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The Growing Centrality of Advertising

What was once a localized industry associated with a certain kind of economy in specific societies has now become a core societal institution in a wide range of contexts around the world. By 2000, advertising had grown from an American-centered industry in the 1950s 1 into a mega-billion-dollar global industry. 2 In the process, advertising has been transformed into a medium through which many of society's key entities and their publics communicate. O'Barr (1994) states that advertising both reflects and constitutes social order (p. 4), but I think we must go even further: Advertising has become a major force in ongoing societal re/production. This re/productive role is rendered all the more weighty as society globalizes. To highlight but two examples: Today, we witness the increasing use of political spots as a major form of electoral communication in countries outside America and Europe (Holden, 1997b, 1999b; Sabato, 1981); so too are we experiencing the pell-mell insertion of symbols indigenous to one cultural context into product appeals in another (Holden, 2001b). This burgeoning presence has meant that advertising has become a magnet for communication researchers, political scientists, psychologists, marketers, semioticians, sociologists, social philosophers, anthropologists, and cultural historians. At the same time, likely due to the great differences among these practitioners and the disciplinary, balkanized tendency of contemporary social science, a large amount of high-quality work in the field has gone mutually unrecognized. Bridges have remained unbuilt, channels of connection untraversed. A certain core set of themes has emerged. These include gender, 3 cultural history, 4 organizational practice, 5 marketing, 6 branding, 7 audience, 8 and commodification. 9 Many studies of advertising reduce the subject to a specific topic, such as the language of advertising, 10 the art of advertising, 11 or its historical development. 12 Areas that have been identified, but in my view have yet to be adequately explored, include cultural and political nationalism, comparative political values, race, identity, the changing nature of the sign, advertising's agenda-setting function, and the presence and operation of the advertising institution on ad readers' perceptions and practices. All of these are projects worthy of future attention. Yet in general, and unfortunately, advertising research has rarely proceeded in a comprehensive, synthetic way. For those seeking to clarify the wealth of disparate literature that has accrued over the years, the task is certainly formidable. It is just this project I believe media studies must take on. I wish, with this chapter, to offer a start.

Toward a Total Conception of Advertising

From Marx, among others, sociology incorporated a holistic, totalizing visionsociety as a complex composite of structural elements operating at numerous levels in simultaneous, cross-cutting, interlocking, often contradictory ways, defying facile reduction. Among these levels are the political and economic, above all, but so, too, are the social, cultural, moral, and spatio-temporal. One element of the Marxist legacy is embodied in what Golding and Murdock (1991) call a critical political economy of communication, a perspective that has come to exert an increasing presence in advertising scholarship.

What separates the totalizing conception argued for here from the kind of critical approach espoused by Golding, Murdock, and others is that a considerable amount of advertising research has illuminated aspects other than political economy or even cultural history. Although critical writers often argue that such studies miss the point, the fact is that a wealth of significant advertising information is generated outside the critical perspective. To accommodate such voices, a framework is required that is flexible enough to observe the many sectoral and institutional phenomena that may emerge within, but are not mere reflexes of, the larger system of capital reproduction. By sectors, I mean the dimensions of society as categorized by academic disciplines, such as sociology, political science, and the like. By institutions, I mean coherent sets of ideas, practices, roles, and norms that are regularized in social structure, such as the institution of religion, the institution of the family or the institution of advertising. ADVERTISING AS A SOCIETAL INSTITUTION Through its network-like connections not only to but also between the various sectors of society, advertising can be seen as linking various institutions, organizations, and publics; it serves as a re/productive mechanism through which various laws, rules, practices, conventions, beliefs, and ideologies flow. This mediation process is quite complex. It entails advertisers deriving the materials of their commercial communications from the social knowledge they gather about the audience, then translating this knowledge into information products in ways (formats, codes, signs) that can be understood by that audience. Leiss (1994) maps the dimensions of the advertising institution thus: [Advertising] incorporates a threefold process of mediation. One type occurs between producers and consumers, wherein advertising agencies assist producers in encoding products with symbolic meanings; another, between producers and the media, wherein agencies assist producers in choosing the right media mix (and the media content advertising content relation) for attaining the strategic objectives of their marketing campaigns; and a third, between media and their audiences, wherein agencies assist both producers and the media in understanding the decoding processes of audiences. (p. 131) The complexity of the mediation equation provides further ground for a synthetic approach. For now, though, let us review some of the research literature's dominant perspectives on advertising, commencing with an ongoing, sometimes paradoxical dispute. THE PARADOX OF ADVERTISING WITHIN MEDIA STUDIES Today, Baudrillard (1981/1994) has written, we are experiencing the total absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising (p. 87). A second French theorist, Mattelart (1991), opines, Our society is immersed in advertising as the dominant mode of communication (p. 214). Hyperbole? Perhaps. Yet these views are far from unique. There is, among those who contemplate advertising, a tendency to ascribe great power to it. This presents a paradox, of sorts, for in media studieswhich includes advertising as its research object 13 the trend over the past 40 years has mostly been away from attributing direct, powerful effects to media. And yet throughout that period, there has been steady public clamor about advertising's tremendous, malign influence. The litany is familiar to those in the field generally seen as beginning with Packard (1957), 14 who gave voice to popular anxieties about subliminal seduction 15 and mass manipulation by characterizing advertisers as hidden persuaders capable of influencing unguarded consumers. In a few

years, Raymond Williams (1961/1993, p. 334) would posit advertising to be a magical system, without which capitalism would surely collapse. Two decades later, having just entered the period of audience-mediated negotiated and aberrant readings of text (S. Hall 1980), Schudson (1984) produced a widely circulated book on advertising bearing the provocative subtitle Its Dubious Impact on American Society. Yet Schudson too saw fit to echo Williams's (1961/1993) line that advertising is the official art of modern capitalist society. Even to Schudson, this capitalist realist art possesses a special cultural power for it picks up some of the things that people hold dear and represents them to people as all of what they value (p. 233). It has become commonplace to articulate this view of advertising as moral culture (e.g., Fox & Lears, 1983; Pope, 1983; Marchand, 1985): the notion that, under advertising's influence, society has become narrowly circumscribed by consumerist values. Even at a point when some deemed the audience all-powerful (e.g., Fiske 1989), advertising was still perceived as potent. For instance, Habermas (1995/1962) advanced the view that advertising (rendered as publicity by his translators) possessed the power to transform public life by altering relations between political leaders and their public(s). He argued that the reduction of political messages to the form of ads meant that political and social affairs were no longer discussed collectively by rational citizens. Instead, public matters were aired in private spaces, if at all, by atomized consumers of mass culture. No less sweeping have been claims by those who assert that advertising is as concerned with selling lifestyles and socially desirable identities, which are associated with their products, as with selling the products themselves (Kellner, 1995, p. 252). In the process, these critics allege, consistent images of gender and race, interpersonal relations, sexuality, health, body, age, and nation (to name only a few) are constantly reproduced. Crucially, it has been argued, rival images have been effectively barred from circulation. The result is a narrowing of discourse through the agenda-setting function of advertising (Holden, 1995).


To be fair, the notion of advertising as an omnipotent medium of communication is far from universally held. There are those who find advertising's effects tempered, contingent, negligible, if not entirely absent. Schudson's (1984) book produced sharp reactions because it argued, in part, that [advertising's] power is not so determinative nor its influence so clear (p. 11). Patterson and McClure (1976), in earlier path-breaking work, had studied voter reactions to political commercials and concluded that the vast majority of Americans are immune to advertising's propaganda. They are not manipulated (p. 130). Diamond and Bates (1984) observed an obvious but underrecognized reality: Less than half of the advertising done in any specific election year will be for successful candidates and more than half for unsuccessful candidates (p. 350). In light of such inefficacy, can one contend that advertising is influential? For media researchers, witnessing a world ever more fashioned around the rhetoric of advertising, this dispute is a puzzle in need of unscrambling. Because advertising is a media institution, it has been subject to the currents that historically have coursed through media studies, including the long-running paradigm wars between competing camps of

process (or effects) and meaning (see Chapters 9 and 12, this volume). Neither model has been fully persuasive or completely shakable. Most often, now, the view of effects is that they are longer term or indirect, 16 whereas the notion of audience power has become more situationaltempered by medium, locale, social group, or specific issue (Dahlgren, 1998; Hay, Grossberg, & Wartella, 1997; Morley, 1988). Advertising research tends to adopt one of the two perspectives 17 but often does so with little recognition that it is contributing to or being shaped by particular long-running but contested paradigms. Let us now proceed to assess more specific traditions of research, beginning with two that pivot as much on a difference of objectives as of methods.

Research Traditions
Harms and Kellner (1990) contend that two broad traditions have characterized advertising research: (a) administrative studies and (b) critical studies. 18 The former focuses on the collection of data as a means of learning how to use advertising to influence audiences, sell products, and promote politicians. The latter centers on how advertising articulates with the institutional structures of contemporary capitalist societies, with an eye to grasping its negative effects. The Administrative Tradition. Market research exemplifies the administrative tradition. In this approach, a range of methods (including focus groups, projective techniques, and association tests) are employed, all aimed at gaining feedback from potential consumers about themselves, products, or possible ad campaigns. Physiological responses, recognition testing, and attitude-tracking tests may also be employed. Much of these data are collected in-house at advertising agencies. Academic researchers also study a range of focused phenomena with applications to ad form and content: everything from whether subliminal perception alters consumer behaviorhighly unlikely (Merikle, 2000)to whether negative political advertising can change voting behavior (in specifiable cases, it does). 19 The Critical Tradition. Critical media studies originated with the Frankfurt school. In more recent years, the label critical political economy has become more common, the avowed aim of which is to trace the interplay between the symbolic and economic in communications. This project can be found in Baudrillard, 20 but applied specifically to advertising, it is best embodied in the sophisticated work of Williamson (1978). This approach has also been pursued by Jhally (1990) and Goldman (1992). Not all critical approaches, however, are Marxist or even centered on political economy. Goffman's (1976/1979) workthough critical of the gender systemcenters on the socially reproductive function of ads (i.e., focusing on social definitions and roles) while deemphasizing (or altogether ignoring) the economic dimensions. Although the kinds of studies denoted by the administrative label are not critical, it is unwise to insist on strict separation. A synthetic approach to advertising certainly would do well to keep all these traditions in mind without blindly favoring or derogating either. For this reason, other research traditions should also be considered. These are often not fullblown traditions as much as perspectives, as we will now summarize. The Semiotic Tradition. Many media analysts have argued that underneath ad text (i.e., beneath the level of primary discourse or what the advertiser is trying to sell) lies a secondary discourse, consisting of social, cultural, or political meanings embedded in

sign-text. Semiotics, the method of analysis that explores this deeper discourse, saw its popularity steadily ascend during the 1980s and 1990s. Barthes's (1957/1972, 1967) formulation has probably been the most influential version of this approach. He argues that individual signs can be excavated from social text and, if systematically demonstrated as recurrent, can be linked together in chains of signification that may reveal the deeper ideational structure of society, which he labels myth. This formulation has proven quite fruitful in academic advertising research, even in cases where Barthes is not accorded explicit mention. The full Barthesian lexicon of signification, orders of connotation, and myth has proven unnecessarily abstruse for many analysts. Consequently, they have favored a more straightforward coding of underlying cultural meaning. Two models in particular stand out, the studies already cited by Williamson (1978) and Goffman (1976/1979). Each in its own way has served to establish systematic semiotic analysis as an important tool for advertising research. Williamson's study served to lay the foundation for much of the critical studies of advertising, whose political-economic bent has become popular in the past decade; Goffman's not only worked to spotlight gender as a major genre in advertising research but also served to inspire qualitative content analysis of other social groups (e.g., O'Barr, 1994). The Cultural Studies Perspective: Insistence on the Negotiation of Meaning. The practitioners of cultural studies asserted that message production was an open process in which ad readers could (and did) negotiate multiple meanings encoded in the commercial message. The crux of this view is captured in the following statement by Tomlinson (1999): Advertising texts though part of what Horkheimer and Adorno (1979) referred to disparagingly as the culture industry linked to the instrumental purposes of capitalism, remain significant cultural texts. The way people make use of advertising texts may often be similar to the way they use novels or films. This is because they [ads] offer narratives however ideologically suspectof how life may be lived, references to shared notions of identity, appeals to self-image, pictures of ideal human relations, versions of human fulfillment, happiness and so on. (pp. 18-19) Such a view stands a significant distance from strong effects models of media, for it perceives that advertising has an indeterminate effect. Whatever impact ads might have are mediated, if not wholly determined, by the message recipients themselves. Postmodernist writers, as we will now see, occupy much of the same ground. Postmodernist Perspectives. In the 1980s, with the popularity of postmodernism and its application to reflexive ad products, the focus turned to tracing the unending routing and rerouting of signifiers and signifieds in ad text. As elements in the sign became detached from their referent systems, signifiers often become more important than the signifieds, it was argued, and in this way images come to rivalif not dominatethe intended message. For analysts, this often meant tracing the implications of meaning exchange: the relative interpretations, use, or power, for instance, between message encoders and decoders. As an example, Fowles's (1996) widely cited study of the links between popular culture and

advertising in America included the claim that ad consumers derive as much use from the images in advertising as the ad creators derive from consumers' attention to specific ad messages. In particular, the meanings contained in such communications (often unrelated to narrow product communication) can serve to prompt message recipients in negotiating the personal dilemmas of contemporary existence. To postmodernist analysts, the polysemy of ad texts, coupled with greater sophistication of ad readers, means there is greater equality between encoder and decoder, an opening up in meaning transference and construction. We shall explore this line of argument later in the work of O'Donohoe (2001). To other writers, however, the insights of postmodernism have amounted to nothing more than irksome, even pointless, mental calisthenics. Goldman (1992), for instance, ends his critique of this interpretative era in advertising studies by writing, The culture of the image is, indeed, all surface; unfortunately, postmodernist critiques are as flat and one-sided as the world of simulations they refer to. In a world of free-floating signifiers that advertising celebrates and poststructuralism criticizes, the critiques become as free-floating as the celebration. (p. 231) It would be fair to assert that this genre of advertising research has proven less definitive than suggestive. It may be true that ad readers have more latitude to construct meanings than advertisers might intend and that the ads currently crafted embody an array of practices (such as fragmentation, de-differentiation, hyperreality, pastiche, intertextuality, and pluralism) that would encourage less unity in meaning construction. However, advertising's agenda-setting function also helps determine the contextual frame within which ad messages circulate. For ad readers, cultural history, social values, economic organization, political institutions, and practices prove highly directive. Thus, provocative as postmodernist theorizing may be, the reality is that encoding and decoding do generally articulate with one another and in ways consistent with national cultural parameters. The process is far less random than postmodernism would predict. The Question of Levels of Analysis. Part of any totalizing conception is integration between levels. For critical scholars, this often has meant contextualizing communications, embodied well in the cultural studies approach that has emphasized the manufacture, transmission, reception, and use of messages. This linkage of producer and consumer is a project that Moeran (1996) rightly notes advertising studies must take on. Unfortunately, his study offers no glimpse of the message consumer in context. Other studies err on the opposite side, by focusing almost exclusively on the message recipient. A cottage industry of consumer-sensitive studies has arisen, showing that message recipients are becoming more favorably disposed to advertising (Meadows, 1983), although this appears to vary to some degree by geographic location (Bonnal, 1990). Moreover, ad recipients are apparently becoming more literate about ads (Goodyear, 1991)to the point of understanding the motives of message producers and the aims of their messages (Mintel, 1998; Tynan & O'Donohoe, 1998)although this level of sophistication evinces geographic patterning (Goodyear, 1994). Such focused, audience-centered research is often the province of the advertising agency, and thus either does not make it into the public domain or else fails to address linkage between levels. In between these two ends of the cultural circuit (S. Hall, 1980) are the messages themselves. A staple research methodology on this front has been content analysis. Initially

a strictly quantitative approach, more recently it has been wedded with semiotics. These approaches, which have become standard in advertising research, are not without flaws. As Harms and Kellner (1990) observe, the study of content often eschews discussion of the political-economic structure of mass media and neglects the audience. Overall, they assert, semiotics fails to adequately articulate the linkage between the macro political economic structure of mass media and the micro mass communication forms and techniques so as to reveal both the socioeconomic functions of advertising and the ways that ads actually shape and influence perception and behavior which reproduce the existing social system. Above all, communication models built for one context cannot be applied to (or imposed on) another. Advertising forms, as well as the specific symbols and ideas embedded in their content, will, of necessity, have to be crafted to the imperatives of each place. Media Technologies and Advertising. A major goal of synthesis is to facilitate advertising studies' treatment of complex societal phenomena. This is achieved by providing a methodology that can simultaneously strike a variety of analytic postures. It is here that I wish to ask, Does this flexibility extend, as well, to a focus on specific media technologies? It is not uncommon to encounter advertising scholarship that rather indiscriminately fuses them. To offer a few examples, although Williamson (1978) employs magazine and newspaper advertisements to demonstrate how meaning is placed in service of ideology, Harms and Kellner (1990) invoke her workalong with other printbased analyses such as Leiss, Kline, and Jhally (1990)to assist in arguing against the effects of television advertising as an institution of ideological reproduction and control. Similarly, Goldman (1992) rather indiscriminately draws on magazine and television advertisements in Americabut inferentially generalized to all advertising contextsin the course of arguing that advertising has generally precipitated an evolution toward a privatized discourse of commodified desire. In her otherwise laudable effort to study advertising contextually, De Mooij (1998) mixes print and television ads to assist in comparing particular variables (such as power distance or individualism/collectivism) across contexts. The point here is not that media ought to be strictly segregated but that analysts should be sensitive to validity concerns that naturally arise as media are mixed. One has to ask whether it really is the case that all ad forms operate in the same wayeither as a reflection of institutional linkages, in the transmission of cultural values via content, or else in terms of longer lasting societal effects. It must quickly be acknowledged that in working to model synthesis, this chapter has crept down the same path a tad. However, the aim here is to offer a panoramic snapshot of contemporary advertising research. In effecting actual synthesis, however, greater care would be called for. So far, this chapter has focused on the varying perspectives that have been brought to bear on advertising, ultimately in service of my argument that careful synthesis is necessary to truly see advertising as a core societal institution. In the remainder of the chapter, I organize specific advertising research studies under three headings, any of which can help move us toward synthesis: (a) an inventory of 10 standard findings concerning advertising effects, (b) an assemblage of what I have termed sectoral studies, and (c) investigations that address advertising as a societal institution.