Advertising Educational Foundation

[Editor’s Note: This article is a part of ADText. A revised version of this article is available here.]

We know it when we see it. We are exposed to it thousands of times every day. Most of us are reasonably good, although seldom perfect, at distinguishing it from other kinds of messages. It is something that we tend to take for granted, seldom thinking about what it is or how it came into existence. But what is this thing called advertising? inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 1. Can A Definition of Advertising Encompass Its Many Forms? []
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Fig. 1.

Can A Definition of Advertising Encompass Its Many Forms? [Source]

A library or Internet search will turn up no consistent definition. Scholars, novelists, journalists, laymen, and practitioners have taken turns offering insights into its nature and scope. This introductory unit examines some of those attempts, but be forewarned of the conclusion: No single definition will do, and each effort at describing advertising plays up some aspects while ignoring others. Taken together, these definitions emphasize the complex relationship of advertising with society, culture, history, and the economy. inline graphic inline graphic

1. Defining Advertising Broadly

A stroll through the galleries of one of London’s great institutions, the Victoria and Albert Museum, takes you deep into the history of Britain. You can see ivory and jewels from colonial India, or spend your time exploring the evolution of English furniture, metalwork, and ceramics. Imagine the job of James Laver (1899–1975) who became Keeper of Engraving, Illustration, Design, and Paintings. This Oxford-educated art critic wrote books on subjects like British Military Uniforms (1948) and A Concise History of Costume (1969). Little wonder that the compiler of a book on Victorian advertisements1 would invite Laver to introduce and comment on the bold graphics, curiosities, and outlandish claims common in late 19th-century advertisements. (This was a time when advertisers could make fantastic claims with almost no regulation, save for what the public would stand.) Ads from the period describe the means of slaughtering beef for extract, they promise to regrow hair, and they use allusions to race to suggest the cleansing power of soap. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 2. A 19th-Century English Ad for Beef Extract []
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Fig. 2.

A 19th-Century English Ad for Beef Extract [Source]

Fig. 3. Extravagant Claims Were Common in Victorian Advertisements []
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Fig. 3.

Extravagant Claims Were Common in Victorian Advertisements [Source]

Fig. 4. A Gratuitous Use of Racial Imagery in 19th-Century Advertising []
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Fig. 4.

A Gratuitous Use of Racial Imagery in 19th-Century Advertising [Source]

In introducing Victorian Advertisements, Laver asks, “What is advertising?” Here is his answer:

Advertising is as old as Humanity: indeed, much older; for what are the flaunting colours of the flowers but so many invitations to the bees to come and “buy our product”. Everything is already there: the striking forms, the brilliant hues, even the “conditioning of the customer”.... Advertising might be defined as any device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange.2 inline graphic inline graphic

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is one of the world’s great museums. James Laver is frequently quoted for his pithy comments about the world of fashion.

A device to arrest attention — now that’s a broad definition if ever there was one. It would cover a traffic cop in a busy intersection, a gun pointed at you, an ice cream cone on a hot summer afternoon, the snarl of a pit bull, and a nude person streaking through a classroom. There are many ways to arrest human attention, and only some are advertisements. But Laver goes on: and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange. Does this qualification separate ads from the rest? Think about it a moment. Stopping for a police officer at an intersection offers mutual advantages: you avoid an accident, as well as a possible fine or even arrest; the officer does his job (surely an advantageous thing to do) and manages to maintain public order. Acquiescing to someone holding a loaded gun can keep you from getting shot, and can assist the criminal in his “work” as well. The ice cream seller makes money, and you get cooled off. The dog protects its territory, and you avoid injury. The streaker gets attention, and you get a break and perhaps a good laugh as well. inline graphic inline graphic

Let’s delve a bit more deeply to see if we can find more precision in Laver’s attempt at a definition of advertising. He invites us to think of the birds, the insects, and the

Fig. 5. Is This Advertising? []
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Fig. 5.

Is This Advertising? [Source]

flowers in the annual give-and-take of nectar in exchange for the work of cross-pollination. Odd as this example seems, and far from slick magazine ads and blasting TV commercials, it does highlight critical components of ads — they call for our attention (albeit in various ways) and offer us objects and services (for which we have to pay, of course) that are presumably of value to us (otherwise we wouldn’t buy them) and to the seller (who makes a living this way). inline graphic inline graphic

Although this definition does not manage to distinguish advertising from many other kinds of attention grabbers (that we find worthwhile to pay attention to), it does highlight some key features of advertisements: exchange, attention, mutuality. And because it is so general a definition, it applies without much difficulty to advertising in almost any conceivable situation, even in other times and places. It works for a spice display in India. It works for a notice on a wall in ancient Herculaneum. And it works for a store window in Hong Kong. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 6. An Open-Air Spice Market in India, c.1850 []
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Fig. 6.

An Open-Air Spice Market in India, c.1850 [Source]

Fig. 7. An Ancient Notice Announcing Wine for Sale []
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Fig. 7.

An Ancient Notice Announcing Wine for Sale [Source]

Fig. 8. Window Shoppers in Hong Kong []
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Fig. 8.

Window Shoppers in Hong Kong [Source]

The ancient Roman city of Herculaneum was preserved by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Like Pompeii, its archaeological remains provide many insights into life in Roman times.

In bringing all these things together — across time, place, and cultural boundaries — Laver’s definition emphasizes the antiquity of advertising. Rather than being something thought up yesterday, it seems as old as humanity and as universal as culture. Advertising, seen in this light, is thus a part of social life. We humans exchange things with one another. And we do it in a way that benefits us and those we deal with. Certainly, in our own time and place, it is impossible to imagine life without exchange. How could the residents of North Carolina smoke all the cigarettes produced there? How could the folks in California eat all the lettuce they grow? And what would New Yorkers smoke or eat? inline graphic inline graphic

Whether we think of the relatively small-scale societies of the non-Western world before Westernization, England at the time of the Norman Conquests, or the globalized society of the 21st century, it seems that exchange is the name of the game in social life. We barter, we trade, we sell — but most of all we exchange what we have too much of for what we want instead. And where does advertising fit into this? According to Laver, it is the “device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange.” inline graphic inline graphic

2. Defining Advertising Narrowly

During his lifetime, Raymond Williams (1921–1988) was one of Britain’s most influential social critics. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was one of the founders of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. He devoted his scholarship to the changes brought about as a result of the industrialization of society and the rise of mass consumption, neither of which he saw in much of a favorable light. In his extensive writings, Williams focused on social dislocations, wealth and poverty, changes in the nature of work and how people relate to one another, environmental pollution, and the like. inline graphic inline graphic

Raymond Williams helped establish the field of cultural studies, and is one of the founders of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies

On several occasions he wrote about advertising, but nowhere more insightfully than in an essay entitled “Advertising: The Magic System.”3 Recognizing the historical role of advertising as a means of getting attention and providing information (the essence of Laver’s definition), Williams focused on the institutionalization and professionalization of advertising that began in the late 1800s in Britain and elsewhere, its commercial function, and its persuasive force. As a social critic, he was also interested in ways its enormous power might be limited and resisted. inline graphic inline graphic

Williams too offered a definition of advertising. He called it simply: The official art of capitalist society. It’s a catchy phrase, but what does it mean? In exploring its meaning, the first thing to note is that Williams locates advertising in a social context. For him, it belongs to a particular historical moment. It is a part of modern capitalist society, and this distinguishes it from attention-grabbing devices in non-capitalist societies in other times and places. For Williams, advertising cannot be decoupled from the way it came into being and the work it does in society. inline graphic inline graphic

Modern advertising in Britain (and America as we shall see in Unit 2) developed in the late 19th century in support of mass consumption in highly industrialized societies. In the late 1800s advertising agents began providing services — buying and brokering space in newspapers, magazines, and other media, writing copy and eventually producing illustrations, and developing persuasive techniques to persuade consumers. These agents found consistent demands for their services, and out of the provision of these services emerged advertising agencies. These full-service agencies charged hefty fees for their work and were able to attract talented writers and artists. Soon advertisements began to fill public spaces — posters in train stations, billboards in the streets, and the pages of mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. In fact art itself had found a new patron. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 9. Public Transportation as a Site for Advertising, London, 1874 []
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Fig. 9.

Public Transportation as a Site for Advertising, London, 1874 [Source]

Fig. 10. Advertising in Public Spaces, New York City, 1880s []
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Fig. 10.

Advertising in Public Spaces, New York City, 1880s [Source]

Fig. 11. Advertisements in Print Media, 1889 []
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Fig. 11.

Advertisements in Print Media, 1889 [Source]

Calling advertising the official art of capitalist society focuses on the sponsored nature of art — in this case, by capitalist interests. Sponsorship of art is nothing new, of course. We need only look back to the Renaissance, for example, to see how art was sponsored in another historical context. In that time, it had two great patrons: the Catholic Church and wealthy secular sponsors (like the Medici family and important city-states). inline graphic inline graphic

The Church commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. His David, by contrast was commissioned by the City of Florence. So it was with other artists of

Fig. 12. “Sponsored” Art in the Renaissance []
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Fig. 12.

“Sponsored” Art in the Renaissance [Source]

Fig. 13. “Sponsored” Art in the Renaissance []
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Fig. 13.

“Sponsored” Art in the Renaissance [Source]

the period. To eat, they sold their work to those who could pay for it. And in producing it, they adapted their creative ideas to what their benefactors wanted. This didn’t mean, of course, that all creativity and talent was subverted. Michelangelo included portraits of himself in many of his works, and artists often had ideas that were saved and worked into the pieces they were asked to do. inline graphic inline graphic

And what was all this art used for? In addition to being “for the glory of God” (or more cynically, to demonstrate wealth and power), the Church used religious art for instruction. Imagine pilgrims coming for the first time to a great cathedral. Unlike today, when even a cathedral may be dwarfed by modern office buildings or hidden behind elevated highways, the church would have stood as the largest building in sight — bold, incredible, and majestic. Inside, a priest might lead the worshipers to the stained glass windows. In a world where visual images were scarce (no TV, no magazines, no Internet), these images of the Nativity, the life of Jesus, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Saints had enormous power. They would give form to ideas. They would instruct and teach. They would hold sway over the minds of believers. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 14. Details of a Stained Glass Window in Ste. Chapelle, Paris []
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Fig. 14.

Details of a Stained Glass Window in Ste. Chapelle, Paris [Source]

Likewise was the power of portraits painted for the wealthy. In a world without photographs, only the rich might have their images immortalized. Important marriages and victories at war were recorded in paintings and graced the palaces of those who commissioned them. As such, they became historical truth and connected the present to the past. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 15. Portrait of Catherine de Medici by Santi di Tito, (1536–1603) []
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Fig. 15.

Portrait of Catherine de Medici by Santi di Tito, (1536–1603) [Source]

Fig. 16. Marriage of Fredrick I Barbarossa by Giambattista Tiepolo, (1696–1770) []
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Fig. 16.

Marriage of Fredrick I Barbarossa by Giambattista Tiepolo, (1696–1770) [Source]

In calling advertising the official art of capitalist society, Williams draws attention to sponsorship of art in modern times. Today corporations, instead of the Church, pay the piper. And what is produced serves their needs and desires just as art has always done for its sponsors. A TV commercial attempts to bedazzle, to instruct, to teach, to hold sway over the minds of consumers. And the companies that can afford the best advertising art show their power, prosperity, and place in the sun. After all, isn’t mere presence as a Super Bowl commercial what it is all about? Only the wealthiest can pay the price. And it is the best commercial artists who work for them. inline graphic inline graphic

A Popular Super Bowl Commercial, 2005 []
Fig. 17a.

A Popular Super Bowl Commercial, 2005 [Source]

Another Popular Super Bowl Commercial, 2005 []
Fig. 17b.

Another Popular Super Bowl Commercial, 2005 [Source]

If Laver’s definition of advertising as an attention-getting device focuses on the antiquity of advertising, Williams’ definition of advertising as sponsored art calls attention to its modernity. Both things are true, but each definition brings out a radically different aspect of advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

3. Defining Advertising as Mediated Communication

Albert Lasker (1880–1952) grew up in Galveston, Texas, spent his working life in advertising in Chicago, and lived out his later years in New York. From 1903 to 1938, he headed the Lord & Thomas Agency in Chicago — one of the great advertising agencies of the early 20th century. Late in life, he married the much younger Mary Lasker who outlived him by many years. Together, they established The Lasker Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to medical research, with some of the money Lasker had earned in advertising. Lasker himself was quirky (he insisted on fresh cut flowers, changed daily in his New York residence), brilliant (he had a real knack with advertising), and successful (he made a fortune in the early 20th century). His name appears on virtually every list of great men and women in advertising. John Gunther, popular biographer of the mid-20th century, wrote about Lasker’s life in Taken at the Flood (1960).4 Not to be outdone, Lasker dictated his autobiography, The Lasker Story, as He Told It (1963).5 inline graphic inline graphic

One of the anecdotes in these biographies is about a meeting that took place between Lasker and John E. Kennedy in May 1905. Lasker was a junior partner in Lord & Thomas at that time and Kennedy was retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and working as a copywriter. The apocryphal account tells that Kennedy sent a message to Albert Lasker that read as follows:

I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is send the word ‘yes’ down by the bell boy. Signed —John E. Kennedy.6 inline graphic inline graphic

Albert Lasker is remembered as one of the key figures in American Advertising. His great fortune, made in 20th century advertising, funded The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

Lasker invited Kennedy upstairs and spent a long evening in conversation with him. He was enthralled with Kennedy’s concise definition: “Advertising is salesmanship in print.” The key to understanding the definition lies in what Kennedy meant by salesmanship. Imagine yourself — not in this day and age of Wal-Marts and other mega-stores where it is often difficult to get sales assistance — but in a department store in, say, 1905. The clerks at the glove counter know the insides and outsides of what they sell. You can say that your hands are unusually cold in winter, that your fingers are long or short, that you only want leather or don’t want leather, that you want domestic-made goods only, and so on. Whoever helps you will pull out a tray holding just the right kind of gloves for you. She will answer your questions, try to meet your needs, and tailor what she says to what you want to know. This is personal salesmanship — it is face-to-face and designed specifically for you. It is not about the things that you consider irrelevant (for example, foreign-made goods when you have specified that you only want domestic-made ones, or leather gloves when you’ve said you want cloth). inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 18. The Glove Counter of Rike’s Department Store, Dayton, Ohio, 1893 []
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Fig. 18.

The Glove Counter of Rike’s Department Store, Dayton, Ohio, 1893 [Source]

What Kennedy offered to Lasker was an interpretation of advertising that explained that advertising is the transformation of this personalized selling message into a mass-mediated one. Advertising attempts to do what salesmanship does, but to do it through a mass medium like a newspaper or magazine. That is the meaning of salesmanship in print. inline graphic inline graphic

In 1905, newspapers, magazines, and billboards were the primary ways advertising messages were communicated. Radio did not exist as a commercial medium, and television was only a pipe dream. In attempting to reach a broad audience with different needs and likes, advertising could not be tailored individually as in the face-to-face communications of salesmanship. The message had to work for a mass audience. It had to do for hundreds, thousands, or nowadays, even millions of people what the store clerk did for the person across the counter. Its job was to communicate a relevant selling message to as many people as possible. But it needed to be about short and long fingers, domestic as well as foreign gloves, and so on. inline graphic inline graphic

In the course of communicating to a mass audience, the precision of personal salesmanship is usually lost. Messages become less specific, and many are altogether irrelevant. As salesmanship becomes advertising, communication can become clutter. inline graphic inline graphic

Kennedy’s definition has become a great classic, especially among copywriters and other advertising professionals who see the genius of this simple but effective description. The definition has to be adjusted, of course, for the times. Many new media have evolved since 1905 — radio, TV, the Internet. Were Kennedy announcing his definition in 2005, he would probably need to say: Advertising is salesmanship through a mass medium. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 19. Radio Quickly Became A Medium for Advertising in America []
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Fig. 19.

Radio Quickly Became A Medium for Advertising in America [Source]

4. Is Advertising Information or Manipulation?

Within the field of economics, there are two divergent viewpoints about the role of advertising in the economy. One school of thought argues that advertising is a source of information for consumers who can use it to make more informed decisions in the market place. Seen this way, advertising is understood to increase market efficiency by providing information about alternatives.7 inline graphic inline graphic

Another school of thought, famously put forward by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society (1958),8 views advertising as manipulating the public by creating artificial needs and wants. Economists who follow this line of thinking see advertising as adding to cost and encouraging consumers to perceive new wants and desires and thus to redirect the allocation of their scarce resources toward buying highly advertised products. inline graphic inline graphic

John Kenneth Galbraith did much to popularize the understanding of economics and society.

Whichever viewpoint we take on this issue, the important thing to note is that definitions themselves are given in particular contexts. These two ideas about advertising stem from efforts to understand advertising’s economic effects. Other disciplines will have their own priorities about the particular features of advertising that need attention and emphasis. Aspects of advertising that receive emphasis in other fields are persuasion (psychology), regulation (political science), gender, race, and class (sociology, cultural studies), and culture (anthropology). inline graphic inline graphic

5. Advertising Defined by Contrasting It to What It Is Not

Product placement in movies, television, sports, popular music, and cultural events is a fact of modern life. We expect to clearly identify the name of a soft drink drunk in a movie, the kind of computer a TV character uses, and the brand of beer a sports figure celebrates with after a game. But does all this help sell products? Advertisers clearly think so, and product placement is so common that some advertising agencies specialize in it. inline graphic inline graphic

Some Critics Called the Movie Sideways (2005) “One Big Ad for Pinot Noir.” []
Fig. 20.

Some Critics Called the Movie Sideways (2005) “One Big Ad for Pinot Noir.” [Source]

Fig. 21. Product Placement Is Common in Contemporary Sporting Events []
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Fig. 21.

Product Placement Is Common in Contemporary Sporting Events [Source]

The Lux Radio Theater, and Kraft Music Hall were popular radio programs with strong links to their commercial sponsors. The Hallmark Hall of Fame brought total program sponsorship to TV.

Media critics argue that product placements, irrespective of their marketing relevance, blur the distinction between advertising and programming so that it becomes difficult to say where one stops and the other starts. Sponsorship of programming goes back to the beginnings of commercial mass media: Lux Radio Theatre, Kraft Music Hall, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame all emerged in the early years of radio. Advertising agencies wrote both the ads and the programs in the past. Product placement is a more contemporary form of sponsorship. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 22. An Ad for Lux Radio Theatre in the 1930s []
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Fig. 22.

An Ad for Lux Radio Theatre in the 1930s [Source]

Advertising has been called news,9 especially when it introduces a new product or gives new information about an existing one. However, most contemporary advertising does not introduce new products (nor does it provide much new information about older ones). Thus, to claim that advertising is news really pushes the point out of proportion. It may sometimes be “news,” but most of the time it clearly is not. inline graphic inline graphic

But is advertising propaganda? This is a much more complicated issue. If propaganda is false or misleading information that supports a political cause or the interests of those in power, does advertising fit? Is this what Raymond Williams had in mind by calling advertising the official art of capitalist society? inline graphic inline graphic

The propaganda entry on the website contains extensive images of propaganda and many links to websites about propaganda.

Propaganda tends to be thought of as political and we typically use it to refer to efforts to force ideas on us that are different from our own. The term propaganda carries negative connotations. And thus calling advertising propaganda — misleading or false information that supports the interests of those in power — fits with the argument that advertising is misleading (by providing partial information and focusing on some attributes of a product while ignoring others) and that it is a tool of capitalist interests. inline graphic inline graphic

In Moscow and St. Petersburg, Americans would have easily called the large outdoor “billboards” that contained images and quotations from Stalin, Lenin, or Marx propaganda. Today, many public places in the former Soviet Union contain images of Coca-Cola, Marlboro, and other highly advertised brands. Some critics of advertising would consider this a replacement of socialist with capitalist propaganda. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 23. Political Imagery Filled Public Spaces in the Former Soviet Union []
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Fig. 23.

Political Imagery Filled Public Spaces in the Former Soviet Union [Source]

Fig. 24. Advertisements Like This One Are Common in Contemporary Russia []
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Fig. 24.

Advertisements Like This One Are Common in Contemporary Russia [Source]

6. Advertising is Commercial Speech

In 1993, the Supreme Court of the United States concluded that commercial speech is indeed protected by the First Amendment, but to a somewhat lesser degree than other types of speech. The court noted:

The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. inline graphic inline graphic

Historians agree that the framers of the Constitution clearly had political and religious speech in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. Over the years, the Court has had to deal with just how far the fundamental right of freedom of speech extends. Should sellers be able to make claims without regulation? Should society follow the ancient Roman dictum caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”)? inline graphic inline graphic

The official website of the NARC details the industry’s self-regulatory programs. The FTC is the governmental regulatory body.

In contemporary advertising practice in the United States, there is both advertising industry self-regulation and governmentally imposed restrictions on what can be said in advertisements. The National Advertising Review Council, an industry-based self-regulatory organization, states its mission as fostering truth and accuracy in national advertising through voluntary self-regulation, thus hoping to minimize governmental involvement in the advertising business. On the other side, the Federal Trade Commission, an agency of the United States government, has the mission of preventing unfair competition and protecting consumers from unfair or deceptive practices in the marketplace. inline graphic inline graphic

7. Advertising Is the Middle Class Talking to Itself

Advertising is about desires, aspirations, and values. It names them, describes them, and offers satisfaction through the purchase and consumption of consumer goods. But whose desires, aspirations, and values does advertising talk about? This definition of advertising suggests that the core values in most advertising copy are those of the middle class, or those who would aspire to be a part of it.10 Getting married, settling down, and having a family have been core values in American culture over the years. If textbooks, comic strips, and television have idolized this view of what life is all about, advertising has done so even more. We need only look through the panoply of 19th- and 20th-century ads to find the ideals of marriage and family. Sometimes blatant, sometimes more subtle, these values are encoded in the words and images of ads. inline graphic inline graphic

In the 1920s, women marched in the streets demanding the right to vote. The suffrage movement was a rebellion against the idea that women should be wives and mothers whose place was in the home, not in the public world of politics, business, and power. These traditional ideals were deeply rooted in the culture, and advertising played a role in perpetuating them. In 1925, a Listerine advertisement showed the long face of a woman dressed as a bridesmaid with this caption: “Often a bridesmaid, but never a bride.” The long copy of the ad tells her “tragic” story:

Edna’s case was really a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were marriedor about to be. Yet not one possessed more grace or charm or loveliness than she.

And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-year mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever.

She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride.

That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (unpleasant breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it. And even your closest friends won’t tell you. inline graphic inline graphic

Listerine immortalized the phrase “often a bridesmaid, but never a bride” with ads like this. Needless to say, using mouthwash was offered as poor Edna’s only chance to fulfill her dream of being a bride. If the story seems anachronistic or idiosyncratic, a search through old magazines published before about 1970 will reveal many similar expressions of these ideals. Listerine repeated its own message in 1955 with a more contemporary, but nevertheless distraught bridesmaid using the same caption and telling a similar tale:

Most of the girls of her set were married...but not Eleanor. It was beginning to look, too, as if she never would be. True, men were attracted to her, but their interest quickly turned to indifference. Poor girl! She hadn’t the remotest idea why they dropped her so quickly...and even her best friend wouldn’t tell her.

Why risk the stigma of halitosis...? inline graphic inline graphic

Read more about Listerine advertising history and view the “Often a bridesmaid” ad at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The extent to which this phrase is now in common usage can be seen by typing the phrase into a search engine.

A chance to get married, settle down, and perhaps raise a family — the middle class talking to itself indeed! This story refers not to the flaunting of conventions but to the acceptance and idealization of traditional values, and it was repeated over and over in various ads. Other ads reinforced other values — hard work leading to success, the importance of appearance and good impressions, and the like. Roland Marchand’s Advertising the American Dream (1985)11 examines the specific social values that advertising promoted during the 1920s and 1930s. inline graphic inline graphic

Over the years, the diamond has been promoted as a signifier of marriage, stability, and commitment. What better way to show her how much you love her than to give her a diamond of one carat or more? asks DeBeers. However glittering the stone may be, the real value of the diamond on a woman’s hand is what it signifies — to her, to him, and to society. And in this signification lies those same values of marriage, faithfulness, and commitment — all central values of the American middle class. inline graphic inline graphic

DeBeers: A Diamond Is Forever []
Fig. 25.

DeBeers: A Diamond Is Forever [Source]

An interesting place to begin investigating the story of diamonds and their relationship to marriage is Margaret F. Brinig, “Rings and Promises,” Journal of Law, Economics and Organization 6:203–14. This article is available through JSTOR online.

Each of these examples illustrates an important aspect of advertising: it is the commodity that supports the cultural values. Using mouthwash and giving diamonds are the means of realizing and attaining the ideals. Advertising practitioners argue that these values come from society. inline graphic inline graphic

Today’s openly contested values and social diversity represent enormous challenges for contemporary advertising as America recognizes and embraces its multiculturalism and diversity. Advertising cannot afford to take a homogenized approach to cultural values. Contemporary advertising recognizes the plurality of American culture and has recognized that figuring out what “the middle class” thinks and reflecting it back will no longer work. inline graphic inline graphic

8. Defining Advertising Empirically

Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

Alice: The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, (1866).

The Department of Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin maintains an extensive website about advertising.

Jef Richards is an active researcher and teacher in the field of advertising. The Brainy Quotes website has assembled some of his statements about advertising.

Should we ask advertising professionals what they mean when they use the terms advertisement and advertising? Professor Jef Richards of the University of Texas’s Department of Advertising asked advertising and marketing experts how they use these terms.12 He wanted to know whether there is enough agreement to formulate a definition that everyone can agree upon, especially for the purposes of teaching about advertising. If so, this would minimize the necessity for each professor, researcher, or author to explain the terms over and over. It could foster agreement about the scope of topics in an advertising curriculum. It might also have other practical implications, for example when courts look to professionals to define terms and find inconsistency rather than agreement in usage. inline graphic inline graphic

Richards assembled a team of experts to discuss their definitions. This led him to propose: Advertising is a paid, mediated form of communication from an identifiable source, designed to persuade the receiver to take some action, now or in the future.13 The clarity and precision of this definition are significant, but only time will tell if others adopt it. inline graphic inline graphic

9. Advertising Is “Selling Corn Flakes to People Who Are Eating Cheerios.”

There are many biographies of Leo Burnett on the Internet. Time named him one of the 100 most influential builders and titans of the 20th century. The American National Business Hall of Fame also honors him.

Leo Burnett Worldwide has an extensive global network with many global brands.

Leo Burnett, one of advertising’s most colorful figures, was born in the American heartland, studied at the University of Michigan where he edited the college newspaper, and worked briefly as a police reporter before being hired to work in the advertising department of the Cadillac Motor Company. Burnett moved on to form his own advertising agency, the Leo Burnett Company, Inc., in Chicago in 1935. Today Leo Burnett Worldwide is one of the world’s large multinational advertising agencies. inline graphic inline graphic

Burnett is famous for having created some of advertising’s most important personalities — Tony the Tiger, the Keebler Elves, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Marlboro Man, and Ronald McDonald. These icons are associated with strong brand names, and it was brand loyalty that Burnett had in mind when he said advertising is “selling corn flakes to people who are eating Cheerios.”14 While only a small proportion of advertising is devoted to introducing new products, most deals with promoting brand loyalty among users and persuading those who are not to switch brands. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 26. Strong Brand Images Populate Modern Ads []
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Fig. 26.

Strong Brand Images Populate Modern Ads [Source]

10. Advertising Is a Form of Mythmaking

Consumer myths, marketplace mythology, and mythmaking are central concepts used by some advertising professors and advertising professionals today. But just what is it they have in mind by defining advertising as form of mythmaking? In his book, Mythmaking on Madison Avenue (1993),15 Sal Randazzo writes:

Myths are more than entertaining little stories about gods, goddesses, and heroic characters. The universality of myths, the fact that the same myths recur across time and many cultures, suggests that they originate somewhere inside of us.... Advertisers sell products by mythologizing them, by wrapping them in our dreams and fantasies.... Advertising is not simply in the business of “selling soap”.... Advertising turns products into brands by mythologizing them — by humanizing them and giving them distinct identities, personalities, and sensibilities that reflect our own.... Advertising has discovered a powerful truth: Dreams sell.16 inline graphic inline graphic

McDonalds — where a clown comes to play and everyone is happy — is a fantasy. Coca-Cola — blissful fellowship over a soft-drink — is a dream. Marlboro — independence, strength, and companionship away from the strains of urban life — is a fantasy. Mr. Clean — a genie released from a bottle who cleans house for you — lives in the world of advertising. The myths that advertising has created around these brands has transformed the ordinariness of hamburgers, soft drinks, cigarettes, and housework into powerful brands. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 27. Mr. Clean: A Genie from a Bottle []
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Fig. 27.

Mr. Clean: A Genie from a Bottle [Source]


So what is advertising? Advertising is a complex phenomenon — intimately tied to society, culture, history, and the economy — that defies any simple or single definition. Some aspects of it are universal, whereas others are culturally specific. It is personal salesmanship transformed into mediated communication. It sometimes provides new information, often cajoles, and always attempts to persuade. In addition to selling messages, it encodes cultural values and social ideals. And depending on your point of view, it is a positive or negative force in society and the economy. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O’Barr

William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society: An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to AS&R.


1. De Vries, Leonard, Victorian Advertisements. (London: William Clowes and Sons Limited, 1968).

2. De Vries, 6.

3. Williams, Raymond. “Advertising: The Magic System.” In Problems in Materialism and Culture. (London: Verso, 1980), 170–195. This article is available online in Advertising & Society Review, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2000), accessible through most university libraries or through

4. Gunther, John. Taken at the Flood: The Story of Albert D. Lasker. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960).

5. Lasker, Albert. The Lasker Story: As He Told It. (Chicago: Advertising Publications, 1963).

6. Lasker, 19.

7. Mitra, Anusree, and John G. Lynch, Jr. “Toward a Reconciliation of Market Power and Information Theories of Advertising Effects on Price Elasticity.” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 21. March 1995. 644–59

8. Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Affluent Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.

9. For example, Albert Lasker is reported to have referred to advertising as “news” prior to his embracing Kennedy’s definition of advertising as salesmanship in print. See Lasker, 15–21.

10. William Deresiewicz, Professor of English at Yale University, characterized advertising copy in similar words in an essay about references to advertising in George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. (William Deresiewicz, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Autumn 1998), 723–740. This appears in Note 23, Page 740). In analyzing a passage from Chapter 60 concerning the auction of a tray of miscellaneous knickknacks, he wrote: “Trumbull [the auctioneer] opens his mouth and out comes advertising copy, or what will become advertising copy. But what is advertising copy if not the middle-class unconscious talking to itself? (italics added).”

11. Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

12. Richards, Jef I, and Catharine M. Curran. “Oracles on ‘Advertising’: Searching for a Definition.” Journal of Advertising, Vol 31, No. 2 (Summer 2002), 74.

13. Richards, 74.

14. Bendinger, Bruce. The Copy Work Shop Work Book. Chicago: The Copy Workshop, 1993. 60.

15. Randazzo, Sal. Mythmaking on Madison Avenue. Chicago: Probus Publishing, 1993.

16. Randazzo, ix, xii, and 1.

Media Credits

Fig. 1. Courtesy of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Inc.

Fig. 2. De Vries, Leonard, Victorian Advertisements. (London: William Clowes and Sons Limited, 1968) p. 23.

Fig. 3. De Vries, p. 57.

Fig. 4. De Vries, p. 25.

Fig. 5. Photo by Paolo Crisante.

Fig. 6. Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Art Resource NY.

Fig. 8. © Corbis.

Fig. 9. Image from “A History of Advertising” by Henry Sampson, held at the library of The History of Advertising Trust Arcive.

Fig. 10. Brown, Henry Collins. Fifth Avenue Old and New 1824–1924. Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford: NYC. 1924. p. 46.

Fig. 11. Provided courtesy HarpWeek LLC. February 16, 1889, p. 134.

Fig. 12. Brian Atkinson/Alamy.

Fig. 13. Buonarroti, Michelangelo. Michel Ange: l’oevre du maitre: peinture, scupture, architechture. (Paris:Hachette, 1909) p. 1.

Fig. 14. PictureNet Corporation / Alamy.

Fig. 15. Scala / Art Resource NY.

Fig. 16. Scala / Art Resource NY.

Fig. 17a. Courtesy of Cramer-Krasselt.

Fig. 17b. Courtesy of DDB Worldwide Communications Group Inc.

Fig. 18. Courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Wright State University.

Fig. 20. Sideways Dir. Alexander Payne. © Fox Home Entertainment. 2005.

Fig. 21. Picture by Eric Gilbert,

Fig. 22. J. Walter Thompson Co. Archives, Domestic Advertisements, Lever, 1936, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, Duke University, (hereafter JWT/Duke).

Fig. 23.

Fig. 24. Courtesy of © Adam Moore.

Fig. 25. Courtesy of J. Walter Thompson.

Fig. 26. Reprinted with permission of Kellogg Company.