Sociological Perspectives on Advertising

A brief summary of pages of 27-32 of Joel Stillerman’s ‘Sociology of Consumption’: The Effects of Advertising and Branding on Consumers (with comments!).

The theories covered in this section include:

The Manipulation Thesis

(1) This originated with Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay ‘the culture industry’ which was inspired by their observations of 1930s Hollywood and the way the Nazis used propaganda.

The basic idea is that advertising manipulates consumers into buying goods. Mass entertainment is produced in a similar way as mass produced auto-mobiles and other products. Adorno and Horkheimer viewed advertising as standardised, artless and manipulative. Products offered people cheap thrills which provided them with compensatory pleasures after a day at a dissatisfying job. Playing to consumers’ emotional vulnerability, music, film and advertising offered instant gratification without true satisfaction while helping them to tolerate unacceptable working conditions.

In short, the culture industry was a form mass manipulation which helped to keep the working masses happy in order to discourage them from protesting about poor wages and working conditions.

A long line of scholars has followed this basic idea – through with different foci –

(2) Kenneth Galbraith argued advertising played the same function of manipulation but rather than seducing the masses into political apathy served the function of convincing shoppers to buy new goods and keep industry profitable.

(3) Jean Baudrillard argues advertising helps businesses solve the ‘realisation problem’ – namely how to sell the increasing number of goods which are produced as Capitalism ‘evolves’. However, Baudrillard accords advertising a more central role in changing our culture. He argues that rather than focussing on the functional properties of a good advertising articulates their emotional or symbolic properties, thereby unleashing an endless process of consumption that has lost its connection to exchange and only reflects a symbolic system which classifies goods into different categories.

Furthermore, goods are no longer appealing because of their individual properties, consumers only recognise them as part of a particular style: in a particular living room set, combined with certain objects and colour combinations for example.

As a result, for Baudrillard, advertising has overtaken our culture and we are trapped in a world of symbols and the incessant need to consume.

(4) More recent analysis focuses on the emotional aspect of advertising – how advertising attempts to link particular emotions and sex to certain products (e.g. Zukin 04 and Smart 10)

(5) Other analysis focuses on how society is increasingly organised around consumption rather than work and thus individuals are expected to consume at a certain level or else face rejection by their peers (Bauman 2007).


I’M broadly sympathetic to Manipulation Theory in that I believe we can distinguish between ‘basic’ and ‘false’ needs and the primary function of advertising is to manipulate people into buying shit they don’t simply need.

Taking all of the above together I think the primary function of advertising is that it reinforces a world-view in which it’s it’s normal to shop, it’s normal to consume at a historically high level, it’s normal to link happy states to products (or rather sets of products in Baudrillard”s case), it’s normal to construct your very identity using consumption, and it’s normal to spend a lot of time alone and with others, engaged in consumption.

In short the effect of advertising is to convince us that consuming is a normal part of everyday life which should not be questioned, and we are right to assume that shopping as a strategy can provide us with individual and collective emotional fulfilment as human beings.

However, I don’t actually think advertising is necessary to a high consumption society – the various reasons outlined in this post explain the emergence of a high consumption society – we’d probably consume at similarly historically high levels without advertising – advertising exists because of surplus production – broadcast by producers to get our attention amidst a whole load of other producers churning out what is essentially the same shit-we-don’t need.

The other bit of manipulation theory I agree with is that advertising has a sort of ideological function – it masks the truth of its existence and the truth about unnecessary consumption which is as follows

(a) Advertising primarily exists to help the capitalist class sell the shit they produce.

(b) Despite what advertising tells us about this or that shit we really don’t need any of it.

(c) If we ‘buy into’ the messages of the advertisers (which are a bunch of lies) we’re being stupid/ shallow

(d) In the case of Bauman – if we pursue happiness through consumerism, we’re probably going to end up being miserable in the long run.

(e) We don’t freely choose to consume, we are buffeted into it by social and economic pressures (meaningless work, pestering kids (who have been manipulated by advertisers), busy-hurried lives, the strange desire to stand-out) and the causes of these pressures-to-consume need to be put under investigation but the very act of consuming at a high level prevents us from doing so, and advertising helps in this.

(f) There are more effective ways to pursue happiness which aren’t about consumption – producing things, and ‘sprituality’ being the two most obvious.

‘Active Theories of Consumption’

Having outlined the above five aspects of Manipulation Theory, Stillerman now turns to more active approaches.

(1) Other scholars have criticised the manipulation thesis. Douglas and Isherwood (1996) argue that goods are a ‘communication system’ and that most of our consumption is ritualistic. There are essentially three reasons we consume

Firstly – we consume to remain connected with others and stay involved in the ‘information system’.

Secondly – people can also find their place within the group and mark of stages in the life cycle through engaging in consumption rituals.

Thirdly – consumption is also about boundary maintenance – the wealthy try to monopolise certain events and goods, the middle class try to gain access to them and the working classes try to maintain their consumption at a certain level.

COMMENT – All of this is true – we consume actively, BUT – the frame within which we consume has changed radically over the last few decades – the pace of consumption and overall level of consumption have increased, and so (inevitable) has the amount of choosing people have to do – as a result, we are devoting more and more time to keeping up with consuming… Take the average cost of weddings, houses and raising children increasing for example. Also, people may well consume actively in various ‘neo-tribes’ but the fact that this is the norm, also means more time has to be devoted to consumption – THUS society has made us into consumers, this is the thing I find most interesting, focussing on HOW people consume once they have been made into consumers just isn’t interesting….!

(2) Colin Campbell (2005) rejects the manipulation thesis for two reasons – first, he argues that this thesis distinguishes ‘needs’ from ‘desires’ but there is no easy way to know what ‘basic needs’ are because needs are always cultural defined in all societies (No they are not – food, water, shelter, clothing for warmth, security, this is straight up post-modern BS). Second, he argues that advertising tries to appeal to consumers in order to convince them to make a purchase, rather than manipulating them. (OK – I accept the fact that consumer are more active, but I’d like to see Cambell distinguish between the act of manipulation and appeal).

(3) Slater (1997) rejects the idea that consumers are cultural dopes, and argues that they buy products in response to their own individual or cultural needs and dispositions.

(4) DeCerteau (1984), Fiske (2000) and Miller (1987) also argue that consumers are more active – they use goods in their own ways, often appropriate goods and creatively recontextualise the meanings of them in ways which are specific to their own live (this sounds like Transformationalism and cultural hybridity in Globalisation), and some of these consumption practices are forms of resistance against advertisers.

(5) Other scholars emphasise the liberating aspects of consumption, arguing that because shopping and and consumption were not traditionally coded as masculine, these became the domain of women and women gained status, satisfaction and a degree of freedom by becoming skilful consumers.

Comment – I fully accept that people make active choices when it comes to consumption – however, to reiterate the above point – It is society which has made us into consumers, focussing on HOW people consume once they have been made into consumers sort of misses the point – As far as I’m concerned, for the majority of people, consumerism is a pathetic strategy toward ‘agency’ – agency within a sub-optimal framework, which is based on false promises and false hope of realising happiness and satisfation.

Beyond the Active Passive Debate

Recent scholarship has moved ‘beyond’ (sideways?) debates about whether individuals are active or passive in relation to advertising.

(1) Leiss (2005) argues that advertisers study society, recycle existing beliefs and practices and broadcast those ideas back to society. The importance of advertising lies in the fact that it has become integrated into our culture and affects how we view ourselves.

(2) Finally Holt and Holt and Cameron (2010) argue that advertising reconfigures existing beliefs and practices in a way that resolves psychological needs for specific groups of consumers, which arise because of social and economic challenges they face.

Advertisers create adverts based on profiling certain groups and try to strike a chord with them – advertising recycles existing cultural practices in a manner that resolves psychological distress and uncertainty among people within these groups.

Leiss and Holt and Cameron all argue that we should understand advertising as the product of a dialogue between creative professionals and specific social groups.

Once again to reiterate the above, advertising may well help people resolve psychological crises they’ve developed because of having alienating jobs and busy-hurried lives, but the consumption that one’s encouraged to do in order to resolved such psychological distress is only ever going to offer short-term release, a quick fix if you like.

Overall I think all of these active theories of advertising which (a) fail to contextualise its function within the broader social and economic context (alienating/ insecure/ liquid) and (b) fail to recognise the fundamentally false nature of advertising’s promises to alleviate the suffering induced by this social and economic context are ultimately incomplete theories (and probably derived from people with career-histories in advertising!)

Print Friendly

One thought on “Sociological Perspectives on Advertising”

  1. Interesting discussion above, although it’s not clear who is summarizing Joe Stillerman’s book. Do I infer correctly that the comments in italics are those of the person who is summarizing Joe Stillerman? Anyway, more clarity in this regard would be appreciated. That said, I accept the perspective that advertizing is a non-stop assault of lies and manipulation on the members of a modern capitalist society (e.g. the U.S. of A.) which virtually all of us suffer from and succumb to, to varying extents. As someone who cares about policy and solving problems, I am looking for a discussion that moves to the next step, namely, what can be done practically (e.g., policy, grassroots movement, etc.) to mitigate/curtail the effects and the damage of advertising on society and its members.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.