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Critical Approaches to Advertising: What is Still Valid?

We open this issue with a reprint of excerpts from Marshall McLuhan’s Mechanical Bride. As I explain in my introduction to the excerpts, I experienced my return to McLuhan, after many years, as exceeding disappointment. His work just simply does not stand up to the test of time. What he presents as a ‘critical’ view is shot through with the prejudices and distinctive gullibilities of the 1950s—fears about manipulation by media, an embarrassing obsession with sex, no awareness whatsoever that some readers are female. The writing and argumentation are disappointingly vague and choppy.

You might wonder why I decided to include the excerpts anyway. In part, I felt that it would be good to remind readers of the dubious arguments and poor scholarship that underpins a lasting fear that advertising is a form of black magic. There are, of course, better analyses from this period than the one we have here. Raymond Williams’ 1961 ‘Advertising, The Magic System,’ which we have also excerpted in A&SR, is a much more impressive work of scholarship. Betty Friedan’s chapter on the ‘Sexual Sell’ in The Feminine Mystique draws on essentially the same cultural worries as McLuhan, but her argument is so much more measured, thoughtful, and coherent that this work is also compelling, even after all these years.

The connection to feminism, in fact, was the second reason I chose to include the McLuhan piece. It was Betty Friedan’s critique, drawing almost entirely on Ernst Dichter, the father of motivation research, as a source, that set the stage for the Second Wave feminist crusade against advertising. So, it also seemed fitting that we would have McLuhan’s essay to run alongside the much lighter-hearted photo essay that Astrid Van den Bossche and I put together for this issue. In ‘Uppity Women Unite! Marketing the Women’s Movement in America,’ we question the sharp line that feminism has drawn between the movement and the marketing world since Friedan’s critique appeared. However, rather than construct a counter-ideology, we simply trace the use of modern media tactics by the feminist movement itself. What emerges is a truly impressive array of very professionally orchestrated campaigns and brilliant executions. You can see, easily, that feminists have been very good marketers for the movement. But this conclusion violates what is now a core belief: that feminism and advertising don’t mix. We then turn to look at how actual product advertisements have forwarded the cause of feminism in a variety of ways, sometimes with helpful products, sometimes with challenges to stereotypes, but also with by questioning with the question of whether it is still fair to imagine all-male teams viciously working to sexualize women behind every ad. Is it not reasonable to imagine that some of the women working in advertising today actually are feminists and that they occasionally sincerely want to put out positive messaging about women? In the last section of our essay, we work through a number of recent campaigns, such as Pantene’s ShineStrong campaign, Always’ LikeaGirl campaign, or the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. Over the course of the past fifteen years, Advertising and Society Review has featured in-depth reports, including personal interviews, with the teams behind such campaigns—and even an interview with Gloria Steinem! All these resources are linked throughout the photo essay so readers can enjoy pursuing the connections.

Ironically, we also had two textbooks about advertising to review for this issue, each representing one side of this very ideological divide: The Psychology of Advertising, 2nd edition (Fennis and Stroebe, 2016) and Advertising: Critical Approaches (Wharton, 2015). Hoping to find a bridge between psychological and critical approaches to advertising fit for classroom purposes, Van den Bossche goes in search for complementarities. Each book is well worth the read, but a satisfactory lesson plan is still in the making.

Linda M. Scott
Editor

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