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  • Roundtable on Values in Advertising
  • Stuart Ewen (bio), Ritch Goldstein (bio), Fred Irwin (bio), William M. O’Barr (bio), Cynthia Round (bio), Juliet Schor (bio), and Linda Scott (bio)

We’ve found at Advertising & Society Review that it has been very useful to try to create situations where people from the advertising industry and from the academy have a dialogue about issues of concern to both. Academicians make a lot of assumptions about advertising. We imagine how things work, why things occur the way they do, and what the people who produce advertising think. But we haven’t done such a good job of going to people in the advertising industry, talking to them, trying to understand their ideas and perspectives, and adding all this to our understanding of advertising.

I’ve chosen a topic today that is pervasive in the writings of many scholars who have thought about advertising’s place in society, culture, history, and the economy. It is the matter of the values that are put forth in advertising - not so much as the primary message of an advertisement, but along with whatever the primary selling message is. I find it convenient, when I explain this idea to my students, to ask them to imagine a television commercial for orange juice. And almost to a person, they begin to construct a scenario of a glass of orange juice, with its qualities of good taste, vitamins, and so forth. Then they begin to add that its context of use will probably be morning, around a breakfast table, maybe in a kitchen or a dining room, and with a family consuming it. When I ask them to elaborate further, they start telling me about the husband and wife, their two children, the boy older and the girl younger. It’s just the way everyone knows to tell the story. Then I ask them to consider what else advertisements contain beyond pitches for product and brands. Ads also carry messages about social values, cultural style, and such things. It is a set of discussions, in that case, about family values in American society.

The topics I would like us to talk about today are the values that come along with the advertising for the goods and services. I want to ask those of you in the industry, who makes those choices about how that family should look? Where do those ideas come from? And I want to ask those of you in the academy, on the other side, about the effect of such messages - culture being created and recreated through advertising images. We’ll probably have a lot to say about this, and I want to open up that dialogue.

Ritch, as a person who works in a big advertising agency and in a really important position in a creative department, how would you comment on that particular representation of the family? Who makes the choices about how it looks and why it is so often white and not multicultural?


It’s interesting that you say that because I was just having this last week - we do focus groups so much in this industry now. What happens is that everything goes through such a sieve - it’s never really just two creatives or two people in a room any longer who say, “Let’s just do this because!” You have demographics that you have to appeal to, as you said. It goes through a slew of things. What happens is that it goes through a broad cultural sieve, if you will, which are focus groups. Focus groups basically tell the client what works, what doesn’t work, what is interesting, and how to show this. As it goes through this process, it becomes formed. It’s a funnel, if you will. In the beginning, if I’m coming up with an idea for a juice spot, as you are talking about, I won’t necessarily think about all the things we are thinking about now. I won’t say, well, it should be a white family or a black family. First thing I would say, when you are setting up, is how can I do this in a...