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The Five (Wrongheaded) Complaints Against Advertising

by Jerry Kirkpatrick  |  
May 8, 2007

Coercive, offensive, and monopolistic. That's what critics say about advertising. You've probably heard most of the complaints: advertising sends subliminal messages to make us buy products we don't need or want, it creates the very needs and wants it aims to satisfy, it is offensive to good taste and needs to be better regulated, it erects barriers to market entry, and it increases prices.

The first two are the coercive arguments and together with the offensiveness complaint constitute the so-called social criticisms of advertising; the last two are the monopolistic arguments and constitute the economic criticisms. Let's take these one at a time.

1. Subliminal advertising, the alleged ability to motivate action with messages that are below our threshold of perception, doesn't exist.

Advertisers exert great effort to make their messages—whether filled with sexual innuendo or not—blatantly explicit. Whatever is beneath our threshold of perception is not perceived and, therefore, cannot influence our purchasing behavior.

A 1957 movie theater "experiment" that allegedly increased sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola by flashing messages on the screen at a speed that no one could perceive has been argued to be a hoax; subsequent, well-controlled experiments produced no effect.

Subliminal embeds in the 1970s—the word s-e-x, for example, spelled out in the ice cubes of a Gilbey's gin ad or a sexual orgy "embedded" in the clam-plate special of Howard Johnson's restaurant menu—were products of the overly active imagination of a journalism professor who admitted that his students could not see the embeds until he pointed them out.

Explicit, above-threshold messages in advertisements are what sell; hidden, muffled, or unperceivable messages do not.

2. John Kenneth Galbraith's supposed dependence effect holds that needs, wants, tastes, and demand are all dependent on, and therefore are created by, the process of production, especially advertising.

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Jerry Kirkpatrick is professor of international business and marketing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is author of In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism (  

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