Why defend advertising?
While the abundance of advertising is usually viewed as a sign of the vitality of capitalism, it is nevertheless under a near-universal assault by intellectuals. Because advertising “blatantly and unapologetically appeals to the self-interest of consumers for the blatant and selfish gain of capitalists”1, attacks on advertising are an assault on capitalism and ethical egoism. Arguments against advertising usually take two forms: the argument is that advertising is economically inefficient and the argument that advertising is somehow coercive. 2
The myth of “perfect competition”
Most economic arguments against advertising derive from the theory of “perfect competition, ” which is an ideal state against which markets are to be judged. This state is characterized by homogeneous products, relatively small sellers without monopoly power, prices which approach the cost of goods, consumers who have perfect information about all products and prices, and no entry costs to markets.
Advertising violates all these conditions, mainstream economists argue. Advertising seeks to establish product loyalty, and therefore to make certain brands more valuable than others. This creates barriers to entry by giving companies monopoly privileges, and allows them to price goods above cost. Furthermore, advertising is an imperfect and biased way of communicating product information to consumers. Finally, advertising retards progress by making it more expensive for new producers to enter the market.
In the real world, markets work quite differently: the essential characteristic of capitalism is the entrepreneurs who invest capital in new services, products, technologies, and businesses models. When their predictions are right, they gain a temporary advantage over their competition and turn a profit; when they are wrong, they take a loss. Success in business requires continual insight into which investments will prove profitable.
Rather than being a barrier to entry, advertising makes competition possible. New businesses and products stimulate demand by announcing their benefits to consumers. Expanding demand makes goods cheaper by creating economies of scale. While advertising is often attacked for creating demand for shoddy goods, it is not sufficient to advertise to gain consumer loyalty – only positive customer experience and continued positive goodwill can do that. Advertising is what allows new market entrants to capitalize on consumer dissatisfaction and dislodge established firms, as Japanese auto makers did when they demonstrated the superior value and quality of their cars over American ones.
The perfect competition model assumes that competing companies automatically lower prices to match their competitors. In reality, no business wants to lower prices unless consumers expect them – and it is advertising which performs that role by educating consumers about the competition. Advertising itself is a check on high marketing budgets: as consumers become better educated, competitive pressure creates price wars which force businesses to minimize expenses. 3
Yet another criticism is that advertising is a biased method of consumer education. Yet the continued importance of advertising as an influence on buyers proves that the creator of a good is the party most qualified to communicate the value proposition it offers, whether directly or through an intermediary. While word-of-mouth reports and independent product testing organizations are essential sources of consumer education, competitive pressure through advertising provides the claims whose veracity they evaluate.
Advertising is non-coercive
Opponents of “consumerism” often claim that advertising creates its own demand. But a commercial cannot simply implant a desire in the viewer. Rather, advertising tells consumers how their existing values can be satisfied in a particular concrete form. Some advertisements seek to meet well-defined values: toothpaste for clean teeth. Others educate consumers about products which fill a specific need: sports drinks for athletes, or diet colas for the health-conscious. Some advertising functions much like art, and present a concretization of highly abstract or subconscious values. For example, a sports car commercial may appeals to consumers who seek independence and efficiency, while a luxury sedan commercial might appeal to those who value comfort and elegance. Attacking advertising solely for appealing to emotions is as silly as criticizing a painting or a movie for appealing to the viewers’ emotion rather than presenting a dry, factual account.
Ultimately, advertising is a public appeal to the mutual self-interest of the seller and buyer. Movements to silence or limit advertising seek to regulate the freedom of the individual to voluntarily interact with others, and therefore are an assault on both freedom of speech and the right of association.
- Google Books: Jerry Kirkpatrick: In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism.
- The Five (Wrongheaded) Complaints against Advertising by Jerry Kirkpatrick
- Persistently high advertising budgets are indications of high barriers to entry, usually due to government interference. For example, in the case of drug companies, the FDA forces drug makers to spend up to a billion dollars to deliver a single drug to market. This limits the drug market to all but the largest companies and most profitable medicines. Prescription drugs have large advertising budgets because the legal barriers to entry make it prohibitively expensive to compete on price or quality, or to appeal to smaller markets such as rare diseases.