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  Advertising was conceived essentially as a kind of social, consumer rhetoric: a way of publicly praising goods in order to encourage or persuade the public to use or buy them. It has clearly done much good by bringing many useful inventions, ideas and by-products of major research programmes to a wide number of people. But to say that this is still all it does would be too superficial. Advertising is arguably a main vehicle of social communication; and as such it has become the subject of much critical comment and even concern. When a semiotic analysis is applied to its products several other ‘texts’ often emerge which have little (or sometimes nothing) to do with the product being promoted. Judith Williamson, in Decoding Advertisements (1987), says that ‘advertisements are one of the most important cultural factors moulding and reflecting our life today’ and that ‘… in providing us with a structure in which we, and [the] goods are interchangeable, [advertisements] are selling us ourselves’. People are persuaded to identify themselves with what they consume. Advertisers sell dreams, ideal images and ways of life and values. The consumerist values and human images which advertising perpetually reinforces are simple stereotypes. It is pervasive and ubiquitous and that, in part, gives it its enormous power. Once, advertisers were associated only with promoting goods, skills or certain professional abilities. Now, they shape our political fortunes by running such things as election campaigns (see public relations below).

In addition it could be said that all forms of mass media rely on advertising for their existence. Newspapers have gone out of business through not being sufficiently attractive to advertisers (for example The Daily Herald in the UK in the 1960s). Advertising takes many forms, not all of them directly associated with selling a product. For example, governments ‘advertise’ that cigarettes are a health hazard. In sport and the arts a major development in recent years has been sponsorship. At face value this would appear to be a valuable form of support for cultural activities which benefit all people. But it is merely indirect advertising, and there is a danger that the recipients of such sponsorship come to rely on it and must constantly reveal and reflect their commercial allegiance or lose the support. To offer support ‘without strings’ is perhaps more of an ideal than a commercial reality.

The most pervasive forms of advertising are those which target the mass-consumer audience. Of these, television advertising is perhaps the most prestigious and powerful, since it commands the greatest audiences. And in this form quantity is far more important than quality. There is the advertising connected to public relations (PR), where corporate or personal images are created and marketed, sometimes subliminally. There is a PR division in every large company, and many freelance organizations whose central concern is to create or maintain the ‘good name’ of a company, a person or a political party. At the more mundane level, though no less powerful, are the trade and ‘small ads’ geared to specific sections of the community; these are the entire funding bodies for the incessant free papers which deluge letterboxes in the Western world.

Art has taken advertising seriously for many years now, the pop art movement of the 1960s being perhaps the most obvious example. Andy Warhol\'s paintings of soup tins have passed into popular mythology, becoming virtually synonymous with a widespread conception of ‘modern art’. With supreme confidence, the advertising industry, no longer apologizing for its blatantly consumerist interests, regularly gives its best practitioners prestigious awards based on the aesthetic and artistic criteria traditionally reserved for so-called ‘serious’ drama. Advertising has amply repaid television and film for, as it were, feeding off those media by rechannelling into them many of its techniques developed for promoting consumer sales. Once regarded as the poor relative of ‘real’ art, advertising has had its contribution approved by some very eminent figures. The British writer and broadcaster Troy Kennedy Martin, for example, in the McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1986, put forward the idea of short ‘micro-dramas’ as a new television form. They would emulate commercials in structure and duration, and would be repeated many times. They would ‘… consist of dozens of fragments of dramas, shards of experience made and put out very quickly…[and]…would have “zero visibility” in the normal run of programming…[being]…part of a flow which would enhance their qualities…’. Such dramas are still in the future, though there are many more short films being produced and a video culture has developed to rival traditional dramatic structures. Also, whereas a few years ago work for television or film commercials was scorned by most serious actors and directors as a poor (though profitable) substitute for stage or screen plays, the product of many famous names are now seen or heard every night of the week. RG



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