"Advertising is the nonpersonal communication of information, usually paid for, and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by identified sponsors through the various media." 1

As a noder above commented, it's estimated that the average American is exposed to 15-16 thousand advertisements a day. These insidious little memes infect our daily lives unconsciously, creating unrealistic images, encouraging us to be dissatisfied with ourselves, evoking emotionality, and forcing us to hum stupid little tunes or unknowingly recite catch phrases in our normal conversation.

Advertising and Consumer Psychology

Essentially, all successful advertising creates a perceived need where none previously existed.(also see marketing). A great deal of effective advertising is based on eliciting unconscious impulse responses or imparting information to the subconscious - through techniques such as slogans, catch phrases, name recognition, jingles, word associations, distinct logos and brand identity, and the ever-effective presence of attractive actors and sexual suggestions - all working to essentially bypass the rational , judgmental faculty of the mind.

The alternative is to attempt to get the mind's attention through an appeal to reason, a demonstration of product benefits or testimonials, or by rhetoric and emotional appeal. Advertising often relies on cultural norms, stereotypes and caricatures to simplify the customers' identification of a target market and to help him determine very quickly whether he is included in that market.

Less benevolent tactics also exist. They include showing powerful emotional images with little relation to the product, literal use of subliminal messages, buzzwords, fear and scare tactics (do you want to be this fat? do you want these children to starve to death?), celebrity endorsement by stars with strong referent power, deliberate appeal to prejudiced or bigoted reactions (i.e. homosexuals deserve AIDS, God hates abortions), and overtly sexual messages or images unconnected in any way to the product or service being advertised. Many of these tactics are also political devices .

Advertising and Ethics

It's important to note that some degree of "advertising" is necessary to human beings in any case where resistance to an idea or contentment with the status quo exists. It has to do with the way our mind works. Being basically survival-oriented, the psyche tends to be homeostatic and will ignore the message that is being communicated unless it elicits a definite "shock". You need to get the attention of the person to overcome mental inertia, whether you are attempting to teach them something new, introduce them to a new technology, or trying to sell them a product.

Advertising is a tool, and a very dangerous and powerful one. In many cases, you are attempting to affect the mind at a lower level than rationality, in order to get past its natural self-protective barriers and comfort zone, either to make it consider something it wouldn't normally consider or to force a particular idea or behavioral suggestion past its censorship. The ethical issues of making subliminal suggestions which short-circuit free will and autonomy should be obvious.

Advertising as a Form of Communication

In terms of sense-data, advertising relies very little - as an industry - on scent, touch, or taste because its primary vehicle is mass media communication. Because of this, sound and sight are of primary importance. Pictures are an extremely efficient way to convey information, and the subconscious effect of various graphic and aural techniques has already been mentioned.

From an informational standpoint, advertising is almost always incomplete, by design. What should appear are the points that the advertiser feels are most important in conveying the central idea and selling the product. What can be conveyed include outright lies, extremely biased views, or deliberate attempts to manipulate perception through exaggeration of the benefits and capabilities of a product.

Advertising is not and was never meant as a substitute for objective documentation or consumer research. In a commercial, this is simply not what either the viewer wants to see (thinking is not generally considered a leisure activity, research is tedious and time-consuming, and a balanced perspective requires careful consideration of the claims of both sides) or what the advertiser wants to convey. Bias is very hard to avoid because of this.

In Summary

"If you tell a big enough Lie, and keep on repeating it, in the end people will come to believe it"
- Josef Goebbel, Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda for the Nazi Party (yep, that's an actual title!)

The focus in any sort of sales is rarely a sale of product, but is rather a sale of a collection of values which that product, and often also the company that created it, represents to a potential consumer. Values have emotional as well as rational repercussions, and effective advertisers are well-acquainted with both types of response mechanisms.

It's important to realize that advertising, which is perhaps one of our oldest arts, can and does have legitimate uses. It is only abuse of this technology by the unscrupulous who are not content with producing a good product that consumers will value, which creates most of the problems, combined with the naivete of consumers uneducated about how they can be unconsciously manipulated and lied to about a product through advertising.

  • 1Arens and Bovee, Contemporary Advertising (5th Ed.). Burr Wood, Illinois: Irwin, 1994.
  • http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~taflinge/addefine.html
  • http://www.disinfo.com/pages/dossier/id321/pg1/
  • see also Fravia's "reality hacking" pages.