Advertising Literacy and the Social Signification of Cultural Meaning

ABSTRACT - The concept of advertising literacy is examined in an ethnographic study of teenagers. Once conceptualised, this construct is used to help illustrate and explore empirically two important advertising issues; audience activity and the role of cultural meaning.


Mark Ritson and Richard Elliott (1995) ,"Advertising Literacy and the Social Signification of Cultural Meaning", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 113-117.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 113-117


Mark Ritson, Lancaster University

Richard Elliott, University of Oxford


The concept of advertising literacy is examined in an ethnographic study of teenagers. Once conceptualised, this construct is used to help illustrate and explore empirically two important advertising issues; audience activity and the role of cultural meaning.


The prevailing paradigm which has dominated the study of advertising for over forty years has been that of the information-centred (McCracken 1987) or information processing model (DeGroot 1980) of consumer behaviour. The model describes a consumer who constantly seeks out information from advertising messages in order to process it and then use it in consumption-based choices. Two main criticisms of this paradigm have emerged. First that it fails to address the culturally located, meaning based transfer that occurs between the ad, the product and the consumer during exposure (McCracken 1986; Mick & Buhl 1992). Second, that in its description of the constituents of advertising effect it oversimplifies and thus fails to capture the activity of the advertising audience and the subsequent interactive nature of the advertising media (Lannon 1985; Stern 1994).

Yet both these criticisms, despite their widely accepted validity, lack significant empirical evidence to demonstrate how the advertising audience is active and how it is influenced by cultural meaning. The study described in this paper attempts to explore both cultural meaning and active audience interaction by concentrating on a third concept; advertising literacy.


McCracken (1987) criticises information processing accounts of advertising effect in the way that they portray culture as a 'black box' on the periphery of any proposed model of advertising. He argues that consumer researchers have made the mistake of assuming that consumption is the central activity of their lives and that culture plays only a limited role in that process. As Belk (1987) argues; '..we have tended to examine consumer behaviour in isolation from other aspects of our existence'. McCracken (1986) makes the point that the reverse is actually true and it is consumption that plays a role in the creation and maintenance of culture.

Culture is seen as an holistic, constantly changing multiplicity of meanings which make up a 'blue-print for living' (Tharp & Scott 1990); a guide for the individual on all aspects of existence. Cultural meanings help us map out reality. As both consumption (Douglas & Isherwood, 1979) and advertising (Elliott & Ritson, 1995; Mick & Buhl, 1992) have also been viewed from the perspective of guides to existence obvious parallels can be drawn between the roles that culture and consumption play within the consumers lifeworld.

Advertising also plays a more direct role in conveying cultural meaning because it represents the framing of particular meanings taken from culture and invested into a product. This process, or 'magic system' (Williams 1980), invests cultural meanings into the product, which results in the commodity-sign (Baudrillard 1981) and also, from a Marxist perspective, in commodity fetishism. McCracken (1986) traced this transfer from the original source of meaning, the cultural world, to a product (via advertising), to the consumer (via ritual) and then finally, full circle back to the culturally constituted world in a never ending flow of meaning (Tharp & Scott 1990).

A second development has been the acceptance that advertising, aside from being simply a method for meaning transfer is also a cultural product in its own right (Friedmann & Zimmer 1988) and as such can be consumed separately, irrespective of the product it promotes (Nava 1991).

The consumer derives meaning either directly from products they consume with the ad invested meanings incorporated into them (McCracken 1986), or alternatively from the consumption of advertising itself (Mick & Buhl 1992; Elliott & Ritson 1995). These meanings are then used by the consumer to construct both an internal concept of self (Mick & Buhl 1992; McCracken 1987) and also an external concept of the world around them and their role within it, for example through the construction of sub-cultural identities (Hebdidge 1979; Hirschman, 1981).

This essentially constructivist epistemology posits that there is no actualised, external reality. Instead individuals are drawn into a constant search for meaning in order to make sense of themselves and the world in which they live (Neimeyer & Neimeyer 1993). From this perspective consumption forms a key resource of cultural meaning for the individual constantly engaged in a quest to define themselves internally and locate themselves externally in the socially constructed, culturally constituted world.


Lannon (1985; 1992) has identified that information processing models of advertising, because they are based on the 'inappropriate psychological theories' of behaviourism, learning theory and decision theory, fail to 'account for the participation of the receiver'. Thus the activities of the advertising audience in the way that consumers 'select, distort and create messages according to personal perceptions' are lost. Instead information processing models concentrate on process; the transportation of a passive consumer through a hierarchy of effects culminating in a single purchase based activity.

Stern (1994) also criticises the 'over simplistic' information processing model of advertising. She suggests that because information processing models are based on theories of oral communication rather than written communication they assume that the message contained in the communication is fixed and that the receiver will want to interpret that fixed message in the same way as the sender. Whilst this may be true for oral communication between two people (such as word of mouth) Stern argues that advertising exists in a far more complex, multidimensional context where messages are often blurred and the consumer does not process an ad but interacts with it. However Stern limits this interactive response to individualistic, consumption-based activity; 'When an actual consumer becomes interactive, s/he goes somewhat further, not only agreeing to co-operate with the communicator but also responding to the message in real time by means of seeking information or making a purchase'.

There are two inherent problems with this view of interactivity. The first is the concentration of this definition on product-based consumption. No consideration is given to the consumption of advertising purely as a cultural product (Friedmann & Zimmer, 1988; Nava 1991). Furthermore, it seems conceivable that as advertising is acknowledged to occupy a far more complex role in society than simply product based propaganda and that the advertising audience has been demonstrated to use ads in many non-consumption based ways (see O'Donohoe, 1994) that restricting any interactive behaviour purely to a consumption-based response may be a theoretical oversight.

Secondly, even though the consumer, as defined by Stern, is engaged in the real world there is no reference to any social response which the ad may elicit. Instead the consumer, when viewed from Stern's literary perspective, exists in a social vacuum, with any activity existing only on an individualistic level. This contradicts several studies which show that advertising messages are often used in social, non-purchase based contexts (Willis 1990; Buttle 1991; O'Donohoe 1994).


In order to gain a better understanding therefore of both meaning-based, culturally grounded consumption and actualised, interactive audiences, and to further advertising research into areas inaccessible to information processing models of the media (Lannon 1985), it is necessary to examine the social basis of advertising reception. One of the possible reasons that Stern's (1994) literary theory of advertising fails to address these social issues may well reside in the fact that literary theory examines almost exclusively the relationship between individual and text, often with little or no reference to social variables.

One particular area within literary theory which does, however, accommodate such social interaction is the field of literacy studies (Barton 1994). Established in the last decade literacy studies has come to represent a rich, multi-disciplinary debate on the meaning of reading. In a reaction to the existing view that literacy was a set of skills that an individual acquired in order to become literate, literacy studies grew out of the need to define and develop a far more complex, interactive, socially based model of reception phenomena (Barton 1994).

Street (1984) drew the important distinction between the existing asocial 'autonomous literacy' which he described as being an 'independent variable', free from the influence derived from different cultures and social backgrounds. Instead he proposed an 'ideological model' which represented a model of literacy which not only varied with differing cultures but actively depended on 'the social institutions in which it is embedded' (Street 1984). With this new ideological model it became important not to look at a set of a priori processing skills but instead to relate the reading aspect of literacy with the social uses to which that literacy will be put. Scribner and Cole (1981) contribute to this model by stating that; 'Literacy is not simply knowing how to read or write a particular script but applying this knowledge for specific purposes in specific contexts of use'.

Heath (1980) furthers this distinction with a discussion of 'literacy events', defined as 'what individuals do with their literacy skills'. She identifies particular occasions when one's ability to be literate is called upon in some kind of social context. These occasions form literacy events and the author claims that literacy means not only an ability to read a text but also to initiate and participate in any social interaction that may surround it.

The concept of advertising literacy has recently been modelled using contemporary literacy studies (Ritson & Elliott, 1995). From this perspective, the ability to 'read' an ad is not simply based on understanding its meaning but also the ability to facilitate and demonstrate that understanding by using those meanings within the social context of existence. Advertising literacy is an important concept to examine firstly because it is a topic of much relevance in its own right, particularly in its application to the socialisation of the young (Kuhlman 1983) but also because, through its social dimension, it may edify the examination of cultural and interactive advertising issues.

This social dimension of advertising consumption, particularly by the young, has been demonstrated in several studies. O'Donohoe (1994) notes several examples of young people using advertising to initiate social interaction. Buttle (1991) discusses a wide range of empirical studies which seem to demonstrate that advertising is used for this and other social purposes. Willis (1990) describes how teenagers use ads as 'tokens in social exchange'. All these examples would seem to suggest advertising literacy events occurring.

Furthermore within the context of these events it may be possible to note the use of advertising meanings as 'neo-tribe paraphernalia'(Bauman 1990) in the creation and maintenance of subcultural groups, united by a similar advertising literacy. On one level the group share the same literacy context in the way that the group's members are all exposed to similar advertising, and similar arena's of exposure. On a second level they may also demonstrate interpretative literacy in the way that they 'read' and then later use the advertising meanings, acting as an 'interpretative community' (Schroder 1994) in both advertising reception and use.

The study of advertising literacy could offer significant findings because it may be possible to link this use of literacy to the construction of self and group identity through the utilisation of cultural meaning. It may also be possible to show, through advertising literacy, that Stern's (1994) definition of an interactive response to an advertisement; 'responding to the message in real time by means of seeking information or making a purchase', is in fact an over simplistic definition and non-inclusive to a huge hidden area of consumer interaction which exists around the advertising medium, the interactive recipient and their post-exposure social environment. An environment of less direct but equally important influence on consumers' purchasing behaviour.


Traditionally the study of literacy has been conducted using ethnographic methodologies (Barton 1994) primarily because of the focus on subjective interpretations of informant life-world's by literate cultures, see Scribner & Cole (1981) for example. Within the context of meaning based models of advertising only one piece of empirical work has been published (Mick & Buhl 1992). Whilst that concentrated on phenomenology, the need for social rather than individual meanings suggested ethnography would be more productive in this case.

Several significant reasons guided the choice of an ethnographic design. First ethnography's 'strong emphasis on exploring the nature of particular social phenomena' (Atkinson & Hammersley 1993) combined with the tradition of media ethnography's concentration on the recipient rather than message (Schroder 1994) made it an obvious choice for exploring media based social events. Furthermore the use of ethnography, particularly by Geertz (1973) with his 'thick descriptions' of culture, demonstrate the applicability of this method in interpreting cultural meanings. This method is also proven in examining the construction of both self and group identities (Schroder 1994). Finally the lack of 'epistemological orthodoxy' and its 'appeal to different disciplines' (Atkinson & Hammersley 1993) makes it appropriate for this exploratory study.

Teenagers (16-18 years) were chosen as respondents because previous publications supported their identification as possessing advertising literacy (Brown 1994), heightened cultural awareness (Willis 1990) and that they were active recipients of ads (Elliott & Ritson 1995). Three schools were approached in different residential areas in an industrial part of the Northern UK. All three schools agreed to allow the researcher to interview and observe the students during their free periods for one full day a week for a period of at least 5 weeks. Any interviews were taped and later, transcribed. Observational comments were also recorded.

NB Each respondent is labelled by age-order of response-sex. E.g. 17-2-M: The second 17 year old male to talk.


It became obvious at a very early stage that conversations about ads formed a considerable part of the subjects social discourse. Many independent ad-based conversations/events were observed. One such literacy event is described;

F-17: Like someone will come to school and say; "Did you see that Tango advert ?". And then you'll start the conversation about that, and then you'll, like, say; "Oh there's a neat advert that I like....'. You just go on and on about the adverts you like and don't like.

Aside from the basic interaction of verbal conversation other forms of literacy event were noted. Many students had covered their books with print ads, clearly an example of an individual taking the meanings in an ad and transferring them to their own self-concept. Even more notable were the students who learned jingles or, in one case, memorised a 30 second commentary from an ad. In these cases the transfer of meaning from ad to individual is extreme, the individuals become the ads for short periods of time. In this transformation, just like the one which turned the product into a commodity-sign (Baudrillard 1981), the individual becomes the signifier; a consumer-sign. This behaviour also serves as a method for the social construction of group identity through the reinforcement of shared literacy and meanings (the co-singing of jingles) or the individual construction of self identity (the learned commentary was for soccer boots and the respondent was a committed soccer fan).

An even more potent method of group construction is to single out a particular group or individual and identify that presence as being alien to the group, thus stressing internal group similarity by emphasising external difference. Here it is demonstrated quite succinctly by using the Dime Bar ad. The original humorous ad featured a pastiche of an interviewer asking shoppers if they could remember 'their first Dime Bar'. One shopper is so stupid that, even though he is eating the product, he just stares blankly at the interviewer who tries to elicit a response by repeating 'Dime Bar ! Dime Bar !' in his face. This ad was used in the same way by many, different geographically independent groups;

M-17: If someone's not clever and you tell them a joke or something and they don't get it you go up to them and say "DIME BAR ! DIME BAR !...." Don't you ? [everyone agrees].Say I told you a joke and everyone was laughing and you were thinking "What's he going on about ? I'll have to think about that". I'd say "Oh God - You DIME BAR !"

Obviously this inability to get the socially accepted meaning (a joke) is proof that you do not possess the same literacy as the rest of the group and the meanings taken from this particular ad are transferred on to you to heighten that differential. Another similar example came with the Tango ads which promoted its product's shocking orange taste by showing drinkers being slapped by an invisible orange man;

F-17: Someone did it to me - and I hadn't seen the advert and they came over, slapped me in the face and said; "Have you been Tango'd ?". I just didn't know what they were going on about.

This particular ad was copied extensively all over the UK, to such an extent that it was eventually banned. The use of these ad meanings to maintain distinct 'subcultural' groups fits with Hebdidge's (1979) own description; 'These humble objects [ads in this case] can be magically appropriated; stolen by subordinate groups and made to carry secret meanings...'. The knowledge and 'correct' interpretation of a specific ad become powerful keys to entry into particular subcultural groups.

Many of the informants in the study demonstrated this shared interpretation of ads. In one particular example a group of young males displayed an implicit awareness of their own shared advertising literacy with their friends and a common ability to interpret ad meanings either the same positive or negative way;

I: Do you ever see an advert on T.V. which you don't understand but the rest of your friends will ?

M-16: No, because most of us lot, we just don't understand what [pauses] like, if I don't understand it he [points to his friend at table] won't understand it either.

I: And why do you think that is ?

M-16:[pauses], like, say we're both sat in a room and I say; "I don't understand that [ad]". Like, most of my mates will say "I don't understand it either -its crap aint it ?". Probably because we understand the same things, you know.

The boys in this discussion seemed proud of this shared ability, reinforcing their group identity to a stranger perhaps. It is also a useful demonstration that the negative negotiation of ad meanings can also strengthen the group structure; a shared rejection of an ad is just as powerful a social token as a shared appreciation.

Many of the informants in the study displayed a significant amount of interactivity as defined by Stern (1994). The first half of her definition of the term fits, for example, with the next informants. They quite obviously interact with the ad by 'seeking information';

I: How did you feel, when you found yourself in this position ? (They hadn't seen an advert that everyone else was talking about)

M-17: You look out for it - you always look for it when the adverts come on.

F-17: Yeah. You sit and watch the television and see if you can see it.

But although the informants are obviously interacting with the ad in a positive manner it is not to fulfil Stern's interactive use; the information centred goal of product purchase. Instead the audience is driven by a desire to participate in a future literacy event, a meaning-based social goal;

I: But why wait for the advert to come on ?

F-17: So you know what they're talking about then. And then you can join in.

M-17: So you can say "Oh yeah - seen that". Because you feel left out sometimes.....

M-2-17: [Interjects] Yeah but two weeks later you say "I saw that ad last night" and everyone goes "DIME BAR!" because you're two weeks behind. [Everyone laughs]

A final example shows, literally, how two subjects use the meanings in an ad to '...constitute crucial parts of the self and the world' (McCracken 1986) and in doing so actively demonstrate a constructivist point (Neimeyer & Neimeyer 1993), that individuals seek meaning to construct the world around them. In this case the subjects, on a school trip, find themselves lost;

F-17: We went down the canal and it looked like it was in the advert and my friend Emma said to me; "Oh its just like that Boddington's advert !". Then she started doing all the lines out of the Boddington's ad going; "By 'eck its gorgeous !".

When the girls find themselves in a strange environment this discourse could achieve two ends. First perhaps the literacy event strengthens the familiar, group construction of their friendship when they are challenged by strangeness of their surroundings. It may also demonstrate how; '..cultural meaning flows continually between its several locations.' (McCracken 1986). A particular meaning, in this case how it feels to be on a canal in the North of England, is originally transferred from the culturally constituted world and invested in an ad. The ad is created in order to act as conduit from the cultural world (signified) to the commodity (signifier) and if it is successful the product takes on some of the meanings associated with the canal (e.g. Northern, working class). In this case the meaning of the ad is then subjectively received and interpreted by the girls irrespective of the product involved, they have consumed the meanings of the ad not the product. As such rather than the product it is the consumers who then become the new 'locations' for this ever-fluid meaning. Both demonstrate their shared interpretation of it, thus strengthening their group identity, in a advertising literacy event. By singing the jingle they are actively attempting to make sense of the strange world around them by relying on their interpretation of the meanings they derived from the Boddington's ad. As such the ever flowing cultural meaning has travelled full circle from its location in the culturally constituted world to the ad to the consumer and back to its original source; the banks of an industrial canal somewhere in Northern England.


The 'dialectic between culture and marketing institutions'(Tharp & Scott 1990) drives this continual flow of symbolic meaning as culture feeds advertising with images and meanings to frame and subsequently invest in the process of consumption. This 'magical' ability of advertising to re-frame meanings (Williams 1980) leads to their transfer from the culturally constituted world into the world of consumption and from that act of consumption into the socially constructed, semiotic world of the 'consumer-sign'. Finally as part of the external construction of an individual's life world the meaning returns back to its original starting point, the mass of flowing meanings that represents culture.

This cyclical flow occurs because meaning remains, in essence, a fluid or 'viscous' substance. It is true that ad based meanings are usually individually experienced (in reception) and individually acted upon (in purchase) but it would be a fallacy to take the starting and end point of this process and declare the consumer an asocial animal. Between exposure and purchase there remains a vitally important phase of consumer behaviour. It is not until the consumer is exposed socially that a meaning based transfer can occur. This solidification of meaning occurs when the viscous cultural meanings contained in ads are transferred to the consumer who makes sense from them through social interaction. This process of 'social solidification' occurs in many forms, this paper has used the phenomenon of advertising literacy events but many more possibilities and perspectives may exist.

The issue of advertising literacy and the social solidification of advertising meaning raises two issues in respect to consumer behaviour: those of advertising interaction and the fluid transfer of cultural meaning. The proposed theories that advertising interaction occurs purely between consumer and ad (Stern 1994) or that meanings can be controlled strategically in a form of 'firm-selected brand meaning' (Park et al 1986) are both built on the existing paradigm of information processing. The future of advertising research exists not in this paradigm which is vastly ill suited to any examination of the social environments of the consumer. The future basis for advertising theory will require different research aims and methodologies if it is to be able to respond to the challenge of exploring emerging concepts such as active audiences, cultural meaning and advertising literacy.

The site of much advertising impact is not found within the boundaries of the ad itself or in the individual exposure and reaction of each consumer. Instead a new site for advertising based consumer behaviour is emerging, a site where viscous meanings are actively selected and then used in the process not of consumption but of existence. A site where the motivation of the consumer is in making sense of their world not purchasing the 'right' product. A site where meanings are taken from ads and used to construct images of self and others. A site where the impact of advertising on purchase behaviour is more indirect and difficult to control but far more powerful for those very same reasons. That site is among others, in a social environment where accepted and rejected ad derived meanings experience social solidification among the advertising literate audiences of the future.


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Mark Ritson, Lancaster University
Richard Elliott, University of Oxford


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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