Why Society Needs Advertising

Worldwide, societies are built upon a capitalist framework with capitalist ideology being largely inescapable. Whether an advertiser is an individual, corporation, or government, its motivation to exchange capital for advertising is the same; it wants to convince people to buy a product or into an idea for profit. In this essay, the business of advertising is discussed: why advertising exists and what it sells; how culturally our desire for creativity ensures that capitalism and culture are inseparable; and why advertising is the chosen channel for governments to speak to their publics. Because advertising is a key tool of the capitalist framework, it cannot communicate anything other than capitalist ideology, even when it aims to educate about anti-capitalism, thus making advertising an unattractive tool for minorities which exist outside of this framework.

Commodities and The Capitalist Framework

Societies are defined by economic systems where things are made for profit and the result of this process is capitalism (Holm, “Advertising and the Commodity”). Commodities are at the core of the Marxist account of economics, with Marx defining a commodity as having a use value, the actual function of the object being sold, and an exchange value, the value of the object when sold at market. An object becomes a commodity when its exchange value becomes greater than its use value (p. 332). For Marx, commodities are the driving force behind society because capitalism constantly requires the invention of new commodities and new markets (Gilbert, p. 107). However, commodification itself is not capitalism. Jeremy Gilbert argues that “it is perfectly possible to have a market economy without having capitalism”, and describes capitalism as “the concentration of productive wealth in the hands of an oligarchical elite and the tendency for their drive for capital accumulation–profit–to organise all of the activities of that society” (p. 108). Gilbert’s definition explains that within the capitalist framework, those who make the highest financial gains are motivated and empowered to control society in order to obtain even greater profits.

Fetishism: What Advertising Does

In Marx’s view, an object’s exchange value is maximised when the market’s perception is altered through fetishism (p. 332). Fetishism strips a product away from its manufacturing history and ensures that consumers have little knowledge of where it comes from. Michael Schudson states that advertisers “pick up and represent values already in our culture … assuring [the consumer] that the sponsor is the patron of common ideals” (p. 223). Labour exploitation was a key concern for Marx, and these conditions, along with environmentally damaging manufacturing processes, are stories hidden from consumers, removing the social dimensions of production and replacing them with the social relations of the market (Holm, “Advertising and the Commodity”). Sut Jhally believes that advertising’s function is to make people feel good and not to give people information (p. 92). Advertisers use their creativity to fill the gap between use value and exchange value with market-friendly narratives in the hope of persuading consumers to purchase, leaving consumers with only a story and a price to guide their decision-making (Jhally, p. 88).

There is No Proof that Advertising Works

The commodification of objects cannot exist without advertising, making it a necessary economic function and a form of cultural expression (Holm, “Advertising and Commodification”). This has the potential to make advertising incredibly powerful, except that paradoxically there is no proof that advertising increases sales, because a 1:1 relationship between advertising dollars spent and sales dollars generated cannot be measured (Holm, “Advertising Agencies”). Anne Cronin believes that this lack of evidence results in agencies convincing clients that they are able to change the minds of consumer while simultaneously telling regulators that they are not (p. 63). Contrary to the hypodermic needle theory of the 1940s and ‘50s whereby media was considered to have a direct, immediate and powerful effect on audiences, advertisers cannot force audiences to absorb their messages. Audiences can, and do, demonstrate agency and resist advertising, either passively by ignoring it or disliking it, or actively by deciding not to buy into the message (Holm, “Advertising Agencies”). Famed advertiser David Ogilvy agrees with Cronin, stating that “everyone involved has a vested interest in prolonging the myth that all advertising increases sales to some degree. It doesn’t” (Ogilvy qtd. in Cronin p. 60). Nonetheless, with countless products vying for consumer attention, companies must ensure their product or service has an edge. To do this requires creativity, and agencies convince clients that the best, professionally trained creative minds belong to creatives in agencies. Agencies back up their claimed creative superiority with industry awards, further alleviating concerns about advertising’s effectiveness (Holm, “Advertising and Creativity”). Ultimately, advertising agencies provide a service that promises to increase exchange value, albeit without offering any guarantee.

Creativity is an Industry

In the post-industrial era, creativity rather than intuition became a valued skill, one primed to secure and drive profits (Holm, “Advertising and Creativity II”). With the rise of globalisation in the 1980s, Western manufacturers began producing goods in countries where labour was cheaper, unions were absent and there were fewer environmental regulations. Facing mass unemployment, first-world countries affected by deindustrialisation sought to foster industries where production could not be shifted. The solution was to push creativity as an industry of its own; it could be commodified, could not be relocated, was less environmentally damaging and less physically laborious. Universities began teaching creativity, establishing it at an institutionalised level where we became accustomed to viewing creativity as a desirable trait and commodity (Holm, “Advertising and Creativity II”). Richard Florida argues that “human creativity is the ultimate economic resource” and encourages cities to foster a group he labels as the Creative Class to increase economic output (Florida qtd. in Szeman p. 17-24). Florida assigns the highly educated and/or creative into two groups: the Super-Creative Core who are paid to innovate and create “the transferable and useful”, and the Creative Professionals who are traditional knowledge-based workers (Szeman, p. 24). Imre Szeman believes that Florida uses “creative” to label people who “adopt a common style de vie, an outlook on life that cuts across and ties together the different registers of work, leisure, self-actualisation, and social goods” as well as having earning potential (p. 24). For Gilbert, creativity is at the core of economic advancement, because it is creative people who invent and transform products into commodities, making it necessary for capital to locate itself “near great centres of collective exchange and creativity” (p. 109). Creativity has emerged as a tool of capitalist ideology: it increases the value of commodities, is integral to how markets function, and shapes entire social landscapes.

We Are Consumers, Not Citizens

It is not only products being sold to us: governments employ advertising to communicate public service announcements and political ideology. Governments use advertising as a communication channel because everything in modern society happens through media and because advertising is the only media form that seeks out the consumer (Holm, “Lecture 22”). By utilising language developed by advertisers for maximum reach, governments blur commerce and culture, and communicate with us as consumers, not citizens. This results in us relating to governments as advertisers (Holm, “Opposing Advertising”), with the ultimate example being the size and price-tag of the Democrat and Republican U.S. political campaigns. Gilbert asserts that advertising is the obvious channel for governments because their function, whether democratic or not, has always been to “maintain profitability of the corporations, financial institutions and wealthy individuals whose interests they represent” (p. 86). Schudson believes governments use advertising to communicate a “public portraiture of ideals and values consistent with the promotion of a social order in which people are encouraged to think of themselves and their private worlds” (p. 221). Guy Debord, a Marxist theorist concerned with government and media cooperation, believes that capitalist ideology is distributed by the media, advertising, and popular culture to such an extent that social existence has been replaced with representations of life focused on consumption (Bracke, p. 158). Holm, Gilbert, and Debord confirm that, at all levels of society, advertising is used to sell capitalist ideology.

Anti-capitalist Sentiment is Growing

Whether it is the goods we buy or the ideas we are sold, we are all consumers in the capitalist framework and constantly subjected to advertising. So is it possible to step outside of this framework? For Marx, the alternative was communism, which traditionally requires vast amounts of advertising in the form of propaganda to survive. Today, to be anti-capitalist can mean holding one or many values focused around increased democracy, including but not limited to: social rather than private ownership; public participatory planning; self-management rather than class rule; the redistribution of wealth; and concern for labour and the environment (Gilbert, p. 78). Increased anti-capitalist sentiment is evident in the popularity of Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo” which targets the capitalist practices of multi-national corporations, although the publisher certainly employed advertising to market the book and its success made it a brand in itself (Gilbert,  p. 97). Similarly, the organisation Adbusters practises culture jamming when hijacking highly-recognisable advertisements and doctoring them to communicate anti-capitalist messages, but again by relying on the format of advertising itself to communicate its agenda. In these instances, advertising is providing a public service by teaching us to be comfortable with the critique of consumerism and capitalism (Holm, “Lecture 22”). Joseph Heath believes that demonstrating individuality and anti-capitalist sentiment are counter-cultural, and that counter-culturalists are creatives that commodify ideas when they create new trends (p. 131). Counter-intuitively, Heath claims that the motivation to be “outside of the system” is the desire to increase one’s social status – an action that fuels capitalist ideology because it encourages an endless consumerist race to buy symbols of wealth (p. 130). While one can employ advertising to educate the public about the dangers of consumerism, communicating anything outside of a capitalist ideology is unavoidable, especially when utilising advertising – an artefact of the capitalist framework itself.

The Zapatistas

One group that exists outside of the capitalist framework is the Zapatistas: a group of indigenous Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico, who are fighting for political autonomy. In 1994, a small elite controlled the agricultural land while around 56 per cent of the population survived on the international dollar-per-day threshold. Poverty combined with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated guaranteed collective property rights for workers, triggered an uprising, with the Zapatistas fighting for self-rule and the right to defend their traditional way of life. Led by a former Marxist revolutionary, 3,000 armed Zapatistas seized towns but were soon halted by the Mexican army. Today, while still against the Mexican government, they employ only peaceful means and the media to bring attention to their plight (Arsenault). Sponsored by mainly independent U.S. donors, The Chiapas Media Project provides equipment and training to enable Mexican indigenous communities to produce their own media. As a result, the Zapatistas have gained improvements in gender equality and public health, despite not being able to establish political autonomy (CMP, Arsenault). Gilbert believes “one of the great achievements of the anti-capitalist movement has been the creation of an alternative media infrastructure, particularly through the internet” (p. 96). The Zapatistas create campaigns of their own, utilising the media to promote an anti-capitalist ideology. This presents an independent alternative to traditional advertising, proving that there are borderline cases where true anti-capitalist ideology can be successfully communicated via the media. However, it is extremely unlikely that the Zapatistas, despite their reliance on the media for economic advancement, would ever employ the services of advertising agencies because anything other than an independent production would fail to communicate their message of autonomy.


To conclude, advertising increases a product’s exchange value by creating a new narrative in order to conceal its production history. Because the effectiveness of advertising is unquantifiable, advertising agencies must convince clients that their superior creativity can persuade consumers. This claim is credible because we collectively perceive creativity as desirable and critical to the invention and commodification of products. Moreover, governments fortify the capitalist framework by utilising advertising to speak to its publics, collaborating with the media to instil images of consumption and political ideals. Minority groups that rise against governments, like the Zapatistas, challenge how inescapable the framework is, but situations where traditional advertising would subvert, rather than aid a message, are rare. Lastly, educating the public about consumerism is a task reliant on advertising, and therefore on the framework itself, with counter-culturalists inadvertently creating commodities by being anti-capitalist, proving that all advertising reinforces capitalist ideology.


Works Cited

Arsenault, Chris. Zapatistas: The war with no breath? 01 Jan. 2011.

Bracke, Maud Anne. “The ‘Spirit of 1968’: Cultural Revolt” The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism. Ed. Stephen A. Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Print. (158)

Cronin, Anne M. “Advertising Agencies: Commercial Reproduction and the Management of Belief.” Advertising Myths. London: Routledge, 2004. (57–78).

Gilbert, Jeremy. Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics. Berg, 2008.

Holm, Nick. “Lecture Eleven Video: Advertising and the Commodity.” Massey University. 2014.

Holm, Nick. “Lecture Twelve Video: Lecture Twelve Slides: Advertising and Commodification.” Massey University. 2014.

Holm, Nick. “Lecture Seventeen Video: Advertising Agencies.” Massey University. 2014.

Holm, Nick. “Lecture Eighteen Video: Advertising and Creativity.” Massey University. 2014.

Holm, Nick. “Lecture Nineteen Video: Advertising and Creativity II.” Massey University. 2014.

Holm, Nick. “Lecture Twenty-Three Video: Opposing Advertising.” Massey University. 2014.

Jhally, Sut. “Advertising as Religion.” The Spectacle of Accumulation. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 85–97.
Marx, Karl. “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret (1867)” The Consumer Reader. Ed. Juliet B. Schor and Douglas B. Holt. New York: The New Press, 2000. (331–342).
Schudson, Michael. “Advertising as Capitalist Realism.” Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion. New York: Basic Books, 1986. (209–233).
Szeman, Imre. “Neoliberals Dressed in Black: or, the Traffic in Creativity.” English Studies in Canada 36.1 (2010) (15–36).

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