Sunday, December 31, 2006

Clarifying Thoughts on Ads, Careers

More often than not, I find that when I try to be brief, I end up being unclear. It appears this was the case with the most recent post. Let me try to respond to the thoughts individually.

Teaching Is a Reward
Absolutely! I really enjoy the contact with both undergraduate and graduate students. I believe that we can make a difference in their lives. I still keep in touch with a couple of students from the first class I ever taught. This contact with students is a perk of the job.

Advertising as Noble Pursuit
Mostly, my response is, "whatever helps you sleep at night." There are a lot of positive things that I can say about advertising. I find it fascinating that people identify so strongly with brands. That is why I have spearheaded research in this area. However, fascinating does not mean noble.

Although I usually avoid the topic, I think we have to delve into the notion of social capital. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone comes to mind. There is a reason that we can so easily identify with brands. I see two major possibilities.

First, brands may take advantage of our evolutionary heritage. That is, we were not engineered to cope with artificial brands. I am specifically thinking of Reeves' and Nass' The Media Equation. If we treat mediated messages like we treat real people -- as Reeves and Nass allege -- then it logically follows that we would treat brands like read people.

The second possibility is that brands are taking advantage of some sort of void in our lives created by a lack of social capital. If you look at the transformation of advertising from informational to transformational, then the time lines are concurrent. As social capital has decreased, advertising has used fewer information-based appeals and more emotion-based appeals.

To state this more clearly, perhaps we form relationships with brands because other relationships are lacking in our lives. This would be in accord with Putnam's argument.

Here is a related quotation from a story today on, " 'Families today are pretty disconnected,' says [noted genealogist Maureen] Taylor. 'It is important for kids to have that sense of connectedness to everyone else, at a point where many kids and teenagers are feeling quite alienated. It is important for kids to know where they fit in.' "

The reality surely combines those two plus several things beyond the scope of this post. However, neither of these possibilities is especially flattering toward advertising.

Furthermore, if you look at L. J. Shrum's recent work on the cultivation of material values, then there is more unpalatable evidence for advertising and marketing.

My dad once told me that every successful salesperson that he ever met really believed in the product/service that s/he was selling. Surely this must be true. You have to force yourself to believe. The two quasi-anonymous comment writers here surely have done this. And there is no arguing that advertising can be beneficial for small businesses, large businesses, and for the adoption of new ideas. But that does not make it good for society overall. And there is some pretty strong evidence that it is not wonderful for the average individual.

I'm no media critic, and I'm not lambasting advertising. However, I do think it is extremely self-serving to find some inherent nobility in getting people to pay more for Tide when Gain works just as well. I completely believe that the "no laws" clause in the First Amendment should be interpreted as "no laws." But this does not mean protected speech is good speech.

Academic Versus Industry Pay
This obviously varies across industries and department. However, Texas Tech pays well. We are easily among the top quartile in communications. Despite the generous salaries, I could easily take on a marketing research position tomorrow for a hefty increase in salary. It is no stretch to say that I -- or an equivalently trained peer -- could come close to doubling our salary with a large market research firm.

But I don't want to do that, in part for the contact with students.

Appetitive Versus Aversive Processing
One of the many reasons that this broad topic interests me is that advertising theories do not easily translate to health communication messages. I would argue that this is due to, in part, the fact that selling is an appetitive approach. We try to activate existing appetites with our ads.

Conversely, most public service announcements attempt to get you not to do something. This is an aversive function. With low level appeals, it is difficult to activate the aversive motivational system. We believe that this is due to concepts we call negativity bias and positivity offset.

At low levels of intensity, the appetitive motivational system is more active that the aversive motivational system. And if you make a health appeal extremely intense, it is likely that viewers will avoid the message altogether rather than the specific behavior targeted.

Some health topics do make proactive appeals (e.g., use a condom) but these are not especially appetitive and usually involve eschewing some simpler, more pleasurable activity.

It's an interesting challenge.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


Timbo checking in from Massillon. It may look pathetic that I'm reading your blog and sports scores at 12:30 am, yes a half hour after the ball dropped in New York City, but this was not a big party New Year at my household.

You talk some about great sales people genuinely believing in their product or service. I've encountered this as well when working in radio. The salespeople selling ad time on the air were big believers.

I think it's hard to say whether advertising is good or bad for society based on the concept that it's superficially filling some sort of void in lives. I'd say that the massive quantities of advertising have become annoying, but that's part of capitalism I suppose.

You say that the quasi-anonymous posters (like me) have come to believe in our work. I agree. I guess I just don't see advertising as trying to trick people to pay more money for a product that works to the same extent as a more affordable product. This is brand equity, I understand. But in my everyday work, I really feel that with each of my clients, I'm excited for the new consumers who discover these brands. It may be superficial, but happiness is not easy to find, and if a product I'm marketing can make a man or woman smile, then I'm ready to find a way to bring it to their attention.

I'm sure you just see massive logical holes in all that I'm typing, but cut me some slack. It's almost 1 a.m. and I'm not a doctor.

The irony... some of my work does help to save people's lives... so sometimes I'm lucky enough to not just sell cheese. Cheese would be easier though.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Sam said...

I think all of these things can be true.

Someone once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for everything else."

This may be true here. Advertising may be bad for society, but it is still better than any other form of commerce.

If you look at the numbers, we are headed in the wrong direction.

* Personal savings are at an all-time low
* Bankruptcies are at an all-time high

We're going broke keeping up with the Joneses, and yet average happiness is no higher. Products make us happier in the short-term, but overall happiness does not really increase with the GDP.

Every single raise I have ever had in my life has left me with the impression that I can tell no difference at the end of the month.

I'm not a normative theorist, and I do not pretend to have answers. However, it's pretty clear that the present situation is less than ideal

5:44 PM  

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