The Commercialization of America, by Darrell West

Key concepts: commercialization, targeted campaigns, ads, guerrilla advertising, fly-by ads

Key names: Edward Bernays, Joe Camel

Today's lecture focuses on how product advertising has changed the American media

Q. How many walk out of room when TV ads come on?

In assessing product commercials, we will look at several questions

-how media evolved to point where ads are a major source of revenue and a major presence in the culture?

-what are major features of product ads (now spend $233 billion a year on commercial advertising in United States)

-why do we spend so much money on commercials?

-how do product commercials affect the American psyche?

I'll suggest that product advertisements have had a major impact on press coverage and American culture, but that the impact varies quite a bit over course of American history
Video: "Classics of TV Commercials"
This video features famous product ads from 1950s and 1960s. It shows a number of different ads over the course of television history and reveals how commercial advertisers seek to influence consumers and American culture

-similarities and differences from ads of today?

History of Commercial Advertising

a) product ads have not always been as onmipresent in the media as they are today

-early newspapers in late 1700s and early 1800s did not rely on advertising as major source of revenues

-papers started as partisan organs designed to convey the point of view of political parties or major political figures

b) this was not unusual early in American history

-national leaders understood that newspapers were a powerful communications tool and that political success depended at least in part on framing messages and conveying them to other people

c) reasons for weak advertising presence

-as mentioned in opening lecture, newspapers did not have large subscription bases

-around 5 percent of Americans subscribed to a daily newspaper

-in this situation, the whole notion of product ads would have been a waste because the country was relatively poor, there wasn't a large middle class, and the media audience was rather small

d) During course of 1800s, however, this changed

-papers became cheaper, number of subscribers soared, and advertisers began to realize newspapers were a great vehicle to advertise commercial products

-result was that by the late 1800s, product ads became major source of revenue for newspapers and editors and publishers became more independent of political patrons

Impact of Ads on 19th Century Newspapers

a) by the end of the 19th century, the growth of commercial advertising had a dramatic effect on how newspapers operated

-in era of partisan press, editors and publishers were dependent on political leaders for government printing contracts and news information

-rise of advertising led to major changes in way newspapers financed and manner in which reporters covered the news

-this independence allowed them to cover news in less partisan manner

-we see papers devoting much more attention to investigation and uncovering scandals

-often think current era has monopoly on investigative journalism and tabloid coverage, but not true

-it was this period at end of 1800s and beginning of 1900s when the term "yellow journalism" came into vogue

-style of coverage that featured tabloid reporting, emphasis on personalities, use of big bold headlines, and sensationalistic reporting of major events

b) but the key quality was that partisan press replaced by a commercial press funded by advertising dollars

-healthy development in some respects such as freeing newspapers from explicit partisan biases

-but the downside was that it made them more dependent on commercial forces and currying good will with advertisers

-this is a trend that has continued up through the present period

-advertising remains the major source of funding for the American media (not just newspapers, but radio, television, and the Internet)

-as we discuss later in this lecture, this raises a number of problems for American culture and American politics

Goals of Product Ads
goal of product ads is to use the media to reach a target audience so that its members will buy your product

-cultural ink blot test

  1. elaborate market research--polls and focus groups to find out how to reach consumers; what did they want; what were their hopes, fears, and aspirations; how to devise advertising campaigns that would make people want to buy particular products
  2. then put together media campaigns that would reach the people you thought would be most interested in buying your item
  3. targeted campaigns--senior citizens, stay at home Moms, sports fans, beer-drinkers, teenagers now becoming major object of advertising (niche marketing)

Strategies for Reaching Consumers

-early conventional wisdom in commercial advertising was three-fold: 1) never mention competitor in order to avoid providing free publicity; 2) don't be negative because consumers won't like you; 3) play to common stereotypes in order to boost product sales

-lots of examples from advertising campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s--if Proctor and Gamble was advertising a soap product, it would emphasize its positive contribution and ignore competing brands

-goal was to boost brand identification and create favorable view of your product

-a number of successful campaigns--1) cars became identified with economic success and seen as status symbol; with young men, seen as great way to meet women 2) deodorants, toothpaste, mouthwash, and cosmetics--necessary for good social relationships 3) electronic products such as VCRs, CD players, and computers advertised to convince people it was important to stay on cutting edge of new technologies, even if the product you bought was guaranteed to be obsolete within 2-3 years

Revisionist Strategies in Contemporary Period
-new conventional wisdom--mention competitors and point out differences with them

a) Burger King, McDonalds, and Wendys--now openly attack one another and make explicit comparisons of competing products

-1984 example of "Where's the Beef" campaign of Wendys--attacked other hamburger chains as having much smaller hamburgers

-way to boost one's own sales was not just through positive appeals to own product, but negative attacks on other brands

b) Coke and Pepsi have engaged in cola wars

c)beer products--Budweiser vs. Coors vs Miller Company--"tastes great and less filling"
-shows change in old strategy of building positive identifications through longterm ad strategies
-now, companies redesign ads every few months to retain novelty of appeals

-takes advantage of short attention spans of American public

Parallels with Changes in Campaign Advertising

-growth of negative campaigning and attack politics

-build oneself up by tearing down opponent

-win votes by showing inadequacies of other candidates

-classic example--Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988

-shows how trends that have developed in commercial sector filters over into political process and changes way candidates present themselves to voters

Differences with Campaign Ads
-but there also are differences between product and campaign advertising

-many observers mistakenly think that candidates can be sold like soap products and that there are no differences between two sectors

-different conception of market--product ads aim at small slice of market, while campaign ads seek to reach broad groups of voters
-different standard of success--product ads which boost market share from 10 to 15% are great successes, while a campaign spot that did that would be considered a failure because the candidate needs 40 to 50% of the vote
-more extensive media coverage and review of campaign than product ads (Ad Watches for candidates; limited oversight and critiques of product ads)
-campaign ads constitutional protected under freedom of political speech, while product ad sponsors have higher liability for ad claims through regulation by Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and Federal Communications Commission
The Case of Tobacco Ads and Product Placement
-in order to show both the power of product ads and the way society responds when products develop problems, I want to present a short history of tobacco advertising

-one of the most powerful examples of how product ads helped build consumer demand for a product and then what happened when medical evidence began to show health risks from tobacco smoking

-early history of tobacco advertising is described in Larry Tye biography of Edward Bernays, early public relations specialist

-Bernays worked for several tobacco companies in 1930s and 1940s

-used ads and product placement to make smoking seem cool with the general public

-early targeting on women with "thin" cigarettes designed for them
-Joe Camel advertising campaign of 1990s aimed at young kids designed to make smoking appear to be hip
-successful product placements in American television shows and movie

-if you watch entertainment shows from 1950s and 1960s, nearly every episode featured someone smoking (in the bed, in the living room, or in the car)
-no accident--conscious strategy for building support for tobacco by equating smoking with being cool, with being successful, and with having sex appeal
-modeling behavior of young kids--companies targeted young people and women to emphasize sex appeal of smoking

-movie Rebel without a Cause starring James Dean as youthful rebel (smoking was part of the image of rebelling against authority)

Backlash against Tobacco

-rise of scientific evidence over past 40 years linking smoking to variety of health hazards from lung cancer to heart disease

-interesting study of how society built market for tobacco and then have to confront problems that developed out of that

-incremental limits placed on advertising

-1960s--Surgeon General warnings on packages that smoking might be hazardous to health

-1970s and 1980s-smoking bans in airplaces, restaurants, and office buildings

-now outlawing certain kinds of advertising-end of Joe Camel ads targeted on young people

-sad footnote--tobacco companies now targeting non-American countries where these restrictions don't exist

-change in public opinion on smoking over 50 years--early support for right to smoke

-now public support for restrictions on smoking and tobacco advertising

-one of sharpest changes in public opinion in a specific policy area that we have seen

-demonstrates limits to power of advertising--can't manufacture opinions unless latent support among the target audience

The Emergence of Dot.Com Ads

-the newest development in the world of product advertising is so-called "" commercials

-advertising by Internet companies to boost traffic at websites or appeal to consumers to buy products on-line in new world of e-commerce

-interesting thing is that dot.coms have not chosen merely to take conventional strategies from traditional companies, but instead have expanded the boundaries of advertising into new directions
-development of guerrilla advertising tactics (outrageous appeals, obnoxious claims, bad taste appeals)

-no longer rare in ads to see things like making fun of people, mocking the establishment commercial for its online job service shows a series of little kids talking into the TV camera--"When I grow up, I wanna file all day. I want to claw my way up to middle management. Be replaced on a whim. I want to have a brown nose. I want to be a yes man, yes women, yes sir, coming sir, anything for a raise sir. When I grow up, when I grow up, I want to be under-appreciated, be paid less for doing the same job. I want to be forced into early retirement." Tagline: What did you want to be? There's a better job out there.

-clear reason--doc.coms are based on narrowcasting model, not broadcasting

-can never reach broad audience given media fragmentation

-makes more sense to appeal to identifiable in books, e-bay in auctions, and so on

-remains to be seen how successful these types of appeals will be in the long run

-something you can watch to judge for yourself how the dot-coms do and what the impact of their advertising will be on American society

Internet Ads

-pop-ups, banner ads

-pop-under ads (those that hide under website until you leave that site)

-fly by ads--animated ads that fly across website as you read it

-industry experimentation to find out what works and what consumers will tolerate

Broader Questions about Product Ads
-should we worry about cultural portrayals in commercial advertising?
-is it possible for advertising to recast cultural stereotypes?
-how will the structural fragmentation of the contemporary media market affect product advertising?

Additional Reading

Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations, Crown Publishers, 1998

Keith Larson, Public Relations, the Edward L. Bernayses, and the American Scene: a Bibliography, F. W. Faxon Co, 1978

Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, David McKay Company, 1957