Keeping Advertising from Going Down in History – Unfairly

Richard W. Pollay
University of British Columbia

Advertising is judged by some to have helped turn nations of religious villagers of modest means and ambitions into envious materialists, eroding social cohesion in the process [1,2]. While materialistic motivations may have spurred their economic productivity, it may also induce greater self-indulgence, distrust of authority, crime, or even greater civil unrest and revolutionary fervor [3]. While this may seem far-fetched to marketing and advertising practitioners worrying about the prosaic pragmatics of brand share, this type of concern is the conventional wisdom among many social scientists.

Why do so many scholars believe that the import of professional persuasion should not be underestimated? Individual advertisements or campaigns we know, with some frustration, to have uncertain effectiveness. But as the advertising industry has grown more sophisticated, so too have the companion arts of market and consumer research, copy testing or media planning. Consumers and campaigns have often been researched carefully to identify perceptions, motivations and values of the audience. Advertisements are then designed to strike an empathetic note and deployed with increased media effectiveness. While it is still true that inferior products will still fail, and some campaigns will be economically inefficient, the institutional growth of the advertising industry still suggests a companion growth of the social roe and impact of advertising. The persistent and pervasive presence of professional promotion is seen by some as an essential propaganda function within industrial economies on behalf of products and services, lest either specific or aggregate demand falter. It is important to consider carefully both the social character and consequences of this 'propaganda for progress' advertising. It is also important to bring the critical conjectures into line with empirical reality. Without good relevant data, history seems very likely to denigrate advertising, for, at the theoretical level, the discussion is chronically critical.

Looking into 'the Distorted Mirror'