Advertising: manipulation, persuasion, information or experience enhancer?

12 April 2018

Cultural Studies

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 “advertising 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 … [it is] as sales tool, a primary economic tool in the free enterprise system … yet there are things that advertising cannot do: It cannot make people buy against their will”. Another pamphlet from 1975, Advertising: “Is this the sort of work an honest man can take pride in?” 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 – you have free choice, don’t 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’m still feeling pretty indifferent to them and the products they’re endorsing.

Coca Cola is a product I think I am indifferent too as well, and if I’m honest I’m probably slightly dismissive of it: it’s unhealthy, produced by a big ‘faceless multinational' blah blah, not ‘sophisticated’ and so forth (though what gives me the notion it’s not ‘sophisticated’ 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’s not so bad after all – this is classic Ray – and then he did another one with Aretha Franklin! Hold on, have I just been manipulated … 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 “The Unimportance of Advertising” 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: “The 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 ...” So it’s me sitting down to drink a coke with Ray then, is it? That sounds great. “… if an advertisement is not honest and truthful – in the sense of fairly representing the thing advertised – it will not be successful.” Mmmm, I’m 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 “Crunch 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.” How could they drop him? That’s 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’m still not sure whether or not I’ve 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.

… and now here’s 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


J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America is available now. This collection of documents reveals the workings of one the world's oldest and largest advertising agencies through briefs, scripts, market research, client account files, staff newsletters, staff speeches, meeting minutes and print advertisements. Thus it speaks about consumer culture over the past 100 years. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


About the Author

Felix Barnes

Felix Barnes

I have been an editor at Adam Matthew since September 2013. Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been involved with some fascinating collections including Global Commodities, the Foreign Office Files for China, American History, 1493-1945, Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters, Socialism on Film and J. Walter Thompson: Advertising America.