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Advertising today does not have a good press.
Arnold Toynbee, for example, reportedly said, "[I] cannot think of any circumstances in which advertising would not be an evil." Not to be outdone, a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York said: "Advertising is a profoundly subversive force in American life. It is intellectual and moral pollution. It trivializes, manipulates, is insincere and vulgarizes. It is undermining our faith in our nation and in ourselves." By comparison, John Kenneth Galbraith seems tame. He only accuses advertising of creating desires that otherwise would not exist and of manipulating consumers into buying unneeded new brands of breakfast cereal and laundry detergent.
The list of alleged sins committed by advertising is limited only by the creativity of its critics. Advertising has been accused of everything from the cheapening of newspapers and television to media rape. Advertising, the critics say, increases prices without adding value to the product; it encourages monopoly; it corrupts editors; it foists inferior products on the unwitting and helpless consumer; it makes people buy products they do not need; it promotes dangerous products and encourages harmful behavior; itis deceptive and manipulative; it is intrusive, irritating, offensive, tasteless, insulting, degrading, sexist, racist; it is loud, obnoxious, strident, and repetitive to the point of torture; it is a pack of lies; it is a vulgar bore.
Refutation of the criticisms of advertising-from surface level to economic and philosophic fundamentals-is the purpose of this book.
THE ASSAULT ON CONSCIOUSNESS
The critics who denigrate advertising attack not only advertising but also-by logical necessity-capitalism, ethical egoism, and reason.
As an institution in the division of labor and an instrument of capitalistic production, advertising communicates to many people at one time the availability and nature of need- and want-satisfying products. In essence, advertising is salesmanship via the mass media; as such, it is the capitalist's largest sales force and most effective means of delivering information to the market. In addition, advertising by its essential nature blatantly and unapologetically appeals to the self-interest of consumers for the blatant and selfish gain of capitalists. To criticize advertising is to criticize capitalism and ethical egoism.
At the most fundamental level, the attacks on advertising are an assault on reason-on man's ability to form concepts and to think in principles-because advertising is a conceptual communication to many people at one time about the conceptual achievements of others. It is attacked for precisely this aspect of its nature. The goal of advertising is to sell products to consumers, and the means by which this goal is achieved is to communicate what advertisers call the "product concept." An advertisement is itself an abstraction, a concept of what the capitalist has produced. Thus, advertising is a conceptual communication-in a market economy-to self-interested buyers about the self-interested, conceptual achievements of capitalists. To criticize advertising-at the most fundamental level-is to assault man's consciousness.
From its earliest days, critics attacked capitalism for its dependence on the profit motive and the pursuit of self-interest. As the most visible manifestation, or "point man," of capitalism, advertising can be called the capitalist's "tool of selfishness." In a world culture based on altruism and self-sacrifice, it is amazing that advertising has lasted as long as it has. Indeed, its growth was stunted in Great Britain and Ireland for 141 years by a tax on newspapers and newspaper advertising.
As a result of the deregulation of professional advertising (by doctors, dentists, and lawyers), some professionals have expressed hostility toward their associates who advertise. For example, a psychiatrist who doubled the number of patients treated by his psychiatry-neurology group by advertising on television tried at a party to shake hands with a medical doctor; the doctor replied, "Take your dirty, filthy, advertising hands off me." And, of course, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, is on record as saying that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the free speech amendment, is demeaned by its association with advertising.
A history of the last one hundred years of American advertising captures the essence of the critics' hostility toward egoism. The book is The Mirror Makers, by Stephen Fox. On the last two pages of this otherwise well-written, well-researched book, the author states:
Thus the favorite metaphor of the industry: advertising as a mirror that reflects society back on itself. Granted that this mirror too often shows our least lovely qualities of materialism, sexual insecurity, jealousy, and greed. The image in the advertising mirror has seldom revealed the best aspects of American life. But advertising must take human nature as it is found. We all would like to think we act from admirable motives. The obdurate, damning fact is that most of us, most of the time, are moved by more selfish, practical considerations. Advertising inevitably tries to tap these stronger, darker strains.
If selfishness is the original sin of man, according to Judeo-Christian ethics, then surely advertising is the original sin of capitalism. More accurately, advertising is the serpent that encourages man to pursue selfish gain and, in subtler form, to disobey authority. In contemporary economics, pure and perfect competition is the Garden of Eden in which the lion lies down beside the lamb and this "dirty, filthy" advertising is entirely absent-because consumers allegedly have perfect information. Small wonder that advertising does not have a good press.
At the level of fundamental ideas, three attacks on advertising constitute the assault on consciousness. One attack attributes to advertising the coercive power to force consumers to buy products they do not need or want. At the level of metaphysics, this attack denies the volitional nature of reason, that is, free will; consequently, it denies, either explicitly or implicitly, the validity of human consciousness as such. A second attack derides advertising for how offensive it allegedly is; ultimately, critics advocate regulation to control the allegedly offensive advertising. At root-that is, at the level of ethics-this attack denies that values are objective, that values are a product of the relation between material objects and a volitional consciousness that evaluates them. Consequently, it denies the existence of rational options.
A third attack, which derives from contemporary economics, views advertising as a tool of monopoly power. At the level of epistemology, however, this attack denies the possibility of truth and certainty, because reason allegedly is impotent to know reality; all man can do is emulate the methods of physics, by conducting statistically controlled experiments, and attempt to establish an uncertain, probabilistic knowledge.
These three assaults on consciousness form the philosophic foundations of what are commonly known as the "social" and economic criticisms of advertising, the first two forming the foundation of the "social" criticisms, the third the foundation of the economic criticisms.
THE "SOCIAL" AND ECONOMIC CRITICISMS OF ADVERTISING
The quantity of literature that attacks advertising approaches the infinite. The list of complaints is long, and each one has many variations.
Explicitly or implicitly, all attacks attribute to advertising the power to initiate physical force against both consumers and competitors. The "social" criticisms assert that advertising adds no value to the products it promotes; therefore, it is superfluous, inherently dishonest, immoral, and fraudulent. The economic criticisms assert that advertising increases prices and wastes society's valuable resources; therefore, advertising contributes to the establishment of monopoly power.
The "Social" Criticisms
In essence, there are two "social" criticisms. The first explicitly charges advertising with the power to force consumers to buy products they do not need or want; the second implicitly charges advertising with this power. According to the first, advertising changes the tastes and preferences of consumers by coercing them to conform to the desires of producers. For example, consumers may want safer automobiles, but what they get, according to the critics, are racing stripes and aluminum hubcaps. Forcing consumers to conform to the desires of producers, the critics point out, is the opposite of what advocates of capitalism claim about a free-market economy-namely, that producers conform to the tastes and preferences of consumers. Within the first criticism there are two forms.
The more serious claims that advertising, by its very nature, is inherently deceptive, because it manipulates consumers into buying products they do not need or want. The most specific example of this criticism is the charge of subliminal advertising. Thus, when looking at a place mat in front of you at a Howard Johnson's restaurant, with its picture of the fried clam special, you might be deceived and manipulated into changing your taste-from a hamburger to clams. How? By the sexual orgy subliminally embedded in the photograph of the clam special. Freudian psychology has strongly influenced the advocates of this first form of the first "social" criticism.
The other form claims that advertising is "merely" coercive, by creating needs and wants that otherwise would not exist without it. That is, highly emotional, persuasive, combative advertising-as opposed to rational, informative, and constructive advertising-is claimed to be a kind of physical force that destroys consumer sovereignty over the free market. This is Galbraith's "dependence effect," so called because our wants, he claims, are dependent on or created by the process by which they are satisfied-the process of production, especially advertising and salesmanship. Our wants for breakfast cereal and laundry detergent, says Galbraith, are contrived and artificial. The psychology of behaviorism has strongly influenced this second form of the first "social" criticism.
Both forms of the "coercive power" charge refer repeatedly to the advertising of cigarettes, liquor, drugs, sports cars, deodorant, Gucci shoes, and color television sets as evidence of advertising's alleged power to force unneeded and unwanted products on the poor, helpless consumer. The charge of manipulation and deception is more serious than "mere" coercion because manipulation is more devious; a manipulator can make consumers buy products they think are good for them when, in fact, that is not the case. The charge of manipulation, in effect, views advertising as a pack of lies. The charge of "mere" coercion, on the other hand, claims that advertising is just brute force; advertising in this view, in effect, is excessively pushy.
According to the second "social" criticism, advertising offends the consumer's sense of good taste by insulting and degrading his intelligence, by promoting morally offensive products, and by encouraging harmful and immoral behavior. Prime targets of this "offensiveness" criticism are Mr. Whipple and his Charmin bathroom tissue commercials, as well as the "ring around the collar" commercials of Wisk liquid detergent and the Noxzema "take it all off" shaving cream ads. But worse, the critics allege, advertising promotes products that have no redeeming moral value, such as cigarettes, beer, and pornographic literature. Advertising encourages harmful and immoral behavior and therefore is itself immoral. Although this criticism does not begin by attributing coercive power to advertising, it usually ends by supporting one or both forms of the first "social" criticism, thus calling for the regulation or banishment of a certain type of offensive-meaning coercive-advertising.
In the textbooks, these are called "social" criticisms. At their roots, however, they are philosophic. It is by reference to philosophic principles that answers to the charges against advertising will be made.
The Economic Criticisms
The economic criticism-it is really only one charge with several variations-claims that advertising is a means by which businesses establish monopoly power over the market. In essence, there are only two forms to this charge. In both, the Garden of Eden-that is, the doctrine of pure and perfect competition-is the standard by which the monopoly charge is made.
The first form claims that advertising is a barrier to entry that prevents competitors from challenging the market position of a large firm. The barrier is erected by a firm's large advertising expenditures. The alleged process of establishing monopoly power runs as follows. Heavy advertising differentiates the advertiser's product, whether or not there are real differences between it and the competition's. The differentiation created by techniques of persuasive advertising makes consumers loyal to the advertiser's brand. Brand loyalty of consumers, then, is the actual barrier that prevents other firms from entering the market. It is a barrier because the competitor would have to advertise at least as heavily to overcome it. Thus, advertising causes product differentiation, product differentiation causes brand loyalty, and brand loyalty is the barrier.
Economists frequently cite Bayer aspirin to illustrate this form of the criticism. Aspirin is aspirin, the critics say, but Bayer's heavy advertising differentiates the product in consumers' minds and makes them loyal. Competitors cannot obtain the resources necessary to compete with Bayer; hence, Bayer has restricted their freedom of competition and is therefore anticompetitive.
The other form of the monopoly argument claims that advertising increases prices. In the imperfect world in which we live, this charge says, informative advertising is used to reduce consumer ignorance, but persuasive advertising differentiates what essentially are homogeneous products. The differentiation causes consumers to prefer the advertiser's brand and to become loyal to it, thus reducing consumer sensitivity to changes in price. The reduction in sensitivity to price changes enables the advertiser to charge more than what would otherwise occur under perfect competition or through the use of informative advertising. The price premium, according to the law of demand and supply, reduces total output. Consequently, advertising is wasteful. Or: advertising causes product differentiation, product differentiation causes abnormally high prices, high prices reduce output and waste society's valuable resources.
To see this more clearly, say the critics, just observe the aspirin market. Nationally advertised brands, such as Bayer, are priced substantially higher-20 percent or more-than privately produced store brands, such as Safeway, Kroger, or A & P. These store brands, however, are seldom advertised. Hence, advertising must necessarily raise the price of the product.
THE NATURE OF MARKETING AND ADVERTISING
Marketing is the parent discipline of advertising; both are products of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.
To be sure, elements of both marketing and advertising have existed since antiquity: the first trade between primitive people was a market transaction, and traces of media advertising (signs) have been found as long ago as Babylonian times. But it is the extensive division of labor and mass production brought about by the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to the institutions of marketing and advertising. It was not an accident that both were made predominantly illegal in socialist countries of the twentieth century-as a theory, socialism loathes such egoistic, capitalistic activities.
Excerpted from In Defense Of Advertising by Jerry Kirkpatrick Copyright © 2007 by Jerry Kirkpatrick. Excerpted by permission.
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