By | January 14, 2001

An advertising and media critic takes a deeper look at commercial messages’ cultural impact, using memetics to show how advertising became religion.

By Matthew Stanton, Metromemetics

What’s the difference between Mountain Dew and Mello Yellow soda pop? The two beverages taste and cost about the same, and both are available anywhere in America. However, Pepsi has branded Mountain Dew in association with young, hyperactive, fast-moving risk-takers, whereas Cola-Cola’s Mello Yellow shares little of that association. Instead of pop, many people think of the groovy Donovan tune “Mellow Yellow” when they hear the term. When was the last time the words “Mountain Dew” conjured up images of either moutains or dew?

What’s the difference between a Ford Taurus and a Lamborgini Diablo? The Taurus has more room inside, can be serviced almost anywhere in America, and costs thousands of dollars less. The Lanborgini is much faster, but in almost every part of the United States the speed limit never exceeds 65 miles per hour.

So why is a Lamborgini “better” than a Taurus?

James B. Twitchell, author of the essay “But First, a Word from Our Sponsor: Advertising and the Carnivalization of Culture,” offers this observation: “For whatever else advertising ‘does,’ one thing is certain: by adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion.”

The A.C. Nielsen Company reports 2- to 5-year-olds average more than 28 hours of television a week, equal to about forty school days a year. Every five to ten minutes, the programs being broadcast are interrupted for three to five minutes of paid commercial messages aimed at motivating viewers to try a product or service. This breakdown means young children are exposed to more than eight hours of commercials every week, or more 435 hours every year.

In addition to broadcast advertising, roughly one-quarter to one-half of any given commerical print publication like a magazine or newspaper is sold for use by advertisers. Billboards, logo-embroidered clothes, and in-store displays are all used to enforce advertising messages and branding.

Despite such an overwhelming ad presence, Americans have become conditioned and often numb against such messages.

In his book Adcult USA, author Twitchell cites figures from the American Association of Advertising Agencies estimating the impression given by commerical messages. Of the 3,000 ads consumed each day, only 80 will be consciously noticed and just a dozen will spark some sort of reaction in a viewer or listener. Twitchell also points to Video Storyboard Tests, a company that conducts “recall testing,” which reports 40% of the 20,000 consumers surveyed each year cannot think of a single memorable commercial.

So why bother? Here’s Twitchell’s response:

No one knows how often provocation, or even recall, leads to a sale, but as we will see, manufacturers spend a relatively small amount of their money on advertising anyay. Believe it or not, if advertising really sold products, there would be even more. Today advertising is clearly done for many more reasons than increasng sales. In fact, no one really knows why some companies advertise in the first place. Clearly, there is a comfort value for the producer, the salespeople, and the postdecision consumer. And there is the unmentionable to consider: we like being advertised to. We like being told that “You deserve a break today,” “You, you’re the one,” and that “You are special to us,” although we may know it’s not true. Not only does it make us feel important but perhaps, as Swift said, “Happiness is the poseesion of being perpetually well-deceived.” Deception is the reality of Adcult.

In other words, advertising does not sell products or services, it sells ideas.

James Twitchell is a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. His books include Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror (1985), Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America (1992),Twenty Ads That Shook the World: The Century’s Most Groundbreaking Advertising and How It Changed Us All(2000), and Living It Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury (2002).