Advertising's power comes from its relationship with the mass-media system. Newspapers, magazines, radio stations and commercial network TV carry advertising to almost everyone in the U.S. This continual barrage of advertising both introduces and reinforces cultural cues as advertisers see them.
The ability of advertisers to communicate cultural cues is of serious concern to many, as is the role of the mass media as a vehicle for carrying ad messages to the public. The mass media are powerful cultural influencers, so any perceived control over messages transmitted in the media by a second powerful influence-advertising-causes concern.
Cause or effect?
A long-standing debate argues whether advertising and the mass media determine social trends, rituals and behavioral norms or merely reflect already-established trends, rituals and norms.
Contemporary U.S. popular culture is largely focused on social relationships. Most contemporary popular music has lyrics that revolve around love and coupling. Decisions about clothing, hairstyles and what kind of car to drive reflect self-image, and advertisers often use such concerns in appealing to the desire to attract potential partners.
Alcohol consumption also is a part of American culture, as is the advertising of alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverage ads depict drinking as an accepted element in partnering rituals. Couples depicted in ads share drinks to celebrate successful relationships.
On the other hand, cigarette advertising is limited to certain media, and smoking is no longer as prevalent in the U.S. as it once was. In the 1940s, everyone from movie stars to corporate executives smoked; in the 1990s, magazine articles, public-service announcements and the absence of smokers in media entertainment sent the message that smoking is unhealthy.
Another area of concern over the influence of advertising has been its representation of women. There is little argument that advertising helps to set standards for female beauty or that those standards often are unobtainable for most. Advertising tells women that they can come closer to the ideal through the purchase of cosmetics, clothing or weight-loss products.
In addition to defining individuals' roles within a culture, advertising communicates norms of responsible behavior and attempts to show ideals of American culture that are positive, such as stable family life, the rewards of hard work, acceptance of the contributions of all people within society and the benefits of social diversity. Public-service messages-many created or supported by the advertising industry or corporate advertisers-address social problems and encourage responsible social behavior.
While cultural attitudes, customs and standards of behavior vary greatly in different parts of the world, effective advertising reflects the culture of its home country in order to play to that nation's belief system and make the advertising message palatable and welcome. Social taboos are determined and avoided, and standards of manners observed in media messages.
Observers in the U.S. often cite the relaxed standards toward nudity and sexuality in advertising in other countries. The acceptance or rejection of such themes is based on the culture of the people exposed to the advertising.
America's material culture
While some claim that American society is too consumer-oriented and materialistic, the U.S. has used its ability to work hard, innovate and constantly improve the standard of living and the lifestyles of its people to develop a highly advanced material culture. With material wealth have come advancements in healthcare, nutrition and safety, which have resulted in longer, more comfortable lives; reduced rates of child and infant mortality; and the virtual elimination of several deadly diseases.
Critics of consumer culture question the effects of advertising, the cost of consumer goods, the validity of added value via advertising, brand proliferation and the functional benefits of one brand over another. Some argue that advertising adds to the cost of consumer products and so is harmful in a consumer culture. Further exploration into the workings of a material culture, however, shows that mass manufacturing, marketing and merchandising result in efficiencies of scale that lower unit costs. Advertising is the tool that stimulates mass sales and thus can reduce the costs of consumer products and services.
A material culture also revolves around the idea that marketing and manufacturing add value to products. Phenomenal growth in the number of product categories, products, services and brands is the result of the basic idea that adding value in any form to a product or brand results in new or enhanced consumer demand. It is the job of advertising to communicate product and service improvements or introduce new products that make consumers' lives better.
On the other hand, critics of advertising charge that there may be no functional differences between brands except for the higher costs of national advertising passed on to buyers and users.
The significance of subcultures
Subcultures are segments within society that share values, rituals and behaviors that may differ from those of the overall culture. Advertisers sometimes focus on social diversity s to find media that effectively reach members of subcultures. There are, for example, Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Catholic and Jewish media outlets, as well as some that target gays and lesbians.
Niche marketers target subcultures with products that are responsive to their lifestyles, values, beliefs and dreams. Yet even this targeting has cultural ramifications. To some, it is a symbol of isolation from the overall culture.
Still more controversy arises when subcultures are targeted with advertising for controversial products such as cigarettes or alcoholic beverages. In the last decade of the 20th century, black Americans became a central focus of advertising imagery, not just for the purpose of reaching black consumers but also to appeal to the millions of mostly young white consumers who had come to regard the anti-authority behavior described in rap music as something cool and desirable. It is a prime example of the way in which advertising both feeds popular culture and appropriates its language and cultural symbols in order to market goods.
Culture and creative messages
Persuasive messages are most effective if they are compatible with their targets' current beliefs, values and world views. As a result, creators of advertising often use contemporary culture as cues for developing successful ad messages.
Advertising often takes a light look at culture-in order to attract attention to commercial messages-and blends it with creative executions that play to cultural sophistication. In ads for innovative Web-based technology, for example, off-the-wall teen-agers show chief executives how to register online stock accounts and bleary-eyed recluses peering at their computer screens are invited to see the sun again.
On the other hand, advertising continues to create culture. Long after it appeared in TV spots, Wendy's International's "Where's the beef?" tagline remained a part of contemporary language; Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can imagery symbolizes an era in art; and "Takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'," "Now you're cooking with gas" and "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature" still emerge from the mouths of people too young to remember their origins in advertising.