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  • The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising
  • Richard W. Pollay (bio)

This article reviews the work of significant humanities and social science scholars for their thoughts and theories about advertising’s social and cultural consequences. In brief, they view advertising as instrusive and environmental and its effects as inescapable and profound. They see it as reinforcing materialism, cynicism, irrationality, selfishness, anxiety, social competitiveness, sexual preoccupation, powerlessness, and/or a loss of self-respect. Drawing heavily on original sources, these ideas are synthesized into a framework that structures advertising’s supposed effects and causalities. Also discussed are the problems and prospects for needed research and the moral imperative for this research.

Pollay, Richard W. 1986. The distorted mirror: Reflections on the unintended consequences of advertising. Journal of Marketing. 50(April): 18–36. Reprinted with the permission of the American Marketing Association.

It is worth recognizing that the advertising man in some respects is as much a brain alterer as is the brain surgeon, but his tools and instruments are different.

Advertising Age (1957).

While the metaphor of brain surgery may be hyperbole, the inflated rhetoric so characteristic of advertising, it still contains an element of truth. Advertising is without doubt a formative influence within our culture, even though we do not yet know its exact effects. Given its pervasive and persuasive character, it is hard to argue otherwise. The proliferation and the intrusion of various media into the everyday lives of the citizenry make advertising environmental in nature, persistently encountered, and involuntarily experienced by the entire population. It surrounds us no matter where we turn intruding into our communication media, our streets, and our very homes. It is designed to attract attention, to be readily intelligible, to change attitudes, and to command our behavior. Clearly not every advertisement accomplishes all of these aims, but just as clearly, much of it must — otherwise, advertisers are financially extravagant fools.

The applied behavioral technologies for consumer behavior and advertising research, like most technologies today, have grown increasingly sophisticated and elaborate. This gives at least the major advertiser a large arsenal of information and the technique with which to finetune a message, aided by an army of experienced professionals running market research surveys, focus groups, copy testing procedures, recall and awareness tests, and test markets. As Marshall McLuhan (1951, p. v) once commented: “Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind … to get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, and control.” Even if individual efforts often fail, the indirect effects of the overall system deserve careful consideration.

This consideration is all too rarely given to advertising by those most sophisticated in their knowledge of the processes of advertising strategy formation and advertisement creation. These scholars and practitioners, including those of us trained in the more general fields of consumer behavior and marketing, are by tradition focused on the study of advertising’s practical consequence, sales promotion: everything that stimulates the purchase act or the intermediary steps toward that objective. Knowledge of the unintended social consequences of advertising, the social byproducts of the exhortations to “buy products,” is less helpful in professional school teaching or consulting. It is also potentially far more challenging. Advertising’s unintended consequences are seen by many as a pollution of our psychological and social ecology, which raises moral alarm and tempts a defensive reaction from those of us whose expertise and sense of personal worth is drawn from our knowledge of, and at least implicit assistance in, the processes of persuasion. Thus, the concerns of nonbusiness academics and the general public are too often dismissed with a wave of the ideological wand. Commonly we appeal to some alternative value, as in the claim that unregulated advertising is a freedom of speech or essential to the efficient functioning of the economy, hardly perceiving that this is distractive argumentation.

Not all scholars assume that mass advertising of the character and scale we now experience is either inevitable or benign. Indeed, those from a wide range of disciplines have given the matter thought, including a surprising number of individuals whose...