Advertising: What is it Really Saying?

by Sheila Millar

Advertising has been described as "an expensive way for one person to talk to another!" It is about communicating effectively with the target audience, stimulating interest and awareness among new and existing purchasers. As advertising has developed, we can see ways where the ads seem to be saying more than we would initially think!

Something Deeper

There was a time when advertisements simply gave us information - you could believe that a certain washing powder did make the clothes whiter. That is, until another brand declared that theirs would do exactly the same thing, thus causing the purchaser to make a choice based on other factors. In a clever way, advertisers saw the benefit of changing from promoting products to promoting social values. The emphasis moved from showing a lady who wanted cleaner clothes, to showing a caring mother with her son.Happy that her little Tommy had enjoyed his football game regardless of the mud, meant that getting the clothes clean again was of secondary importance. Emotional association helps advertising develop new depths which reflect social as well as economic behaviour.

Advertising has often been seen to have its products associated with the "feel good factor of life!" For example, Coke often shows groups of friends enjoying life together over the drink that "adds life!" Then there are the popular coffee ads which show distant neighbours becoming best of friends over a cuppa. Even car ads promote the "feel good factor" with their emphasis on security and safety for the family. One such 1990's ad suggests that you could "either roll your child up in cotton wool or buy a Volvo!"

Not All 'Nicey, Nicey'

Of course we would be naive to suggest that all advertising is uplifting by promoting good social values. How do we view cigarette or alcohol adverts when we now know what the effect of these can be on individuals and society? Take Benetton for example. Remember their fun ads of children from all over the world? They changed from the symbolic studio images of colourful frivolity to a hornet's nest of controversial ads. Some of these included a deathbed scene of an AIDS sufferer. Another one in Italy showed the aftermath of a Mafia murder. Their reason according to the editor-in-chief of the Benetton magazine Colors, was that major global issues are more exciting and more energising, bringing more important issues to people's attention. The not-so-hidden agenda is to cause a stir yet still sell more sweaters!

In a more subtle form, advertising can suggest benefits that do not necessarily happen. For example, in Britain, a recent car ad suggested you ought to "search for the hero inside yourself, if you want to find the key to your life" with the help of a Peugot 406! There are times when ads seem to suggest that you will be a more fulfilled person if you have this or buy that.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Over the years, there have been many criticisms made of advertising for one reason or another. But isn't there something positive to be commented upon when we see good social behaviour which benefits our society and gives a good view of human relations, being presented through our advertisements? We already know there is enough badness 'out there' which we see continually in our newspapers and on the media, and we know advertising is not exempt from this. But when used in the right way to give us good, honest, decent and truthful information, I think advertisers ought to be commended for reflecting some of the 'good things' in our society!

Return to April Table of Contents