Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Ideology and Advertisements

The first thing or question that might come to one's mind when reading the title (Ideology and Advertisements) is what the identical relationship that might exist between ideology and advertisements is ? Knowing that the domain of advertisements is relatively ''a new born'' sort of communication then study, fully and truly flourished with the emergence of capitalism as the main dominating system of economy.

 The relationship between ideology and advertisements.

Questioning the nature of relationship between ideology and advertisements, we may come up with the following statement: Common for all, advertisements as part of the many commonly ways of communication is a relatively new domain of study in comparison to the term ideology, and until the last few decades, we were only acquainted with ideologies being encoded in books, political or religious discourses and so on... but now, ideologies are not only encoded in books, political and religious discourses, but also in advertisements, as a matter of fact.

One should never underestimate any piece of advertisement, because they are a powerful carrier of ideologies and social values. “Advertisements are signs and through their system of codes are a powerful carrier of ideology. Ideology is one of the key concepts of media studies, and advertisements are key texts in any analysis of the way in which ideology works” (Peter, Philip and Stephan. 78).

To understand that much more, we need to have a clear idea about advertisements, their nature of what they are, and how they work to deliver or convey certain ideologies in our society.        

 What is an advertisement?

We can call it an advertisement or a commercial, the term advertisement or advertising is derived from the medieval Latin verb 'Advertere' ,which means to direct one's attention to. Media critic and theorist Neil Postman says in his book 'How to Watch TV News' that “The backbone, the heart the soul, the fuel, the DNA (choose whatever metaphor you wish) of non-public television in America is the commercial or advertisements” (115, Ch. 9). So, what are advertisements or commercials?

Advertisements are surely considered as one of the ways of communication to encourage and especially to persuade the target audience that can be a viewer, reader or listener to take or continue doing an action that results as the target audience gets convinced, which is supposed to derive the consumer's behaviour. In fact, it is totally wrong to claim that advertisements are something new that emerged with the growth of capitalism and mass media. Advertisements are as old as other types of communication like books. It is assumed that the ancient Egyptians used Papyrus, which is a kind of paper made from the stems of the Papyrus plants to make sales messages and wall posters. Commercial messages and political campaign displays have been found in the ruins of Pompeii and ancient Arabia. Advertisement or advertising on Papyrus was common in ancient Greece and ancient Rome as well.

Wall painting for commercial advertising is another manifestation of an ancient advertising form, which is present to this day in many parts of Asia, Africa, and South America, the tradition of wall painting can be traced back to India rock art paintings that dates back to 4000 B.C. History tells us that out-of-home advertising and billboards are the oldest forms of advertising. As painting developed, advertising expanded to include handbills. In the eighteenth century, advertisements started to appear in weekly newspapers in England, these early print advertisements were used mainly to promote books and newspapers, which became increasingly affordable with advances in the printing press.

As economy expanded during the nineteenth century, advertisements grew alongside. In the United States, the success of this advertising format eventually led to the growth of mail-order advertising. In June 1836, French newspapers 'La Presse' was the first to include paid advertising in its pages, which gave a start to the paid advertisements...[1]

Possibly, advertisement became the centre of attention of criticism until it reached its apex when people started to find it hard to avoid. Today, whenever you turn on TV, Radio, walk in the street or even attending a sport competition, you come across thousands of ads that don't hesitated by all the means possible to deliver certain messages for the target audiences to buy and consume as much as they can. 

It is estimated that NBC, ABC, CBC and Fox take in at least 4.5 billion dollars a year in prime-time sales. Each rating point is worth about 10.000 Dollars for each thirty -second network commercial, but  a commercial on a hit series can bring in 32.00 Dollars more per commercial than what is charged on an average series that adds up to 224.000 Dollars more per week. Don Hewitt, former producer of the extremely successful 60 Minutes news program, has boasted that   his show makes 70 million dollars a year in profit for CBS... According to 2004 TNS (a media intelligences in US) data annual ad revenue for NBC's ubiquitous Dateline franchise was 232.3 Million Dollars. CBC's 60 Minutes made 108 Million Dollars, 60 Minutes II's ad revenue was 62 Million Dollars, and 20/20 took in 77 Million Dollars With so much money being spent just for airtime advertisers and their agencies want their message   to be effective. To make sure that happens, they bring in a small army of specialists, people who are experts in making commercials. Over months of work, artists, statisticians, writers, psychologists, researchers, musicians, cinematographers, lighting consultants, camera operators, producers directors, set builders, composers, models, actors, audio experts, executives, and technicians will toil for one single objective: to make a commercial that will make you buy a product or idea. Time and talent costs can be 500.000 Dollars for a short commercial or advertisement (Postman, 199).

Looking at these data provided, we can see how important advertisements and commercials are. They are all about serious money. May be it is not the case in Morocco? That is to say, the domain is not as finely organized and conglomerated as in the case of the developed countries like the USA. However, Moroccans are not an exception. We are increasingly becoming exposed to a lot of advertisements as the Moroccan economy system is adopting capitalism more and more. We have also started to notice that advertisers on Moroccan channels are effectively focusing on the way in which they can steal the attentions of the Moroccan consumer through different strategies. We can have a clear image about what I'm trying to say by taking advertisements and commercials on the 2nd Moroccan TV channel (2M) as a simple case of study.

One of the periods of time during the day when we come across tens of advertisements on 2M and on all Moroccan channels is during the two meals time (lunch and dinner time), of course these two periods of time are not chosen randomly as it may appear, but they are carefully chosen on purpose for they are the moments when ads can be seen by many Moroccans. Therefore, an advertisement run in these periods of the day, costs more than another run in the morning for example.

One way to understand Moroccan advertisements, is to understand first the Moroccan society and especially culture and habits that shape our way of life.

The nuclear family, as well as the extended family are always in the heart of the Moroccan culture and concerns, and as it is common for most of Moroccans, gathering around a table at least one time of the day, either for lunch or dinner is one of the norms that keep the traditional Moroccan family members close and attached to each other and their culture. Interestingly enough, the majority of ads on Moroccan channels focus on the image of the happy Moroccan nuclear family, around a table full of what the product being advertised can bring, whatever it was either 'chemical yeast', soft drink or flour, there is always that image of a lovable and ideal family around having a good time[2]. And of course, this is just one simple example about what advertisements are really about.

Advertisements are all about us, but we don't often pause to think about them as a form of well-constructed discourse and of language. Media theorist Neil Postman states that:

Advertisements and commercials are about serious money, but they are also about serious manipulation of our social and psychic lives. There is in fact, some critics who say that commercials are a new, albeit degraded, means of religious expression, in that most of them take the form of parables, teaching people what the good life consists of (121. Ch. 9).

Postman gives the example of an imaginary commercial for a mouthwash (Fresh Taste) product to clarify his idea:

The beginning of the commercial will show a man and woman saying goodbye, at her door, after an evening out. The woman tilts her head, expecting to be kissed. The man steps back, in taste of polite revulsion, and says, ‘well, Barbara, it was nice meeting you. I will call sometimes soon''. Barbara is disappointed. And so ends act 1, which was accomplished in ten seconds. Act 2 shows Barbara talking to her roommate. ''This always happens to me, Joan,'' she laments. ''What's wrong with me?''.

Joan is ready. ''Your problem'', she says, ''is your mouthwash. Yours is too mediciny and doesn't protect you long enough. You should try Fresh Taste''. Joan holds up a new bottle, which Barbara examines with an optimistic gleam in her eyes. That act 2. Also ten seconds. Act 3, the final ten, shows Barbara and the once-reluctant young man getting off a plane in Hawaii. Both are in the early stage of ecstasy, and we are to understand that they are on their honeymoon. Fresh Taste has done it again (Postman. 121. Ch. 9.).

Considering what the commercial has done, we understand that it has shown us the problem that was presented as the woman's hurdle in her social life and being socially accepted, then providing her with the ''right'' solution to that, which gives the advertisement a sense of moral teaching, showing people what is the right way to find happiness. That's on one hand, on the other hand, advertisements are much more than being a sort of parable but they can go further than that.

Understanding the ideology within advertisements.

One way to approach advertisements is to be fully aware of them as powerful sources of promoting and reinforcing social norms, in addition to their huge impact to make society static when it comes to approaching gender and status. J. Williamson claims that “Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods; in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves” (13). Then, here we come to put the question what advertisements are else more about?

What is mostly common about any advertisement is the fact that they always try to relate and link a product to particular qualities, sort of people, and sex in our minds as consumers, so that we can make a connection and identify ourselves with these products, which make those products being advertised play a role in the way we see and identify with ourselves, and that's what Williamson wanted to make us convinced of.

Grasping the fundamental strategies of advertisements to create ideologies, we need to have a small idea about semiotics, because advertisements are signs and through their signs they carry ideologies and meanings that we should understand[3].

Roland Barthes' crucial contribution to semiotics was his definition and exploration of myths. Barthes was not concerned with archetype, untruths or Greek myths and legends, but how signs take on the values of the dominant value system - or ideology- of a particular society and make these values seem natural. For example, a flower with red petals, green leaves and thorny stem signifies the mental concept of rose; this is at the first level of signification or denotative level. The level of denotation gives the basic meaning of signs. However, the sign 'rose' can, in return, signify the mental concept of romance, particularly if it is red and placed in the context of St. Valentine's Day. Romance is a myth that defines heterosexual love as tender and caring; the female is passive and the male active in the relation (Lacey. 67).

When talking about advertisements, most of media theorists and critics tend to assume that they are vehicles for communication, somewhat invisible carriers of ideologies, and even sometimes biased when approaching sex's representation on those advertisements. One obvious and famous example of that is the image of men and women in the majority of ads and commercials, which are usually presented to be as mythic rather than to be real, biased and stereotyped, though, they are still perceived and considered as something real by most of people:

Advertisement of a car for example, usually tends to make some a kind of link between a beautiful car and a sexy woman, that's one way of playing on the psychology of the consumer targeted. This association of women with cars carries a meaning of that a car is female, associated with sensuality and life of luxury. So, the aim targeted by the advertisers is to appeal to the audience's sensual part. That is to say, if you own this beautiful luxurious car, you own a beautiful woman, and you are leading luxurious lifestyle, it also translates the meaning of the superiority and power of men, who are usually depicted in ads as being powerful. That is just ad's framing of the social creation of masculinity, that we usually take it for granted to be as one of the qualities of manhood. So, advertisements don't simply manipulate, inoculate us to the status of objects; they create structures of meaning which sell commodities not to themselves as useful objects, but in terms of ourselves as social beings in our different social relationships. Products are given 'exchange-value’: ads translate statements about objects into statements about types of consumer and human relationships, Williamson gives the example of the ad for diamonds (A diamond is forever) in which they are linked to eternal love: the diamond means something not in its own terms as a rock or mineral, but in terms of human terms and values as sign. A diamond cannot buy love, but in the ad, it is the diamond which is made to generate love and comes to mean love, and once this initial connection has been made, we almost automatically accept the object for feeling. People and objects can become interchangeable... (qtd. in “Semiotic and ideology”).

So, in this sense, it is safe to argue that advertisements manipulate and use codes and different strategies to appeal to different audiences and genders, for instance 'romance', 'beauty', 'power' and most often 'family relationship. What really makes advertisements powerful in maintaining ideologies, stabilizing the social values is the fact that we never stop to criticize them. For example, people most often base their judgments concerning the quality of women as being beautiful and sexy just on the image in which women are presented in advertisements.

The woman is not only sexy because she is beautiful, the clothes she is wearing have connotations of being fashionable; they are stylish and show off her (sexy) legs. What is sexy depends upon the person's gender; in our culture sexy suggests a woman is displaying herself for the male gaze and is therefore available. A sexy man is less likely to be on display in some way, although this convention appears to be changing (Lacely. 37).

Are we really that much passive when it comes to value advertisements? Why most of us are sometimes fall in the trap of accepting the images of ''who we are'' that advertisements suggest and provide us with? In fact, even if we are aware of these facts, we can't escape from the deception of advertisements, because, they concentrate on our weak points and parts of us. To bring the idea near to be grasped, as individuals, we seek safety, self-confidence, and having a class position in society that make people around us 'accept us'. Obviously, that's what advertisements are successful in, for they are always trying to make us believe that they bring what we lack for.

Advertisements are never about something silly or frivolous, they are about what we lack in our personalities and life, the fact which Postman defends strongly as we read the following quotes

Commercials are almost never about anything trivial. Mouthwash commercials are not about bad breath. They are about the need for social acceptance and frequently, about the need to be sexually attractive. Beer commercials are almost always about a man's need to share the values of peer group. An automobile commercial is usually about the need for autonomy or social status” (124).


What do you think of advertisements and commercials?











[1]   See Mark Tungate. AD Land: a Global History of Advertising. 2007 for more information about the history of advertisements.
[2]   See the Moroccan commercial of Coca-Cola .
[3]   Judith Williamson says the same thing in her book 'Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising'': A product may go from representing an abstract quality or feeling to generating or being that feeling, it may become not only ''sign'' but the actual referent of that sign .

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