Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion

Subtitle: Its Dubious Impact on American Society.
Author: Michael Schudson
Publishing Date: 1986

I saw the name of the book on The title itself is a mouthful.

But i got interested.

ZM has been working in the advertising industry for a long time. Whenever he described his job to me, i was always fascinated. It sounded so not like work, but more like play. Creative concept, playing with imagery to express some clever idea, coming out with story lines to sell a product, etc. etc. and so much more, they all seemed foreign to a programmer like me. On one hand, it is a world that is beyond clean-cut logic. On the other, it is so related to our every day life.


I found a copy in SF Main Library. It is an interesting book, even though I had to renew it twice before i could finish reading it. The slow going is largely contributed by the fact I had had so little time for reading.

The book did a very thorough examination from all aspects of advertising. The advertiser, the advertising agency, the consumer, the history of advertising, the various case studies during various milestones for consumer advertising industry. I enjoyed the historical portion and the insider look into corporations and agencies.

One single most conclusion the book is trying to address is probably that advertising is far less powerful than most people had criticized/assumed. Advertising could almost never create a desire or need from the consumer, all it tries to do is to exploit the pre-existing desire and need created by many other social/political/economical factors. If advertising is really meant to create sales, then in a corporation, its advertising budget increase should have been tied to slowed sales. In reality, it is exactly opposite. Advertising budget goes up when a corporation just had a good quarter. And advertising is always focusing on the best product rather than the worst.

However, things I learned from the book that fascinated me the most are the following:

1) Urbanization fostered the growth of advertising industry in the 1920s-1930s.

When people lived in a small and closely knit community, personal identity was pre-existed before any assertion from the individual. Ones family and its relationship with the community automatically established a foundation for an individual social circle and her own identity. But when that individual left everything behind and ventured into a big city, she came into a foreign environment with a blank history. To find a group that to be part of and to identify herself to the group, advertising became the most public identity repository. One learned what to wear, where to shop, what to watch, etc. etc. It was also the least intrusive/embarrassing way for a new comer to learn about her new environment.

Also, in small towns, people obtain these information through a closely knit community, neighborly gossip will help you to identify the good and bad products, the good and bad grocers. But in big cities, people had to turn to more public/general, less personal sources for information.

I guess that’s replaced by Internet nowadays. 🙂

2) Women smoking in public used to be scandalous.

The women smoking outside was an issue is suggested by this 1928 report:

A few years ago an enterprising taxi driver did a thriving business in the Wall Street district during the noon hour by driving around women who wanted to smoke a cigarette or two before returning to their offices. None of the women rode any considerable distance. But the taxi driver had a continued run of passengers.

The taxi was about the only place these women could smoke with any sense of freedom. In the restaurants they would have felt conspicuous. In the offices it was quite out of the question. An unwritten law said that women must not smoke in business houses. Today there is hardly any place except the street where a woman cannot smoke with equanimity.

3) (This is my favorite) American Advertising represents Capitalist Realism

Author derived the concept of “Capitalist Realism” based on the concept for Socialist realist art, because it simplifies and typifies.

I can make what I mean by capitalist realism more clear by comparing it to socialist realism, the term from which, obviously, I have derived it. Socialist realism is official, state-sanctioned and state-governed art as practiced in the Soviet Union. As the First Soviet Writers’ Congress defined it in 1934, socialist realism is an art obliged to present a “correct historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development” and to do so in a form that will educate “the working masses in the spirit of socialism.” In practice, this means that artists and writers must meet certain aesthetic and moral demands. In theory, these demands are all in the service of a kind of realism. Socialist realist art must be faithful to life — but in certain prescribed ways:

  • 1. Art should picture reality in simplified and typified ways so that it communicates effectively to the masses.
  • 2. Art should picture life, but not as it is so much as life as it should become, life worth emulating.
  • 3. Art should picture reality not in its individuality but only as it reveals larger social significance.
  • 4. Art should picture reality as progress toward the future and so represent social struggles positively. It should carry an air of optimism.
  • 5. Art should focus on contemporary life, creating pleasing images of new social phenomena, revealing and endorsing new features of society and thus aiding the masses in assimilating them.

4) The power of advertising is increased exponentially in a society where people don’t have sufficient channel to obtain information about the products.

In America, people don’t trust advertisement by default. Skepticism is considered the norm. But in China, maybe because television has been held as the state-owned media, where the official announcements have been made, majority viewers trusted advertisement with admirable singlemindedness and innocence.

Last but not the least,
5)”Until we devise some better way of supporting a relatively free and relatively varied media system, this is an incidental but important virtue of advertising.”

Through out my reading, I kept on thinking of ipod. That is one phenomenon i wish the author would have explored in a book like this. In my mind, it is the single most successful advertising campaign in the history of advertising industry.