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Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations


The relationships between advertising, marketing, and public relations are not well defined. In general, however, advertising and public relations are considered components of marketing. Marketing is the craft of linking producers of a product, service, or idea with existing and potential consumers. Marketing techniques are most generally associated with transactions in capitalist economies, but they are also applied in religion, politics, and other aspects of public life. Advertising is part of an overall marketing strategy, and it involves the paid promotion of goods, services, ideas, and companies by an identified sponsor. Public relations connotes a broad spectrum of communication either within a group (e.g. company, political party, scientific community) or between that group and specific publics with the intent of informing and influencing their behavior and perceptions in ways that are favorable to that group.

Technology, Science, and Advertising

Advertising, like any transmission of information, requires a medium, and the biggest impact that technology has had on advertising is the expansion of media outlets. Initially vendors had to rely only on the spoken word and hand written signs. Then the printing press allowed for the first rudiments of mass media marketing, as advertisers could reach wider audiences through handbills and the inclusion of advertisements in books. Radio, television, and the Internet have further expanded media options for advertisers. In addition, logos printed on clothing and other products, billboards, and even skywriting ensure that our world is increasingly saturated by advertisements and brand names. In fact, it is estimated that the average North American child views roughly 40,000 television commercials per year (Strasburger 2001). As advertising becomes more sophisticated and the products more technologically complex, consumers today are less able to judge quality than they were even 100 years ago, when they themselves were involved in the production of simple crafts and thus more skilled in judging the quality of the things they bought. So as advertising becomes a more pronounced element of our cultural environment, the context of a global system of production causes our understanding of the goods being advertised to decline. This in turn means that we rely more heavily on regulatory agencies and advertising codes of ethics to ensure fairness and truth in advertising.

Technology has not only changed media and the societal dimensions of advertising but it has changed the nature of advertising as well. Handbills and other printed materials are relatively passive and static, whereas television commercials, and to an increasing extent internet advertisements, tend to be dynamic, employing rapidly changing images. The increasing pace of modern, technological societies and rising costs of marketing tend to condense both political and product advertisements into short clips. Improvements in information technology allow marketers to more quickly and flexibly respond to changes in consumer behavior. On the downside, however, increasingly complex technological tools and information systems can overload marketing managers and distract them from the creativity and judgment that remain central to successful advertising strategies.

The emergence of advertising on a large scale coincided with the rise of consumerism-fueled industrial capitalism. Although the development of new technologies for transmitting advertisements and managing marketing strategies is a key element of this process, so too is the continuing creation of marketing as a science. The traditional advertiser's dilemma was expressed in this way, "I know half my advertising is wasted, but I don't know which half!" In response to this inefficiency and the demand to create new markets to increase sales (or in politics, the demand to win over more voters), various social and behavioral sciences have been applied to advertising. Marketing research and motivation analysis are just two of the terms that signify the rise of a systematic science of advertising. Techniques include mathematical models, game theory, multivariate analyses, econometric analyses, psychometric approaches, and choice models (see Sutherland and Sylvester 2000). Several institutions carry out this research, including the Academy of Marketing Science, which publishes the journal Academy of Marketing Science Review (AMS).

Advertising is open to several interpretations, but one of the most influential remains Vance Packard's indictment of the advertising industry, The Hidden Persuaders (1957). Packard examined the use of psychoanalysis and other scientific techniques to understand human behavior and guide campaigns of persuasion and manipulation. These image-building campaigns are launched at both consumers and citizens; they are both about what to buy in the market and how to act in the polis. He labels these efforts "hidden," because they take place beneath our level of awareness. Packard claims that we are duped into believing that rather than buying lipstick, oranges, and automobiles we are acquiring hope, vitality, and prestige. Although sometimes constructive or amusing, most of these practices "represent regress rather than progress for man in his long struggle to become a rational and self-guiding being" (p. 6). This Orwellian interpretation is probably hyperbolic, but Packard is more convincing in his modest claim that "These depth manipulators are ... starting to acquire a power of persuasion that is becoming a matter of justifiable public scrutiny and concern" (pp. 9–10). This power raises several ethical concerns about deception, the manipulation of behavior and self-image, and the exploitation of weaknesses and fears.

Ethical and Societal Issues of Marketing

Early advertising and marketing techniques were disreputable due in part to the lack of established laws and codes of conduct, which allowed deceptive advertising practices to flourish unchecked. In the United States, early development of the industry was largely driven by the marketing of patent medicines and "nostrums," and by spectacles such as P.T. Barnum's circus and museum. In later years, rather than traveling with his circus, Barnum concentrated on advertisement, creating a whole new species of marketing rhetoric that persists to this day. His colorful descriptions of sideshow mermaids and white elephants (the first a stuffed monkey sewed to a fish-tail, the latter a white-washed gray elephant) are classics in the psychology of marketing. Although Barnum commented that "the people like to be humbugged," he also said that "you may advertise a spurious article and induce many people to buy it once, but they will gradually denounce you as an impostor" (Ogilvy 1988, p. 156).

After the turn of the century, some members of the nascent advertising industry wished to distinguish themselves from their less reputable colleagues, and the first trade associations and codes of practice were established. Around 1900, the Curtis Code of magazine publishers stated: "We exclude all advertising that in any way tends to deceive, defraud or injure our readers." In 1910, the Association of Advertising Clubs of America adopted "Truth in Advertising" as its slogan. Four years later, the Audit Bureau of Circulations was formed, with the job of verifying the circulations reported by magazine publishers, on which ad space prices were based. In 1917, the American Association of Advertising Agencies issued a code that included a prohibition on copy "knocking" a competitor's product and on ads with "immoral or suggestive" content; banned the use of the word "free" unless the item offered was actually free; and declared that installment plans were inherently suspect.

These and other efforts by the marketing industry were attempts at self-regulation, partially motivated by the desire to avoid Congressional regulations. Nonetheless, Congress did become involved with the 1914 Federal Trade Commission Act, which empowered a commission to enforce rules designed to prevent deceptive and unfair practices in advertising. With the passage of the 1938 Wheeler-Lea Amendment the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was broadened to include the advertisement of food, drugs, cosmetics, and therapeutic devices. The truth in advertising rules of the FTC not only require advertising to be fair and non-deceptive, but also hold advertisers responsible for producing evidence to substantiate their claims. FTC rules apply to all media, including the Internet.

Despite drastic political and technological changes through the history of modern advertising, ethical concerns about advertisements that misrepresent the capabilities of products and negative or "attack advertising" have remained constant (see The Ethical Problems of Modern Advertising, 1978). This suggests that in marketing, new technologies may exacerbate perennial ethical problems more than raise entirely novel ones. Additionally, some of the same industries have sustained a steady level of controversy pertaining to ethics in advertising. A good example is the tobacco industry, which caused conflict even during the 1930s. All does not stay the same, however, since new technologies give new form to old ethical problems. A good example is pornographic "pop-up" advertisements on computers linked to the Internet.

Ambiguity enters the ethical debates, because advertising need not be based on facts alone. Indeed a certain appeal to emotion is ethical and even necessary for successful marketing. Likewise, there is no formula for determining when omission constitutes deception. Thus the charge that a group owes the public "truthful" advertising requires significant acts of judgment as general rules must be interpreted within specific cases. There is clearly a spectrum of ethical severity involved, from advertising new car models that have only cosmetic but no functional improvements, to the increasing commercialization of public schools, to advertising a new drug without fully studying or disclosing possible harmful effects. Foregoing some practices, such as negative or attack ad campaigns, may be based more on marketing strategies than ethics, as managers (or politicians) attempt to gauge whether their target audience will be offended by aggressive attacks on the competition. However, even in these cases ethical concerns cannot be wholly avoided. One classic example from the 1930s was the ad campaign that enticed its audience to "reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," which angered the candy industry because of the unfounded insinuation that smoking cigarettes is more healthy than eating candy.

A certain element of popular opinion views advertisements as socially invidious, leading to shallow, self-absorbed behavior, fostering negative body-image issues and poor self-esteem, and wrecking devastation on the natural environment and the larger social fabric via large-scale consumerism. Yet even among those who feel these concerns, behavior is seldom altered, as the experience of an individual purchase is difficult to link to these larger effects. Several academic analysts have attempted to confirm and articulate the corrupting influence of advertising on individuals and society. Many, like Packard, portray it as psychic manipulation, exploiting human insecurity to drive product sales. It is a truism in such writing, for example, that problems such as bad breath and body odor, considered normal and tolerable in the nineteenth century, were recast as unalloyed evils, sources of personal shame and social isolation, by twentieth century advertising in the service of product sales.

Richard Pollay (1986) provides a taxonomy of academic complaints about advertising. It can be simplified into two multifaceted claims that advertising is: (a) "intrusive, environmental, inescapable, and profound" and reinforces "materialism, cynicism, irrationality, selfishness, anxiety, social competitiveness, sexual preoccupation, powerlessness and/or a loss of self-respect" (Pollay, p. 18); and (b) "essentially concerned with exalting the materialistic virtues of consumption by exploiting achievement drives and emulative anxieties. ... generally reducing men, women and children to the role of irrational consumer" (Pollay, p. 21). He cites a National Science Foundation study from 1978, which found that advertising encourages unsafe behavior, inappropriate standards for choice, and parent-child conflict; models hazardous behavior, such as malnutrition and drug abuse; and reinforces sex-role stereotypes, cynicism and selfishness. Pollay concludes that advertising in our age has become a ritualistic "social guide," promoting ideas about "style, morality, behavior."

Feminist analysts claim that some advertising causes harm by educating young girls to covet unnaturally thin bodies and driving anorexia and bulimia as unintended side-effects. They see advertising as a tool of social repression, keeping women subservient. "The female body is represented as the dream image that disguises her own exclusion. ... But the ideals sold us are impossible to live, creating a hunger that keeps us unsatisfied and forever buying" (Schutzman 1999, p.
3). Mady Schutzman says that advertising makes women neurotic: "What advertising prescribes, women regurgitate in rage, histrionics, amnesia and paralysis"
(p. 115).

Jean Kilbourne argues that advertisements create an image of women as "sophisticated and accomplished, yet also delicate and child-like" (1999, p. 137). Kilbourne collects print advertisements that share a common theme of encouraging young women to be silent and let their nail polish, clothes, perfume or make-up do their communicating, a message which she states has a "serious and harmful" impact. In their drive to sell products, ads communicate messages, which put young women in severe conflict, promising them "fulfillment through being thin and through eating rich foods" (p. 145), or through being virginal yet sexually wild. While she does not believe that ads directly cause anorexia, the "images certainly contribute to the body-hatred so many young women feel" (p. 135). She points out that in Fiji, well-fleshed women constituted the feminine ideal, and eating disorders were unknown until the introduction of television.

These critiques raise questions about how far the ethical obligation of advertisers should extend. But they also echo Packard's concerns about the degree to which our self-image and behavior are influenced by the environment of advertisements. They are made all the more important by the ability of modern technology to saturate our surroundings with advertisements, each not only promoting a product or idea but also transmitting cultural messages about what is appropriate and desirable. The technologically enhanced barrage of advertisements recalls Langdon Winner's (1986) insight that "technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning" (p. 6). Advertising shapes our shared world and thus to some extent it orients us within a web of meanings and influences our identity.

David Ogilvy, advertising executive, presents an optimistic take on the social benefits of advertising. He quotes Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

If I were starting life over again, I am inclined to think that I would go into the advertising business in preference to almost any other. ...The general raising of the standards of modern civilization among all groups of people during the past half century would have been impossible without the spreading of the knowledge of higher standards by means of advertising. (1988, p. 150)

He then quotes Winston Churchill: "Advertising nourishes the consuming power of men. ... It spurs individual exertion and greater production" (p. 150). Ogilvy was a proponent of informative advertising and an extremely honest man, so his personal traits certainly provided a rose color to the advertising industry.

Yet he also admitted some of the negative aspects of advertising. For example, Ogilvy considered the economic effects of advertising and concluded that ads probably result in lower prices by driving sales volume. At the same time, they may contribute to monopolization by companies large enough to afford their costs. Ogilvy detested the trend of using Madison Avenue techniques to sell politicians. He addressed the criticism that ads influence the editorial content of magazines and newspapers, and argued that advertising serves as a force of social cohesion, building community and national identity.

James B. Twitchell (1996) argues that our culture is not just driven by advertising; it is advertising. Indeed he maintains that culture is just advertising's way of ensuring its own survival. He traces an unbroken line from religion and rituals to advertising: "[B]y adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion" (p. 11). "[A]dvertising is the gospel of redemption in the fallen world of capitalism"
(p. 32). Advertising is "an ongoing conversation within a culture about the meaning of objects" (p. 13). Globally, "Adcult," the powerful, pervasive social, psychological, and cultural phenomenon of worldwide advertising, homogenizes cultures and exploits human doubt and insecurity and, accordingly, has become "the dominant meaning-making system of modern life because of our deep confusion about consumption, not only about what to consume, but how to consume" (p. 253).

The world described by Twitchell is very different than the future envisioned by Ogilvy. The information-filled ads championed by the latter are largely a thing of the past, with modern television ads relying largely on emotion and desire, based on numerous, almost subliminal rapid images and sounds of the lifestyle the audience is urged to associate with the product. The time is long gone when consumers care about the type of stitching or fabric used in a shirt; the sale today relies on the way the shirt will make you feel about yourself, the members of the opposite sex it will attract, and the access it will grant you to a better life.

Twitchell, like Packard, believes that the implications of modern advertising for human freedom, especially freedom of speech, are bleak. He argues that advertisers are the primary censors of media content in the United States. Adbusters, a monthly magazine, attempts to raise these issues to the consciousness of consumers by criticizing, deconstructing, and parodying ads. Twitchell asks if advertising is an inherently unethical medium and concludes that it is best conceived as amoral rather than immoral. Advertisers primarily want to sell products; their main goals are not reinforcement of stereotypes, or the exploitation of insecurities, which are often, however, secondary effects of what they do. If advertisers believe they can sell more products by portraying strong, independent women rather than childlike, dependent ones, they will do so; the ads for Charlie perfume were an early example, presenting a self-assured businesswoman, to whom the men in the ads were subservient. (However, she was also young, thin, and beautiful.)

Public Relations of Science

Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, scientists and scientific institutions have engaged in public relations activities in order to improve their social status, sway public policy with respect to science and technology, and promote greater public support of research and science in general. Although this attempt to improve the relationship between the public and science usually benefits science, it has also been couched in arguments that are less directly self-serving. These arguments are often grouped under the general labels of "public understanding of science" or "scientific literacy." Some of the more common justifications for enhanced public understanding of science are that it can bring benefits to national economies, boost national power and influence, improve individuals' chances in the job market, inspire greater intellectual, aesthetic, and moral achievements, and benefit democratic government and society in general. Jacob Bronowski (1974) voiced this last justification in terms of a "democracy of the intellect," in which the distance between power and the people can be closed only if scientific knowledge is dispersed broadly.

Though indirect, almost all of these reasons for enhanced public understanding of science will benefit science by leading to greater public support and investment. The opposite effect is possible, however. Greater understanding of science can lead to increased public scrutiny and skepticism or even control over research agendas and practices. Partly in response to just such a possibility, Steve Fuller argues that "science may be popular precisely because it is misunderstood. Thus, a movement genuinely devoted to 'public understanding of science' may have some rather unintended consequences for the future of science" (1997, p. 33). Dorothy Nelkin (1995) adds that "While scientists see public communication of scientific information as necessary and desirable, they are also aware that it extends their accountability beyond the scientific community" (p. 148).

Own a practical level, the public relations of science arose from the insight that peer review is not sufficient to maintain research support and favorable public policies. Thus information must be directed not just at peers, but also at corporations, policy makers, and the general public, highlighting the fact that science cannot survive as an autonomous enterprise. Nelkin traces the history of science public relations and argues that government science agencies, scientific journals, science-based corporations, and individual scientists have developed sophisticated ways to utilize and even manipulate the media to put a positive image on their work. These tactics span a spectrum from employing public relations officers to directly restricting journalists' access to information. The restrictions placed on reporters at the 1975 Asilomar Conference on recombinant DNA research are an example of the latter form of image control. Another problem that can arise from public relations efforts in the medical sciences is the improper inflation of hopes that a cure for the disease under research is immanent. This is exacerbated by the increasing pressure on journalists to be the first to report the most sensational claims, rather than well-researched and balanced news. In general, as fiscal and societal pressures mount on scientists to demonstrate the relevance, safety, and importance of their work, it becomes more difficult to see through tactics of self-promotion in order to gain a balanced understanding of the issues.


SEE ALSO Business Ethics; Communication Ethics.


Bronowski, Jacob. (1974). The Ascent of Man. London: Little Brown. Companion to a television series, argues for the extension of scientific knowledge to the general public.

Fuller, Steve. (1997). Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Explores the normative and social aspects of science in order to undermine naïve assumptions about scientific realism.

Kilbourne, Jean. (1999). Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. New York: Free Press. How advertising plays to the neurotic preoccupations of girls and women.

National Science Foundation. (1978). "Research on the Effects of Television Advertising on Children: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Future Research." Washington, DC: Author.

Nelkin, Dorothy. (1995). Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology. New York: W.H. Freeman. Analyzes the coverage of science and technology in the popular media. Contains a chapter on the public relations of science, pp. 124–143.

Ogilvy, David. (1988). Confessions of an Advertising Man. New York: Atheneum. First printed in 1962 and re-issued with minimal revisions. The autobiography of an ethical advertising man, with reflections on the culture of advertising.

Packard, Vance. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders. New York: David McKay. Argues that advertising science is manipulating human behavior and threatening to undermine our free will.

Pollay, Richard. (1986). "The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising" Journal of Marketing, vol. 50 (April), pp. 18–36. A review of the available literature on the social impact of advertising.

Schutzman, Mady. (1999). The Real Thing: Performance, Hysteria and Advertising. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. How advertising caters to neurosis and insecurity in women.

Strasburger, Victor C. (2001). "Children and TV Advertising: Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide," Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 185–187.

Sutherland, Max, and Alice K. Sylvester. (2000). Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer. 2nd edition St. Leondards, Australia: Allen and Unwin. Aimed at both advertisers and consumers to explain which strategies work and why.

The Ethical Problems of Modern Advertising. 1978. New York: Arno Press. A reprint of an early twentieth century collection of essays on ethics in advertising.

Twitchell, James B. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. A cynical and influential book on the new language and psychological effectiveness of advertising.

Twitchell, James B. (2000). Twenty Ads That Shook the World: The Century's Most Groundbreaking Advertising and How It Changed Us All. New York: Crown Books. An overview of the most influential ads and why they were so effective.

Winner, Langdon. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Presents a philosophy of technology as a form of life and argues that technologies have politics.

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