The Social Impact of Advertising can be summed up as one that has significant impact on a given society. Advertising can have wide-ranging repercussions on a society. Some critics suggest that advertising promotes a materialistic way of life by leading people to believe that happiness is achieved by purchasing products. They argue that advertising creates a consumer culture in which buying exciting new products becomes the foundation of the society’s values, pleasures, and goals.
Other critics express concern over the way advertising has affected women and racial minority groups. Ads in the 1950s depicted women primarily as decoration or sex objects. Although millions of women worked outside the home in the 1960s, ads continued to focus on their role as homemakers. Whether owing to the feminist movement or to women’s increasing economic power, after the 1960s it became more common to see women depicted in professional roles. However, many ads today still emphasize a woman’s sexuality.
The way advertising has depicted racial minorities has also been harmful. Prior to 1960, African Americans were usually shown in a subordinate position. Due to the influence of the civil rights movement, however, advertisers by the 1980s had begun to depict African Americans as students, professionals, or business people. However, many African American organizations and community activists continue to object to the way that alcohol and tobacco companies have seemingly targeted low-income minority communities with a heavy preponderance of outdoor advertising for their products.
As ads have begun to more fully reflect the lives of women and African Americans in the United States, increasing attention has been paid to the way in which advertising shows other ethnic groups, including Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and Eastern Europeans. There is still considerable debate over how advertising influences public perception of gender and of particular ethnic groups.
Advertising has a major social impact by helping sustain mass communications media and making them relatively inexpensive, if not free, to the public. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and broadcast television all receive their primary income from advertising. Without advertising, many of these forms of mass communication might not exist to the extent that they do today, or they might be considerably more expensive, offer less variety, or even be subject to government control through subsidies. In-depth news programs, a diversity of magazines, and free entertainment might no longer be widely available.
At the same time, however, some critics warn that because advertising plays such a major economic role, it may exercise undue influence on the news media and thereby curtail the free flow of information in a free society. Reporters and editors, for example, may be hesitant to develop a news story that criticizes a major advertiser. As a result, society might not be alerted to harmful or potentially harmful conduct by the advertiser. Most members of the news media deny that pressure from an advertiser prevents them from pursuing news stories involving that advertiser, but some members of the media acknowledge that they might not be inclined to investigate an issue aggressively if it threatened to offend a major advertiser.
Advertisers may affect media programming in other ways, too, critics charge. For example, companies that sponsor TV programs prefer relatively wholesome, noncontroversial programming to avoid offending a mass audience. This preference causes TV networks to emphasize this type of programming. The result is that society may be denied the benefits of being able to view challenging or highly original entertainment programs or news programs on controversial issues. Because advertisers are especially interested in attracting the 18 to 34 year olds who account for most consumers spending, television shows are often developed with this audience in mind. If the ratings show that a program is not attracting large audiences, particularly among 18 to 34 year olds, advertisers often withdraw support, which causes a program to be canceled. As a result, shows that are more likely to interest and to be of value to older audiences are not produced.
The impact of television on young children has received much attention. Research suggests that children see television advertising as just another form of programming and react uncritically to its messages, which makes them especially vulnerable to advertising. There is also concern about the way in which adolescent girls respond to advertising that features beautiful, thin models. Research indicates that many adolescent girls are unduly influenced by this standard of beauty, become dissatisfied with their own bodies, and may develop eating disorders in pursuit of a thin figure. New research suggests that adolescent boys are also being influenced by advertising images of bulked-up, buffed bodies. As a result, many become dissatisfied with their own body image, devote large amounts of time to weightlifting, and may even take drugs that have harmful side effects in order to develop more muscle. Those over the age of 60 are thought to be less influenced by advertising, but some elderly people no longer process messages as easily as younger people, making them more susceptible to questionable advertising claims. The Social Impact of Advertising can shape the way and manner a particular society reacts to certain product and services.