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What Is Advertising Theory?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4586 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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We live in a consumerist society. That is a known fact. We are surrounded by ads that say “Buy this now. You will save time and money” or “Do you want your skin to be softer? Try this body cream and you will have the much-wanted baby skin!”. And even though some of us ignore the fact that we are, indeed, the victims of these carefully planned slogans which mingle with some eye-catching images, we, the readers of advertisements, interact with them and construct meaning from particular given elements – the visual signs that represent something familiar with which readers associate, or the language of the ad that can be related, as Angela Goddard states, “with any piece of literature, using fully the resources of language and inviting creative and subtle readings from their users.” With this statement, Goddard makes the first approach in the long debate concerning whether ads can be seen as literature or not (1998: 15). In the process of trying to define the ad we stumble upon an inconvenient truth: we are unable to answer the question “What is an ad?” with anything but “it tries to persuade us to buy something”, and we do not take into consideration how it does that and by what means we are tricked and that the advertising industry means more than just selling a product. That is the reason why linguists became involved in this subject, as well as sociologists or sociolinguists, psychologists and even anthropologists. The study of advertising is, therefore, taken to another level: linguists came to study and analyze the verbal language and have come to a certain point in their research to say that we can talk about a genre of discourse in advertising; sociologists keep studying nowadays the impact ads have on society and how they contribute to the way people and readers of advertising interpret and build their world and their beliefs and the degree to which we define our identities under the influence of the omnipresent ads. Advertisements are not only a tool used to compel people on an economic territory, but also a kind of tool used to conquer people socially, psychologically and culturally.

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According to Davidson (1992: 6) “studying advertising quickly and inevitably means studying how we read language, images, myths – and how it is we build out of them our sense of who we are”. From this perspective, ads not only “help to sell things” (White, 2000: 5), but their existence defines gender construction or stimulates the audience to develop their interest by creating new meanings. In the discussion about some theoretical issues of the advertisement, it must be mentioned that the ad always has an audience and we may call it addressee(s) while the addresser(s) is the one who sends the message (to buy a product, to apply to a service, to support some charity organization, etc) through language (slogans, short texts, etc) and visual tools

(Goddard, 1998: 7)

Throughout the evolution of advertising, defenders of its effects on society contradicted with those who claimed that ads have a dreadful effect on how one relates to a certain ad and constructs a world around a sold idea. It is partially true that advertisements may have a negative influence in unfolding gender stereotypes and shaping consumers’ lives on certain levels. A relevant example given by the non-believers is that ads continuously cultivate low self-esteem among young girls exposed to huge billboards showing a girl with a perfect body, perfect shiny hair and perfect skin, making them long for an idea of beauty which is not real at all and manipulating them to buy those products advertised to get that kind of hair or that kind of skin. With this, advertising theorists developed the idea that advertisements come to fill in a much bigger need of comfort, thus improving the corporate image of the company in order to create the icon of a “trustworthy and benevolent” firm (Brierley, 1995: 43). Its defenders used the argument that not all advertising is deceiving people into buying certain kinds of products, but some advertisements are based on social change and use true stories or/and shocking images to create a (positive) impact on society, aiming constantly at changing the way in which people behave: here we can mention the anti-smoking, healthy eating or anti-drug campaigns, which try to shock people by presenting statistics that show the death rate among smokers or drug users or aim to touch the emotional level by telling the stories of the ones in one of the mentioned situations, for “successful advertising appeals both to the head and to the heart, to reason and emotions” (Beatson, 1986: 265). Finally, advertising is defended as being “a form of artistic expression” (Leiss, 1997: 3) and contributing to a certain level to the education of the people, teaching them “how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear and desire – and what not to.” (Kellner, 1995: 5).

Advertising must always be theorized according to the development of society towards this consumerist culture that exists nowadays. Therefore, one cannot talk about the impact of advertisements only economically. The evolution of the individual within the advertising culture must also be taken into consideration. In the historical evolution of advertising, one can identify the process of constructing gender identities in society. The most world-wide discussed example we can mention to sustain this idea is the evolution of the image of women in society, from the male supremacy towards the emancipation of women. The researchers in the advertising field stated that this evolution of gender identities must always be related to its context. That is the reason why a sexist ad from the 50s could easily cause laughter, because it no longer relates to the cultural context nowadays. Theorists of advertising conclude that another issue which we must take into consideration when analyzing an ad is the context. Linguists came and said that there is more to take into account when advertising analysts decide the context of the advertisement; according to Guy Cook (1992: 1) context includes also the following: substance, music and picture, paralanguage, situation, co-text, inter-text, participants and function, and, therefore, the correct approach in the study of ads must consider these features too.

Cook’s holistic definition of the ad (Cook, 1992: 2-6) comes as a breath of fresh air after decades in which specialists ignored the fact that “the ad is an interaction of elements” and linguists who analyzed the language of the advertisement ignored the picture which comes with it and which also contributes to the construction of meaning. What will an ad look like without the picture? I agree with Cook’s idea that elements interact in an advertisement and that the first contact we have with the ad is through the visual tools and only after that do we stop and read what is written under the image. One cannot just simply leave behind the meaning of the picture, because it can be integrated in the sphere of the context. Let us take as example an ad in which two or more people who seem to have different nationalities are shaking hands and smiling gathered at a big table and maybe celebrating something. The readers, at first, interpret this visual information and they do not expect to read under this image something about a dreadful event, but they associate the people shaking hands with friendship, peace or something positive; and just after that do they come to read about a charity organization. As Cook states, we cannot just cut out important pieces from the ad, because the meaning of the entire campaign is based on how these elements interact with one another and thus sell the idea or the product.

Linguists have launched different theories concerning the new type of discourse that ads use. Even though ads are seen as ephemeral discourses, one cannot ignore the long-lasting impact they have. The debate is taken further at the point of discussing whether ads can be seen as literature. So, can we answer the question “What is advertising?” by claiming that advertising is a new type of literature? Some specialists state that ads use creativity to stimulate people to “read between the lines” and find the hidden message and, of course, here they refer to the use of narrative techniques. But some of them also claim that it is impossible to put the label “literature” on any piece of text produced and that there are certain characteristics that a text must have to be literature. So, both parts have come to a consensus, to create a middle category for ads, and include them in “the new sub-literary genres” (Cook, 1992: Foreword). Ads still being considered the exception and debates still being argued, we cannot totally associate literature with ads.

Whatever “history” the field of advertising has, there is an absolute truth about its changeability. Ads change over time, change being influenced by the social and cultural context. Since the 1900s advertising has changed massively, first because of the technological progress that enables ads to be delivered worldwide through radio, media or through the Internet, commercials being delivered in ways that were beyond belief decades ago; and, on the other hand, due to the changes undergone by society and its cultural values which ads have changed enormously. The public changed its identity, and advertising companies reinvented old ads and updated them to suite the new world. Here we can give the example of brands like Schweppes, Coca-Cola, Dove, and so on and so forth. If we have a look, for example, at a Dove ad from 1955, when the company made its debut, and a 2010 Dove ad we find the old one rather simple, plain we could say, because the cultural context has changed and, thus, the company nowadays sustains in its ads this battle between natural beauty and the artificial one, real women vs. supermodels. Cook identifies two levels at which one could observe the evident changes of the ads, one is “at the lower level of substance, surroundings, mode and paralanguage, and also at the level of text” (Cook, 1992:179); the lower level of substance has been partially covered before, but at the text level we can see a change in the accompanying discourses, because within 50 years there has been a shift from print ads accompanied by stories to very short discourses, nowadays, advertising companies claiming that they would rather use slogans that are short and easily remembered. This change happened mainly because people have nowadays a different life- style, and are not interested in reading a one page ad text or, they probably no longer have the time to do so. Ogilvy claims that we have lost the pleasure of reading advertisements, the pleasure of being captivated by the witty, tricky story of a product. Here is an example of the changes in the print ads of The Coca-Cola Company:


Printed vintage Coca-Cola ad


Ads as a discourse type

Different theoretical approaches have generated a variety of definitions of the concept of discourse, but each of them had as a starting point the concept of language and how language is used in particular situations. Various texts are explored within the field of discourse analysis which is based on examining the way in which meanings are created throughout the text and studying language in its cultural form.

Researchers have used the concept of text separate from the one of discourse, due to the common belief that when we talk about a text we strictly refer to the written language and that discourse is strictly limited to the spoken area of language. The modern theorists of language introduced the theory that the concept of text includes many other utterances and statements, so that we can put the label “text” on almost any magazine article, interview or conversation we stumble upon everyday.

In Dressler’s view, a “text” is a communicative event that must accomplish the following seven criteria:

Cohesion – representing the relationship between text and syntax and the use of phenomena such as ellipsis, anaphora, recurrence or conjunction.

Coherence – which has to do with the meaning of the text.

Intentionality – representing the attitude and purpose of the speaker or writer.

Acceptability – concerning the role of the reader or of the hearer to asses the relevance of the important information of a text.

Informativity – referring to the quality of the new information.

Situationality – representing the importance of the situation in which the text is produced.

Intertextuality – which refers to the fact that a text is related to some other discourses.

Discourse analysts have always given a more important role to the external factors, believing that they play a significant part in communication. Cook sustains this idea that “discourse analysis is not concerned with language alone” (1992: 1) and makes the difference between text and context, the first having linguistic forms, “separated from context for the purposes of analysis”, and the second including, in the case of advertisements all of the following (Cook,1992: 4) :

ï‚· substance: the physical material of the text.

ï‚· music and pictures.

ï‚· paralanguage: referring to all the accompanying language (gestures, facial expression, or the size of the letters in writing).

ï‚· situation: the relations of objects and people in the surroundings of the text, as seen by the participants.

ï‚· co-text: which refers to the text which precedes or follows that under analysis, and which readers/listeners judge to belong to the same discourse.

ï‚· intertext: refers to the text which the readers/listeners perceive as belonging to other discourse, but which they associate with the text under consideration and which affects their interpretation.

ï‚· participants: each participant is at the same time a part of the context and an observer of it. Participants are usually described as senders, addressers, addressees and receivers. The ‘sender’ of a message is not always the same as the ‘addresser’. Neither is the ‘receiver’ always the ‘addressee’, the person for whom it is intended.

ï‚· function: which refers to what the text is intended to do by the senders and addressers, or perceived to do by the receivers and addressees.

In order to establish the type of discourse advertisements use, we need to focus first on the field of discourse analysis and see how the ads have been perceived and received into the sphere. James Paul Gee states that the area of discourses can be seen as an “institution” and prompts us to “imagine that we have a giant map. Each discourse is represented on the map like a country, but with movable boundaries that you can slide around a bit and we move the boundaries of the discourse areas on the map around in negotiation with others” (Gee, 1999: 22). That is the reason why some types of discourses seem to be hybrids; because of this continuously interaction between them and the contestable boundaries. The only difference between one discourse and another is the “grammar” they use; “grammar” as referring to what linguists have named for a long time now as “collocational patterns”. In the advertising area these patterns signal the type of social language (informal/formal) used to achieve something like the customer’s attention and curiosity.

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Ads caught the attention of the linguists first because they were an evidence of the fact that language is always in context, and second because their discourse was complex, sometimes associated with that of literature, always holding out more to be analysed. According to Cook, describing advertising as a discourse is both “more complete and more difficult” than the approaches which separate out components of ads, underline a few, and ignore the rest (Cook, 1992: 2). This approach was summed up in Figure 1 by Cook who also believes that the ad is not a “stable entity” and that any change that occurs at any level, the whole discourse changes (Cook, 1992: 6):

Figure 1 Interaction of elements in ads.

There are many categories of discourses, or discourse types, which surround us at any time. Some of them are perceived as conversations, others as news bulletins, gossip, jokes, games, lessons, etc. The categories can be drawn further on, but they all merge and defy the same purpose. It is the cultural background that makes us to separate the discourses “into units, to give those units names, and to assign them categories” (Cook, 1992: 10). Discourse types also cover the area of non verbal communication, and here we can include the category of advertisements discourse. Ads usually have at least a representative slogan, and/or a text sustaining the product advertised. But this is not a general rule. The importance of these non verbal elements depends and varies from spectator to spectator. There are ads without language which have a greater impact through the image associated with what is being promoted, and there are ads in which language plays a subordinate part.

When it comes to define what type of discourse ads embody, specialists find themselves in difficulty. It should not be that way, since we are surrounded by them and they represent a conspicuous discourse type in almost all contemporary societies. Cook is among the first linguists to overcame traditionally bias when it comes to define the ad. When trying to distinguish ads from other discourses, he states that people tend to put in the first place as the major qualifying facet the function of the ads. This is because they simply see the surface aim: to convince people to buy a certain product. But ads are not discourses simply related to that universally known purpose, they also are discourses which do not try to sell anything, but advocate a cause, or sustain a campaign.

The ads can also be seen according to their intention to inform, misinform, warn or simply amuse the reader. If one considers that the only function is to persuade people, that person leaves a great amount of information aside. For example, if a non-smoker receives ads for cigarettes, or a person who has limited funds receives an ad for a brand-new, expensive, ecologically car, it is clear that the receiver of these ads will know that they are certainly not for him. But this does not mean that those ads do not say anything to the receiver. This is the reason why Cook understands the “function” from two different perspectives: “the function which the sender intends the discourse to have may not be the same as the function it actually does have for the receiver” (Cook, 1992: 14). The receiver can use the cigarette ad in a further discussion about smoking/non-smoking. These changes in the function of advertisements are due to the fact that, with ads, there is no single sender and receiver, because ads are not created by a single individual, neither are they the expression of one unique, universal message for the receivers.

Advertising is a difficult genre to describe, because it is very wide and merges with other genres; it is Cook’s idea of the interactional features in an ad. Every text, as Roland Barthes argued in one of his works, is a “multidimensional space in which a variety of writings blend and clash” (Barthes, 1977: 146). Donald Matheson studied further this premise and states that according to the intertextual theory, one must ask himself three kinds of questions about all ads and, indeed, all texts:

The first one is about “identity”, and as Barthes noted, a writer’s work is about the point where that writer puts himself/herself to what has already been told. Matheson uses this theory at a more general level and states that by using language “with a particular history”, we are placing ourselves, the messages and meanings we produce, “in a particular relation to society and culture” (Matheson, 2005: 46).

A second kind of question concerns “the social struggle”, which in Matheson’s terms is the struggle to “re-accent” language “that has been tied to particular interests before”. One can analyze further on the social component of a particular sign to trace its impact and workings on the society.

A third and final question refers to the role of media (such as advertising) in shaping “shared repertories” of intertexts in society.

For example, when a passerby sees the following beer advertisement, he/she will immediately make the connection with the popular saying “An apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”

Alluding to other texts is a valuable technique for advertisers. First, it requires a certain degree of cognitive work from consumers and, as rhetorical analysts argue, the more work people have to do to get a meaning, the further they go through the path a particular text is trying to lead them, the more active they collaboration with the text’s meaning is. In the text ads carry with them, their receivers recognize previous ways of talking, especially ways which have been solidified over time and used into genres, and these guide them as to how they should fit the elements of the ad together to form larger meaningful units. Fairclough (1995: 55) argues that we can identify social change and challenges of the social structures to this “generic heterogeneity”. A particular text can draw upon the language of another genre, or it may perform some of the functions of another genre, and also it mat draw upon the graphic form of another genre (Cook, 1992: 46, describes a Hamlet cigar ad that plays with the British Channel 4 station logo).

The ad opens up quite unique and specific identity for its readers/viewers. The reference to other texts is sometimes ironic, so we are being asked by those types of ads to be ironic readers and take a critical standpoint towards media. According to Matheson, “before an advertisement can create a desire for a product, it must first create a sense of inadequacy which that desire will fill in” Matheson (2002: 48). Advertising works not only when people notice the ads, but when they change their behaviour, preferences and their habits in line with the ad. The goal of advertisements is first to participate in the foundation of people’s lifestyles, of their everyday activities and their understanding of themselves and the world that surrounds them. Cook’s study concerning the “prototypes, not definitive components” of ads resulted in the identification of ads as being “embedded in an accompanying discourse”, “foregrounding connotational meaning, thus effecting fusion between different spheres”. Advertisements abound in intertextual references, this hypothesis being at the core of Cook’s metaphorical definition of “parasitic ads: appropriating and existing thorough the voices of other discourses” (Cook, 1992: 176).

In his study, Cook (1992: 12) heightens the following question: since discourse types may be described in terms of their social function, and vice versa, societies may be categorized in terms of the types of discourses they use, where do we place the advertising discourse? Foucault (1971) argues that a culture represent the sum of its orders of discourse. In this position, advertisements occupy a dual position: they help create a new global culture and a new type of discourse, and also it reflects the differences between cultures. The study of advertisements not only draws attention upon language facts, but they give a great amount of information regarding the cultural and social development of a particular civilization. To define what type of discourse advertisements use it is necessary to notice the attitudes towards this discourse. In this respect, ads are the most controversial of all contemporary discourses, partly because it is relatively new and studies and theories keep coming to light, and partly because it is associated with the market economy from nowadays which helps the advertising corporations to thrive.

Attempts to define ads as a discourse type run into different approaches and theories. One of these theories sustains that analysts must consider first the individual meaning of each of the word, and it was developed by Professor Eleanor Rosch and was named “the prototype theory” (Rosch, 1977: 34). Her research suggests that we choose or understand a word by referring “to a mental representation of a typical instance” (Rosch, 1977: 41). That given entity can be a bird, she states, and its image will depend on its resemblance to our prototype of a bird. This will vary from culture to culture, and individual to individual. Rosch states that a typical bird for Europeans can be a sparrow, while for the most North Americans is perhaps a robin. We are less likely to identify with the word from the category, if a particular instance does not match with our prototype. This approach, if applied to the debate of defining ads, simplifies the definition, because discourses that are described as “ads”, but do not share these prototypical elements of an ad, will no longer make the subject of further analysis. But the prototypical ad varies between a community, individuals and of course periods of time.

Another theory that was launched first by Cook (1992) has as a starting point the fact that in order to fulfill its aims, advertising discourse use strategies, especially textual-discursive strategies, and makes use of techniques of manipulation of the language, words, creates ambiguity and also addresses to the emotional and personal feelings of the individual. That is why these discourses are more difficult to pin down. It is because their changing and hybrid nature. The language of advertisements, which linguists state that attests a deviation from the linguistic forms, employs both direct and indirect convincing techniques. In order to achieve their communicative effect, sometimes ad discourses appear ambiguous or use contradictory statements. In the process of constructing ad’s discourses, the signifier and the signified relationship, in the terms of Saussure (1959), is somehow twisted, misrepresented. In advertising discourses the “arbitrariness of sign” takes over and the old laws disappear. For example, cohesion, according to Vestargaard and Schroder (1985), ceases to exist in the advertising language, and is replaced by the interpretation of the advertisement message that demands coherence from the point of view of the consumer, and his understanding of that message.


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