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Further Reading


Advertising from A to Z

The Dark Side of Madison Avenue

by Bobby Maddex

Unless your team is in contention, you probably watch the Super Bowl for the commercials—to see what sort of clever plays on words or humorous images emerge from Madison Avenue when money is no obstacle. But cleverness aside (my personal favorites are the Mac versus PC ads), there aren’t a whole lot of positives emanating from the advertising industry, whose primary aim is to make you feel so good about yourself—or, more typically, so bad—that you will buy products and services that you don’t really need with cash you don’t really have. With that in mind, take this trip with me through the dark side of the advertising world: everything you ever wanted to know about the topic, from A to Z.

Anatomy of an Ad

Apparently, Old Spice—the cologne of salty sailors everywhere—was beginning to feel the heat from such “hip” new body sprays as Axe and TAG. How else to explain this attempt to refashion the brand’s crusty reputation, employing its competitors’ shameless use of sexual imagery to sell what is essentially male perfume?

Here’s what the ad is telling you:

• Of course, it all starts with the photo, a young woman in a classic pornographic pose: face flushed, eyes closed, mouth open, tongue flattened and protruding. The purpose here is clearly to awaken sexual desire in the male viewer, and the phallic ice cream cone only confirms this impression.
• The picture is framed by the color red, the most emotionally intense of all colors, known to stimulate a faster heartbeat and shortened breath. Red is also a color associated with love and lust. Its inclusion is meant to intensify an already rousing scene.
• According to the Gutenberg Diagram of English-language reading patterns, when confronted with an ad, your eyes move from its top-left corner to its bottom-right corner in a diagonal path. The first thing you read is thus the text on top, which in this case serves two purposes: First and foremost, it reinforces the sexual message, calling special attention to the color of the ice cream—just in case you missed it. But the text also initiates what’s called “interpellation,” the procedure by which a viewer is “hailed” or “named.” Here you are being identified as one who sees sex in everything, even where it’s not.
• This is the second bit of text that you are meant to read. The admonition to “keep it clean” refers both to the purpose of the cologne and your supposed “misreading” of the photograph. The irony here is intentional and part of the interpellation process; Old Spice presents you with a photograph that is provocative and then chastises you for finding it so. It’s a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” tactic meant to suggest the exact opposite of what the ad actually says: namely, that you should most definitely NOT “keep it clean,” since that’s how an Old Spice guy rolls.
• Most likely the third block of text that you will read, these two sentences ensure that the ad’s irony is understood. Indeed, the descriptors “attractive” and “sultry” draw attention back to the woman in order to assure you that your lust is warranted.
• Note that Old Spice did not change its logo, probably for the sake of brand recognition, but did decide to crop off the bottom in keeping with contemporary graphic design. “This may be Old Spice,” the logo seems to say, “but it sure ain’t the Old Spice that your grandfather once used,” a sentiment with which those old enough to remember the brand’s comparatively innocuous “whistling-sailor” ads will readily concur.


Those shocking and scandalous fashion ads found in Vogue and Cosmo? It all started back in 1982 when Italian clothier Benetton hired photographer Oliviero Toscani and gave him carte blanche to direct its print advertising campaign. Over the next eighteen years, Toscani gradually replaced pictures of the brand’s product—brightly colored sweaters and accessories—with a politically correct barrage of inflammatory photographs. Lowlights included photographs of an exposed black woman breast-feeding a white baby, an African guerilla holding a Kalashnikov and a human leg bone, masculine and feminine genitalia, a priest kissing a nun on the lips, and a black stallion mounting a white mare—all accompanied by the Benetton logo. According to company founder Luciano Benetton, the purpose of such ads was “not to sell more” but “to communicate the company’s values,” though Benetton quickly dumped both Toscani and his controversial photographs once profits began to plummet in 2000. Even so, the damage had been done, and high-fashion advertising has never been the same.

Calvin Klein

What Benetton did for obscenity, Calvin Klein continues to do for kiddy porn. Beginning in 1980, when a 15-year-old Brooke Shields told television viewers that “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” the company has tried everything short of sexualizing infants in its lecherous ad campaigns. After Shields, there was the child-like Kate Moss hawking Obsession perfume, followed by the pubescent models used to sell Calvin Klein jeans on a set intended to suggest that of a low-budget porn shoot, complete with a salacious off-camera voice urging the kids to take off their clothes. When the latter ads were eventually pulled, due to a US Justice Department investigation, the brand launched a children’s underwear line whose ads featured elementary school children dancing together in their skivvies. The resulting public furor ended this campaign after only 24 hours, but its availability online should fuel the fantasies of child molesters everywhere for many years to come.

Dolce & Gabbana

Topping off our list of fashion-ad misdeeds are those produced on behalf of gay clothing designers—and onetime couple— Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, which pretty much epitomize the high-fashion push to represent the avant-garde via disturbing print advertisements. Three of the company’s most recent ads are enough to prove the point. In the first, which premiered in the March 2006 issue of Esquire magazine, a man stands with his pants down around his ankles while another man kneels on the floor before him in a simulation of oral sex. The second ad, from earlier this year, depicts a woman held to the ground by a bare-chested man who clearly intends to rape her, while several other men—likewise with their shirts off—look on. And then there is the most bizarre of the three advertisements: a photographic tableau suggestive of a baroque painting that portrays one gentlemen in the act of stabbing another, a third individual wielding a gun, and a fourth dead and bleeding on the floor. One wonders whether such perplexing shock tactics will continue to escalate among fashion advertisers, as well as to what extent they have already polluted the psyches of consumers.

Eating Disorders

American author and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce once stated that “advertising has done more to cause the social unrest of the twentieth century than any other single factor.” No doubt part of the unrest that Luce had in mind was the destructive effect that ads have had on female body images. Currently, eight million Americans are wrestling with eating disorders, and among college-age women, bulimia afflicts nearly one in every five. Meanwhile, 75% of all women consider themselves overweight, and 90% overestimate their body size. And when asked to what they compare themselves to arrive at such warped self-assessments, the answer is almost invariably the models depicted in advertisements. Keep in mind now that today’s fashion models weigh 23% less than the average female; indeed, a woman between the ages of 18 and 34 has only a 1% chance of ever being as thin as a supermodel. Even so, a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 69% of young girls appeal to magazine models as their idea of the perfect body shape. Another research study, conducted by Sandra Key and Maryclaire Lindgren, subjected 118 college-age girls to twenty advertisements from women’s magazines and then noted signs of depression in each one of them—the same sort of depression, the researchers argue, that can eventually lead to disordered eating habits.


Science fiction describes dystopian futures to get us to curb the destructive tendencies of the present. Once you mix sci-fi with advertising, however, you get a whole different beast, as evidenced by the current Svedka vodka ad campaign. Perhaps you’ve seen a few of the billboards; they feature a disturbingly voluptuous robot and the tagline, “The Future of Adult Entertainment,” a double entendre meaning both that Svedka will eventually become the most popular way to have fun among grown-ups and that fembots like “SvedkaGrl,” the name of this particular leggy android, will ultimately service human sexual needs. As if that weren’t disconcerting enough, the ads also come with a bit of cultural commentary, as in “Svedka. The choice of the stem cell baby boomer generation in 2033”; “Svedka says ‘thank you’ for making the gay man’s gene available over-the-counter in 2033”; and “Svedka toasts Hollywood for making celebrity worship the fastest growing religion.” So not only do these advertisements forecast an immoral future of self-gratification and vice, but they revel in it; indeed, Svedka is banking on its association with such depravity to sell its value-brand vodka, and increased sales would seem to indicate that the tactic is working. Now, the porn site is commissioning sixteen writers, including Jay McInerney, Rick Moody, and Joel Stein, to write original stories based on the ads. Apparently, there’s also a literary market out there for mechanized prostitution. The future indeed looks grim.

Guerilla Marketing

In this age of marketing saturation and new media outlets, advertisers have had to find new ways to shill their products. The average American is already exposed to more than 3000 ads a day, and that number is only going to grow as the guerrilla marketing trend continues to peak. For those who have been living under a rock the past twenty years, guerrilla marketing is the use of cheap, unconventional means to promote products, quite often leaving the target audience unaware that they have even been marketed to. Its popularity is quickly translating into a culture of near-constant promotion, not to mention a citizenry who conceive of themselves, primarily, as either consumptive entities or the creators thereof. Here are just a few of the guerrilla marketing campaigns to which you may have already fallen victim:

• Earlier this year, the Cartoon Network placed magnetic light displays around Boston that depicted characters from its television series Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The displays were mistaken for explosive devices, and several subway stations and bridges, as well as a portion of Interstate 93, were shut down as a result.
• In late 2002, entrepreneur Justin Kapust launched the organization Headvertise. Its purpose? To transform college students into human billboards by running advertisements on their foreheads. Soon thereafter, eBay likewise began hosting auctions for such premium ad space, and now many are tattooing themselves with company logos and catchphrases in exchange for cash.
• When the company Essential Reality began selling its "P-5 Glove," an innovative videogame controller, in 2004, they decided to market it guerrilla-style, planting users of the glove in various coffee shops around the country and equipping them with a readymade set of sound bites. Unsuspecting "customers" were lured into trying the product without ever knowing that their conversations were staged.
• Sony paid individuals in 2005 to paint black-on-white graffiti on subway walls in Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and several other large US cities. The "ads" depicted an anime-style cartoon character "riding a PlayStation like a skateboard, licking it like a lollipop, or cranking it like a Jack-in-the Box." Philadelphia eventually sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sony, citing several zoning violations.
• New York ad agency Interference, which traffics exclusively in guerrilla marketing, helped relaunch in 2005 by leaving voicemail at three in the morning for 10,000 people in the entertainment, media, and internet industries. The messages featured only a female voice asking, "Hello, is there anybody out there?"


It’s no secret that what advertisers promise to consumers above all else is happiness. Think about those creepy Enzyte commercials, the ones with naturally enhanced Bob and his perpetual smile: an exaggeration, to be sure, but not far off from the über-contentment peddled by the average advertisement. But here’s where the irony kicks in; according to current happiness research, advertising itself is one of the leading contributors to widespread unhappiness, causing most people to feel less well-off than they actually are. Baylor University marketing professor James Roberts argues that “the research is overwhelmingly clear. The more materialistic you are, the less happy you are,” a fact that even some governments are beginning to acknowledge. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, for example, where policy stems from an ongoing assessment of Gross National Happiness, most street advertising is banned. Meanwhile, in the UK, the National Consumer Council (NCC) is attempting to ban advertising to children younger than ten on the grounds that it makes them despondent. Such increasing recognition of advertising’s depressing effects is also impacting American attitudes toward consumerism. Indeed, one recent survey conducted by Juliet Schor of Boston College found that a whopping “81 percent of Americans say the country is too focused on shopping and spending.” Dare we dream of the day when the “inalienable right” to pursue happiness likewise includes freedom from Madison Avenue?


The latest demographic to have advertisers all in a twitter is the 0-to-2 market, which some experts estimate spends $20 billion a year. It all began with the success of Teletubbies, the PBS television show that started targeting the pre-rugrat crowd in 1998, and the program’s resultant merchandising deals. And then came the Baby Einstein videos, which still promise to make geniuses of the 27% of infants who now own one, followed by the British-based BabyTV, an entire network devoted to programming for children under two. Needless to say, TV is the major culprit in manufacturing an infant market. Today, 26% of kids under two have televisions in their bedrooms, and 68% of this same age group watch some sort of screen media for an average of more than two hours a day. According to Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the book Buy, Buy Baby, Gen-Xers bought into the notion that the TV could help educate their children. But instead of creating a cadre of whiz kids, she says, these well-meaning parents have raised a cohort of hyper-consumers. “The only thing they were getting was how to recognize characters,” Thomas argues. “It’s Dora. It’s Elmo. The only other scenario in which they’re going to encounter these characters is in a scenario in which the character is trying to sell them something. Backpacks, Band-Aids, toothbrushes.” Marketing guru James McNeal points out that “at six months of age, the same age they are imitating simple sounds like ‘ma-ma,’ babies are forming mental images of corporate logos and mascots.” Marketing early to kids ensures that they will be life-long consumers, contends McNeal. Some advertising research has even found that babies are requesting particular brands as soon as they can speak.


Blame it on Elvis Presley. In 1956, Levi Strauss & Co., then the only denim clothier, decided to break with its marketing campaign of evoking both the Gold Rush and the Texas cowboy and release a line of black denim pants it called Elvis Presley Jeans. And though Elvis himself did not much like denim, considering it working-class apparel, he did agree to wear a pair of Levi jeans in the film Jailhouse Rock. Almost instantly, black jeans became the rage among teenagers, as well as synonymous with teen rebellion. It didn’t take long for the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean to adopt the style, not to mention such Beat writers as Jack Kerouac, and the stage was set: Other jean manufacturers came out of the woodwork, and they all began doing what they could to hold the attention of the burgeoning youth culture. Flash forward fifty years, and one can see the legacy of this attempt to sell jeans as symbols of risk and defiance. Leading the pack in this regard are clothiers Lee, Buffalo, and Diesel. The current slate of Lee Jeans ads feature young, Lolita-like girls in suggestive poses—only partially dressed, of course, and sucking on lollipops. Buffalo’s campaign portrays female masturbation (and in adolescent-oriented CosmoGirl!, no less). And Diesel, whose jeans cost $200, just recently employed guerilla advertising tactics on its website, using a live webcam to record the kidnapping of a man by two women who then strip and engage in some very “adult” torture techniques. A far cry from Elvis’s thrusting pelvis, to be sure, but borne out of the same desire to associate denim with transgressive behavior.

Keys to Ad Analysis

To negate the influence of advertisements, one must first learn to analyze them, and that requires knowing the right questions to ask when confronted with a particularly seductive ad. Following are just a few such questions gleaned from Antonio Lopez of World Bridger Media (

• Where does the ad appear'in what magazine, sponsoring what television show, in what geographic location?
• As far as you can tell, who paid for the ad? Knowing who is responsible for the advertisement will help lead you to the motivations behind it.
• At whom does the ad seem to be aimed? Is the advertisement directed toward women or men, the young or the old, the wealthy, the poor, or the middle class?
• What is the message of the ad? What is it trying to tell you about the world—about yourself? What sort of values is it promoting?
• What sort of lifestyle is the ad advocating? Is it commensurate with your own? Does it encourage unhealthy or immoral behavior?
• What does the ad actually say, and what lies beneath the surface? Is there a subtext there that might be trying to manipulate you?
• What kind of technological techniques are used to convey the ad's message? How do they improve the product being advertised? What messages are embedded in these techniques?
• What is left out of the ad? Is there information that the advertiser doesn't want you to think about? Does the ad gloss over possible disadvantages of its product?
• Is the ad truthful? Does it present a fair picture of the world—of its product? Could anything be added to or taken away from the ad to make it more honest?

Language of Ads

Advertisers don’t exhibit much originality in terms of the language they use to manipulate you, and this is probably because they don’t deem it necessary. The same tricks that worked 100 years ago still work today; indeed, most of the following language techniques are so prevalent—so much a part of our everyday lives—that you probably don’t even notice them. Well, all that’s about to change. Once you familiarize yourself with the ten basic types of advertising claims, you’ll start to recognize them everywhere.

1. The Weasel Claim
When modifiers and disclaimers are used to cancel out the claim to which they are attached.
“Helps control dandruff symptoms with regular use.”
Not one word of this statement says that the product actually stops dandruff.

2. The Unfinished Claim
Occasionally, an ad will insist that its product is better than or has more of something but then fails to complete the comparison.
“Magnavox gives you more.”
More of what, exactly?

3. The “We’re Different and Unique” Claim
Advertisers will call attention to the one feature of its product that competitors do not have. We’re supposed to interpret such statements as signs of superiority.
“Cougar is like nobody else’s car.”
I’m sure that’s true, but one could say the same about a ‘78 Gremlin.

4. The “Water is Wet” Claim
Some statements of fact used by advertisers do not really distinguish their products from the competition.
“Mobil: the Detergent Gasoline.”
Um, I’m pretty sure that any gasoline can be used as a cleaning agent.

5. The “So What” Claim
Sometimes, ads provide facts that sound good but are ultimately meaningless.
“Strong enough for a man but made for a woman.”
Now you know why it’s called the “so what” claim.

6. The Vague Claim
These are statements that can be neither proved nor disproved.
“Lips have never looked so luscious.”
I don’t know; I saw some pretty good-looking lips back in ‘85.

7. The Endorsement
Typically, this is when a celebrity appears in an ad to create a link between his or her reputation and the product being advertised.
“Darling, have you discovered Masterpiece? The most exciting men I know are smoking it.”
Eva Gabor was the spokesman for this now defunct brand of cigarettes.

8. The Scientific Claim
Many ads employ statistical numbers, scientific language, or perplexing mystery ingredients to lend a sense of legitimacy to their products.
“Certs contains a sparkling drop of Retsyn.”
Mmmm. Retsyn.

9. The “Compliment the Consumer” Claim
This is merely flattering consumers so they will buy your product.
“You’ve come a long way, baby.”
So nice of you to notice.

10. The Rhetorical Question
These ads demand a response from the audience and are meant to get the consumer to affirm the qualities being associated with their products.
“Shouldn’t your family be drinking Hawaiian Punch?”
I have no idea why, but yes, I guess my family should be drinking Hawaiian Punch.

Manipulation Techniques

In addition to linguistic trickery, advertisements use associations to invoke particular feelings in consumers. In other words, by associating their products with a particular image or activity, advertisers play on the desires of the viewer to be either someone or someplace else. In no particular order, here are the top eight ways that ads attempt to manipulate us.

1. Beauty Appeal: Ads employ models and other beautiful people because most of us want to be thought of as beautiful as well.

2. Escape: The idea of getting away from it all is very seductive for some. If the escape promised in the ad is an impossibility for the consumer, it becomes all the more alluring.

3. Individuality: We all want to be thought of as unique and independent, though we also want to fit in with the crowd. Many ads, though mostly those for clothing items, promise both; they say their products are used by all of the most independent people.

4. Intelligence: Advertisers invariably try to portray their products as the “smart” choice. No one wants to buy something that will make them feel dumb.

5. Lifestyle: You’ve seen the ads with the young and hip twentysomething surrounded by beautiful and exciting people. These offer the promise of living the same sort of life once the product in question is purchased.

6. Nurture: Advertisers depict babies and animals to trigger our maternal and paternal instincts. The idea here is to associate a given product with caring for someone you love.

7. Peer Approval: Most ads implement this technique in the form of a threat: If you don’t buy our product, then your friends and family will no longer like you.

8. Rebel: Primarily used in ads that target the youth market, this technique associates a product with transgressive or anarchical behavior.


The Holy Grail for advertisers is that which will MAKE the consumer buy their products—a failsafe, automatic trigger that they can activate at any time and with the same endlessly repeatable result. It is in search of such a “buy button” that marketing research firms find themselves turning increasingly toward the field of neuroscience and what it might reveal about how, why, and when an ad actually works. Chiefly, such research involves the use of brain-scan technology, especially the fMRI. For example, one of the earliest studies to employ this technology involved a MEG (Magneto-encephalography) scanner; consumers were asked while in the scanner which of three brands they would purchase, and researchers found that familiar brands stimulated the right parietal cortex, what they now call the “location of brand equity.” Later, DaimlerChrysler discovered that their sports cars stimulated the “reward” center of the brain, the same place triggered by alcohol, drugs, and sex. And most recently, the Ad agency Arnold Worldwide used fMRI to “gauge the emotional power of various images” among 25–34 male whiskey drinkers; the results reportedly helped shape the 2007 ad campaign for Jack Daniels. Now whether such strategies actually result in increased sales is of course another matter entirely, and practitioners of neuromarketing are divided on the subject. That said, most believe that the day is fast approaching when what we buy is no longer up to us.


If you haven’t watched Saturday-morning cartoons in a while, you might be surprised by the commercials that accompany these TV shows. It has been estimated that $15 billion was spent on marketing to children in 2004 alone, and one third to one half of that money was spent on television food advertising. The majority of these commercials were for sugary breakfast cereals, fast food, soft drinks, snacks, and candy—a fact that is easily corroborated by a single viewing of SpongeBob SquarePants. Consequently, many conclude that such advertising is primarily responsible for the growing rates of childhood obesity, which has coincided with the explosion in media targeted toward children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of overweight children ages 6–11 has more than doubled since 1980, and the rate for adolescents has tripled. During this same period, the average time children spend using some form of media has grown to five-and-a-half hours a day—”the equivalent,” says the Kaiser Family Foundation, “of a full-time job, and more time than [these children] spend doing anything else besides sleeping.” Pediatricians and child development experts claim that advertising and obesity have three primary causal links: Ads encourage unhealthy food choices; the cross-promotion between these unhealthy foods and popular TV and movie characters promote high-calorie eating habits; and children tend to eat excessively while using popular media. And there is little to compete with the influence of such ads. For example, in the year that funding peaked at $3 million for the main government nutrition program, McDonald’s alone spent $500 million on a single campaign aimed at children. “We love to see you smile,” this campaign exclaimed, though one might hasten to add that McDonald’s no doubt loves even more those love handles that currently envelope our kids.


The world would be such a better place without People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and this is especially true when one considers just about every ad campaign that the organization has ever run. When not dehumanizing whole groups of people or objectifying others, Peta is mocking Christians, trivializing child abuse, or poking fun at the medical afflictions of the rich and famous. Here are just a few lowlights:

• As part of its anti-fur campaign, PETA ran print advertisements depicting an almost nude woman with pubic hair escaping from the sides of her underwear. The text read, “Fur trim. Unattractive.”
• PETA’s most popular series of ads featured attractive nude women in shackles or cages with marks on their bodies that were meant to suggest the wounds inflicted on abused animals.
• Another ad included a very unflattering portrait of Vogue editor Anna Wintour with the caption, “Fur is worn by beautiful animals and ugly people.”
• PETA mocked Christians with an ad caption that read, “He died for your sins,” followed by a photo of a pig.
• PETA’s “Animal Liberation” campaign juxtaposed pictures of black people in chains and shackled elephants and chickens. Asked NAACP spokesman John White, “They’re comparing chickens to black people?”
• In the UK, PETA ran an ad with a photograph of an overweight child eating a burger; the text stated, “Feeding kids meat is child abuse. FIGHT THE FAT. GO VEG.”
• An advertisement that ran at all Boston-area colleges displayed a newly hatched chick and the words, “Pro-Life? Go Vegetarian!”

Quotations about Advertising

“Advertising—a judicious mixture of flattery and threats.” —Northrop Frye

“Advertising is an environmental striptease for a world of abundance.” —Marshall McLuhan

“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.” —George Orwell

“Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the world worse.” —George Santayana

“Advertising is legalized lying.” —H. G. Wells

“As advertising blather becomes the nation’s normal idiom, language becomes printed noise.” —George Will

“Advertising is a valuable economic factor because it is the cheapest way of selling goods, particularly if the goods are worthless.”—Sinclair Lewis

“Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”—Mark Twain

“[Young people] are threatened . . . by the evil use of advertising techniques that stimulate the natural inclination to avoid hard work by promising the immediate satisfaction of every desire.”—Pope John Paul II

“[I cannot] think of any circumstance in which advertising would not be an evil.” —Arnold Toynbee


Key to negating the influence of advertising is media literacy, and there’sa ton of great resources on the web to help navigate you through the lies andmisinformation of our consumerist culture. The best of the bunch:
A huge internet portal for media literacy education that includes lesson plans, links, and a speakers bureau.

Action Coalition for Media Education
Develops media literacy curricula, encourages independent media-making, and supports local, state, and national media reform efforts.

Alliance for a Media Literate America
A national non-profit membership organization that specializes in networking and information exchange with regard to media literacy skills.

Center for Media Literacy
Provides information about media and technology and their impact upon cultures, particularly those of children and young adults.

Just Think
Encourages young people to make healthy behavior decisions, enhance their consumer choices, and think for themselves.

Subliminal Advertising

First off, it’s a myth—or, rather, its effectiveness is a myth. Way back in 1957, market researcher James Vicary claimed that by quickly flashing messages between frames in a movie, he persuaded people to buy more concessions. Indeed, according to Vicary, sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola in the New Jersey theater where he conducted the test increased by 57.5% and 18.1%, respectively. All attempts to replicate his findings failed, however, and Vicary eventually admitted that he had fabricated his results. Nevertheless, Wilson Bryan Key took up Vicary’s mantle in 1973, claiming that subliminal techniques—such as hiding the word “sex” in liquor-ad ice cubes—were widely employed in advertising. This led the FCC to hold hearings on the subject in 1974, leading to an official ban on subliminal ads in the United States. All subsequent studies on subliminal messages have concluded that the practice simply does not work, however, and media-watchdog groups argue that there are much more important things to worry about than hidden messages to consumers anyway—namely, those equally troubling messages that advertisers make no attempt to hide whatsoever.

Teen Magazines

If you’re a parent and want to freak yourself out, pick up that copy of Teen Vogue sitting on top of your daughter’s dresser. And I’m not talking about the magazine articles either, though these have some shock potential as well. No, it’s the advertisements in these teen-oriented magazines that will really curl your hair. Thong underwear, bras that bear rhinestones, and breast enhancement pills are just some of the products currently being shilled to young girls in the pages of teen magazines. According to Teen Research Unlimited, teen spending reached $172 billion last year with the average teen shopping 54 times a year and buying eight to twelve pairs of jeans. Consequently, all of the major clothing designers are trying to dip into the teen market, and they’re doing it in an extremely adult fashion. The aforementioned Teen Vogue, for example, which boasts over one million subscriptions, contains exclusive ads by the likes of Armani Exchange, Burberry, Chloe, D&G, Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Prada, and these designers aren’t exactly taming down their advertisements for the youth market. Most, in fact, run the same ads used in adult magazines, which means lots of skin and a whole lot of provocative situations. One ad that continues to run in Seventeen and Teen People features a couple getting intimate along with the following text: “Scent to bed: FCUK fragrances.” (FCUK is an acronym for “Fashion Company of the United Kingdom.”) And a full-page ad for Bloussant’s Breast Enhancement Pills touts “increased breast size and firmness” in Teen Vogue. It’s enough to make you want to lock up your little girl until she’s thirty.

United States of America

Just as you would expect, the U.S. leads the world in advertising spending. Global expenditures just recently hit another record, jumping 2.4 percent in only a year, and of this $570 billion, the U.S. spent nearly half of it (48%), which brings its total expenditures to almost $274 billion. And on what, exactly, did US advertisers spend all of this money? Well, in recent years, they have been using it to generate direct mail, due in part to the implementation of “Do Not Call” regulations in 2004. Indeed, direct mail accounts for about 21 percent of all US ad dollars, or $56.6 billion and 41.5 billion pieces of mail. The rest of the cash went to major media outlets, including television, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and the internet. Global spending in these areas likewise just reached an all-time high of $404 billion.

Viral Advertising

A close cousin of guerilla marketing, viral advertising is any marketing strategy that encourages consumers to do the advertising themselves via social networking sites, email, text messages, and so on. The term originated with Tim Draper of the ad firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson to describe his efforts to create the impression of spontaneous, word-of-mouth enthusiasm for a product or service. According to Ralph Wilson, a prominent eCommerce consultant, there are six basic principles of viral advertising: 1) Give away products or services for free; 2) provide for effortless transfer to others; 3) ensure that it scales easily from small to very large; 4) exploit common motivations and behaviors; 5) utilize existing communication networks; and 6) take advantage of others’ resources. What does a viral ad campaign look like? Following are descriptions of just a few of the more successful viral ads. Were you infected?

• gave away free email addresses and services, but then attached a tag to the bottom of every free message sent out: “Get your private, free email at”
• The makers of the film The Blair Witch Project launched a fake website that made it seem as if the movie were actually a true documentary.
• The creators of Snakes on a Plane made it possible for you to fool your friends with a pre-recorded telephone call from actor Samuel L. Jackson.
• Nine Inch Nails littered the web with fake websites, phone numbers—even thumb drives—that detailed events leading up to 2022, the year that serves as the basis for all of the songs on its new album.
• Clothier Diesel posted video clips on YouTube purporting to show secret footage of strange creatures as part of its “Fallen Wings” designer-jean ad campaign.

Worst Ads of All Time?

Somebody had to do it. I slogged through dozens of lists of the most offensive ads of the last two years and selected those advertisements that I thought were the very worst. And if my theory is correct—that ads push new boundaries with each passing year—then these may be some of the worst ads of all time. One thing is certain: If something doesn’t change—and fast—we are going to find ourselves unintentionally confronted on a daily basis with advertising so vile that we will become desensitized to all but the most revolting of human activities and behavior.

• A poster campaign for the TV series The L-Word, a show featuring lesbian relationships, showed the crotch of an oiled-up woman, clad only in the scantiest possible underwear. The underwear bore the legend, “Girls Allowed.”
• A Mazda commercial depicted two female mannequins being taken for a ride in a car; as the drive progressed, the viewer was made to believe that the mannequins had become aroused by the rumble of the engine.
• A British ad on behalf of the Gay Police Association featured a Bible and the claim that homophobic attacks stemmed from religious motivation (see below).
• French Connection—they of the aforementioned FCUK slogan—ran an ad in which two women had a martial-arts contest that culminated in a kiss. According to the clothier, the idea here was to “symbolize the competition between fashion and style.”
• A Viagra print advertisement showed a light switch with a picture of a man painted onto it. In the place of the man’s sexual organ was the upturned switch.
• An ad for condom brand Durex depicted two high-heel shoes embedded into the back wall of an elevator. The text read, “Better Shape, Better Sex.”
• Honda ran an ad for one of its hybrid vehicles that portrayed a man who had just recently hanged himself in his garage, the idea being that the zero emissions of his car failed to be an effective means of suicide.
• An advertisement for Cialis erectile dysfunction pills showed a vibrator doubling as a kitchen whisk; apparently, your partner must find another use for this device once you take Cialis.

X-rated Ads

If you’ve been paying attention at all to the foregoing entries, then you knew this was coming. Yes, that’s right; advertisers are now beginning to do away with technicalities and use actual pornography in their ads. Naked breasts have long been a feature of high-fashion advertising, but clothing label Gucci took ads to a new low with its depiction of a woman pulling down her underwear to reveal pubic hair shaved into the shape of a “G.” The reigning king of ad porn, however, has got to be the European fashion maker Shai. Last summer, it launched a new website,, that includes actual X-rated movies of couples who begin their liaisons wearing Shai clothing. And while one can click on various clothing items to open small pop-up bubbles that provide their prices and available colors, you can bet that shopping is not first among the priorities of the site’s browsing clientele. One wonders if such marketing is really about sales at all, or whether the real goal is to subvert traditional notions of decency and virtue.


Our culture worships youth; there’s simply no getting around it. And among the chief perpetuators of the myth that growing old is a thing to fear and dread are advertisers. At the turn of the last century, people over 65 made up about four percent of the American population—about 3.1 million out of 75 million; indeed, the median age in 1900 was just under 23 years. In contrast, there are more than 65 million Americans over the age of 65 today—12.1 percent of the population. Even so, the vast majority of today’s ads, when they address the elderly at all, do so in a decidedly patronizing fashion. For example, a recent ad for a calcium dietary supplement features a woman’s silhouette as she ages, growing increasingly stooped before our eyes as she falls prey to osteoporosis. By ad’s end, the woman is a hobbled and pitiful creature, needing the support of a cane. From whence does such ageism arise? Some from within the advertising industry itself assert that the practice can be traced to the young age of the ad execs who create such advertisements; it is only the young who are willing to expend the long hours necessary to compete in the advertising marketplace. Whatever the cause, you can be certain that such messages are a lie. Frank Gehry was 70 years old when he designed Seattle’s Experience Music Project, Georgia O’Keefe produced her best paintings when she was in her eighties, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature when he was 74, and Dickens wrote Great Expectations when he was nearly fifty. Clearly, growing old translates into mastery and excellence and not the frailty that advertisers suggest.


The “zeitgeist,” defined by Webster’s as “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era,” is what all advertisers are trying to capture; they are forever trying to determine what consumers care about—the spirit of any given moment. Currently, it would appear that our national zeitgeist centers around global warming. The term “eco-chic” speaks to this fact, evidencing a growing preoccupation with any product or service that comments on the theory of man-made climate change. Leading the charge in this regard is the clothier Diesel, which is currently running ads that feature locations rather than products. Landmarks such as the New York skyline, Mount Rushmore, and the city of London are depicted submerged in water, while the Great Wall of China is buried in sand and the pigeons of St. Mark’s Square in Venice are replaced by parrots. Similarly, Greenpeace ads depict miniatures of famous monuments inside of aquariums, and Ecoganik, a new clothing company based out of California, markets itself as offering products made only of certifiably organic or eco-friendly fabrics. Now, whether global warming is in fact occurring is hardly the point; rather, it is the perception of such changes that is fueling this fascination with eco-chic companies, as well as the wads of cash being exchanged for anything that demonstrates concern for the environment.

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