Questions from the Readings assigned from the PDF-book text(s) per
the Syllabus for W8 (i.e., Ch. 7 “The Marketing Society” in AF&CC).Questions
to Respond to, in a half-to-full page writeup in TOTAL (i.e., NOT a
half-to-full page writeup for each), answering your choice of TWO below:Why does the author pose the argument that our freedom is an illusion?What is the main difference between advertising and marketing?What is Maslow’s theory of needs about?Why did the VALS 1 typology have to be revised?What is the logic behind the classification of consumers according to zip codes?Why are teenagers and children considered of interest to marketers?
Ads, Fads, and
Ads, Fads, and
Advertising’s Impact on
American Character and Society
Arthur Asa Berger
With illustrations by the author
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.
Lanham • Boulder • New York • Toronto • Plymouth, UK
Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
A wholly owned subsidiary of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
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Copyright © 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or
mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
The Library of Congress has cataloged the previous edition of this book as follows:
Berger, Arthur Asa, 1933–
Ads, fads, and consumer culture : advertising’s impact on American character and
society / Arthur Asa Berger ; with illustrations by the author. — 3rd ed.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Advertising—United States. 2. Popular culture—United States. 3. Consumer
education—United States. I. Title.
ISBN: 978-1-4422-0668-7 (pbk. : alk. paper)
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National
Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/
Printed in the United States of America
Some measure of greed exists unconsciously in everyone. It represents an
aspect of the desire to live, one which is mingled and fused at the outset
of life with the impulse to turn aggression and destructiveness outside
ourselves against others, and as such it persists unconsciously throughout
life. By its very nature it is endless and never assuaged; and being a form
of the impulse to live, it ceases only with death.
The longing or greed for good things can relate to any and every imaginable kind of good—material possessions, bodily or mental gifts, advantages
and privileges; but, beside the actual gratifications they may bring, in the
depths of our minds they ultimately signify one thing. They stand as proofs
to us, if we get them, that we are ourselves good, and full of good, and so are
worthy of love, or respect and honour, in return. Thus they serve as proofs
and insurances against our fears of emptiness inside ourselves, or of our evil
impulses which make us feel bad and full of badness to ourselves and others.
—Joan Riviere, “Hate, Greed and Aggression”
CO NTE NTS
Foreword by Fred S. Goldberg
Preface to the Fourth Edition
Preface to the Third Edition
1 Advertising in American Society
Advertising as a Puzzlement
Max Weber on Religion and Consumer Cultures
Advertising and Politics
A Psycho-Cultural Perspective on Advertising
Running It Up a Flagpole to See If Anyone Salutes
Commercials as Mini-Dramas and Works of Art
Teleculture and the Internet
The Super Bowl
2 Consumer Cultures
A Cultural Critique of Advertising
Consumer Cultures Defined
Taste Cultures and Advertising
The Postmodern Perspective
The Problem of Emotions Overcoming Rationality
Consumer Culture and Privatism
Neiman Marcus and “Couthification”
Needs Are Finite, Desires Are Infinite
Are There Four Consumer Cultures, Not Just One?
3 Advertising and the Communication Process
The Lasswell Formula
Focal Points and the Study of Media
The Lasswell Formula and Focal Points
A Problem with the Lasswell Formula
Metaphor and Metonymy
Metaphor and Identity: I Am a Seashell
4 Running It Up a Flagpole to See If Anyone Salutes
Lisa’s Morning: A Fiction
Lisa Greatgal’s and Johnny Q. Public’s Daily Media Diet
Television Viewing and Exposure to Commercials
Our All-Consuming Passion for Consuming
A Note on “Hauls”
The Price We Pay for “Free” Television
The Illusion of Control
Being a “Branded Individual”
Selling Oneself for Brands
The Problem of Self-Alienation
We Can Choose as We Please, but Can We Please as We Please?
The Agony of Choice
Non-Advertising Forms of Advertising
5 Sexuality and Advertising
Sex in Advertising
Sexploitation and Anxiety
The Peach That Became a Prune: A Cautionary Fable
The Pseudo-Poetic Appeal to the Illiterati
Sex Appeal and Gender Appeal
Sex Sells Cigarettes
The Case of Joe Camel
Sex and the Problem of Clutter
6 Political Advertising
Kinds of Political Advertisements
The 1998 California Primary: A “Virtual” Campaign
Questions Raised by the “Virtual” Campaign
The 2002 California Campaign for Governor
The 2010 California Campaign for Governor
The Cost of Presidential Campaigns
The Code of the Commercial (and Other Political Advertising)
The Emotional Basis of Partisan Politics
The Death of the Tobacco Bill
7 The Marketing Society
Statistics on Advertising
More Comments on the Illusion of Freedom
The Marketing View
Maslow’s Theory of Needs
The VALS 1 Typology
Using the VALS 1 Typology: A Case Study
VALS 2: A Revision of the VALS 1 Typology
Zip Codes and Kinds of Consumers
The Claritas Typology
Magazine Choice as an Indicator of Consumer Taste
Types of Teenage Consumers
Blogs and Marketing
A Typology for Everyone in the World
A Comparison of the Different Typologies
A Conclusion in the Form of a Question
8 Analyzing Print Advertisements or: Six Ways of Looking
at a Fidji Perfume Advertisement
Lotman’s Contributions to Understanding Texts
What’s There to Analyze in an Advertisement?
Analyzing the Fidji Ad
A Semiotic Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
A Sociological Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
A Marxist Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
The Myth Model and the Fidji Advertisement
A Feminist Interpretation of the Fidji Advertisement
9 Analyzing Television Commercials: The Macintosh
A Synopsis of the Text
George Orwell’s 1984 and Ridley Scott’s “1984”
The Image of the Total Institution
The Prisoners’ Boots
The Blond as Symbol
The Brainwashing Scenario
The Big Brother Figure
The Brainwasher’s Message
The Big Explosion
The Inmates’ Response
The Macintosh Announcement
The Heroine as Mythic Figure
Psychoanalytic Aspects of the Commercial
The Blond as Mediator
The Big Blue
A Clever Marketing Strategy
The “1984” Commercial and a Bit of Scholarly Research
10 Where Next?
Children and Advertising
Battling for People’s Attention
Cell Phones, Social Media, and Advertising
Appendix: Useful Web Sites
About the Author
FO RE WO RD
Fred S. Goldberg
I spent thirty-four years in advertising: the first fifteen at what was then, arguably, the finest of the large traditional Madison Avenue agencies (Young
& Rubicam, NY); the next nine years at arguably the finest creative agency
in the country at the time (Chiat/Day, LA); and the last ten founding and
managing my own agency (Goldberg Moser O’Neill, San Francisco). This
experience provided me with a unique overview and insight into the business
When you study advertising and advertising’s impact, it helps to understand the context within which advertising messages are developed, produced,
and aired. Many of the print ads and commercials that consumers ultimately
see could have been demonstrably different, were it not for the conflicting
interests that went hand in hand with their development.
In theory, advertisers hire advertising agencies to create ads that will break
through and impact their customers and potential customers. They hope to maximize the effectiveness of often limited media and promotional dollars, achieve a
competitive edge, and gain extra mileage from each advertising message.
Yet, because of the nature of the industry and the agency and client relationship, a series of conflicts often prevents this from happening as frequently
as it should. And this explains, at least in part, why there is so much advertising that is spurious, curious, muddled, and jumbled. The impact that it all has
on the American character and culture, as explained in this book, is partially
the result of the conflicting way advertising gets developed. One can only
wonder what the ads, and their effect, would be if self-interest was removed
along the way.
These conflicts have a numbing consequence on the impact of clients’ advertising dollars and the subsequent success they have in the marketplace selling
their products or positioning their companies or causes. The advertising business
is unique and particularly difficult because it is fraught with these conflicts which
very often result in a dumbed-down final product.
Trying to represent what is best for the client, while still trying to make a
profit, is sometimes a challenge for an advertising agency. It’s easy to profess,
as advertising agencies are prone to do, that their recommendations are impartially formulated only to drive a client’s business, but that is not always the
case. In fact they are influenced by the existence of various agendas operating
at different levels of management in an agency and in different departments.
Similar agendas may exist on the client side.
Advertising executives may believe that they are providing complete objectivity, but at the end of the day they can be often prejudiced, partial, and
biased. One example that Arthur Berger observes in this book is that for various reasons it is important that the advertising agency recommend only one
campaign. It must be made to seem to be the only answer to the company’s
problems. This practice provides fertile ground for conflicts of interests and
less than complete objectivity.
Why does this happen? One reason is conflicts between departments. On
the one hand, Account Management representatives may be trying to support
the client’s view and interest within the agency, while other departments are
developing recommendations that may or may not reflect the client’s actual
needs. Or vice versa. The Account Planners are supposedly trying to represent
the consumer; the Creative People are representing their ad; and the Client is
concerned about his brand. This leads to internal agency debate, to compromises, and ultimately to a finished product that often depends on who made
the strongest argument or had the most authority.
This is all further complicated, as Berger accurately points out, in that
people in advertising agencies need to sell both themselves and the products
they have been engaged to advertise. This can, in and of itself, create a conflict.
There is another conflict where many advertisers rely on creative testing to help them make a decision. They rely heavily on the often spurious
conclusions, and this conflicts directly with implementing work that can truly
break through and impact the consumer in a highly competitive manner. In
client organizations, testing is a political tool as often as it is a learning device.
It helps protect people’s decision making, particularly in the context of a large
organizational framework, as much as it determines the worth of a particular
message or idea. When a test shows an idea to be normative, then the decision to use it can be more easily justified. In other words, one’s backside is
adequately covered in the event of a failure.
Finally, there is the conflict in trying to develop truly unique and creative
solutions to business and communication problems. It is my experience that,
generally, opposition to a creative solution grows greater in direct proportion
to its uniqueness and lack of familiarity. This is true for people within an ad
agency, the client organization, and even potential customers, all of whom are
asked to judge things that are new and different.
I was personally involved in what may have been one of the great advertising lessons of all time, exhibiting all of these various conflicting forces. It was
for Apple Computer—a commercial known as “1984.” This was the introductory commercial for Apple’s Macintosh and was one of the most memorable,
most persuasive, most effective commercials ever created.
However, the commercial, after being fully produced, was rejected by
then–Apple CEO Steve Jobs, after it was inordinately criticized by Apple’s
board of directors just prior to airing. They argued that it was an extravagance and did not appropriately communicate Apple’s persona as a serious
business computer company to stockholders, investors, and the consumer.
They worried that Apple would look “insane” and “out of control” if the
A test of the commercial supported the board somewhat, although they
never saw the results. It indicated that the commercial was well below established averages in its “effectiveness,” scoring only a 5 against a norm of 29 for
thirty-second business-directed commercials. The commercial was actually
sixty seconds, and should have scored all that much higher.
The commercial was to air during the Super Bowl. Because the advertising agency was not able to resell the media time they had purchased for it,
Steve Jobs ultimately gave his approval to run the commercial in lieu of forfeiting the money for the time which had already been committed. This was
done despite internal protestations at Apple.
History was made. The personal computer industry is entirely different
today because of this single “conflicted” advertising decision. The commercial
was recalled the day after it ran by 78 percent of viewers; Apple sold $3.5 million worth of Macintosh computers within six hours the next business day and
$155 million over the next one hundred days. Today, Apple’s revenues are
$25 billion and it has a market capitalization of $59 billion, arguably because
of the airing of one single commercial.
This is but one eye-popping example of why advertising is such a unique
business among businesses.
The manner in which advertising is developed and implemented, and the
incredible influence it has on our culture and consumers, is profound. Ads,
Fads, and Consumer Culture delves into this and other matters. Arthur Berger
provides fresh insights and explanations on various aspects and issues of the
industry and the ads, and the impact on all of us. On the very first page he
identifies one of the critical issues: “Advertising agencies are forced to talk out
of both sides of their mouths at the same time.”
When one considers the enormous impact advertising has on millions
of people every day, and upon our culture, it is mind-boggling that so many
arbitrary factors and self-interests can shape the communication development
process. Reading Mr. Berger’s book in this context makes many of his analyses
and conclusions that much more surprising, insightful, thought provoking,
The author specifically discusses and analyzes the Apple “1984” commercial in depth in the last chapter. It’s amazing that this advertising had such a
profound impact on products and people’s lives when one considers the agony
and irony involved in giving birth to a genuinely new idea.
On the other hand, maybe it’s not so amazing. Maybe most advertising
works, whatever the development process, just because all advertising works.
P R E F A C E T O THE FO URTH E D I TI O N
Advertising plays a major role in American life. Paco Underhill offers an interesting factoid about advertising in his book (2009:152) Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. “The average four year old American child can identify more
than one hundred brands,” he writes, which is probably because American
children watch so much television and because so much marketing is directed
towards children and teenagers. That’s because many older people recognize
that buying things isn’t going to change their lives in significant ways. As
Underhill explains (2009:152), “The older we get, the more we recognize
that the ownership of any product, no matter what it is, isn’t transformative.
That dress, that lipstick, the iPod nano is not going to change you or anyone’s
opinion of you.”
But teenagers, Underhill suggests, still believe in the power of brands to
shape their lives and perceptions others have of them. As he writes (2009:163):
Teenagers are still young enough to be total suckers for image, for all the
blandishments of advertising, identity marketing, media messages, trends
and labels. They still believe in a brand name’s power to confer status,
cool, charisma, knowledge. They construct their identities by the shopping
choices they make—they’re a lot like adults were back in the ’50s, before
we all became so wise in the way of image hucksters.
I would argue that many adults are also “suckers,” to use Underhill’s term, for
the appeals of advertising and believe that their brand choices are transformative. That is because, in part, we are bombarded (some would say brainwashed)
by advertising of all kinds all day long. We swim, like fish, in a sea of billboards,
newspaper and magazine ads, television commercials and Internet ads, so it is
very difficult to avoid being affected by all these messages. We have the illusion
that we can shield ourselves from advertising and are not affected by it. It is
analogous to fish believing that though they swim in water, they don’t get wet.
Preface to the Fourth Edition
We are also very interested in advertising and its impact on our culture and
society. This is reflected in the many sites devoted to advertising and various
aspects of the industry on Google. If you go to Google search and look for sites
that deal with advertising, this is what you will find (as of March 20, 2010):
Advertising New Developments
In this book I have added new discussions of:
• Max Weber’s study of religion and its role in consumption
• The role of the unconscious and emotion in shaping consumer
• Brands and the way handbag brands shape the behavior of “mall
• Videos of girls talking about their “hauls”
• Sexuality and advertising
• Semiotics and identity
• Abraham Maslow’s theory of needs
Preface to the Fourth Edition
I have also updated relevant statistics and enhanced my discussion of a number
of other topics throughout the book.
I hope that you will find this book helpful in understanding the way
advertising works and the role that advertisements and commercials and the
advertising industry in general play in your life and American culture and society as well. In addition to dealing with advertising in general in this book,
my chapters on print advertising and television commercials teach you how
to analyze these kinds of texts. I have added a number of new advertisements
and drawn some new illustrations to make the book more visually interesting.
I would be happy if, after you’ve read this book, you think two slogans from
commercials that appeared many years ago apply to it:—“Try it! You’ll like
it!” and “I ate [read] the whole thing!”
P R E F A C E T O THE THI RD E D I TI O N
It is a great pleasure for me to offer this new edition of Ads, Fads, and Consumer
Culture to my readers. The advertising industry is one in which there is constant change, as new technologies develop, new products are created, and new
services are offered. For example, the Internet has become a major new source
of advertising revenue, as anyone who has used search engines such as Google
or Yahoo knows. And bloggers have become increasingly important. Advertising companies are now studying what bloggers say about new movies, video
games, and other products to gain added insights into consumer behavior.
There is a good deal of debate in academic circles and in the government about the role of advertising in American society. Does advertising for
fast foods and junk food play a role in the rapid growth of obesity in America
and in a number of other countries? If so, how big a role has it played and
what should be done to remedy this situation? Has advertising for expensive
consumer drugs had a negative impact on the medical profession and upon the
health of Americans? As I write, there are efforts being made to modify the way
drug companies can advertise their products. Are young children being taught
to be self-indulgent and materialistic as they are “branded” by advertising? If
so, how do we counter this development?
Has advertising shaped, in important ways, the way individuals perceive
themselves and the way we perceive one another? If this is the case, how can
people defend themselves against the way they are being affected or even
“manipulated” by advertisers? These are only a few of the topics I deal with
in this book.
Whatever else it might be, advertising is a form of mass persuasion, and
we must wonder about the social, psychological, and cultural impact of this
Preface to the Third Edition
industry that plays so large a role in our media and everyday lives. In 1957,
Vance Packard wrote a book, The Hidden Persuaders, that alerted his readers
to the role advertising was playing in American society. He wrote (1957:3):
This book is an attempt to explore a strange and rather exotic new area
of American life. It is about the way many of us are being influenced and
manipulated—far more than we realize—in the patterns of our everyday
lives. Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to
channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought
processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so
that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, hidden.
Some of this manipulating being attempted is simply amusing. Some of it
is disquieting, particularly when viewed as a portent of what may be ahead
on a more intensive and effective scale for us all. Co-operative scientists have
come along providentially to furnish some awesome tools.
The impact of this use of psychoanalytic and other methods has led advertisers to more effectively sell us (1957:3) “products, ideas, attitudes, candidates,
goals or states of mind.” Packard wrote his book some fifty years ago. Since
then, the advertising industry has developed incredible new means of understanding our thought processes and ways of shaping our behavior.
It has also extended its reach, and uses “product placements” to put certain
products in television shows and films and now shows commercials on cell
phones. In some cases, one product placement in a television show or film can
lead to huge increases in the sales of that product. In addition, since films with
product placements in them are widely distributed abroad, it gives products
placed in films a global reach. Sometimes, products sold in a foreign country
are substituted for the original product placements in films. Thus, in SpiderMan 2, Dr. Pepper was shown in the film in the United States but Mirinda
was shown overseas.
We can say, without stretching the truth too much, that, with few exceptions, wherever in the world there are flat surfaces, such as sides of buildings,
cars, buses, and screens of all kinds and sizes, advertisers will find a way to use
them for their purposes.
BRAIN SCANS AND CONSUMER BEHAVIOR
There is now experimentation in using brain scans to see which parts of
the brain are activated by exposure to advertisements. Advertisers have moved
beyond surveys, focus groups, and depth interviews and now are experiment-
Preface to the Third Edition
ing with bypassing people’s explanations of why they do things to see, more
directly, how specific images, bits of dialogue, and music passages stimulate
certain parts of our brains. If advertisers are able to figure out how to bypass
our consciousness by using information learned by studying brain scans, they
will be even more powerful than they already are.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory, had suggested that
material stored in the unconscious elements of our psyches, areas we cannot
access and of which we are unaware, is often responsible for our actions. Many
advertising agencies use this notion to convince us to purchase the goods and
services they are selling. The Russian psychologist Pavlov showed how dogs
could be trained to salivate on command by being given certain stimuli, and
some advertisers have attempted to use this stimulus-response theory to attempt to shape our consumption behavior. Now, advertising agencies, using
information derived from neurological studies of brain activation, may move
beyond Freud’s theory and develop strategies that can only be described as
Orwellian in their implications.
So there is much to discuss in this new edition and I hope that you will
find this book helps you understand the role advertising plays in American
culture and society and in giving you notions about who you are, what is important in life, and what role you should play in society. Advertising pervades
our everyday lives. How advertising affects our psyches, our society, and our
culture is a question that demands continual study and attention. This book
will help you learn how to analyze print advertisements and television commercials as a means of gaining a bit of control over this subtle and all-pervasive
force in American culture and other societies as well.
A NOTE ON THE ADVERTISEMENTS
USED IN THIS BOOK
Advertising campaigns come and go so quickly that it is impossible to
keep up with the newest ads and commercials, and there is really no need to
do so. Most advertising is undistinguished, at best. And the “life expectancy”
for any advertisement or commercial or campaign is, generally speaking, not
very long. One exception to this fact is the Absolut campaign, which lasted for
twenty-five years before the company decided on a new campaign.
Thus, for my chapters on analyzing print advertisements and commercials
I have chosen texts (the terms we use in academic discourse for advertisements,
films, television shows, and so on) of great interest and ones that are considered
classics. They are also very useful since they are extremely rich in symbols and
cultural significance and allow for a great deal of analysis.
Preface to the Third Edition
The Fidji advertisement was the main subject of a major study of perfume
advertising at INSEAD, The European Institute of Business Administration,
one of the most important business schools in the world. I didn’t know about
the INSEAD study when I wrote my analysis of the advertisement. I was
captivated by the complex symbology in the advertisement. The Macintosh
“1984” commercial was voted the second best advertisement in the 1980s (the
first was the famous “fast talker” commercial for Federal Express by Ally &
Gargano) by The One Club for Art and Copy, an organization that evaluates
advertising in the advertising industry.
So I have chosen texts for these two chapters, and in a number of other
places, that are extremely interesting and useful for analysis. Choosing more
up-to-date advertisements and commercials for my chapters on methods of
analyzing print advertisements and television commercials, from my perspective, would serve no useful purpose, for it is the application of the techniques
of interpreting and analyzing advertisements and commercials that is critical,
not the texts themselves. However, I have inserted new advertisements in various places in the third edition, though what is really important is the degree to
which the reproduced advertisement reflects some topic of interest dealt with
in the book, not when it was made.
A C K NO WLE D GME NTS
My list of topics to consider on print advertising and television commercials
draws upon, but is a modification and enhancement of, material in my book
Seeing Is Believing: An Introduction to Visual Communication (1998). In Ads, Fads,
and Consumer Culture I focus on a more general analysis using some of the
basic critical techniques. The interpretive techniques I use in the Fidji analysis
are dealt with in more detail in my books Media Analysis Techniques, Cultural
Criticism, Seeing Is Believing: An Introduction to Visual Communication, and Signs
in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics. They offer more amplified
discussions of the various methodologies and concepts I will be using here, and
they also have bibliographies for those interested in pursuing these interpretive methodologies in more depth. The glossary is an adaptation, revised and
tied to advertising, of my glossary in Essentials of Mass Communication Theory.
I am grateful to Transaction Publishers for giving me permission to reprint
my article on the “1984” commercial and to Sage Publications for giving me
permission to reprint my analysis of the Fidji advertisement. I have revised both
of these articles considerably for this book. I also want to thank the Advertising Education Foundation for granting me a visiting professorship in 1999 that
enabled me to spend three weeks at Goldberg Moser O’Neill advertising in
San Francisco, and Fred Goldberg and all his colleagues for making my stay
there so enjoyable and useful and for allowing me to use a number of their
advertisements in this book.
Advertisements sanctify, signify, mythologize, and fantasize. They uphold
some of the existing economic and political structures and subvert others.
Not only does advertising shape American culture; it shapes Americans’
images of themselves.
—Katherine Toland Frith, Undressing the Ad:
Reading Culture in Advertising
The loyal customer is worth more than the sum of her purchases. A faithful
General Motors customer can be worth $276,000 over her lifetime, including the 11 or more vehicles bought plus a word-of-mouth endorsement
making friends and relatives more likely to consider GM products.
—Greg Farrell, “Marketers Put a Price on Your Life”
A D V E R T I SI NG I N AME RI CAN SO CI E TY
dvertising is really quite puzzling. In 2009 it was a $170 billion a year
industry (down from around $200 billion in 2006) in the United States
and it employs a goodly number of the brightest and most creative people in
American society and other societies as well (often at very high salaries, to
boot). Curiously, people who work in the industry have difficulty proving
that it works—especially in the long term. The word advertising means “to
make known,” and generally is understood to refer to public—now we would
say mass mediated—announcements of products and services that are for sale.
The Latin root of the word is advertere, which means “to pay attention to.”
This word can be broken down further: ad means “toward” and vertere means
“to turn.” So advertising attempts to turn our attention toward something—
namely the announcement of some product or service. There is logic, then, to
the first rule of advertising, which is, attract attention. If people aren’t paying
attention to a print advertisement or a radio or television commercial, you
can’t persuade them to do anything.
ADVERTISING AS A PUZZLEMENT
A department store merchant, John Wanamaker, is reputed to have said,
many years ago, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted . . . but
I don’t know which half.” Also, advertising agencies are forced to talk out of
both sides of their mouths at the same time. They have to convince clients
that advertising is really effective—in generating sales, holding on to the customers a company already has, or attracting new customers. But when governmental agencies or consumer groups ask advertising agencies about what
they do when it comes to advertising products such as cigarettes and alcohol,
for instance, the advertising agencies argue that they have very little impact on
people. The situation seems to be that although nobody in the business world
is certain how advertising works, there is a consensus that it is necessary and
that campaigns are worth the enormous amount of money they often cost.
Insights from Advertising Agencies
The psychological profile of people in advertising is that they love the
drama involved in working in agencies and the excitement generated
by making ads and commercials. Also, planning is about demonstrating that it’s not just about logic. It’s not a linear process. In the United
States, business people are rewarded for being extremely logical
and having statistics to back themselves up. This produces dreadful
advertising that often fails to make any impact. Advertising agencies
are refuges for people who don’t think only in a linear fashion and
who recognize that other people—consumers of advertising—don’t
think that way, either.
Thus, for example, commercials broadcast during the 2005 Super Bowl
cost $2.4 million for thirty seconds and the cost of the commercials during the
2006 Super Bowl was $2.5 million for a thirty-second spot. By 2010 it was $3
million. This is a great deal of money but there are reasons why companies pay
that amount of money to show commercials during the game. I will discuss
Super Bowl advertising in more detail shortly.
We must always keep in mind the difference between the cost of making
a nationally broadcast television commercial and the cost of purchasing airtime
to show a commercial. The cost of making a standard thirty-second nationally broadcast television commercial is between $300,000 and $400,000 now,
though some commercials can cost a good deal more than that. A typical “Got
Milk” commercial costs around $370,000 (figure 1.1). Purchasing the airtime
might run into the millions of dollars. Naturally, advertisers want to run effective commercials, so it’s worth spending a bit more money for a commercial
that will work. The campaign for “Got Milk” attracted an enormous amount
Advertising in American Society
The Cost of a Typical Commercial
These figures represent a breakdown on the cost of a thirty-second
“Got Milk” commercial. They were supplied by a former student of
mine who works at the advertising agency that created the commercial. A typical thirty-second spot costs between $300,000 and
$400,000; this spot cost $363,000.
Television Postproduction (editing)
Music (usually much higher)
Sound Effects Search/Narration
Talent Fees (3 principal actors, 5 extras, including
Tapes and Dubs
Legal Clearances (often much higher)
Agency Travel, Casting, Callbacks, Pre-Pro Edit
of attention and has spawned many “Got . . .” imitations. Of course, advertisers
and advertising agencies never know which commercials will be effective and
why they are effective. Though there is often an enormous amount of data
about target audiences “behind” a given commercial, all the data in the world
doesn’t mean anything when it comes to making a commercial that is effective.
If we believe what advertising agencies (and the companies they make
advertisements and commercials for) tell us, we have to conclude that advertising works in strange and mysterious ways and that although nobody is sure
precisely how it works, it does have an impact—though its power to shape any
given individual’s behavior is (or seems to be) really quite minimal.
We each like to think we (perhaps “uniquely”) can resist advertising and it
has no impact on us. This notion, which I will discuss in more detail in chapter
3, makes light of the power of advertising and helps us preserve our sense of
autonomy and individuality. Others are brainwashed by ads and commercials,
but not us, we think—as we find ourselves purchasing products we feel, somehow, we must have. Thus, we play into the hands of advertisers who use our
illusion that we are not affected by advertising against us. As the president of a
large advertising agency once told me, “Even lousy advertising works!”
We cannot show that a given commercial or campaign makes a given individual buy a product or service being advertised—or is the primary force in
shaping that person’s behavior—but we can see that advertising has a collective
impact; that is, it affects people in general. Corporations don’t spend hundreds
of billions of dollars a year because they are Good Samaritans who want to
make sure that radio stations and television networks are very profitable. And
politicians, who spend millions of dollars on their election campaigns, aren’t
Good Samaritans either.
I believe that advertising is a very powerful force, one that plays a major
role in the economy. It has replaced Puritanism in motivating people to work
hard so that they can earn money and be able to buy things.
MAX WEBER ON RELIGION
AND CONSUMER CULTURES
Max Weber (figure 1.2), one of the greatest sociologists of the nineteenth
century, wrote a classic study of the relationship between Puritanism and capitalism, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this book he pointed
out that John Calvin, an important theologian, argued that the possession of
wealth was to be taken as an indicator of God’s blessing. The Puritans believed
that the impulse towards acquisition was, Weber writes (1958:171), “directly
willed by God.” These religious beliefs did two other important things for
wealthy businessmen (1958:177):
The power of religious asceticism provided him with sober, conscientious,
and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life
purpose willed by God. Finally, it gave him the comforting assurance that
the unequal distribution of goods in this world was a special dispensation
of Divine Providence, which in these differences, as in particular grace,
pursued secret ends unknown to men.
Figure 1.2 Max Weber was a German sociologist
who did work on the relationship between
Protestantism and capitalism.
Advertising in American Society
Thus, wealth is a sign of being blessed and poverty is a sign of not being blessed, and nothing humans can do will change things. In the last part of
his book Weber talks about the ideas of a different Puritan minister, Richard
Baxter. He believed that (1958:181) “the care for external goods should only
lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside
at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”
Weber lamented that the desire for material goods had become a kind of obsession with people and this desire had reached its highest development in the
United States. He wrote (1958:182):
In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit
of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become
associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the
character of sport.
No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the
end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or
there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized
petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of
the last stage of this cultural development, it might be truly said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has
attained a level of civilization never before achieved.”
Weber’s critique is a moral one; he is highly critical of the way a passion
for consumption can take hold of individuals and, in his comments about
the United States, whole countries. It would be interesting to know what he
would have said about contemporary China, where the rage to succeed and
consume has transformed that country, in just a few generations, from a Third
World, poverty-stricken land into a world power.
ADVERTISING AND POLITICS
Increasingly in recent years, advertising has been used in the political
sphere. Advertising has the power, I believe, to influence and, in some cases,
shape people’s behavior, broadly speaking. For example, in the 1994 campaign
by forces against the Clinton health-care plan, the “Harry and Louise” commercials, broadcast by groups opposed to the plan, are credited with eroding
support for the plan by approximately twenty percentage points. In these
commercials, Harry and Louise criticized the Clinton plan for making major
changes in the medical system and lamented the way big government would be
telling them who their doctor had to be and would be depriving them of their
freedom to make decisions about medical matters. The passage of the health
reform bill in 2010 represented a remarkable achievement in the face of enormous sums of money spent on advertising by groups that opposed the measure.
I’m not suggesting that campaigns always work or that they always work
the way advertisers and advertising agencies imagine they will. But if we take
a broad look at human behavior in the long run, it seems quite obvious that
advertising exists and has been flourishing because, somehow, it works—that
is, it works a good deal of the time the way those paying for the advertising
want it to work. And this is particularly the case when it comes to political
advertising. This matter will be discussed more in chapter 6.
This is the way the advertising industry works, most of the time:
1. Advertising agencies purchase space for print advertisements in newspapers, magazines, or other kinds of publications, or time to broadcast commercials, made for companies selling products or services. Some organizations and
corporations do their own advertising, but this is not usually the case. There
are other ways of advertising, such as putting ads on billboards, in bus shelters,
on buses and taxicabs (figure 1.3), using the Internet, sponsoring events, and
placing products in films and television shows.
Advertising in American Society
2. These commercials or print advertisements are generally designed to
attract the attention of people with suitable demographics and the proper
psychographics—values and lifestyles—for some product or service. Advertising agencies tend to concentrate on people, roughly speaking, from 18 to
49—assuming they are the ones who buy most of the products and services
advertised. Certain products are aimed at children and others at older people,
but most advertising is aimed at the 18 to 49 cohort, give or take a few years
on either end.
3. Advertising tries to attract attention to, create the desire for, and stimulate action that leads to the purchase of products and services advertised on the
part of those reading print advertisements, listening to radio commercials, or
watching and listening to television commercials. That is, advertisers hope to
convince, to persuade, to motivate, and most importantly, to get people to act,
to do something. This something generally involves moving from the desire
for products and services to the actual purchase of the products or services.
There are, as I pointed out earlier, a number of different forms and genres
of advertising. Advertising pervades the American media and our lives—from
the billboards on our highways to the print ads in the publications we read,
the commercials on radio and television, and the designer logos on T-shirts
and other kinds of clothes we wear. Advertising is also used by charities, labor
unions, and organizations of all kinds to get their messages to the public. In
consumer cultures, it seems fair to say that just about everyone is advertising,
which creates a major problem—clutter. There are so many messages being
sent to us that sometimes, as the result of information overload, we get them
all mixed up.
If you look at the advertising for such products as athletic shoes, razors,
perfumes, beer, automobiles, you find advertising agencies fighting, desperately, to hold on to their segment of the market and, if possible, to gain market
share. They use every editing technique they can think of to make their commercials visually more memorable and every trick of language and narrative
structure to gain our attention and divert our attention from the advertising
One of the problems advertisers face is that of clutter—the enormous
number of advertisements we are exposed to on a given day, which leads to information overload and in many cases, paralysis. So advertising agencies knock
themselves out to differentiate their campaigns from other campaigns and get
the attention of the target audience they are attacking. A remarkable Honda
commercial, made in England, cost six million dollars to make and involved
606 takes and took three weeks, shooting nonstop day and night, to film and
three months to make. It is two minutes long, as well, which means it costs
an enormous amount of money to air the commercial on television. But the
commercial has attracted an enormous amount of attention and interest and
thus, Honda no doubt believes, it was worth doing.
Many Americans report that they are annoyed by all the advertising to
which they are exposed. A 2004 survey by Yankelovich Partners, done for the
American Association of Advertising Agencies, reported the following:
expressed interest in products that would block advertising
felt they are constantly bombarded by advertising
described the amount of advertising to which they are exposed as out of control
felt their opinion of advertising is more negative than before
said they avoid buying products that advertise too much
So there was, and there still is, I would add, a good deal of hostility in the
American public about the amount of advertising to which they are exposed,
and that is an additional problem the advertising industry faces.
This book focuses on print advertisements and television commercials and
the role they may play in stimulating the consumption of products and services
by people. Traditionally we call sales messages in print “advertisements” and
sales messages on electronic media, that use sound effects, music, and actors,
“commercials.” Originally, most of the sales messages on the Internet were
little more than print advertisements. Now, with new technological developments, we find pop-up screens, cartoon animations, and other ways of attracting the attention of people using the Internet. Internet advertising has grown
a great deal in recent years (figure 1.4). In 2008, almost $18 billion was spent
on this form of advertising. A friend of mine who works in a major advertising
agency in San Francisco told me “the focus now is on the Internet and social
media. That’s where all the energy in our agency is going. Print media are no
longer that important.” The methods of analysis I discuss can be used on all
forms of advertising.
It is worth noting some of the ideas mentioned in the most common
definitions of advertising. We find such terms as “arouse” and “desire,” which
suggest there are very powerful “affective” and perhaps even unconscious or
“irrational” elements at work in advertisements.
In his book Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising, Paul Messaris suggests that there may be certain kinds of hard-wired responses in human
beings that function as a result of visual cues to which they are exposed. He
discusses the work of a number of researchers in this area and writes:
Advertising in American Society
Figure 1.4. Now more than 500 million people belong
to Facebook, making it an increasingly important
tool for marketers.
When we look at the world, we are strongly predisposed to attend to certain
kinds of objects or situations and to react in certain kinds of ways. These
predispositions reflect the influence of culture, but . . . they have also been
shaped to a certain extent by biological evolution. In short, real-world vision
comes with a set of built-in response tendencies. Consequently, to the extent that a picture can reproduce the significant visual features of real-world
experience, it may also be able to exploit the response tendencies that are
associated with those features. (1997:4)
Messaris offers as an example of these “response tendencies” the use in
magazine ads, and other kinds of advertising, of having someone—spokespersons in television commercials and models in magazine advertisements—look
directly at the viewer or reader. In real life, we have a natural tendency to look
back at someone when they look at us, and advertising agencies can exploit this
in attracting our attention to their advertisements and generating emotional
responses to them.
Later in the book I will quote from an article that makes an even stronger
argument, namely that the famous experiment in which Ivan Pavlov was able
to train dogs to act in certain ways when special cues were given to them is the
basic metaphor for understanding how advertising works. That is, advertising
conditions us—as individuals and as members of society—in the same way that
Pavlov was able to train dogs.
In this chapter I do a number of things. Having broadly defined advertising, I offer a brief look at advertising agencies, followed by a model of advertising that deals with advertisements and commercials in terms of their cultural
impact rather than their effects on individuals. Then I discuss how advertisers
attempt to deflect criticism and tie this in to “weak” and “strong” theories of
the media offered by communication scholars. Next I discuss the techniques
used in commercials, which I consider to be the most powerful form of advertising. Finally, I relate commercials to “teleculture” and argue that television has become the dominant means of socialization in American culture and
many other societies as well. We must always keep in mind that from a business
point of view, what television does is deliver audiences to advertisers.
Advertising agencies, we must remember, are media businesses, and like
all businesses they have human resource departments, accounting departments,
production departments, and various levels of management (such as chief executive officers, chief financial officers, executive vice presidents, senior vice
presidents, and ordinary vanilla vice presidents). They also have huge account
management departments, with account supervisors, account directors, and
many, many account executives. The job of account executives, generally
speaking, is to look after the agency’s clients. Some cynics have suggested that
what account executives do best is take clients out to lunch.
But the most important employees of advertising agencies, I would suggest, are what are generally called the “creatives.” The creatives are the creative
directors and their teams of copywriters and art directors (and sometimes others), who turn all of the data provided by the marketing researchers into print
ads and radio and television commercials. The creatives think up campaigns
like “Got Milk” or the Absolut vodka advertisements and are the “stars” in
any agency—the people who bring fame and fortune (in the form of new billTable 1.1. Total Pay, 2005
Size of Agency
Advertising in American Society
ings) to their agencies. Like all important creative artists, they are given a great
deal of freedom. There are numerous awards given by organizations in the
advertising industry and some creatives have dozens of awards to their credit.
Interestingly enough, for an industry seen as glamorous by most people,
advertising doesn’t always pay that well. The top management of big advertising agencies make a great deal of money, and the creatives do well, but
most of the other people in advertising agencies aren’t as well paid, as shown
in table 1.1.
The figures in the table (taken from Salary Wizard) for small, mediumsized, and large agencies are rounded off and very approximate. To understand
the significance of these salaries you have to realize that a very good secretary
might make $50,000 or $75,000 a year. Entry-level positions in advertising are
very low because there is a great deal of competition for what are thought to
be “glamour” jobs. In addition, women everywhere are generally paid considerably less than men for doing the same job, though that is changing slowly.
Salaries are also affected by the size of the agency one works in and the
location of the agency. Thus, in a major market such as the San Francisco Bay
Area, account executives might earn around $75,000 and art directors around
$115,000 or more, and workers in smaller agencies in smaller markets would
earn considerably less. Salaries in big New York agencies are also considerably
higher, while salaries in small, Southern agencies are a good deal lower than
those in the chart. But there are also bonuses that people who work in agencies
get and other rewards, as well.
Insights from Advertising Agencies
The Advertising Age salary numbers are terribly misleading and have
never reflected the reality of the workplace. These numbers have
always been way understated. For example, an average Art Director would easily make $75K, a good one $150+. Associate Creative
Directors make upwards from $150K. Creative Directors make far
more money than indicated. This data does not include bonuses,
which could be up to 50 percent, and other rewards like stock, etc.
One of the reasons this data is distorted is because it is not a proper
statistical sample and tends to reflect the smallest agencies with the
fewest people. The larger and medium-sized agencies don’t bother
to respond. If you’re in advertising and if you’re good, you can make
a lot of money. You do have to work your ass off and you do tend to
be underpaid at the start for a fair amount of time. (Fred Goldberg,
retired chairman and CEO of Goldberg Moser O’Neill)
Figure 1.5. This brochure describes many books
that deal with ways marketers can appeal to
various demographic groups in the United States.
During my three weeks at Goldberg Moser O’Neill I interviewed people
involved in every aspect of the advertising business, and everyone intimated that
it was their job that was absolutely crucial and that without them the place would
fall apart. I found the people in these agencies to be, as a rule, very intelligent
and extremely hardworking. The work is so demanding that advertising agencies
have very high turnover rates; I was told by the GMO human resources director
that the average advertising agency loses something like a third of its employees
from burnout and other factors in a given year. In some cases people move to
better jobs in other agencies, and others leave advertising for another career.
A PSYCHO-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE ON ADVERTISING
The model many social scientists have used in studies of the impact of advertising is a psychological one (or perhaps a social-psychological one). People
are tested to see whether they recall advertisements or whether their attitudes
or opinions have been changed by having been exposed to advertisements.
This approach, which often is quite sophisticated in terms of research design, frequently indicates that advertising has little or no effect on respondents.
Exposure to advertisement or commercial
Recall, attitude change, opinion change
Figure 1.6. Social-Psychological Model
Advertising in American Society
People’s psyches (the unconscious)
exposed ↓ to
Cultural behavior of people
Figure 1.7. Psycho-Cultural Model
Or, to be more precise, none that can be detected or measured . . . or, in some
cases, no long-term effects that can be measured.
I would like to suggest a different model, which focuses not upon attitude or opinion change but instead on two different matters: One can
broadly be defined as cultural behavior and the other as people’s or perhaps
the collective unconscious. Focusing on individuals or groups of individuals
in test studies frequently concludes that advertising plays no significant role
in decision making. An examination of advertising as a cultural phenomenon, on the other hand, suggests something quite different, a conclusion
that might explain why revenues for advertising keep growing and why
businesses continue to advertise.
RUNNING IT UP A FLAGPOLE
TO SEE IF ANYONE SALUTES
Corporations and organizations that advertise are not irrational; they do
not spend money “running flags up flagpoles to see if anyone salutes” out of
idle curiosity. (On the other hand, while companies that advertise may not
be irrational, they assume people are irrational. More precisely, they assume
that people respond to messages that avoid ego-dominated “rational” decision
making but have an effect on unconscious elements in their psyches that often
shape their behavior.)
In his structural hypothesis, Sigmund Freud suggested that the human
psyche was composed of three elements: the id, which represents drives (and
says “I want it now”); the superego, which represents moral sensibilities and
conscience (and says “don’t do it”); and the ego, which has the task of perceiving and adapting to reality and mediating between the id and the superego.
Freud described the id in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis:
We can come nearer to the id with images, and call it a chaos, a cauldron
of seething excitement. We suppose that it is somewhere in direct contact
with somatic processes, and takes over from them instinctual needs and gives
them mental expression, but we cannot say in what substratum this contact
is made. These instincts fill it with energy, but it has no organization and
no unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction for the instinctual
needs, in accordance with the pleasure principle. (quoted in Hinsie &
Campbell, 1970, p. 372)
Thus, advertisements appeal to id elements in our psyches and our desires
for gratifications of all kinds (“I want it now”), and seek to avoid the strictures
of the superego (“you can’t afford it and you don’t need it”) and the mediating
efforts of the ego (“maybe you ought to think a bit before buying it”).
The devaluation of the power of advertising by advertising agencies and
by businesses that use advertising is generally an attempt to escape from regulation by governmental agencies and to escape from criticisms of being manipulative and, in some cases, antisocial, by consumer groups and other interested
parties. Communication scholars, I might point out, have wavered in their
assessments of the power of media. Thirty years ago, scholars concluded that
the media were powerful; then they changed their minds and concluded that
they are weak. (A famous scholar said something to the effect of “Some media
sometimes have some effects on some people.”) Now, it seems, the notion that
the media are powerful is once again gaining acceptance.
Given this situation, when the media were seen as weak, advertisers could
argue that advertising was relatively trivial—a service to inform or entertain
the public, but little more than that. Yet at the macro level, when we look at
collective behavior, it seems that advertising does have power. It is advertising’s role as a cultural and political force that is significant. We may lack the
tools in the social sciences to show how advertising affects specific individuals
or small groups of people in tests, but when we look at advertising as a social
and cultural phenomenon, the situation is strikingly different.
One argument that advertising people use to defuse criticism is the post
hoc, ergo propter hoc argument. Just because something happens after something
doesn’t mean it was caused by it. That is, just because Y follows X does not
mean that X caused Y. Thus, if Lisa sees a beer commercial on television and
then drinks a beer, it does not mean the commercial caused Lisa to drink the
beer. Nobody can argue with this. But when you move to the collective level,
and have lots of people drinking beer after having seen lots of beer commercials, there is good reason to believe that the beer commercials might have
played some role in the behavior of the beer drinkers.
That is, commercials for alcoholic beverages may not be the sole causative factor responsible for people drinking, but they may play an important
contributing role. Since the public airways are held “in trust,” so to speak (and
Advertising in American Society
are supposed to broadcast “in the public interest”), by television stations, the
question we must ask is whether this trust is being abused.
One reason it is so difficult to establish via experimental methods a direct
causal link between television commercials and consumption is that television
is so ubiquitous that it is very difficult to find a “control” group, a group of
people who are not exposed to television. That is why I think the anthropological model is more useful than the social-psychological model.
COMMERCIALS AS MINI-DRAMAS AND WORKS OF ART
Commercials—in my opinion the most interesting and powerful form of
advertising—should be seen as works of art that have their own conventions;
they might best be thought of as mini-dramas that employ all the techniques
of the theater and the cinema to achieve their aims. At their best, they use
language brilliantly, they are dramatic, they employ the most sophisticated
techniques of lighting and editing, they have wonderful actors who use body
language and facial expressions to get their messages across, and they often cost
enormous amounts of money, relatively speaking, to produce—many times,
the production costs (on a per-minute basis) outstrip those of the programs
during which they are shown.
The power of the human voice is well-known. When it is added to strong
narratives, music, sound effects, and superb writing, it is easy to see why the
commercial is such an incredible means of persuasion. Commercials (and advertisements in print and other media, to an extent) also make use of many of
Heroes and Heroines
Young people often identify with heroes and heroines and try to emulate
their behavior, their “style,” or their images—if not in the real world, then
in the world of consumption. Some of these heroic figures are show-business
personalities—singers, dancers, comedians, actors, and athletes. Identification
and imitation are powerful forces that can shape our behaviors in ways of
which we are generally unaware.
Many commercials overtly connect sex and consumption (figures 1.8 and
1.9). These commercials often feature extremely beautiful women; they are
shown as an integral part of the consumption experience. One hopes, in one’s
Figure 1.9. This advertisement for a
Brazilian liquor, Cabana Cachaca, is
very erotic, but it doesn’t show anything except a woman’s knees and elbows. How do we explain its power?
unconscious, that by purchasing the product, one will get the beautiful woman
(or some beautiful woman) as well—or in some cases, an attractive man. In
recent years, advertising has used homoerotic appeals for gay men and lesbians.
I talk at length about sexuality in advertising in chapter 5.
At one time, advertisers were afraid of humor. Now they realize that
humor sells, and many commercials are extremely funny (figure 1.10). This
humor generates what might be called a “halo effect,” a feeling of well-being
that becomes attached to the products being advertised.
Since there is so much hostility toward advertising in the general public, many companies that use advertising are turning to humor as a means of
entertaining viewers of their commercials and thus eliciting some goodwill.
Mirthful laughter generates endorphins in our brains that make us feel good
and some of this may also rub off on the product being advertised. Humor also
Advertising in American Society
is a way of establishing relationships with others, so there is a value in using
humor as long as it doesn’t offend people and get in the way of the persuasive
part of the advertisement.
A number of years ago I did some research on the techniques that generate humor in plays and other texts. I found that the techniques I discovered
formed four different categories of humor. The list appears in table 1.2; you
can use it to analyze humor in print advertisements and commercials, and all
kinds of other works.
Puns & Wordplay
Theme & Variation
There is considerable disagreement among scholars about the definition
of some of these terms, such as satire and parody, but most of them are more
or less self-evident.
Jean Baudrillard (figure 1.11), a French sociologist, argues that in modern
consumer societies we now feel obliged to have fun. He writes in The Consumer Society: Myths & Structure (1998:80):
The fun system of forced enjoyment
One of the strongest proofs that the principle and finality of consumption
is not enjoyment or pleasure is that that is now something which is forced
Figure 1.11. Jean Baudrillard was an influential
French sociologist whose theories about
simulations have been controversial.
Advertising in American Society
upon us, something institutionalized, not as a right or a pleasure but as the
duty of the citizen. . . . Consumerist man . . . regards enjoyment as an obligation; he sees himself as an enjoyment and satisfaction business. He sees
it as his duty to be happy, loving, adulating/adulated, charming/charmed,
participative, euphoric and dynamic.
This represents a reversal, Baudrillard adds, of the old Puritan ethic of hard
work and abstention for the glory of God. It is now our “duty” to have fun,
and we do this, to a great degree, by being a member in good standing (and
good purchasing) of our contemporary consumer culture.
In many commercials, we see (and it is suggested we emulate) people
who use a given product or service and who are successful (figure 1.12). One
aspect of being successful is knowing what to consume—having “product
knowledge,” which has replaced regular knowledge in all too many people in
America. They don’t know history, are not well-read, have no appreciation
of art, music, philosophy . . . you name it. But they have incredible product
knowledge; that is, all they know is what they can buy.
Figure 1.12. The Movado
advertisement plays upon the
aesthetic codes of elite classes:
Simplicity is tied to upscale taste.
For downscale taste, look at
I used to play a learning game in which I asked students to determine what
products Americans would likely purchase based on their class makeup. I used
a well-known classification system by sociologist W. Lloyd Warner, elaborated
fifty years ago, that suggested we have six classes in America:
Percentage of Population
25 percent (common man and woman level)
35 percent (common man and woman level)
These percentages still apply, generally speaking, with minor modifications. The percentage of wealth of the top 1 percent has increased considerably
over the years and the number of people falling into poverty has also increased.
The top 1 percent of Americans own 33 percent of the wealth in America, the
same amount as the bottom 90 percent.
What I discovered is that my students were able to make a large number
of very subtle distinctions about which products people in the various class
levels might consume. There was a considerable debate among them about
whether Lower-Upper class people would or should purchase a BMW or
a Mercedes and which particular model of each car they would buy. They
debated endlessly whether an entry-level BMW had more status than an
entry-level Mercedes. What this demonstrated to me is that my students
had an enormous amount of “product knowledge,” based on their constant
exposure to advertising in print and electronic media.
Purchasing various products—such as soft drinks and automobiles—is
often shown as a “reward” for people who have worked hard and who therefore “deserve” their drinks and sports utility vehicles. This appeal works at
both the blue-collar and at the white-collar levels. The rewards one gets are
fun, comradeship, pleasure, and sex. Especially sex. Our print advertisements
and television commercials are pervaded by sex, and most Americans live in a
sexually saturated media environment, where men and women are used as sex
objects to sell everything from trucks to cruises.
Advertising in American Society
Insights from Advertising Agencies
We try to make ads that evoke an emotion—humor is often useful in
this respect. We brainstorm together about ideas that might be used
for an ad. Usually, we come up with three or four ideas for a spot.
We’re looking for the single most compelling idea to communicate.
TELECULTURE AND THE INTERNET
The term “teleculture” suggests that our culture is, to a large degree,
shaped by television. Thus, television is not a simple medium for entertainment, which merely reflects the culture in which it is found. Television does,
of course, reflect culture, but the important thing to keep in mind is that it also
profoundly affects culture. It does this, in part, by focusing attention on certain
aspects of culture and not paying attention to others, by creating certain kinds
of heroes and heroines and neglecting other kinds. We must add the Internet
to teleculture, which occupies more and more of our time, as also having a
profound effect on individuals and society.
In my opinion, television and the Internet are the most powerful socializing and enculturating forces in society. They not only entertain us but also
instruct us, even when they are not trying to do so. Thus, they have usurped
the roles formerly played by other actors who used to be dominant figures in
the socialization process. Let me list them below.
With the changes that have taken place in the family structure and the
breakdown of both the family (due to the high numbers of divorces) and parental authority in America, the role of the parents in socializing young people
has greatly diminished. Many children are now raised in one-parent families
or in blended families.
Priests, Ministers, Rabbis, Imams
Nowadays the clergy also has a diminished role, though some of the
priesthood have discovered television and now use it for its various purposes.
The use of television by the clergy, however, tends to be associated with
fundamentalist sects (and, in some cases, charlatans) and not, in large measure,
with mainstream religious organizations.
At one time, teachers and other academics played a significant role in
socializing young people, and in many cases they still do. But this role has
also been diminished. This is because teachers cannot compete with popular
culture and in fact have to spend a good deal of their time doing what they
can to counter the power of the media and popular culture.
It is widely known that children and adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer pressure, and at various stages in their developmental cycle, peer
pressure is much more significant to young people than parental pressure.
What about these peers? Who or what, may we ask, socializes peers? Where
do these peers get their values and attitudes? They, too, like the opinion leaders
who allegedly affect the beliefs of older generations of people, are socialized
by the media.
It is, of course, simplistic to claim that popular culture and the mass media
are the only determinants of behavior, but it probably is correct to argue that
the media play a major role (or, at least, an increasingly important role) in the
socialization of young people. And it is television that is of major significance
here—for it is television that broadcasts (and affects, as well) much of our
The most important genre on television is, of course, the commercial.
Teleculture is, in large measure, commercials and thus plays an important role
in creating and maintaining consumer cultures. Baudrillard devotes the last
section of his book The System of Objects (figure 1.13) to advertising. He makes
an interesting point in his analysis:
Neither its rhetoric nor even the information aspect of its discourse has a
decisive effect on the buyer. What the individual does respond to, on the
other hand, is advertising’s underlying leitmotiv of protection and gratification, the intimation that its solicitations and attempts to persuade are the
sign, indecipherable at the conscious level, that somewhere is an agency
. . . which has taken it upon itself to inform him of his own desires, and
to foresee and rationalize these desires to his own satisfaction. He thus no
more “believes” in advertising than the child believes in Father Christmas,
but this in no way impedes his capacity to embrace an internalized infantile
situation, and to act accordingly. Herein lies the very real effectiveness of
Advertising in American Society
Figure 1.13. Jean Baudrillard’s The System
of Objects deals with material culture and
contemporary consumer culture.
advertising, founded on its obedience to a logic which, though not that of
the conditioned reflex, is nonetheless very rigorous: a logic of belief and
This is an important insight to keep in mind. Baudrillard doesn’t think
advertising works by use of conditioned reflexes, but by regressing people to
infantile states. It may be that advertising uses both conditioning (think of
Pavlov here) and regression (think of Freud here) in accomplishing its mission.
Freud explained that individuals go through a number of different stages as
they grow up: oral, anal, phallic, and genital. Regression involves, then, people
going back, psychologically speaking, to earlier stages in their development.
In 1951, Marshall McLuhan wrote a pioneering book, The Mechanical Bride
(figure 1.14), which was devoted to understanding the role that popular culture,
the media, and, in particular, advertising played in shaping people’s consciousness. The book analyzes the symbolic and cultural significance of comic strips
and the front pages of newspapers, but most of The Mechanical Bride is devoted
to advertisements that McLuhan mines for their cultural importance.
He explains the problems caused by entertainment and pop culture and
his method of operation in the Preface to the book (1951:v):
Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual
minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public
mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object
now. And to generate heat not light is the intention. To keep everybody
Figure 1.14. Marshall McLuhan’s The
Mechanical Bride deals with the social,
psychological, and political content
of comics and advertisements.
in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect
of many ads and much entertainment alike. . . . The present book likewise
makes few attempts to attach the very considerable currents and pressures
set up around us today by the mechanical agencies of the press, radio, movies, and advertising. It does attempt to set the reader at the center of the
revolving picture created by these affairs where he may observe the action
that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. From the analysis of
that action, it is hoped, many individual strategies may suggest themselves.
It is McLuhan’s aim to waken people from the collective dream in which
they find themselves by using the methods of art criticism and literary analysis
to show how advertising agencies manipulate people and strive to obtain the
effects they seek—shaping consumer taste and behavior.
Each of the short chapters in the book contains an image—usually of some
advertisement—and some elliptical questions, and his analysis, often written
in a rather jazzy style, of the social, psychological, and cultural significance of
the language and images in the advertisement.
THE SUPER BOWL
The 2006 Super Bowl, held on February 5th, attracted an audience of
something like 90 million people in the United States and hundreds of millions
of people in more than 200 other countries. The 2010 Super Bowl attracted
106.5 million viewers in the United States, an enormous audience and one,
Advertising in American Society
because of the number of people aged 18 to 45 who watched the game, that
advertisers find very valuable. There are a number of reasons why companies
advertise during the Super Bowl, even if the cost of doing so is very high in
dollar terms. First, there is a good deal of prestige connected with having a
commercial shown during the game. Companies recognize that having a commercial during the Super Bowl attracts a great deal of interest in the media, as
well as the general public.
In addition, because Super Bowl commercials are “showcase” advertisements, which are specially designed for their entertainment value, people
watching the game—especially the hard-to-reach males between 18 and 45—
tend to also watch the commercials rather than zapping them. The audience
for the game wants to see which commercials are outstanding, and having a
commercial that is successful is an important plus for advertisers and the agencies that make the commercials. A highly successful commercial helps “make”
a brand by attracting the attention and entertaining members of the Super
Bowl audience. Commercials on the Super Bowl can help companies that are
relatively unknown make a name for themselves.
One company, Budweiser, advertises a great deal on the Super Bowl. It
purchased five minutes of time in 2006 and in 2010, as well, for its various
brands—more than any other advertiser for the game. Budweiser prepares for
the broadcast by having advertising agencies create something like fifty different spots that might be used in the game. It then pares the list down to the
final ones it will use just before the game. It is in a battle with other advertisers
such as Burger King and Pepsi to create memorable commercials. A number
of these commercials will be humorous, some will have celebrities, and others will feature animals; and all of them will attempt to become the subject of
positive commentary by those who watched the game.
Super Bowl commercials that “bomb” and that fall flat, for one reason or
another, are a disaster. Not only do they turn off members of the audience,
they are likely to be ridiculed in media reports on the Super Bowl commercials. So the stakes are very high and there is a great deal of competition among
the advertising agencies who make the commercials shown during Super Bowl
to create “winning” commercials.
The only major competitor to the Super Bowl in building brands is the
Winter Olympics, which last for seventeen days and give advertisers more
opportunity over the course of the Games to reach viewers. For a little more
than the $2.5 million a Super Bowl commercial costs, an advertiser can have
four spots during the Winter Olympics. The Super Bowl only lasts a few hours,
though with the pre-game and post-game shows, it can drag on for much
longer than that. Thirty-second spots during the Olympics only cost some
$700,000 and over the course of the Games, NBC expects to make around
$900 million dollars.
One of the reasons the Super Bowl is such an important site for commercials is that the media world is so fragmented. Advertisers know that a large
number of Americans, especially males who are often hard to reach, will be
watching the game, so it is an extremely useful way for companies to get their
messages across to audiences they target.
Let me offer here a summary of the main points I have made and a summary of the conclusions I draw from these points.
First, advertising is a huge industry that plays an important role in the
socialization of people, young and old, in American society. It provides what
might be called “product knowledge,” and research evidence suggests that
even young children, at 5 or 6 years of age, know a great deal about many
of the products advertised on television (and are often able to sing the jingles
Second, corporations advertise because it is effective in a number of different ways. Advertising campaigns often have as their primary goal, we are told,
holding market share, but it is reasonable to suggest that these campaigns also
attract new users. People who are exposed to commercial campaigns may not
be able to recall the commercials they have seen or provide evidence that their
opinions and attitudes have been affected, but advertising campaigns leave a
certain kind of feeling with people, generate a certain kind of sensibility.
In addition, I have suggested that television commercials, in particular, are
extremely complicated and powerful texts (or artworks) that work a number
of different ways. I list, later in the book, some of the factors to be considered
in analyzing commercials. This complexity, the fact that works of art affect
people in strange and complicated ways, makes it difficult to measure their
effects. But the fact that corporations continue to advertise, and often increase
their advertising budgets each year, leads us to conclude that advertising does
work. We have only to look around us and observe the way people behave (in
supermarkets, at work, at parties) to see the power of advertising.
Finally, I have suggested that commercials are part of what I call “teleculture,” which is now probably the most important enculturating and socializing
force operating in society. It is naive to think of television (or any of the mass
media) as simply an entertainment that does not have a profound impact upon
the people who watch it. For one thing, we know that the average person
watches television more than three and one-half hours per day. If television
Advertising in American Society
does generate “culture,” as I’ve argued, that is a tremendous amount of time
for it to enculturate people.
Television along now with the Internet and social media has usurped
the place that used to be occupied by parents, the clergy, teachers, and other
institutions as socializers of the young. We learn from all of our experiences,
a phenomenon called incidental learning (though we may not be conscious of
the fact that we are learning), and since television is such a large part of our
experience, it must play an important role in “teaching” us about life. And
commercials are the most ubiquitous genre on television and quite probably
the most powerful one.
In this book you will not only learn how to analyze print advertisements
and television commercials but will also learn about the impact of the advertising industry on you, on the political order, and on American society and
culture. I also offer some examples of analyses I’ve made of interesting print
advertisements and television commercials.
I hope that as a result of reading this book you will be better able to resist
“saluting” when some advertising agency creates an advertisement or a radio
or television commercial and “runs it up a flagpole.”
Advertising transfers its breadth of experience and calculation to its target
groups. It treats its human targets like commodities, to whom it offers the
solution to their problem of realization. Clothes are advertised like packaging as a means of sales promotion. This is one of the many ways in which
commodity aesthetics takes possession of people.
The two central areas in which advertising offers, by means of commodities, to solve the problems of “scoring hits” and sales are, on the one
hand, following a career of the labour market and, on the other, gaining the
respect of and attracting others. “How is it that clever and competent people
don’t make it in their careers?” was the question put by a wool advertisement in 1968. “Don’t call it bad luck if it is only a matter of ‘packaging.’
You can sell yourself better in a new suit! And that is often what counts in
life.” A woman whose romance has failed and who is looking for a new
partner was recommended by Teen magazine in 1969, as “step 9” in its
advice, to “become overwhelmingly pretty. . . . Why not try what you’ve
never tried before? If you want to scour the market, you’ve got to show
yourself in your best packaging.” Where love succeeds, brought about by
this fashionable packaging, and leads to encounters which under existing
conditions appear in the form of a commodity-cash nexus, the cost of
clothes can be interpreted as “capital investment.”
—W. F. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics:
Appearance, Sexuality, and Advertising in Capitalist Society
C O N SUME R CULTURE S
tudents who take courses in critical thinking learn about a major fallacy in
thinking called the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. This Latin phrase, discussed earlier, means, roughly speaking, “after something, therefore because
of it.” Just because someone sees a commercial for some product, such as a
Norelco electric razor, and then purchases a Norelco razor, doesn’t mean that
the commercial necessarily was the prime factor or the only factor leading to
the purchase decision. There could have been any number of other factors, or
combinations of factors, such as the person’s old razor breaking down, a terrific
sale on Norelco razors, word of mouth from a friend who has one, and so on.
It is important that we don’t oversimplify matters in dealing with advertising. But we also must not underestimate or neglect advertising’s influence
upon us as individuals and its influence upon our society and culture. Advertising now permeates American culture and has affected, in profound ways,
everything from our food preferences and our body shapes to our politics.
A CULTURAL CRITIQUE OF ADVERTISING
The discussion of the impact of advertising on American personality,
culture, and society that follows is best understood as an example of cultural
criticism. Cultural criticism makes use of psychoanalytic theory, literary
theory, Marxist theory, sociological theory, semiotic theory, and various
other theories, methodologies, and disciplines that can be used as means of
interpreting texts and understanding social and cultural behavior. What I offer
here is my interpretation of the impact of advertising on a number of important aspects of American culture and society. My analysis will also draw upon
critiques and interpretations of advertising made by other scholars in America
and elsewhere. Although my focus is on advertising in the United States, the
concepts I use and techniques I explain can also be used to analyze advertising
in other countries.
Advertising has been of interest to scholars in many disciplines because these
scholars see advertising as one of the central institutions in American society.
Americans, we must keep in mind, are exposed to more advertising than people
in any other society. This is because of the amount of television we watch and
the amount of time we spend listening to the radio and because our media tend
to be privately owned and financed by advertising. Our media institutions are
mostly private, for-profit ones; public television and public radio attract relatively small (though generally highly influential) audiences in America.
David Potter, in his classic work People of Plenty, points out that advertising not only has economic consequences, but it also shapes our values. As he
The most important effects of this powerful institution are not upon the
economics of our distributive system; they are upon the values of our society. If the economic effect is to make the purchaser like what he buys, the
social effect is, in a parallel but broader sense, to make the individual like
what he gets—to enforce already existing attitudes, to diminish the range
and variety of choices, and in terms of abundance, to exalt the materialistic
virtues of consumption. (1954:188)
Potter makes an important point. Advertising, as an industry, is often quite
avant-garde and bold in the techniques it uses but, ironically, its impact tends
to be a conservative one—to maintain, as much as possible, the status quo. One
of the main things companies that advertise try to do is maintain their market
share; if they can increase it, all the better. But they don’t want to lose share at
any cost. And advertising must be examined not only in terms of its economic
impact but also in terms of its influence on American beliefs and values.
In this chapter and the ones that follow I discuss topics such as consumer
cultures and consumer “lust,” the use of sexuality to sell products and services,
political advertising, and related matters.
CONSUMER CULTURES DEFINED
Consumer cultures, as I understand them, are those in which there has
been a great expansion (some might say a veritable explosion) of commodity
production, leading to societies full of consumer goods and services and places
where these consumer goods and services can be purchased. In consumer cultures, the “game” people play is “get as much as you can.” Success is defined as
being the person “who has the most toys.” This leads to a lust for consuming
products—and conspicuously displaying them—as a means of demonstrating
that one is a success and, ultimately, that one is worthy. And the very act of
consumption has now also become aestheticized and sexualized and is itself the
source of a great deal of pleasure.
In Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Mike Featherstone explains the
importance of “lifestyle” in contemporary consumer societies. He writes:
Rather than unreflexively adopting a lifestyle, through tradition or habit,
the new heroes of consumer culture make lifestyle a life project and
display their individuality and sense of style in the particularity of the assemblage of goods, clothes, practices, experiences, appearance and bodily
dispositions they design together into a lifestyle. The modern individual
Figure 2.1. This advertisement plays upon
our fascination with style.
within consumer culture is made conscious that he speaks not only with
his clothes, but also with his home, furnishings, decoration, car and other
activities which are to be read and classified in terms of the presence and
absence of taste. The preoccupation with customizing a lifestyle and a
stylistic self-consciousness are not just to be found among the young and
the affluent; consumer culture publicity [advertising] suggests that we all
have room for self-improvement and self-expression whatever our age or
class origins. (1991:86)
And, of course, it is advertising that “teaches” us about the world of
consumer goods—what is fashionable and “hot” or, maybe even better for
some people, “cool” (figure 2.1). Semioticians tell us that everything we do
is read as a “message” and that we are always sending these messages to other
people—just as they are always sending messages to us. These messages are sent
by our lifestyle decisions—our clothes, hairstyles, cars, homes, and other material goods—as well as our bodies, facial expressions, and body language. For
example, serving the right brand of wine shows that we are sophisticated and
have good taste. The advertisements for expensive wine must also be elegant
and reflect a sense of refinement (figure 2.2).
Along with the growth of the supply of material objects, there is also
a growth of leisure—which must be filled with the right kind of activities,
depending upon one’s social class and status. Thus, upscale (those with high
incomes and an appreciation of elite culture) people also consume high-art
cultural products—operas, plays, works of sculpture, paintings, and so on—
while those in a lower class tend to consume more ordinary products such as
inexpensive clothes, drive-to vacations, and fast food, for example.
It doesn’t always work exactly that way; some people with limited incomes love opera and ballet, but generally speaking, there is a connection
between socioeconomic status and taste level. More elite elements in society
(socioeconomically speaking, that is) take expensive vacations, drive expensive
cars, and go to trendy and generally expensive restaurants, for example.
Figure 2.2. Beringer wine estates.
TASTE CULTURES AND ADVERTISING
Sociologist Herbert Gans suggested that there are a number of what he
called “taste cultures” in the United States. As he writes in his book Popular
Culture and High Culture: An Evaluation of Taste (1974:x):
I suggest that America is actually made up of a number of taste cultures, each
with its own art, literature, music, and so forth, which differ mainly in that
they express different aesthetic standards. . . . The underlying assumption
of this analysis is that all taste cultures are of equal worth. . . . Because taste
cultures reflect the class and particularly education attributes of their publics,
low culture is as valid for poorly educated Americans as high culture is for
well-educated ones, even if the higher cultures are, in the abstract, better or
more comprehensive than the lower cultures.
These five taste cultures are: high culture, upper-middle culture, lowermiddle culture, low culture, and quasi-folk culture. This classification system
is similar, in many respects, to the six socioeconomic classes that W. Lloyd
Warner found when he analyzed American society.
If Gans is correct and there are these five different taste cultures, this poses
a problem: It means advertising agencies have to figure out how to direct messages that will resonate with the various taste cultures. One way that advertising
agencies have addressed this problem is by targeting different audiences. That
is, advertising agencies look for ways to reach specific audiences for particular
products and services, which means, for example, they have to determine
who will most likely be watching a certain television program. The larger the
audience, the more difficult it is to find ways of reaching all the different taste
cultures in print ads and radio and television commercials.
Gans offers some comments about advertising in his book that are worth
thinking about. (1974:35–6):
Unknown numbers of children and adults are . . . taken in by the puffery
and exaggeration of advertising, and ought to be protected against it; but
part of the attractiveness of the ads is that people want the offered goods
and it is not at all certain that the ads themselves initiate the wants. Nor is
it wrong that people should want things that are useful or provide pleasure.
Moreover, studies of advertising impact and the complaints of advertising executives suggest that most people retain little of the ad content they
see and misinterpret much of the message. Successful ads produce sharp
increases in sales curves, but often these reflect the behavior of only a few
hundred thousand people and no one yet knows the relative impact of ad
and product on buying decisions.
These comments reflect notions about advertising that were rather common some thirty years ago, when it was generally held that the impact of the
media was weak. Nowadays, there is less ambivalence about the power of the
media and of advertising.
THE POSTMODERN PERSPECTIVE
We often see the term “postmodern” in newspapers and magazines, generally referring to buildings that blend a number of different styles together. For
example, Philip Johnson’s AT&T building has Roman colonnades at the street
level and a Chippendale pediment at the top. But postmodernism is broader
than architecture, and has been used by some philosophers and cultural theorists to characterize contemporary societies in which pastiche and a mixing of
styles are dominant. The term means, literally, coming after or moving beyond
modernism—the period covering (approximately) from 1900 to 1960, which
was characterized by a sense that we could know reality and that there were
valid rules that governed politics and society.
Figure 2.3. Jean-François Lyotard is a French scholar
who did important work on postmodernism.
An influential postmodernist theoretician, Jean-François Lyotard (figure
2.3), described postmodernism as “incredulity toward meta-narratives,” by
which he meant a lack of acceptance of the great philosophical systems that
had ordered our lives in the past. He writes:
Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens
to reggae, watches a Western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local
cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and “retro” clothes in
Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games. It is easy to find a public
for eclectic works. By becoming kitsch, art panders to the confusion which
reigns in the “taste” of the patrons. Artists, gallery owners, critics, and public
wallow together in the “anything goes,” and the epoch is one of slackening. But this realism of the “anything goes” is in fact that of money; in the
absence of aesthetic criteria, it remains possible and useful to assess the value
of works of art according to the profits they yield. (1984:76)
What Lyotard is describing is the world in which we live, in which—
without any rules that everyone accepts—we all create and chang…
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