What is Advertising?

Advertising is a process, not a medium in its own right, although it uses different media forms to communicate. Advertising, in its simplest form, is the way in which the vendor or manufacturer of a product communicates with consumers via a medium, or many different media.

Advertising = messages

Advertising can be as “For Sale” card placed on a supermarket noticeboard:

The vendor is giving notice that a product is for sale at a given price to people who might be interested in buying it. This harks back to the earliest forms of advertising, when exotic new goods shipped into Europe from the Far East and India (eg tea and spices) needed to be brought to the attention of potential buyers.

However, even a supermarket noticeboard might be considered a crowded marketplace as there may be other desks offered for sale, and other advertisements for customers to read. In order to attract a customer's attention to this particular advertisement, the person offering the desk for sale has to make it eyecatching, possibly by adding some colour.

They also have to emphasise the benefits of the product they are offering. There are only two basic benefits that a product has when compared to others of a similar sort. It can be described as being better or cheaper(or both!!):

They might also add an image of the desk - a picture is worth 1000 words after all - in order to persuade the consumer still further that this desk is the right desk to buy. They might add a headline or slogan to their ad, to announce exactly what it is that is being sold. Thus they have all the basic elements of print advertising: a catchy slogan, an image, and copy text. This advertisement will hopefully fulfill its purpose which is to provide information which might influence someone to buy the desk. It has done this by linking the vendor of the desk to people who are looking to buy a desk. The link appears in the medium of the supermarket noticeboard, and the vendor pays the owner of the medium to place it there. The vendor has chosen this medium because the kind of people who buy the kind

Therefore advertising is:


Most advertising today is about communicating the complex range of messages about a product known as branding. A brand is a product or range of products that has a set of values associated with it that are easily recognised by the consumer. A brand is distinguished immediately by its name and/or a symbol (eg the Nike swoosh, the adidas three stripes). Brand Identity is created by using the following:

1. Brand Essence - a way of summing up the significance of the brand to stockholders and consumers alike of the brand in one simple sentence

2. Brand Slogan - a public way of identifying the brand for consumers - often associated with a logo

3. Brand Personality - marketeers can describe their brand as though it were a person, with likes and dislikes and certain behaviour

4. Brand Values – what does it stand for/against?

5. Brand Appearance - What does it look/sound/taste like?

6. Brand Heritage - how long has it been around? does it have customers who have been loyal to it for many years?

7. Emotional benefits – how it avoids/reduces pain or increases pleasure

8. Hard benefits – bigger? better? cheaper? washes whiter?

As consumers, we tend to be more familiar with a whole brand, as opposed to individual products. The process of advertising allows us to associate values with products that may not have a real connection to them - for instance, Nike has always selected rebellious athletes to promote its shoes, the 'bad boys' of basketball, tennis & football, and therefore the Nike brand has connotations of rebelliousness,

Advertising As Institution

Advertising is also a media institution, which means it is an industry with its own way of doing things, its own channels of communication, and its own key personnel who carry out skilled tasks. It is bound by its own regulations, and penalises those who break those regulations. It also has a number of award-giving bodies, and it rewards good work, as judged by peers. Advertising companies are known as agencies, and they produce and distribute advertising material on behalf of their clients, the manufacturers or service providers.

Advertising As Part of Our Culture

If you look around you, you will find your world filled with advertising - on huge billboards in the streets, on the pages of magazines, between the tracks played on the radio, on the walls of the subway, on the pages of internet sites, at the bottom of emails, on the backs of cinema tickets, on the shirts of football players. It seems that any surface that will hold still long enough to be read is considered a potential advertising medium. The fact that there is so much advertising out there means that it is part of our daily cultural experience - it's almost impossible to avoid it. Therefore the study of advertising is not just about WHAT manufacturers say to consumers, but it about HOW it is said. Advertisements can have an influence far beyond a simple message about a product. Advertisements can introduce characters to the public imagination, make icons out of actors, have everyone repeating a catchphrase ('Wassup" anyone?), get audiences arguing over plot points or waiting for the next instalment, and generate news stories. Advertisements often take on a cultural life of their own, and occupy space in the media beyond that which has been paid for. This, of course, is great for the advertisers!

This adidas ad, featuring David Beckham, made headlines as the largest ever piece of outdoor advertising in the UK, possibly the world, in May 2002. Fort Dunlop is a Birmingham landmark, and can be seen from the M6 (which is often completely jammed with traffic) although it was claimed that the ad could be seen from up to a mile away on a clear day. The ad itself was larger than a football pitch, with the image of Beckham's face measuring 20m x 20m (cue lots of Football Bighead headlines from the UK tabloids). As well as having a huge (sorry...) impact on the local environment, the ad generated press coverage around the world on account of its size.


Using a news search engine (yahoo , reuters, bbc) OR the Media Guardian find out about an advertisement or campaign which has made the news. Use search terms carefully (advertisement + controversy might be a good starting point - can you think of any other useful terms?). Answer the following questions:

Are the above ads sexist? If so, why? Which gender is being stereotyped unfairly?

As well as being part of the news agenda, advertisements are a reflection of a society's wants and needs at any particular point in time. They also, through the way that they represent gender, age, wealth, success, happiness etc provide excellent material for historians and sociologists researching social attitudes of an era or a culture at a particular point in time.

Advertising reflects the values of a society - all the things that people want to have or to be - and can be used as a measure of dominant hopes and fears. Our own appearance-obsessed culture will provide plenty of fruit for future investigation. The Wallis ads shown (from a campaign entitled "Dressed to Kill") tell us a lot about attitudes to women - from both a male and a female perspective - and the power of sexuality in our society. They also show what we find acceptable to laugh at,

It is worth looking at successful campaigns, to get a snapshot of how we see ourselves (or would

Look at

Imagine you have just arrived from another planet, and these are the materials you are given to draw your first conclusions about the human race. Identify the main a) hopes and b) fears of this species. Explain why you have come to those conclusions.

Advertising Makes The World Go Round

The messages relayed through advertising may range from the straightforward ("Buy this now - it's cheaper!") to the subtle ("Buy this now - it will make you attractive to the opposite sex!") but they all cost money to put "out there". A lot of money. The giants of the corporate world (Nike, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble) all pour millions of dollars into advertising on an annual basis. They want their messages to be heard, and as a by-product of all this, they financially support the media through which we hear or see their messages. Without advertising there would be no television except re-runs, magazines would be thin, colourless and prohibitively expensive, and many internet sites would not be able to afford their server space. When big companies cut down their advertising budget the effects are keenly felt by the media which rely very heavily on revenue from selling advertising space. The money simply stops coming in and the economic effects are drastic: magazines fold, TV stations slash original programming, and internet companies crash out of existence.

This is worth remembering next time you complain about the way a movie on TV is broken up by commercial breaks, or that you can't watch your favourite show on the internet until you've sat through an ad: if the advertising wasn't there you wouldn't be watching.

Therefore the study of advertising is essential for a Media Studies student. As well as analysing form and content, you need to understand how advertising allows other media to exist, and how it generates cultural identity. A world without advertising would be a very different place to the one that we know.

See also on Mediaknowall

The Advertising Industry

Analysing Ads

Controlling Advertising

Advertising Glossary

History of Advertising

Types of Advertising