The Influence and Ethics of Advertising

From this thread in the OP of a Pit thread we get the following quote from

Personally, I have never been convinced by any advertisement I have seen to purchase a product or service that I was not already inclined to purchase. I do not drink beer on a regular basis and no matter how much I loved the Budweiser frogs or Elvira’s impressive bosom I was not going to purchase either Bud Lite or Coors. On the flip side, I like hamburgers. Seeing an advertisement for a new type of hamburger may impel me to go to the establishment selling said burger. This is especially true if they allow me to pay them Tuesday for a fantastic hamburger today. Even as wee lad I cannot recall and advertisement that induced me to purchase a product, or, as I had no money of my own, induced me to ask my parents to purchase a product I was not otherwise inclined to like to begin with.

I am also not convinced that advertising creates false values. Of course the problem here is that “value” can mean a lot of different things. I certainly value having a stable family life and that’s just what one minivan commercial promises me if I purchase their product. I also value saving money which is what another car commercial promises to do for me because it’s so darn economical. Now I don’t really think a minivan is going to provide me with familial bliss but it’s hardly a value that was created by the advertising companies. It’s just a value they’ve chosen as one likely to manipulate their target demographic.

Admittedly, I do have some problems with how some products are advertised. I don’t like how companies like McDonald’s target children with their advertisements for example. I think it goes without saying (why am I saying it then?) that advertisers shouldn’t be able to lie about their product. There are many ads (ExtenZe I’m looking at you) that someone seem to mislead while at the same time avoiding getting into serious trouble with authorities.

Given the ubiquity of advertising in our lives, does it have too great of an influence on our decisions? If so, how can that be changed? What makes an ad unethical?

There are two basic truths about advertising: everyone thinks that he or she is too smart to be influenced by it, and virtually no one actually is. It’s difficult to track and understand all of one’s own mental processes and accurately measure how much one is influenced. I can certainly say that I never see a commercial and then immediately run out to buy the product being advertised ten seconds later. That, however, doesn’t mean that I’m not being influenced by ads. The process of watching thousands of ads driving home the same message over and over, year after year, may influence my psychology in ways that I’m barely aware of. For example, like most children, I saw thousands of beer commercials long before I drank my first beer. While those commercials didn’t force me to run out and drink a beer, they may have subtly altered my thinking toward believing that beer-drinking is a normal and enjoyable thing to do. Heck, everybody knows that the major American beers taste like crap, yet clearly the beer companies believe they have something to gain by saturating us with advertisements.

I think, that we (in the USA) are in advertising overload-I can’t remember most of the ads thrown our way.
It really is annoying, when you are trying to watch a movie or TV show-the ads just keep coming.
And the Internet-how come Netflix keeps getting through my filters?

You may not feel that advertising influences you because you don’t drink beer, but perhaps you’re getting a craving for a fast food hamburger once a week instead of once a month. Maybe that car you think is so economical isn’t really that cheap, but you’re predisposed to think it is.

The biggest misconception people have about advertising is that it’s supposed to trigger some sort of Pavlovian response in the consumer - see a commercial on TV and 10 minutes later you’ll run down to your local store. It doesn’t need to work that way.

Marketing Iraq: Why now?

Oh no, I did not mean to imply that I am not influenced by advertising. My example of getting that hamburger was supposed to make it clear that I acknowledged that I was influenced by it. Still, I don’t believe I have ever been influenced by advertising to purchase something I wasn’t already inclined to purchase to begin with. Hence, my beer example.

It certainly doesn’t. Although there’s no objective way to measure how well advertising works, most advertisers will admit that it takes repeated viewings of a print ad before it starts to become at all effective.

The basic message of advertising is to promote awareness of the product. Ad: “Are you aware that we have this product?” You: “Now I am, perhaps I might try it some day.”

The rest of the ad is meant to make you remember the product (or service) with a catchy tune or funny, appealing, people or cute animals, so that the next time you are shopping and you come across the item it will stand out against the other products it is competing with.

This is called brand recognition. You are much more likely to buy something that you feel familiar with, advertising tries to make you feel familiar with the product before you buy it. This is basic human nature. Why pull something unfamiliar off the shelf when all those happy people on TV seemed to like the stuff with the brand name you know.

Advertising has really distorted the idea of a free market. Ideally rational actors would buy and sell based on the merits of the product and the price. Add in some other factors like convenience, and local laws, and that’s pretty much how the models the US economy was theorized. But it’s been thoroughly proven that advertising works, and it doesn’t work by extoling the merits or price of a product, but by other means. Either associating the product with intangible factors like sex appeal or by sheer mindshare.

For example, I was putzing around in the kitchen this weekend and one of my goals has been to make time for breakfast(I’m not a morning person, I usually stagger out the door like Dagwood). I saw some Snicker’s candy bars on the cabinet that my wife bought(I’m not big on sweets) and I thought “I could just grab one of those in the morning, Snickers are pretty satisfying” and as soon as I thought that, I realized that I have no real evidence of Snickers being satisfying, and in fact I don’t even really like them because the gooey caramel and nuts team up to stick fragments of nuts in places I never wanted nuts. The only reason I can think of for my original thought was the Snickers advertising campaigns for years about how they were satisfying.

Advertising distorts. One of the underpinning ideas the free market was based on was fair value, and the reality is that fair value is a myth(Podcast interview with William Poundstone, whose new book is “Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value”). There are so many ways of presenting economic choices which bias the average human in a way the presenter wants. It’s just ridiculous.


I’ve done my best to limit my children’s exposure to ads. We only watch tv via a tivo and zip through ads, and have adblock on the computer, don’t purchase items with licensed characters on them etc. She is much less focused on getting new stuff, especially specific brands of stuff than the other children I know near her age. Her Christmas list is short, and sometimes odd. Hearing the contrast between her lists and her friends’ lists really had brought home to me how influential advertising is.

As I was leaving for the market today, I asked her if there was anything she needed from the store. She told me raspberries and lemons. The first time I did this in front of another friend of mine who is a parent, she thought I was insane and she told me she would expect a long list from her kid. Ads create demand for stuff we don’t need and that is an issue, especially when you target those too young to understand that most advertisements are just deceptions. Parents do have some power though to say no the ads, as I have tried to do. Some advertisers, such as Mars, choose not to target children, and I applaud that decision.

I am more troubled though by the non-products that ads sell, the stereotypes they reinforce and the values they sell. Killing Us Softly was right and Killing Us Softly 3 shows that it really has not improved. Ads are influential, and if we want our values as a society to change, we need to convince advertisers of that. It is working for the green movement. Now commercials brag about being green. I would like it if we could work on sexism and racism in ads next.

I figure advertising works somewhat on me, though I abhor advertising and the idea it works on me.

I think practically the entire advertising industry is morally bankrupt and a pox on humanity. They claim they are educating consumers about options, but work to increase sales for whatever they are selling, including misleading consumers.

Moreover, they actually objectively intend to bother and irritate consumers with some of their output. They say that an advertisement that annoys a person is also an advertisement that the person notices and remembers, and contend that sometimes the notice and memory are worth the annoyance. This means that, for the subset of ads fitting this description, they are actually in the business of slightly hurting people en masse. I can’t think of any other human enterprise that does so.

Because it has happened gradually, many of us have not realized the myriad ways in which advertising has eroded the quality of life.

Now, there is one category of advertising that I think is good. If a company is trying to sell goods, and hires professional help to make their sales literature work better in the sense of conveying accurate relevant information to consumers who are seeking that information, that professional help is a good thing; I think often today that professional help is nominally part of the advertising industry.

Yeah, as people have already said above - everybody* thinks that. If you believed anecdotal evidence, then not one person on this planet is influenced by advertising; and yet they still advertise.
*for certain values for “everybody” not including actually “everybody”

One aspect of this debate that I’ve always found amusing is the hypocricy of the television industry.

One one hand, the industry often claims that negative bahaviors, such as violence and early sexual activity, aren’t influenced by the things that we and our children are exposed to in the media.

On the other, they charge millions of dollars for advertising space during their programming, ostensibly due to the ability of said advertising to influence the attitudes and spending habits of their consumers.

To the OP: you mentioned that you like hamburgers. Do you have a preferred hamburger? And are you absolutely comfortable with the reason that it is your favorite? Would the Big Mac enjoy such popularity without the millions of dollars of advertising that goes into telling us how yummy (and popular) it is?

When you have a headache and need something to relieve the pain, is your first thought for acetaminophen and ibuprofin or is it for Tylenol and Motrin? The effects of advertising are cumulative and subtle. It’s designed so that even if you logically know that the generic ibuprofin will suffice, most will still automatically reach for the name-brand in favor of the generic sitting next to it.

Honestly, I don’t believe most advertisers are interested in annoying the people who see their ads. While there are certainly ads that annoy me, I do not believe they were intended to do so. After all, if your audience associates the product their advertising with something negative they’re not likely want to have anything to do with it.

If it makes you feel any better, I do not believe that I’m a unique and beautiful flower. I happen to believe that most people have never been influenced by an advertisement to purchase a product they were not inclined to purchase in the first place. Again, that’s not the same as saying I have never been influenced by advertising as I have admitted that I am influenced by it.

I think I must be confusing people with my statements. I am, in fact, influenced by ads. I admit it. I am inclined to buy a hamburger because I like hamburgers. That means an ad for a burger place may influence me to eat there next time I’m in the mood for a burger. What an ad won’t do is get me to purchase something I wasn’t inclined to purchase to begin with. I don’t like Thai food. I won’t be eating at a Thai restaurant -if it’s my choice- no matter how much they advertise.

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s a travesty that all children in America aren’t required to take media analysis, from kindergarten to graduation (obviously with different levels of complexity as they age). Between the internet, billboards, bus stops, magazines, newspapers, TV, movies, radio, even spam text messages, they are getting millions of messages a day. The media sure gets blamed for many of society’s ills, for glamorizing violence and drugs, promoting irresponsible sex and unrealistic body images – so why aren’t we ensuring kids know how to deal with it all, critically? To recognize internet spam, decode ad stereotypes and TV tropes? It may not produce people who are immune to ads – I agree that that would be near impossible, and perhaps not even desirable – but at least they’d be smarter consumers.

Wether they intend it or not, ads certainly are annoying - some years back I completely cut myself off from broadcast television, and since then the presence of the ads that remain in my life has been thrown into stark relief for me (perhaps due to de-acclimatizing). They all are annoying - if for no other reason than that they take a chunk of my time and waste it, but most of them are objectively annoying beyond that.

And I do think that many of them are deliberately made annoying. Annoying = memorable and noticeable. If you don’t notice and remember an ad, it has no effect (or at least considerably less).

I think this is largely true. When I watch Hulu, I simply open up the TV show in another browser window and when the ad comes on, I click away and mute the compter. Then I come back when the show starts.

Conversely I will click on Google ads at random to cost the company money when I don’t have any intention of buying the product.

I agree most ads do not have a huge effect, but a few ads have been enourmous.

Two of the most successful where Candice Bergen’s ad for Spint and Poloroid’s ad with Jim Garner and Mariette Hartley. Both ads were singlehandely saving their respective companies and those ads brought in much more business.

But those are very rare. When people say ads don’t effect them, they are probably 99.9% correct, but it only takes one.

For me I recall when I was driving from Chicago to Florida, I started seeing billboard and signs on barns that said, “See Ruby Falls” and “Visit Rock City.” Every ten feet was a “See Ruby Falls” or “Visit Rock City” sign. By the time I hit Chattanooga, I actually was so intrigued by the signs I went to see it. It was OK and worth a one time visit, but had the signs not been, literally every 10 or 20 feet, I wouldn’t have gone.

So you see it works. As the saying goes, “Sling enough mud some of it will stick”

There are a few good things that come from advertising. First, it helps people make fast decisions when thinking things through would be a waste of time. Like when buying a soft drink. Second, it lets us have free TV and internet.

The best advertising lets the viewer think he is making his own decisions. This is why you might think that advertising hasn’t convinced you to buy a product that you were not first inclined to purchase.

Another factor is that advertisers usually don’t create a market for their product (with some brilliant exceptions.) It’s just easier to create a product for an existing market. If no one liked beer, then no one is going to create a beer and try to get everyone to like it. So most of the ads out there are trying to convince you that if you like A then product Z is the best for you. They are going after people who already have an inclination for their product. Advertisers don’t have the money to target everyone individually, so it would not make sense to go after people who never drink beer when you can advertise during the Superbowl to an audience already inclined to like beer.

That said, there are bold advertisers out there who set out to expand the market or create new markets. Even then beer companies won’t try to convince non-alcoholics that they should be drinking beer. Besides being immoral, that’s a tough sell. But they have convinced a lot of people that they should be drinking beer while watching sports. That they should be drinking beer when they go to college. That you should be drinking beer at barbecues. That drinking beer is a manly thing to do. The only reason American society has these customs and beliefs is because beer companies wanted people to drink more beer.

Have you ever bought a diamond engagement ring? Drank champagne on New Year’s Eve? Bought a Valentine’s Day card? Why? There’s no reason for doing any of these things, but advertisers have convinced millions of people to do them. The limits of what advertising can influence people to do is scary considering that Hitler convince an entire nation that killing all the Jews would be good for them.

Morally, some aspects of advertising are very questionable. If everyone were suddenly comfortable with their bodies then we might see the collapse of the beauty industry. However, without people spending so much on worthless products, then what would they do with their money? The more people spend the better off the economy. If rich people bought Smirnoff vodka for $15 instead of Stoli Elite for $50 (they taste the same chilled) then that extra $35 would be in a savings account somewhere and not helping the many people who sell, manufacture and distribute vodka.

It’s bad for everyone if rich people horde money, and advertising helps that money trickle down to the middle class a lot better than tax cuts do. Yet the downside is of course that the middle class and poor people end up spending like rich people do. But so what? The market works best when people live with the consequences of their stupid decisions, not when everyone is prevented from making stupid decisions.

Apologies, drillrod. I didn’t address this part of your post, which, in my opinion, is the most important part of it. I’ve had the same thought as you. I think most people would agree that advertising is effective though there’s probably debate over how effective it is. However, many people scoff at the idea that images of sex and violence have any sort of influence as if it’s a completely ridiculous idea.

I don’t think I have an answer right now but it’s certainly an intriguing thought.