Key Concepts in Advertising:Dramatic Realism
Key Concepts in Advertising articles provide short lectures on important concepts to help understand advertising's place in society, culture, history, and the economy. This article focuses on the concept of dramaticrealism, which is defined and applied extensively in historian Roland Marchand's book Advertising the American Dream. A series of short videos provide background information about Marchand's book, define dramatic realism, and encourage viewers to apply the concept in their own creation and analysis of advertisements. In the end, viewers learn that dramatic realism reveals how ads represent everyday life and its problems. It draws attention to how advertisements can underscore the usefulness of a product or service by relying on anxieties and fears, as well as human wishes to be liked, included, and seen as desirable. A recommended reading list provides other sources to learn more about the concept and its associated topics.
ad analysis, concepts, desirability, dramatic realism, fear, ideals, ideology, interpretation, Listerine, media literacy, norms, persuasion, representation, scare copy, self esteem, shame, social comparison, visual culture
This opening video features a montage of infomercial scenes showing people unable to complete ordinary tasks without the help of an advertised product.1 Viewers are reminded that advertising can be defined as a tool of persuasion. However, critics of advertising have regularly asked, Is advertising a manipulative tool of persuasion?
This video provides a background about the concept of dramatic realism, which is discussed in advertising historian Roland Marchand's important book Advertising the American Dream.2 The video also includes UK art historian John Berger's assessment of advertising as a tool to make people dissatisfied with themselves in order to imagine a better future through the purchase of products and services. The video also brings up important questions advertisers have asked themselves for some time: Are people convinced by friendly and kind words? Or do appeals to people's anxieties, fears, and insecurities persuade better? Based on these questions, viewers are asked to brainstorm how they would design a campaign for Listerine mouthwash.
In this video, the concept of dramatic realism is defined and explained in detail by analyzing Listerine advertisements from the early 20th century.3 One learns that dramatic realism is an advertising tactic involving the exaggeration or over-dramatization of everyday problems. Products and services come in to "save the day" by addressing these problems. Often at the core of dramatic realism is making people feel insecure or worried about the unsympathetic judgments of others for not fitting in or being attractive or desirable.
This video provides an analysis of several advertisements employing dramatic realism through their representation of insecurities that surround bodily functions: intestinal gas, defecation, sweat, discoloration of teeth, and menstruation.
To summarize, this video reminds viewers that dramatic realism helps reveal how ads represent everyday life and its problems. It draws attention to how advertisements can underscore the usefulness of a product or service by relying on anxieties and fears, as well as human wishes to be liked, included, and seen as desirable. Dramatic realism also highlights social and cultural norms about what might be considered taboo and undesirable at a given moment in time. In the end, viewers are encouraged to think about what happens to people's self-image and self-esteem when advertisements rely on human insecurities and over-dramatized experiences in everyday life.
Edward Timke is an affiliated scholar with the Department of Cultural Anthropology and instructor of advertising, design, and creativity courses for the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke University. He is also Adjunct Professorial Lecturer for the School of International Service at American University. He is Associate Editor of Advertising & Society Quarterly and a contributor to ADText. Timke's specialties include advertising and media history, international advertising and media, and media theory and research methods. His work focuses on the role of advertising and media in shaping how different cultures understand and imagine each other. Timke received a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the Circulating American Magazines Project (www.circulatingamericanmagazines.org). He has also received numerous awards and nominations recognizing his excellence in teaching and mentoring of student research.
2. Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.