The History of Advertising in America

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. I hope you will find it interesting and thought provoking.)

A study of the field of advertising can be quite revealing since advertisements attempt to sell products to consumers and consequently require an understanding of consumers to do so. Therefore, the nature of advertisements in a culture speaks to the nature of the people in that culture. The history of advertising in America is quite eye opening and can be seen as “a metaphor of the descent of the typographic mind, beginning, as it does, with reason, and ending, as it does, with entertainment” (Postman 58).

Advertisements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had a fundamental difference from current ads. These older advertisements “assumed that potential buyers were literate, rational, analytical” (Postman 58). They correctly presupposed that buyers, in this time period, were concerned primarily with knowing the merits and potential defects of the product. Since these buyers were serious and analytical, advertisements, in this age, were crafted in a way to appeal to this brand of buyers. These older advertisements were written in “single-column space” (Postman 58) and had the primary purpose of “convey[ing] information and [making] claims in propositional form” (Postman 59). This typographical form of advertising had merit because it employed language as its foundation. Although “words cannot guarantee their truth content,” they do, however, “assemble a context in which the question, Is this true or false? is relevant” (Postman 60). In the 1890’s the foundation of advertising began to progress as slogans, jingles, and photographs began to appear in advertisements. Appealing to the desires of consumers, these advertisements became primarily focused on displaying an entertaining and pleasant experience. So, Postman explains, “by the turn of the century, advertisers no longer assumed rationality on the part of their potential customers” (Postman 60).

This evolution of the basis of advertisements continued and escalated as the television became more prominent. Television commercials for products and politicians have become a normal part of life in America. These commercials do not assume rationality on the part of consumers, and do not try to make truths claims. Substituting “images for claims,” these commercials are basically dramas that appeal to the emotions and desires of consumers (Postman 128). Since no assertions are made, “one can like or dislike a television commercial, of course. But one cannot refute it” (Postman 128). It seems like commercials try to avoid concentrating too much on their products. Many commercials may be ambivalent towards the product or brand being used until the very end of the production. Because, after all, commercials are not about the product being displayed but, rather, they are about the “character of the consumers of [their] products” (Postman 128). Instead of focusing on the greatness of their products, commercials focus on the greatness of the experience of individuals who have bought into these products. Postman states that commercials “provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling images of themselves” (Postman 135). They say that if we buy a certain car, we will possess irresistible appeal to the other sex, rather than focusing on the attributes of the actual vehicle. They tell us that if we buy a certain brand of beer, we will have incredible parties all football season long, rather than concentrating too much on the actual flavor or merits of the drink. Having little basis in rationality, commercials must be brief. The commercial “disdains exposition, for that takes time and invites argument” (Postman 131). Therefore, they cater to the short attention spans and instant gratification mindsets of current consumers by providing immediate solutions to all our problems.

Online advertisements and commercials possess many similarities to television commercials. Employing the same brevity and emotional appeals, these forms of advertising may often be the exact same ones that we find on TV. However, online advertisements suffer from not being able to command our attention in the same way that television commercials do. Commercials can often be annoying so we, as media users, often count the cost of sitting through a certain amount of advertising. And while we often deem this process worthwhile for the sake of whatever television program we are engaged in, I believe online users have a smaller tolerance for commercials than television viewers do. Therefore, online advertisements have to go to extra efforts to remain relevant. One way that they accomplish this task is through using algorithms to determine what types of products consumers are interested in. Many of the ads that you see on Facebook and other Internet sites are assembled using research of your past Internet searches. In order to stay significant, these advertisements have to focus on the desires of the individual online user.

Advertisements are about selling a product, appealing to buyers, and ultimately making a profit. Older forms of advertising accommodated analytical consumers, television commercials cater to entertainment-seeking buyers, and online advertisements appeal to individual wants. So no matter the make up of the consumer base, you can be sure that marketing experts will continue to research the specific factors that appeal to consumers and try to play off of those factors.

 

For further reading, check out Postman’s book.

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Regardless of your reactions to this post, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email with your reactions to what I said here. Thanks for reading!

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