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Generally speaking, advertising is the promotion of goods, services, companies and ideas, usually by an identified sponsor. Marketers see advertising as part of an overall promotional strategy. Other components of the promotional mix include publicity, public relations, personal selling and sales promotion.

Advertisement from 1913 National Geographic



Advertisements painted on the side of buildings were common in the early-20th century U.S. This instance, now faded from lack of upkeep, is an example of a ghost ad.
Advertisements painted on the side of buildings were common in the early-20th century U.S. This instance, now faded from lack of upkeep, is an example of a ghost ad.

In ancient times the most common form of advertising was 'word of mouth'. However, commercial messages and election campaign displays were found in the ruins of Pompeii. Egyptians used papyrus to create sales messages and wall posters. Lost-and-found advertising on papyrus was common in Greece and Rome. As printing developed in the 15th and 16th century, advertising expanded to include handbills. In the 17th century advertisements started to appear in weekly newspapers in England.

These early print ads were used mainly to promote books (which were increasingly affordable) and medicines (which were increasingly sought after as disease ravaged Europe and Britain). Quack ads became a problem, which ushered in regulation of advertising content.

As the economy was expanding during the 19th century, the need for advertising grew at the same pace. In America, the classified ad became popular, filling pages of newspapers with small print messages promoting all kinds of goods. The success of this advertising format led to the growth of mail-order advertising. In 1843 the first advertising agency was established by Volney Palmer in Philadelphia. At first the agencies were just brokers for ad space in newspapers, but by the 20th century, advertising agencies started to take over responsibility for the content as well.

The 1960's saw advertising transform into a modern, more scientific approach in which creativity was allowed to shine, producing unexpected messages that made advertisements interesting to read. The Volkwagen ad campaign featuring such headlines as "Think Small" and "Lemon" ushered in the era of modern advertising by promoting a "position" or "unique selling proposition" designed to associate each brand with a specific idea in the reader or viewer's mind.

Today, advertising is evolving even further, with "guerrilla" promotions that involve unusual approaches such as staged encounters in public places, giveaways of products such as cars that are covered with brand messages, and interactive advertising where the viewer can respond to become part of the advertising message.


Commercial advertising media can include billboards (outdoor advertising), street furniture components, printed flyers, radio, cinema and television ads, web banners, web popups, skywriting, bus stop benches, magazines, newspapers, town criers, sides of buses, taxicab doors and roof mounts, musical stage shows, subway platforms and trains, elastic bands on disposable diapers, stickers on apples in supermarkets, the opening section of streaming audio and video, and the backs of event tickets and supermarket receipts. Any place an "identified" sponsor pays to deliver their message through a medium is advertising. Covert advertising embedded in other entertainment media is known as product placement.

The TV commercial is generally considered the most effective mass-market advertising format and this is reflected by the high prices TV networks charge for commercial airtime during popular TV events. The annual Super Bowl football game in the United States is known as much for its commercial advertisements as for the game itself, and the average cost of a single thirty-second TV spot during this game has reached $2.3 million (as of 2004).

Advertising on the World Wide Web is a recent phenomenon. Prices of Web-based advertising space are dependent on the "relevance" of the surrounding web content and the traffic that the website receives.

E-mail advertising is another recent phenomenon. Unsolicited bulk E-mail advertising is known as "spam". A message is spam only when it is unsolicited and in bulk.

Some companies have proposed to place messages or corporate logos on the side of booster rockets and the International Space Station. Controversy exists on the effectiveness of subliminal advertising (see mind control), and the pervasiveness of mass messages (see propaganda).

Unpaid advertising (also called word of mouth advertising), can provide good exposure at minimal cost. Personal recommendations ("bring a friend", "sell it by zealot"), spreading buzz, or achieving the feat of equating a brand with a common noun ("Hoover" = "vacuum cleaner", "Kleenex" = "tissue") -- these must provide the stuff of fantasy to the holder of an advertising budget.

The most common method for measuring the impact of mass media advertising is the use of the rating point (rp) or the more accurate target rating point (trp). These two measures refer to the percentage of the universe of the existing base of audience members that can be reached by the use of each media outlet in a particular moment in time. The difference between the two is that the rating point refers to the percentage to the entire universe while the target rating point refers to the percentage to a particular segment or target. This becomes very useful when focusing advertising efforts on a particular group of people. For example, think of an advertising campaign targeting a female audience aged 25 to 45. While the overall rating of a TV show might be well over 10 rating points it might very well happen that the same show in the same moment of time is generating only 2.5 trps (being the target: women 25-45). This would mean that while the show has a large universe of viewers it is not necessarily reaching a large universe of women in the ages of 25 to 45 making it a less desirable location to place an ad for an advertiser looking for this particular demographic.


Whereas marketing aims to identify markets that will purchase a product (business) or support an idea and then facilitate that purchase, advertising is the paid communication by which information about the product or idea is transmitted to potential consumers.

In general, advertising is used to convey availability of a "product" (which can be a physical product, a service, or an idea) and to provide information regarding the product. This can stimulate demand for the product, one of the main objectives of advertising. More specifically, there are three generic objectives of advertisements : communicate information about a particular product, service, or brand (including announcing the existence of the product, where to purchase it, and how to use it), persuade people to buy the product, and keep the organization in the public eye (called institutional advertising). Most advertising blends elements of all three objectives. Typically new products are supported with informative and persuasive ads, while mature products use institutional and persuasive ads (sometimes called reminder ads). Advertising frequently uses persuasive appeals, both logical and emotional (that is, it is a form of propaganda), sometimes even to the exclusion of any product information. More specific objectives include increases in short or long term sales, market share, awareness, product trial, mind share, brand name recall, product use information, positioning or repositioning, and organizational image improvement.

Examples of the ideas, informative or otherwise, that advertising tries to communicate are product details, benefits and brand information. Advertising usually seeks to find a unique selling proposition (USP) of any product and communicate that to the user. This may take the form of a unique product feature or a perceived benefit. In the face of increased competition within the market due to growing numbers of substitutes there is more branding occurring in advertising. This branding attributes a certain personality or reputation to a brand, termed brand equity, which is distinctive from its competition. Generally, brand equity is a measure of the volume and homogeneity of, as well as positive and negative characteristics of, individual and cultural ideas associated with the product.

Effective advertising will stimulate demand for a product and build brand equity and brand franchise. When enough brand equity is created that the brand has the ability to draw buyers (even without further advertising), it is said to have brand franchise. The ultimate brand franchise is when the brand is so prevalent in people's mind (called mind share), that it is used to describe the whole category of products. This phenomena is sometimes known as "hyperbranding." Kleenex, for example, can distinguish itself as a type of tissue or a label for a category of products. That is, it is frequently used as a generic term. One of the most successful firms to have achieved a dominant brand franchise is Hoover, whose name was for a very long time synonymous with vacuum cleaner (and Dyson has subsequently managed to achieve similar status, having moved into the Hoover market with a more sophisticated model of vacuum cleaner). The strength of a brand franchise can be established to a greater or lesser degrees in various markets. In Texas, for example, it is common to hear people refer to any soft drink as a Coke, regardless of whether it is actually produced by Coca-Cola or not (more accurate terms would be 'cola' or 'soda').

A legal risk of the dominant brand franchise is that the name can become so widely accepted that it becomes a generic term, and loses trademark protection. Examples include "escalator", "aspirin" and "mimeograph". (See genericized trademark)


Advertisement for the movie Spider-Man 2 as seen on the stairs of the Kyoto train station in 2004.
Advertisement for the movie Spider-Man 2 as seen on the stairs of the Kyoto train station in 2004.

Advertisers use several recognizable techniques in order to better convince the public to buy a product and shape the public's attitude towards their product. These may include:

  • Repetition: Some advertisers concentrate on making sure their product is widely recognized. To that end, they simply attempt to make the name remembered through repetition.
  • Bandwagon: By implying that the product is widely used, advertisers hope to convince potential buyers to "get on the bandwagon."
  • Testimonials: Advertisers often attempt to promote the superior quality of their product through the testimony of ordinary users, experts, or both. "Three out of four dentists recommend..." This approach often involves an appeal to authority.
  • Pressure: By attempting to make people choose quickly and without long consideration, some advertisers hope to make rapid sales: "Buy now, before they're all gone!"
  • Appeal to emotion: Various techniques relating to manipulating emotion are used to get people to buy a product. Apart from artistic expression intended to provoke an emotional reaction (which are usually for associative purposes, or to relax or excite the viewer), three common argumentative appeals to emotion in product advertising are wishful thinking, appeal to flattery, and appeal to ridicule. Appeals to pity are often used by charitable organizations and appeals to fear are often used in public service messages and products, such as alarm systems or anti-bacterial spray, which claim protection from an outside source. Emotional appeals are becoming increasingly popular in the health industry, with large companies like 24 Hour Fitness becoming increasingly adept at utilizing a potential customers fear to sell memberships; selling not necessarily the actual gym, but the dream of a new body. Finally, appeals to spite are often used in advertising aimed at younger demographics.
  • Association: Advertisers often attempt to associate their product with desirable imagery to make it seem equally desirable. The use of attractive models, a practice known as sex in advertising, picturesque landscapes and other alluring images is common. Also used are "buzzwords" with desired associations. On a large scale, this is called branding.
  • Advertising slogans: These can employ a variety of techniques; even a short phrase can have extremely heavy-handed technique.
  • Guerilla advertising: Advertising by association. Done in such a way so the target audience does not know that they have been advertised to, but their impression of the product is increased (or decreased) if that is the intent of the advertiser.
  • Subliminal messages: It was feared that some advertisements would present hidden messages, for example through brief flashed messages or the soundtrack, that would have a hypnotic effect on viewers ('Must buy car. Must buy car.') The notion that techniques of hypnosis are used by advertisers is now generally discredited, though subliminal sexual messages are extremely common, ranging from car models with SX prefixes to suggestive positioning of objects in magazine ads and billboards.

During the 1990s, advertisers have increasingly employed the device of irony. Aware that today's media-savvy viewers are familiar with -- and thus cynical about -- the traditional methods listed above, advertisers have turned to poking fun at those very methods. This "wink-wink" approach is intended to tell viewers, "We know that YOU know we're trying to sell you something, so bear with us and let's have fun." The ultimate goal of such advertising is to convey a sense of trust and confidence with viewers, by essentially saying, "We respect your intelligence, and you should respect us because we're not trying to fool you." Common television examples include most beer advertising and the commercials of the Geico insurance company.

Public service advertising

The same advertising techniques used to promote commercial goods and services can be used to inform, educate and motivate the public about non-commercial issues, such as AIDS, political ideology, energy conservation, religious recruitment, and deforestation.

Advertising, in its non-commercial guise, is a powerful educational tool capable of reaching and motivating large audiences. "Advertising justifies its existence when used in the public interest - it is much too powerful a tool to use solely for commercial purposes." - Attributed to Howard Gossage by David Ogilvy

Public service advertising, non-commercial advertising, public interest advertising, cause marketing, and social marketing are different terms for (or aspects of) the use of sophisticated advertising and marketing communications techniques (generally associated with commercial enterprise) on behalf of non-commercial, public interest issues and initiatives.

In the United States, the granting of television and radio licenses by the FCC is contingent upon the station broadcasting a certain amount of public service advertising.

Public service advertising reached its height during World Wars I and II under the direction of several U.S. government agencies.

Social impact


Main article: Advertising regulation

There have been increasing efforts to protect the public interest by regulating the content and the reach of advertising. Some examples are the ban on television tobacco advertising imposed in the USA, and the total ban on advertising to children under twelve imposed by the Swedish government in 1991. Though that regulation continues in effect for broadcasts originating within the country, it has been weakened by the European Court of Justice, which has found that Sweden was obliged to accept whatever programming was targeted at it from neighbouring countries or via satellite.

In Europe and elsewhere there is a vigorous debate on whether and how much advertising to children should be regulated. This debate was exacerbated by a report released by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in February 2004 which suggested that food advertising targeting children was an important factor in the epidemic of childhood obesity raging across the United States.

In many countries - namely Europe, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada - the advertising industry operates a system of self-regulation. Advertisers, advertising agencies and the media agree on a code of advertising standards that they attempt to uphold. The general aim of such codes is to ensure that any advertising is 'legal, decent, honest and truthful'. Some self-regulatory organisations are funded by the industry, but remain independent, with the intent of upholding the standards or codes (like the ASA in the UK).

Critiques of the medium

As advertising and marketing efforts become increasingly ubiquitous in modern Western societies, the industry has come under criticism of groups such as AdBusters via culture jamming which criticizes the media and consumerism using advertising's own techniques. The industry is accused of being one of the engines powering a convoluted economic mass production system which promotes consumption. Some advertising campaigns have also been criticized as inadvertently or even intentionally promoting sexism, racism, and ageism. Such criticisms have raised questions about whether this medium is creating or reflecting cultural trends. At very least, advertising often reinforces stereotypes by drawing on recognizable "types" in order to tell stories in a single image or 30 second time frame. Recognizing the social impact of advertising, MediaWatch, a non-profit women's organization, works to educate consumers about how they can register their concerns with advertisers and regulators. It has developed educational materials for use in schools. The award-winning book, Made You Look - How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know [1], by former MediaWatch president Shari Graydon, provides context for these issues for young readers.

Public interest groups, and free thinkers are increasingly suggesting that access to the mental space targeted by advertisers should be taxed, in that at the present moment that space is being freely taken advantage of by advertisers with no compensation paid to the members of the public who are thus being intruded upon. This kind of tax would be a Pigovian tax in that it would act to reduce what is now increasingly seen as a public nuisance. Efforts to that end are gathering momentum, with Arkansas and Maine considering bills to implement such taxation. Florida enacted such a tax in 1987 but was forced to repeal it after six months, as a result of a concerted effort by national commercial interests, which withdrew planned conventions, causing major losses to the tourism industry, and cancelled advertising, causing a loss of 12 million dollars to the broadcast industry alone.

Public perception of the medium

Over the years, the public perception of advertising has become very negative. It is seen as a medium that inherently promotes a lie, based on the purpose of the advertisement - to encourage the target audience to submit to a cause or a belief, and act on it to the advertising party's benefit and consequently the target's disadvantage. They are either perceived as directly lying (stating opinions or untruths directly as facts), lying by omission (usually terms or conditions unfavorable to the customer) or portraying a product or service in a light that does not reflect reality. It is this increased awareness of the intention of advertising, as well as advertising regulations that have increased the challenges that marketers face.


With the dawn of the internet has come many new advertising opportunities. Popup ads, Flash ads, banner ads, and email ads (often a form of spam) abound. What the advertising community has recently begun to do is make the ads themselves desirable to the public. For example: Cadillac chose to advertise in the movie 'The Matrix: Reloaded', which as a result contained many scenes in which Cadillac cars were used. From some points of view the whole movie could be viewed as an ad, but since it was entertaining, the public desired to view it. Each year, greater sums are paid to obtain a commercial spot during the Super Bowl. Companies attempt to make sure these commercials are very entertaining and many members of the public desire to watch them.

The advertising community has not yet succeeded in making their ads available to the public. Since the dawn of interesting and entertaining (desirable) advertising some people have been so entertained by a particular ad that they might like to watch the ad later or show a friend. The advertising community has not yet made it easy to acquire and watch an ad when and where a member of the public wants to. A few members of the advertising community have used the Internet to widely distribute their ads to anyone who wishes to see or hear them. In the future, more advertisers may wish to do this, possibly by distributing their television advertisements for free from their websites. Considering that in most cases advertisers must pay to get their ads seen or heard, it could be valuable to allow those who wish to watch them to do so freely and even distribute them to others - by that classic method, word-of-mouth.

Potentially (this has not been achieved to any degree) we could see the advertising community releasing quantities of free advertising content in the form of pictures, sounds and video to the public for whatever use they wish (perhaps under a Creative Commons license) which would likely result in widespread viewing and distribution which is desirable for both the advertiser and the public who enjoy using the content in their own creations.

See also


  • Wernick, Andrew (1991) "Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression (Theory, Culture & Society S.)", London: Sage Publications Ltd, ISBN 0803983905
  • Graydon, Shari (2003) "Made You Look - How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know", Toronto: Annick Press, ISBN 1-55037-814-7

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