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Louise Ripley



Marketing for Competitive Advantage
M Louise Ripley MBA, PhD
The Creation of a Youth Culture: Distortion in a Dark Glass
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Presented at the Emerging Issues in Business and Technology Conference, October 1999

Advertisers spend billions of dollars forging links between consumer goods and one’s popularity and power. The dangerous consequences when young people fail to fit the norms in reflections portrayed by corporations eager to sell their goods to a youth market with millions of dollars of disposable income require new thinking in the areas of self-regulation by advertisers and of education in media literacy.

Thirteen years ago, Richard Pollay and Morris Holbrook debated in the pages of Journal of Marketing, whether advertising merely reflects what is prevalent or whether it has a defining influence on what prevails in our society (Pollay 1986, Holbrook 1987). In light of the recent killings in Littleton Colorado’s High School in the United States, and shortly afterwards in Taber Alberta’s High School in Canada, it is time to re-open the Distorted Mirror debate. It is time to ask ourselves what advertising is doing to our children and what we can do about it. Pollay (1986:18) begins his paper with a forty-year-old quote from Advertising Age:

“It is worth recognizing that the advertising man [sic] in some respects is as much a brain alterer as is the brain surgeon, but his tools and instruments are different. (Advertising Age 1957).”

Pollay suggested that while the metaphor may be overly dramatic, the “pervasive and persuasive” nature of advertising makes it difficult to deny that it has a formative influence on our culture (Pollay 1986:18). Holbrook countered with the argument that it is not fair to smash the mirror just because we do not like the reflection (Holbrook 1987:102). David Potter (1954:157), wrote that “If one can justifiably say that advertising has joined the charmed circle of institutions which fix the values and standards of society…then it becomes necessary to consider with special care the extent and nature of its influence – how far it extends and in what way it makes itself felt.” Pollay cited him when he asked for “an independent, comprehensive, and systematic comparative enquiry into advertising in all its many aspects…to ascertain both the direct and indirect, the intended and unintended effects,” (Pollay 1986:31), and to provide a basis for decision making regarding government policy which may or may not be required. Holbrook, in his rebuttal to Pollay, asked for studies to help us understand “the axiology of advertising…the role of values in ads, and the role of ads in value transmission.” (Holbrook 1987:108). A Catholic Archbishop and one-time newspaper editor, a strong supporter of advertising, writes in a review in the recent Journal of Consumer Marketing, that advertising “profoundly impacts the way people understand themselves and the world around them, including essential values and behaviour.” The commission which he headed and whose report he summarizes, suggests that advertising must “follow certain moral principles and norms that shape their content, target, and influence.” (Foley 1999:220). These studies have not been done. It is not surprising; they are tremendous in scope. It is beyond the reach of this paper to fully answer these requests, but this paper proposes a method of examining how advertising affects the way we understand ourselves and our world with reference to the products that are offered for our consumption.

I maintain that the link forged by advertisers between consumer goods and one’s popularity and power is a connection that can lead to dangerous consequences when young people fail to fit the norm they see in the advertising that bombards them daily, hourly, in every area of their lives. I maintain that that these dangerous consequences are a direct result of the deliberate creation of a youth culture by corporations eager to sell their goods to a market with disposable income in the millions of dollars. I ask that advertisers begin to question the effect of their ads on youth desperate so to be part of a group that they will go to great lengths to obtain these goods, and perhaps even kill when they feel finally that they will never fit in to the in-group. This paper will explore the way that advertising, through its overt and its covert arguments, shapes our thinking of products as the solution to problems of powerlessness and lack of belonging, and the connection of these feelings to acts of violence. I combine Pollay’s (1986) concept of “Intended and Unintended Effects” with Malinsky’s (1999) concept of “Overt and Covert Arguments,” modeled on Gilbert’s Multi-Modal Method of Argumentation theory (Gilbert 1994).

3. THE ADS  
The ads we will examine are taken from magazines aimed at young consumers and magazines readily available on the shelves of convenience stores and on family coffee tables: Teen People, PC Games, The Source, Sport, Sports Illustrated, Report on Business, and MacLean’s. We will examine how these ads appeal to us, logically and emotionally, physically and intuitively. We will examine their overt deliberate arguments and their covert hidden arguments. It is the latter about which we must be most concerned with respect to the effect of advertising on young people.  

3.1. To Be Successful, You Have To Be Tough  
Michael Gilbert (1994) maintains that in addition to arguing logically, a method which western society has revered since the time of Aristotle, we also construct arguments from three other bases: emotional, physical, and intuitive. Most ads are based in some form of logical argument. We may recognize it in its full formal syllogistic form, as in an ad for the United States Army ROTC programme, which shows a picture of a huge shark with the copy, “Only the strong survive.” The logical syllogism is:

Those who are strong will survive.
The Army ROTC programme makes you strong.
Take the ROTC programme and you will survive.

This ad also appeals to us on an emotional basis, with concepts of leadership and excellence, and its reference to young people starting college and preparing for their lives. On a physical level, the fierce-toothed shark that takes up two thirds of the full-page ad makes the argument for strength. The intuitive message comes across that if you take ROTC, you will be as tough as that shark. The argument in the ROTC ad is overt, direct, and deliberate. It is not a particularly subtle ad, nor was it intended to be, nor should it be. An ad to recruit future army officers needs to stress strength. Likewise, athletic shoes argue justifiably for toughness. An ad for Adidas shows a basketball player from the knees down, dribbling a ball, with the words, “They cushion you over hardwood, blacktop and opposing forwards.” The overt logical argument in this ad is the same as for the Army’s ROTC programme: to be successful, you have to be tough.

Saab also uses the concept of toughness to sell cars. We see a Saab, down below on a terrace beside a rough body of water, watched over by a huge muscular statue far above, behind whose shoulder we stand to look down upon the car. The copy reads, “Saab vs. Steroids.” Once again, the logical and overt argument is that in order to be successful, you have to be tough, and this car is tough, as tough as the ocean, as tough as the hugely muscled statue. In all three of these ads, the emotional, physical, and intuitive arguments match the main logical argument – to be successful, you have to be tough. Their messages are overt, and for the products, appropriate. Even within the category of products for which emphasis on strength is appropriate, however, we find some questionable tactics. The Adidas ad tells you that the shoe will protect you while trampling over hardwood and blacktop, and then goes on to add to that list, “opposing forwards.” In the Saab ad, the heavily muscled man is bigger than the car and the word “steroids” is twice the size of the brand name. What is important in an ad? How far do we go to catch the attention of our audience? I question whether even these ads are playing fair with images of strength and power, but at least the concept of power is integral to the product.

3.2. Tough is Better, Whether Appropriate Or Not  
What happens when images of toughness or physical ability proliferate in ads for products for which they may not be appropriate? What message does this send to young consumers? As is so often the case in critiquing ads, to look at just one or two ads and complain that all ads abuse the image of power would be both unfair and silly. The problem is that the tendency to stress the relationship of consumer goods to power is present in all kinds of ads, for all kinds of products, in all kinds of media, whether or not power or physical ability itself has much to do with the product being sold. We will examine only a few ads, but they are far too numerous. The danger is that the continual reference to strength may send a message to consumers that goes beyond the needs met by that particular product. Altoids mints, a British candy labelled “the original celebrated curiously strong peppermint” shows a picture of the small rectangular tin of mints in its half page ad, with the copy in huge print, “The Mints With the Kung Fu Grip.” We are talking about a strong mint, and those who like their peppermints will tell you they appreciate them tasting strongly like peppermint. Canon copiers tells us that its images “jump off the page,” and presents a young girl taking more than half the full-page ad, expertly swinging on a trapeze-like contraption, feet and hands behind her in a difficult manoeuvre to make her appear to indeed “jump off the page.” We are talking about a copy machine that will make realistic pictures, and those who use photocopy machines for visual effects will tell you they appreciate having a picture that will literally jump out at you. Pantene Pro-V shows us a bottle of their hair strengthening complex, with a good deal of white space, a curl of strawberry-blonde hair tied around the bottle, and the simple copy, “It’s more power to you.” We are talking about a strong spray to keep hair under control, and those who like to make their hair do something other than what it wants to do will tell you they appreciate having a spray which will help control hair.

Does a mint have to be strong to be worth buying? Does a photocopier have to be able to portray physical strength to be worth buying? Does a hair spray have to be strong to be worth buying? Probably yes. But how tough is too tough, and how does our emphasis as a society on the importance of strength, shape our values?

3.3 How Tough is Too Tough?  
Sometimes, ads take the concept of power and strength too far. An ad for a Timex watch shows only a large, hairy, wildly-tattooed hand and arm with a massive watch strapped on the wrist, and the copy, “It’s a little intimidating.” An ad for Gatorade, the beverage that created the product concept of “sports drink,” shows the face of a black athlete with a thick gold necklace and a basketball, dripping orange sweat the colour of the product. The copy reads in white letters across the centre of the page, “Sweat bullets. Sweat Bullets. Sweat Bullets. Reload.” In a tiny insert, we see him drinking from a bottle of Gatorade, accompanied by the question, “Is it in you?” An ad for a video game called Shadow Man shows a grisly mutilated pockmarked humanoid form with an eight–ball for an eye and a cigarette burning in his mouth. The tiny white copy on black background read, “It takes a killer to stop a killer.” Marketing scholars have argued strongly that advertisers are not evil people. This is the basis of Holbrook’s (1987) rebuttal of Pollay. Rena Bartos (1982), an American advertising executive, used the argument almost two decades ago in defending how advertisers portray women. Advertisers and their agencies are not evil people, they maintain. They are just doing their jobs; advertising merely reflects what goes on in society. Advertising plays an important role in economic development by informing and educating consumers; it is highly unlikely that advertisers are deliberately plotting to ruin the lives of our youth with products or their promotion. I maintain with Pollay and others, that advertising does more than just reflect our values. It serves to promote values as well. This dark distorted mirror not only reflects back to us what we look like, it also creates images of what we ought to look like.

Michelle Landsberg wrote in the Toronto Star in the weeks following the Columbine High School killings in Colorado, of “youth culture as an offspring of corporate greed.” In the aftermath of those terrible shootings of children by children, “the National Rifle Association blamed Hollywood; Handgun Control blamed the National Rifle Association; [the] U.S. Attorney General…blamed the killers’ parents;…students blamed local police for ineptitude…parents blamed the violent movies, video games, Internet sites, TV shows and all the blood-soaked mayhem of the mass media…and everyone had something to say about ‘youth culture.’” (Landsberg 1999:L1). Landsberg says she “felt like the reader of a mystery novel who knows that the murder weapon is sitting in full view on the kitchen table while the police dig up the backyard.” She asks the poignant question, “What on earth is youth culture?” Youth do not manufacture guns, video games, and movies. These are manufactured by adults in a market economy eager to make a profit from yet one more sector. But Landsberg does not fail to miss the glaring reality of the fact that, “the guns, the movies, the cynical novels are all part, parcel, and product of an economic system that each one of us sustains, willy nilly, as consumers.” (Italics added). If we are going to begin to understand the effect of advertising on society, particularly on the young, we must begin to examine not only advertising’s intended effects, but its unintended effects as well. We must look at what advertisers want us to see, and we must look at what we ourselves see in the distorted mirror. In the Timex ad, the overt logical argument is clear to be seen:

  A tough watch is best
  Timex is so tough it’s intimidating
  Timex is the best watch to buy  

This overt logical argument makes some sense. For many people, having a watch that will stand up to everyday use and abuse is important. It is particularly important for young people who may be more active, more involved in physical sports and events, more likely to mistreat a delicate instrument strapped to their wrists. Timex, in fact, built its early reputation on toughness, with the motto that is still printed at the top of this ad in tiny print, “Timex: It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” Timex was for many people, the first watch they owned. It was tough enough to purchase safely for a child.

But does a watch have to be so tough that it is overpowering? At what point did we leave the idea of a watch so tough that you could let an elephant stamp on it, or a car run over it, as the early ads did, and move to a concept of a watch so tough that it is intimidating? The emotional argument is based in toughness and fear. If creatures like a death-head skull are looking terrified, this must be one tough product. The physical argument is one of sheer power and intimidation, a huge arm, tattoos of skulls and women shrinking in horror from the very presence of the product. The intuitive argument is one of having what it takes, being able to produce when it counts. Get a watch that is powerful enough to do whatever you need to do. What are the covert arguments?  

Logical – buy this product and get proof that you are tough
Emotional – buy this product and you can stop being afraid
Physical – feel the sheer physical power of the arm, the tattoos, the product; feel powerful
Intuitive – buy this watch and be big and powerful, important, capable, worthy of respect.  

The underlying messages in this ad go far beyond the need for a watch that will stand up to hard use. This ad suggests that the watch itself will scare off anyone who tries to take you on, and suggests that its wearer is tough enough to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” As is often the case with established brands, Timex uses the mythology created by its early advertising to move its promotion into a new era of far more overt violence. Just how tough do you have to be to buy a watch? Gatorade advertises a drink that promises to pump you up and get you back on the court after grueling physical exertion. The overt arguments are straightforward and simple:  

Logical – drink this beverage and do better at sports
Emotional – drink this beverage and believe that it is indeed “in” you
Physical – the liquid you drink from this bottle will refresh you through your sweat
Intuitive – drink this beverage and be as good a player as the professionals  

The covert arguments are more frightening. There are numberless ads where we may point to a relationship between toughness sports and violence, and try to make the argument. Here, Gatorade openly presents us with a directly stated connection between the imagery of bullets and guns and the use of a popular soft drink: Sweat Bullets. Reload.  

 Logical – guns and bullets are proof of strength; drink this beverage and be tough
  Emotional – guns and bullets are the measure of manhood; drink up and have it in you
  Physical – guns and bullets are equivalent to sports and success; drink up and go do it
  Intuitive – if you buy the right products, you can do whatever you want to do  

Guns and bullets, sports and sweat, violence and success and having the right consumer products; it is all of a piece. It is used to sell sports drinks to young people, and it also sells the concept of violence as a solution to problems. The covert argument in the ad for Shadow Man brings us to the ultimate violence – “it takes a killer to stop a killer.” The issue of violence in video games is under considerable discussion in many forums right now, but the basic question remains of whether we ought to be marketing a game that encourages us to think that just because someone is “bad” (Shadow Man), we have the right to kill him. These are frightening enough scenarios when applied to adults. When we consider how much of this kind of thinking bombards our children in advertising every day, everywhere they turn, it should be no wonder that we are experiencing shootings in our schools.

3.4 How Tough Are You, and Who Do You Know?  
What are our society’s values concerning power and its relationship to where you fit in, who you know, who you are connected to? Canadian National states in a full-page ad, “You can never be too powerful…Or too well connected.” “Powerful” sits above a picture of a diesel railroad engine. “Connected” sits above a picture of a map of the North American continent linked by CN’s rails and hotels, a simple straightforward ad for a company whose business is connecting a continent. What happens when we begin to link strength and connection with popularity? Toyota argues, “If your friends aren’t IMPRESSED by the extra features, get new friends,” over a picture of a fast-moving car that fills the lower half of the full-page ad. Even the overt message here is dangerous: If the strength and power of your automobile don’t impress your friends, you ought to be getting new friends. The covert message is a deeply held belief that you are what you drive; you are what you consume; you are the products you can afford to buy. Who you will make friends with, who you will be privileged to keep company with, who you will be liked by, depends very much on what you own. An ad for a game by Konami, Blades of Steel ’99, makes the explicit connection between physical ability and popularity with the opposite sex. The copy beside the picture of the handsome hockey player looking out at us from behind his helmet, reads, “If you were me, could you stand up to the pressure of being named team captain? Stick handle, wearing a 225-pound defenseman on your back like a sweater? Stop blowing kisses to the pretty girls in the arena? It’s not so easy. Is it?” Notice that he says, “pretty girls.” It is only the pretty ones who will get his kisses. How we look is crucial to how powerful we are and how well we fit in, and all of that can be fixed by purchasing the right products.

3.5 Tough Connected and Looking Right  
A Tommy Hilfiger fragrance ad does not overtly name sports or strength or physical ability, but it is written large in the covert messages. Six extremely healthy, happy, self-assured, comfortably elegant young people sit on the lawn of a large comfortable house with an American flag flying in the upper left corner. Three are black; three white. Three are male, three female. All but one show perfect white teeth in a comfortable smile. Hands lounge comfortably on each other, showing a closeness and intimacy, a belonging to this group. The intended effects, the overt arguments, are:  

Logical – To be successful, you have to dress right, look right, smell right
Emotional – You want to belong to a group that looks this content and self-satisfied
Physical – the sheer power of the appearance of this group of happy, healthy, young people
Intuitive – if you buy Tommy Hilfiger’s fragrance, you too can be part of all this  

The unintended covert effects are:

Logical – if you don’t look like these people, you won’t belong
Emotional – you wish you did look like this 
Physical – they are so beautiful, so self possessed
Intuitive – You have to have these clothes in order to be someone  

But there is a scarier, more deeply buried set of unintended effects in the kind of advertising seen in the Hilfiger ad.

Logical – you don’t look like the people in this ad and therefore you don’t belong 
Emotional – you wish you did look like this, but you never will 
Physical – gut wrenching envy
Intuitive – it isn’t fair and I have a right to get back at people like that who shut me out of their world  

Far too many ads aimed at young people concentrate on the need to possess the right products in order to belong. Pacific Sunwear says, “Dress Code: No Shirt, No Shoes,” and shows a good looking boy gently lifting the edge of a pretty girl’s shirt, then the two of them walking off across the beach together. Playaz clothing stores uses an ad with two young men and a woman all wearing the brand name clothing, and here too we have an overt sexual connotation, including her bare midriff and his open zipper with the brand name visible right inside.  

3.6 Tough Connected and Looking Right, No Matter What The Product  
The last set of ads takes us, not to the extreme of the Shadow Man video game, but to some of the simpler, less violent, ordinary things in life, soft drinks, skin lotion, breakfast cereal. An ad for Arctic Shatter, Powerade’s me-too sports drink patterned after Gatorade, shows a hand holding a bottle of the product, a tough-looking but somehow unreal truck, as if it were in a video game. Fully half the page shouts, “Welcome Arctic Shatter, cold in a bottle, here to save your game.” The intended overt effects are: 

Logical – to be successful, you have to be tough
Emotional – if you drink this, you will be refreshed enough to be good at your game
Physical – the colour blue looks cool, refreshing; the truck looks powerful 
Intuitive – if you drink this, you will be good at whatever you are doing  

The unintended covert effects are:  

Logical – to be successful, you have to buy the right stuff
Emotional – you will only ever be good if you buy the right stuff 
Physical – a powerful drink and a powerful truck will improve your game
Intuitive – it isn’t fair, I can’t be good without the right products  

An ad for Clean and Clear Skin Toning Astringent shows two healthy happy pretty young girls laughing together, looking out at the camera, their complexions airbrushed to total perfection. The copy reads, “Daniella and Lisa. Best friends, since Camp Minnetonka….” A small picture of the bottled product sits in the upper right corner. The Intended Effects (Overt Arguments) are:

Logical – to be successful, you have to look good
Emotional – you and your best friend can decide together how to handle any problem
Physical – experience the picture of perfect skin, the closeness and touch of friendship
Intuitive – if you get it together with your friends and buy the right stuff, you too can look this beautiful  

 The unintended effects (Covert Arguments) are:

Logical – you don’t look like the people in this ad and therefore you don’t belong
Emotional – you wish you did look like this, but you never will 
Physical – gut wrenching envy
Intuitive – it isn’t fair and I have a right to get back at people like that  

And finally, an ad for something as simple and seemingly innocent as breakfast cereal makes the direct connection between the product and violence. The whole campaign for Corn Pops centres on strength – the breakfast cereal that gives you energy for the day; the playground bully who takes the cereal away from the weaker boy. The full-page ad here centres on a box of Kellogg’s Corn Pops, with a yellow police safety line criss-crossing the bottom of the box, and the copy below, “There’s nothing to see here. Keep moving. Go about your business. Please disperse. Let’s go people.”

The overt deliberate messages of these ads are all the same: To be successful, you have to dress right, be right, look right, be tough, powerful, strong, capable, connected to the right people. The (we hope) unintended messages are also the same. You will never look like this or be like this or be part of this crowd; you should go out and spend all the money you can to try, but underneath, you just aren’t going to be good enough. The underlying intuitive message of these ads is: “It isn’t fair and I have a right to get back at people like that.” Is it any wonder that young people want to get back? What happens to young people who are made to feel, by their peers, and backed up by the advertising that promotes the products they consume, that they do not belong? Landsberg asked in her column about the killings in Colorado, “Who has challenged the culture of Columbine High School itself? … it is a school where ‘jocks rule.’… Why should a school reward and hero-ize physical skills above the intellectual? Makes no sense, until you remember the huge sums of money raked in by schools with ‘winning’ teams. …Although the sneering, taunting, hateful behaviour of the Columbine jocks has been noted, no one has yet asked whether that particular ‘youth culture’ is implicated in driving young people to homicide.” (Landsberg 1999:L1).

As despicable as any one particular ad may appear to us, censorship of ads is not the answer. We need better self-policing by the advertising industry, and particularly by the corporations who promote their products to youth at such great profits. We need better education of our youth in the skills and techniques of media literacy in order to combat the emotional lure of advertising. We need methods to assess the effect of advertising on youth. Bagozzi (1999) cautions us about the difficulties of analyzing response to advertising in the presence of emotion, and given the highly charged emotional feelings bound up in advertising, brand names, and products among today’s youth, future studies will need to address this issue. We also need clearer methods of analyzing the effects of advertising, and semiotic analysis will help in this area. Gilbert’s model of a broader view of argumentation will be helpful in analyzing the many different ways that we respond to advertising, logically, emotionally, physically, and intuitively.  

If we can pool all these resources, we will be on our way to answering Richard Pollay’s request of thirteen years ago for "an independent, comprehensive, and systematic comparative enquiry into advertising in all its many aspects…to ascertain both the direct and indirect, the intended and unintended effects.”

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Return to Course Syllabus

AP/ADMS 4290 3.0 Marketing For Competitive Advantage
York University, Toronto
© M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.