Advertising is a prominent feature of culture. In 1949, Hayakawa remarked that trying to ignore advertising is “like trying to do your algebra homework in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.” Today, advertising is with us from the moment we order our morning coffee to the moment we check our social media accounts (one last time!) before falling asleep.
The role of advertising in culture is often discussed in terms of a “media effects model,” popularized by McCracken (1986), among others. According to this model, meaning is transferred from advertisements to the goods that we buy, and then to consumers. In this way, media affects consumers by sharing bits of culture – including the and we often follow whether we realize it or not.
This process is connected to a familiar topic of conversation – that advertising harms consumers. Body image, in particular, has been singled out as a topic of importance. An argument, now likely familiar to many readers, is that advertising negatively impacts how women (and to a lesser but still notable extent, men) feel about their bodies.
The “ideal” bodies in advertising show consumers what Pollay (1986) would call an image of “the good life.” The trappings of this life – domestic bliss, lucrative employment, and never-ending youth – are often unattainable but still vastly appealing cultural touchstones. Advertisers’ ongoing use of ideal bodies is bolstered with the argument that consumers will buy the advertised products as a way of trying to obtain the good life they see pictured.
As critics observe, when consumers are surrounded by these images, they may feel bad about themselves. They may also develop unhealthy diet and exercise regimes as a way of trying to shape their bodies into that oh-so-tempting ideal. This story is familiar not only because it is widespread, but because there is a great deal of truth to it. As authors like Richens (1991) and Coffey (2013) have shown, advertisements containing images of ideal bodies do have the power to make consumers feel bad about themselves. They can prompt unhealthy behaviours.
However, Thompson and Haytko (1997) argue that the notion of a media effects model is limited. Specifically, it ignores the possibility that consumers can resist or ignore advertising’s messages. Consumers may not have the same kind of power as advertisers, but they are powerful. Here are some ways that you as a consumer can exercise your power, in big and little ways:
- Be critical: Instead of walking by or scrolling past an advertisement, stop to critique it. How does this advertisement make you feel? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? Asking these questions takes you from being a passive recipient of advertising’s messages to being an active consumer.
- Learn the tools of the trade: Advertisers rely on tools like photo editing and careful selection of models to create the perfect image. Coleman’s (2009) research with young girls shows that when we can spot the tools, the advertisements lose their magic.
- Start a conversation: The next time a friend critiques their body in front of you, instead of automatically complimenting them or offering a critique of your own body, start a conversation about why we, as consumers, might be critical of our bodies.
- Use your voice: Thanks to social media, companies are more responsive to consumers’ concerns than ever before. If you see an issue with a campaign, write a post about it, message the company, or start a petition.
The next time you see an advertisement of “the good life,” know that this good life is simply reflecting our cultural norms and scripts. Yet, as a consumer, you have the power to shape those same norms and scripts.
By Dr. Carly Drake
Coffey, J. (2013). Bodies, Body Work and Gender: Exploring a Deleuzian Approach. Journal of Gender Studies, 22 (1), 3-16.
Coleman, R. (2009). The Becoming of Bodies: Girls, Images, Experience. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Hayakawa, S.I. (1964). Language in Thought and Action. New York, NY: Harcourt.
McCracken, G. (1986), Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods. Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (1), 71-84.
Pollay, R.W. (1986). The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising. Journal of Marketing, 50 (2), 18-36.
Richins, M.L. (1991). Social Comparison and the Idealized Images of Advertising. Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (1), 71-83.
Thompson, C. J. and Haytko, D.L. (1997). Speaking of Fashion: Consumers’ Uses of Fashion Discourses and the Appropriation of Countervailing Cultural Meanings. Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (1), 15-42.
Norms can be considered unspoken rules that members of a society follow because they represent what is good and/or right and they inform us on how we should behave.
A sequence or set of behaviours members of society are expected to follow or adhere to.
The way in which people learn about culture and shared cultural knowledge.