advertising, influence of

advertising, influence of
   Advertising is used for a variety of purposes: to attempt to persuade consumers to buy goods, change the image of a commodity or service, induce brand loyalty, encourage retailers to stock particular products, sell political ideas, or keep other goods out of a market. In its modern form, advertising has been dominated by and so defined as the paidfor promotion of commodities through mass media communication. Since the 1960s, advertising has moved from describing particular product features to placing greater emphasis on visual representation and associating products with a particular ‘lifestyle’. As an increasingly visible practice graphically located between production and consumption, it has become a key site for analysis and debate in media and cultural studies.
   On the Left in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, advertising was interpreted as ‘the handmaiden of capitalism’, as obscuring the conditions of production and portraying idealized representations of consumption, but was rarely given sustained consideration. Many popular cultural critiques, most famously Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, blended Cold War-derived conspiracy rhetoric with ‘hyperdermic’ communication models, in which the advertising industry’s use of motivation research was described as having an insidious and immediate effect on an unwaveringly gullible populace. Antiadvertising discourses on both the Left and Right at this time tended to incorporate an elitist stance towards mass and youth culture, and to figure it as the prime example of American cultural colonization: as an unsightly boil on the fair face of ‘authentic’ British culture. Advertising was figured as pivotal to a society privileging ‘the spectacle’ or ‘the image’, and of visual over textual forms. In the 1970s, with the academic interest in semiology, ideology and psychoanalysis, structural analyses dismantled the signifying systems of adverts and provided more rigorous interpretations of the forms of symbolic gratification they offered. Judith Williamson’s highly influential Decoding Advertisements linked Lacanian psychoanalysis to a feminist and ideological critique, asserting that ‘advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves’ (Williamson 1978:13).
   In the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was given to the social and symbolic relations of consumption, and the stark dichotomies between ‘image’ and ‘reality’, and the ‘consumer-as-dupe’ model so often evoked in previous studies were questioned. In particular it was recognized that by itself, advertising could not be held solely responsible for the social inequalities of capitalism, nor could it be divorced from other cultural discourses; and that in this respect it had to a certain extent been ‘demonized’ (Nava et al. 1997:4). Greater attention was given to how advertising might be read in relation to a wider landscape of ‘promotional culture’ (Wernick 1991) and as part of historically specific discursive formations. Advertising both shapes and is shaped by the cultural forms it is part of, most obviously the media, manufacturing and service industries. During the 1950s and 1960s advertising expanded rapidly in Britain, as companies and manufacturers sought to exploit the increased spending power of workers made possible by full employment and the welfare state. The development of commercial television in 1955 was to a significant degree the result of lobbying from advertisers, who believed that sound and vision, direct entry into the home and immediate nationwide coverage would offer them an unprecedented and unbeatable form of promotional power. While advertising’s overt influence on television came in the demarcated form of commercial breaks between programmes (‘spot ads’), it also had a more integrated influence. Event sponsorship, game show prizes (see game shows) and bought-in feature films with product placements provided cheaper routes of promotional visibility, ones incorporated into the programmes themselves. The dependency of commercial television on advertising revenue influenced the type of programmes produced; as advertisers in the 1960s and 1970s favoured large and stable mass audiences, this encouraged the series and programmes with a broad popular appeal, and discouraged those of a more experimental or controversial nature. As advertising agencies grew alongside the mass media, advertising became split into two areas: promotional practices mainly in the mass media, for which agencies received commission (above the line) and all other activity, such as direct marketing (below the line). The competition to attract advertising revenue—which meant extra costs for media groups as they employed sales teams and marketing—took place across, as well as within, different media formats. National newspapers, for instance, did not manage to regain the amount of income they had received from advertising after television (‘the blunt instrument’) became the favoured form, but the regional press was able to differentiate itself and increase its profitability by carrying highly localized and small ads.
   Newspapers and magazines tailored service features to the advertising they encouraged and ran sponsored articles (‘advertorials’). The relationship of print media to advertising has been similar to that of television in that the particular social groups or imagined constituencies valuable to advertisers— groups which are socially and historically mutable —are those presented with a wider range of publications. Historically, this has resulted in an unequal range of provision in terms of wealth, as more publications are targeted towards those with a high degree of disposable income, and in terms of interest (magazines about cookery have attracted more advertising interest, because of the wider range of associated commodities, than those about politics). New magazines have frequently begun their commodity-lives as proposals to advertisers to fill a perceived marketing niche.
   While advertisement have been targeted towards specific social and cultural groups, advertising has been crucially important in the creation of these very categories. Demographic classifications of consumers, initially made in terms of occupational class, age, gender and region, were steadily expanded from the 1950s to include ‘life cycle’ variables (such as ‘empty-nesters’). The consumer group most consistently produced and represented in advertising’s cultural market has been women, since the business of purchasing, like consumption in general in the modern West, has overwhelmingly been gendered as female. The central character of advertisements in the 1950s and 1960s, the happy housewife and mother, continued her high visibility during the following decades and was joined and modified by the ‘career woman’ and the ‘juggling’ housewife. The extension of advertising aimed at men in the 1980s and 1990s, beyond that for work-related products and cars and into a greater emphasis on style and appearance, was marked in the Levis and Brylcreem ads and the rapidly expanding number of magazines primed for the new man and ‘new lad’. These represented men engaging in a realm of consumption previously demarcated as female, and so played a crucial role in formulating and disseminating new codes of masculinity and in opening up new target markets.
   In the 1980s, advertising gained a new cultural dominance in Britain. Deregulation of the media and advertising industries, expanding promotion of leisure and retail outlets and the extensive privatization of public services under Thatcherism meant an increase in the amount of space permitted to advertising, the range of products and services requiring it, and the shape it was allowed to take. The encouragement of free market enterprise in the public sector meant that a greater range of public services, such as universities and hospitals, adopted this distinct marketing ethos, and shares in newly privatized utilities like British Gas were heavily promoted in the media. The proliferation of these new forms of advertising became one of the more visible manifestations of enterprise culture. The growing number of advertising agency mergers—which gathered momentum in the 1970s— paralleled the takeovers of the manufacturing companies and corporations employing them, increasing the consolidation and centralization of economic power in both spheres. Advertising costs soared as fewer and more powerful agencies gained control of big brand clients. As companies targeted consumers with greater precision and the market became increasingly segmented, smaller, more specialist and ‘creative’ agencies emerged. The conditions for British agencies were therefore extremely fertile, and they began to challenge American dominance of the industry. In 1986, London-based Saatchi & Saatchi became the biggest agency in the world, boosted by its intimacy with Thatcherism (it was widely credited for winning the 1979 election for the Conservative Party with the ‘Labour isn’t Working’ campaign). The ‘cult of the agency’ was played out internally in the trade magazine Campaign, and ‘advertising gurus’ had a wider cultural resonance in film and television representations celebrating the creative businessman and his brother, the designer yuppie.
   As more money was spent on advertising in the 1980s and the market became increasingly saturated, stylistic production values rose with many advertisements, such as those for Levis, becoming identifiably cinematic. This continued throughout the 1990s, and the use of drama (for example, Gold Blend’s mini-soap opera) and controversy (such as Benetton and Wonderbra), as attempts to generate brand recognition and ‘free’ press publicity, became more widespread. The controversial ad was even cheaper if banned. In the 1990s, new legislation relaxed restrictions on ‘parody ads’, giving greater scope for ads to mock either their own genre or a competitor’s tactics. This marked the enthusiastic interpellation by the advertising industry of more media-literate and cynical consumers, as well as an incorporation of criticism. All these developments were simultaneously a response to fears about new viewing technologies such as remote controls enabling zapping, video recorders which could cut out adverts, and the disruption of relatively stable markets by deregulation and by cable and satellite television. Many advertisers began to doubt the efficacy of television and either stopped using it or combined it with other forms of promotion (increasingly with Internet advertising in the 1990s).
   An exception was corporate programme sponsorship; after deregulation, sponsorship including ‘bumper credits’ on all commercial television productions except news, current affairs and controversial or political productions was permitted (for example, Cadbury’s patronage of Coronation Street), and cable and satellite provided additional sponsorship space. Overall, by the early 1990s, the new technology, fragmented media market, effects of the recession and the threatened position of branded goods as they increasingly lost out to retailers’ own labels resulted in a much-vaunted ‘crisis’ in the agencies, the collapse of the above the line and below the line distinctions in advertising, and use of a wider range of promotional forms.
   Advertising continued to be used in the 1980s and 1990s by oligopolies and larger corporations to block the entrance of new products into a market, and to attempt to retain consumers and alter their behaviour (a Kellogg’s campaign suggested that cornflakes should be eaten at night). Alliances between transnational media groups, ‘mega agencies’ and their multiple brand-owning clients became increasingly dominant. In the post-Fordist market, international product advertising mainly employs ‘global but local’ strategies, such as the references in McDonald’s advertisements to British football, with relatively few advertisers (like Marlboro) adopting a singular worldwide campaign (see globalization and consumerism).
   The debate around advertising’s influence in the 1990s, as its influence on behavioural patterns was increasingly questioned by academic and advertising agency research, mainly revolved around the question of whether advertising was influential in persuading consumers to buy products at all, or whether the agencies’ greatest achievement was in convincing companies of its necessity. While the public’s increasing media literacy has been one contributing factor to the decline in traditional promotion techniques, advertising is increasingly used to secure commodity recognition in a cluttered marketplace, without which commodities face consignment to product oblivion. It is worth pointing out that the advertising industry disputes its own influence so as to avoid legislation curtailing its scope, and has successfully resisted external control by lobbying for its interests and establishing internally regulated bodies. Today, as at the beginning of the 1960s, it remains the case that more than nine out often of the most powerful corporations in the marketplace prefer it.
   Further reading
    Brierly, S. (1995) The Advertising Handbook, London: Routledge.
    Nava, M., Blake, A., MacRury, I. and Richards, B. (eds) (1997) Buy This Book: Studies in Advertising and Consumption, London: Routledge.
    Wernick, A. (1991) Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression, London: Sage Publications.
    Williamson, J. (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London: Marlon Boyars.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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