At the most basic level, advertising is the transmission of information. Advertisers broadcast information to some audience, through sound, text, or images. Those sounds, words, or images are meant to provide facts, give persuasive arguments, or stimulate emotional responses in their audience. Sometimes the information contained in advertisements is clear, direct, and obviously relevant to the purchase of the product of service it advertises, like an advertisement that gives the price of a product and the name of a store that carries it. Other times, the information contained in advertisements is abstract, metaphorical, and not obviously related to the product or service in any clear way, like images of attractive models paired with images of a product. The wide range of meanings and intentions behind advertisements raises ethical questions about the ways that advertising information is used and whether or not it is deceptive—or even harmful—to its audience.
First, let’s make a distinction between ads that provide direct, clear information about a product or service, and ads that do not give information about products or services, but instead give apparently unrelated information in order to elicit an emotional response. I’m going to call the direct kind of advertising transactional, because it gives information relevant to transactions (of money for products). This will also include ads that compare products to each other, typically with the intention of demonstrating that one is superior, because these ads describe the product’s features directly. An ad that says something like “come on down to Bob’s Mattress Palace, where we’re offering this queen size mattress for the low price of $600.00” would be an example of a transactional advertisement.
This is a transactional advertisement. It gives you clear information about the price of a product, what the product looks like, some of its features, and the next step in purchasing it (the “learn more” button).
Transactional advertising is distinct from branding, which is advertising that does not give any information about the price, availability, or qualities or a product, but instead aims to make its audience feel a certain way about the product. This kind of advertising is harder to give an example of, but there is an easy way to demonstrate the way they work. Think about Nike. What does that brand make you think of? I suspect concepts like sports, training, and fitness; slogans like “just do it”, or images of athletes come to mind. That’s no accident. Nike wants you to think of those things when you think of the brand Nike. They want you to feel like Nike products are associated with athletic success, they want you to imagine that you are like those athletes when you wear Nike shoes. Maybe you don’t have the same athletic skill, but you have the determination and the spirit to achieve your athletic goals, just like they do. Notice that none of this has anything to do with the quality of Nike’s products, nor their price, or even their aesthetic properties. It has to do with exactly one thing: how you feel about the brand.
Now think about Coca-cola. What images do you think of? I bet you imagine people having fun, summertime, probably those polar bears, and maybe you think about how Coke is a classic part of American culture. That’s no accident either. The Coca-cola company has carefully chosen the images used in its ads to get you to associate certain feelings with their product. When you buy a Coke, you are not just solving the problem of being thirsty, you are affirming your love of tradition, happiness, innocence, and American culture. Levis jeans use the same concepts, just with different images.