Advertising, it gets a bad rep, along with marketing and all of its siblings and cousins. They say it manipulates. They say it is deceptive. That may be the case, at times, but just like with any tool, it all depends on how you use it.
What has appealed to me about advertising, and creating content in general, is that it gets at a truth (at least the good kind of advertising does so). As Pete Barry notes in The Advertising Concept Book: Think Now, Design Later, it can be a big or a small truth, general or specific, induced or deduced. I would say it can even be a funny or exaggerated truth, a subjective truth, and a fleeting truth - but it is a truth of some kind. That’s why it works in the first place. That’s why it resonates with people and brings them through the door, but people will only stick around for as long as the message remains true.
Art, advertising, power
Art has been a key ingredient to the impact of advertising. While the words can act just as poetry or a musical lyric that pulls at our heartstrings, the images hit us instantaneously before we even have a chance to process the strategic prose written on any ad. Brands have even used music, producing their own jingles for their ads. By harnessing the influence of various forms of art, advertising can unite people in thoughts and passions. But unlike art, advertising is not meant to be open to interpretation; it is intended to have a clear message that generates a specific outcome.
The scary part about advertising is that it is in fact powerful. Looking over history we see how words, images, and the ideas they convey have shaped the way we think and therefore behave, ultimately shaping our societies and the course of history. All of our cultural norms have been influenced - at least in some part - by the media around us. This includes our diet habits, our clothes, our work culture, our workouts, and even the dynamics in our personal relationships.
Some ads have empowered and inspired us, while others have lied to us and even denigrated certain groups. All have shaped the way we think and behave, for better or for worse. Here are some ads, both older and more recent, that have stuck out for me in demonstrating the power of advertising.
“I want you!” (1917)
The iconic “I Want You” U.S. Army recruiting poster was part of an advertising blitz launched by Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Now, it is one of the most memorable images in American history, conjuring sentiments of patriotism, sacrifice, and victory. Published among a series of other posters, these ads were designed to promote pro-war sentiment among a largely anti-war American public, and of course to encourage enlistment in the military, as U.S. involvement in World War I became inevitable. More than four million copies were printed of the Uncle Sam poster alone.
And it worked.
The illustration of a stern Uncle Sam giving an accusing glare and pointing his finger at the viewer makes it feel as though he is speaking directly to you. Paired with the personalised copy, “I WANT YOU”, which is intentionally capitalised to make a strong, unquestionable statement, the poster evokes a direct sense of responsibility to enlist, as well as guilt for not living up to this idea of duty.
The campaign as a whole was highly effective, culminating with three million conscripted for service, two million men volunteering, and $24 billion raised in war bonds. The blitz also shifted public moral, getting the nation on board for what had been an unpopular war. In fact, the Uncle Sam poster in particular was so popular that President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought it back for World War II.
Sugar Information advertisements (1950s - 1970s)
Among the darker examples of the power of advertising, Sugar Information in the United States heavily promoted sugar as a healthy diet aid for weight loss since the 1950s. When a poll showed public perception of sugar as fattening and revealed doctor suspicion about sugar’s link to heart disease and diabetes, the sugar industry decided to take action. Published in top magazines such as TIME and National Geographic, the ads promised to curb appetite, generate lasting energy, and promote weight loss. Having an ice cream or a soda before a meal was presented as wise advice for portion control.
The imagery used throughout the sugar industry’s campaign played on emotional truths but, sadly, it evaded factual truths about its product. The ads catered to the human desire to look and feel our best, conveyed with the illustration of a new slender outfit and language about keeping weight down with sugar. Other ads used photography of lean women consuming ice cream or soda, just as the copy advises, to look the way they do. All of the ads intentionally used imagery of women, targeting the decision maker in the mid-20th century American home when it comes to meals.
These messages stuck, and sugar quickly became linked in people’s minds to beauty and vitality. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Federal Trade Commission started to hamper down on the sugar industry’s health claims. But by the time the ads were stopped, they had already been too successful in shifting the way people viewed sugar, making it a staple of every American snack and meal.
The background story to the campaign is fascinating. The Sugar Association was founded in 1947 and its PR division, Sugar Information, was created soon after. An industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) began to see a promising business opportunity in persuading people that they should avoid fat in their diet, and that sugar is a healthy replacement. If it worked, America's per capita sugar consumption was expected to increase by a third. Thus began the sugar industry’s manipulation of the scientific evidence that would be presented about the relative risks of fat and sugar, presenting sugar as the healthy alternative.
It is now public knowledge that, by the 1960s, the sugar industry partnered with snack and beverage companies to fund research and sponsor Harvard scientists that would refute scientific evidence on the risks of sugar. They kicked off with an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 -equivalent to $3.4 million today. The resulting literature review, criticising and discrediting the studies that linked sugar to health hazards, was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 1967. The review suggested that removing fat from our diets was important to countering coronary heart disease. The source of the funding remained undisclosed, never linking the sugar industry to these “scientific” conclusions. It comes at no surprise that the authors of this review had different standards for different studies, as they assessed research implicating sugar very critically, and disregarded issues with studies that demonstrated risks with fat.
The result is that people bought into it. American consumption of table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup increased significantly. Unfortunately, there was also a (coincidental?) rise in chronic diseases. Since the 1970s, U.S. rates of obesity have more than doubled, and cases of diabetes have more than tripled.
Fortunately, regulations about health claims in any kind of advertising or marketing are far more strict today. The sugar industry’s past advertising was indeed effective in achieving mass adoption and demonstrating the power of content, but I consider this to be an example of abusing that power. The following ads, however, showcase advertising done right.
“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” (1983)
These days it is common to appoint a designated driver when going out, but this attitude was not always common. Even just a few decades ago, it was not unusual to have “one for the road” – meaning having a beer while driving home. According to an article in Business Insider, 50 per cent of car accident deaths in the US involved drunk drivers. Finally, in 1983, the Ad Council released a Public Service Announcement that quickly became a popular practice: “Friend's Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk.” The simple yet effective illustrations immediately demonstrate just how easy it is to avoid drunk driving, and the striking tagline brings the point home by reminding us to consider what it means to be good friend, and how that involves looking out for each other.
The campaign ran until 1999. By 2016, the number of traffic deaths involving drunk drivers had fallen to 28 per cent, and, today, more than 68 per cent of Americans report having tried to prevent someone from driving after drinking since the launch of the campaign.
“Smoking Kid” (2012)
A social experiment turned into a short film, this powerful anti-smoking video ad run by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation did what so many school presentations and posters could not - it compelled adult smokers to take steps toward quitting their addiction. In the film, various adult smokers are unknowingly recorded as children ask them to share a cigarette. The interactions take place throughout a city, capturing the essence of daily life. The adults try to convince the kids to drop the habit, at which point the child says to them: “So why are you smoking?” handing a brochure that reads: “You worry about me, but why not about yourself?” with a phone number for support in quitting.
The impact was notable. Almost every adult who received a brochure stopped to think and threw away their cigarette. No adult, however, threw away the brochure. Additionally, there was a 40 per cent increase in phone inquiries by smokers who wanted to quit. Like most art, this short film captures a human truth and resonates on an emotional level. The scenes and dialogues that were filmed present an unforgettable reminder to all viewers about their own situations, and successfully compelled them to take steps toward quitting. Given its simplicity and efficacy, this campaign could be replicated around the world.
The dissolving poster (2018)
Habitat for Humanity’s dissolving poster campaign in Brazil is an innovative approach to both spreading awareness and providing tangible solutions against mosquito-borne diseases, all at the same time. Possibly inspired by Brazil’s engaged street art culture, the creatives behind this campaign crafted graffiti-style font and visuals to grab the attention of locals. Given graffiti’s history in social activism, this art style is a clever choice for a campaign that is intended to inform and generate a positive social impact.
The posters, which have informative messages about the threats of mosquitoes, dissolve when it rains to create a trap for mosquitoes that emits an insecticide, killing mosquito larvae. They are designed to counter outbreaks of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which carries diseases such as Zika and Yellow Fever. The posters use an environmentally-friendly larvicide that is applied on soluble rice-paper sheets with organic glue, which is then released by the rain to create pools of water that trap mosquitoes. Just one poster can treat 200 litres of water and last up to 60 days.
Advertising, marketing, and design are all around us - influencing not only what we think about but also how we think about it. Like art, it can both reflect who we are as a society but it can also feed us new ideas that shift our mindsets, behaviours, and therefore our culture at large. We have the responsibility to be aware of and question where our ideas, values, and biases come from. Advertising has great potential to advance social progress, and already has done so.