October 15, 2009
The Rhetoric of Advertising
This essay takes a stand in the brewing legal academic debate over the consequences of advertising. On one side are the semiotic democratists, scholars who bemoan the ability of advertisers to take control of the meanings that they create through trademark law and other pro-business legal rules. On the other side are those who are more sanguine about the ability of consumers to rework advertising messages and point to several safety valves for free expression existing in the current advertising regulation regime. My take on this debate is that the participants have failed to address the impact of advertising on personal development. Particularly important to this discussion is the recent trend of using targeted niche marketing to appeal to particular social groups. Using social identity theory - an influential psychological theory positing that identities develop through categorization and comparison of ourselves with the social groups around us - I argue that modern advertising has a tremendous and unrecognized influence on our sense of self. My chief example of the impact of niche marketing on identity formation is the recent targeting of the gay and lesbian market. By constructing the gay market in a particular way, advertisers shrink the identity models available for individuals grappling with whether to self-categorize themselves as gay. Advertisers have forced an essentialist model of gay sexuality on consumers while painting the gay market as white, male, healthy, and affluent. At the same time, advertisers have invaded gay cultural space, co-opting gay political symbols and taking over once relatively ad-free community spaces. Meanwhile, this targeted marketing threatens to split the gay community apart by emphasizing lines of difference that are based on class and taste and socioeconomic station. All of these practices threaten the processes that psychologists using social identity theory deem crucial to developing a healthy sense of self. I suggest that the real focus in the debate over legal regulation of advertising should be not on First Amendment protections for artists and activists, but on training our minds to be more aware of advertising’s growing influence on our psyches.
October 15, 2009 | Permalink
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