Although the Internet is the top choice of electronic media for young adults 18 to 24, this age group continues to watch significant amounts of television each week. On an average, these individuals will view between two to five hours of TV a day for entertainment and relaxation. Television advertising thus remains a top priority for marketing purposes, and companies continue to rely considerably on this medium to get across their messages (Carparelli, 2004). Audience ad recognition remains at a high 70%, and viewers actually like commercials more — especially those that appeal to feelings, use music in a central role, are humorous and tell a story (MTV-3). It is expected that most students in the United States see about 360,000 commercials by the time they graduate high school (Tamburro, 2004).
This comes as no surprise to me. When watching a movie or a TV show, the commercials come on every 12 or less minutes. Depending on my mood (and whether or not the clicker is nearby), I will change the station or leave it as is and watch the same ads over and over again. No wonder recognition for commercials is so high!
Ads are remembered, despite the fact that viewers are often in a lethargic state. According to a report by Cybercollege on television commercials, “most children and adults watch TV in a kind of relaxed, transfixed state of awareness.” Some psychologists strongly believe that since people are not critically thinking about what they are viewing while in this semi-awake condition, commercials are passively accepted on a unconscious level. Some researchers go so far as to say that TV has a hypnotic influence.
Regardless of whether or not I am totally awake or being hypnotized, I know that these commercials do have a personal effect on how I relate to others. They actually promote a new and different kind of communication between me and others watching the TV. While we are all sitting around the room, we will make comments one way or the other not so much on the product as on the ad format itself. “Hey, did you ever see this commercial?” “Get a load of this!” “I hate this ad!” Admittedly, our comments are not very intellectually deep and thought provoking — more emotional than anything else. Yet it builds up camaraderie. You may not have anything else in common with the other people in the dorm, bar or workout center, but you can all relate to the commercials.
During the week in general conversations, you also hear people talking about TV ads even when not watching the tube. “Did you see that ad for such and such?” I even talked to people who were looking forward to the Super Bowl, not so much for the game itself (the teams were not that exciting) but for the first-run commercials. What American mentality has become! It used to be the family that watches TV together, stays together. Now it’s the family that agrees on commercials, stays together!
If I am any indication of other viewers, ads also work very well with promoting consumer buying. I find that I think of certain commercials when I see the real thing during the week. I’ll see the car ad in my mind when watching that kind of automobile go down the road. While in the electronics store, I somehow am more attracted to the products I hear/see most about. When listening to a song on the radio that normally goes with a commercial, I will think of the product rather than the group singing.
In addition to selling products, commercials are also promoting a more materialistic world view — especially for the adults of the future. “If you see an ad for Barbie or Levi’s, the fundamental message behind the advertisement is that the pursuit of wealth is meaningful, is valuable, and brings good things to your life,” says Timothy Kasser (2002), a psychology professor at Knox College. As Kasser notes, there’s a substantial body of research associating TV viewing with materialism, and materialism with depression and other social problems. Over the past decade, advertising to children has climbed to new heights — or, rather, descended to new depths, notes Cohn (2002). The Center for a New American Dream says that American companies annually spend about $2 billion advertising to kids — more than 20 times what they spent 10 years ago. James U. McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A& M. University, adds that advertisers treat children as three markets simultaneously: as a primary market, as influencers of their families’ economic decisions, and as the “market of the future.” The result is an all-out blitz on children’s minds (Cohn, 2002). If you think that these researchers are wrong, just try to find anyone over the age of 12 (or even younger!) who does not beg his/her parents for a cell phone.
Acuff’s book What Kids Buy and Why clearly tells marketers how they can create outstanding products and programs that will win in the marketplace and in the hearts of kids and parents: Just by “learning about and meeting the provocative information concerning the cognitive, emotional, and social needs of each age group.”
American consumers are also are easy to judge a “company by its cover.” If an organization really wants to sell products, it just has to use a well-known personality to hawk it. Forget whether the merchandise is any good or not. How could it be bad if “so and so” endorses it? In fact, ads make us feel a certain way about the company as well as the product. Walmart may have numerous lawsuits against it for not adhering to child labor laws and not providing the benefits and pay entitled to employees, but you would never know it to see the advertisements. The employees in the ads — men/women, all races and ages — say how wonderful it is to work for such a community-oriented organization.
It is not far to go from interest in a product, to a desire for that product and then believing that product and what is associated with it has value. My parents’ generation spent considerably more time with my grandparents talking around the dinner table than eating in front of the TV. Most of the values of this earlier generation, then, came from the parents and other family members with whom the children spent time. Now that youths spend so much time watching the viewpoints of the advertisers, their values are being formed to a large extent by these commercial enterprises as well. However, it is like believing in utopia. Grow states: “By their very nature, few products can help us attain the ideals that are ‘visually promised’ in so many commercials — ideals such as family togetherness, personal power, self-esteem, sociability, authoritativeness, security, sex appeal, and clear orientation in a confusing world. The promiscuous coupling of so many products with so many ideals promotes a deep confusion.”
Williamson (1986, 69), in fact, calls commercials a kind of surrealism:
All ads are surreal in a sense: they connect disparate objects in strange formal systems, or place familiar objects in locations with which they have no obvious connection. We are so familiar with perfume bottles haunting desert islands and motor cars growing in fields of buttercups that their surreal qualities go unremarked. (Dali’s ‘Apparition of a Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach’ could be the description of an everyday advertisement.)
Adds Grow, ” … not all commercials exploit ideal images or imply that products will deliver values. But commercials driven by value-laden images which are unrelated to the product may be alienating us from the very values they exploit, confusing us about how to attain those values, laying the groundwork for despair, resentment, and apathy,…