The Power of Advertising to Create Societal Perceptions and Traditions

Rather than talk about the power of advertising to drive sales, today’s post focuses on the ability of advertising to influence, if not create, broad societal perceptions and traditions. Here are some examples we can all relate to:

If you enjoyed that glass of orange juice with breakfast, you are following a tradition that goes back to 1907 when Sunkist engaged adman Albert Lasker to help them sell more oranges than could be sold as produce. A glass of orange juice, after all, represents many more oranges than a person would otherwise eat in one day. A simple and brilliant solution to the marketer’s need.

While the gifting of rings has been an expression of love and commitment for millennia, the tradition of presenting a diamond ring for engagement is only 74 years old and goes back to a 1947 ad campaign by De Beers.

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Paul Bunyan, the American folk hero lumberjack, was an invented character built up through captivating stories by W. B. Laughead starting in 1916 to sell diverse products for the Red River Lumber Company. More than a hundred years on, many people think of Paul Bunyan as a real person.

In 1936, the New York Associated Menswear Retailers founded the Father’s Day Committee to popularize a day celebrating fathers. Before that time, Father’s Day was largely thought of as irrelevant or even a joke. The intent back in the 30s was, of course, to sell neckties. While the popularity of the necktie has declined since then, the economic impact of Father’s Day has nevertheless continued to grow to the $20 billion mark as of 2021.

Valentine’s Day traces its roots to antiquity, specifically the sometimes dark Roman celebration called Lupercalia. However, today’s $22 billion gifting extravaganza is a much more recent phenomenon juiced by the combined efforts of marketers from the card, candy, flower, and jewelry sectors.

The Pledge of Allegiance was not conceived as a patriotic American tradition, but rather was a non-specific poem appropriate for any country. Only later was it “Americanized” and popularized to sell American flags.

Marlboro cigarettes, arguably THE cigarette brand for the rugged, cool American male, was largely a woman’s cigarette before the Marlboro Man ad campaign of the early to mid 1950s, which changed society’s image of the brand. At Six Degrees, we mention the Marlboro Man as the quintessential use of a self-expressive brand benefit, for what man of the 50s and 60s did not want to project an image of cool and rugged independence? The financial success of Marlboro was, therefore, unsurprising.

Finally, we must not forget Santa Claus. Our image of a corpulent, white-bearded, grandfatherly man dressed in vibrant red with white fur trim only harkens back to a 1931 ad campaign by Haddon Sundblom for, of course, Coca-Cola.

These few examples show just how powerful advertising can be in its effect on societal norms and traditions.

Can you think of other advertising inspired societal perceptions and traditions?

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Frank Schab
An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

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