Gauging the impact of advertising
Boston — `IN America, advertising is as inescapable as air,'' says Jean Kilbourne, a noted writer and lecturer on the subject. On the average, we spend 1 years of our lives watching television commercials alone. The effect of all this advertising is the subject of much debate. In general, there is no dispute about the value of ads that provide genuine information: the classifieds and supermarket ads in the daily paper, or office-supply catalogs. Without these, ``the world wouldn't go round,'' observes Julian Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland.
The questions start with the ``image'' ads, which play subtly on emotions. Economists tend to regard these ads, too, as a form of ``information.'' The only relevant question, they say, is whether the ads are factually misleading.
Others take a more critical view. Modern advertising is the ``propaganda of American society,'' contends Dr. Kilbourne, whose film, ``Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women,'' is shown throughout the world. Advertising aims to create chronic discontent and a belief that ``products can fulfill us,'' she adds.
``Advertising serves not so much to advertise products as to promote consumption as a way of life,'' writes Christopher Lasch in his book ``The Culture of Narcissism.'' THE KEY QUESTION THE question is, to what extent does it succeed? Nobody can say for sure. Advertising is so entwined with other influences in our culture that its effects are virtually impossible to disentangle.
Thirty years ago, Vance Packard crystallized public uneasiness over the growing influence of the advertising industry in his book ``The Hidden Persuaders.'' He detailed how the industry was using a form of psychology called ``motivation research'' to portray products as symbolic solutions to people's deep emotional cravings: For the American male, convertibles were ``mistresses,'' while homely sedans were ``wives.''
Selling convertibles was no great challenge in the booming postwar years, however. In any event, the influence of ``motivation research'' has waned since then. ``Some of the excesses - the exploitation of anxiety and irrational behavior - to some extent that has decreased,'' Mr. Packard says today. ``They are using more music, and little dramas and comic subtlety.'' But he adds that this is not a cause for relief. The probing of our minds and habits continues under other names. Also, advertising ``is more pervasive today,'' Packard says, ``and that makes it worse.''
Most Americans dismiss the idea that ads influence them very much. But some students of the industry say that this feeling of immunity is part of what makes advertising effective, especially where television is concerned. ``The public lets down its guard to the repetitive commercial use of the television medium,'' Herbert E. Krugman, a leading researcher in the field, once wrote, and it ``easily changes its ways of perceiving products and brands and its purchasing behavior without thinking very much about it.'' He called this process ``learning without involvement.''
Jerry Mander, a former advertising executive and author who has researched the subject extensively, cites findings that TV induces a state not unlike daydreaming or meditation. He says it puts us into the ``right mental condition for the implacement of images.'' Subtle technical devices magnify this effect. In many TV ads there are constant changes of focus, angle, and other so-called technical events that keep our eyes riveted to the screen. ``When images are consistently interrupted, there is no time to fix your attention,'' Mr. Mander explains. ``You can't keep up with it. So you just submit to it.''
In this view, most ads do not persuade us, in the usual meaning of that term. Rather, they aim simply to hold our attention or to evoke feelings we already possess. A great body of psychological research shows that people tend to like - and believe - things that are familiar. ``The effects [of advertising] are cumulative,'' Kilbourne explains.
``When you see Charmin, [after watching ads for the bathroom tissue], you feel more comfortable with that than with a brand you've never heard of,'' says Tony Schwartz, a maverick New York adman and author. What is generally called impulse buying, he says, is ``just the fact that the things you see'' in the store ``evoke the recall of your experience.''
Ad messages have been creeping out of their traditional frames and blending in with the surrounding life. People wear billboards on their T-shirts and the rear pockets of their jeans. ``The [shopping] mall is itself an advertisement,'' Mander observes. It moves ``all of life inside commercial reality.''
This is yet another way of getting us to drop our defenses. ``Advertising functions by making whatever is seen on ads commonplace, not unique,'' Mr. Schwartz says. ``They make it acceptable, known to all, comfortable to all to buy.'' Schwartz, who campaigns against smoking, is especially aware of how the tobacco industry has used this technique in response to the ban on broadcast ads for its products. ``We counted the number of cigarette signs a child saw going to his seat at a basketball game at Madison Square Garden,'' he says. ``It was over 98.'' VIEWS FROM THE INSIDE SOME industry observers say advertising's powers seem a lot less imposing from the inside. Michael Schudson, a professor of the University of California at San Diego and author of the book ``Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion,'' says the psychologists and other marketing whizzes are ``preying upon the insecurities of the advertisers.'' That ad agencies are using these techniques ``is no guarantee they're successful at it,'' Mr. Schudson says.
Brooke Warrick of the Values and Lifestyles Project (VALS) at SRI International consults with corporations all over the country on how to target their advertising to specific subcultures. ``They don't know what ... they are doing,'' he says of his liquor clients. ``It floors me.''
Some contend that, at most, ads merely shuffle sales between brand-name products, without really increasing sales overall. ``If you snatched it [most advertising] away tomorrow, nothing would be changed,'' Mr. Simon says. ``People fear advertising, so they attribute power to it.'' This view is echoed by tobacco companies, which use it to oppose bans on cigarette ads.
``That is probably the most preposterous statement I have ever heard,'' counters Charles Sharp, a former adman who runs an ad-executive placement company in Los Angeles, responding to brand-warfare theory. ``Demand is created by advertising.''
Some groups seem especially vulnerable to advertising. Young people are a prime example, most notably where smoking is concerned. ``If I were to consciously set out to develop a series of advertising campaigns to attract young people to smoking,'' Mr. Sharp told a congressional committee, ``I would do precisely what cigarette advertisers do today.''
It would be naive to blame teen smoking entirely on advertising. Obviously, many factors are involved. But at the very least, the ads aren't helping matters. Teen-agers are especially drawn to attractive role models, for example. And the Marlboro Man, with his gritty independence and rejection of adult authority, embodies the aspiration of many teens, authorities in the field say. Charles McCarthy, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, has found that those ninth- and 12th-graders most likely to smoke are the ones who identify most strongly with characters like the Marlboro Man in image ads. He says it is not coincidental that more than 50 percent of teen-age smokers smoke Marlboros, and in Minneapolis, more than 80 percent of 13- to 14-year-old female smokers were found to use this brand.
Another group that seems especially receptive to image ads is heavy drinkers. Liquor ads ``appear to feed into the alibi system and the denial mechanism of alcoholics, leaving them vulnerable to damage,'' Warren Breed and James Defoe concluded in a study for the Scientific Analysis Corporation in San Francisco. In addition, liquor ads serve to ``mainstream'' alcohol, says Michael Jacobsen of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, adding, ``They destroy the distinction between hard and soft drinks - alcohol loses its specialness as an addictive beverage.'' ADVERTISING'S MORE SUBTLE MESSAGES EVEN when ads don't work at selling particular products, other messages come through. Dr. Ernest Dichter, a pioneer in motivation research who worked closely with the advertising industry, sketched out the challenge to advertisers in the expansive postwar years. The task was not primarily to sell products, but rather a way of life that puts products at the center. They must convince the typical American, he said, that ``the hedonistic approach to his life is a moral, not an immoral, one.''
Some say that advertising is merely a mirror of society's values. Others counter that, if a mirror, it is a highly selective one, reinforcing some proclivities and not others.
``I don't know whether the advertising industry should be held responsible for the increased popularity of sex,'' Robert B. Zajonc, director of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan, said in a rare interview, published in Psychology Today. ``But it's true that our increased interest in sex has gone hand-in-hand with the use of erotic imagery in advertising.'' He also cited another possible effect of this trend: ``It may have made sex seem more trivial.''
Similarly, Kilbourne speaks of how ads reinforce stereotypes of women, despite recent claims of progress. ``Ring around the collar is very much with us,'' she observed in a recent lecture, adding - to loud applause - ``Nobody asks why he didn't wash his neck.'' Such stereotyping affects men as well as women, Kilbourne argues. ``The image of women affects how men feel about everything labeled feminine in themselves.''
Perhaps the most brutal effect on women, she says, is the way it leads them to feel about their bodies. ``We are all told we need a new face,'' she says. ``Every single part of the body is in need of improvement.'' The continual harping on bodily imperfection helps explain why $1 million is spent every hour on cosmetics, Kilbourne says. She and others are convinced that the impossible ideal of beauty found in ads is one influence behind the spread of self-induced eating disorders, such as anorexia. ``There's no doubt women are greatly influenced,'' says Dr. Susan Wooley, a psychiatrist at the University of Cincinnati Medical School. ``As they attempt to meet this ideal, many try to push their body below a natural or normal weight.'' IMPACT ON VOTING IN the realm of politics, most comment has centered on the negative content of television advertising. But slick television campaigns may discourage voting in a more fundamental way. Tony Schwartz notes that merely by watching them - and the news as well - we become part of the great mass called ``public opinion,'' which is duly measured in opinion polls. ``Television has made millions feel that they can influence government and public affairs without participating in politics,'' Schwartz writes. Curtis Gans, who heads the Center for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, has found that, in general, voting tends to decline as the use of television in campaigns increases.
Virtually every new technology of modern campaigns - from polling to targeted direct mail - came from the commercial arena. Today, advertisers are scrutinizing the American public to an unprecedented degree. New systems, involving more than 35,000 households to date in cities throughout the United States, are keeping track of the purchasing of individual families via the Universal Pricing Code, for example, and at the same time are monitoring the ads these families see on cable TV. The new consumer data banks could be used not only to sell products, but candidates as well. ``I guarantee you I had calls from all the major political candidates'' in the '84 elections, says Mr. Warrick of VALS. He says he turns down such requests because the use of the VALS ``psychographic'' profiles would be ``too manipulative.'' But there are no guarantees that others will be so conscientious.
It is easier to see the dangers of the modern persuasion industry than to know what to do about it. Traditionally, the public has tried to hold the industry to a standard of ``truth.'' This was fine in a simpler day. But Mr. Mander says, ``Ninety percent of advertising - and almost all of it on prime time - has nothing to do with concrete fact. It is only images.'' Says Schwartz, ``I can say nothing and make you buy a product.''
Image advertising poses a much more difficult problem. Schwartz says that instead of trying to police the content of ads, we should ask whether the products - cigarettes, for example - should be advertised in the first place. In the political arena, Curtis Gans argues that we should require candidates to speak for themselves in their ads. So-called ``talking head'' ads would eliminate sophisticated media techniques and make the candidates take personal responsibility for their charges.
But even critics of the ad industry are extremely wary of censorship. ``The first thing they would censor would be my slide show,'' Kilbourne says.
Fortunately, there is an alternative course. If the modern persuasion industry works largely because people don't bother to think about it, then more discussion of advertising, in the schools and in the press, would help to break the spell. ``The whole thing would evaporate,'' says David Riesman, the noted sociologist at Harvard University. Kilbourne's opening line might equally well be her final one. ``I'm going to do something perhaps no one else has asked you to do before,'' she tells her audiences. ``I'm going to ask you to take advertising seriously.''
Second of four articles. Next: Ads aimed at children.