We know it when we see it. We are exposed to it thousands of times every day. Most of us are reasonably good, although seldom perfect, at distinguishing it from other kinds of messages. It is something that we tend to take for granted, seldom thinking about what it is or how it came into existence. But what is this thing called advertising?
A library or Internet search will turn up no consistent definition. Scholars, novelists, journalists, laymen, and practitioners have taken turns offering insights into its nature and scope. This unit examines some of those attempts, but be forewarned of the conclusion: no single definition will do, and each effort at describing advertising plays up some aspects while ignoring others. Taken together, these definitions emphasize the complex relationship of advertising with society, culture, history, and the economy.
Defining Advertising Broadly
A stroll through the galleries of one of London’s great institutions, the Victoria and Albert Museum, takes you deep into the history of Britain. You can see ivory and jewels from colonial India, or spend your time exploring the evolution of English furniture, metalwork, and ceramics. Imagine the job of James Laver (1899–1975) who became Keeper of Engraving, Illustration, Design, and Paintings. This Oxford-educated art critic wrote books on subjects like British Military Uniforms (1948) and A Concise History of Costume (1969). Little wonder that the compiler of a book on Victorian advertisements would invite Laver to introduce and comment on the bold graphics, curiosities, and outlandish claims common in late 19th-century advertisements. (This was a time when advertisers could make fantastic claims with almost no regulation, save for what the public would stand.) Ads from the period describe the means of slaughtering beef for extract, they promise to regrow hair, and they use allusions to race to suggest the cleansing power of soap.
In introducing Victorian Advertisements, Laver asks, “What is advertising?” Here is his answer:
Advertising is as old as Humanity: indeed, much older; for what are the flaunting colours of the flowers but so many invitations to the bees to come and “buy our product”. Everything is already there: the striking forms, the brilliant hues, even the “conditioning of the customer”.... Advertising might be defined as any device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange.
A device to arrest attention—now that’s a broad definition if ever there was one. It would cover a traffic cop in a busy intersection, a gun pointed at you, an ice cream cone on a hot summer afternoon, the snarl of a Pit Bull, and a nude person streaking through a classroom. There are many ways to arrest human attention, and only some are advertisements. But Laver goes on: and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange. Does this qualification separate ads from the rest? Think about it a moment. Stopping for a police officer at an intersection offers mutual advantages: you avoid an accident, as well as a possible fine or even arrest; the officer does his or her job (surely an advantageous thing to do) and manages to maintain public order. Acquiescing to someone holding a loaded gun can keep you from getting shot, and can assist the criminal in his or her “work” as well. The ice cream seller makes money, and you get cooled off. The dog protects its territory, and you avoid injury. The streaker gets attention, and you get a break and perhaps a good laugh as well.
Let’s delve a bit more deeply to see if we can find more precision in Laver’s attempt at a definition of advertising. He invites us to think of the birds, the insects, and the flowers in the annual give-and-take of nectar in exchange for the work of cross-pollination. Odd as this example seems, and far from slick magazine ads and blasting TV commercials, it does highlight critical components of ads—they call for our attention (albeit in various ways) and offer us objects and services (for which we have to pay, of course) that are presumably of value to us (otherwise we wouldn’t buy them) and to the seller (who makes a living this way.
Although this definition does not manage to distinguish advertising from many other kinds of attention grabbers (that we find worthwhile to pay attention to), it does highlight some key features of advertisements: exchange, attention, and mutuality. And because it is so general a definition, it applies without much difficulty to advertising in almost any conceivable situation, even in other times and places. It works for a spice display in India. It works for a notice on a wall in ancient Herculaneum. And it works for a store window in Hong Kong.
In bringing all these things together—across time, place, and cultural boundaries—Laver’s definition emphasizes the antiquity of advertising. Rather than being something thought up yesterday, it seems as old as humanity and as universal as culture. Advertising, seen in this light, is thus a part of social life. We humans exchange things with one another. And we do it in a way that benefits us and those we deal with. Certainly, in our own time and place, it is impossible to imagine life without exchange. How could the residents of North Carolina smoke all the cigarettes produced there? How could the folks in California eat all the lettuce they grow? And what would New Yorkers smoke or eat?
Whether we think of the relatively small-scale societies of the non-Western world before Westernization, England at the time of the Norman Conquests, or the globalized society of the 21st century, it seems that exchange is the name of the game in social life. We barter, we trade, we sell—but most of all we exchange what we have too much of for what we want instead. And where does advertising fit into this? According to Laver, it is the “device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange.
Defining Advertising Narrowly
During his lifetime, Raymond Williams (1921–1988) was one of Britain’s most influential social critics. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was one of the founders of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. He devoted his scholarship to the changes brought about as a result of the industrialization of society and the rise of mass consumption, neither of which he saw in much of a favorable light. In his extensive writings, Williams focused on social dislocations, wealth and poverty, changes in the nature of work and how people relate to one another, environmental pollution, and the like.
On several occasions he wrote about advertising, but nowhere more insightfully than in an essay entitled, “Advertising: The Magic System.”10 Recognizing the historical role of advertising as a means of getting attention and providing information (the essence of Laver’s definition), Williams focused on the institutionalization and professionalization of advertising that began in the late 1800s in Britain and elsewhere, its commercial function, and its persuasive force. As a social critic, he was also interested in ways its enormous power might be limited and resisted.
Williams too offered a definition of advertising. He called it simply: The official art of capitalist society. It’s a catchy phrase, but what does it mean? In exploring its meaning, the first thing to note is that Williams locates advertising in a social context. For him, it belongs to a particular historical moment. It is a part of modern capitalist society, and this distinguishes it from attention-grabbing devices in non-capitalist societies in other times and places. For Williams, advertising cannot be decoupled from the way it came into being and the work it does in society.
Modern advertising in Britain developed in the late 19th century in support of mass consumption in highly industrialized societies. In the late 1800s advertising agents began providing services—buying and brokering space in newspapers, magazines, and other media, writing copy and eventually producing illustrations, and developing persuasive techniques to persuade consumers. These agents found consistent demands for their services, and out of the provision of these services emerged advertising agencies. These full-service agencies charged hefty fees for their work and were able to attract talented writers and artists. Soon advertisements began to fill public spaces—posters in train stations, billboards in the streets, and the pages of mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. In fact art itself had found a new patron.
Calling advertising the official art of capitalist society focuses on the sponsored nature of art—in this case, by capitalist interests. Sponsorship of art is nothing new, of course. We need only look back to the Renaissance, for example, to see how art was sponsored in another historical context. In that time, it had two great patrons: the Catholic Church and wealthy secular sponsors (like the Medici family and important city-states).
The Church commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. His David, by contrast was commissioned by the City of Florence. So it was with other artists of the period. To eat, they sold their work to those who could pay for it. And in producing it, they adapted their creative ideas to what their benefactors wanted. This didn’t mean, of course, that all creativity and talent was subverted. Michelangelo included portraits of himself in many of his works, and artists often had ideas that were saved and worked into the pieces they were asked to do.
And what was all this art used for? In addition to being “for the glory of God” (or more cynically, to demonstrate wealth and power), the Church used religious art for instruction. Imagine pilgrims coming for the first time to a great cathedral. Unlike today, when even a cathedral may be dwarfed by modern office buildings or hidden behind elevated highways, the church would have stood as the largest building in sight—bold, incredible, and majestic. Inside, a priest might lead the worshipers to the stained glass windows. In a world where visual images were scarce (no TV, no magazines, no Internet), these images of the Nativity, the life of Jesus, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Saints had enormous power. They would give form to ideas. They would instruct and teach. They would hold sway over the minds of believers.
Likewise was the power of portraits painted for the wealthy. In a world without photographs, only the rich might have their images immortalized. Important marriages and victories at war were recorded in paintings, and graced the palaces of those who commissioned them. As such, they became historical truth and connected the present to the past.
In calling advertising the official art of capitalist society, Williams draws attention to sponsorship of art in modern times. Today corporations, instead of the Church, pay the piper. And what is produced serves their needs and desires, just as art has always done for its sponsors. A TV commercial attempts to bedazzle, to instruct, to teach, to hold sway over the minds of consumers. And the companies that can afford the best advertising art show their power, prosperity, and place in the sun. After all, isn’t mere presence as a Super Bowl commercial what it is all about? Only the wealthiest can pay the price. And it is the best commercial artists who work for them.
If Laver’s definition of advertising as an attention-getting device focuses on the antiquity of advertising, Williams’ definition of advertising as sponsored art calls attention to its modernity. Both things are true, but each definition brings out a radically different aspect of advertising.
Defining Advertising as Mediated Communication
Albert Lasker (1880–1952) grew up in Galveston, Texas, spent his working life in advertising in Chicago, and lived out his later years in New York. From 1903 to 1938, he headed the Lord & Thomas Agency in Chicago—one of the great advertising agencies of the early 20th century. Late in life, he married the much younger Mary Woodard Lasker who outlived him by many years. Together, they established The Lasker Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to medical research, with some of the money Lasker had earned in advertising. Lasker himself was quirky (he insisted on fresh-cut flowers, changed daily in his New York residence), brilliant (he had a real knack with advertising), and successful (he made a fortune in the early 20th century). His name appears on virtually every list of great men and women in advertising. John Gunther, popular biographer of the mid-20th century, wrote about Lasker’s life in Taken at the Flood (1960). Not to be outdone, Lasker dictated his autobiography, The Lasker Story: As He Told It (1963).
One of the anecdotes in these biographies is about a meeting that took place between Lasker and John E. Kennedy in May 1905. Lasker was a junior partner in Lord & Thomas at that time, and Kennedy was retired from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and working as a copywriter. The apocryphal account tells that Kennedy sent a message to Albert Lasker that read as follows:
I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don’t know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is send the word ‘yes’ down by the bell boy. Signed — John E. Kennedy.
Lasker invited Kennedy upstairs and spent a long evening in conversation with him. He was enthralled with Kennedy’s concise definition: “Advertising is salesmanship in print.” The key to understanding the definition lies in what Kennedy meant by salesmanship. Imagine yourself—not in this day and age of Wal-Marts and other mega-stores, where it is often difficult to get sales assistance—but in a department store in, say, 1905. The clerks at the glove counter know the products that they sell inside and out. You can say that your hands are unusually cold in winter, that your fingers are long or short, that you only want leather or don’t want leather, that you want domestic-made goods only, and so on. Whoever helps you will pull out a tray holding just the right kind of gloves for you. She will answer your questions, try to meet your needs, and tailor what she says to what you want to know. This is personal salesmanship—it is face-to-face and designed specifically for you. It is not about the things that you consider irrelevant (for example, foreign-made goods when you have specified that you only want domestic-made ones, or leather gloves when you’ve said you want cloth).
What Kennedy offered to Lasker was an interpretation of advertising that explained that advertising is the transformation of this personalized selling message into a mass-mediated one. Advertising attempts to do what salesmanship does, but to do it through a mass medium like a newspaper or magazine. That is the meaning of salesmanship in print.
In 1905, newspapers, magazines, and billboards were the primary ways advertising messages were communicated. Radio did not exist as a commercial medium, and television was only a pipe dream. In attempting to reach a broad audience with different needs and likes, advertising could not be tailored individually as in the face-to-face communications of salesmanship. The message had to work for a mass audience. It had to do for hundreds, thousands, or nowadays, even millions of people what the store clerk did for the person across the counter. Its job was to communicate a relevant selling message to as many people as possible. But it needed to be about short and long fingers, domestic as well as foreign gloves, and so on.
In the course of communicating to a mass audience, the precision of personal salesmanship is usually lost. Messages become less specific, and many are altogether irrelevant. As salesmanship becomes advertising, communication can become clutter.
Kennedy’s definition has become a great classic, especially among copywriters and other advertising professionals who see the genius of this simple but effective description. The definition has to be adjusted, of course, for the times. Many new media have evolved since 1905—radio, TV, the Internet. Were Kennedy announcing his definition in 2005, he would probably need to say: Advertising is salesmanship through a mass medium.
The Essence of Advertising is Metaphors and Stories
Jerry Bader, a marketing professional, asks: What is advertising’s most important word? In considering the possibilities, he clears away the overused verbiage of many ads—free, special, discount, sale, new, improved, bigger, better, luxury, exclusive, world-class, and the like—in search of the single word that wields the greatest communicative power. His vote goes to:
the simple, innocuous word ‘like’: a nondescript word that carries with it all the conceptual power you need to create a business identity, to form a brand personality, and to position your product or service in the mind of your audience.
What Bader is referring to by selecting the word like is metaphor. He means to say that when an advertisement links a product or service to something else, it borrows and incorporates the characteristics of what it is likened to into the very definition of the brand identity of that product or service. Put more simply, metaphors encourage us to compare two seemingly unrelated things and find similarities between them. Metaphors can be expressed verbally, visually, musically, or in a variety of ways. The image below likens a tennis ball to a hand grenade, thereby expressing the force of Pete Sampras’s “explosive” serve.
Literary scholars and strict grammarians make a distinction between those comparisons that use like or as (termed similes) and those that do not (termed metaphors). However, it is common in academic fields such as anthropology and linguistics, as well in everyday usage, to use metaphor to cover all such usages. For example, these metaphors do not make grammatical use of like or as: my garden is an oasis, you are my sunshine, and America is a melting pot.
Thus, when Bader argues that advertising’s most important concept is the use of metaphor, he is referring to one of advertising’s most fundamental mechanisms to imbue brands with attributes and characteristics, and ultimately give them the meaning they come to hold. For example, Rainforest Shampoo evokes characteristics of a tropical rainforest: natural, fresh, alive, unpolluted, and so on. The service on Virgin Airlines was like dinner at Buckingham Palace compares an airline flight to a royal banquet. And so on.
It is easy to see how promoters of all sorts turn so easily to metaphor today as they have done throughout the ages. Homer called olive oil “liquid gold” and Shakespeare compared life to the theater. A contemporary extension of this is to use more complex metaphors like stories themselves to explain a brand’s place in the lives of ordinary consumers. Some of today’s most cutting edge ads tell stories that draw in consumers as participating members of an audience for compelling and engaging stories. .
Graeme Newell, another marketing professional, explains the power of advertising campaigns centered around metaphors and stories. In the video below, he considers the link between brands and the game internationally known as football (or in some countries, like the USA, soccer). This much loved game is a sport in which players and teams win based on their training, diligence, and dedication. It is an everyday game, not one that requires a lot of expensive equipment or facilities. It is played all over the world and followed by billions of fans.
To bring a brand into the story of football—its skill, suspense, thrills, and triumphs—is to give that brand a meaning in the lives of untold numbers of people. The video shows how two prominent brands, Guinness and Nike, have insinuated themselves into the story of the game and thus the experience of football itself. As the ads tell and retell stories about football, they enshrine these brands as heroes in the stories themselves.
Advertising is About Building Relationships
The lore of advertising contains various dictums that refer to the possibility of being misled by unscrupulous sellers, told outright lies, or manipulated in various ways. The warning, caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—is a mainstay of popular culture that warns consumers of potential dangers of buying things from unknown and potentially untrustworthy sellers.
By contrast, these dangers are not present in certain kinds of exchanges. This is especially so when buying something from someone you know quite well, especially in contexts beyond the transaction, or when you buy repeatedly from the same seller who can always be counted on for reliable products.
The difference between buying from a known and reliable supplier and an unknown one boils down to the simple, but fundamental matter of trust. It’s hard to trust a stranger, but easy to count on it with a long-term, known acquaintance.
Nowhere is the anonymity of the marketplace more in evidence than in those occasions when buyers and sellers enter into a one-time, perhaps never to be repeated, commercial transaction. Hence, the warning: beware of the perils in such relationships, examine carefully what you are considering buying, and only when you are certain that the goods are what they are said to be, proceed with caution. In many such situations, there’s no going back. Once you’ve bought it, it’s yours.
Some modern selling strategies seek to transform relationships between sellers and buyers from anonymous commercial transactions into exchange relationships between known and trusted partners by imbuing the relationship between companies and clients with trust.
To accomplish this, traditional ads that speak to the anonymous mass of potential consumers with a one-size-fits-all mentality are being replaced with more individually tailored messages that are designed specifically for individual consumers. This is a major transformation of business as usual, and marks a return to that kind of relationship that known sellers had with customers. Campbell’s Soup Company, Starbucks, and FedEx, along with just about every other major company selling consumer goods and services, wants this kind of relationship with their customers. They want one-to-one relationships, and they want them to be long term and filled with trust.
This is a further reason why many people in the business world see traditional advertising techniques and media (for example, billboards promoting this or that brand and TV commercials addressing a mass audience) as a relic of a bygone era. The Internet and the rise of social media platforms have made it possible for companies to move toward developing these long-term, personalized, give-and-take relationships with clients.
Although unnerving at times to users of the Internet, this is what happens as a result of all those cookies placed on personal computers and those massive databases of consumer profiles that companies compile. Put simply from a marketing point of view, communications with customers can be customized and made more relevant while also eliminating many (ideally, most) irrelevant, inappropriate, and unwanted ads and communications.
Knowing the customer today means that companies need to understand those who have bought, or are likely to buy, their goods and/or services. By knowing their habits, desires, likes, and dislikes, they can do a much better job of communicating with them. They can build relationships through regular, repeated communications, and through relationships, establish trust. “Building relationships—one customer at a time,” is a watchword of advertising and other marketing communications that follow this approach.
Here are some examples of how relational advertising and marketing works in practice. This Coca-Cola spot is anything but a traditional commercial. It is a humorous, fun-filled way of showing how Coke brings fun, play, and relaxation into people’s lives. One might ask: Who wouldn’t want a machine that dispensed Coke after Coke, pizza, and the longest submarine sandwich you’ve ever seen? It’s all about fantasy and fun. It’s all about building relationships between companies and customers. It’s all about Coke and people who love it.
In a very different way, Starbucks coffee is all about relationships. It builds relationships with its customers through a variety of marketing and advertising strategies. There are videos on YouTube that explain Starbuck’s relationships with the farmers who produce their coffee beans. There are ads that show Starbucks coffee shops, with baristas who make each cup of coffee to order, chairs where customers can eat and drink, just relax, or surf the Internet on free Wi-Fi, and outlets to recharge the batteries of mobile devices. And so on. It’s a multi-pronged approach that seeks to engage customers and bring them into the Starbucks world. By providing consumers with other comforts, as well as high quality beverages and snacks, Starbucks seeks to build trusted relationships with their consumer base. Price is a secondary consideration. It’s the cost consumers are willing to pay for their side of the relationship.
Advertising is Content
John Wanamaker, American department store magnate, politician, and civil servant, famously said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”34 Wanamaker’s quip points out an essential truth of advertising: some of it serves to inform and persuade but a lot of it is merely boring, annoying, or irrelevant. Wanamaker, were he around today, would probably be mightily impressed by a popular technique that appears to greatly reduce the amount of noise in advertising communications.
Content marketing is a promotional strategy that specifically seeks to be relevant and valuable rather than interruptive and irritating. In lieu of directly pitching goods and services, content marketing seeks to deliver information that users find valuable, relevant, and useful and, as a result, ultimately reward the provider with business and loyalty.
Here are two examples of just how this works. The Weber grill company has a website that offers tips and advice on successful grilling.
Lowe’s, a building supply company with stores across the US, Canada, and Mexico, offers home improvement tips via short films. The entertaining, stop-motion films, available through the social media platform Vine, offer clever tips for home projects, and often recommend generic products for sale at home supply stores rather than items available only at Lowe’s.
Although content marketing is touted as one of the latest and trendiest promotional techniques, it is also one of the oldest. It is easy to imagine that early spice traders explained different ways to use them, and Spanish explorers offered recipes for using tomatoes bought from the New World. More recently, there are clearly documented instances of content marketing.
The John Deere company that makes farm equipment began publishing The Furrow magazine in 1895. The magazine is still published today, and reaches just under 2 million readers worldwide, in 14 different languages. Although the term content marketing came into use in the 1990s and continues to grow in importance today, the idea of providing content to potential customers is not new.
The French company Michelin has published its well-known guides since 1900. Over the years, its advice on sites, hotels, and restaurants has proved invaluable to generations of motorists. Michelin stars have become coveted awards of excellence. The acquisition or loss of a star can have a dramatic effect on the success of a restaurant. From a promotional point of view, Michelin guides are content that provide valuable and trusted sources of information to users.
Additionally, the soap operas of the 1930s illustrate how both advertisements and content can be conjoined in a useful partnership. Early soap opera radio programs (such as Lux Radio Theatre) had single sponsors whose commercials were interspersed with the story. It is interesting to note that advertising agencies frequently wrote both the story and the ads.
Advertising has always been engaged in a search for new means to communicate with and attract customers. The personal computer, the Internet, and the Information Age more recently opened up new formats of advertising media as well as inviting a general questioning of the role of advertising itself. Just as information is now only as far away as a few keystrokes, rather than on a bookshelf, library, or other somewhat inaccessible place, advertisers have been quick to realize the enormous and profitable route of engaging, creating, and managing the flow of information to consumers through new technologies.
Some would even go so far as to say that advertising as we have known it is dead and that total marketing communications of various sorts—with content marketing being one of the prime strategies—is replacing it. Should these new strategies continue to be called advertising, or is a newer, trendier term that better describes contemporary strategies in order? Whatever terminology wins out in the near future, the historic connection of these emergent technologies and strategies of promotion to older techniques of advertising and marketing are evident.
The concept of advertising defies easy definition. It can be argued to be as old as humanity itself, or to have emerged as a counterpart to industrial mass production of consumer goods in the 19th century. Changes in its forms and functions can be tracked along with the ebb and flow of available media for communicating commercial messages to consumers. Today, it is in a state of continuous transformation, as new ideas and strategies emerge in ever more sophisticated pairings of sellers and buyers. Ironically, one of its most traditional features—long term relationships of trust between buyers and sellers—is also one of its newest. The name of the game is no longer barking orders to potential consumers to drive them into shops and stores but rather providing them incentives that make them want to seek sellers out and give them their business. Contemporary ads are no longer just about product features, but tell stories that invite consumers to join brands in an emotional, experiential world, where, according to marketing gurus, brand identity and personal identity merge.