The role of advertising, especially television commercials, in influencing social lifestyles has long been a raging debate between public interests groups, government and industry. Critics believe that advertising imagery, coupled with television programming, preys on susceptible minds. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, point out that freedom of speech and expression constitutes a basic, inviolable constitutional right, and that advertising merely facilitates consumers to exercise choice in their lifestyle decisions. Much of the debate, though supported by research, is based on the rhetoric of ideology. As against this, it is the objective of this paper to establish that advertising has a very fundamental and valuable contribution, in as much that it fuels economic and social progress. For one, advertising stimulates economic growth through creating new desires, thereby increasing the demand for goods and services. Second, advertising allows consumers to make informed purchase decisions. Third, advertising revenue enables affordable, mass access to popular television programming such as news and talk shows, which then leads to information, knowledge and debate on issues of social concern.
Though a simplistic definition of the advertising discipline is " ... A commercial communication from an identified sponsor, which uses various commercial platforms, such as newspapers, radio, TV, billboards, satellite, Internet, to connect with an audience, e.g. customers," the importance of the function is really seen in the role it plays in economic and social development. Advertising stimulates competition among providers of goods and services leading to the development of higher quality products, a better standard of living, increased consumer demand, employment generation, and incremental government revenue through sales tax and more taxable income. Advertising also increases consumer welfare, as it allows buyers to choose the product or service that best meets their needs, based on the information provided. The importance of the advertising industry in economic and social development is further reflected in the fact that advertising revenues are a significant source of finance for media, educational programming, and entertainment. Newspapers, magazines, cable, satellite, broadcast services, and the Internet depend on advertising support to keep their prices affordable (The Liberation of Advertising Services, Nov. 2002).
Though, the benefits of advertising to the economy and society are quite undeniably obvious, the controversies over the arguably negative effects of advertising stems from the way ads are designed to work. While advertising messages are determined by marketing strategies, developed on the basis of consumer needs, social trends, competitor positions, and the brand's own unique position, the effectiveness of an ad depends on its appeal. For an advertisement to succeed in its appeal, it must succeed in drawing attention, empathy, and evoke a set of emotions associated with contemporary views of an ideal human. Thus, consumer insight and empathy are the two essential ingredients of effective advertising: "The conclusion is quite simple. Think of the viewer first. Offer her or him something with which an enhancing emotional connection can be made." (Goldberg, et.al., 1995). Many ads are based on consumer insights, but few succeed in evoking empathy, desire and memorability. Ads that succeed in doing so have what the advertising industry often terms as the 'WOW' and 'POW' (power of wanting) factors. This effect is achieved through various appropriate creative devices such as the theme music to the ad, fun imagery, language, the way people look, and the overall atmosphere; all of which or combinations thereof come together to create a perception in the minds of consumers (Brown, Oct. 2003).
It is the use of perceptions associated with an ideal human, often in contrast with socially derided imagery, which has led to arguments over the negative effects of advertising. Such images, it is felt, manipulate consumers by preying on debilitating emotions such as fear, guilt, anxiety, inferiority, unhappiness, and inadequacy. Thus, critics contend that advertising, which evokes either negative self-perceptions or an excessive desire for an ideal, results in harmful actions such as tobacco and alcohol consumption, or the use of extreme slimming regimes. Given research studies, which have shown, for example, that idealized images of the slim female figure in advertising adversely impacts body dissatisfaction and negative self-perceptions of some women, it must be conceded that the aforesaid arguments are not entirely without validity (Bennett, 2003).
Indeed, one of the ads reviewed for the purposes of discussion in this paper, Mega-T Green Tea, is a likely candidate for advertising criticism, both on grounds of its negative social dimension as well as its ineffectiveness as an ad per se. Analyzing the elements of the Mega-T Green Tea television commercial, the negative social dimension is apparent in that the television commercial uses contrasting visual images of an overweight female body and a slimmer, more appealing body figure to create a positive perception about the product's performance. As such, this commercial does run the risk of creating body image disturbances among its target audience.
Perhaps, the creators of the Mega-T Green Tea commercial felt that the mere use of a before-and-after visual comparison of a female figure, which impacted the target's body image, was sufficient inducement to try the brand. For this does seem to be the mainstay message and visual cue of the ad. All other elements such as the claim that the brand can help the target consumer lose up to 20 lbs of body weight, without the use of drugs, seems highly secondary. No doubt, the brand's intended position was a 'safer alternative' to slimming regimes that use drugs. However, if this inference is correct, the commercial fails to establish what could, perhaps, have been a more relevant and socially beneficial message. Further, for any such claim to be credible, there is a need to support it through validation of some sort. Not only does the Mega-T Green Tea commercial fail to support such an inferred position, it also does not offer any explanation of how the product works.
It is evident from the above evaluation that the Mega-T Green Tea television commercial would be unlikely to have any positive, lasting impact in terms of building a positive brand perception. Even presuming that the commercial in question had succeeded in more clearly tabling its position, chances are it would have still been ineffective given the universal nature of its promise and creative idea. All in all, this particular commercial would probably just have got lost among the clutter of innumerable products holding out a weight loss promise within the same, time immemorial before-and-after format.
For every instance of an ineffective commercial, however, there is a counter in terms of advertising, which affects consumers and society positively. One such example is the Citi credit card television commercial. The Citi commercial, primarily works on the basis of a simple, single-minded message, which is that the card offers purchasers cover against defective merchandise through extended warranties and theft protection. Though this product feature may or may not be offered by competition, by focusing on the feature, Citi stands to gain a competitive advantage through creating a perception that such cover is unique to the brand. It is also highly likely that this particular Citi commercial will be remembered since it succeeds in drawing attention and evoking empathy. The ad draws and retains viewer attention through the use of a humorous situation, featuring a somewhat overweight man paying the price for buying a defective treadmill. Interestingly, the use of an overweight human figure, here, is unlikely to create any negative self-perception as it is used in good fun and cannot be constituted as derisive in any manner. Also, the casting of a somewhat overweight man enhances the overall humor and message as it creates a sense of consumer vulnerability and anxiety over defective purchases. After all, overweight people are likely to have a higher stake in purchasing exercise equipment!
The Citi commercial provides an excellent example of how consumer insights are the basis of effective ads. The ad works primarily because it capitalizes on the fact that almost any member of the television viewing audience would have experienced buying defective merchandise at some point. This insight, along with the excellent use of humor, also makes the commercial very memorable and likeable. The first factor of memorability will play a role in inducing subscription, while the second attribute of likeability will help create a friendly dimension to the brand image.
The analysis of the Citi credit card commercial is useful to this discussion as it helps establish the positive attributes of advertising. The value addition of 'purchase protection' to a credit card proves that competition and advertising increase the quality of products and thereby consumer welfare. The Mega-T Green Tea ad, in contrast, demonstrates an example of a commercial, which evokes at best indifference or worse, negative images. Indeed, commercials in the vein of Mega-T suggest at least a degree to which the advertising industry needs to develop a social conscience.
The preceding discussion, while serving to highlight both the negative and positive effects of advertising, has attempted to establish that advertising's benefits to economic and social progress far outweigh any adverse outcomes.…