Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion, by Michael Schudson, New York: Basic Books, 288 pp., $17.95
To hear many Americans talk, one would think that advertising is the ultimate evil: war and violent crimes come in for their share of condemnation, but the real tirades of many Americans are reserved for advertising, the object of their most emotional outbursts of moral indignation. Advertising, it is said, is the vulgar expression of a culture that is selfish and materialistic; its continuation helps to reinforce these very qualities in a culture; besides all that, it is a form of coercion, impelling its victims to buy what they have no need for and robbing them of their free will.
Michael Schudson is happily free of these misconceptions. He provides in Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion many illustrations of how advertising can be superfluous and misleading, but he also shows at considerable length how consumers exercise their free will with regard to advertising, so much so as to defy any single formula for making a product successful by advertising it. It is easy to say in retrospect that Ford misread all the signs in bringing out the Edsel, yet its success was predicted on the basis of a large amount of the best research available at the time. There was every reason to believe that the Procter & Gamble product "Pringles" (a new kind of potato chip) would be enormously popular, and it received saturation advertising; Procter & Gamble is one of the most seasoned advertisers in the business, yet the product bombed. No amount of advertising will save a product that consumers don't like.
Volkswagen sales boomed in the 1950s without any advertising at all and declined in the 1970s in spite of heavy advertising. Why did the sale of whiskeys decline in the last two decades, in spite of much advertising to save it, and that of wines go up? There are theories on the subject, but nobody really knows. And the most spectacular sales increases of all, in marijuana and cocaine, have taken place without any advertising at all. "Advertising's effect on sales," the author concludes, "is always less than that of population, income, and other environmental variables." And a price reduction on the product is almost always more effective in promoting sales than is advertising. Why not, then, devote expenditures on advertising to price reduction? Because that doesn't always work either: sometimes, of two identical products, it is the higher-priced one that sells the best, presumably on the assumption that if it's more expensive it's better. The ups and downs of consumption are simply not highly correlated with any advertising budget.
"Half my advertising expenditures are wasted," said J.W. Woolworth many years ago; "the problem is, I don't know which half." Some companies put a fixed percentage of their income into advertising, some advertise before a product becomes a success, some advertise after it is successful, to keep it so. Nobody knows to this day which policy is preferable—there are many correlations but no provable causal connections.
Sometimes an event in the outside world over which the industry has no control appears to be decisive. President Kennedy went hatless, and on this is blamed the decline of the hat industry. Or was Kennedy's habit the harbinger of a trend that would have occurred anyway? There was at the time a trend toward longer hair styles—was that the cause of the trend toward hatlessness that no amount of advertising by the hat industry was able to reverse? Nobody really knows: we cannot replay history with one factor at a time missing, to see what would happen in the absence of that factor. Nobody knows to what extent advertising is a causal factor in sustaining a product's profits or whether it simply provides a bit of impetus for a product that would have succeeded without it.
If ads are ever causally effective, that is not the result of some fiendish behavior-modification conspiracy. Most consumers, says Schudson, already recognize ads to be trivial and are aware that they give a minimum of genuine information. But it is precisely this, he says, that enables an ad to be successful: "Were consumers convinced of the importance of ads, they would bring into play an array of 'perceptual defenses' as they do in situations of persuasion regarding important matters." Indeed, writes Schudson, "if there are signs that Americans bow to the gods of advertising, there are equally indications that people find the gods ridiculous."
One area in which advertising can be effective is calling the consumer's attention to the existence of a new product (or new brand of an old product). According to the author, about 80 percent of new products fail. So who can blame a company for using advertisements to promote the new product and lessen the risks involved in producing it? (When I was a child, a new brand of soap came on the market, then called "Vogue," half again as large as any other bar of soap that sold for the same price, five cents. The company was determined to use the money it would have spent for advertising on giving the consumer a bigger and better bar of soap for a nickel. In spite of many loyal consumers, the product failed for lack of sufficient public knowledge of its existence. What would the opponents of advertising say about this case?)
For many of the opponents of advertising, it is not advertising per se that is found objectionable but the "materialistic society" that it is thought to reflect and also promote. On this as on so many issues, author Rose Wilder Lane spoke most eloquently (quoted in a collection of her letters, The Lady and the Tycoon):
This scorn of "materialism" seems to me to be either a shallow and thoughtless cliché, or an expression of frustration, despair, envy, hate—as in the general European and Asiatic "contempt" for this country's "sordid materialism." Europeans flaunt their "culture," Nehru flaunts Indian "spirituality." America, they say, has nothing but plumbing; how low, how vulgar, how contemptible, a country that values bathrooms while Europe loves art and India has a soul. Well, I'll raise right now the flag of the bathroom. What is a bathroom? It is cleanliness, health and all other values of human life on this earth: leisure, learning, art, culture, because it releases human beings from life-wasting drudgery. Paris can have its art—and its "working class quarters" where pale people live in airless, windowless rooms, wear dirty clothes on unwashed bodies and use the pavements and gutters as dogs do.…Give me American bathrooms: give me the country where pumps and pipes are the working class, where "gadgets" serve the values of human life, and human beings have a lifetime to live. India can have its "spirituality" and its over-populated land, and under-fed, hungry, overworked, dirty, sick people sitting in the dust half-naked, with flies swarming on their babies' eyes and holy cows eating the little food they have. India is "spiritual" because it hasn't enough to eat.…Speaking for myself, I am all for "American materialism."
Those Americans for whom hatred of advertising is a consuming passion are often those who hate America as a rebellion against parents and parental values, particularly the "materialistic" values that enabled these young people to be brought up in such affluence that they can now condemn it. They have never visited a totalitarian nation such as the Soviet Union, in which no advertising exists because there is a shortage of virtually all consumer goods, and there are no privately owned businesses anyway. The billboards contain only pictures of Lenin and political propaganda. In this gray monotony one comes to miss the advertising and to recognize it as a sign of the abundance of life-enhancing consumer goods that characterizes those nations in which advertising exists.
Economist Robert Heilbroner called advertising "the single most value-destroying activity of a business civilization." Schudson finds these words "overblown but still troubling." Advertising, he fears, constitutes "too vivid a body of evidence about what is base in American life." I suggest that he need not have been so concerned. Though there is some false advertising (punishable when proved), misleading advertising, and vulgar advertising, advertising is important (even if for nothing else) as a bellwether of a culture. Show me a country in which no advertising exists, and I will show you a country so drab, so filled with poverty and hunger, so controlled by a central authority whose tentacles reach out into all the areas of private life, that neither Schudson nor Heilbroner would want to live in it.
John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California and is the author of several books, including Understanding the Arts.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "And Now, A Word about Advertising".