Cultural Symbols

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Advertising creates and uses cultural symbols as representations of essentially familiar ideas in order to fulfill its fundamental purpose: the selling of goods and services. Cultural symbols in advertising can take a number of forms, including corporate logos, real or fictitious celebrity figures, slogans and all manner of social stereotypes (e.g., the American Indian as a symbol for the state of nature as deployed in the famous "Keep America Beautiful" TV spot against littering).

According to anthropologists, the cultural symbolism of advertising and advertising figures is connected to the deep-seated ideals that people invest in goods. The trademark, brand name or celebrity figure then serves as a sort of shorthand for the values consumers associate with particular goods and services.

Use of symbols in advertising

The use of such symbols in advertising has been the subject of much academic inquiry. Some scholars have explored how advertising creates these symbols, while others have studied the symbols' effects. Within this latter category there are two streams of thought: One argues that advertising manipulates people through such symbols; the other suggests that consumers "read" advertising through their own experiences and often resist the sales message.

Some of the early uses of cultural symbols in advertising can be traced back to the 19th century when the first celebrity endorsements began to appear. For instance, when Henry Ward Beecher, the foremost preacher in the U.S., endorsed Pears' soap in the 1880s, Pears' hoped to imbue the product with some of Mr. Beecher's renowned godliness through a symbolic association.

Writers such as Judith Williamson and Matthew McAllister have referred to this kind of association as a system of referents through which advertisers hope consumers will link the character of the celebrity with that of the product. The drawback of this use of well-known figures is that aspects of their character that may be perceived in a less-than-favorable light by consumers may also be associated with a product.

Indeed, when choosing to feature Mr. Beecher, the marketer of Pears' soap may have hoped that association with its product would wash away some of the stain remaining on Mr. Beecher's character from the suit brought against him in 1875 by Theodore Tilton for alienating the affections of his wife, Elizabeth.

Sometimes the negative aspect of a cultural symbol, such as notoriety, is purposely employed in advertising, one memorable example being the mid-1980s Notorious Jeans campaign that capitalized on a political scandal by featuring Donna Rice, the girlfriend of married presidential hopeful Sen. Gary Hart.


Historically the use of celebrity symbols in advertisements and the use of brand names and trademarks were closely linked. It was not until 1905 that trademarks received firm protection under U.S. law. Trademark law allowed companies to protect the sign or symbol that represented the company. Prior to the enactment of this legislation, companies seeking to distinguish their products often used copyrighted illustrations in their advertising.

Other companies developed their own fictional "celebrity" figures, most notably Aunt Jemima, who debuted as a symbol for a pancake mix at the 1898 World's Fair and who in different form continues to this day as the trademark symbol for a range of pancake-related products. Aunt Jemima was effective because she met the basic requirement of a cultural symbol in that she distilled a common American perception, rooted in slavery, of the turbaned black plantation-house servant.

The symbolic association of Coca-Cola with a perceived American way of life was perhaps best epitomized by the U.S. soldier who supposedly said that he viewed his role in World War II, at least in part, as fighting for the right to drink Coke. Whether he meant Coca-Cola to stand symbolically for the way of life he was defending or simply meant that he fought for Coca-Cola, it is clear that the drink had acquired powerful meanings that motivated strong attachments.

Cultural symbols can also be created by government advertising campaigns. During World War I the U.S. government mounted a propaganda campaign through the Committee on Public Information in which the figure of Uncle Sam, as portrayed in a now famous recruitment poster by James Montgomery Flagg, emerged as a symbol of the nation rather than simply of the nation's imperial drive.

In the postwar years it was not unusual for a company's ad slogan or image to be taken up by the public and adapted for other uses. A prime example is the phrase "Where's the beef?" first introduced in 1984 by the fast-food chain Wendy's, which quickly became a metaphor for anything lacking in substance or detail.

Internationally, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney Co.'s Mickey Mouse and McDonald's Corp. all have been symbolically associated with the spread of U.S. culture and values.

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