Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society

By Michael Schudson | Go to book overview
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with people who can influence me, lead me to change my view, and reorganize my understanding of the world?)

If a society's civic leaders and the people who elect them want a public policy to help make commercial activity serve human values and democratic institutions, then it will have to reconcile the absence of clear answers to how and by how much symbols "work" with the need to act in the world. Political choices in this realm, as in others, depend on values and priorities that social science can usefully inform but will not now, or ever, be able to decide.

Jube Shiver Jr., "Firms Split on Value of Bowl Ads," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 18, 1985, sec. IV, p. 1; and Ronald Alsop, "Study of Olympics Ads Casts Doubts on Value of Campaigns," Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6, 1984, p. 33.
T. J. Jackson Lears, review of Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion, Wilson Quarterly 9 ( Spring 1985):42-43.
See Michael Jacobson, George Hacker, and Robert Atkins, The Booze Merchants: The Inebriating of America ( Washington, D.C.: Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1983) for documentation of the industry's efforts to target new drinkers. Data on population and sales trends comes from U. S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1985, 105th ed., ( Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1984).
The empirical evidence that exposure to advertising influences drinking behavior among teenagers comes from the studies of Charles Atkin and his colleagues. See, for instance, Charles Atkin, John Hocking, and Martin Block, "Teenage Drinking: Does Advertising Make a Difference?" Journal of Communication 34 ( Spring 1984): 157-167. Atkin, et. al. find that high exposure to advertising (as self-reported by high school students in a survey) is significantly related to high alcohol consumption (also self-reported) for beer and liquor but not for wine. Advertising exposure appears more closely associated with liquor drinking than is peer influence, but peer influence is more strongly associated with beer drinking than advertising exposure. These differences are interesting and suggest, again, how hard it is to come to across-the-board conclusions about the influence of advertising on consumption. Atkin and his colleagues make a good argument that the causal relationship in their correlations runs from advertising to consumption--that advertising encourages consumption rather than frequent drinking behavior leading to greater exposure to advertising. I suspect, however, that frequent drinkers remember alcohol ads they see more readily than nondrinkers or occasional drinkers--if I am right, this could confound the Atkin findings.

The legal argument that children or youths should be treated as a special group is summarized in FTC Staff Report on Television Advertising to Children


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