Magic mirror…

How do TV commercials influence American culture?

by Garth Sundem

How do TV commercials influence American culture?

Image Gallery: Evolution of TV

Family of four watching TV
Flying Colours Ltd/Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Television advertisements have the power to influence all viewers, from young to old. See more pictures of TV’s evolution.

TV ads are built on one simple idea: If you buy X, you’ll get Y. But Y is rarely the product itself. Rather, it’s a positive emotion, a perfect relationship, higher social status or an amazing experience. For example, if you buy Big Red gum, you’ll get to “kiss a little longer.” Or if you go to Toys “R” Us, you’ll reconnect with your youthful self, allowing you to have even more fun with your kids: After all, you don’t wanna grow up, ’cause maybe if you did, you couldn’t be a Toys “R” Us kid! Leaving the jingles aside, if you had a Verizon phone, you’d be able to stay close with your family. Or if you owned a Kia car, you would immediately transform into an ultracool rodent. (Well, maybe that one’s a little far-fetched!)

Maybe more importantly, in terms of TV ads’ impact on culture, buying Calvin Klein jeans will make you sexy like Kate Moss, or buying Nike sports apparel will make you ready to “Just Do It,” like a professional beach volleyball player.

Of course, this isn’t breaking news. What’s cool, though, is how exactly it works — more specifically, how TV ads both reflect culture and drive it forward, pulling us unsuspecting viewers along with it.

Up Next

In the early 1900s, clever industrialists faced competition from other clever industrialists. They quickly realized that instead of simply selling a better cooking stove, for example, they could sell the idea that their cooking stove above any other on the market was the key to a “modern” household. And what did society want? It wanted to be modern. And how did society achieve this? By buying brand X’s stove, because it appeared to be the obvious choice. And thus the idea of buying your way to an idealized life was born.

Next up, we’ll look a little more at how today’s ads affect TV viewers.

The Average American

We’ve already established that TV ads reflect culture. They parrot back to consumers what consumers already want: a modern household, the ability to properly nurture a family according to cultural standards, the perfect relationship and more.

But this reflection is a magic mirror: one that you can look into and see not you as you are, but a better self. According to the ads, this better self is funnier than you (the misquoted football coaches of Coors), cooler than you (the guy driving a Dodge Charger) and way, way sexier than you (Kate Moss, Tyra Banks or the ever-alluring David Hasselhoff).

In fact, almost all of the 16,000 ads the average American sees every day have one thing in common: They’re idealized . Idealization means that whatever’s happening in the ad is ahead of where culture is right now. It’s not what we’ve got, but instead it’s richer, sexier and cooler!

TV ads drive culture by reflecting only the lucky top 0.001 percent of what’s possible, and then when the remaining 99.999 percent of culture imitates it, the center of culture shifts. Ads show sexy, liberated women smoking, so more average American women start smoking to try to achieve that sexy liberation. Ads show perfect natural beauty, or athletic beauty, or posh beauty, or stick-figure beauty, and when culture imitates these ideals, the center shifts and the ads have to get more extreme to remain ideal. For example, how could you not want to be as cool as the Kia hamsters in their saggy pants, hoodies and dark glasses?

If we’re not careful, these ads can be cultural quicksand. Culture suggests something and ads drive it — whether the destination is worthwhile or not is beside the point.

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