For better or worse, advertising is everywhere, with the allure of new products, big promises and hope for something new or different. Turn on the television, scroll through your social media feed or listen to your favorite radio station, and you will find that it is hard to avoid someone trying to sell you something. While advertising shares information and lets us know about what is new, it does so in order to persuade rather than educate, so its influence can sometimes be more negative than positive.
There are times when advertising is helpful because we learn new things about things in which we are interested. For this reason, it is important to consider the positive and negative aspects of advertising in our daily lives. Through advertisements, we often learn about things like:
- New helpful products
- Social issues
- Companies that align with our values
- Political candidates
- New ideas
When an advertisement educates without the motive of pulling the wool over our eyes, it can be helpful and open new doors. On the other hand, negative aspects of advertising might also influence us by:
- Enforcing negative stereotypes
- Creating a sense of discontentment
- Inspiring stress in our relationships with ourselves and others
- Influencing us to spend money we do not have
- Persuading us to purchase things we do not need
- Exploiting our vulnerabilities
The debate about the positives and negatives of advertising is bit like the infamous chicken or egg question. Some people claim that advertising causes negative effects, while others argue that it merely reflects what is already happening in the culture. The truth likely lies in some combination of this. Stefano Tartaglia and Chiara Rollero conducted a study about this in Italy and the Netherlands. The two countries have differing ideas on gender roles, with the Netherlands being far more egalitarian than Italy.
Tartaglia and Rollero studied print advertisements from both countries featuring images of women and men. They found that most advertisements tended to show men in professional roles and women in decorative or housekeeping roles, but that Italy had more gender-stereotyped representations in advertising than the more egalitarian Netherlands.
The study concluded that while advertising reflects culture, it also influences it, so it is prudent to choose images in advertising that reflect where we want to go as a culture.
For all the positive potential in advertising, the reality is that it frequently influences society in negative ways. One negative aspect of advertising is its potential to feed into unrealistic expectations, breed discontentment and influence our thought processes in ways that are beyond our control. This happens partly because we are consuming the advertisements as individuals but also because the advertisements influence the wider culture that shapes us.
Things like materialism, workaholism, unhealthy lifestyle habits, alcoholism, political mudslinging and unrealistic views of body image in advertisements negatively shape our culture and impact the most vulnerable among us. While outright lies are not allowed in advertising, lies of omission are common, and advertisements frequently prey on our emotions to get us to buy into what they are telling us.
Children have a hard time distinguishing between ads and television programming, and they lack the developed intuition to alert them when persuasion is at play. They are vulnerable to advertisements because they are more likely to accept them as reality, without the critical-thinking skills necessary to ask important questions. Children tend to believe what they are told.
Advertisers often hook in children through advertising in ways that continue to influence them well into adulthood. In a 2014 study by Connel, Brucks and Nielsen, we learned that childhood advertisements can create biases that last well into adulthood. Study participants rated unhealthy products advertised to them as children as healthier and more harmless than they really were. Thankfully, a simple awareness of this bias was its antidote.
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, campaign ads have become increasingly negative over past election cycles. Consumers are often disturbed by these advertisements and might change the channel but not when they agree with what is being said. Negative campaign ads tend to fuel a vicious cycle, where both sides fling ads back and forth in a futile, narcissistic, tantrum-like attempt to make their opponents look worse and worse while making themselves look better.
Mud slinging in negative campaign ads creates an environment where it is difficult to escape an accusatory mindset. Scroll through your social media news feed during an election cycle, and you are likely to see intense arguments and insults among "friends" who normally would not act that way. There is no guarantee that more fair-minded political advertisements would cure this issue, but since advertisements shape culture, it certainly would not hurt.
Drug advertisements are advantageous in that they make consumers aware of treatment options that they might not otherwise know about. However, they also tend to tout the benefits of the drug in a louder voice and the risks in a softer or faster voice with the distraction of happy-looking people on the screen. As a result, some physicians are concerned that their patients are not as aware of the risks involved with a particular drug as they are with the benefits.
Since advertising slots can be expensive, smaller companies or alternative medicine options are usually not advertised as much as those produced by large pharmaceutical companies. Because of this, consumers are often not aware of a broad range of options for addressing health and wellness. Seeking medical care from a professional who is well versed in a wide variety of treatment options could help cover a patient's blind spots.
During certain times of the year, advertisements about diet, exercise and weight loss are almost everywhere you look. Images of extreme thinness and a negative view toward those who are larger, as well as exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of dieting, can negatively impact body image and sense of self-worth, especially in young people. Dishonesty that labels diet programs and lifestyle changes as always positive further persuades vulnerable people to engage in choices that might not be the right fit for them physically, developmentally or emotionally.
The diet industry is worth $66 billion in the U.S. alone, and it often earns money from people struggling with self-worth and acceptance. When children or people with low self-worth view advertisements that associate increased thinness with increased self-worth, they often want to buy the products advertised.
In response, the consumer's efforts that begin with slight restrictions in food or increases in exercise can become more intense over time and even develop into eating disorders. These vulnerable people are often unaware of how severely advertisements or other cultural influences are impacting them, that diets are often not effective and that they might not always contribute to overall health.
Advertisements often depict gender roles in traditional ways that reinforce stereotypes. Think about how many times you have seen cleaning, diet and beauty products marketed toward women, while tools, cars and beer are marketed toward men. These stereotypes are not represented across the board in advertising but enough that children watching them are going to get the idea of who they are supposed to be when they grow into women and men.
It is true that we can partially counter the negative gender-role stereotypes in advertising at home or in schools, but with the younger generation engaging in more and more screen time with less sense of positive well-being, advertising still has a large influence on daily life and beliefs.
Globally, people spend an average of 135 minutes on social media each day. Businesses and marketers have begun to capitalize on this reality through advertisements. While most people engage in social media to connect with others, in the process they are bombarded with professionally placed ads and friends selling things, all of whom are trying to persuade them to spend their money.
The increase in direct sellers offering their products on social media means that the lines between friends and salespeople are blurred. People often feel offended when a friend they have not heard from in ages reaches out to them not to connect but rather to try to sell something or get them to join their direct-selling team.
Even those doing the selling can become confused about the boundaries, as they often copy and paste scripts offered by their companies, who have convinced them that they are doing a service to their friends by selling to them. They may even feel grateful to the company for inspiring them to reconnect with old friends, while those same friends are actually resenting the seller for having ulterior motives.
Many countries around the world recognize the negative influence of advertising on vulnerable people, including children. Countries such as Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and England have all restricted advertising that targets children. Some countries have only restricted junk food and candy advertisements, while others have restricted all advertising to children under the age of 12 or 16. These efforts help protect the most vulnerable among us: children, who are less able to distinguish true from false or identify when someone is trying to persuade them of something.
In addition to governmental efforts to protect vulnerable populations from the negative influence of advertising, individuals and families also play a role. Once they have awareness, parents can choose to:
- Limit screen time
- Mute commercials
- Purchase television subscriptions that do away with advertisements
- Engage in discussions about advertisements with their children
For vulnerable adult populations, modalities such as neurofeedback show promise in helping the brain function in new ways that increase alpha waves and activity in the decision-making centers of the brain, which could reduce impulsivity and vulnerability toward persuasion. Intentional choices toward healthy boundaries with media and incorporating healing modalities when needed can help to limit the negative influence of advertisement in an individual's life.
While the negative influence of advertising is a real dynamic, it is also true that advertisements give us new information that can be helpful. It is sometimes possible to take in both the positives and negatives of advertising without being unduly influenced by them. Cultivate the following skills to help experience the positive aspects of advertising without all the negatives:
- Fact checking: Read up on a product, read reviews and seek out research to get the full scoop.
- Product comparisons: Explore and research all your options for solving a particular problem or need.
- Emotional awareness and mindfulness: Pay attention to the emotions the advertiser wants you to feel and why.
- Decision-making skills: Consider pro and con lists, healthy discussion or taking time to think before purchasing.
- Boundaries: It is OK to mute commercials or change the channel. Sometimes, it is also healthy to take a media break.