How Powerful Is Advertising?

by Joseph Turow.
University of Chicago Press, 
242 pages 

IN 1957 a former Collier's magazine writer named Vance Packard published an investigative report about the American advertising industry's efforts to maneuver consumers into buying goods they neither needed nor wanted. These machinations did not rely on slick imagery, exaggerated claims, or outright deception -- tools whose use had subjected marketers and their minions on Madison Avenue to ridicule or censure since the days of P. T. Barnum. Packard's charge was more specific and startling. Advertisers, he claimed, were using hidden symbols to goad the unconscious mind and the body under its control into the act of acquisition.

"Large-scale efforts," he wrote, are

being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes.... The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.

These "hidden persuaders," as Packard called them in the title of his book, took several forms. Some advertising agencies were hiring trained "motivational researchers" to probe deep in the psychological recesses of the mind, and then constructing ad campaigns that exploited the ore found in those canyons of consumerism. Thus did General Foods decide in the 1950s that its photographs of multi-hued, architectural Jell-O desserts were generating inferiority complexes among women, and switch back to depictions of simple, single-layered gelatins. Other marketers were bypassing Jungian archetypes and beaming direct commands into the subconscious mind. Packard reported on an experiment that had allegedly taken place in a New Jersey movie theater in which the order to buy food, flashed at a speed faster than the eye could perceive, had provoked a "clear and otherwise unaccountable boost" in concession-stand sales.

Packard's major source was Ernest Dichter, the director of an organization called the Institute for Motivational Research. A less-well-known but equally important source was a New York marketing consultant named James Vicary, who had claimed credit for that New Jersey movie-theater experiment.

Packard hoped that his exposure of such techniques -- which he believed were "antihumanistic" and represented "regress rather than progress for man in his long struggle to become a rational and self-guiding being" -- would contribute to burgeoning "public scrutiny and concern." He got his wish. The Hidden Persuaders spent six weeks as the No. 1 best-selling nonfiction book in the United States. Its title entered the vernacular. (Thirty-two years after its publication Ernest Dichter gleefully reported that he'd been retained by a company in his native Austria to do consumer studies in the newly opened Eastern bloc. "I'm going to the Soviet Union to look for hidden persuaders!" he told me, laughing.) Its concerns meshed perfectly with its era, a time when fear of subversion was a constant motif in American life, evident in everything from Joseph McCarthy's Senate hearings on Communist infiltration of the State Department to Don Siegel's movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There was just one problem with The Hidden Persuaders: it was wrong. Oh, marketers were conducting studies, and even changing advertising campaigns on the basis of their findings. But there was -- and still is -- little proof that these efforts to engineer action through manipulation of the unconscious led to any behavioral changes favorable to specific marketers. As for James Vicary's experiment in subliminal advertising -- it was a hoax: Vicary later admitted that he hadn't done what he'd claimed. Several subsequent studies of the effectiveness of embedded messages have shown it to be virtually impossible to use them to produce specific, predictable responses. Still, faith in the power of the media to induce millions of people to act contrary to their better judgment or conscious desires remains profound. More than three quarters of the U.S. population currently believes that marketers use subliminal messages to sell products or services, according to the Journal of Advertising Research; consumers themselves spend some $50 million annually on subliminal self-help products, such as audiotapes that are supposed to teach one a foreign language in one's sleep.

Today, though, with the Cold War and communism for the most part behind us, our anxieties are evolving. We no longer fear a single enemy bent on our psycho-political subjugation. Approaching the millennium, we are struggling, nationally and internationally, with liberation movements, interest groups, and advocates of countless alternative belief systems -- anti-porn feminists and pro-lifers, ufologists and Afrocentrists, anti-Zionist Hasidim and pro-euthanasians. As some of our fractious hordes grow violent (bombing abortion clinics and federal courthouses, dumping a dead animal on Vogue editor Anna Wintour's plate), we dread nothing more than, as the title of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s recent best seller put it, "the disuniting of America." It stands to reason that someone would find the cause of our current ills residing within the realm of image-making and advertising.

Joseph Turow has discovered a "revolutionary shift" in the strategies and tactics of marketing-communications companies, which, he says, "has been driven by, and has been driving, a profound sense of division in American society." Like Packard, whose social concerns, language, and insistence he mimics, Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania, believes that advertisers, working in concert with conglomerating media companies, are forcing "a breakdown in social cohesion" in the United States, whose end will be nothing less than the death of the American idea. Inciting "anger and alienation," he writes in Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World, "advertisers . . . will act to ensure that in the new media world the 'Us' will lose out to the 'Me.'"

Turow's report, however, although provocative, sweeping, and well made, is less interesting for what it reveals about the changing contours of advertising than for what it says about the preoccupations of an intellectual elite. Like Vance Packard -- like Bob Dole and William Bennett, for that matter, or Catharine MacKinnon and Noam Chomsky -- he persists in attributing to a chaotic and variegated media system immediate and specific social and cultural consequences, without any of the ambiguity that contrasting empirical evidence would suggest. More than that, though, Turow represents a shift in the perspective from which elites are regarding issues of individualism and conformity in American culture. Indeed, Breaking Up America is a lovely example of a literary form we might term "masscult nostalgia."

TUROW'S argument is a simple one. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he says, marketers, advertisers, and media companies developed a view of American society that was not only strikingly different from the grand theory that had preceded it but also opposed to the national interest.

Instead of a single mass market that assembled, routinely and predictably, around a discrete set of information and entertainment sources, they now saw a society increasingly fragmented along lines of race, class, and sex. Their pecuniary interests in a consumer economy, combined with new research and media-distribution technologies, thus compelled marketers to abjure appeals to the masses in favor of ones that "encourag[ed] people to separate themselves into more and more specialized groups" and develop "habits that stressed differences between their groups and others." These contributed, in turn, to a further, finer fracturing of society. The result: "social division."

"The strategies discouraged the creation of central media-meeting places where all sorts of people could congregate to sample each others' views, news, and entertainment," Turow writes, using a historical past tense that lends a tone of ominous certitude to his book. The elimination of such commons "thereby lessen[ed] an opportunity for them to get a feel for social diversity and ask how they and others fitted together in the larger society."

Turow draws an efficient portrait of a marketing complex determined to replace the "society-making media" that had dominated for most of this century with "segment-making media" that could zero in on the demographic and psychodemographic corners of our 260-million-person consumer marketplace -- the nooks that have been illuminated by such research systems as the Yankelovich Monitor and the Values and Lifestyles (VALS) Program. Three national television networks and a short list of mass magazines were overwhelmed by myriad print and electronic vehicles, from Rolling Stone to Black Entertainment Television, whose editorial content -- following Madison Avenue's obsession with niches -- stressed the contrasts between their own audiences and those of other media.

At first this occurred primarily through "signaling" -- beckoning to specific audiences with graphic symbols, content, and formatting. Thus the quick-cut visual styling of MTV signaled to a young audience able to assimilate its cacophony of images more than to an older audience accustomed to the linear narrative flow of, for example, Murder, She Wrote.

Newer technologies are moving advertisers and media beyond signaling to "tailoring" -- the creation and distribution of content for and to specific individuals or groups. Examples include relationship marketing, such as frequent-flyer clubs that tie a traveler to an airline; selective binding, which allows publishers to customize a magazine's advertising and editorial content for specific groups of subscribers; and "push" software, which draws from the vast resources of the Internet matters of pre-identified interest to a user and throws only those materials up on his computer screen.

Central to both signaling and tailoring is the desire not only to lure desired audience segments but also to exclude those who do not fit the profile. In theory such audience concentration renders advertising appeals more effective and efficient than a system that treats consumers as a bulk commodity, and enables media companies to charge their advertisers more for each eyeball, offsetting the penalty a smaller audience would otherwise exact. It is these exclusionary schemes that worry Turow. "The signaling of distinctiveness," he writes, "acted out images of an America that was becoming more and more fragmented in its attitudes toward the desirable tone, pace, and topics of daily life."

UNQUESTIONABLY, advertising and the media that carry it can affect, have affected, and will continue to affect the progress of life in this nation and around the world.

In a marvelous chapter in his seminal work Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (1988) the Columbia University media historian James W. Carey described how the telegraph, within a matter of decades, transformed the shape and content of finance, social interaction, even literature. By accelerating information transfer from the gait of a horse to the speed of light, it supplanted crass arbitrage in commodities markets with futures speculation. It enabled the creation of time zones. It popularized a lean "telegraphic" prose style that eventually drove from the journalistic and literary marketplace the florid writing common through the mid nineteenth century.

The development of brand advertising, coinciding roughly with the introduction of the telegraph, the rise of the department store, and urbanization, hastened the nationalization of the United States. By helping to create aggregate demand, advertising quickened the shift to mass production. The branding of mass-produced goods helped to usurp the primacy of local markets. National advertisements for these products, running among the stories in new national magazines, impelled the nation to coalesce around shared customs, creating what the historian Roland Marchand has termed "a 'community of discourse,' an integrative common language shared by an otherwise diverse audience."

Certainly this common language helped to promote certain products and product categories. James D. Norris, in Advertising and the Transformation of American Society, 1865 - 1920 (1990), pointed out that the use of soap became a prerequisite for acceptance into polite society in no small part because of advertisements like one in 1884 that featured the famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher extolling the godly virtues of Pears' soap. More recently, as Marchand has noted, sanitary napkins became de rigueur among sophisticated women owing partly to Kotex's advertising during the 1920s in Good Housekeeping magazine.

But these campaigns were part of a much larger and more diverse enterprise, one identified in the subtitle to Marchand's book Advertising the American Dream (1985): "Making Way for Modernity." Branding, advertising, department stores, and public transportation turned consumption into a public event, thereby introducing into a young democracy something unknown to our European forebears -- a competition for status that supported unending cycles of consumption. This process wasn't always pretty or benign: Stuart Ewen, in Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (1976), complained that the quest to create "national homogeneity" focused people's dissatisfactions inward and made the mass-production system the solution to them, contributing to a stifling political and cultural uniformity as this century evolved. But it did sustain the capitalist economic structure.

These consequences were, however, cumulative, powerful only after the passage of time, and -- Ewen's somewhat conspiracy-minded outlook notwithstanding -- consistent with the root desires of a population eager for a life of middle-class leisure unthinkable on the farm. Time and again researchers have found it difficult to correlate the content of advertising campaigns with long-term economic effects. Some advertising content, notably price and product information, undeniably moves consumers, but only temporarily and in limited numbers. The ability of advertising to persuade large masses of people to change their attitudes and induce action that permanently alters a company's fortunes -- no one really knows how that works. In the conclusion to his 1942 study The Economic Effects of Advertising the Harvard professor Neil Borden reached a series of judgments that must have unsettled his industry sponsors. "Does advertising increase demand for individual concerns?" he asked. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Does it affect production or distribution costs? "Indeterminate." Does it lead to a concentration of supply and anti-competitive pricing? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Its social and cultural significance is just as ambiguous. Consumers are quite aware that advertising is propaganda, and compensate for that fact when assimilating its messages -- just as they compensate for the perceived biases of the media to which they attend. The great socioeconomic transformations of recent years -- the acceptance of Japanese cars, the advent of the personal computer, the rise of VCRs -- were accomplished with little advertising support. "Time and time again," James Norris wrote, nearly half a century after Borden, "advertising has proven powerless to instigate, to sustain or to reverse trends in public opinion or fashions of consumption."

Wherein, then, lies the fabled "power" of advertising? In its ability to inure Americans to a political and economic system structured around democratic capitalism. Advertising, in the sociologist Michael Schudson's famous formulation, is "capitalist realist art." It celebrates and promotes "life and lives worth emulating," according to the definitions laid out by the culture itself. Its effect is cumulative, and (consonant with the finding of the opinion-research pioneers Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld that "personal influence" was at least as important as and probably more important than mass-media influence) it works by spurring and meshing with conversations that identify for all participants a communal understanding of the good life. "Speech," as the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, "is what makes man a political being."

JOSEPH Turow has chosen to ignore most of this evidence from history and sociology. To him, advertising is broadly powerful. "The industry exceeds the church and the school in its ability to promote images about our place in society," he writes. The new segment-making advertising is especially potent. Turow accordingly quotes the futurist John Naisbitt: "Direct marketers are at the forefront of where everybody is going to be."

It may well be true that America is fragmenting, fracturing, disuniting. But if this is the case, it's not necessarily helping the marketers who are "driving" the trend. In fact, it may be destroying them. The consultant William M. Weilbacher analyzed the tendency toward niche marketing in his book Brand Marketing (1993). Profitability, Weilbacher found, was declining for many niche marketers. The reason was obvious: the increased number of market niches, instead of attracting consumers by their differences, merely strengthened people's perception that most products were alike. "Marketers have too long emphasized the search for new segments," Weilbacher wrote. "Consumers have long been mostly indifferent to this search. They perceive products within categories -- whatever grammar of segmentation the marketers have imposed upon the product category -- as being mostly interchangeable."

Marketers were simply doing what the increasing speed of global technology transfer was allowing them to do, which was to match their competitors innovation for innovation, in ever shorter periods of time. As a result, perceptions of product parity (a 1988 study by the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn found that two thirds of Americans believed that a majority of brands in most categories were exactly alike) forced marketers into a series of price wars that cut chunks out of their net profits. Philip Morris sliced the price of Marlboro cigarettes to improve their competitive strength against low-priced brands. Other marketers, Procter & Gamble among them, moved to a system of "everyday low prices" that they hoped would lift them up from the debilitating cycle of discount after discount. Some began combing their inventories for brands they could discontinue. But the segmentation-induced spiral of commodification (it's currently embroiling the cereal industry) still erodes marketers' margins.

Segmenting the packaged-goods market may seem to be of pale significance next to the segmenting of media content by race, age, or sex. But efforts toward the latter derive from the former, and are equivalently vague, if not in intent, then in content. That a dentifrice-maker targets hip young men with one toothpaste and older women with another is immaterial: the people who buy each do so for the same reason -- to clean their teeth. Likewise, the Fox network's Living Single may be aimed at, and draw, a younger audience than Golden Girls reruns, but both shows -- virtually all sitcoms, in fact -- hew to a standard set of moral and comic conventions, and their fans consume them to fill equivalent needs for mindless entertainment. "Success in the marketplace," says Andrew Ehrenberg, a British brand-marketing expert and a co-author of Television and Its Audience (1988), "derives not from being different from your competition, but from being the same." If you can tell that there's no difference between New Blue Bleachless Odorless Nookles with the picture of Aretha Franklin on the front of the superconcentrated box and New Blue Bleachless Odorless Frankles with Pat Boone's photo on the container -- well, wouldn't you choose the cheaper brand? It's the American way.

THE methodology that Turow employs in Breaking Up America, though, leaves little room for consumer activity. His approach in reporting this book was to concentrate on what advertising and media people say to each other. He read every article in Advertising Age from 1977 through mid-1995. He also read, less thoroughly, at least six other trade journals, and attended seven industry conferences. He conducted eighty-six interviews, largely with people who had a professional interest in the subject. His book in no small part reflects an industry talking to itself.

Turow accepts what these people say without question. His naiveté is troubling. He quotes an Ogilvy & Mather executive as saying, in underlining the shift from mass to niche, "Thirty years ago we knew what men wanted because they all wanted the same things -- a Chevy, apple pie, and to send their kids to college. But the changes in society have fragmented that." Wrong. Madison Avenue clearly did not know what men -- or women -- wanted. Which was why Detroit and its agencies were caught so flatfooted by Volkswagen (whose sales shot from fewer than 2,000 to 150,000 vehicles a year from 1953 to 1959, without the backing of a major national ad campaign) and later by Toyota, Nissan, and Honda.

One must regard statements like that of the Ogilvy executive -- and a great many of the stories that the marketing complex tells itself -- as elaborate, if occasionally deeply felt, fictions. Breaking Up America is a guide to a newish set of these fictions, and they are in their own way as interesting and revelatory as the fictions promulgated during the advertising industry's great heyday, the tumultuous postwar economic boom that created the modern media edifice.

During this period, which lasted roughly until the Nixon-era recession, advertising came to represent, to itself and to the civilian population, a nation's ambiguous relationship to plenitude. Frederic Wakeman's novel The Hucksters (1946) damned the industry as a representation of the soullessness that was replacing the idealism of the New Deal and the Second World War. David Ogilvy's Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963) was, with its strict rules for copywriting and page layouts, as much a paean to hubristic social engineering as anything that would emerge from Robert McNamara's Pentagon or Sargent Shriver's Peace Corps. Jerry Della Femina's memoir From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (1970) was a celebration of youthful libertinism as wild and woolly as the Broadway musical Hair.

Whether novel or chronicle, however, these books were still social fictions, in which advertising must always pretend to be with it, whatever "it" happened to be at the time. Since the effect of advertising content on sales or market share must, in many cases, remain all but unknowable, these fictions are the only way to persuade clients that the adman (or, increasingly, the adwoman) has the touch.

Advertising, in short, is a screwball comedy, of the kind that Preston Sturges used to make. It's by turns optimistic and cynical, guileless and greedy. It thrives on talk, and it blithely waltzes through contradictions.

Turow nods in this direction. He mentions that the desire of market-research firms to identify new segments is less a quest to discover truths lurking in the culture than "a reflection of the warp-drive competition among researchers to find ever more profitable ways of slicing up society." He also says that black ad agencies' insistence that only they know how to move African-American consumers might stem from their fear of losing business to the Madison Avenue giants.

But for the most part Turow believes what he is told. So when he discovers a 1980s Time magazine advertising promotion that proclaims, "More than ever, real consumers are concentrated at the top," he sees it as a divisive message aimed at cleaving the haves from the have-nots, because he's been told that division is the order of the day. This allows him to condemn "a cacophonous and often amoral competition over ways to slice up U.S. society," to denounce advertisers' "pitting one group against another for monetary gain," and to divine that "privileging people based on lifestyles could spark social antagonisms" -- without ever offering a single piece of social-science research that I could find, or even persuasive anecdotal evidence to support his Malthusian thesis.

Nor does it occur to him that Time's promotional message might, in fact, be unifying. At a discounted, Publishers Clearing House price of fifty cents a week, owning a copy of Time is a pretty cheap way for just about anyone in the country to feel "concentrated at the top."

JOSEPH Turow is hardly alone in finding an America fragmenting under the weight of new communications technologies. Last year I had coffee with John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist and a doyen of cyberspace, near the small, untidy Greenwich Village apartment where he lives when he is not on the road or at his home in Wyoming. "We have," Barlow told me, "in the West in particular, a culture of monotheism that goes back to Abraham, which assumes that the world is shaped by imposed control." With the rise of the Internet he was looking forward to "a general deinstitutionalization, humans creating institutions of the moment, for the purpose to be served. I'm saying that we're moving to a condition where well-applied citizen action becomes government itself."

Barlow's libertarian musings are well regarded on the political right. The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington policy organization associated with Newt Gingrich, seems delighted by the divisive force of new tailored communications vehicles. The easy availability of information over the Internet, the foundation said in its Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, to which Barlow contributed, "spells the death of the central institutional paradigm of modern life, the bureaucratic organization," notably government. Cities, too, could be left to wither, because "advanced computing power" will "allow people to live further away from crowded or dangerous urban areas."

Arrayed against this vision of technological utopianism are various dystopians, most of them identified with the left or center-left, some of whom willingly accept the moniker "neo-Luddite." Kirkpatrick Sale, Clifford Stoll, and Sven Birkerts are part of this growing group, who see fragmentation as inevitable but malignant.

According to one of their number, the cultural critic Mark Slouka, of the University of California at San Diego, in his recent book War of the Worlds, cyberspace represents "the grand finale to one of the great human migrations of all time: the twentieth century movement into our own 'surround.'" Like Joseph Turow, Slouka believes that technology will force us to become "increasingly isolated from ever-greater portions of the outside world."

Underlying this broadly accepted view, of course, is the curious assumption that at some point in the past "central media-meeting places" made us aware of a unified outside world. Turow actually pulls out the hoary Second World War-era "mutual cooperation and togetherness" and laments that "mass marketing and a three-network universe were perfectly appropriate for reaching this kind of society."

Yet this notion of a vast national agora seems quaint on its face, considering that three-network television is less than fifty years old, less than a quarter the age of the Republic. And to posit -- as Turow does, at least by implication -- that a common cultural conversation emerged because two thirds of the television audience once watched The Beverly Hillbillies, whereas today a mere fifth watch Seinfeld, seems to stretch the idea of social cohesiveness thin. As to segmented markets, I'm not sure the fact that I -- who in childhood loved Velveeta on white with French's mustard -- can now buy Gouda, pita, and Dijon at my local Shop Rite represents any diminution of the national promise.

There's a more intriguing question hanging over all this breast-beating: Why has mass culture become an object of intellectual veneration? Time was when the left, spurred on by the Frankfurt School, accused masscult and the technologies that created it of destroying man's ability to reason, preparing the way for fascism. "The 'mechanics of conformity,'" Herbert Marcuse wrote in his 1941 essay "Some Social Implications of Modern Technology," "spread from the technological to the social order." The Frankfurt School's celebration of individualism -- "the consummation of a fully developed society," according to the social critic Max Horkheimer -- would seem anathema to the new dystopians (if curiously acceptable to the new right).

To be fair, Turow and the other dystopians would probably argue that niche-mediated individualism is just as false as the mediated mass mind -- worse, because atomization and chaos destroy society, whereas ennui merely deadens it. But their masscult nostalgia still seems to represent a dark view of human nature that is actually quite aristocratic and conservative. "Given the chance to separate themselves electronically from types of people they believe are threatening their well-being," Turow writes, "media users are likely to do so."

I have my doubts. I'm no utopian, but my more-than-casual exposure to cyberspace has shown me that E-mail, computer bulletin boards, and newsgroups actually bind family, friends, and strangers together over long distances. They facilitate, rather than replace, face-to-face meetings. Are white supremacists thus rallied? Yes, but they did just fine when all they had was such conventional media as John Birch Society newsletters and The Spotlight.

Meanwhile, on the Internet, I've been to a New York writers' cocktail party, an East Coast lounge-music fans' assemblage, and a rural Virginia senior citizens' group meeting, each of which brought together people who wouldn't have known one another were it not for the divisive new technologies. Their interests were narrow at first, to be sure. But people do have a tendency to explore many things after that first blind date. Out of those conversations grow real, strong, and diverse communities. And, pace Professor Turow, breaking up is hard to do.