Advertising: Commercial Rhetoric
by John M. Phelan
John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City. He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there. He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups. Phelan's writings include:
Communication Control (ed.) New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969. Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.
Mediaworld: Programming the Public. A Continuum Book. New York: Seabury, 1977. Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.
Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media. New York; Hastings House, 1980. Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.
Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest. New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991. Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 22, 1997, pp. 942-946. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
"Advertising." Entry for Dictionary of Theology and Society. Eds. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey. London: Routledge, 1995. Essay on the moral and ethical implications of commercial rhetoric and their adaptations for political, religious, public order and public service purposes.
Advertising is a social institution that produces advertisements within a political economy of technical specialization and bureaucratic organization.
An advertisement is any public form of announcement about any entity, usually but not exclusively a commodity, aimed to promote the acceptance or purchase or at least a toleration of, if not a preference for, the entity.
The advertising agency is the advanced technological means of soliciting, creating, and placing advertisements as well as, frequently, of measuring their effects. The advertiser is the client of the agency and pays the bills. Usually a corporate seller of commodities, the advertiser can also be a political party, a government, a public utility, a religion, a social movement, a charity. Any entity, in other words, which chooses some medium of the public forum to reach large numbers of the public with a message and is willing and able to pay to do so.
The advertising agency began in the nineteenth century with the advertising agent, usually just a middleman between an advertiser and a medium, most usually the newly mass produced large circulation newspaper. The agent bought up a large quantity of newspaper space in blocks and then sold those blocks in pieces to various advertisers at a mark-up. In time, the agent expanded his services to include composition of the advertising copy and eye-catching art work. The modern agency retains this distinction in the account executive as opposed to the creative director. With the addition of more and more services, including research of public wants, needs, fears and hopes as well as follow-up studies of advertising effects on sales, votes, or simple acceptance, the more general term marketing has grown in use to signify all the varied parts of an orchestrated campaign to "move" any entity, from soap to Senators, into a market. Advertising in this context is narrowly construed as that part of marketing which creates and places announcements of whatever complexity in whatever mass medium. Marketing goes further not only in services to clients but also in use of more varied media as well, such as direct mail and telephone calls. A further distinction is often accorded marketing as a quasi-science of analysing what a given market (i.e., regional or income group or other demographic slice of the general public) can be persuaded to buy, accept or prefer, whereas advertising merely follows an advertisers’ need to push an already accomplished product, idea, or program on a given public.
In practice, however, the distinction between marketing and advertising is without much difference since most advertising, except for the basic price-availability announcement, is done within the context of marketing and most often through the same agencies, which are still called advertising agencies. The lis de verbis can verge on the self-serving and spurious when it is claimed that advertising serves producers while marketing serves consumers, on the disingenuous grounds that marketing gives people what they already want. Marketing is only used to move objects which people need to be persuasively told they need or want, usually at a price. There is no marketing of fresh air unless it comes with a mountain resort or sea cruise.
The confusion is averted if one defines advertising as the multimedia language that marketing speaks, thus making it an integral yet rationally separable part of the industrialization of persuasion.
The vast bulk of advertisements are simply price and availability announcements about basic commodities. A much smaller but culturally significant portion of advertisements promote political parties, candidates for office, public policy positions, favorable acceptance of various industries, unions, or other entities, particularly if they are unpopular for some reason. A fraction, but a most visible fraction, of all types of advertisements compete for attention by adding emotional appeal and differentiating information in an attractive form — anything from the color red to a full-scale musical comedy television minute. The announcements become elaborate and go far beyond information about the entity. In a context of low demand, high competition, or actual public antagonism, advertising agents may seek to exploit psychological needs that may be only factitiously joined to the entity by the advertisement itself. Excesses in this direction have led advertising to be called the art form of bad faith.
As in much else, the social issues raised by advertising are not based on the number of advertisements placed, but on the cultural and social impact of the influential visible advertisements in advanced media that go far beyond the mere announcement of price and availability of commodities. Ponderantur, non numerantur.
The social and moral issues raised by the great majority of advertisements are for the most part no different than the standard issues raised by buying and selling (honesty and reliability) or any other form of human intercourse (obligations of truth and faithfulness, compassion, respect for the integrity of individual rights, and so forth.) Bargaining and barter were and are known in all the cultures that have developed moral and religious traditions, most of which have well-known maxims and principles that deal with the vast spectrum of social and moral issues, from fair weight to marriage contracts, bred in the marketplace.
An example of one of these common moral problems found in advertising but not by any means restricted to it or newly created by the modern industrialization of persuasion is the obligation of the speaker to be sincere. Sophists in ancient Greece were condemned by some because they sold their eloquence to the highest bidder. Do the copywriters or art directors for a conservative politician have themselves to be politically conservative? Whatever the answer to this moral question, if it deserves one, it need not spring from special inside knowledge about advertising. Advertisers may lie about the reliability, or true price, or utility of their commodities. These are serious moral and social issues, but not particularly confined to, nor made special by, the context of advertising. People may commit adultery in the back seats of automobiles. This does not raise a special question of automotive ethics.
The issues raised by the abuse of advertisements are real, even urgent, but they are issues long with us and long understood. In other words, clear moral wrong is done in situations where the common moral expectations of obligations met and crimes avoided are not fulfilled. But the language spoken by modern marketing, the institution of advertising, may cause social ills unforeseen or unplanned, perhaps even unapprehended, when it works as common expectations suppose.
The institution of advertising, in other words, is something different from the mere sum of all advertisements. It has evolved into a complex structure of its own, intimately interlaced with other institutions of great antiquity, from churches to governments, and in some measure has actually altered these greater, but dependent, institutions. Advertising has grown into the predominant industrial process of communicating with a public in order to obtain its cooperation with or, at very least, its passive acceptance of, whatever the advertiser wants. Advertising is the technological management of modern media in the service of the advertiser. It has evolved methods for effective persuasion that put it at the heart of modern propaganda.
Modern advertising is not unlike total high-tech nuclear warfare. Both carry on hoary practices from the dim past but each has so industrialized the process with advanced technologies that the fundamental activity is transmuted into something new that raises questions beyond standard discussions of right and wrong on battlefields or in the marketplace. One might say that just as nuclear war has made of the whole planet a potential battlefield, thus raising new questions about war itself, so, too, has modern advertising made of the whole planet an actual constant marketplace, thus provoking radical changes in the practice and theory of human intercourse.
In the largest single market, the United States, explicit advertising constitutes sixty percent of newspaper copy, fifty-two percent of magazine pages, eighteen percent of radio time and an average of twenty-seven percent of television time. More importantly, most influential media are dependent on advertising income. They therefore reinforce, in non-advertising copy or time, the subtexts of conformity, narrow immediate gratifications, and non-critical acceptance of established institutions. This is called offering a supportive environment for advertising, which the advertisers have come to expect. Advertisers don’t like to waste money on people who cannot afford their products or who do not vote and thus do not support media that might aim at the politically or economically disenfranchised. This force has narrowed the spectrum of aesthetic and political diversity as effectively as outright authoritarian censorship.
Advertising is the principal employer of writers, musicians, composers, artists, and actors. The effect of this is to subordinate the independent vision of the artist to the social interests of his current or likely future employers. Looking back through history it is obvious that great art has outlasted its patrons’ immediate self-interests, but the themes of the art clearly reflect the world views of the patrons, be they Italian Popes, Dutch businessmen, English dukes or the French bourgeoisie.
There is no denying that some of the most clever, brilliant, witty, even awesome, art is directly connected with advertising. There is also no denying that much art would not exist if there were no advertising. But the avowedly persuasive marketing context distorts the styles and and narrows the range of the admitted cornucopia.
While it is true that advertiser-supported news and opinion media, such as the The New Yorker magazine in America and Great Britain’s Guardian or Independent, may be of higher quality than reader-supported tabloids like the American National Enquirer of British Mirror, the former generally share the same viewpoint and values while the latter have a much greater range and scope from admitted trash to scholarly quarterlies and alternative journals of opinion like Granta or Grand Street. Despite the range, readers (or viewers) who support their own media are few in number and this limits the resources of any communications outside of advertising or state sponsorship.
Advertising, as noted, has made an art of hyperbole and its overwhelming presence has desensitized people to measured statements. It thus inflates public discourse and creates expectation of, and resignation to, exaggeration, misdirection, prevarication, even outright contradiction. Loud and insistent advertising for state lotteries trumpet "You’ve got to be in it to win it!" with bells and whistles, while a lightning whisper, "Bet with your head, not over it," follows as a disclaimer and sop to moral objections. Virtually invisible fine print, in other words, has come to television and radio. The circus barker sets the tone for public debate.
Advertising is the capital pump that fuels global media. No broadcasting system in the world is without advertising. It is obvious in the total or mixed market systems that now characterize most of the world; it is less obvious but just as pervasive in mixed market systems such as China or Bulgaria or Zaire, where the state is the principal advertiser. Advertising agencies are increasingly international organizations with specialists who study local cultures for the appropriate "hook" or "angle" that will be effective and inoffensive. The collapse of central planning in the East had its own internal dynamics, but the long reach of advertised and advertising Western music, film, television, fashion - the sacraments of consumerism — played an acknowledged role in making centrally planned economies appear unbearably shoddy and barren. The force of Western advertising in Russia, where basic necessities are scarce and expensive, is breathtaking in its ability to get people to spend a month’s salary in an hour on designer jeans or cosmetics.
The Third World, incorrigibly plural as it is, is as one in being affected by advertising’s seductive pictures of the good life through consumption. Thus, elites squander scarce resources on Western luxury items and others scramble to migrate to a better life. This is not to deny the original sin of the powerful pampering themselves nor the substantive rationality of seeking escape from poverty, disease and political instability; it is to underscore the enormous power of Western mass culture, the seamless garment of advertising, to legitimate material success as identical with human worth.
This power can override previous powerful allegiances. During the Falklands War, the fiercely anti-British Argentinian populace were flocking to the current James Bond film in Buenos Aires. Bond films, a media pioneer in successful international marketing, are of course a much parodied vehicle for outrageous excess in brand name luxury. Whether one is amused or awed by the spectacularly supplied superspy, one humbly emulates his love for and dependence on gadgets. The Anglo-American political freight of effortless superiority in both morals and money that this glitzy comic strip carries is of course the subtext of all mainstream advertising.
The traditional defense of advertising agencies for their work is that it is a needed service for what has become a confusing and impersonal market. The village greengrocer or pharmacist has disappeared and one has only ads and packaging and trademarked franchised services to guide one. A growth in candor or a decay of shame may account for the latest industrial apologetic: advertising serves the public and its clients because it adds value to a product by altering purchasers’ perception of its value! A car, drug, home, appliance is only as good or bad as you can be made to think it is.
This may account for the ho-hum reaction of electorates to the revelation of corruption and deceit in candidates successfully marketed for high office.
There is no doubt that advertising, as a special industrialized language of persuasion aimed at researched psychological vulnerabilities of a mass audience, cut off from traditional trusted sources of advice, is successful. No greater mark of its achievement is the rush of good causes, like Amnesty International and many others, to utilize its methods and outlets.
Can such means corrupt such ends?
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