What is advertising and how does it work?

We are surrounded by advertising just about everywhere we go. Giant posters and neon-lit signs look down upon us from billboards on busy streets and subway stations in every big city in the world. Advertisements – “ads” for short – fill the pages of our magazines and newspapers, often taking up more space than the articles themselves. Our television viewing is interrupted by advertising, our movie viewing is delayed by it, and our mailboxes are jammed with it. It pops up on our computer screen. How and why has advertising managed to penetrate so many aspects of our lives? And more importantly, what kind of influence does it have on us – on how we think about ourselves, on what we do with our time and how we spend our money?

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Ours is a consumer society. This means that our society relies on the never-ending creation of new needs. The more we buy the more jobs we create and the more money is circulating in the economy. But many people question the wisdom of a consumer society, which they see as being dictated by greed and materialism. Should, for example, we be advertising cigarettes, alcohol, and other products that might be harmful to people and the environment? When we look into advertising below, keep in might the ethics of advertising and the consumer society. These are some of the issues we are going to consider in this chapter, but before we do so, we must first acquire some sense of what advertising is, its history, and how it is organised today.

Getting your attention
The principle of advertising is very simple – it attempts to draw attention to a product being sold. The idea is to persuade people to acquire items they might not otherwise think of buying – items they did not know they needed. But it is also about maintaining the product market, insuring that those who are presently buying a product continue to do so. The key here, of course, is communication. Advertisements are cleverly engineered messages with a purpose – to influence our buying behaviour.

This principle is one of the central features of advertising and has been around a long time. It was understood by the merchants in the late 17th century who had to advertise to convince people to buy coffee beans in order to make a delicious drink. In the same way, modern companies – the merchants of today – advertise to convince us that, for example, instant coffee in all its forms – decaffeinated, expresso, cappuccino, mocca, mint – is a more convenient and tasteful drink than traditional coffee.

By the early 20th century, principles of psychology were also being used to sell products more effectively. Emotional appeals, scare tactics and implausible promises became part of the advertiser’s tools. Some of the most successful campaigns play on people’s anxieties, and one of the masters in this game was King Gillette, inventor of the first safety razor in the early 1900s. After starting with a few words about the ease and convenience of the safety razor, he plunged the reader into the heart of the matter: “When you use my razor, you are exempt from the dangers that men often encounter who allow their faces to come in contact with brush, soap and barber shop accessories used on other people.”

Here was an entirely new approach to selling goods. Gillette’s ads were in effect telling you that not only did there exist a product that you never previously suspected you needed, but if you did not use it you would very possibly attract a crop of facial diseases you never knew existed. The combination proved irresistible. Though the Gillette razor retailed for a hefty $5 – half the average working man’s weekly pay – they sold by the millions and King Gillette became a very rich man.

Other advertisers soon followed Gillette’s lead and within a short time consumers could scarcely pick up a magazine without being bombarded with unsettling questions: “Will your hair stand close inspection?”, “Do you use inferior toilet paper?”, “Did nature fail to put roses in your cheeks?” Advertisers invented and popularised an array of maladies and disorders that required purchase of their products – fallen stomach, tobacco breath, yellow teeth, scabby toes, iron-poor blood, dandruff, and of course the gravest of them all, body odour!

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This last term was invented in 1933 by the makers of Lifebuoy soap and was so terrifying in its social consequences that it was soon abbreviated to a whispered “BO” and spawned a billion dollar industry in soaps and deodorants. The bathroom medicine cabinet came into existence and was soon filled with lotions, creams, liquids and pills to make us look, feel and, most important of all, smell better! How had we managed to live without these products for so long? We certainly cannot today!

And then came television
The biggest boost to advertising came from the new medium of television, and not surprisingly it started in the US. On July 1, 1941 the New York television station WNBT-TV interrupted its normal viewing to show, without comment, a Bulova watch ticking. For sixty seconds the watch ticked away mysteriously, then the picture faded and normal programming resumed. It might not have been much but it was the first television commercial.

Since then, American television has always been financed by advertising sponsorship – companies paying for programmes to be produced and the right for their “messages” to be featured during them. Sometimes advertisers even inserted their names into the programme title – Texaco Star Theatre, Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, The US Steel Hour, Kraft Television Theatre. In Britain, advertising was not seen on television until 1955, when a commercial channel was established.

Today, with the development of new media outlets such as cable and satellite television, and the Internet and e-commerce, the potential for advertising is enormous. Yet the principle remains the same – communicating a message which creates the impulse to buy. It is about reaching the consumers, who perhaps had not considered buying your product at all, and getting them to choose your product instead of something else. Let us look more closely at how this is done.
How is advertising organised?
There are four main players in the advertising industry. They are: the advertiser – who has goods or services to sell and is willing to spend money to have them advertised; the media – who own and control the publications, poster sites and broadcasting channels that carry ads; the advertising agency – which produces advertising for other companies, and, finally, the consumer who (it is hoped) buys the goods advertised. Let us look at this process in more detail.

Companies which produce goods constantly search for new ways of selling them. Most companies compete with others that are producing the same or a similar product, and advertising is necessary to maintain or increase their share of sales. When a company wants to launch a new brand name or to boost sales of an existing product, it needs to find the best ways of reaching those groups of people most likely to buy it. This is not as simple as it sounds. Obviously the advertising of, say, a brand of ice cream has to appeal to people who enjoy eating ice cream. But many people stick to a single brand, and many others do not worry about the brand at all – they simply buy ice-cream when they feel hot and sweaty. Why should any of these people suddenly go out and buy “your” brand and no one else’s?

This is where the advertising agency comes in. The agency will have to find out which group of people will want to buy a particular brand of product. Satisfying this need is called meeting the demand. They may also be employed to seek out groups who could be persuaded to buy a product they are unaware of. This is called creating a demand. These groups may be defined by any number of different criteria – income, lifestyle, class, sex, race, age, etc. Such defined groups constitute the market, and seeking information about them is termed market research.

Once the agency discovers which markets to approach, they have to decide on the most appropriate media to reach it. The message in the ad must be communicated to those it is intended to reach. There would be no point in a local business, such as a plumber or doctor, advertising beyond the area where their customers live. They would advertise in the local newspaper or on the local radio. On the other hand, an international company such as Levi’s would advertise in the international press and on television and the cinema since everyone can buy their brand of jeans from a local store. The nature of the market is also another important criterion. Advertising cigarettes in a health food magazine, or women’s underwear during a children’s television programme, would not make much sense! Of course there are many people who question if we should have advertising that is focused on children at all. Should young children feel pressured to buy the "right" clothes and generally to buy things?

Creating an image
Having decided on the best media for its chosen market, the agency turns its attention to the brand image. The idea here is to find an image which will match the market segment (children, teens, the elderly) they are trying to communicate with. This may include the design of the packaging for the new product, or the sorts of models to be used in the ad (smart city yuppies; tough men on horseback; or attractive scantily-clad girls). Copywriters produce copy (the text) and art directors commission photographs or film for the advertisement.

The agency then presents a variety of ideas for the campaign to their client. Once agreed on, ads are made and space is bought on whatever media the agency has decided on; television, radio, billboards, newspapers, magazines, the Internet or cinema.
What makes a successful ad?
Most of us are aware of the intention of advertisements and how they are meant to work. We do not rush off to buy a product as soon as we see an ad. On the other hand, research has shown that if we do find an ad attractive and interesting, we may be reminded of the product when we see it or wish to buy something similar. When we are out shopping or leafing through catalogues, advertising works in ways we are not conscious of, and influences our buying patterns.

The trick, of course, is to capture our attention in the first place. But this is not always so easily done. Advertisements fill our environment – they are so much a part of our daily life that we usually do not give them much notice. Of the hundreds of advertising messages that bombard us each day, very few actually win our conscious attention. The rest are screened out. The people who design and write ads know about this screening process. They are well aware that consumers do not watch television or read magazines in order to see ads. They know that ads have to earn the right to be seen, read or heard. They therefore expend a great deal of energy to guarantee that their ads will make it past the defences and distractions that surround us.

The classic, all-time favourite device to penetrate these barriers is sex. The most basic sex ad is simply headlined “SEX”, with the text running something like this: “now that we’ve got your attention ...” But others are much more sophisticated, as shown in the following rather amusing example:
A television commercial features a newly married couple on their wedding night. The viewers cannot see what the couple are doing but they do hear moaning and groaning. The bride mumbles, “Nearly”. The word is followed by a disappointed sigh, and the groom says, “Let’s try again”. At that moment the viewers see the couple and understand the meaning of the ad – and the meaning behind the sounds and words! The couple are playing with one of their wedding presents – a videogame. As you expected, no doubt!
There are of course other approaches. Soft drink and fast food companies often take the “Slice of Life” approach. These ads provide glimpses of people in “real life” situations – beautiful babies crawling around at family picnics, or gorgeous young people playing frisbee at the beach. Often, such ads are very entertaining – there is a movie-like quality about the scenes and the music is very catching. The idea is to encourage the viewer to make the connection: Cool people, happy people, successful people, famous people drink Coke or Pepsi and eat hamburgers ... better buy some soon!

The challenge, then, is to create an ad which immediately attracts attention, holds people’s interest, and makes a memorable impression so that when the time comes – having to make a choice between several products in a store – our unconscious will see the successfully advertised item in a more favourable light than the others, and we will buy it.
Spot check
  1. What is the basic principle of advertising?
  2. What was the trick that King Gillette used to sell his products?
  3. What was the secret to the success of Lifebuoy soap?
  4. How did television give a boost to advertising?
  5. Name the four main players in the advertising industry and explain the role each plays.
  6. Explain the difference between “meeting the demand” and “creating a demand”.
  7. What factors are important when choosing the most suitable media to present an ad?
  8. In what way does advertising influence our buying patterns?
  9. What tricks do advertisers use to get our attention?
Rewrite the ads
Not all advertisers are as successful as others. Take a look at the following slogans and decide why the ads did not work. Rewrite them so they work at least as they were perhaps intended:
  • Our bikinis are exciting. They are simply the tops!
  • We will oil your sewing machine and adjust tension in your home for $1.00.
  • Dinner Special – Turkey $2.35; Chicken or Beef $2.25; Children $2.00
  • We do not tear your clothing with machinery. We do it carefully by hand.
  • Tired of cleaning yourself? Let me do it.
  • Get rid of aunts. Zap does the job in just 24 hours.
  • The hotel has bowling alleys, tennis courts, comfortable beds, and other athletic facilities.
  • Toaster: A gift that every family member appreciates. Automatically burns toast.
  • Used Cars: Why go somewhere else to be cheated? Come here first.
  • Illiterate? Write today for free help.
Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 18.05.2007

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