Navigation – Plan du site
L’après 1945 : la propagande en temps de paix

Advertising as the fall guy for consumerism: the real and perceived roles of public relations and advertising in contemporary “propaganda”

La publicité ou le dindon de la farce consumériste. Perceptions et réalité des Relations Publiques et de la publicité dans la « propagande » contemporaine
Simon Goldsworthy
p. 239-259

Résumé

Cet article tente d’explorer pourquoi et comment les Relations Publiques (RP), contrairement à la publicité, ne sont pas désignées comme responsables de l’expansion du consumérisme. Dans un certain sens, cela reflète une certaine paresse et incapacité de la part des critiques et des chercheurs. La publicité agit en toute transparence, créant des produits aisément identifiables qui peuvent être contemplés à loisir. Elle est donc une proie facile pour les « nouveaux puritains ». Le texte de nombreuses études est ainsi élitiste : les auteurs prétendent percevoir la publicité pour ce qu’elle est, ce qui n’est pas le cas des profanes. Paradoxalement, ce mode de communication spécifique, dans son désir d’inciter la promotion des produits, sort plus ou moins indemne de cette critique, ce qui entraîne des incompréhensions. Car la publicité doit affronter des règlements, des contraintes voire des interdictions dont profitent les RP. Non conditionnées par de telles restrictions, ces dernières empruntent des voies dès lors présentées comme impénétrables. Les préoccupations actuelles au sujet des RP et des experts en communication portent essentiellement sur les informations véhiculées par les médias qui tendent à se concentrer sur le monde de la politique et sur les complots engendrés par les grandes entreprises dans leur quête de monopole. D’autre part, dans la culture populaire, les RP dédiées aux consommateurs sont dépeintes comme une activité qui, même si elle est apte à captiver le zeitgeist, reste frivole et non suffisamment sérieuse pour alimenter des études dignes d’intérêt. Cet article tentera de confronter ces idées reçues à la réalité du monde des Relations Publiques.

Haut de page

Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

Grande-Bretagne, Great Britain, histoire, médias, société, society, history, media
Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1  To give two examples, Brierley cites research from 1994 that by the age of 18 the average American (...)
  • 2  Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981 (first published 1957).
  • 3  By Stuart Ewen. The edition used here was published by McGraw-Hill, New York, in 1977. It was firs (...)
  • 4  Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, New (...)

1It is a commonplace to express shock at the omnipresence of advertising in contemporary developed societies. Statistics with ever more noughts on the end about the number of advertisements to which ordinary citizens are exposed as they go about their daily lives are bandied about―with the obvious aim of evoking horror but to the point that they start to lose impact.1 All of this reflects the fact that advertisements are by their very nature conspicuous. As a result they can easily seem to be the bow-wave of capitalism, acting as the propaganda arm of consumerism by impelling ordinary citizens to buy ever more consumer goods. Much of the study of advertising arises from these concerns. Although current scholarship may be a little more nuanced in its acceptance of consumers’ autonomy, many of the seminal works on advertising reflect an underlying suspicion and hostility. The titles of some key books―Vance Packard’s classic The Hidden Persuaders;2 Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture;3 Advertising: the Uneasy Persuasion4—demonstrate this anxiety.

2The second of these books, Captains of Consciousness, which has appeared in numerous editions and is much used in academia, puts the case of the critics strongly:

  • 5 Ibid., back cover. Note the use of the indicative verb “bombarded” in the first sentence, a loaded (...)

Each day the American people are bombarded by the messages of advertising. We are told that the good life can be attained if we buy the right products, if we accept our role as loyal consumers. Meanwhile, basic human needs are laid to waste or ignored in our commercial culture.5

3Gillian Dyer sets out her stall similarly in Advertising as Communication, another influential text:

  • 6  Gillian Dyer, Advertising as Communication, London: Routledge, 1990, 1.

[…] advertising is the ‘official art’ of the advanced industrial nations of the west…Advertisers want us to buy things, use them, throw them away and buy replacements in a cycle of continuous and conspicuous consumption.6

  • 7 Ibid., 6.
  • 8 Ibid., 2.
  • 9  Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London and New Yo (...)

4Advertising’s “central function is to create desires that previously did not exist”7 and it does this by becoming “more and more involved in the manipulation of social values and attitudes”8. But even as critics have delved ever deeper in their explorations of advertising, the subtext of their own work remains unexamined. The underlying assumption is that the authors can see advertising for what it really is but ordinary people cannot. For example, in Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising,9another much cited book which has been reprinted many times, Judith Williamson writes that:

I intend to show how, in fact, advertisements work by a process in which we are completely enmeshed, and how they invite us ‘freely’ to create ourselves in accordance with the way in which they have already created us.

  • 10 Ibid., 174.

5The slippage in the use of pronouns is telling. It is noteworthy that when writing in the first person singular at the beginning of the sentence, Williamson seems confident that she can see advertising for what it is, presumably enabling her to escape being “completely enmeshed”, for otherwise how would she be able to reveal the enmeshment? When she switches to the first person plural she therefore does not really include herself, but, whether consciously or not, recognises that distancing herself from others in that way would appear patronising and elitist. However her view, considered carefully, is in fact dualist or neo-Manichean: an evil, “created”, material world is contrasted with the possibilities of purity and rationality.  Advertisements have “already created us [ordinary people]”, leaving only a select handful of people (including Williamson) sufficiently enlightened to be able to escape their clutches. Indeed in her conclusion she takes this a stage further. Even scepticism about advertising is not enough. Ordinary people may regard ads as lies and ‘rip-offs’, but they remain at their mercy. Advertising “can incorporate its mythic status (as a lie) into itself with very little trouble.”10

6Williamson brings to this all the zeal and angst of a former sinner who still occasionally wavers but sees the error of her past and present temptations:

  • 11 Ibid., 9.

I could not have written this […] without that battle throughout my teenage years, and still now, between the desire for magazine glamour and the knowledge that I will never achieve it, that it is a myth.11

7Williamson is not alone in adopting the pose of a guide who belongs to a perspicacious elite and by implication seeks to enlighten an audience which may be steeped in advertising but is unaware of what is happening to them. Dyer’s book is promoted in the following terms:

  • 12 Ibid., back cover.

Advertising is a form of communication that constantly impinges on our daily lives, yet we are often unaware of its more subtle forms of persuasion, or of the extent to which it manipulates our (consumer) culture.12

Advertising: ogre, paper tiger or something in between?

  • 13 Ibid., xiii.

Advertising is much less powerful than advertisers and critics of advertising claim, and advertising agencies are stabbing in the dark much more than they are practising precision microsurgery on the public consciousness.13

  • 14  Schudson, op. cit., 37, for example, quotes the industry rule of thumb that 80% of new product lau (...)

8Critical views of advertising tend to assume that it is all but omnipotent. The focus of much of the study of advertising is semiotic and so there is little attempt to examine the practical effectiveness of advertisements. But for students of the advertising industry―as opposed to those simply concerned with the language and images employed by individual ads―any belief that advertisements work by a process in which we are completely enmeshed is difficult to reconcile with practical experience. The reality is that advertising campaigns frequently fail, that most new product launches are unsuccessful14 and that markets for well-advertised products often wither, or collapse and die. Such practical difficulties are largely sidestepped. As Sean Brierley observes:

  • 15  Brierley, op. ci.t, 2; Schudson, op. cit., 45.

Though there are thousands of academic studies of advertising texts and their interaction with audiences, there are very few that examine the production of advertising from the advertiser’s perspective.15

Brierley, a former academic, goes on to speak of the

  • 16  Brierley, op. cit., 3.

ghettoisation of academic life from real-life practices. Students are aware that when they leave college or university they will enter an unfamiliar world which bears little relation to what they have been taught in class or read in books.16

9Not only is academic analysis of advertising ungrounded in an evidence-based knowledge of the industry, the same is true of the industry’s own self-knowledge. As Brierley puts it:

  • 17 Ibid., 4.

[…] very little knowledge is formalised. The most powerful influences are myth and oral history.17

10In an unpublished paper, Dr Marta Rabikowska, lecturer in Advertising at the University of East London, entitled “A Degree of Advertising: an unwanted child of the business. How economy and pedagogy do not work?”, draws the “paradoxical” conclusion that:

  • 18  Conference paper in the author’s possession, 11.

[…] if academia wants to make advertising courses attractive to the industry, it has to stop advertising on them.18

  • 19 Ibid.,242-243.
  • 20 Ibid., xii.

11Schudson also notes that universities have done little to make advertising better understood,19 and is pleased to note that he does not share the academy’s contempt for business enterprise.20

12Of course advertising agencies and their critics have a mutual interest in highlighting the power of advertising. Pointing to the failings and frequent ineffectiveness of advertising would hardly suit the purposes of those seeking to portray it as a mighty tool of omnipotent capitalism, while advertising agencies obviously want their product―advertisements―to appear as effective as possible. Jackall and Hirota, who adopted a part-anthropological approach to study of advertising and PR, describe the approach of one critic of advertising with an academic background:

  • 21  Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota, Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of (...)

Her claims of advertising’s influence echo the pontifications of industry executives who want to sell more advertising, as does her equation of monetary expenditures on advertising with sophisticated, rational planning, claims that are laughable to actual image makers, that is, advertising creatives […]21.

  • 22  Apparently trade and business-to-business accounted for 9.1% of total advertising expenditure in t (...)
  • 23  Long ago David Ogilvy pointed out that 81 of the US’s top corporations advertise themselves as opp (...)
  • 24  Sometimes tipped as a growth sector for the 21st century (Brierley, op. cit., 17).
  • 25  Schudson, op. cit., 11.

13One thing that critics of advertising (including Schudson, whose work is more balanced) share is an overwhelming preoccupation with consumer advertising. Despite the existence of many forms of advertising which are not directly concerned with consumption―for example, public sector and voluntary sector ads, trade and business to business ads,22 as well as advertisements with corporate and institutional objectives,23 and recruitment advertising,24―it is advertising’s role in promoting consumerism which attracts by far the most interest and concern. Nor does price-based advertising arouse the ire of critics, although it is often seen as the most effective form.25 Further blurring occurs because consumer advertising can be directed in the first instance at distributors and sales representatives. Nonetheless the single-minded preoccupation with orthodox consumer advertising is significant: as we shall see, the attention given to public relations is also slanted and partial.

  • 26  The main front page headline of the newspaper London Lite on 18 September 2006 was “Ban the ads de (...)
  • 27  Dyer, op. cit., 79.
  • 28  Schudson, op. cit., 232. On the other hand Ogilvy gleefully quotes the veteran politburo member An (...)

14Criticism of the role of advertising spills over from academic debate and is a popular theme in the news media and elsewhere.26  Although within scholarly circles debates about media effects―about how far, if at all, the media affect people’s attitudes let alone their actual behaviour―rage on, when people deplore advertising these complex arguments are often put to one side, or people find alternative targets, alleging, for example that the “real impact” of advertising is upon the cultural climate of society.27 However, in general, such is the visceral dislike of advertising (which is commonly seen as necessarily capitalist: capitalism’s “way of saying ‘I love you’ to itself”28) that its importance is assumed, with scant regard for evidence. This has important practical implications, as advertising faces or is threatened with regulation and even, in some sectors, is completely proscribed.

If not advertising, what else?

  • 29  Schudson, op. cit., 13.

Few critics of advertising have thought very hard about what else, besides advertising, has brought us to the kind of consumer culture we have today.29

15Restrictions on advertising create marketing vacuums into which other promotional tools rush (although this is not to say that these tools were not being used already, in conjunction with advertising). The Director General of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations has publicly smacked his lips at the business opportunities for PR resulting from the increasing regulation of tobacco and alcohol advertising,30 and it is reasonable to assume that similar opportunities will arise if and when other forms of advertising are restricted (examples may include so-called unhealthy foods and advertising for these and other goods directed at children). Indeed there are already suggestions that, as part of an attempt to pre-empt regulation, a move away from advertising towards PR and other forms of promotional activity is already underway.

  • 31  Al and Laura Ries,The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
  • 32  Although Brierley points out that there is no evidence that consumers in the past were less media (...)
  • 33  I am indebted for a number of these insights to Trevor Morris, formerly CEO of Chime Communication (...)

16There are other factors which may favour PR. One recent popular account which enumerates some of them is provocatively entitled The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.31 Arguments include the notion that people are increasingly immune to ever greater volumes of advertising and that they have found ever better ways to avoid it―or at least avoid paying attention to it. Even if they receive the message, it is arguable that rising levels of education and media literacy make them more sceptical.32 One could also contend that advertising has suffered from rising prosperity which has seen a shift in the share of people’s spending away from cheaper consumer goods―the traditional mainstay of advertising―towards larger and perhaps more considered purchases where traditionally PR has played a bigger part: travel, cars, entertainment, media, education, IT and telecommunications, personal finance, and property-related purchases. These are not purchasing arenas where people, impelled by advertising, can simply sample the product at minimal cost. It is no coincidence that newspapers now carry whole supplements on many of these, and while advertising plays an important role, conventional marketing wisdom would put PR to the fore in many of these areas.33

17However, the role of PR in promoting consumerism attracts little interest. The problem is partly a practical one. Advertising is a relatively open activity which involves a clearly discernible product―advertisements. PR is not: its workings remain relatively impenetrable. Although PR certainly extends beyond media relations, most typically it involves negotiations conducted behind the scenes between PR practitioners and journalists. The final outcome may appear on a printed page or in broadcast or other electronic output, but not at a time, in a volume or in a form which is fully and directly controlled by the PR person (unlike an advertisement). Indeed PR’s real achievement may be to prevent a damaging story appearing, or at least minimise coverage, a “negative” role which is all but impossible to prove and which is unmatched in the fields of advertising or other promotional arts. This leaves the exact nature of PR’s influence murky, largely undocumented, and forever open to question. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that both PR practitioner and journalist have a vested interest in concealing what is potentially a mutually advantageous relationship.  Studying PR is hard work. This may be one reason why public relations has remained the empty quarter of media studies: as noted, there are numerous studies of advertising, even if many miss the point, but relatively few of PR.  As Moloney points out:

  • 34  Moloney, op. cit., 89.

Critical literature from media and cultural studies only touches on PR effects in a fragmentary or illustrative way. Indeed, it is a surprise how little attention PR as a distinct mode of media production receives in mainstream academic work.34

  • 35  Lord Bell, who has a background in advertising but is one of the UK’s most successful PR practitio (...)

18The PR person ultimately craves third-party endorsement, the seemingly independent but positive editorial coverage provided by a supposedly disinterested journalist,35 the effect of which would be vitiated were it obvious that the coverage was the fruit of PR. As Jackall and Hirota put it:

  • 36 Ibid., 130. They point out that ad makers and PR people find journalists’ exalted self images amusi (...)

[…] the joy that public relations practitioners take in manipulating journalists must remain a secret pleasure 36.

  • 37 Idem.
  • 38  PR and the Media ―who is spinning whom? Echo Communications Research Group, March 2002. Available (...)

19Journalists, for their part, wish to appear independent and objective, intrepid searchers after truth rather than willing victims of the burgeoning PR industry37 and resent PR as an invasive colonial power, wealthier and increasingly better resourced, whose impact cannot be gainsaid and yet which is resented for threatening their freedom. This resentment sometimes breaks surface. A research report on PR’s depiction in the UK press opens with the following epithets from newspapers about PR people: “Scumbags”, “Insensitive, manipulative charlatans”, “Sleazy […] disingenuous”.38 The findings compared 1999 with 2001. The news was not good for PR ―and getting worse. According to Echo, only 9% of articles showed positive mentions (as opposed to 22% in 1999). While public relations did well when coverage focused on the commercial impact of good PR, there were only 21 instances of this in 2001, as compared with 71 in 1999.

PR: an iceberg among the promotional arts

  • 39  Irwin Ross, The Image Merchants: The Fabulous World of American Public Relations, London: Weidenfe (...)

20Such a focus might suggest that PR is more of an open secret than previously argued, but in fact the coverage is lop-sided. According to the same research nearly two-thirds of the coverage revolved around political PR, and only a very small proportion focused on consumer PR. For all these reasons PR remains the iceberg of the promotional arts: only a small part of the industry is ever discernible to the casual observer, but an enormous amount of activity is taking place beneath the surface. This obscurity helps protect PR from regulation. While advertising is generally known by that name, PR’s role is further blurred by the fact that it operates under a range of aliases―for example communications, corporate communications, media and press relations―and by problems in defining what exactly constitutes PR activity. While PR certainly embraces media relations work, there is no hard and fast rule about what else it covers―and indeed none of the “official” definitions that I have come across deign to mention the media, although this association is ever present in popular culture and in the public mind. This reflects a certain disdain for media relations activity, not least because of PR’s desire to distance itself from the dubious subculture inhabited by press agents and publicists. As the highly observant American writer Irwin Ross noted in the 1950s, PR “success is often measured in the amount of time one talks to one’s clients and not to the press”.39 Edward Bernays, oft-proclaimed father of PR, speaking towards the end of his life, was particularly grandiloquent:

  • 40  Stewart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin, New York: Basic Books, 1996, 14.

We’ve [speaking of himself] had no direct contact with the mass media for about fifty years.40

21If media relations are seen as mundane, then the reality of PR is indeed more mundane than Bernays implied. According to a UK Institute of Public Relations survey in 1999, media relations work accounted for 37% of PR practitioners’ time. Next in order came advising management (25%), brochure/video/print production (14%), event management (10%) and research (9%).41  Since advising management is seen as the most prestigious form of PR activity it may be over-reported―it would be interesting to compare this with a survey of management views on what their PR people do. It is clear that a significant proportion of the other activities would be inseparable from media relations (for example, if 37% of someone’s job is media relations, this presumably lies at the heart of the advice they offer to management). A similar message is to be found in Unlocking the Potential of Public Relations: Developing Good Practice, a report jointly funded by the UK’s Department of Trade & Industry and the Institute of Public Relations and published in November 2003. In a survey of in-house PR practitioners in the private sector it lists some twelve main purposes of PR, many of which include media relations activity. However, of all the purposes listed, “positive image in the media” comes closest to being the main purpose of PR. For consultancies “positive image in the media” is rivalled only by “managing issues and crises”, itself an activity with plenty of media relations implications.42

Problems of definition

22While the definition of advertising is conveniently lashed to the mast―to the concrete business of buying and filling space with advertisements―, in contrast, PR trade associations and textbook writers spend a lot of time agonising about defining PR: indeed, the fact that it is such an issue is telling. Despite such efforts the prevailing definitions of PR remain highly abstract and ethereal, and normally revolve around notions of managing reputation and achieving mutual understanding, reflecting perhaps more of a desire to be respected and appreciated than any real attempt to explain what it is that PR people do.

23For example, the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations defines PR as follows:

Public relations is about reputation - the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.
Public relations is the discipline which builds and maintains reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.43

24While the European Public Relations Confederation offers:

Public relations is the conscious organisation of communication.
PR is a management function.
The task of PR is:
To achieve mutual understanding and to establish a beneficial relationship, between the organisation and its publics and environment, through two-way communication.44

25Exactly how “mutual understanding” is to be achieved or what the distinctive contribution of PR is to that process is left unsaid, but this “official version” of what PR is tends to distance it from marketing, with the latter’s persuasive intent. Reputation management and mutual understanding is not the uncontested, exclusive domain of PR.  Plenty of other people in any organisation are preoccupied with such things as part of their work. Delimiting PR is also hampered by its own reputational problems. Some people simply do not want to be associated with it―hence the drift away from using the term on the part of practitioners.  For example, many lobbyists or public affairs specialists or corporate social responsibility experts would vigorously deny that they are PR people. There are also occasional turf wars: internal communications and community relations may, for example, be handled by human resources rather than PR people.

26Advertising work is overwhelmingly undertaken by separate advertising agencies, making it more readily identifiable and easier to pin down. While plenty of PR agencies exist, most PR practitioners work directly (or “in-house”) for organisations in all parts of the economy and society, typically in small numbers and with a range of job titles and positions which make them hard to trace as they blur into other parts of the organisational machine. All this means that as a business discipline PR eludes proper scrutiny, not least by helping to disguise the scale of the PR industry. For example the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, citing a recent study, claims that around 48,000 people work in PR,45 but as recently as 2001 The Public Relations Handbook, edited by the Institute’s former Head of Education and Training,46 concluded that despite estimates as high as 40,000, “around 20,000 would probably be more accurate.”

  • 47  For example, the UK’s Institute for Practitioners in Advertising’s member firms (255 of the indust (...)
  • 48  Political advertising is banned on television and radio. Other forms of political advertising are (...)

27The main quibbles about the figures for advertising arise from debating which agencies to include, but the figure normally bandied about is around 20,000:47 despite the PR Handbook figure cited above, most people would agree that many more people are employed in what might be loosely termed PR than are employed in advertising. However while the advertising industry is firmly associated in the public mind with the promotion of consumer goods, PR’s public reputation is somewhat different. In the UK media the most discussed aspect of PR is, as we have seen, political PR or spin, the importance of which is undoubtedly accentuated by the restrictions on political advertising.48

28Critics of PR have also highlighted the use of similar techniques by big companies and the consultancies they employ,49 but in doing so they rarely focus on the way companies use PR to promote consumer goods and services. The principal focus of the corporate PR work which concerns them is financial institutions. All of this suits those in academic circles and beyond who are preoccupied with the misdeeds of corporate culture and its perceived allies in political circles. For such people PR practitioners are the sinister special forces of capitalism or the spin doctors of the political establishment, and the fact they operate behind the scenes makes them more intriguing as an opponent. Such PR or spin is seen as Machiavellian, ruthless and corrosive of public trust. What high-level political and corporate PR have in common is that they seldom use the term PR to describe themselves, preferring “communications” or some other designation.  It is noteworthy that the spin doctors employed by NGOs, whose handiwork is readily detectable in the media and elsewhere, never attract much critical attentions or such odium. The assumption seems to be that their methods and motives are above suspicion.

  • 50  Moloney, op. cit., 90.
  • 51 Idem.

29In practice, the great majority of PR work is much more prosaic. Although the lack of hard data helps to throw a veil over the true nature of their activities, it has been estimated that at least 70% of PR people are involved in marketing support:50 for every midnight call which seeks to save a corporate reputation, many more are made simply seeking as much favourable coverage as possible for goods or services. These proportions are not reflected in industry textbooks and websites. For example The Public Relations Handbook51devotes one thirteen-page chapter to consumer public relations: the same space is devoted to the smaller specialism of corporate community involvement, while more pages are devoted to internal communications.

Where consumer PR literally steals the limelight―and why “PR” people resent it

  • 52  Miramax, 1998, dir. Peter Howitt, 105 min.

30However, in so far as PR resonates in today’s popular culture under that name (public relations or PR, and not “spin”) it is as consumer, entertainment or celebrity PR. The corporate players who would once have been described as PR men (and indeed in early films, as indicated below, they were invariably men, not women) are now called spin doctors or, in their own terms, corporate communications or communications directors: PR is today used to describe something much frothier, more lightweight and less malevolent. This version is ubiquitous in film and television, but seems barely to merit serious study. In the film Sliding Doors,52for example, the central character is Helen Quilley, a London PR practitioner. The three pieces of PR work she is shown as involved in are a fashion show and two restaurant launches. As Edina Monsoon, the PR anti-heroine of BBC television’s extremely popular and long-running series Absolutely Fabulous,puts it:

  • 53  “Jealous”, Series 3, dir. Bob Spiers, originally transmitted on BBC television 30/3/95-4/5/95, <ht (...)

I PR things. Places. Concepts. Lulu. I PR them […] I make the fabulous. I make the crap into credible. I make the dull into delicious.53

31This glossy, metropolitan world of PR is also essentially feminine, epitomised internationally on television by characters such as Samantha Jones in Sex in the City,54 and MTV’s PoweR Girls.55 Predictable sexism minimises the seriousness and significance of such PR people’s work:

  • 56 Bridget Jones’ Diary, Universal Studios, 2001, dir. Sharon Maguire, 132 min.

You don’t have the faintest bloody idea how much trouble the company is in. You swan in in your short skirt and your sexy see-through blouse and fanny around with press releases.56

  • 57  See for example two speeches by senior figures in the Institute of Public Relations <www.ipr.org.u (...)
  • 58  According to Roger Haywood, a former president of the UK’s Institute of Public Relations,  “We're (...)

32This is not at all how the official organs of the PR industry want to be seen.57 As with advertising there is a paradoxical coincidence of interest between external critics and real-life practitioners. As mentioned, advertisers want to be seen as good at shifting goods and their critics abhor their ability to do so. PR people want to be seen as important players who work alongside top management in tackling the most pressing problems businesses face,58 and this has led to PR’s work in the often mundane business of promoting goods and services being played down by many PR industry spokespeople.  As the right-hand of a chief executive a PR person can field the calls of an aggressive media, potentially boosting, saving or turning-round the reputation of an organisation and its leadership. Importantly, PR comes to the fore at all the most critical moments in an organisation’s development, good or bad. The PR person has unique responsibility for the media relations role, and such work is usually the speciality with which the most eminent practitioners are associated. In contrast, promoting consumer goods is a field in which other persuasive techniques including advertising and sales promotion play a major, often leading and (very importantly) highly conspicuous role.

  • 59  Warner Brothers, 1938, dir. Michael Curtiz, 91 min.

33The representation of senior PR people―now spin doctors―acting as corporate defenders is a strong tradition in popular culture, but they are very different from the ultimately innocuous “PR girls” described above. In Four’s a Crowd Errol Flynn played Hollywood’s first self-styled PR man.59 When challenged about what precisely his job entailed he replied:

It’s simple. Most of my clients have more money than reputation. I sell them fine reputations through their donations to charity. So they’ll die with easy consciences and the public hailing them as great benefactors. They like to die that way […].

34The account given by Jack Lemmon’s PR man in Days of Wine and Roses as he sought to impress his stern, sceptical father-in-law was similar:

I suppose you might say my job is sort of help my client to create a public image […] well, for example, let’s say my client, corporation x, does some good, something that could be of benefit to the public. Well, my job is to see that the public knows it.

35This privileging of corporate public relations is reflected in the hierarchies of the PR industry. Financial PR specialists who do not deign to promote goods are usually considered the best paid in the industry―and consumer specialists tend to be less well paid. But financial PR practitioners are also the most secretive, having little if any need to promote themselves to the wider public. For example, Alan Parker, who heads what is probably the UK’s highest earning PR consultancy, Brunswick, adopts a deliberately low profile, refusing interviews and publicity and not putting forward figures to enable his firm to be included in the PR industry’s league tables.60

36On the other hand, political communications experts or spin doctors have acquired an ever-higher profile with their personalities and activities constantly discussed in the news media (although lately in the UK they have made deliberate efforts to retreat behind the scenes). As a teacher and interviewer of would-be PR students in the UK I am aware that young people, unprepared, are only likely to have heard of two PR people: one is the celebrity publicist, Max Clifford, and the other is Alastair Campbell, former press secretary to Prime Minister Blair. The rest of the industry is a blank. This reflects the fact that Campbell, along with some of his associates and rivals, has achieved a degree of prominence which his counterparts working for big corporations or in large consultancies cannot begin (and probably would not wish) to rival. His prominence illustrates the trait described in this article, namely that while critics of advertising rail against its role in promoting consumerism, PR’s critics―fewer and less prominent―tend to focus on politics and, sometimes, corporate affairs.

37The emphasis on the political and corporate is accentuated in academic discourse by the way media studies tends to privilege political journalism and “traditional” news, even though ever increasing proportions of the news media are swallowed up by subject matter which falls well outside the remit of orthodox political coverage. Thus the pages of newspapers and hours of airtime do not receive equal weight. Instead, media studies’ homage to the public sphere is coupled to a difficulty in coping with the change in the media, away from traditional forms of political reporting, and, as we shall see, to a certain neo-puritanical disdain for consumerism. This disdain has meant that increasing volumes of coverage of travel, property, home interiors, fashion, gardening, cars, and food and drink (to name but some) are too readily dismissed and receive rather less attention than they perhaps should.

PR and media content: a PR-ised media?

  • 61  ABC figures quoted in the Media Guardian, 11 September 2006, 9.

38Let us take as an example Britain’s largest newspaper―in terms of physical content or total column centimetres―The Sunday Times, which has a circulation of 1.4 million61 and is thus the best-selling of the country’s so-called serious newspapers. On a typical Sunday (10 September 2006) it included the following:

Section

Main content

Number of pages

Format

Sunday Times Magazine

Human and social interest (non-political), including University Survival Guide

60

Glossy

magazine

Sport

Sports reports and features

32

Broadsheet newspaper

Business Success

Business reports, in association with B2B portfolio

12

Tabloid newspaper

Appointments

Job advertisements, with less than 1.5 pages of associated editorial

20

Broadsheet newspaper

New Entrepreneurs

Guide to business start-ups, in association with PC World Business

16

Tabloid newspaper

Style

Fashion, beauty, health, food, interiors, horoscopes

80

Glossy magazine

Business

Business reports and features

20

Broadsheet newspaper

The Sunday Times

General news and comment; the main wraparound section for the whole newspaper

32

Broadsheet newspaper

In Gear

“Car, gadgets, adventure”

40

Tabloid newspaper

Travel

Holiday travel

32

Tabloid newspaper

Home

Property news and features, including gardening

64

Tabloid newspaper

News Review

News-related features, comment, including parenting, education and brain power sections

12

Broadsheet newspaper

Money

Personal finance

10

Broadsheet newspaper

Culture

Arts, book reviews, TV and radio

88

Magazine

University guide

League table and reports on UK universities

64

Magazine

39As this table shows, only two of the fifteen sections (The Sunday Times main wraparound section and, to a lesser extent, the News Review) really set out to cover “political” matters and offer political analysis in a conventional way, although other sections may sometimes focus on particular policies which relate to their specialist remit. Moreover a large part of the content of those two sections is not “political” but relates to celebrities and lifestyle issues.

40I have deliberately listed the fifteen sections in no particular order, although The Sunday Times still privileges political coverage to the extent that its most political section remains the wraparound for the entire paper and bears the newspaper’s full masthead and content list. It also―this week as typically―features a political story in its main headline. This is no longer the case for many popular Sunday newspapers, which have often all but abandoned political stories on their front pages.

  • 62  Max Hastings, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, gives a telling account of the importance on (...)

41The cover price of The Sunday Times is £2 at the time of writing (September 2006). However this would notbegin to cover the costs of gathering the enormous volumes of content described above. Advertising is an obvious, direct source of additional revenue, famously indispensable to newspaper economics. All the sections described above contain advertisements, and two of the sections are openly sponsored by external organisations.62 However the production of a newspaper of this scale and range of coverage would be uneconomic were its reporters and editorial staff required to gather their material ab initio, without any outside help. Andrew Marr, former editor of The Independent and erstwhile BBC political editor, alludes to this.

  • 63  Andrew Marr, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 2 (...)

For those who believe that newspapers hold a mirror up to society, then the message of the Sunday Times and its competitors is that Britain has gone shopping.63

42For example, looking at the Travel section (which in the week I cite, contained half as many column centimetres as the main wraparound section), he notes:

  • 64 Ibid., 108.

 […] the distinction between journalism and selling had disappeared almost entirely. There were ‘stories’ by journalists which had obviously been produced in close cooperation with travel companies, hotels or national tourism agencies. It may have been called ‘Travel’ but there was little here about air or road congestion, the horror of package holiday flying… ‘Travel’ was selling dreams.64

43Marr goes on to assert that:

So much modern journalism works through baksheesh and backhanders is an open secret which only the most simple-minded readers don’t spot.

44He notes that when The Independent tried to ban “freebies” for journalists the commercial pressures became hard to withstand.

  • 65  John Lloyd, What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics, London: Constable & Robinson, 2004. The same (...)

45Readers may indeed suspect some of this, but it is a problem which passes with little comment. Journalists are reluctant publicly to criticise the shortcomings of their trade, and―like magicians guarding their tricks―very reluctant to reveal the true sources and negotiations behind the stories they write. When journalists do debate their trade it is the political aspects of it that merit most attention and censure: politics, domestic and foreign, is the main abode of the journalistic aristocracy. There is little serious attempt to engage with the issues surrounding much greater volumes of non-political journalism: a polemic such as What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics,65much discussed at the time of its publication, has no parallel for the consumer sphere.

46However, not only are the volumes of non-political journalism much greater―the expanding magazine market largely sidesteps conventional politics, for example ―but the production process should arguably bear closer examination. In politics, most media wear their allegiances―or their attempt to achieve balance―on their sleeves: their editorial positions are declared, if capable of change. On other issues, their position is largely unexamined, allowing a consumerist consensus quietly to develop. In the political sphere even partisan publications craft their stories according to time-honoured traditions which force them to report different sides of the political debate, and hence have some contact with PR sources from across the spectrum. In the consumer field, PR is much more of a one-way street. Although consumer journalism often seeks to sample and compare different products, there is little tradition of seeking the views of competitors or business adversaries. Essentially each product has a single voice, and the main decision for the journalist or editor is whether or not to hear that voice.

47The large volumes of PR-fed editorial stand alongside display advertisements. The two are not supposed to be connected, and formal connections are hard to find: advertisers seldom exercise pressure in an undeniable, documented form, while the media hardly want publicly to acknowledge any diminution in their freedom and independence. But the financial interests are so clear that the influence of advertising upon editorial coverage is unavoidable. As Marr acknowledges:

  • 66 Ibid., 112.

It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.66

The critics’ own vested interests

48In their studies of the media and promotional culture academics like to see themselves as disinterested and indeed make great play of the suspect motives of others. It is worth considering whether academic critics are themselves victims of their own resentments. This article has examined how far the stated self-perceptions of advertising and PR people and journalists reflect their own insecurities, so it is only fair to consider whether there is a beam in the eye of the critics. The fact that many academics in western societies are left ever further behind by the rising tide of consumerism must have a bearing. Logically, the vows of poverty taken by most contemporary academics imply either very deep commitment and/or an inability to succeed in other walks of life. Such a commitment gives rise to a vested, vocational interest in gainsaying the value of consumerism, and a difficulty in comprehending those whose life experiences are increasingly different. The neo-puritanical emphasis on word-based debate about well-accepted and recognised political issues is at odds with popular interest in shopping, acquiring consumer goods, or experiential consumerism ―such as travel and other leisure activities. In short, the inability of the rich to understand and sympathise with the poor is often remarked upon, but the failure of the poor to understand the thinking of the rich, or those with aspirations to wealth, must be an equal possibility.

49The critics have another problem. While disdain for consumerism is seen as acceptable and can be open (and indeed is a common denominator), open contempt for ordinary people is not. If ordinary people are, deplorably, electing to spend less time in the public sphere―reading, viewing, and listening to traditional political news and commentary, voting, and joining and becoming active in political organisations―and more time acting as consumers, then this must be explained in some way. The most obvious target―the visible bridge between ordinary people’s minds and consumerism―is advertising. The people cannot be blamed, but advertising can. As mentioned before, ordinary people seem to be capable of being brainwashed by advertising, but neo-puritanical critics belong to an elect group which is, or has become, immune.

50Such discourse is temperamentally unable to deal with the possibility that consumer desires may be perfectly legitimate and represent a real search for great beauty, enjoyment and fulfilment. The aridity of academia is perhaps often too far from the world of tangible, visual beauty to comprehend its pleasure and appeal. A knee-jerk rejection of consumer goods could be depicted as a rejection of the human ingenuity and artistry which created them in the first place. Indeed a great deal depends on where one draws the borders of consumerism: even neo-puritans make purchasing decisions which they do not deem to be consumerist. All would, for example, pay at least lip-service to the satisfactions offered by higher forms of art, but might not ordinary people legitimately crave a little of such beauty for themselves as they seek to buy objects or experiences with which to ornament their lives? As the advertising man David Ogilvy put it:

  • 67  Ogilvy, op. cit., 207.

Left-wing economists, ever eager to snatch the scourge from the hand of God, hold that advertising tempts people to squander money on things they don’t need. Who are these elitists to decide what you need? […] What the Calvinistic dons don’t seem to know is that buying things can be one of life’s more innocent pleasures.67

  • 68  Schudson, op. cit., 156.

51Nor―because many such critics usually operate ahistorically―is consumption viewed in any kind of historical framework. What level of consumption is desirable? Today’s frivolity is tomorrow’s accepted need. Schudson notes that in 1790 80% of all clothing was made in the home for family use. A century later, 90% was made outside the home.68 Is this change, with its associated advertising, so deplorable?  Even the most embittered and impoverished critic of consumerism uses, on a daily basis, consumer goods which have only become available in recent years.

52If propaganda continues to exist in modern, developed societies―and it would be naïve to think that it has gone away ―then two of its strongest tools are advertising and public relations. Both are specialist disciplines which are capable of pursuing persuasive objectives in a planned and deliberate way. That is their raison d’être. Both are very much capable of fostering consumerism, for good or ill. However, for as long as academic study and criticism of these professionalised arts of persuasion continues to stereotype or typecast them in the way that it does, albeit with the cheerful connivance of the practitioners themselves, the outside world’s understanding of the role they play in promoting consumerism will remain limited and ill-informed.

Haut de page

Notes

1  To give two examples, Brierley cites research from 1994 that by the age of 18 the average American would have seen 350,000 advertisements. (Sean Brierley, The Advertising Handbook, second edition, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002, 1); and Moloney cites a claim that the average American sees or hears 7 million advertisements in a lifetime (Kevin Moloney, Rethinking Public Relations: The Spin and the Substance, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 102). It is hard to reconcile these two statistics―they imply that people only see 5% of their lifetimes’ allocation of advertisements in their first 18 years  but―haphazard though they may be ―they are indicative of a certain desire to shock people with the impact of advertising. The citing of America, the anti-capitalists’ bête noire, is also noteworthy.

2  Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981 (first published 1957).

3  By Stuart Ewen. The edition used here was published by McGraw-Hill, New York, in 1977. It was first published in 1976.

4  Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, New York: Basic Books, 1986.

5 Ibid., back cover. Note the use of the indicative verb “bombarded” in the first sentence, a loaded term implying that people are unwilling recipients.

6  Gillian Dyer, Advertising as Communication, London: Routledge, 1990, 1.

7 Ibid., 6.

8 Ibid., 2.

9  Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London and New York: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1991, 42 (her italics).

10 Ibid., 174.

11 Ibid., 9.

12 Ibid., back cover.

13 Ibid., xiii.

14  Schudson, op. cit., 37, for example, quotes the industry rule of thumb that 80% of new product launches fail. A regular theme of the UK’s advertising trade paper, Campaign, is the reporting of how advertising agencies have won accounts from rival firms. These often imply that the previous incumbent agency was unsuccessful, further undermining any notion of advertising’s omnipotence.

15  Brierley, op. ci.t, 2; Schudson, op. cit., 45.

16  Brierley, op. cit., 3.

17 Ibid., 4.

18  Conference paper in the author’s possession, 11.

19 Ibid.,242-243.

20 Ibid., xii.

21  Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota, Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 191.

22  Apparently trade and business-to-business accounted for 9.1% of total advertising expenditure in the UK in 1999. (Brierley, op. cit., 17).

23  Long ago David Ogilvy pointed out that 81 of the US’s top corporations advertise themselves as opposed to their products―and spend $0.5bn a year so doing. David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising, London and Sydney: Pan, 1984.

24  Sometimes tipped as a growth sector for the 21st century (Brierley, op. cit., 17).

25  Schudson, op. cit., 11.

26  The main front page headline of the newspaper London Lite on 18 September 2006 was “Ban the ads destroying childhood”. It reported a call from the Archbishop of Canterbury for a ban on all TV advertising aimed at children. To give another, extreme example, a UK newspaper columnist recently blamed advertising for crime. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/crime/article/0,,1808235,00.html>, accessed 14 September 2006.

27  Dyer, op. cit., 79.

28  Schudson, op. cit., 232. On the other hand Ogilvy gleefully quotes the veteran politburo member Anastas Mikoyan: “The task of our Soviet advertising is to give people exact information about the goods that are on sale, to help to create new demands, to cultivate new tastes and requirements, to promote the sales of new kinds of goods and to explain their uses to the consumer”.  Op cit, 185.

29  Schudson, op. cit., 13.

30  Speech on Public Relations trends in Europe, <http://www.ipr.org.uk/news/index.htm>, accessed 31 August 2006.

31  Al and Laura Ries,The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

32  Although Brierley points out that there is no evidence that consumers in the past were less media literate (Ibid., 243).

33  I am indebted for a number of these insights to Trevor Morris, formerly CEO of Chime Communications PR Division, the UK’s largest PR consultancy, and currently visiting professor at the University of Westminster.

34  Moloney, op. cit., 89.

35  Lord Bell, who has a background in advertising but is one of the UK’s most successful PR practitioners, has put it thus: “Whereas advertising is the use of paid-for media space to inform and persuade, PR is the use of third-party endorsement to inform and persuade”. Quoted in Aeron Davis, Public Relations Democracy: Public Relations, Politics and the Mass Media in Britain, Manchester University Press, 2002.

36 Ibid., 130. They point out that ad makers and PR people find journalists’ exalted self images amusing, ibid, 132. Of course this is further obscured by the fact that, publicly at least, journalists have the last word.

37 Idem.

38  PR and the Media ―who is spinning whom? Echo Communications Research Group, March 2002. Available at <http://www.echoresearch.com/en/imageofpr/>

39  Irwin Ross, The Image Merchants: The Fabulous World of American Public Relations, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960, 85 (see also 19).

40  Stewart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin, New York: Basic Books, 1996, 14.

41  Shirley Harrison, Public Relations: An Introduction, London, Thomson Learning, 2000, 10.

42  <http://www.ipr.org.uk/unlockpr/Unlocking-Potential-Report.pdf>, accessed 27 July 2004.

43  <http://www.ipr.org.uk/news/index.htm>, accessed 14 September 2006.

44  <http://www.cerp.org/definition/index.htm>, accessed 10 September 2006. In contrast, the advertising industry seems much less exercised about how it is defined, and seems more comfortable with much shorter, more concrete descriptions, for example: “Advertisements are messages, paid for by those who send them, intended to inform or influence people who receive them”. (Advertising Association student briefing. <http://www.adassoc.org.uk/inform/in1.html>, accessed 15 June 2004.)

45  <http://www.cipr.co.uk/direct/news.asp?v1=factfile>, accessed 31 August 2006.

46  Alison Theaker ed.,The Public Relations Handbook, London and New York: Routledge, 2002, 57.

47  For example, the UK’s Institute for Practitioners in Advertising’s member firms (255 of the industry’s largest) had just over 15,000 employees in 2004. <http://www.ipa.co.uk/Resource_centre/ukstatistics.cfm>, accessed 17 September 2006.

48  Political advertising is banned on television and radio. Other forms of political advertising are in practice restricted by controls on election campaign expenditure.

49  See, for example, <http://www.spinwatch.org/ and www.prwatch.org>.

50  Moloney, op. cit., 90.

51 Idem.

52  Miramax, 1998, dir. Peter Howitt, 105 min.

53  “Jealous”, Series 3, dir. Bob Spiers, originally transmitted on BBC television 30/3/95-4/5/95, <http://www.hbo.com/city/> , accessed 14 September 2006.

54  <http://www.hbo.com/city/>, accessed 14 September 2006.

55 <http://www.mtv.com/ontv/dyn/power_girls/series.jhtml#/ontv/dyn/power_girls/series.jhtml>, accessed 14 September 2006. I am indebted to a former student, Ashlea Reece, for bringing this to my attention.

56 Bridget Jones’ Diary, Universal Studios, 2001, dir. Sharon Maguire, 132 min.

57  See for example two speeches by senior figures in the Institute of Public Relations <www.ipr.org.uk/elections/agregory.asp> (accessed 8/4/03) and <www.ipr.org.uk/news/speeches/Aarons-careers02.htm> (accessed 9/4/03).

58  According to Roger Haywood, a former president of the UK’s Institute of Public Relations,  “We're supposed to be strategists, advisers, working in the boardroom, helping companies get their policies right”. [My italics] <http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/archive/interview/interviewoftheweektransbenn.shtml>, accessed 15 July 2004. Ross also notes PR people’s fondness for repeating that PR is a “function of management” (161).

59  Warner Brothers, 1938, dir. Michael Curtiz, 91 min.

60  <http://www.brunswickgroup.com>, accessed 17 September 2006.

61  ABC figures quoted in the Media Guardian, 11 September 2006, 9.

62  Max Hastings, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, gives a telling account of the importance on advertising to that paper’s Saturday supplements, but also describes some of the associated pressures. Max Hastings, Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers, London: Macmillan, 2002, 93, 99, 178. The Saturday Telegraph closely parallels The Sunday Times, with at the time of writing (September 2006), some 14 separate sections.

63  Andrew Marr, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 2004, 111.

64 Ibid., 108.

65  John Lloyd, What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics, London: Constable & Robinson, 2004. The same is also true for Ian Hargreaves, Journalism: Truth or Dare, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

66 Ibid., 112.

67  Ogilvy, op. cit., 207.

68  Schudson, op. cit., 156.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Simon Goldsworthy, « Advertising as the fall guy for consumerism: the real and perceived roles of public relations and advertising in contemporary “propaganda” », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IV - n°3 | 2006, 239-259.

Référence électronique

Simon Goldsworthy, « Advertising as the fall guy for consumerism: the real and perceived roles of public relations and advertising in contemporary “propaganda” », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IV - n°3 | 2006, mis en ligne le 23 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 juin 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2082 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.2082

Haut de page

Auteur

Simon Goldsworthy

(Londres, Grande-Bretagne)
Simon Goldsworthy is Senior Lecturer in Public Communication at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Westminster, where he founded the MA in Public Communication and Public Relations. His articles include “PR ethics: forever a will o’ the wisp?”, “English nonconformity and the pioneering of the modern newspaper campaign”, and “Aren’t one’s parents embarrassing? Public relations and internal communications and their troubled relationship with propaganda.”

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • OpenEdition Journals