Advertising is the process of communication whereby a person or group of people are persuaded to take some form of action, usually to make a purchase or participate in a particular behaviour. Studies undertaken by the Media Awareness Network estimate that on average, the typical North American will see 3000 ads per day (2010). With such a high level of advertising around consumers every day, is it likely that advertising shapes society, or that it merely mirrors pre-existing social trends? This is important because should advertising shape society, the high numbers of advertisements in existence could have a substantial impact to society’s wellbeing, as well as the ethical issues surrounding the messages and behaviours advertisers are trying to achieve.
Advertising Shapes Society
Advertising creates brand equity and generates sales, both of which lead to increased wealth. The power and money possessed by today’s corporations is staggering. Data from the World Bank (2005) and Fortune Magazine (2005) show that of the world’s largest 150 economic entities, 95 are corporations and only 55 are countries. These companies and organisations can spend millions or even billions of dollars on advertising to achieve behavioural change, usually to increase their market share or purchase a product. Alternatively, advertising can be used to increase the number of people using their products or services. This gives companies and organisations the potential to significantly alter the market, and in some situations alter social norms and perceptions.
These masses of wealth are presided over by self-serving companies which can cause an ethical and potentially legal dilemma. According to Bocking, there are many cases where “industry buys science” (2009). His research states that the companies who use science to conceal hazards include car manufactures, lead refiners, asbestos miners, nuclear processors, chemical producers and drug manufacturers, amongst others. Not only that, some of the companies most involved in fighting cancer caused by tobacco have profited greatly from producing anti-cancer drugs. This has lead to a heavy focus on healing and assisting those who are diagnosed with cancer – instead of dealing with the intrinsic issues and working from a preventative level to discourage the widespread use of tobacco.
Advertising products such as tobacco has now been banned in most western countries – but that does not necessarily mean tobacco advertising does not exist. Cigarette companies funnel a huge percentage of their advertising budget into ‘subliminal brand exposure’. Philip Morris, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, offers bar owners financial incentives to fill their venues with colour schemes, specially designed furniture, ashtrays, suggestive tiles designed in captivating shapes similar to parts of the Marlboro logo, and other subtle symbols that, when combined, convey the very essence of Marlboro – without even mention of the brand name or the sight of an actual logo. This has resulted in studies showing up to 96% of participants who, when shown these images, thought of the tobacco brand or of smoking cigarettes, but the majority could not identify why (Lindstrom, 2008).
In 2002, the European Union passed a law stating that no advertisements may show a tobacco company logo or any cigarette product. However, Marlboro has had a long association with Ferrari and Formula 1 and up until this year, had displayed a ‘barcode’ logo down the body of the Formula 1 car. It is claimed that the barcode represented a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, due to the colours, shapes and sizes of the image. Neuro-marketing studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown the areas in the brain which respond to reward, craving and addiction to have the exact same pronounced response to both actual cigarette packs and the red Ferrari (Gillis & Clegg, 2010). The health issues associated with smoking are well documented. It is estimated tobacco kills one third to half of all people who use it – and tobacco use causes one in ten deaths amongst adults worldwide (World Health Organization, 2008). It is clear that companies such as Marlboro are promoting cigarette use, and whether ethical or not, it is in their own interest to promote their products to maximise their profit. In this case, advertising is shaping society in a specific way: increased cases of smoking related illness, increased demand on the health system to care for the ill, increased waste from cigarette butts, and also increased taxes from consumers purchasing the products.
As mentioned above, the end result of advertising is to raise awareness of a product, service, brand or issue, and in many cases for some kind of self-benefit. It is up to consumers to make up their minds whether they want to perform the behaviour, whether it is making a purchase or supporting a cause. But is it possible to persuade people and make it more likely they will perform a desired behaviour?
Humans exist in an extraordinarily complicated stimulus environment, easily the most complex and rapidly moving society that has ever existed on this planet. It is not possible for any human to experience every situation that could ever occur – so humans have developed a shortcut: using stereotypes and trigger features (Cialdini, 2007). Some examples of different stereotypes and trigger features used in advertising include “expensive = good”, the use of contrast, and social proof. The theory of social proof provides us with the shortcut of “if others think the product is good, then it must be good”. This allows advertisers to “make claims such as ‘fastest growing’ or ‘best-selling’, without actually making any claims that the product is good” (Cialdini, 2007, p. 117). Again, this gives advertisers the opportunity to encourage people to participate in a desired behaviour.
The theory of social proof is integrated into many other fields in a way that would shape society. One example is the promotion of cigarettes in movies. Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, tobacco companies would regularly pay producers to have celebrities smoke a certain brand of cigarette throughout the movie. This is significant as it has been reported that amongst female adolescents who previously hadn’t smoked, those who had seen a favourite celebrity movie star smoke on-screen were 80% more likely to try than those who had not (Distefan, Pierce, & Gilpin, 2004). Even more recently in 2002, the total amount of smoking in youth movies (rated G, PG, and M) was greater than in Adult (rated R) films. This lead to an increase in the initiation of smoking by adolescents (Charlesworth & Glantz, 2005).
Another example of this is Red Bull, which targets young, active people. Red Bull sponsors many ‘extreme’ events, including the X-games, Red Bull Air Race, and Formula One. This has helped to position Red Bull as a vibrant, exciting, energetic brand – perfect for the type of product they sell. They also send promotional staff to nightclubs and music festivals – locations where people will be seen being ‘active’ and social, doing activities with groups of friends – while at the same time handing out free cans of Red Bull and taking photos so that other people will see young, energetic people having a good time with Red Bull. The same as celebrities seen smoking, this creates a desire to be part of this ‘in crowd’ with the target market which can shape that demographic into participating in the desired behaviours which further enhance Red Bull’s brand.
Advertising Mirrors Society
Alternatively, it can be argued that advertising adapts and mirrors societal trends. For example, the increase in technologies such as the Internet, social networking and digital devices over the past decade has lead to entirely new methods of advertising. According to research undertaken by ZenithOptimedia (2009), digital advertising spend is projected to increase by 11.6% to $US60 billion globally in 2010. This equates to almost 14% of the entire yearly global advertising spend.
The popularity of Facebook has encouraged organisations to develop profiles to engage with clients, fans, and the general population. This is a prime example of advertising following shifts in society. Of the 1.8 billion people worldwide who have access to the Internet, over 400 million have an active Facebook account, with over 50% using it on a daily basis (Facebook Inc., 2010; Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2010; ). People around the world have made Facebook a part of their daily lives, and so the advertising market found a new way to connect with people.
This adaptation is not a new concept – when television was starting to become a popular medium, companies began to realise they could disseminate their messages to the masses. Two decades earlier, the first radio advertisement was run. Radio broadcasting was originally developed as a means to sell radios. Again, it was only after commercial entities realised that society was spending significant time listening to broadcasts that they began to explore the medium as a way to transmit their message to the masses (Chabotte, 2007).
Google launched their marketing service, ‘AdWords’ in the year 2000. In 2008, revenues from this service reached $US21 billion. Similar to Google Adwords, Facebook uses information about the user and what they are looking at to provide more relevant advertisements, in the hope that consumers will be more likely engage in an ad which is relevant to them. This has meant ads can be sold to specific audiences, much like traditional media purchases.
With the significant and continual increase of technology in our lives, digital tools such as the personal computer and the Internet have become necessities in both our personal and professional lives, with these tools being used daily for commerce, communication and education (Russell & Huang, 2009). This societal shift has meant that in order to remain relevant to the consumer, advertisers have had to adapt and mirror society.
Another significant shift in societal trends has been the so-called Global Financial Crisis. With consumers cutting spending, people were spending less in restaurants and on takeaway meals, and more in supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths. This societal shift to home cooked meals lead to the success of programs such as Masterchef, and other similar cooking media including print (Delicious. and more recently, a Masterchef branded magazine) and cook books. Coles has combined the shift to increased home cooked meals and the Global Financial Crisis in their advertising, with their “Feed your family for under $10” campaigns. This has lead to an increase in sales of 6% (not including increased sales from new store openings) in comparison to Woolworths increase of 4.8% in the first half of the current financial year. This reaction to the shift in market trends has lead to Coles growing their sales more than Woolworths for the first time in years.
Advertising can be said to be another source of information, one that joins and builds with the other many existing information sources – such as previous experiences with a product. A rational person will consider the information given by an advertisement – but in the end, if the product does not meet expectations, repeat purchases will sharply decline, and no amount of advertising will be able to persuade them otherwise (Gifford, 2005).
Advertising and promotion provide a way for companies to achieve a business objective – usually to sell goods or services. It provides a medium to transmit information to a prospective consumer, in a way that should maximise the effectiveness of the message. Once the advertising message has been delivered to the consumer, it is up to the individual to decode and analyse the message, based upon previous experiences and pre-existing beliefs. These experiences and beliefs change vastly between cultures, and therefore advertising must integrate and adapt to individual cultures and societies. Consequently it is advertising that mirrors society, as opposed to shaping it.