Disclaimer : This essay is open for discussion & is not intended to be taken as the best possible answer to the question.
In a controversial fashion advertisement released this year, megastar Beyonce was featured donning a Roberto Cavalli haute couture piece, sans her famous voluptuous curves. Shocked by the blatant airbrushing of the photo, fans and pro-feminists alike joined in chorus to oppose what they called an attempt to sell an unrealistic body image to impressionable consumers. This episode highlights one of the many concerns that people have with advertising.
The problem with advertising is that for it to be effective, it has to do much more than promote the product itself. It tends to promote a set of values to the consumers. Once they have bought into these values as a result of prolonged, consistent exposure to advertisements, they could be more willing to consider buying the product. If it sounds very insidious, then that is precisely the intention. The final act of purchasing the product, or becoming a repeat customer, would seem like just a natural extension of having imbibed those values. For example, credit card advertisements are notorious for normalising a materialistic superficial lifestyle because they feature their target segment – young working adults – living it up with exotic travel, high fashion and fine dining all with just a wave of their card.
The response to the argument above is that advertising can convey positive messages just as much as it can convey negative ones. There are many examples of this. One is Dove’s campaign for natural beauty whereby the company uses ‘real’ women of different races, ages and body shapes to promote its soaps and cleansers rather than slender models. In addition, advertisements selling products that enhance health like bread, milk or toothpaste do not appear harmful because the products are inherently good for the public.
This means that another detriment of advertising could emerge if the product is not beneficial or even harmful in the first place. As a corollary of knowing that advertisers could peddle harmful products as being the silver bullet to achieve an attractive image, many governments have set curbs on such advertising. Singapore today, for instance, does not allow any tobacco company to advertise at all. This is a far cry from two decades ago, when viewers could catch a glimpse of the iconic Marlboro man on television and in cinemas trumpeting his brand of ‘cool’ ruggedness. The commercial strategically omitted the warning of long term respiratory illness or lung cancer that Mr Marlboro would be predisposed to.
Besides the inconspicuous promotion of undesirable values and lifestyles, some advertising strategies are just plain misleading because they sell a dream by means of clever posing, camera tricks and Photoshop. Will a woman transform into a glamorous starlet if she uses the same Lóreal shampoo as actress Eva Longoria ? Will putting on a pair of Nike’s Air Jordan shoes make the average runner just as fast as basketball legend Michael Jordan ? In almost every alcohol advertisement, the man with that right brand of beer gets the gorgeous girl, but can the common man be just as suave ? Advertisements leave the audiences with the idea that theirs is a ‘feel-good’ product. Whether that feeling gets translated into actual achievement is an entirely different story. Interestingly, while some advertisements, such as those for weight loss or beauty treatments, do make precautionary disclaimers (Results may vary!), these words are often too small to be legible and are dwarfed by the pictures of glowing success stories, especially of celebrities. Masking the truth and weaving illusion seem to be acceptable practice in the advertising industry, but this is unfair to the buyers.
However, to be just, advertising does not have to demonised all the time. Advertising is a thriving commercial sector. It hauls in billions of dollars worth of revenue per annum. Furthermore, this sector opens up employment opportunities at every stage of the advertising campaign, from the drawing board to the production of advertisements using multitudinous media. Moreover, creativity flourishes in the advertising sector because the competition to win contracts is so intense. The success of the product is very much synonymous to the success of its advertiser. This realisation spurs advertisers to get inventive and produce attention-grabbing, entertaining or memorable commercials for their clients as well as for the sake of their long-term reputation. Yet beyond making money, at the heart of advertising is a genuine fundamental purpose which is to help businesses grow. Advertising has become an essential part of business activity, and the expansion of business is one sign that society as a whole is improving, especially in corporeal terms.
In conclusion, since the benefits of advertising should not be entirely dismissed, what needs to be done is to work towards more responsible advertising. Depending on the culture of the society, this could mean setting guidelines to the kind of messaging that is transmitted, or the platforms that can be used by certain kinds of advertisements. Regulation could also help ensure that advertisements are honest and not misleading. Indeed, drawing some boundaries could actually compel advertisers to stretch the limits of their ingenuity to reach their target market. At the end of the day, society’s welfare is always put ahead of commercial gains.
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