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Advertisements: both catalysts and consequences

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Advertising can be seen as a barometer for social change. Through the shock value of striking images, advertisements can confront the public about issues, and can affect dominant attitudes toward them but they also reflect and promote cultural norms and standards. Ads can be described as “a flow of materials which fashion normative standards and which implant a picture of social reality,”[1] and through advertisements we can track the shift of cultural acceptance or awareness of once taboo or unprecedented subject matter. “Advertising should be seen as both a consequence and a catalyst”[2] in terms of social change.

The Campaign for Family Planning ad by Bill Atherton and Alan Brooking in the 1960s is an excellent portrayal of the ways in which advertising can push social norms and mark the beginning of new cultural attitudes toward previously unmentionable subjects. The 60s were a time of great social change and openness about promiscuity and women’s rights. They were also characterized by the dominant culture of the 50s. Ads that addressed contraception, still illegal for unwed people in some states, pushed the boundaries of social norms to address necessary issues. The ad is a depiction of a pregnant man looking at the camera with a seemingly dejected expression. This unusual image is accompanied by the tagline “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?” The clever use of text to reveal the meaning of the image marks a time in which advertisers felt free to be direct and startling. This ad was meant to promote the discussion and use of contraception and safe sex. By switching gender roles, the ad calls attention to visual norms and expectations. [3] Using clever text and image combinations to communicate serious topics became a trend that carries on through advertising to the present.

The ad nicknamed “the crying Indian” portrays a Native American tearing with the tagline “People start pollution. People can stop it.” This public service advertisement was the result of the collaboration of the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful Inc. On the Ad Council’s official website, under the heading “Effecting Positive Social Change”, they assert that “a review of the Ad Council’s campaign dockets through the years demonstrates the organizations commitment to address the most pressing social issues of the day” and that their ad campaigns are “A Mirror of Society.”[4] The Keep America Beautiful campaign went public on Earth Day of 1971. This ad uses an American icon, the American Indian, to play on the emotions of Americans. The ad is meant to make you feel guilty for destroying a beautiful land that was not yours to begin with. This image relates to the Campaign for Family Planning because it represents a change in cultural thought, an increase in awareness and action toward protection of the environment. This advertisement uses a stereotype to express a progressive goal.  The “crying Indian” demonstrates how advertising “acknowledges and perhaps ratifies, but it does not originate social change.”[5] This ad merely used a stereotype to reflect changing attitudes.

The 1991 public service advertisement from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reflects a shift in society and law in regards to spousal abuse. The composition of the ad includes a bold tagline “He beat her 150 times. She only got flowers once.” and an image of a coffin with roses draped over it. In the past, domestic violence has been viewed as a responsibility, has since been frowned upon, and is now illegal. The Catholic Church held it as a man’s duty to hold his wife to a certain standard and was to beat her if she did not perform. It was not until the late 1800s that men were banned from beating their families. And then not until the feminist movement of the 1960s were laws instated. Serious action was not taken against domestic violence until the 1990s.[6] This ad demonstrates the most recent change in attitudes toward domestic violence. This ad is not intended to be humorous but still retains the shock value in the choice of image and text. The image is an unexpected twist on the message transmitted through the text. This relates to the ad from the Campaign for Family Planning by demonstrating a change in cultural thought about a social issue, and also women’s rights.

The dominant perspective changed towards global warming in the late 1980s. Ideas about global warming and human involvement were met with skepticism from dominant culture until recently when a drastic change occurred. In an international report based on public perceptions 79% of people believed that human activity had a significant role in climate change.[7] This is due to the exposure and framing of information in media like advertising. In this image, a polar bear is curled up in a box on a damp city street with a tagline that reads “Global warming is leaving many homeless.” This ad is playing on human emotion by relating the polar bears’ suffering to human suffering. The clever tagline reveals a new layer to the message and clarifies meaning. The play on the combination of image and text is reflective of the 1960s ad for the Campaign for Family Planning because they both grant a new perspective on a situation.

The Kenneth Cole ad, from 2008, relates to the ad from the Campaign for Family Planning because it portrays a transgender model. This ad utilizes a similar technique as the Campaign for Family Planning in that it switches gender roles in order to shock and provoke thought. Both of these advertisement address social issues and changing attitudes through their shock value. This image is from a Kenneth Cole campaign called We All Walk in Different Shoes. Kenneth Cole wanted to announce changes happening in the world through this campaign.[8] Historically transgender citizens have been victims of stigmatization, persecution, and discrimination. This ad acknowledges and marks a social change. Transgenderism, which has been historically stigmatized, is more widely accepted in Western culture since the mid to late 1900s. The first sex reassignment surgery was in the 1930s and has become a relatively common practice in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “Media [does] not necessarily persuade consumers to hold a particular view of an issue… but coverage in the media tells consumers that the issue or product is something relevant to them,”[9] in this case the ad informed its audience that transgenderism was now accepted in pop culture media and that issues of sexuality are incredibly relevant in current culture.

Advertisements can both cause and be caused by social change. The content of these ads inform the viewer about societal changes as well as traditional attitudes. These ads mark a point in history in which ideas and values were being brought into question and startling advertisements were being utilized to convey messages.


Works Cited

“Ad Council : About.” Ad Council : Home. (accessed April 18, 2011).

Berman, Ronald. Advertising and social change . Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1981.


Drucker, Johanna, and Emily McVarish. Graphic design history:  a critical guide. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.


Evans, Alex, and David Steven. “Climate Change: The State of the Debate – Global Dashboard “Blog covering International affairs and global risks .” (accessed April 18, 2011).


SafeNetwork. “Herstory of Domestic Violence: A Timeline of the Battered Women’s Movement” MINCAVA Electronic Clearinghouse. (accessed April 18, 2011).


Hovland, Roxanne, and Joyce Marie Wolburg. Advertising, society, and consumer culture . Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2010.


Janowitz, Morris. The last half-century:  societal change and politics in America. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1978.


“Kenneth Cole We All Walk in Different Shoes Advertising Campaign” StyleFrizz.” StyleFrizz. (accessed April 18, 2011).

[1] Morris Janowitz, The last half-century: societal change and politics in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)


[2] Roxanne Hovland and Joyce Marie Wolburg. Advertising, society, and consumer culture (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2010)


[3] Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish, Graphic design history: a critical guide (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009)


[4] “Ad Council : About,” Ad Council, accessed April 18, 2011,

[5] Ronald Berman, Advertising and social change (Beverly HIlls: Sage Publications, 1981)


[6] “Herstory of Domestic Violence: A Timeline of the Battered Women’s Movement,” SafeNetwork, accessed April 18, 2011,


[7] “Climate Change: The State of the Debate,” Global Dashboard, accessed April 18, 2011,

[8] “Kenneth Cole We All Walk in Different Shoes Advertising Campaign,” StyleFrizz, accessed April 18, 2011,


[9] Hovland and Wolburg, Advertising