The OED defines advertising firstly as “a warning, notification, information,” and secondly as “a bringing into notice, spec. by paid announcement.” The latter is how we are most familiar with the word, primarily because of its reference to capital. Advertising is a set of practices and techniques that draw consumer attention to products or services with the purpose of persuading them to react by purchasing the product or service advertised. Because it connects consumers to commodities, it is an essential element of a capitalist society.

Advertising is not a medium per se; rather it is mode and function of media. Poet David Antin has remarked, “A poem’s a commercial that isn’t selling anything.”1 If this is so, it might be said that the words and images of advertising are a kind of public art that is selling something. Like art, advertising reaches its public by appropriating a myriad of media: newspapers, magazines, radio, television, internet, mass transit, billboards, and direct mail. The relationship between advertising and these media is co-dependent; many media outlets rely on advertising fees to provide much of their income. In addition to these major media, ads are also found on smaller, less public media such as product packaging, shopping bags, and promotional pens. In short, advertising pervades any space where a consumer has visual or auditory access.

While evidence of advertising dates back to ancient and Medieval times, it did not become a mass communication until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the spread of Johann Guttenberg’s printing press allowed for the mass production of posters and circulars. In the seventeenth century, London newspapers began to print advertisements, marking the moment from which all mass media would be infiltrated by promotional messages. In the nineteenth century, the development of industrial capitalism ushered in Modern advertising. The boom in industry demanded a boom in advertising. By the end of the century, advertising would be further ignited by the innovation of photoengraving. According to Marshall McLuhan, this introduction would make the advertisement and the photograph interchangeable. It revolutionized the look of newspapers and magazines dependent on ads for revenue by filling them with instantly-informative graphics for both story and solicitation. The result was the twentieth century’s Graphic Revolution. 2

With the help of the photograph, agencies began to lure consumers with the shrewd combination of texts and images. The communicative power of the image plays a vital role in advertising’s effectiveness. In “Rhetoric of the Image,” Roland Barthes reveals the communicative powers of a photograph. He analyzes an ad for Panzani Pasta to reveal how the images communicate denotative meanings (which convey the pasta being sold) and connotative meanings (which express a quality like Italianicity or freshness). Denotative meanings are coded in an established set of signs, but connotative meanings are founded in cultural associations. Advertising creates and manages connotations so that they seem natural despite being drawn from a specific ideology.3 Because knowledge of the consumer psyche is vital to this cunning use of images, market research is a fundamental component of advertising. The product of this research is a subliminal communication in which advertisements function on what McLuhan called the “depth principle of onslaught on the unconscious.”4

This onslaught has precarious effects on the capitalist consumer. Some critics, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, assert that the high price of advertising ensures that power remains in the hands of the wealthy few. To Adorno and Horkheimer, those hands belong to the capital-controlled culture industry, a monolith that effectively controls the minds and wills of the capitalist subject. They argued that the culture industry manufactures standardized cultural products with the intention of manipulating the masses into docility. And “advertising is (the culture industry’s) elixir of life,”5 for it initially draws the attention of the unsuspecting masses to the products that dupe them. Through repetition and manipulation, advertising dehumanizes language, vanquishing words of their meaning. Similarly, the language used in advertising strips the true qualities from the goods it describes. Objects become empty.6

Sut Jhally advanced this Marxist critique of advertising by attempting to explain how it gains such a stronghold on consumers. He argued that Karl Marx foresaw what would become advertising’s central function in his concept of commodity fetishism.7 According to Marx, because we purchase goods in the marketplace, the social origins of products are concealed from the consumer. Their value cannot be traced back to the skill and effort used to produce them. Therefore, products must be emptied of their true meaning to be exchanged for capital. Jhally proposed that if the relations of production drain goods of their value, “the function of advertising is to refill the emptied commodity with meaning.”8 By providing meaning to the material world, advertising exercises power over consumers. Jhally argued that to produce this meaning, advertising has worked a kind of magic that implies a world where people are transformed by objects.9

Jhally borrowed this evocation of the supernatural from Raymond Williams. In “Advertising: The Magic System,” Williams argued that advertising runs on a “system of magical inducements and satisfactions, functionally very similar to magical systems in simpler societies.”10 To achieve this magic, advertising systematically distorts the difference between material usage and cultural values and ideals by misdirecting its audience’s consciousness through rhetoric that is more persuasive than informational. It uses fantasy to convince a beer drinker that he does not drink beer because he is thirsty; he drinks it because it makes him manly.11 “You do not only buy an object: you buy social respect, discrimination, health, beauty, success, power to control your environment.” Advertising’s magic serves to obfuscate the genuine sources of material fulfillment in order to maintain the capitalist system.12

While magic is one way to conceive it, Judith Williamson sought another explanation for how advertising transforms an object’s use value to exchange value in the mind of the consumer. She argued that this is done through a direct entrance into the consumer’s psyche.13 She accounts for this interaction between consumer and ad by citing Althusser’s notion of interpellation. According to Althusser, “all ideology interpellates or hails concrete individuals as concrete subjects,” much like a police officer hails a person in the street. That person inevitably turns his head, because he knows that it is he who the hail addressed.14 Like the police officer, an advertisement “hails” a consumer as a specific type of person who would be attracted to a particular kind of product. The consumer allows himself to be interpellated as such because it provides him with an identity. Concerned with the possible existence of defiant consumers, Robert Goldman further developed Williamson’s theory to allow for consumer agency. He noted that with the widespread criticism of advertising, many consumers were aware of its attempts to manipulate them and thus reject them. However, advertising research processes this cynicism and translates it into “an ever-expanding array of signifying strategies” that will appeal to even the most wary consumer.15

Reaching every consumer in this manner requires ubiquity. And the omnipresence of co-dependence of media ushered in by new technologies has aided in that effort. From email SPAM to internet pop-ups, advertising agencies have embraced new media, just as media have always embraced it. The result is a colorful audio-visual tsunami of promotional art, all competing for the eyes and ears of consumers. Advertising paints the American landscape. It is “the official art of modern capitalist society,” according to Raymond Williams. “It is what we put up in our streets and use to fill up half of our newspapers and magazines: and it commands the services of perhaps the largest organized body of writers and artists … in the whole society.”16

Jennifer Hulbert


Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Consumption.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. London, Verso 1979, 129-167. p. 143.

Antin, David. “Fine Furs.” Art and the Public Sphere. Ed. W.J.T. Mitchell. Chicago: University if Chicago Press, 1990.

Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. 32-51.

Goldman, Robert and Stephen Papson. Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of American Advertising. New York: Guilford Press, 1996.

Jhally, Sut. “Advertising as Religion.” The Spectacle of Accumulation. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

Richards, Barry, Iain MacRury and Jackie Botterill. The Dynamics of Advertising. London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000.

Williams, Raymond. “Advertising: The Magic System.” Advertising and Society. 1.1, 2000.

Williamson, Judith. Decoding Advertisements. London: Marion Boyers, 1994.