Advertising is all around us. Sometimes we notice it and sometimes we do not. It can be as blatant as a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl, or as innocuous as a Nike logo on a hat. Yet, is it more than just marketing? Do the subliminal messages planted in our minds stop at the cash register or has something deeper happened between Madison Avenue and Main Street? Does advertising effect us in some profound way that goes unnoticed, permeating our psyches in ways we take for granted? Or, in a worse case, become oblivious to?
Advertising has shown it has the power to define our choices, from which brand of toothpaste to buy, to which governor to vote for. Those choices are inextricably woven into our everyday lives, making up, over time and by further homogenization, facets of our culture that are uniquely American. In many respects we have become a culture of consumers. As a result, advertising has played and continues to play an important part in modern American culture. In order to support the above statement, the term culture must first be explained in the context of the following presented arguments.
Culture can be defined as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Online, keyword culture). In addition, it is the “totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought” (dictionary. com, keyword, culture). The term “modern” is in reference to the 20th Century, most notably beginning in the 1950’s. Advertising created more or less during this time will be the primary focus anecdotally.
In the following pages, three distinct, yet related points will be considered in order to support the above statement. First, history is full of case studies and success stories of Advertising’s impact on the cultural landscape, helping to change and shape attitudes, mores, and ultimately, buying habits en masse. The Volkswagon ad campaign created by DDB (Doyle, Dane, Bernbach) in the 1960’s is a clear example of this ability. Second, the advertising community enlists cultural icons to represent, evangelize and sell their clients’ products or services.
From pop-icons to sports legends we can now collectively and vicariously share the same ideals and values with our idols, whether they are Tiger Woods, Brittany Spears or the latest celebrity to don a milk mustache. Third, in order for advertising to be successful, that is, to achieve a defined objective (usually an increase in sales), it should come from a place of resonating with human nature. And it is often our volatile, fickle human nature that becomes tinder for cultural trends, fads and movements. Our vulnerabilities and basic needs are addressed in 30-second spots and 4-color ads.
Advertising agencies seek to discover and exploit to some degree what drives and motivates us. Whether “us” is male or female, a highly focused demographic or, a grieving nation depends on the target audience from which to measure the cultural meter and subsequent profits. Good advertising speaks to who we are and where we are, inspiring without insulting, selling without sacrificing. In essence advertising reflects, like a mirror, what images we put into it. The Creative Revolution and the Demise of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
The 1960’s were a time of social upheaval and tumultuous rebellion. The proverbial “man in the gray flannel suit” was under attack for his conformity and blind devotion to a society that had previously tolerated political and spiritual ennui. It was a time of anti-establishment and pro-liberation for whatever transgression applied. Moments of reckoning were at hand: on the streets, the campuses and around the water cooler. Notable causes that found their voice at that time ranged from Woman’s Liberation, the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Movement.
Youth culture was achieving critical mass and increased discretionary spending. Advertising up to this point had supported the notion of a postwar ideal of the nuclear family with their Pepsodent? smiles, manicured lawns and predisposition to Jet age convenience. It’s no coincidence that the cartoon, The Jetsons, was introduced in 1962. To the middle-class the automobile was both an emblem of prosperity and a totem from which to invoke the American Dream. But change was in the air and the old rules of marketing were about to become anathema to the nascent hip ideology.
Fueled by a youthful rebellion and a growing disenchantment with the hyperbolic rhetoric of the Big Three Detroit automakers, the public was soon to experience Bill Bernbach’s brand of anti-advertising. His distinct style of creative would not only acknowledge the looming mistrust of consumerism and advertising in general, but would also mark the beginning of an era dubbed “The Creative Revolution”. Bernbach’s agency DDB (Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach) was ground zero for this evolving paradigm in mass communications, quickly becoming a bellwether of creative excellence.
His agency’s candid and honest style heralded in a newly found respect for the consumer, whereas earlier advertising reflected the formulaic, lab coat mentality of the 1950’s. Bernbach comments, To keep your ads fresh you’ve got to keep yourself fresh. Live in the current idiom and you will create in it. If you follow and enjoy and are excited by the new trails in art, in writing, in industry, in personal relationships… whatever you do will naturally be of today. (Bill Bernbach) In 1949, Volkswagon claimed to have only sold 2 cars in America.