Advertising: manipulation, persuasion, information or experience enhancer?
The J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America archive provides an exceptional record of consumer culture over the past 100 years and among the many fascinating and mind-bending concepts that the documents of this advertising agency explore is one illustrated by a company-produced pamphlet entitled Advertising: Manipulation or Persuasion?. This is one of the central questions relating to advertising and consumer culture: how powerful is advertising in shaping our behaviours, practices and even identity?
Advertising: Manipulation or Persuasion? (1972) Reproduced with kind permission from Duke University ¬© J. Walter Thompson
In this 1972 pamphlet, a J. Walter Thompson employee explores and attempts to respond to the criticisms of advertising that it is a force for subliminal control. It concludes that ‚Äúadvertising as a whole is not the great force for evil that many militant consumerists would want us to believe. It has no arcane techniques or diabolical formulae to control consumers ‚Ä¶ [it is] as sales tool, a primary economic tool in the free enterprise system ‚Ä¶ yet there are things that advertising cannot do: It cannot make people buy against their will‚ÄĚ. Another pamphlet from 1975, Advertising: ‚ÄúIs this the sort of work an honest man can take pride in?‚ÄĚ responds to the criticisms of advertising such as the wastefulness it encourages, its ethics, misleading promises, encouraging undesirable attitudes such as materialism and the exploitation of human inadequacy.
Now we probably all think of ourselves as intelligent people and immune to the powers of advertising. Advertising is what happens to other people; perhaps your view is similar to the views of the JWT employees defending the effect of their industry on society ‚Äď you have free choice, don‚Äôt you? But one of the editorial consultants on the J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America project, Matt McAllister from Penn State University, enlightened us to the Third-Person effect - this is that we believe that others are susceptible to the messages of mass media but we ourselves are immune.
This for me was tested in an interesting way when thinking about celebrity in advertising. The J. Walter Thompson archive is full of work done with celebrities: Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx, Michael Landon, Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, the controversial Bill Cosby to name a few. But I‚Äôm still feeling pretty indifferent to them and the products they‚Äôre endorsing.
Coca Cola is a product I think I am indifferent too as well, and if I‚Äôm honest I‚Äôm probably slightly dismissive of it: it‚Äôs unhealthy, produced by a big ‚Äėfaceless multinational' blah blah, not ‚Äėsophisticated‚Äô and so forth (though what gives me the notion it‚Äôs not ‚Äėsophisticated‚Äô needs a whole other exploration). But then I discovered a song for a 1960s Radio commercial featuring a musical hero of mine, Ray Charles, singing about Coca Cola in a classic soul/R&B cut.
Hang on a minute, maybe Coca Cola‚Äôs not so bad after all ‚Äď this is classic Ray ‚Äď and then he did another one with Aretha Franklin! Hold on, have I just been manipulated ‚Ä¶ or persuaded?
Or has my experience of a drink actually only just been enhanced? Another opinion of a JWT employee is that advertising contributes to the experience of consumption. A 1975 staff newsletter article called ‚ÄúThe Unimportance of Advertising‚ÄĚ again asserts our agency to choose or not to choose a product before going on to discuss the experience of drinking Guinness at the pub: ‚ÄúThe appearance of the bottle, the label, the environment of the public house as well as the nature of the beer all play their part in this total experience. The advertising contributes to this. Chiefly it is to remind the drinker of the values of his drink ...‚ÄĚ So it‚Äôs me sitting down to drink a coke with Ray then, is it? That sounds great. ‚Äú‚Ä¶ if an advertisement is not honest and truthful ‚Äď in the sense of fairly representing the thing advertised ‚Äď it will not be successful.‚ÄĚ Mmmm, I‚Äôm not sure if a Ray Charles song represents Coca Cola but I sure as hell feel better about the brand now because of his song.
A document in the J. Walter Thompson archive then shows how Kellogg missed a trick with yours truly. In feedback on a set of 1985 TV commercials JWT made for Kellogg for Apple Raisin Crisp the client, in my eyes, disrespects the great man by stating ‚ÄúCrunch Lovers Delight [the commercial] somewhat visually complex. Use of Ray Charles not clearly related to the focus of the sale, and may detract from focus of sale communication.‚ÄĚ How could they drop him? That‚Äôs my relationship with Apple Raisin Crisp over then.
Kellogg Apple Raisin Crisp Television advertisements, 1984-1985, Reproduced with kind permission from Duke University ¬© J. Walter Thompson
After this brief journey through advertising I‚Äôm still not sure whether or not I‚Äôve been manipulated, persuaded, just given product information, exercised free will, created a signal about who I think I am or had my experience enhanced by advertising. But these are the fascinating possibilities raised by being able to examine the archive of an important advertising agency.
‚Ä¶ and now here‚Äôs Sam Cooke smoking L&M cigarettes. What am I to do?
Liggett and Myers Print Advertisements, 1959-1971, Reproduced with kind permission from Duke University ¬© Liggett Group