Friendly Persuasion

The Growing Ubiquity of Advertising, or What Happens When Everyone Becomes an Ad?

How to Cite

Fraim, J. (2000). Friendly Persuasion: The Growing Ubiquity of Advertising, or What Happens When Everyone Becomes an Ad?. M/C Journal, 3(1).
Vol. 3 No. 1 (2000): Audience
Published 2000-03-01

"If people don't trust their information, it's not much better than a Marxist-Leninist society." -- Orville Schell Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley

"Most people aren't very discerning. Maybe they need good financial information, but I don't think people know what good information is when you get into culture, society, and politics." -- Steven Brill,Chairman and Editor-in-chief, Brill's Content

Once upon a time, not very long ago, advertisements were easy to recognise. They had simple personalities with goals not much more complicated than selling you a bar of soap or a box of cereal. And they possessed the reassuring familiarity of old friends or relatives you've known all your life. They were Pilgrims who smiled at you from Quaker Oats boxes or little tablets named "Speedy" who joyfully danced into a glass of water with the sole purpose of giving up their short life to help lessen your indigestion from overindulgence. Yes, sometimes they could be a little obnoxious but, hey, it was a predictable annoyance.

And once, not very long ago, advertisements also knew their place in the landscape of popular culture, their boundaries were the ad space of magazines or the commercial time of television programs. When the ads got too annoying, you could toss the magazine aside or change the TV channel. The ease and quickness of their dispatch had the abruptness of slamming your front door in the face of an old door-to-door salesman.

This all began to change around the 1950s when advertisements acquired a more complex and subtle personality and began straying outside of their familiar media neighborhoods. The social observer Vance Packard wrote a best-selling book in the late 50s called The Hidden Persuaders which identified this change in advertising's personality as coming from hanging around Professor Freud's psychoanalysis and learning his hidden, subliminal methods of trickery.

Ice cubes in a glass for a liquor ad were no longer seen as simple props to help sell a brand of whiskey but were now subliminal suggestions of female anatomy. The curved fronts of automobiles were more than aesthetic streamlined design features but rather suggestive of a particular feature of the male anatomy. Forgotten by the new subliminal types of ads was the simple salesmanship preached by founders of the ad industry like David Ogilvy and John Caples. The word "sales" became a dirty word and was replaced with modern psychological buzzwords like subliminal persuasion.

The Evolution of Subliminal Techniques

The book Hidden Persuaders made quite a stir at the time, bringing about congressional hearings and even the introduction of legislation. Prominent motivation researchers Louis Cheskin and Ernest Dichter utilised the new ad methods and were publicly admonished as traitors to their profession. The life of the new subliminal advertising seemed short indeed. Even Vance Packard predicted its coming demise. "Eventually, say by A.D. 2000," he wrote in the preface to the paperback edition of his book, "all this depth manipulation of the psychological variety will seem amusingly old- fashioned".

Yet, 40 years later, any half-awake observer of popular culture knows that things haven't exactly worked out the way Packard predicted. In fact what seems old-fashioned today is the belief that ads are those simpletons they once were before the 50s and that products are sold for features and benefits rather than for images. Even Vance Packard expresses an amazement at the evolution of advertising since the 50s, noting that today ads for watches have nothing to do with watches or that ads for shoes scarcely mention shoes. Packard remarks "it used to be the brand identified the product. In today's advertising the brand is the product". Modern advertising, he notes, has an almost total obsession with images and feelings and an almost total lack of any concrete claims about the product and why anyone should buy it. Packard admits puzzlement. "Commercials seem totally unrelated to selling any product at all". Jeff DeJoseph of the J. Walter Thompson firm underlines Packard's comments. "We are just trying to convey a sensory impression of the brand, and we're out of there".

Subliminal advertising techniques have today infiltrated the heart of corporate America. As Ruth Shalit notes in her article "The Return of the Hidden Persuaders" from the 27 September 1999 issue of Salon magazine, "far from being consigned to the maverick fringe, the new psycho- persuaders of corporate America have colonized the marketing departments of mainstream conglomerates. At companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble and Daimler-Chrysler, the most sought-after consultants hail not from McKinsey & Company, but from brand consultancies with names like Archetype Discoveries, PsychoLogics and Semiotic Solutions".

Shalit notes a growing number of CEOs have become convinced they cannot sell their brands until they first explore the "Jungian substrata of four- wheel drive; unlock the discourse codes of female power sweating; or deconstruct the sexual politics of bologna". The result, as Shalit observes, is a "charmingly retro school of brand psychoanalysis, which holds that all advertising is simply a variation on the themes of the Oedipus complex, the death instinct, or toilet training, and that the goal of effective communications should be to compensate the consumer for the fact that he was insufficiently nursed as an infant, has taken corporate America by storm".

The Growing Ubiquity of Advertising

Yet pervasive as the subliminal techniques of advertising have become, the emerging power of modern advertising ultimately centres around "where" it is rather than "what" it is or "how" it works. The power of modern advertising is within this growing ubiquity or "everywhereness" of advertising rather than the technology and methodology of advertising. The ultimate power of advertising will be arrived at when ads cannot be distinguished from their background environment. When this happens, the environment will become a great continuous ad.

In the process, ads have wandered away from their well-known hangouts in magazines and TV shows. Like alien-infected pod-people of early science fiction movies, they have stumbled out of these familiar media playgrounds and suddenly sprouted up everywhere. The ubiquity of advertising is not being driven by corporations searching for new ways to sell products but by media searching for new ways to make money.

Traditionally, media made money by selling subscriptions and advertising space. But these two key income sources are quickly drying up in the new world of online media. Journalist Mike France wisely takes notice of this change in an important article "Journalism's Online Credibility Gap" from the 11 October 1999 issue of Business Week. France notes that subscription fees have not worked because "Web surfers are used to getting content for free, and they have been reluctant to shell out any money for it". Advertising sales and their Internet incarnation in banner ads have also been a failure so far, France observes, because companies don't like paying a flat fee for online advertising since it's difficult to track the effectiveness of their marketing dollars. Instead, they only want to pay for actual sales leads, which can be easily monitored on the Web as readers' click from site to site.

Faced with the above situation, media companies have gone on the prowl for new ways to make money. This search underpins the emerging ubiquity of advertising: the fact that it is increasingly appearing everywhere. In the process, traditional boundaries between advertising and other societal institutions are being overrun by these media forces on the prowl for new "territory" to exploit.

That time when advertisements knew their place in the landscape of popular culture and confined themselves to just magazines or TV commercials is a fading memory. And today, as each of us is bombarded by thousands of ads each day, it is impossible to "slam" the door and keep them out of our house as we could once slam the door in the face of the old door-to-door salesmen.

Of course you can find them on the matchbook cover of your favorite bar, on t-shirts sold at some roadside tourist trap or on those logo baseball caps you always pick up at trade shows. But now they have got a little more personal and stare at you over urinals in the men's room. They have even wedged themselves onto the narrow little bars at the check-out counter conveyer belts of supermarkets or onto the handles of gasoline pumps at filling stations. The list goes on and on. (No, this article is not an ad.)

Advertising and Entertainment

In advertising's march to ubiquity, two major boundaries have been crossed. They are crucial boundaries which greatly enhance advertising's search for the invisibility of ubiquity. Yet they are also largely invisible themselves. These are the boundaries separating advertising from entertainment and those separating advertising from journalism.

The incursion of advertising into entertainment is a result of the increasing merger of business and entertainment, a phenomenon pointed out in best-selling business books like Michael Wolf's Entertainment Economy and Joseph Pine's The Experience Economy. Wolf, a consultant for Viacom, Newscorp, and other media heavy-weights, argues business is becoming synonymous with entertainment: "we have come to expect that we will be entertained all the time. Products and brands that deliver on this expectation are succeeding. Products that do not will disappear". And, in The Experience Economy, Pine notes the increasing need for businesses to provide entertaining experiences. "Those businesses that relegate themselves to the diminishing world of goods and services will be rendered irrelevant. To avoid this fate, you must learn to stage a rich, compelling experience".

Yet entertainment, whether provided by businesses or the traditional entertainment industry, is increasingly weighted down with the "baggage" of advertising. In a large sense, entertainment is a form of new media that carries ads. Increasingly, this seems to be the overriding purpose of entertainment.

Once, not long ago, when ads were simple and confined, entertainment was also simple and its purpose was to entertain rather than to sell. There was money enough in packed movie houses or full theme parks to make a healthy profit. But all this has changed with advertising's ubiquity.

Like media corporations searching for new revenue streams, the entertainment industry has responded to flat growth by finding new ways to squeeze money out of entertainment content. Films now feature products in paid for scenes and most forms of entertainment use product tie-ins to other areas such as retail stores or fast-food restaurants. Also popular with the entertainment industry is what might be termed the "versioning" of entertainment products into various sub-species where entertainment content is transformed into other media so it can be sold more than once. A film may not make a profit on just the theatrical release but there is a good chance it doesn't matter because it stands to make a profit in video rentals.

Advertising and Journalism

The merger of advertising and entertainment goes a long way towards a world of ubiquitous advertising. Yet the merger of advertising and journalism is the real "promised land" in the evolution of ubiquitous advertising. This fundamental shift in the way news media make money provides the final frontier to be conquered by advertising, a final "promised land" for advertising. As Mike France observes in Business Week, this merger "could potentially change the way they cover the news. The more the press gets in the business of hawking products, the harder it will be to criticize those goods -- and the companies making them".

Of course, there is that persistent myth, perpetuated by news organisations that they attempt to preserve editorial independence by keeping the institutions they cover and their advertisers at arm's length. But this is proving more and more difficult, particularly for online media. Observers like France have pointed out a number of reasons for this. One is the growth of ads in news media that look more like editorial content than ads. While long-standing ethical rules bar magazines and newspapers from printing advertisements that look like editorial copy, these rules become fuzzy for many online publications. Another reason making it difficult to separate advertising from journalism is the growing merger and consolidation of media corporations. Fewer and fewer corporations control more and more entertainment, news and ultimately advertising. It becomes difficult for a journalist to criticise a product when it has a connection to the large media conglomerate the journalist works for.

Traditionally, it has been rare for media corporations to make direct investments in the corporations they cover. However, as Mike France notes, CNBC crossed this line when it acquired a stake in Archipelago in September 1999. CNBC, which runs a business-news Website, acquired a 12.4% stake in Archipelago Holdings, an electronic communications network for trading stock. Long-term plans are likely to include allowing visitors to to link directly to Archipelago. That means CNBC could be in the awkward position of both providing coverage of online trading and profiting from it. France adds that other business news outlets, such as Dow Jones (DJ), Reuters, and Bloomberg, already have indirect ties to their own electronic stock-trading networks.

And, in news organisations, a popular method of cutting down on the expense of paying journalists for content is the growing practice of accepting advertiser written content or "sponsored edit" stories. The confusion to readers violates the spirit of a long-standing American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) rule prohibiting advertisements with "an editorial appearance". But as France notes, this practice is thriving online. This change happens in ever so subtle ways. "A bit of puffery inserted here," notes France, "a negative adjective deleted there -- it doesn't take a lot to turn a review or story about, say, smart phones, into something approaching highbrow ad copy". He offers an example in whose Microsoft ads could easily be mistaken for staff-written articles.

Media critic James Fallows points out that consumers have been swift to discipline sites that are caught acting unethically and using "sponsored edits". He notes that when it was revealed that was taking fees of up to $10,000 for books that it labelled as "destined for greatness", its customers were outraged, and the company quickly agreed to disclose future promotional payments.

Unfortunately, though, the lesson episodes like these teach online companies like Amazon centres around more effective ways to be less "revealing" rather than abstention from the practice of "sponsored edits".

France reminds us that journalism is built on trust. In the age of the Internet, though, trust is quickly becoming an elusive quality. He writes "as magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks rush to colonize the Internet, the Great Wall between content and commerce is beginning to erode". In the end, he ponders whether there is an irrevocable conflict between e-commerce and ethical journalism. When you can't trust journalists to be ethical, just who can you trust?

Transaction Fees & Affiliate Programs - Advertising's Final Promised Land?

The engine driving the growing ubiquity of advertising, though, is not the increasing merger of advertising with other industries (like entertainment and journalism) but rather a new business model of online commerce and Internet technology called transaction fees.

This emerging and potentially dominant Internet e-commerce technology provides for the ability to track transactions electronically on Websites and to garner transaction fees. Through these fees, many media Websites take a percentage of payment through online product sales. In effect, a media site becomes one pervasive direct mail ad for every product mentioned on its site. This of course puts them in a much closer economic partnership with advertisers than is the case with traditional fixed-rate ads where there is little connection between product sales and the advertising media carrying them.

Transaction fees are the new online version of direct marketing, the emerging Internet technology for their application is one of the great economic driving forces of the entire Internet commerce apparatus. The promise of transaction fees is that a number of people, besides product manufacturers and advertisers, might gain a percentage of profit from selling products via hypertext links. Once upon a time, the manufacturer of a product was the one that gained (or lost) from marketing it. Now, however, there is the possibility that journalists, news organisations and entertainment companies might also gain from marketing via transaction fees.

The spread of transaction fees outside media into the general population provides an even greater boost to the growing ubiquity of advertising. This is done through the handmaiden of media transaction fees: "affiliate programs" for the general populace. Through the growing magic of Internet technology, it becomes possible for all of us to earn money through affiliate program links to products and transaction fee percentages in the sale of these products.

Given this scenario, it is not surprising that advertisers are most likely to increasingly pressure media Websites to support themselves with e-commerce transaction fees. Charles Li, Senior Analyst for New Media at Forrester Research, estimates that by the year 2003, media sites will receive $25 billion in revenue from transaction fees, compared with $17 billion from ads and $5 billion from subscriptions.

The possibility is great that all media will become like great direct response advertisements taking a transaction fee percentage for anything sold on their sites. And there is the more dangerous possibility that all of us will become the new "promised land" for a ubiquitous advertising. All of us will have some cut in selling somebody else's product. When this happens and there is a direct economic incentive for all of us to say nice things about products, what is the need and importance of subliminal techniques and methods creating advertising based on images which try to trick us into buying things?

A Society Without Critics?

It is for these reasons that criticism and straight news are becoming an increasingly endangered species. Everyone has to eat but what happens when one can no longer make meal money by criticising current culture?

Cultural critics become a dying breed. There is no money in criticism because it is based around disconnection rather than connection to products. No links to products or Websites are involved here. Critics are becoming lonely icebergs floating in the middle of a cyber-sea of transaction fees, watching everyone else (except themselves) make money on transaction fees. The subliminal focus of the current consultancies is little more than a repackaging of an old theme discovered long ago by Vance Packard. But the growing "everywhereness" and "everyoneness" of modern advertising through transaction fees may mark the beginning of a revolutionary new era. Everyone might become their own "brand", a point well made in Tim Peters's article "A Brand Called You".

Media critic James Fallows is somewhat optimistic that there still may remain "niche" markets for truthful information and honest cultural criticism. He suggests that surely people looking for mortgages, voting for a politician, or trying to decide what movie to see will continue to need unbiased information to help them make decisions. But one must ask what happens when a number of people have some "affiliate" relationship with suggesting particular movies, politicians or mortgages?

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, has summarised this growing ubiquity of advertising in a rather simple and elegant manner saying "at a certain point, people won't be able to differentiate between what's trustworthy and what isn't". Over the long run, this loss of credibility could have a corrosive effect on society in general -- especially given the media's importance as a political, cultural, and economic watchdog. Schell warns, "if people don't trust their information, it's not much better than a Marxist-Leninist society".

Yet, will we be able to realise this simple fact when we all become types of Marxists and Leninists? Still, there is the great challenge to America to learn how to utilise transaction fees in a democratic manner. In effect, a combination of the technological promise of the new economy with that old promise, and perhaps even myth, of a democratic America. America stands on the verge of a great threshold and challenge in the growing ubiquity of advertising. In a way, as with most great opportunities or threats, this challenge centres on a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, there is the promise of the emerging Internet business model and its centre around the technology of transaction fees. At the same time, there is the threat posed by transaction fees to America's democratic society in the early years of the new millennium.

Yes, once upon a time, not very long ago, advertisements were easy to recognise and also knew their place in the landscape of popular culture. Their greatest, yet silent, evolution (especially in the age of the Internet) has really been in their spread into all areas of culture rather than in methods of trickery and deceit. Now, it is more difficult to slam that front door in the face of that old door-to-door salesman. Or toss that magazine and its ad aside, or switch off commercials on television. We have become that door-to-door salesman, that magazine ad, that television commercial. The current cultural landscape takes on some of the characteristics of the theme of that old science fiction movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A current advertising campaign from RJ Reynolds has a humorous take on the current zeitgeist fad of alien abduction with copy reading "if aliens are smart enough to travel through space then why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on earth?"

One might add that when Americans allow advertising to travel through all our space, perhaps we all become the dumbest people on earth, abducted by a new alien culture so far away from a simplistic nostalgia of yesterday.

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Author Biography

John Fraim