28 May 2009
One lazy Saturday afternoon, I sat relaxing in my living room watching a favorite television program. I soon became irritated by the consistent interruption of the commercials. Approximately fifteen commercials appeared about every ten minutes. As usual, I turned the sound down and watched these patiently waiting for the program to return. As I did so, it dawned on me that I recognized every one of these advertisements. Since advertisement is a form of persuasive rhetoric, I began to wonder about the power of advertisement. During this one hour Program, I viewed approximately ninety commercial advertisements. Each one of these advertisements is meant to convince me to engage in a particular action or purchase a particular product. As I began to investigate this topic, I discovered that most people (usually 75%-80%) believe that advertising does not affect them. Yet, the same 75%-80% believe it does affect others (Rank 15). I was like most people, believing that I was unaffected. After much thought, I couldn’t believe that an industry would commit as many dollars toward the use of advertising if its methods were unsuccessful. Advertising must affect us. This left me with several questions. What methods do advertisers use to persuade us? How effective is advertising? What audiences do they try to persuade? I did not have an answer for these questions. I realized that like most people I was completely unaware when it came to this subject. And that thought, left me with one question which I felt driven to investigate. How aware do consumers need to be concerning the rhetoric of advertising?
According to Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison, we are always being watched. He believed hat the spread and subsequent control of the plague led to an ‘in depth surveillance and control [and] and intensification and ramification of power” (195). In one chapter of his book, Foucault demonstrates how the Panopticon was created to monitor prison inmates. The Panopticon is a tower surrounded by the cells of inmates. From this tower, a guard can see into any cell at any time and monitor the activities of the prisoners. The system of using a panopticon became even more powerful as the tower was redesigned to make the guards invisible. In such a manner, the prisoners were never certain if and when they were being watched. The panopticon was not just a means to monitor prisoners, it “was also a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or correct individuals” (199). From such a vantage point much information could be collected. In the late twentieth and in the twenty-first century, the panopticon still exists as a means of collecting information. Advertisers use such a system to monitor consumers for valuable marketing information. When one uses a Safeway card, purchases are tracked. Manufacturers can determine the effectiveness of their advertising, and with the new frontier of online advertising, marketers diligently watch and track consumers, often without the awareness of this guard.
Erving Goffman believes that people have unique ways of presenting themselves. An idea often used in commercial advertising. Whereas Foucault demonstrates how the panopticon alters behavior, Goffman discusses how people alter their own behavior given the environment. Goffman believes that individuals present themselves using verbal messages and visual messages (often facial expressions). Individuals do so in an effort to create a desired impression. Since others often have very little information on which to judge the true character of these individuals, “the others are likely to find that they must accept the individual on faith” (2). Advertisers also present themselves unique ways. They wish to create an impression which will persuade consumers to purchase their products.
Although these two authors do not directly relate their ideas to commercial advertisement, they both demonstrate the extent to which human behavior can be influenced. The panopticon, for example, has become so common, individuals may not even be aware of the choice to alter their behavior. Since advertisement is a unit of persuasion, marketers have become very adept at invisibly convincing consumers to alter their behavior.
Both Sandra L. Calvert and John M. Phelan highlight the pervasiveness of modern adverting as well as the means by which marketers have created such a powerful form of rhetoric. In the 2002, report to congress entitled “Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Twenty-One month Follow-up Review of Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording and Electronic Game Industries,” the Federal Trade Commission recognized the need to limit advertising to children in certain venues. Calvert states that marketers are fully aware that advertising can “deliver an enormous supply of children and adults to businesses” (206). John Phelan makes a similar point in his article. He believes that advertising is a “special industrialized language of persuasion aimed at researched psychological vulnerabilities of a mass audience…” (946). Both Calvert and Phelan go on to demonstrate just how pervasive this business has become in the world today.
John Pracejus et al, Debra Pryor et al, Mike Messner et al, and Hugh Rank all discuss the various strategies marketers use as well as the intended audiences. Advertisers are very skilled at narrowing their rhetoric to persuade various audiences. When marketing to adults common strategies play on adult fears and insecurities (Messner et al 10). Advertisements directed at children and adolescents are often designed to attract attention.
We see tens of thousands of advertisements a year. They have become so commonplace in our lives that we are hardly aware of and even deny their persuasive effects. The art of marketing has become so pervasive, one cannot even drive to work without encountering some company’s message. The business of advertisement spends billions of dollars a year creating messages which change our buying decisions. Even though we begin to realize the purpose of advertising by about age nine, we are not aware of the extent of its reach nor the power it wields in our lives.
Advertising has become a form of rhetoric and socialization. Isocrates once condemned the Sophists of ancient Greece for selling their eloquent skill with rhetoric to the highest bidder. Yet, this practice is not only accepted today, it is expected. Commercial advertisers use their skill to eloquently persuade the targeted audience to engage in certain actions or to purchase their products. This business of persuasion is well established and generates trillions of dollars each year. “In the United States explicit advertising constitutes sixty-percent of newspaper copy, fifty-two percent of magazine pages, eighteen percent of radio time and an average of twenty-seven percent of television time (Phelan 946). The advertising market seeks out creative- employees such as musicians, artists, composers, writers and actors. Marketers use the skills of these employees to create the units of persuasion we see on billboards, in magazines, on the internet and on television. These professionals have helped advertising develop “its own commercial figures of speech, its own linguistic conventions, its own rhetoric” (Pracejus et al 5). In essence these creative professionals are selling their eloquence to the highest bidder. The agencies have also become “increasingly international organizations with specialists who study local cultures for the appropriate ‘hook’ or ‘angle’ that will be effective and inoffensive (Phelan 945). Although many of the ancient philosophers including Isocrates would have considered this practice of rhetoric to be unethical, advertising as a means of persuasion has become an accepted social institution with rhetorical devices that are understood by the target audience even if they may be unaware of the persuasive messages.
Advertising has continued to develop over time as a rhetorical unit of persuasion. The advertising one sees today is quite different from advertising of even twenty years ago. In the early part of the twentieth century (before 1920), only 15% of the ads used visual representation. By the 1970’s, 90% of all ads used visual representation (Pracejus el al 6). Advertisements, especially those in print, were copy heavy. Commercial advertisements were also predominantly claim based. With the introduction of the television (and now the computer), advertisements changed from “being copy-heavy and claims based to being image based with little or no copy (Pracejus el al 4). Since pictures can convey information without words, they can be used with a wider variety of cultural markets. Advertisers began to limit the use of copy in a successful effort to broaden their market. In focusing on the sixty years between 1910 and 1970, the use of copy has decreased by half (Pracejus et al 6). Television is a medium which has definitely moved away from the claims based advertisement. Marketers must compete with the lure of other activities. They realize that during the commercial break, many consumers stop watching the television to get a drink, make a phone call, open potato chips or a thousand other activities. In order to keep the attention of the consumer, new advertisements use “lively action, sound effects and loud music” (Calvert 216). These attention holding strategies are even more predominant in children’s advertising.
Even as advertising continues to develop its powerful rhetoric, it also has begun to hone in on the targeted consumer. The numerous variety of television channels, each geared to be of interest to particular age groups, sexes, and cultures, has created a very specific market for advertisers. No longer does the advertising agency have to display an ad which appeals to children during adult television. Now that channels have targeted specific groups of consumers, so has advertising. Marketers can now show commercials developed for children on channels whose audience is predominantly children. They can display advertising geared for women on channels and at times which target women (Calvert 205). The United States government has long been wary of the possible effects of advertising. In 1975, they took a monumental step in an effort to decrease the sheer volume of messages which bombarded consumers, especially if those consumers were children. The Federal Trade Commission cut the allocated time given for advertisement from 25% to 15%. But rather than having the desired effect, the length of a commercial changed from sixty seconds to thirty seconds. The time allocated for commercials now remains the same, but “the number of ads increased because the airtime of commercials had fallen” (Calvert 213).
Consumers are now even more inundated with advertising. Since “most contemporary advertising operates on the visual pane (Pracejus el al 6), it is more assessable to children. As consumers we are constantly bombarded with advertising of which we are virtually unaware. Commercial advertisements play after approximately every ten minutes of television viewing. Almost every internet page is surrounded by advertisements. Over fifty percent of newspapers and magazines (Phelan 943 ) are devoted to advertisement. The side of the bus, billboards, and even painted fences all try to persuade our conscious and unconscious minds every day. “Consumers are immersed in branded environments, frequently without knowing that they are being exposed to sophisticated marketing campaigns” (Calvert 212).
The strategies advertisers use are varied and effective. Hugh Rank’s book The Pitch: How to Analyze Ads, analyzes the ways in which marketers persuade the public to purchase their items. The United States has become a nation of consumers (Daggett). In essence, we seek to benefit our lives. As Freud theorized, we seek to gain pleasure and avoid pain. Advertisers are well aware of these desires and use them to sell products and services. “people seek benefits which can be usefully described in terms of four major categories: protection and prevention, acquisition and relief (Rank 12). Prevention ads market products and services which help protect the consumer and help take care of their loved ones and possessions. Ads in this category would include furniture polish, cleansers, pet food, and skin care products (13). Prevention ads are products to help keep the consumer and his or her loved ones safe. These products would include traveler’s checks, security devices and guidebooks (14). The third category, acquisition ads are used to convince the consumer that they must have these products. Products in this category would include car, cosmetics, alcohol and entertainment (15). The forth category are ads developed around the idea of relief. These products will help consumers get rid of something unwanted. Aspirin, diet products and financial advice are products and services in this category (13). All of these ads are working on our psychological desires to keep or acquire the ‘good’ and prevent or get rid of the ‘bad.’ “There is no doubt that advertising, as a specialized industrialized language of persuasion is aimed at researched psychological vulnerabilities (Phelan 944). Erving Goffman in his article “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” discusses ways in which man alters his behavior when in the presence of others. He may search for clues which direct him to act according to the norms of the given situation. He may manipulate his behavior as a means to create a favorable impact. One may attempt to influence others perceptions “by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan” (Rank 4). This is exactly what advertisers do. They present themselves in a persuasive way to mold the public’s impressions. These methods are not new. Since the 1920’s it has been the common practice of advertising agencies to use strategies which manipulate consumers’ feelings (Calvert 206).
As a consumers, we are mostly unaware of these psychological manipulations. If we choose to pay attention to a particular advertisement, we believe this was our own decision. But, advertisers have mastered the art of manipulation. Realizing that they cannot persuade consumers with their ad if the consumer does not pay attention to it, marketers have begun perfecting attention-getting rhetoric. Some of the more common attention-getting strategies are the use of lively action, sound effects and loud music. For example in a recent television advertisement for a water park, loud music and happy screams filled the background as rafts and park goers quickly slid down the slides splashing water into the camera lenses (and into our living rooms). In another advertisement for a future basketball game, the camera switched quickly from one fast moving player to another. It cut in-and-out all the way down the court. As it moved from player to player the kaleidoscope of uniform colors made it difficult not to focus on the screen. Each of these two ads used the strategies of loud music and lively action to capture the consumers attention. Yet, the consumer is unaware of the behind the scenes deliberate arrangement and the advertiser’s knowledge of the human psyche. Many ads use humor to garner attention and to create a ‘good feeling’ in the mind of the consumer (Rank 7). One recent advertisement shows one happy phone customer singing. This song is passed on to another happy customer and so on and so on. At one point the song is passed to a man wearing a cowboy hat and boots while sitting in a hot tub on the roof. The small chuckle which may escape from the consumer is just the right amount of humor. This humor coupled with the ‘good feeling’ the ad creates leaves a lasting emotional impression on the consumer. He or she is more likely to remember the product while shopping.
As mentioned before the increase in the number of television channels and the increasingly wide use of the internet has changed the consumer market. Television channels and web pages can be narrowed to target a specific audience. Advertising agencies then design campaigns to convince these target audiences to purchase. It is theorized that these ads then also shape the view of the public. “in the real labor force, women outnumber men as teachers and restaurant workers, but in the world of television, this is reversed. Thus male roles appear to be more important in terms of numbers, leadership and role models” (Pryor et al 285). Advertisements often portray women as homemakers. On my lazy Saturday afternoon, I watched women make lemonade, clean up spills with sturdy paper towels, wash endless loads of laundry and create a happy family dinner with a bucket of chicken. Men on-the-other hand, are usually seen outdoors, driving cars, or entertaining at home. These ads often target the insecurities of men. They play on his fears of being a geek, or a nerd or just not being ‘man enough’ (Messner et al 10). Men must drive the fast car and use the correct camping gear, or he is not really a man.
By the time we have reached the age of forty “we have seen over one million commercials” (Pryor et al 286). At least adults, even though they may not be aware of the deliberate manipulation techniques used in the advertising industry, understand the intent behind advertising. Children do not and adolescents have only a tentative grasp on the concept. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, advertising to children has become an sought after market. Children of the modern world have discretionary income. Marketing for children depends on how well they pay attention, remember , and comprehend the message of the advertisement. So to be effective, marketers have researched ways to gain children’s attention and create messages which make them desire the given product (Calvert 216). The computer has an advantage over the television, as interactive media can tailor its message to the child given his or her response. This becomes extremely important now that youths often shape the buying decisions of their families. “In 2002, U.S. four-to twelve-year olds spent $30 billion and twelve-to seventeen-year old spent 112.5 billion in 2003” (Calvert 207). This averages out to be approximately $103 a week. The youth in America hold sway over a vast amount of spending. Even if they are not purchasing items themselves, they sway decisions such as dinner purchases, entertainment venues, and vacation plans. The advertising industry has kept pace with children’s purchasing power. Marketers spend billions of dollars every year designing ads targeted to children. Unfortunately, the key products marketed to children include-sugar-coated cereals, fast food restaurants, candy, soft drinks and toys (Calvert 205; Pryor et al 287) often promoting unhealthy life styles. Children younger than eight believe that advertisements are designed to help them with their purchasing decisions (Calvert 205). They do not yet realize that marketers advertise to make money. Their belief that marketers are trustworthy may actually be harmful to young children.
“Children ages two through five view an average of 22,338 commercial advertisements a year and six to eleven year olds view approximately 18,886 per year” (Pryor et al 286). As mentioned earlier, this is one of the reasons the United States government has attempted to control this particular venue. Prime time and weekend children’s television must limit their advertisements to nine and one-half minutes per hour and weekday advertisements to twelve minutes (Pryor et al 286). Although there are many rules for and limits on children’s advertising, these rules only apply if the programs audience consists mostly of children. There are no such limits on adult prime time, weekday or weekend television when adolescents are often watching. There are also very few rules and regulations for the internet. In 2002, the Federal Trade commission reviewed the music, movie and video game industries compliance to the established advertising rules. They discovered that the movie industry mostly complied by showing the required movie rating, but found many sites where a child under the age of eighteen could purchase a ticket (46% of the time) to an R-rated movie. The commission also found that children could purchase M-rated electronic games and parental advisory-labeled music 85% of the time (Marketing 6). The commission also found that these youth were exposed to both television and internet advertising of these products which enhanced their desire to purchase the product.
If adults believe that advertising does not affect them and are unaware of the sophisticated marketing techniques used to persuade them, then society is not educating children as to the affects of advertising. Sandra Calvert states that children under the age of eight are incapable of understanding the intent of advertising (211). Although children by the age of nine are becoming more aware of this intent and teenagers have a good understanding of the purpose behind advertising, no one discusses this issue. We voluntarily watch tens of thousands of commercials a year and never give any thought to the persuasive messages inundating our lives.
Although we are aware of the intent behind advertising, we are virtually unaware of its affects on our thinking. A study conducted by John Pracejus, Douglas Olsen, and Thomas O’Guinn analyzed the use of white space as a form of commercial rhetoric. They discovered that the simple use of white space in print advertising conveys particular messages to the audience, and although the general public was unaware of theses messages, the marketing executive were not. They routinely manipulate this rhetoric to deliver the appropriate message to the target audience in order to convince them to purchase the item or service being rendered. “White space is a figure of advertising speech used to symbolize elegance, class, and other related attributes of distinction” (Pracejus et al 5). When an item, such as a watch, is surrounded by white space, the ad gives the impression of a modern, uncluttered world associated with the upper social strata. Since poverty is considered to be cluttered and messy, to clutter an ad with copy and/or other visuals would give the impression that the product is not elite. Earlier in this paper, Hugh Rank’s four categories of advertisement were discussed. One of these categories was acquisition. By using white space marketers create an impression that they have enough money to leave most of the ad free of clutter, and the product is one sought after by those in society who also have money (Pracejus et al 11). Acquisition advertising appeals to society’s desire for social status. Many advertisers promote life styles which the average viewer can only dream about. After conducting four experiments to determine the affects of white space on consumer thought, Pracejus, Olsen and O’Guinn found that this one simple element did influence the consumers impression of the product. Advertisements which strategically used white space found their products received higher ratings in prestige, market leadership and quality. The company was also considered more trustworthy and approachable than others (15). Communicating is a social act and advertising is a very effective rhetorical process. White space as well as other forms of visual presentation include their own intonations, gestures, and accents. As consumers we are not consciously aware of these techniques.
If one simple visual element can sway the majority of adult consumers’ thought, it is worth looking at the effects of advertising on children. Young consumers learn the conventions of advertising early. They learn them in the same way that readers understand how authors use spacing and movies use dissolves to convey a passage of time. One convention used is to draw children’s attention to the advertisement. Marketers know that the minds of children will wander during any program so they use loud music to draw attention back to the screen. Hugh Rank believes this to be a very effective attention-getting device which is cleverly used by many advertisers to reach children (15). Children are drawn to commercial advertisements and after viewing approximately 20,000 commercial advertisements a year. Several studies have been conducted to discover what if any, affect advertisement may have on perceptions of adolescents. In one such study of 250 eighth, ninth, and tenth graders researched, experimenters found that these student’s beliefs about gender roles was related to the amount of television viewing. Students who watched more television and saw more advertisements were likely to give more sexist remarks to survey questions (Pryor et al 288). Another study conducted by a National Academies Panel was able to correlate television food advertisement with children’s food preferences. Children who viewed more advertising, choose the marketed food far more frequently than the children who viewed far fewer advertisements (Calvert 214). Calvert also found in her research that children who were heavy viewers of television advertising argued about a denied purchase 21% of the time compared to only 9% of the time for light viewers (217). Marketers call this arguing the ’nag factor’ and hope parents will give in to the child’s demands to purchase the product. Parents may think they are immune to the ‘nag factor,’ but recent purchasing runs on Tickle Me Elmo and Play station demonstrate just what an effective advertising technique this is. Debra Pryor and Nancy Knupfer found in their studies that advertisements could perpetuate stereotypes. Girls in one study viewed a wide assortment of beauty commercials, while the control group viewed neutral commercials. Surveys conducted after the study showed that the girls who viewed beauty commercials thought beauty to be “significantly more important for being popular with males” and considered beauty to be more important to them personally than the girls who viewed the neutral commercials (287).
Mike Messner and his colleagues analyzed sports programs and their accompanying commercial advertisements to discover what messages are being conveyed to today’s youth. According to the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, 98% of U.S. boys ages eight to seventeen watch some sort of sporting event or related media. 82% of these boys watch on an average of two times per week and 90% watch televised sports programs (Messner et al 5). Messner et al found that one dominant theme in sports programming and advertising is that aggression is rewarded. Athletes who employ aggression and toughness are more successful and in these ads, adoring women were the prize (7). The studies discussed by Calvert, Pryor and Knupfer, demonstrated that advertising does change the perception of adolescents. Given the startling results of these studies, it is frightening to consider what changes in behavior sports programming and advertisement has on young boys.
Michel Foucault describes the way the panopticon has become as common element in our lives. The panopticon began as a way to supervise prison inmates by allowing a guard to see into all cells. Later in history, the panopticon became a way to observe behavior for many means. Today, the panopticon still exits in the form of online advertising for adults and especially for children. Since there are so few regulations on online advertising, marketers have broadened their scope, created new ways to gather information, and have also begun to invade the privacy of consumers.
Two new forms of advertising have emerged on the market. Stealth advertising, a form of advertising based on marketers belief that advertising is most effective when it doesn’t seem like an advertisement, has become very popular. When one goes to neopets.com, they may purchase brand name products such as Oreo cookies to feed the virtual pets. This website may seem like only a game, but it is really a site in which advertisers pay to display their products. Advertising on online games is expected to grow from 77 million to 230 million by the year 2007 (Calvert 207, 210). Displaying products in television programs and in movies is another form of stealth advertising. The judges’ table on American Idol prominently displays Coca Cola cups and the contestant’s red room is designed using the theme of coke bottles. After reviewing three separate episodes of Three and A-Half Men, I found two different and easily recognizable brands of beer displayed. Another new form of advertising marketers are successfully using is integrated advertising. Perhaps you have seen the new Burger King commercial which incorporates SpongeBod into the ad, or the new Taco Bell commercial that integrates Star Trek. This integration allows the marketer to not only advertise two products at one time, but to also transfer the popularity of one product to another (Calvert 209). Another common technique used to entice children and gather information is the use of branded or interactive characters (agents). Tony the Tiger, Mrs. Butterworth or a robot may appear on the computer screen. Once a child begins to interact with this character, these agents are programmed to ask marketing questions. Companies use this data to crate advertisements which will be event more effective on the target audience (Calvert 208).
Advertisers have also found ways to gather information for market use by basically spying on consumers. The increased use of the internet coupled with the lack of regulations, has created a vast opportunity for advertisers to collect information in order to tailor more effective commercials for the target audience. Foucault says that panopticon “was also a laboratory” (199). For marketers this new laboratory is the internet. Many marketers use tracking devices to spy on consumer’s internet use. When one innocently downloads files from the internet, savvy advertisers insert files on the user’s hard drive. From that point, they gather information about the user (Calvert 211). Many programs, especially those aimed at children place cookies in one’s computer. Using these cookies “marketers can create an extensive data file about each individual user’s preferences for places and products” (Calvert 211). Although this may seem extremely unethical, it is not illegal.
So, I ask my question again, “How aware do consumers need to be of the rhetorical market of advertising? My answer is that we not only need to be very aware, but we must teach our children to understand the techniques used by advertisers. We must also remain vigilant as to the means marketers use to expose us to advertisement. Most consumers believe that advertising has no affect on them, but studies discussed in this paper show this belief to be incorrect. Advertising does change our thinking and perhaps alters our behavior. If we take into consideration the excessive volume of these daily persuasive messages, it is imperative that consumers remain hyper-vigilant. Advertisers have not stopped perfecting their rhetoric. They have adapted to our visual nature, they realize how to keep our attention, they stealthily introduce products when we are completely unaware, and they now have found effective ways to gather more information from us without our knowledge. The government will never be able to completely control the extent of advertising. We must do this for ourselves, and the first step in this process is to become aware of this manipulation.
Daggett, William, Keynote Address, Model Schools Conference, Hilton Hotel, Orlando, Florida, 29 May 2008.
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Messner, Mike; Hunt, Darnell; Dunbar, Michele; Chen, Perry; Lapp, Joan, and Miller, Patti, “boystoMen” Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles, August 1999 Los Angeles, Children Now, 1999.
Phelan, John, “Advertising: Commercial Rhetoric,” Christian Century, (1997): 942-946.
Pracejus, John; Olsen, Douglas; O’Guinn, Thomas, “Nothing is Something: White Space, a Figure of Commercial Rhetoric,” 25 April 2009 .
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