The principle of advertising concerns change. Investing time and money in getting a message across to the public via advertisements is only worthwhile if it has an effect on the target audience. Such an effect will modify attitudes, emotions, behaviour and values and so a change occurs in the way people think, feel or act towards a product or a brand. However, while advertising can be defined as a method of promoting change, this role has traditionally been linked to change on an individual basis which incites consumers to act differently but does not impact wider society.
Increasingly, though, the reality of the situation is that advertisements can and do have a major influence on how we consider our world. Perhaps the most obvious level is advertising on behalf of political parties which seeks to influence how voters perceive the state of society and so aims to encourage them to support a particular movement. In this way ideological views are ‘sold’ via classic advertising methods.
Away from institutionalised politics, advertising can also seek to change public opinion on social questions, particularly when used by non-governmental organisations. In this way, the same sorts of methods used to promote fast food and cars have been employed to alter views on AIDS and raise awareness of road safety.
However, while this sort of value-oriented advertising is more obvious, even to the population targeted, it should be recognised that, on a more subliminal level, advertisers confirm, alter or shape our view of the world around us. What this means is that as well as working on the first level of promoting consumer goods or services, advertising operates on a second subtler level, which deals with the representations that allow us to understand our environment. It is clearly not supposed to be advertising’s role to shape our perception of what surrounds us, but for better or worse this is what it does.
By feeding us with images and messages on our world advertisers help create our social reality. This raises an important question: what qualifies those in charge of advertising to decide how we should understand society? Clearly, their influence does not come from any democratic decision or legitimacy. They are employed on a brutally commercial basis to get a message across. However, when this message also has a very real social impact, advertising has to assume a responsibility.
A case in point is the problem of anorexia. Advertisers do not market products designed to make women anorexic or to encourage such a condition. However, the portrayal of women and the feminine ideal in many advertisements can create a norm in the minds of certain consumers which tends towards very slim figures. If such advertisers instead chose models whose proportions matched those of the more typical woman, it could be argued that the cult concerning curve-free figures would change and, therefore, affect the number of cases of anorexia.
When advertising establishes a certain social norm as a secondary effect of its commercial message, one of the solutions is to invest more heavily in media education. The population, particularly children and other more easily influenced groups, have to be taught how to take a critical distance concerning advertising messages. As communication professionals, advertisers have honed their skills in influencing the public. Only by decrypting these methods can people recognise how advertising works.
On the other hand, this basically negative and sometimes almost sinister view of the effects of advertising does not tell the whole story. It can also be argued that advertising has the capacity to exert a positive influence in terms of change. Indeed, advertisements can be used to accompany social change by making messages palatable and accessible thanks to a tone and style that the general public is used to. In this way, advertising is able to reflect a social shift and, therefore, strengthen it by making the message part of product marketing.
An example of this is the relationship and division of labour between men and women. In the past, advertisements showed women in the kitchen or in other family-oriented settings while men were often seen as more active in the world outside the house, particularly at the workplace. Today, in many countries, this traditional view is more or less challenged and is embraced by advertisers. As a result, we are now also shown images of women at work and men at home. They may not have led such a shift in social opinion, but advertisers now play a part in making this new male-female view an accepted part of many societies.
While such a debate on the powers of advertising is likely to continue, a certain perspective needs to be applied. For many, advertisements have an almost magical hold over their target audiences and can, therefore, manipulate large parts of the public. However, research tends to play down the power of advertisers. Studies have shown that while advertising certainly has an influence within society, it is interpersonal communication that plays a more important role in changing behaviour and shaping opinion. Friends and family, and the values they transmit, are, therefore, the key to change.
The author is associate professor of marketing, Audencia Nantes School of Management, France