In Praise of Advertising

By Hood, John | Consumers' Research Magazine, April 1998 | Go to article overview

In Praise of Advertising


Hood, John, Consumers' Research Magazine


For the last few years--until 1998, at least--the Super Bowl hasn't exactly featured the most interesting and competitive of football games. They've been blowouts, over by the first half at the latest. But one form of competition has remained as strong and vibrant as ever: the fight to put on the most memorable television advertisement. Over the years, many such ads have made their debut during the Super Bowl, including Apple's "1984" ads touting their new Macintosh, celebrity ads for Pepsi and Coke, and the croaking frogs of "Bud-wei-ser."

Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Should advertising overshadow that for which it is supposed to be merely a sponsor? Well, the answers to these questions lie far beyond the game of football. As James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture points out, it isn't just the Super Bowl ads that live on long after the game is forgotten. Advertising generates powerful and lasting social symbols. Think of Morris the cat, Mikey the Life cereal kid, the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, the Energizer Bunny. Think of tunes like "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz," and "We've Only Just Begun" (a song the Carpenters made a hit after it had already been widely heard in a bank commercial). Think of slogans like "Have it your way," "Just do it," "Snap, crackle, pop," and "Be all you can be."

The ubiquity of advertising, as well as its apparent excess and wastefulness, has led many social critics and would-be consumer "advocates" to demonize it. "Advertising is the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it," wrote one critic. Novelist George Orwell said advertising "is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket." Clare Boothe Luce wrote that advertising had "done more to cause the social unrest of the twentieth century than any other single factor." A common attack is that ads manufacture consumers' demand for products that they would otherwise not feel a need to buy. "Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an adman to tell them what they wanted," groused economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

"The institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship," he continued, ". . . cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires--to bring into being wants that previously did not exist."

But there is another side to advertising, one that these and other social commentators have largely overlooked. Advertising represents the triumph of the consumer over the power of producers and vested interests. Commercial advertising, at least, is found only in societies where individuals have the right to choose their own goods and services from competing suppliers. Ads convey critical information about price, quality, and availability. Furthermore, in many cases ads are indistinguishable from the product; to consume it is to express yourself through the symbols that ads have invoked (the thrill of driving a new car down a highway is a good example of this phenomenon).

In short, advertising is good for consumers. It's worth exploring how in greater detail.

The Economics of Advertising. Many of advertising's critics have portrayed it as playing either no role or a counterproductive role in advancing consumer interests. For example, some economists have long argued that ads create barriers to entry in particular industries, thus reducing competition and making prices higher. This happens, it is argued, because the ads differentiate an existing product--say, a breakfast cereal--from a possible competing product that might taste better or cost less, or both. Consumers might be better off trying this new product, but they are already made familiar with the existing product's name through ads and thus don't make the buying decision that would best satisfy their wants. …

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