Advertising: Hit or Myth?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 37

Advertising is much less powerful than advertisers and critics of advertising claim, and advertising agencies are stabbing in the dark much more than they are practicing precision microsurgery on the public Consciousness.

One of the more striking examples concerns television advertising for the 1984 Olympics and the 1985 Superbowl. The naïve observer must assume that businesses reap extraordinary rewards for their elaborate and expensive sponsorship of these events. But, it turns out, no one really knows if they do.

Video Storyboard Tests, Inc., a market-research firm, found that Olympics advertising was not cost-effective. Leading Olympics advertisers paid $62 for every 1,000 retained impressions ("consumers who report that they remember an ad or have retained impressions" of the ad) compared to the $27 they normally spend for the same result through other media such as magazines. As for the Super-bowl, some firms were pleased to advertise. Soloflex, a mail-order exercise firm, advertised because, as the firm's president put it, "Look, it's the Superbowl [Advertising ~on the game] gives the company more credibility; it's a statement that we have arrived." In actuality, the most commonly held beliefs about advertising, including its ability to influence sales by causing consumers to think a certain way about a product, are open to question.

With most Americans most of the time, this notion about consumer choice explains scarcely anything about why consumers buy what they do. Nevertheless, there may be ways that advertisements indirectly affect consumer buying decisions.


Its effects on product sales may be questionable, but where advertising succeeds is in selling consumers on the purchase of happiness.

If business people think ads affect consumers directly, their belief serves as a spur to an advertising program.

A marketing executive at a major food company told me, for example, that he thinks most of the money spent by his own company on advertising does little good in convincing consumers of anything. However, he has failed in efforts to limit the advertising budget. Why? When the company executives make presentations before meetings of their stockholders or others in the investment community, the first thing investors want to see is a reel of the company's television advertisements. Expensive, well-executed, and familiar ads convince the investors, as nothing in the black and white tables of assets and debits can, that the company is important and prosperous.

This, naturally, can have major consequences for the firm. If investment in advertising keeps the firm's investors happy, the company can count on a flow of capital for its operations. In this way, the investors' belief that advertising is an index of a prosperous company helps make the company prosperous.

This self-fulfilling prophecy" also works with a company's own sales force, distributors and retailers. A salesperson finds it easier to say "I'm selling Proctor and Gamble," rather than "I'm selling Product X you probably haven't heard of it.' And retailers prefer to stock well-advertised goods because they think consumers are influenced by advertising.

As a result, widely advertised brands become the brands most widely available. Consumers confirm the supposed influence of advertising by picking the brands off the shelf

It is entirely plausible, then, that advertising helps sell goods even if it never persuades a consumer of anything. So long as investors, salespeople, and retailers believe that advertising affects consumers, advertising will influence product availability and this, by itself, shapes consumer choice. Availability, as marketers sometimes say, equals sales. Advertising may be an important signal system within the business world.

Varied Vulnerability

The question we need to ask is not whether advertising works but under what conditions it works. Ii should not be forgotten that numerous sources of information influence consumers' decisions to buy.

Normally, advertising is only one of many influences on consumer decisions. This changes completely in certain circumstances, however.

Some consumers sometimes and all consumers under some circumstances are deprived of alternative information sources and are more dependent on and vulnerable to advertising.

This is the case with children, with people in transitional states in their lives and with Third World peoples relatively new to the world of mass-marketed consumer goods and less protected by government agencies and regulations. (Of course, this means that most of the planet's people fall in this category.)

It's hard to make this point too strongly: Different groups are differentially vulnerable to advertising; and their vulnerability varies not so much with the character or quantity of advertisements as with claim by age, education, station in life and government guarantees of consumer protection.

If society has some special interest in protecting groups at special risk (minors. for instance), legislative action might well be contemplated. There is more constitutional room to restrict advertising to young people, and the burden of proof to show that advertising affects behavior should be correspondingly lighter.

Potent Symbols

What is fundamentally at issue in measuring these effects is not just how advertising works but how culture works. To ask if a beer ad leads a teenager to drink beer is not essentially different from asking if television violence leads people to commit crime, if Wagner's music contributed to the rise of Hitler, or if Harriet Beecher Stowe helped start the Civil War when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's clear that in some sense culture works, that our symbolic environments affect the way we see and act in the world. But how does this cultural work get done and how important is it?

Although advertising is certainly one of what have been called the 'awareness institutions," it is not the most important news media are all more powerful in shaping people's basic concepts of how the world operates and what kinds of lives are worth living. But it is still a powerful cultural institution, especially in the United States. Part of its power comes from the fact that it has only one message — the glorification of the pleasures and freedom of consumer choice.

Viewing an advertisement that comes and goes and is an adjunct of another activity is a less powerful experience than a conscious, willed, long-term activity like reading a novel. But the ad's location in society gives it a unique grip on the public mind for two reasons. First, it provides a clear-cut impetus to a well-defined, individual action (the act of buying). Second. the ad is just one small piece of a major economic enterprise directed at getting consumers to buy. The product itself, in the store and in the homes of friends and family, encourages the decision to purchase. The ad names, marks and reminds consumers of something that is almost inescapable in other parts of their lives.

In fact, little is more important than naming, marking and reminding, which defines the process of culture in general. Culture works by taking things we already know and making them actionable. Dominant culture reminds with the authority of the whole society. In our society advertising uses this dominance to defend the virtues of private life and material ambition. It idealizes the consumer and consuming. It holds implicitly or explicitly that freedom, fulfillment and personal transformation lie in the world of goods. It proposes that we transform our lives by buying something more." This is the general message advertising transmits in our culture.


From Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion