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The main objective of commercial advertising is to sell goods and services, but achieving this goal is anything but simple.

Social theorists directly or indirectly influenced by Karl Marx usually say that advertising creates a “false” or “illusory” relationship between the consumer and the producer.

Freudian-based sociological analyses suggest that when buying, the consumer enters into a fantasy relationship with a corporate producer. The producer substitutes for a lost or desired father figure (trusted provider of material goods) or mother figure (a source of physiological and emotional security).

Other sociologists note that ads often link products, such as autos, to attractive women or men, as if to imply that buying ensures a glamorous, sexually satisfied life-style. Or the ad may simply sell a certain lifestyle, real or imagined. A good example here is that of bottled water. Scientific studies usually show that tap water is cleaner than bottled water, but athletic or health-minded individuals still buy into the phoney health mythology peddled by some bottled water companies.¹

Neo-Marxist theorists (notable followers of Marx) maintain that media ads contain more meaningful information than media news because ads better depict the cultural biases of a particular era. News, they say, tends to obscure social realities.

This obfuscation of reality in the news is said to occur through:

  • Selectivity – stories that make the headlines are deemed good for ratings and therefore good for profits
  • Modes of reporting – editing and language styles tend to color a story while seeming not to
  • Placement of stories – stories deemed less important and less commercially viable appear at the back of newspapers or somewhere in the middle of the evening news

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Meanwhile some say that ads not only reveal but also contribute to and reinforce prevailing cultural attitudes.

Postmodern thinkers argue that some ads draw on – or conjure up – a mythic past when times apparently were rosy (e.g. the good old days of ‘Mom’s apple pie’ and well-defined ‘family values’). Warm and secure memories, even if based on a kind of fiction, are apparently recaptured by purchasing the advertised product.

Postmoderns also suggest that a new moral synthesis is created by combining real and imaginary images from the past with contemporary motifs. That is, ads help to define a new moral code. An example here might be found in the name of the product “Quick Quaker Oats,” where the positive connotations associated with the word Quaker (old-style integrity, reliability and intelligence) are combined with those of Quick (fast-paced modern society).

However, advertising rarely enters into areas still considered taboo or deviant by the so-called moral majority. Gay and lesbian couples are seldom portrayed in advertising (although more recently the idea of casual lesbian sex is being hinted at), just as couples of different color were at one time excluded from ads.

An aesthetic view of advertising evaluates ads in terms of their artistic value. For instance, moviegoers pay at the box office to see films such as The Best Ads From Around The World. And arguably some of the best new art today comes from graphic artists under contract by government or commercial bodies.

Jungians and some spiritual thinkers might evaluate ads partly in terms of their archetypal and even synchronistic connection to the psychological, social and spiritual world of the potential buyer.

But amidst all this theorizing we’d do well to remember that business or government, being the driving forces behind the ad, primarily want to sell goods and services or promote some information or idea deemed important.

¹ See, for instance, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2255803/Bottled-water-safe-tap-despite-costing-1-000-times-more.html

Related Posts » Athleticism, Barthes (Roland), Baudrillard (Jean), Foucault (Michel)

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