is the paid promotion of a BRAND in order to stimulate demand and is usually part of an overall promotional strategy that can include publicity, public relations, personal selling and sales promotion. Set up in 1843, Volney Palmer in Philadelphia, USA, is credited with being the first advertising agency. The emergence of such organizations was symptomatic of growing competition between companies during the nineteenth century, which, in turn, necessitated the development of new ways of obtaining and increasing market share. Then, with the proliferation of monopolies, CORPORATIONS faced the possibility that market prices would become fixed or change beyond their control. They therefore used advertising to promote a differentiation between products that would enable demand to be manufactured as a way of varying price and therefore maximizing profits.
According to economists there are two main types of advertising that can be used to achieve short- or long-term increases in sales, an increase in market share, improved awareness of brand or an improvement of image. These include ads that provide information about a commodity’s availability, uses, advantages, price, quality and terms of sale; and those that seek to persuade people that they want or need a particular brand. In practice, such differentiation is often difficult to define, especially where imagery is used to present a persuasive message, such as the presentation of cigarette smoking as a symbol of chic behaviour, freedom and independence. In this way, commodities are associated with things that are considered to be appealing, in order to make the product seem equally desirable, such as in the use of airbrushed female and male images, picturesque landscapes or the inclusion of buzzwords with a favourable association.
Advertising now intrudes into every realm of life on billboards, buses, bus stops, park benches and taxis on the street, as well as neon signs. At home, printed flyers are shoved through the door and telephone marketing invades privacy. Adverts also interrupt Internet use, radio listening, television and video viewing and appear in magazines and newspapers. At work, corporate logos appear on office stationery and on payslips, and even schools are used to advertise the corporations that sponsor them or provide ‘free’ curriculum materials. The same organizations seek to reinforce their message by broad-casting radio and television commercials that contain slogans, jingles and catchphrases designed to lodge in the memory and encourage people to buy a particular brand. Ironically, the ‘soap opera’ was specifically produced to facilitate a break in commercials, not the other way round, and now provides a vehicle for a form of covert advertising. This involves the placement of branded products so that they are visible in television programmes, films and other entertainment media and become associated with an actor, cast, movie or programme.
Other techniques include making sure that a brand is widely recognized and its name remembered through repetition in the hope that it will eventually be used as a noun or a generic term – the brand name Hoover, for example, is used subconsciously as a synonym for a vacuum cleaner. The testimony of ordinary users can also be employed as a way of endorsing a brand or COMMODITY – ‘eight out of ten people asked...’, for example – as can an appeal to authority through the approval of ‘experts’, such as in the promotion of something as ‘scientifically tested’ or ‘clinically proven’. The testimony of ordinary citizens also has the added advantage of implying that the brand is widely used, while other techniques, associated with the promotion of designer wear, encourage people to believe that they are unique and therefore need things that are supposed to embody or express their manufactured individuality. Even the imagery and symbolism of capitalist antitheses ANARCHISM, COMMUNISM and SOCIALISM have been appropriated and used as selling points.
The roles of advertising and public relations become contentious when they overlap in the service of corporations, government agencies, governments or politicians. The Committee for Public Information, or Creel Committee, which organized publicity on behalf of the US government during World War I, is credited with being the first example of this kind of activity. Towards the end of the twentieth century, marketing culture took over politics in Britain and the USA as New Labour under Tony Blair and the Democrats led by Bill Clinton used a variety of techniques including opinion polling and focus groups to evaluate public opinion. This two-way approach is intended to help clients listen as well as communicate messages, although it also involves high-tech techniques for distributing information to those being consulted. This can include satellite feeds, the Internet, broadcast faxes and database-driven phone banks to recruit supporters for a particular cause or issue and can just as easily be used as means of one-way propagandizing.
In fact, Edward Bernays (1891–1995), one of the pioneers of public relations, argued in Propaganda (1928) that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society. Critics like John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You (1995), doubt that such practices really serve the interests of DEMOCRACY and freedom of speech, especially when they deliberately marginalize or deny the feasibility of alternative economic and social ideas. This can be achieved through the creation of front groups – organizations that purport to serve a public cause while actually serving the interests of a sponsor – and is called a third party technique. No wonder public relations is disparaged as the ‘black art’, ‘spin’ and the work of ‘spin doctors’ or ‘flacks’, as in Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin (1996), and Nicholas Jones, Sultans of Spin (1999).
Alternative forms of practice are available from organizations such as Adbusters, which cater for non-governmental organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, trade unions and non-profit organizations. In contrast to normal advertising and public relations bodies they will only help create a campaign if they agree with the cause. They also aim to inspire people to become activists, so that they will present a challenge to existing power structures and the domination of commercial forces through social marketing campaigns like Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week. Although Naomi Klein points out in No Logo (2000) the irony of merchandising to promote a ‘buy nothing day’, via the Cable News Network, the use of existing means and methods is a central aspect of the attempt to subvert them.
Others prefer to parody corporate and political advertisements in order to subvert the original message – hence the term ‘subvertising’. This can be an image that is subtly different to a recognizable corporate logo or an alteration to an existing advert that draws attention to an alternative or critical point of view, thereby sabotaging the original message of politicians, corporations and others. ‘Just do it... or else!’, for example, has been used to comment on Nike’s alleged use of sweatshops. Subverts appear as graffiti, a sticker left in a prominent position, the rewording of billboards or as spoof T-shirts. Advocates consider subvertising to be a form of creative resistance to corporate disinformation that pollutes physical or mental commons, and a call to action.
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