The mere mention of the word "advertising" evokes an instant surge of negative emotions in people who see it as a way for marketers to coerce them into buying something they don't need. Many business owners view advertising as an expensive, yet necessary, means to get their products and services in front of those who will buy them.

For hundreds of years, advertising has straddled the line between good and evil, having been both the means of spreading the word about life-changing innovations and a convenient way for charlatans to hook their unsuspecting prey. The role of advertising has evolved over the years, but its mark on American society is clear.

The Function of Advertising

In its broadest definition, advertising is a way of calling attention to something. The sponsor of the ad usually pays for ad space, whether print or digital, broadcast television or radio, outdoor or online and social media. There are different reasons to advertise:

Increase sales: Products or services are usually advertised to generate sales for a business. This could be when a product is new, when a new version comes out or during special sales events.

Make an announcement: New products or additions to a product line are often advertised with a big splash. A business may announce its new location, new owners, new chef or anything new in an ad. It doesn't need a special price sale; the point is bringing people in for the excitement of newness. Grand openings are like a party and are advertised to get the word out to as many people as possible on the theory that if they attend, they're more likely to return.

Establish brand awareness: A business may run a series of ads, or one ad many times, to become a familiar name or to make the public aware of what the company does, what the owners believe in or what the business is known for.

Businesses are often disappointed to learn that running an ad once or twice usually won't accomplish any of these goals. A long-held theory in the advertising business is The Rule of 7. This means that prospective customers need to see or hear your message seven times within a short time frame for them to remember it, who the advertiser is and what they're selling.

Though the exact number of times needed has been debated through the years, the point is that people are busy with their own lives. If they're not looking for your ad, they may speed past it the first few times. Gradually, it breaks through their awareness and they look at it. But it will take a few more times before they remember its message and the advertiser.

Advertising and Society

The importance of advertising in our life cannot be overstated. Through the years, advertising has both reflected the times and taken the lead to influence society. Ads from any era give accurate and sometimes shocking glimpses into what was important in society at the time.

Among the early American settlers were business owners with products to sell: bread and other foods, candles, books, cooking implements and cloth for making clothes. There was no Federal Trade Commission looking out for fakes and frauds, so dubious products like tonics for every ill were also advertised. Right next to the ads for products were ads announcing the sale of slaves or rewards for finding runaway slaves.

With westward expansion, ads touting real estate and tourism were prominent. Ads beckoned the adventurous to head west for the gold rush or for plentiful jobs building railroads.

Advertisements announced wartime needs long before Rosie the Riveter became a famous pinup girl during World War II. Civil War ads reveal the pressing need for uniforms and shoes to outfit hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Women who took over men's jobs while they were at war had little time for household chores, so ads touted ready-made goods and time savers.

During the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, advertisers started to show black models in their ads. This was helpful in reaching black buyers but also showed how society was changing and helped that change become accepted.

Technology and Advertising

An interesting relationship exists between advertising and technology, as each might not be at its current level without the other. Technological advances in paper types and printing practices made huge differences in advertising. The invention of newsprint paper – which is the cheap, rough paper made from wood pulp – in the early 1800s made it possible to print newspapers more cheaply and more often, and advertising in newspapers took off.

Meanwhile, as inventors dabbled with technology, they announced their exciting new products through advertising. In Colonial times, newspapers were the main way to receive news, including ads. Today, there are numerous advertising media in addition to newspapers. In fact, the volume of media and popularity of digital news has put some newspapers out of business. But though the media used may change, advertising is still a major reliable method of announcing new products.

When the first personal computers were made available to the public in the early 1980s, it was big news. Though articles were surely written about them, advertising told the public where to buy them and how much they cost. That's because unlike public relations, where businesses send out press releases and hope editors will write about them, advertising is a sure thing. When you pay for space and provide the ad, it will appear.

Shortly after IBM introduced its PC, IBM "clones" by other companies came onto the market. Many people who couldn't afford to or didn't want to pay the price for an IBM computer could buy a clone instead and get all the same features.

If the manufacturers of the clones hadn't advertised, though, who'd have known they existed? And if PCs hadn't made their way into homes across the country, computing wouldn't have become second nature to society. The same is true for all the technology society relies on so heavily, from the availability of the internet to smartphones, tablets and social media.

Advertising to Children  

One concern many people have about advertising's role in society is the way the industry advertises products to children. From at least the early days of television, toy and cereal manufacturers quickly realized they had a captive target market during Saturday morning cartoon shows. Children often watched these shows while their parents slept or completed household tasks, a rapt audience too young to understand the difference between advertising simulations and real life. What a disappointment when the dolls and trucks didn’t actually move on their own once they were in the child’s home.

And who cared if the brightly colored cereals with words like “fruity” in their names had none in the actual food? With singing cartoon characters encircling the bowl and cute shapes of marshmallows falling magically from the sky, kids just had to have them. Advertisers counted on the children pleading in the stores until they got the coveted cereal.

The Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to oversee, stabilize and regulate the media, which at the time included radio and wire services and later expanded to add television. The FCC has specific rules regarding advertising to children. For example, a maximum of 10.5 minutes of commercials can run during one hour of children's programming on weekends and no more than 12 minutes per hour during the week.

Children today are also bombarded with ads through the internet, whether on computers, phones or other electronic devices. Many have their own social media accounts, such as Facebook, where pop-up ads are prevalent. Now, ads can even be targeted to users based on their browsing history. Though today's children are certainly smart about technology, they're still too young to really understand that ads may not have their best interests in mind.

Bringing Causes to Light    

On the other hand, advertising's wide reach also successfully brings attention to social issues, health and diseases. Some of the most creative and memorable ads have highlighted the plight of people with disabilities, the homeless and abused or neglected children; health issues like smoking, drug abuse and alcoholism; and pleas against drinking and driving, texting while driving, riding without using a seat belt and more.

One of the communication law's mandates is that media must operate "in the public interest," serving the needs of the communities around them. Along with running paid ads, they're tasked with donating space to causes that serve the public interest. When their licenses are up for renewal, the FCC studies their record to see how they've met the criteria of serving the public interest. One way to do that is by donating time to create or space to run public service announcements.

In 1942, the Ad Council was formed to produce public service announcements for print and broadcast, and it still does so today. Volunteers from major ad agencies create the ads free of charge and partnered media companies donate space for the ads in their magazines, newspapers, broadcast and now digital media. The result is high-quality advertising that makes waves and gets noticed.

Since the Ad Council was formed just before the U.S. entered World War II, the first ads promoted buying war bonds. Through the years, the Ad Council has produced many successful, memorable campaigns including:

  • Smokey the Bear against forest fires. 
  • The Peace Corps' "Toughest Job You'll Ever Love" ads.
  • The first ads to explain and help stop AIDS. 
  • Emergency preparedness "Ready" campaign after the 9/11 attacks.
  • Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" program to combat childhood obesity.
  • Numerous drug abuse messages.
  • Ads addressing autism, diversity, anti-bullying, sexual harassment and other timely issues.

It's easy to see that the ads produced are a sign of what was happening in society at the time. The Peace Corps campaign came out when the Corps was founded in 1961; the first ads to raise awareness of AIDS appeared in 1986. Autism was in the news because parents feared it was caused by vaccination. Bullying was brought to light as the increasingly widespread use of the internet and social media made the practice worse for children and teens.

Advertising's Responsibility to Society 

The advertising industry continues to step up to address society's pressing problems through the Ad Council. In addition, most advertising agencies take on pro bono, meaning without charge, clients on an ongoing basis. These are usually local causes in their communities.

Individual businesses often do the same, taking on charities for which they encourage employees to volunteer on company time. Businesses that have the funds also underwrite ads for causes they believe in. You may notice "Brought to you by..." announced at the end of radio or TV ads or written at the bottom of print ads.

It could be argued that businesses and ad agencies do this for the publicity, to show how community-minded and philanthropic they are. But it could also be argued that without advertising to spread the word about new products in an exciting way that increases sales, the economy would falter.

To achieve the most benefits to society, advertisers should:

  • Be truthful in their claims.
  • Try more to assert the worth of their products than to tear down competitors' products.
  • Exercise care and caution in advertising to children.
  • Use their platform for public service announcements to promote healthy practices and discourage unhealthy and hurtful actions.

Businesses operate to make money, be profitable, grow, reward shareholders and reinvest in the company. Advertising helps them accomplish that. If they advertise ethically and contribute time, money and materials to help their communities and society in general, they're fulfilling a responsible role in society.