ADVERTISING, THE UNEASY PERSUASION: Its Dubious Impact on American Society by Michael Schudson
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ADVERTISING, THE UNEASY PERSUASION: Its Dubious Impact on American Society

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Advertising is not nearly as powerful as its various critics contend, Schudson maintains; but neither is it impotent or innocuous, as its defenders claim. That provocative thesis, closely and methodically argued, further establishes Schudson--author of Discovering the News (1978), now at UCal, San Diego--as an uncommonly interesting, undoctrinaire sociologist of communications. He is at pains to show first that, as many ad people know, ""advertising by itself is not decisive""--either in selling individual products or in promoting product categories. (Sales generally stimulate advertising, not vice versa.) National consumer goods advertising, the most controversial kind, is ringed about with ambiguous market research and based, in practice, not on theories of human behavior but on ""an eclecticism of common sense."" On the creative side, there is no consensus on soft sell or hard sell, on informational or emotional ads (or comparative ads). Overall, ""population, income, and other environmental variables"" (in the words of an industry spokesman) are more decisive than advertising; while other marketing forces--including product quality and distribution--are more sales-effective. Schudson then takes stock of the ""consumer's information environment""--noting the pervasive skepticism, suggesting that advertising can be effective without being believed, citing certain consumer groups (the highly mobile and immobile, children, the poor, Third-World residents)as vulnerable to persuasion. Still: hasn't advertising per se stimulated artificial needs, made us more ""materialistic""? This is the crux of the social criticism--and the most original part of Schudson's argument. He points to the sociocultural basis of human needs generally, the enormous role of gift-giving in American society. (""We have not forsaken traditional family values for material consumption; we consume materials very often to preserve families."") He traces the 19th-century roots of American consumer culture--finding that brand-name goods provided a highly mobile, increasingly urban populace with ""some sense of identity and continuity,"" then modifying that interpretation (""the kind that rights raises the hackles of historians"") by exploring to what extent advertising was a reactive force, or an independent one. (Here, he directly takes on the best-known of the radical critiques, Stuart Ewen's Captains of Consciousness.) A case study of 1920s spread of cigarette-smoking--first, among women--shows the limits of advertising (the practice preceded the ads) and the precise role of other factors (a milder tobacco, female independence, male ""convenience""). Yet advertising has nonetheless ""a special cultural power"": it ""picks up some of the things that people hold dear and represents them to people as all of what they value, assuring them that the sponsor is the patron of common ideals."" (This is what Schudson calls, drawing an obvious analogy, ""capitalist realism."") An important, cogent analysis.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Basic Books