The principle of advertising concerns change. Investing time and money in getting a message across to the public via advertisements is only worthwhile if it has an effect on the target audience. Such an effect will modify attitudes, emotions, behaviour and values and so a change occurs in the way people think, feel or act towards a product or a brand. However, while advertising can be defined as a method of promoting change, this role has traditionally been linked to change on an individual basis which incites consumers to act differently but does not impact wider society.
Increasingly, though, the reality of the situation is that advertisements can and do have a major influence on how we consider our world. Perhaps the most obvious level is advertising on behalf of political parties which seeks to influence how voters perceive the state of society and so aims to encourage them to support a particular movement. In this way ideological views are ‘sold’ via classic advertising methods.
Away from institutionalised politics, advertising can also seek to change public opinion on social questions, particularly when used by non-governmental organisations. In this way, the same sorts of methods used to promote fast food and cars have been employed to alter views on AIDS and raise awareness of road safety.
However, while this sort of value-oriented advertising is more obvious, even to the population targeted, it should be recognised that, on a more subliminal level, advertisers confirm, alter or shape our view of the world around us. What this means is that as well as working on the first level of promoting consumer goods or services, advertising operates on a second subtler level, which deals with the representations that allow us to understand our environment. It is clearly not supposed to be advertising’s role to shape our perception of what surrounds us, but for better or worse this is what it does.
By feeding us with images and messages on our world advertisers help create our social reality. This raises an important question: what qualifies those in charge of advertising to decide how we should understand society? Clearly, their influence does not come from any democratic decision or legitimacy. They are employed on a brutally commercial basis to get a message across. However, when this message also has a very real social impact, advertising has to assume a responsibility.
A case in point is the problem of anorexia. Advertisers do