Way back in 1917, novelist Norman Douglas wrote: “You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.” But still, nearly a century later, despite the many clues, we tend to underrate the role of advertising in daily life. It’s a forgivable oversight: it’s not easy to take seriously the marketing neverland where cartoon bears pitch toilet paper, where the Ty-D-Bol man patrols your toilet tank in a tiny rowboat, and where a tin of Folger’s coffee can heal a marriage. Yet the influence of marketing can’t be ignored: worldwide, advertisers now spend upwards of $600 billion a year trying to influence what you think, do, and buy. It took the United States four years to spend that much on its post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On a given day, at least three hundred, and as many as six thousand marketing messages are lobbed your way. Statistics suggest that people spend more time exposed to advertising than they spend eating, reading, cooking, praying, cleaning, and making love combined. Marketing has transformed childhood games into multi-billion dollar sports empires, manufacturing heroes and sculpting our history. Does great advertising win elections? No one can say, though few doubt that bad advertising can certainly lose them.
The better you understand the ad messages you receive every day, the better you’ll comprehend exactly how advertising has come to drive art, culture, and communications. A striking example is the soap opera, popularized in the early 1930s because soap makers needed a way to reach a vast audience of housewives with their sales messages. In 1966 The Monkees TV show and its accompanying band were launched as a marketing vehicle to cash in on the rock ‘n’ roll craze and the eyebrow-raising merchandise machine the Beatles had become.
Since the 1980s Hollywood has offered a steady diet of blast-smash-shoot-‘n’-slash summer movies to attract the lucrative thirteen to twenty-four-year-old male demographic. There may have been a time when art, music, film, broadcast, and – yes – books began with an idea and then sought an audience. But in the age of persuasion, art is market driven: a desired audience is identified, then art and entertainment are conceived – not just to reach them but to connect with them as consumers.