Timke on Wharton, 'Advertising as Culture'

Chris Wharton, ed.
Edward Timke

Chris Wharton, ed. Advertising as Culture. Bristol: Intellect Ltd., 2013. 229 pp. $35.50 (paper), ISBN 978-1-84150-614-2.

Reviewed by Edward Timke (University of Michigan) Published on Jhistory (January, 2014) Commissioned by Heidi Tworek

Unraveling Advertising's Place in and as Culture

Advertisements have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From the promotions on our breakfast food boxes to the billboards that line our highways to the backend pages of the books we read at bedtime, one would be hard pressed to go a full day without seeing an advertisement. Acknowledging this prevalence, Chris Wharton’s edited collection Advertising as Culture uncovers the important place advertising has come to take in modern society. In particular, the volume looks at how advertising shapes our modern culture, which is deeply and often unquestionably ensconced in the logic of global, market-driven economics. Although the book draws from scholars specializing in different fields and perspectives on advertising, one significant, overarching conclusion is that advertisements have come to reflect and create a culture that exalts consumer choice to mask the underlying profit and power-driven motives of corporations and elites, which limits major challenges to free-market capitalism. The edited volume, thus, takes a largely critical and often Marxist approach to assessing the symbiotic relationship between advertising and culture and how advertising has become synonymous with the capitalist culture in which we live.

The book is composed of an introduction and ten chapters. The introduction draws from the work of Matthew Arnold, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, and other cultural theorists, to first grapple with the meaning of culture and how it relates to advertising. Wharton concludes that culture is always debated, which leads to pressing questions: “whose culture; what meanings does it have; what kind of work does it do and in whose interest?” (p. 5). This definition is important since it explains the volume’s critical approach to assessing advertising’s development as “an essential economic and social element of society largely driven by the imperatives of capital” as well as how it comes to influence and stand in for culture today (p. 5). The volume’s main chapters, in order, cover advertising as a way of life and what it reveals about cultural oppression and social segregation; research methodology and its formal and informal applications in advertising; the importance of technology in advertising’s developments over time; the role of advertising to build and create desire for fashion accessories; the appropriation of music for advertising’s selling and appealing functions, even when musicians have passed on; the historic symbiosis and recent antithesis between advertising and art; the importance of digital technologies and spaces to sell products and ideas to niche audiences; the use of propaganda and advertising as part of corporate, elite, and governmental political communication; and the erosion of a deliberative, citizen-focused media environment through media industries’ dependency on advertising to meet their profit mandates. The book draws heavily from British and American cases and histories, but its critical angle on the purposes of advertisements, whom they serve, and how they have evolved and saturated much of everyday life can be applied and discussed in other contexts.

Due to space limitations, the diverse chapters cannot be reviewed in full, but there is a broader, important issue to discuss in relation to the collection’s title and what it might seem (pardoning the pun) to advertise about itself. The title Advertising as Culture makes a strong claim. Rather than separating advertising from culture (i.e., Advertising and Culture or Advertising in Culture), the volume reveals that advertising has become a central actor and definer of culture and the logics that underlie it. Thus, all of the chapters take up the important question of the often mutually reinforcing relationship between advertising and culture, but some do so more explicitly than others. For example, chapter 2 (“Advertising research”) contains a long discussion of the differences between qualitative and quantitative research, with advertising and the question of culture taking up a smaller discussion toward the end of the chapter. At points early in the chapter, it seems that advertising is tacked onto the discussion, and the issue of culture is also not as apparent. Most of the second chapter may be helpful to those unfamiliar with the general differences between qualitative and quantitative methodologies. However, for advanced graduate students and researchers, going through a detailed discussion of general methodological issues may seem excessive, especially if one expects a longer, more detailed analysis of types of methodologies employed by advertising, past and present, and how they have impacted the business and approaches of advertising and its influence on culture.Conversely, chapters 1 (“Advertising--a way of life”), 3 (“Spreads like butter--culture and advertising”), 9 (“Selling politics--the political economy of political advertising”), and 10 (“Citizens and consumers--media and advertising”) stood out in how they immediately took on the pervasive underlying functions and purposes of advertisements and how they may erode and exclude noncapitalist visions and expressions of culture.  

This volume would be a useful addition, in whole or in part, to advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in advertising, cultural studies, art history, and mass media and communication. Additionally, mass media and cultural studies scholars may find various chapters helpful in better understanding how advertising has historically related to their specific area of expertise. For example, for those interested in visual communication and production, chapter 7 provides an excellent overview of the relationship between art and advertising from the 1880s to the present and how developments and advances in both were global and cross-pollinating. Political communication scholars will be interested in chapter 9, which eschews the common assumption that political advertising was born in the 1950s by looking to how advertising has been used by governments, corporations, interest groups, and politicians in ways beyond electoral politics, going back as far as the 1910s. Taking a historical perspective, the volume importantly shows how advertising has become powerful today by tracing its evolution and impact on everyday life and culture since its professionalization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In reading the volume, one appreciates the diversity of perspectives and literatures from which it draws, including key advertising works by Raymond Williams, Roland Barthes, Michael Schudson, and Stuart Hall. However, it is surprising that key critical studies about advertising by Jackson Lears, Roland Marchand, Richard Ohmann, and Thomas Frank were not discussed or mentioned more (in the case of Marchand).[1] Although my surprise may reflect my famliarity with the American advertising literature (the contributors come mainly from British institutions), I find that the volume could have been strengthened by adding these authors’ attention to advertising’s transformative magic (Lears), its reflections of a society’s aspirations and goals (Marchand), its importance in selling culture and new consumer goods (Ohmann), and the shift to “cool” advertising in the 1960s (Frank). Covering the history and import of advertising in shaping culture is not an easy feat, and trying to tell as much of this story as possible in less than two hundred pages with revealing, colorful illustrations is even more challenging. Thus, the volume should be commended for starting a broader critical discussion for a wide audience about advertising in and as culture.


[1]. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994); Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985);Richard Ohmann, Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (London: Verso, 1996); and Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

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Citation: Edward Timke. Review of Wharton, Chris, ed., Advertising as Culture. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. January, 2014. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=40333

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