal Institution

Role in Sociocultural Development. Advertising’s position between societal institutions and their various publics means that it is often ripe for use as an instrument to reproduce key values or power relations. In many instances, such reproductive work transpires independently of (or at least invisible to the tracing of) direct influence by the dominant political and economic institutions of society. As such, the institution—embodied in the acts of its members (agencies and their personnel)—possesses “productive capacity.” This dual feature—advertising as product and producer, influenced and influential—is a hallmark of advertising as institution.

Leiss et al. (1990) have analyzed this compound character in their exploration of advertising as social communication in North America. An express aim of the authors is to show that “economic and socio-cultural changes were institutionally mediated by the emergence and development of two key symbiotically related industries: the commercial mass media and the advertising agencies” (p. 7). In an historical moment when working hours were decreasing and more time was available for leisure and the pursuit of personal goals, the satisfaction of alternative ends was both spotlighted and enabled by media. Advertising, in particular, served as the delivery system for discourse about goods, consumption, ways of life, and social values. This discourse was formulated by the ad agencies on behalf of their manufacturing clients via continuous, ever-shifting “marketing strategies.”

The research of Leiss et al. (1990) persuasively demonstrates how shifts in the content of communication emanating from the ad agencies matched changes in the larger society. This integrated process of economic organization, capitalist ideology, promotional practices, and changes in lifestyle and social ideas clearly played a central role in the development of American and Canadian society.

Advertising Organizations. The ad agency is a significant site of this process. And because one can find people to interview, tasks to observe, decisions to record, and productions to analyze, these organizations have historically served as highly attractive sites for scholarly attention. Nonetheless, short of confessional accounts, such as Reeves’s (1960/1986) or Ogilvy’s (1963), gaining access to agencies can be difficult.

One exception was McGinniss’s (1969) landmark The Selling of the President 1968—a book that, in hundreds of telling details, exposed how image consultants (and their advertising products) were employed to transform American politics. In the words of one practitioner, “What we’re really seeing here is a genesis. We’re moving into a period where a man is going to be merchandised on television more and more” (McGinniss, 1969, p. 117). In the words of another, “This is the beginning of a whole new concept. This is it. This is the way they’ll be electing forevermore. The next guys up will have to be performers” (McGinniss, 1969, p. 160). Aside from its prescience, what marks this book’s value is the deep schism it revealed between rival organizational cultures: those of the politicians and their media professionals. It is a tension that has endured to the present but, as we shall see below, has tended to be resolved in favor of the image crafters.

The “danger” of exposing unseemly inner dynamics is likely the reason why agencies are leery of outsiders. One of the few books based on access is Moeran’s (1996). His year of participant observation inside one of Japan’s largest ad agencies provided a valuable snapshot, albeit that of a single agency in a particular country at a specific moment in time (prior to the so-called “bursting of the economic bubble” and, therefore, reflecting a different production milieu). Through the author’s eyes, the reader sees the inner culture of the agency concretized.

At the fore is how intra- and interdivisional relations bore on the process of ad production. Most peculiarly (from a Western perspective), we witness the common Japanese practice of agencies simultaneously holding rival accounts in the same product category. This serves to spin a complex web of social relations, one that ensnares economic competitors, links institutions, and also sets up a climate of competition among factions within the same organizational entity. Outwardly, one can also trace the wide reach of this web: how the agency’s media partnerships and cross-ownership of other media can play a role in social communication. Such intercorporate/intra-institutional ties are distinctive to the Japanese context, and it is out of such arrangements that a particular power formation has resulted. A few agencies have the ability to influence a range of advertising-related phenomena, from the “branding” of corporate identity to the alteration of product design to the shaping of commercial message.

Lacking, though, in Moeran’s (1996) study is systematic treatment of how agency thought and action concretely articulated with the external worlds of popular culture, social trends, and consumer practice. This is a key issue (not only in Japan) and begs scholarly consideration. And although one of the author’s avowed goals was to work toward a theory of consumption, little effort was made to capture the re/actions of the target groups to whom the organization was advertising. This was impossible by merely observing the organization because, by Moeran’s own admission, most agency interactions with the consumer were “slapdash … brief survey(s)—usually presented to clients as ‘focus interviews’” (p. 124). Not only does this unwittingly underscore the limitations of localized organizational anthropologies in tracing macro-linkage, but it also serves to remind us that the extent of societal excavation required to demonstrate actual institutional “effect” may outstrip most advertising researchers’ resources.

Moeran’s (1996) conclusions take the form of (a) generalizations regarding advertising as institution and (b) the assertion of consumerism as pervasive and dominant. Based on a single case, these claims (even if true) are difficult to make stick. Moreover, they completely ignore recognition of the pervasive cultural and/or political influences operating on the agency, as studies have shown from contexts as diverse as North America (e.g., J. Lears, 1994; Leiss et al., 1990; Marchand, 1985) and Malaysia (e.g., Frith, 1984; Holden, 2001a; Ngu, 1996).

Placing the Institution in Context. What is needed, then, if one is to focus on the agency as a unit of analysis is to explore how it articulates with the larger matrix of institutions connecting to it, as per the studies of Ewen (1976), Fox and Lears (1983), Marchand (1985), and Leiss et al. (1990). In particular, these scholars apprehend agencies as a category, whose activities and products stimulate sociocultural development.

Other studies have sought to cast the institution in comparative context. In this way, the relative position, activity, and impact of advertising in various national settings can be assessed. This is a tack Frith (1996) adopted in her study of Asian advertising. One problem with such a gambit, however, is the volatility of political regimes and the specificity of economic systems in countries outside the traditional geographical purview of advertising research (i.e., the West). As one indication of this limitation, consider that since 1996 restrictions were imposed on the media in Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia, political upheaval has been experienced in the Philippines, reintegration came to Hong Kong, and independence was gained by East Timor. The implications of such volatility? Within 5 years of publication, Frith’s book was retired from print. Though a laudable and important project, no comparable work has yet been penned to take its place.

The foregoing all serves to underscore the following point: Despite the ease with which one can locate the organizations producing ads, the vectors governing their work are often external to them. This is so whether we are talking about information formation, transmission, reception, consumption, or social use. Holden and Husin’s (2002) exploration of Malaysian advertising manifested a clear pattern of “top-sensitive” ad content: text that reflected government-sanctioned communication rules, informal cultural codes, and publicly announced policy shifts. Despite episodic swings between liberalization and crackdown, Malaysian advertising has served for more than 30 years as an intentional governmental tool for nation building. The secondary discourse that Malaysian ad text delivers reflects a narrow, repetitive set of prosocial values, focusing on family, education, nationalism, secularism, racial segregation (yet, paradoxically, ethnic harmony), urban development, and a common political-geographic center.

Searching for Synthesis. Among seminal studies in advertising, overwhelmingly the focus is top-down: producers’ intentions and actions, gatekeepers’ rules and ideologies, a mapped “system” of meaning, and an exposition of a culture of values. Few, if any, studies on the list gaze bottom-up: providing sustained treatment of what the consumers of advertising make of the messages. Virtually no study on the list would draw the deep lines of connectivity between the two levels.

To do so, one has to demonstrate how the perceptions, attitudes, preferences, and practices of ad viewers—as well as the media these viewers interact with—are part and parcel of the larger social contexts in which they live. To date, the best work in this regard has been merely inferential. Consider Husin’s (1999) grounded study, aimed at determining whether and how Japanese viewers construct and use ad text. Her panel design revealed that viewers were not only quite attentive to advertising but that they decoded and employed ad messages in highly personalized, unanticipated, even idiosyncratic ways. Such findings are consistent with the cultural studies and postmodernist perspectives discussed above. Husin also argued that ad viewers’ attention, actions, and frame of reference were highly concentrated on consumerism and popular culture. In a word, their reception was consistent with the predominant values of advertising. Moreover, the values they primarily embraced did not acknowledge competing or antithetical values—ideas and practices that may once have been central to them but now more often lurked at the periphery. As she concluded, “The audience, though active and free to apply his/her meanings to a commercial text, is bounded by the meaning structures of the media.”

A study with different conclusions is O’Donohoe’s (2001). After sifting through considerable literature on consumer attitudes, she suggests that there is decided “ambivalence” in response to ads. She codifies her findings into three sets of tensions, or what she labels “postmodern paradoxes”:

[First] consumers experience advertising as a distinct yet intertextual entity: they see advertising as having its own historical and cultural identity, yet they draw on their understanding of genres and conventions from other cultural texts to make sense of it. Second, consumers appear to treat advertising as something to be enjoyed as well as endured: as a form of popular culture it offers various hedonic, aesthetic and intellectual rewards, but at the same time its repetition of form and content can jade sophisticated palates. Finally, it seems that consumers’ advertising literacy skills encourage them to feel immune yet vulnerable to the persuasive and ideological powers of ads. (pp. 103-104)

The discrepancies excavated by studies of ad audience in context, therefore, demand more extensive investigation.


At the dawn of a new century, there is no simple way to summarize all that has been written and thought about advertising in a single chapter. What can be stated is that advertising has grown to occupy a greater space in the consciousness of academicians and that this development is certainly due to the widened orbit advertising has carved out. This growth, in turn, can be traced to changes wrought by the increasing liberalization and specialization of markets, the pell-mell expansion and interrelation of economic organizations, the proliferation of variegated media technologies with which humans communicate, the increasing heterogeneity of cultures, and the hybridization of value systems.

In the years to come, advertising is certain to increase its societal position. The reasons for this have to do with its inextricable relationship to capitalism but also the increasingly mediated nature of society. Not only in terms of human organization and interaction but also humans’ relationship to knowledge: More and more such encounters are expressed through and experienced in terms of media. Moreover, it is, in its insinuation in these multiple media channels, that advertising may come to command an ever-increasing position in media studies.

As an instrument of communication and a social force, advertising will be more and more central to our experience and understanding of the social world. In turn, this necessitates better approaches, capable of deciphering advertising’s expanding place in society. What I have sought in this chapter is to present a set of schemes as a means of making better sense of our field. Achieving a total conception of advertising has been and may continue to be beyond the ken of most research on advertising; it is, however, in that direction that the best scholarship in the field has pointed.