Seeing Through Advertising: An Industry Insider’s Advice

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by advertising? Learn to see through the static! (cc image courtesy of jbhthescots via Flickr).

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

This week Flourish had a chance to interview Brandon Butcher about his experience working for a major ad agency and his thoughts on the nature of advertising in today’s society.

We asked him, “How can we be discerning consumers of advertising?”

Brandon Butcher: The first step is to recognize that most people don’t realize the extent to which advertising messages saturate their environment. There is a sense in which we are fish in water. We have grown up with messages and media. We see up to 3,000 advertisements a day.

Flourish: What does that look like?

BB: The advertisements we see come in the form of word-of-mouth from peers, things that we see on the road, emails, print ads, commercials on TV or the radio, or even seeing a brand logo on a hat or on the car in front of you. It’s all advertising.

F: How has that ubiquity affected us?

We should not use products to give ourselves a secure sense of who we are—God was meant be the source of those answers.

BB: The first thing to recognize is that there is an effect. None of us is immune to the influence of advertising. There are a few levels. One of them is the macro-level. That is when advertising embeds itself in a society in such a way that it gives us social scripts. It presents a certain picture of how life should look and a prescription for how to live. That is not to say that advertising is a wholly negative thing. It is necessary in that it can inform us, educate us, and tell us about brands. There are ways in which advertising plays an important role in society. The important thing is to be careful because it can influence us in ways that we may not be aware.

F: What about the micro-level?

BB: Advertising changes the way we as individuals process our lives. It mainly happens in the realm of our felt needs—what we think we need to be happy. Psychologist Abraham Maslow described the chain of basic human needs in his famous hierarchy of needs. It addresses five main categories of needs that start with physiological needs (hunger and thirst, for example), safety and security (shelter, feeling of being safe and in control), love and belonging (romantic love, familial love), self-esteem (the feeling of being valuable and distinct), self-actualization (the sense that you have achieved everything you hoped to achieve). All advertisements appeal to one of these needs. Advertising in Western cultures tend to focus on the final two because for most of the population the most basic needs are already met. We need to ask the question: “How are these messages playing upon my needs in ways that I may not recognize?”

Our exposure to advertising starts at a young age. How much time do your children spend watching TV or surfing the web per day?


F: How do you answer that question?

BB: I think it is helpful to look at yourself and identify the things that you really need in life; try to get perspective. You need to try to see through the consensus established by advertising and refresh your sense of what you actually need in life and what will satisfy you. This should be a continual discipline.

F: Do you have any practical advice on how to get that perspective?

BB: One thing that I try to do is take breaks from TV, e-mail, or surfing the Web for a fixed amount of time. I try to watch my consumption habits and think about what I really need to buy and what I can live without. Of course you cannot completely remove yourself from the culture in which you live; that isn’t the point. The point is to become a discerning consumer of advertising, and we need to develop the ability to see the underlying messages in the advertisements we see and hear. We need to be able to deconstruct those messages and not simply be consumers of them. If we can simply stop and ask the question, “What is this ad saying and how is it saying it?” we can lessen the impact of that message on our soul and come to an informed decision on whether or not we want to take action on it.

F: What are your top five pieces of advice for how to be a good consumer of advertising?

BB: 1. Talk about it with people. Community can be a powerful thing when it comes to seeing through false messages of advertising.
2. Take a media fast. Go take a walk in the woods and experience some of God’s creation. Even making a simple change like watching less TV can be a great way to limit the amount of advertising you are exposed to.
3. Be a conscientious consumer. Identifying the underlying messages is a skill that grows with time. Practice asking questions of ads as you encounter them. Grab a magazine and get some friends together and try to discern the messages you see and compare them to the truths of the gospel.
4. Ignore it. If you know you don’t want to see something, just turn the page of the magazine or turn off the TV. Advertising is ubuiquitous but you still have the choice to not consume individual ads.
5. Be active. With changing technology we have a greater degree of freedom over what ads we expose ourselves to—exercise it.

F: It seems like the point is to try to see the answers advertising is proposing to life’s basic questions. After we accomplish that, however, how do we replace those answers with ones that come from the gospel?

BB: At the end of the day, we are all trying to carve out an “image niche” for ourselves; we are constantly trying to craft for ourselves an identity. It’s OKAY to make decisions out of that—you can make decisions about what products to buy or what organizations to support—however, you need to be aware of what you are doing. You need to know that ultimately, if you are a Christian, your identity is founded on who God says you are in Christ. The material things that we use to make sense of our identity are a fleeting and flimsy foundation on which to build an identity. Products can falsely answer the questions of identity for us, and the danger then becomes that we do not feel the urgency to answer those questions in a more substantial way. Our true need is to answer those questions with the deep and lasting truths of the gospel. We should not use products to give ourselves a secure sense of who we are—God was meant be the source of those answers. The things that we have and do do not define us, and our demographic does not define us—who the Lord says we are in Christ is the ultimate and secure foundation. We are all made in the image of God. He will provide for our needs better than any product can. He will provide for us an identity in a more authoritative and true way than any advertising message. He is our true source of happiness, not consumerism.

Brandon Butcher is the Area Director of K-Life, a parachurch ministry for students in Columbia, Missouri. He has a bachelor’s degree in advertising and a masters in strategic communication from the Missouri School of Journalism and has worked in the advertising industry with the Richards Group and Leerfield Sports. His passion is helping young people develop a Christian worldview and live out the truth of the gospel in their everyday lives.

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