We are no longer simply informed about new products we are bound to consume but unlike those from centuries before us, new structures have been designed of new types of men and women. Through the influence of advertising on consumer culture and social relations, there’s been a heavy transition in the way we receive information and our choices. Advertising has a hegemonic function in society which can be seen and understood through the origins of the practice, how consumer logics manifests in American ideology, and how televisions aided the consumer culture.
The role of advertising began in the U.S. during the industrial expansion of the 1880s, but saw a tremendous change in the 1920s when economic, political, and technological developments heightened. The prosperity in America and growth of credit allowed consumer culture to flourish, allowing average Americans to purchase products such as cars and radios, with an opportunity to pay the product over time rather than all at once.
Advertising became a central institution in this emerging consumer culture due to the large array of new products and so many Americans anxious to purchase them. The geographic placement at this time was so relevant because of the demographic and technological development, the industrial culture of the new world, and the fluctuation of regulatory and cultural limitations.
As advertising transformed into social production, there was a need for “markets to become more dynamic, growing horizontally across the nation, vertically into new social classes, and ideologically (Ewen, 1977).” And the way to create a buying public was a scientifically managed industry, while raw materials and consumers were all seen as malleable.
Edward Bernays, the self-appointed father of public relations, the man who persuaded women to smoke cigarettes and that eggs and bacon were the authentic “All American Breakfast”, supported this notion in his article, “Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How” when he states, “What are the various motives for the manipulation of public opinion? They are the motives that dominate man in our society today.
The basic instincts of self-preservation, procreation and love are the more complex social motives. People attempt to sway other people for social motives – ethical, philanthropic, educational – for political, for international or economical, and for motives of personal ambition.” It was during this time of vulnerability that advertising agencies saw an opportunity to mold the public, to create audiences for their products, and to form a mass society that would be driven to consume. Though only those in the industry at this time knew of the ways in which to operate society, the tactics used in commercial advertising had a keen effect on consumer culture and American society. When examining the roles that advertisements play in capitalism, making it a commercial culture, we need to also bring forth the society’s ideology. In American society, we believe we exist in a free, democratic nation with a variety of options in order to make us happy and in this case, the variety of options we can consider are choices we choose from, coming from the proliferation of publicity within our country. In John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing”, he expresses that “Publicity is the culture of the consumer society.
It propagates through images that society’s belief in itself.” Meaning to say that the purpose of publicity is to convince the consumer that he/she is dissatisfied with his or her life in society, not the way of life in society but particularly their own individual life within society. The individual is convinced that if they purchase what is being offered, then their quality of life will become better. This misconception ties within the idea of the prospect of democracy in that because of consumer culture, our thoughts and ideas, views and opinions, interests, and more, are all being shaped for us by advertising industries. Our choices are limited to what is being offered and the prospect for democracy is governed by the agencies that “control” society. Media critic Robert McChesney believes there’s an interconnection between capitalism and media, and notes in his book “The Problem of the Media” that, “The problem of the media exists in all societies, regardless of their structure, but the range of available solutions for each society is influenced by its political and economic structures, cultural traditions, and communication technologies, among other things.”
In a democratic nation like America, the media’s relationship with capitalism is not only what drives the consumer culture, but it also displays a significant power over society. It gives individuals the presumption that they also have powers to exercise when realistically, that is the illusion that media gives. Berger again supports this notion in his novel and states “Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening to the rest of the world (Berger, 1972).” Therefore, advertisements are connected to our idea of liberty: choice of the consumer and the opportunity for producers to gain from entrepreneurial skill. But realistically, the choice of which car or soap to purchase is a bogus democracy and a sham for a real one. Unfortunately, it’s an incredibly successful substitute that is able to manipulate us into feeling free, leaving our ideals undisturbed. The number of advertising agencies proliferated during the 1950s, primarily due to the growth of television becoming a household staple piece.
It was also television that quickly became the leading ad medium of this time and because of this, many advertisers began to rely on TV to demonstrate their products in order to differentiate themselves from other brands. For example, Band-Aid bandages remained on an egg in boiling hot water in one commercial and Remington razors shaved the fuzz off of peaches in another (Cheval, 2018). When regular TV programming reached the West Coast, beginning the mark of national coverage, product personification also became an essential tool used by advertisers. Advertisers created characters that were shaped around products to create a connection between individuals and the brand in order to give viewers a sense of identity connection. For example, Edmund Carpenter discusses this in “New Languages” when he writes, “not until he saw it on TV did it become meaningful.
This same statement goes for all media: each offers a unique presentation of reality, which when has a new freshness and clarity that is extraordinarily powerful… We don’t watch TV; it watches us: it guides us (Carpenter, 1999).” Television in this case with the satisfaction that it gives to the human senses, sight and sound, created personalities that viewers would aspire to become or relate to. Cultural figures such as the Marlborough Man, the Jolly Green Giant, and Betty Crocker, were used to personify products, luring in consumers who felt some sort of connection and comfortability with the advertising icons. Advertisements for television also served another purpose too. Immediately after World War II, “advertisers were in the midst of their reconversion campaigns, channeling the country back from wartime pressures of personal sacrifice and domestic upheaval to a peacetime economy based on consumerism and family values. The advertisements suggested that television would serve as a catalyst for the return to a world of domestic love and affection.”
Yet the adjustment from wartime to post-war life was an abrupt shift for returning soldiers and their wives in that women had acclaimed the roles of their husbands, and after returning, many of the men had undergone psychiatric care from what they experienced during the war. Advertisers still relentlessly urged these families to “buy, buy, buy” as a means to “buy into the “good life” of ranch-style cottages and consumer durables.” This was a tactic used as a temporary solution to draw families closer together and illustrated an image that would “revive domestic life.”
Such advertisements only fixed things on the surface level, because there were many more economic, political, and social issues that had yet to be resolved. But television still held as the most influential medium on daily life and connected America from coast to coast and through commercial advertising, portrayed society’s superior technology, rising prosperity, and mobility, along with renewed optimism. The historic trends and changes in advertising have only increased its influence over social relations and the prospect for democracy.
Through tactics demonstrated by the practice of advertising, the initial intention can be seen to be a cultural power over society and everything within it. We are made to believe that we have a choice in what we consume, but all of the information we receive has been predisposed methodically by advertisers in order to place us into their created audiences. And with the use of technology, the power that advertisements have over social relations only proliferates in that we are urged to believe that buying this or that will improve our state of life, resulting in a materialistic state of mind. Advertising has paved a path for booming consumer culture, but it’s almost as if our individual minds and society as a whole had to pay the price.
Bernays, E. (1928). Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How.
American Journal of Sociology, 33(6), 958-971.
Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2765989 Caperneter, E. (1999).
The New Languages. In D. J. Crowley & P. Heyer (Authors), Communication in history: Technology, culture, society.
New York: Longman. Ewen, S. (1977). Captains of consciousness advertising and the social roots of the consumer culture.
New York: McGraw-Hill. McChesney, R. W. (2004).
The problem of the media: U.S. communication politics in the twenty-first century.
New York: Monthly Review Press. Spigel, L. (1999).
Making Room for TV. In D. J. Crowley & P. Heyer (Authors), Communication in history: Technology, culture, society.
New York: Longman. Scholarly Sources: Berger, J. (1972).
Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin. Cheval (2018). APRD1000.