See-Through Ads

What exactly are they selling anyway?, complains the jaundiced TV viewer. Who do they think buys this stuff? asks the browser at the magazine rack.

Read Undressing the Ad and you'll answer those questions. "Advertisements sanctify, signify, mythologize, and fantasize," editor Katherine Toland Frith writes. "They uphold some of the existing economic and political structures and subvert others. Not only does advertising shape American culture; it shapes Americans' images of themselves."

And ads do so because we let them. We hit the mute or flip the page, but face it, do we ever really examine our reactions? For Frith, chair of the advertising program at Penn State and a former ad copy-writer, such examination is a sort of civic duty. By the age of 40 the average American will have seen a million ads. "In order to comprehend the impact of all this advertising on society we must learn how to see through advertisements."

Reading an ad, Frith writes, is like peeling an onion. First there's the surface meaning, a list of all the objects and people in the ad. Then there's the advertiser's intended meaning, the take-home message. Inside there's the cultural meaning: "Advertising only 'makes sense' when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems."

clorox ad with white socks

Take the simple magazine ad below. According to Frith, "The picture contains seven boys who are sitting together on what may be a king-size bed with their feet up and their shoes off. There are five white boys, one black, and one Asian. One boy near the center has a big grin on his face, he also is the only one who has slightly discolored socks. All the other boys have 'whiter than white' clean socks. There is also a bottle of Clorox Bleach in the lower left-hand corner of the ad, and a headline runs below the boys' feet that reads: 'Guess who forgot the Clorox.' The subhead says: 'If you want your family to wear their whitest whites . . . Don't forget the Clorox Bleach.'" That's the surface meaning: If "you" want your kids to look well cared for, you'll wash their socks with Clorox Bleach. On to the center of the onion: "The underlying assumption in this ad is that laundry is woman's work. That is why this ad ran in Woman's Day and not in Gentlemen's Quarterly . . . . In addition, the ad's headline is playing on a woman's feelings of guilt at being a less-than-perfect housewife and mother. The implication in this ad is that all the other mothers somehow managed to get their boys' socks bright and clean, but you, the female reader, know that your kid often goes out, maybe even goes to overnight parties, with discolored socks. . . . The ad is saying, shame on you, mom."

But, you might ask, how can Frith assume the ad's directed at women? Men wash clothes too. Try this exercise: Think of the ad as a story with characters. There's a bunch of boys, someone saying "Guess who forgot," and a "you" who's being addessed. Now, "describe the relationships between the characters," Frith suggests, "by exchanging the key players in the ad." Put a bunch of middle-aged women on the bed in their socks. Who forgot the bleach? The woman with dirty feet. Put a bunch of businessmen on the bed in their socks. Who forgot the bleach?

Undressing the Ad contains 11 essays by scholars or critics of advertising; in addition to Frith, authors Ernest Mayes and Chemi Montes-Armenteros are affiliated with Penn State. Mayes, who received his master's degree in media studies at the University, examines haircare ads aimed at black women. In such magazines as Ebony and Essence, he finds, black female readers meet "with a barrage of media messages that suggest the inferiority of their natural traits and characteristics." Black women are not "in control," good mothers, attractive to black men, or accepted in society if they don't straighten their hair. According to Chemi Montes-Armenteros, who teaches graphic design at Penn State, even public service ads are not beyond reproach. Anti-smoking ads appeal not to health, but to "the idea of social acceptance," or point out the effect of an "ugly butt" on a woman's sex appeal.

Concludes Frith, "The argument here is not so much that advertising creates inequities in society but that by circulating and recirculating certain myths advertising shapes our attitudes and beliefs."

Once we understand the tricks and techniques with which advertisers tap into our assumptions, Frith says, "we can begin to move away from the role of spectator to become participants in the making and remaking of ourselves and of a more democratic society."

Katherine T. Frith, Ph.D., is associate professor in the College of Communications, 125 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-6137; ktf1@psu.edu. Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertisingwas published in 1997 by Peter Lang Publishing, New York.

Last Updated September 01, 1998