ERIC Identifier: ED332255
Publication Date: 1991-00-00
Author: Gottlieb, Stephen S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills
Educating the Consumer about Advertising: Some Issues.
Advertising can be defined as communication which promotes the purchase
of products and services, and advertisements are pervasive in the American
culture. Ads are sandwiched between programs on television, interspersed
with popular songs on the radio, and scattered among news features in the
daily paper. While advertisements may distract from a TV program or a newspaper's
other messages, might they also serve a more positive purpose? Can advertising
advance consumer knowledge? At the same time, can consumer education help
people become more knowledgeable and critical about the goals of advertising?
This digest provides a basic overview of issues related to advertising
and the consumer.
ADS ARE EVERYWHERE
People sometimes complain about the perceived overabundance of advertising
in daily life. While consumers are accustomed to ads on television and
in magazines, commercial promotion appears to be cropping up in more and
more places. A proposed cable TV channel (Channel One) for use in schools
faltered when it was learned that the channel would carry commercials aimed
at the students, but it now appears to be heading for success, even though
school administrators are divided on its merits (Rist, 1989). A profile
of Channel One founder, Chris Whittle, in "The New York Times" reported
that, while many teachers and administrators extol the value of the newscast
which Channel One presents, others will never accept the infusion of commercialism
in the schools. Whittle, however, has already signed up the 8600 schools
he needed to cover his capital costs and achieve the audience size he felt
would interest advertisers (Kleinfield, 1991).
Advertising is also found in some of the free curriculum materials which
businesses supply to schools. A content analysis of materials within the
areas of nutrition, energy, and economics education revealed that business-sponsored
materials were found to contain significantly more advertising statements
than did non-business-sponsored materials. Additionally, sponsored materials
contained significantly more references to brand names/models and more
company/brand logos and names than did non-sponsored materials. Many educators
believe that the value of these materials is suspect, because of the preponderance
of the commercial message over the informational content (Rudd 1986).
Each time a new communications technology is developed, merchants are
quick to devise ways of exploiting the medium for advertising purposes.
Advertisers move rapidly to exploit the commercial possibilities of radio,
television and cable. Facsimile machines are now used to transmit ads.
Sports arenas' and stadiums' electronic scoreboards carry product names
in yards-high lettering. The developing technologies of teletext, electronic
mail, and interactive cable television are now being used to sell products
as well. Research suggests that as a result of these developments, advertising
is now less likely to contain meaningful product information, and more
likely to be intermingled with other kinds of messages (Sepstrup 1986).
Consumers, as the targets of these increasingly complex promotional strategies,
must become much more aware of the persuasive nature of advertising.
RECOGNIZING ADVERTISING APPEALS
Advertising serves some very important purposes. It promotes competition
among producers of products and services, keeps prices low through the
development of mass markets, encourages store owners to stock a variety
of items, supports free expression by funding media sources, and spurs
invention. In theory, access to all available information on a given product
should promote all of these ends and allow a consumer to make the most
intelligent possible product purchase decisions. In practice, no one takes
the time to gather that many facts. The amount of information needed to
make a knowledgeable product purchase depends on such considerations as
the cost of the product and the difficulty of obtaining further data. At
some point, the cost of the additional information will exceed the value
of the product. Intelligent consumers learn to balance these factors, and
students can cultivate this skill through appropriate learning exercises
(South Carolina 1983).
The average person is exposed to dozens of advertisements every day.
A student may not appreciate just how influential advertising is until
confronted with large numbers of familiar slogans, logos, and characters
taken directly from the ads. Teachers can encourage students to identify
advertisements and examine their content. Students must learn to separate
facts from images, and to tell the difference between what the ads imply
and what they actually say (Hawaii 1982). It is possible to identify many
kinds of advertising appeals (snob appeal, statistics, humor, etc.), and
even elementary school children can learn to recognize these. The students
can gain an appreciation of the diversity of advertising appeals through
discussion, analysis of commercial messages, creation of advertisements
for imaginary products, and other classroom activities (Dianna 1983; Garrahy
Unscrupulous advertisers will sometimes advertise products that are
just too good to be true. The Latin maxim, "caveat emptor," which means
"let the buyer beware," is an important phrase to keep in mind when making
consumer purchases. A child can learn that purchasers do not ordinarily
get something for nothing. It is preferable if the child grasps this lesson
before getting cheated, rather than afterwards. Teachers should encourage
students to scan the daily newspaper or television for ads that do not
ring true (Greenup 1983). The more exposure a child has to the motivations
that lie behind questionable advertising methods, the less likely it will
be that the child will be fooled by such tactics.
The relationship between advertising and consumer knowledge has been
the subject of much study. Interestingly, there does not appear to be a
necessary connection between the amount of advertising to which a child
is exposed and that child's consumer knowledge. In fact, one study indicates
that the viewing of television advertising may render an adolescent more
susceptible to inflated advertising claims. At the same time, consumer
education courses appear to increase student dissatisfaction with the marketplace,
suggesting that such courses increase awareness of unfair business practices
TRUTH IN FINANCIAL ADVERTISING
Consumer vulnerability to deceptive advertising is particularly acute
in the area of financial services. Individuals often have little knowledge
of the workings of credit, leases, security agreements, and so on. It is
sometimes difficult to obtain information on such subjects that would be
meaningful to the average consumer, so it is especially important that
consumers be on guard against misleading or fraudulent advertisement. Because
of the great inequality of bargaining power in this area, the government
often backs up the consumer with protective laws.
The desire for accurate information regarding consumer borrowing has
been the driving force behind a great deal of legislation in Congress and
in the legislatures of the 50 states. Regulations such as the federal Truth
in Lending Law are designed to protect individuals from misleading practices
by loan institutions. An important portion of the law provides that if
one feature of a credit arrangement is mentioned in advertising, other
important loan terms must also be explained. Similar provisions in the
Consumer Leasing Act protect consumers who enter into lease agreements.
The intent of these laws is to extend the government's help to the making
of informed decisions on difficult financial matters (Fed. Res. 1981, 1983).
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Truth in Leasing."
February 1983, 5p. [ED 235 072]
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "What Truth in Lending
Means to You." June 1981, 5p. [ED 235 071]
Dianna, Michael A. "Buy, Buy, Buy: How to Recognize Advertising Appeals."
1983, 6p. [ED 242 573]
Garrahy, Dennis J. "Consumerism Theme." California: Vista Unified School
District, 1982, 63p. [ED 241 441]
Greenup, Tess. "Newspaper Activities for Young Consumers." Albuquerque:
Albuquerque Tribune-Journal (Newspapers in Education project), 1983, 17p.
[ED 246 002]
Hawaii State Dept. of Education. "Consumer Education (A High School
One-Semester Course)." December 1982, p24-27. [ED 238 791]
Kleinfield, N. R. "What is Chris Whittle Teaching Our Children?" New
York Times (Magazine), May 19, 1991.
Moschis, George P. and Roy L. Moore. "A Longitudinal Study of Consumer
Socialization." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Corvallis, OR, 1983,
16p. [ED 232 179]
Rist, Marilee C. "Mass Marketers Have a Sweet Deal for You, but There
Are Strings Attached." American School Board Journal (176) 9 September
1989, p20-24. [EJ 395 084]
Rothenberg, Randall. "Ad Scenes: An Intimate Warning against Mediocrity."
New York Times, June 17, 1991.
Rudd, Joel. "Commercial and Advertising Content in Free Consumer Curriculum
Materials." Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational
Research Association, San Francisco, CA, 1986, 6p. [ED 273 554]
Sepstrup, Preben and Folke Olander. "Consumer Information in the Electronic
Media: Neutral Information, Advertising, Selling. Working Paper No. 4."
Denmark: Aarhus School of Administration and Economics, August 1986, p24-33.
[ED 278 367]
South Carolina State Dept. of Consumer Affairs. "Advertisements Demand
Sense." 1983, p8-13. [ED 249 121]