On the Outside Looking In: Advertising Experiences Among Young Unemployed Adults


Stephanie O'Donohoe (1995) ,"On the Outside Looking In: Advertising Experiences Among Young Unemployed Adults", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 264-272.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 264-272


Stephanie O'Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh

[The author gratefully acknowledges funding of this fieldwork by the Nuffield Foundation's Social Sciences Small Grants Scheme, and of the pilot study by The University of Edinburgh's Faculty of Social Sciences, She is also grateful for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper from Robert Grafton Small and Caroline Tynan.]


Concerns about the unintended social consequences of advertising are addressed in this paper. Literature is reviewed to explain why the combination of youth, unemployment and advertising may be problematic. Findings from an audience ethnography research programme suggest that it is dangerous to generalised about the experience or effects of unemployment. However, among young unemployed adults, a sense of social as well as material exclusion from the world of advertising seemed to be experienced. The problems which this poses for the "societal marketing concept" are discussed.


The societal marketing concept holds that the organization's task is to determine the needs, wants and interests of target markets and to deliver the desired satisfactions more effectively and efficiently than competitors in a way that preserves or enhances the consumer's and the society's well-being.

(Kotler 1994:29)

Balancing the requirements of target markets and the interests of society at large is a task as difficult as it is desirable (Abratt and Sacks 1988; Smith and Quelch 1993). In this context, much has been written about the unintended social consequences of advertising. According to Pollay (1986), for example, the effects of advertising transcend its economic role: at a time when we are increasingly detached from traditional institutions of church, school and family, advertising is a persuasive, pervasive and persistent part of our social and cultural environment. Thus, its influence extends beyond consumption decisions, to the fostering of materialism, passivity, irrationality, self-doubt, and alienation from a sense of community and religious morality. As Holbrook (1986:98) points out, advertisers do not act on society as a "collective, univocal and global force". While many would agree with him that the institution of advertising is a "bastion of pluralism", concern still remains about its cumulative if unintended consequences (Rotzoll et al 1990; Leiss et al 1990).

This paper addresses one such consequence. Young unemployed adults are hardly the target audience for many commercially-oriented messages. Given the pervasiveness of advertising, however, we may expect them to encounter many ads for products and services which they can ill afford. The literature reviewed below outlines reasons for considering the combination of youth, unemployment and advertising problematic. Findings from a qualitative study of young unemployed Scots are then discussed, in an attempt to understand some of the social costs which may be associated with advertising.


The relationship between young adults and advertising seems particularly interesting for a number of reasons. Young adults are generally thought to be particularly sophisticated consumers of advertising, well-versed in narrative, visual and editing techniques from advertising, pop videos, films and television programmes (Nava and Nava 1990, Willis 1990). According to the marketing research company Mintel (1988), young adults' facility with music, style and visual imagery shapes the way they see the world and communicate with others.

Such sophistication poses a challenge to advertisers keen to attract this shrinking but lucrative market segment. In order to develop appropriate market offerings (including ads) for young adults, there has been a great deal of research on their lifestyles, values and purchasing behaviour (see for example Mintel 1988; Euromonitor 1990; Benady 1993; Hatfield 1993). Secondly, advertising frequently deals in images of self-identity and social relationships (Williamson 1978; McCracken 1987; Leiss et al 1990). These issues match some of the deepest concerns of young adults, as this life stage is marked by a great deal of turbulence and transition in personal and social development as well as employment (Brake 1985; Davis 1990; Bates and Riseborough 1993). Indeed, arguing from a cultural perspective, Willis (1990) suggests that teenage and early adult years merit close attention because they are so crucial to the development of self-identity through symbolic and other activities.

Among young adults who are unemployed, this search for self-identity is likely to be especially troubled. The psychological and social costs of unemployment over and above its financial consequences are well documented. Thus, feelings of stigma, shame and social isolation have been identified as common themes in the experience of unemployment (Sinfield 1981; Hawkins 1984). Recent research in this area (Gallie et al 1994) points to consequences such as anxiety, insecurity, weaker self-identity, increased family tensions, social withdrawal and isolation, and a sense of powerlessness.

There is little research specifically addressing unemployed people's response to advertising. However, it has been touched upon in Britain by the Advertising Association, which includes unemployed respondents in its regular surveys of public attitudes to advertising. In this context, the Advertising Association (1992:18) comments on its finding that 73% of unemployed respondents and 77% of those who were "not unemployed" approved of advertising "a lot" or "a little":

There have been comments in the Press to the effect that the unemployed must find advertising particularly annoying. This survey suggests that this is not the case.

This comment, however, seems quite disingenuous and simplistic. It seems disingenuous to repeat it word for word from the previous report (Advertising Association 1988) without mentioning that approval actually dropped from 86% to 73% among unemployed respondents, but only from 80% to 77% among others. It also seems simplistic to reduce unemployed people's relationship with advertising to one crude statistic. Indeed, others suggest that this relationship may be much more problematic. For example, reviewing his career in advertising, David Puttnam (1988:20) expressed concern that "some sense of malaise, some sense of anger" may be fostered when people are constantly presented with images which they cannot afford or achieve. Similarly, Ignatieff (1989) comments that

The ads invite them [the poor] to holiday in Marbella, to drive their Audi through the mountains, to fax their latest contract to the New York office...Mass culture talks the language of social inclusion: everyone is a consumer, everyone drinks Coke, everyone can afford Levi's jeans...The poor are there all right, at the dark edge of the shoplight's shadow.

Leaving such Dickensian imagery aside, Grafton-Small (1987) argues that consumption is essentially about power, so that the less powerful are those with less access to or use of goods and their possibilities. He agrees with Braverman (1974, in Grafton-Small 1987:70) that the pressures of poverty and unemployment have been supplemented by a discontent which cannot be diminished by providing prosperity or jobs, because these are the things which provoked the discontent. Thus, the exclusion of poorer members of society occurs at a symbolic as well as material level. Developing this argument, Grafton Small (1993) cites the example of Pruitt-Igoe, a vast American housing project built in the 1950s for people living on state benefits. Apparently, its only envisaged function was to house them, as it was built without any shops, sports, or social facilities. This "monumental belittlement" was rejected by its intended occupants, and demolished less than twenty years later. This, according to Grafton Small (1993:94) signalled the return of its inhabitants to what they would see as

...their proper place in the symbolic order of the local community...which did not seek to exclude them entirely from the goods and services that even they had come to expect.

If poor or unemployed members of society are indeed excluded at a symbolic as well as material level, we might expect advertising to be implicated in this process. It would however be naive to assume that unemployment would automatically and unequivocally lead to resentment at advertising. Much theory and research in the fields of psychology and mass communication (Robertson and Kassarjian 1991; De Fleur and Ball-Rokeach 1989) certainly undermines such a deterministic view of human behaviour.

Media and cultural studies also offer some useful perspectives on how poorer or unemployed members of society might relate to ads and advertising. Buttle (1991) and Mick and Buhl (1992) have discussed and demonstrated the ways in which consumers incorporate the "raw material" of ads into their social actions in order to make sense of their lives and advance their personal life-projects. Morley (1980, 1986) offers a similar, if more politicised account of such processes. He argues that audiences consist of "clusters of socially situated individual readers", whose decodings are framed by shared cultural formations and practices. These are influenced to some extent by their "objective position" in the social structure, in that this may set parameters to people's experiences. Specifically, Morley suggests that cultural codes and competencies are distributed differently between social classes, assisted by the educational system and family socialisation. Such codes and competencies may be related to the advertising "referent systems" described by Leiss et al (1990:203) as the "reserviors of social and cultural knowledge" drawn upon by audiences and advertisers in the construction of meaningful messages. Morley is, however, wary of assuming that our readings are automatically determined or generated by our social position: our understanding of and reaction to this will be mediated by a complex network of subcultures and other meaning systems. As Dyer (1977, in Morley 1986:43) has argued,

...one cannot conclude from a person's class, race, gender, sexual orientation and so on, how she or he will read a given text (though these factors do indicate what cultural code she or he has access to). It is also a question of how she or he thinks and feels about living her/his social situation.

Thus, we might ask how the experience of unemployment influences the referent systems brought to bear on young adults' dealings with advertising, and the ways in which individual ads are decoded.


The discussion below is based on a broader qualitative study of advertising experiences conducted among 18-24 year-old Scots, across boundaries of age, gender and occupational status. Given the problems of measuring the occupational stuatus of young adults (Francis 1982), the study simply classified participants as students, working (graduate or non-graduate) or unemployed. It was thought that these categories would provide some indication of current buying power and future prospects, both of which may help to shape advertising experiences.

The study set out to to provide a "thick description" (Geertz 1973) of these young adults' everyday advertising encounters and experiences. Therefore, it was conducted in the tradition of audience ethnography. As Radway (1988:367) points out, ethnographic research traditionally refers to

....a written account of a lengthy social interaction between a scholar and a distant culture ... an effort to observe and to comprehend the entire tapestry of social life

While audience ethnography tends to be more focused than this, Moores (1993:4) argues that such studies

...share some of the same general intentions as anthropological research. There may be a similar concern...with questions of meaning and social contexts and with charting the "situational embeddedness of cultural practices".

In this study, exploratory research was first conducted among advertising research practitioners in order to benefit from their cumulative experience of examining consumers' responses to ads and advertising. Among the young adults, a combination of small group discussions and individual interviews was used. Doubts have been expressed about the extent to which such methods of audience research are truly ethnographic (Radway 1988; Nightingale 1989; Turner 1990). Given the pervasiveness of advertising, however, the many media in which it is encountered, and the often private nature of its immediate consumption, it was thought that these methods may be a more practical starting-point for exploring advertising experiences than participant observation.

The small groups (usually with four participants) were used for the benefits of social interaction and idea stimulation, without losing the potential to explore individual comments and interpretations in some detail. Personal interviews were used to allow more detailed exploration of individual experiences, interpretations and idiosyncrasies (Tynan and Drayton 1986; Robson and Foster 1989). A pilot study involved four small group discussions and two individual interviews. The main research consisted of fourteen groups and fourteen individual interviews, conducted in Edinburgh between May and October 1991. Of these, four groups and four individual interviews were conducted among those who were unemployed; this allowed men and women, and younger and older participants, to be interviewed separately.

The tape-recorded part of the discussion generally lasted between one and a half and two hours. The emphasis was on encouraging the young adults to describe their experiences of advertising in their own words, in their own way, and with their own examples. Therefore, rather than having a preselected set of ads imposed on them for discussion, informants were asked to describe any ads which they liked, disliked or remembered for any reason, and from any time or medium. Thus, discussion developed from their own accounts of real ads encountered in real life. Following Glaser and Strauss (1967), an attempt was made to develop grounded theory, emerging from and illustrated by the data collected. This calls for the joint collection, coding and analysis of data insofar as is possible, and a constant comparative method of analysis. Tentative categories and their properties were identifed by comparing instances from the data collected initially. Emergent categories and properties were modified and developed by comparing them with instances from further fieldwork and cases. In this sense, Glaser and Strauss (1967:17) argue that grounded theory

... it is not just discovered but verified, because the provisional character of the linkages - of answers and hypotheses concerning them - gets checked out during the successive phases of enquiry, with new data and new coding.

This study used several methods proposed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) for establishing trustworthiness in naturalistic research. A formal member check was undertaken with the practitioners. Among the young adults, the constant comparative method meant that informal member checks (Wallendorf and Belk 1989) were constantly undertaken, as ideas from one group or individual were fed into subsequent research for comment. As tentative categories and properties were identified, negative instances were sought out to challenge the emergent theory. The combination of group and individual interviews provided within-method triangulation (Denzin 1988), while data triangulation across sources was provided by including practitioners as well as young adults, and by using separate age, gender and occupational groupings within the young adult sample. Peer debriefings were also used, as data and interpretations were discussed with colleagues from a range of social science backgrounds.

According to Holt (1991), however, procedures cannot confer a privileged status on what is essentially an interpretive process, and it is difficult to isolate and verify the "trustworthiness" element of interpretive research. Glaser and Strauss (1967) suggest that a qualitative study's credibility can be conveyed by explaining clearly how theory was generated from data, and by providing readers with a vicarious experience of the fieldwork, so that

... the reader, like the researchers, can almost literally see and hear its people - but always in relation to the theory (p 228).

In the discussion which follows, the young adults are referred to as "informants" rather than "respondents". This reflects the attempt to ground the study in their language and culture, rather than those of the researcher (Spradley 1979). Due to space constraints, the paper focuses on distinctive aspects of unemployed informants' experiences, and makes limited comparisons with the other groups.


Overall, there were many similarities between the advertising experiences of unemployed informants and those of their student or working counterparts. Regardless of occupational status, the young adults generally demonstrated complex and contradictory attitudes towards advertising: they treated it as something to be enjoyed as well as endured, for example, and expressed feelings of immunity and vulnerability with respect to the persuasive power of advertising. Throughout the sample, high levels of sophistication and involvement were demonstrated in advertising interpretations, descriptions and commentaries. Furthermore, all informants seemed to use advertising for many purposes which extended beyond the facilitation of brand choice: they appeared to use ads to reinforce personal attitudes and values, for example, or, in Willis's (1990) terms, as "tokens" in their social exchanges.

Within the unemployed sample, the lack of work clearly meant different things to different informants. For example, the older female group seemed to have much more in common with their working counterparts than with many of those who were unemployed. They seemed to treat unemployment as a temporary blip in their working lives, and were optimistic about their future prospects. In the meantime, they enjoyed life as much as they could. Thus one informant, who lived at home, saved money by not going out every Saturday night, but compensated by treating herself to a bubble bath and a bottle of wine. She still had her car, and someone else in this group mentioned that she owned four pairs of Levi's 501 jeans. They also talked about buying glossy women's magazines.

Of the other unemployed informants, one had never worked, and another had just completed a youth training course. A couple had completed university or college courses. Some had been unemployed for less than six months, others for up to two years. Some lived with their parents, others shared apartments, and a few lived in sheltered housing. Some had family problems, experienced eating disorders or severe depression. One had a young child, others intended to go to college in the near future. Thus, it would be unrealistic to expect these young adults' advertising experiences to be similar simply because they were all "unemployed". Some themes emerged from the analysis of their contributions, however, which suggested that for at least some informants, being unemployed coloured their experience of advertising in particular ways.

Lack of Purchasing Power

Not surprisingly, financial constraints were much more evident among the student and unemployed informants than those who were working. In the case of students, however, their experience of advertising seemed to be shaped at least in part by a sense of deferred purchasing power. For example, a male student, commenting on car ads, said that a car was "something I'll never have for a few years". Another student said that she liked looking at some car ads, "but I know that I'll never, ever get it". "Never, ever" did not seem to mean quite that, however, as she later remarked that

Sometimes when you see the cars on television you think "I'll save up and get myself one of them".

[female students 18-20]

Among the unemployed informants , however, it was the lack of purchasing power which was noticeable in many comments. They talked about "fixed budgets" of dole money and occasional "fivers for babysitting". This lack of money restricted the ways in which they could spend their time. For example, they could not afford to go out for a drink very often, and as one informant put it, when he did go to a pub, he made drinks last a long time and would "nurse them, till dust gathers on you". Several people talked about how they passed the time "going up the town and kicking my heels", or "wandering around town". Not surprisingly, there was relatively little cinema-going among these informants, but high levels of awareness concerning the cheapest places and times to visit. Someone who used to rent two or three videos a week when he was working, now just taped films from television. Another still rented films, but budgeted very carefully for it. While some unemployed informants talked about reading newspapers, this was often related to looking for work, and there was little comment about newspaper advertising.

A sense of financial constraint was evident in many comments about advertising, particularly in the case of the two younger groups. For example, while an older female informant owned four pairs of Levi's, discussion of the Levi's ads came round to the price of the jeans in several groups:

Because I can't afford it, I thought "What a waste of money that is". I mean, who can afford ,40 or ,50 a time for a pair of jeans?

[unemployed females 18-20]

I would pick the cheapest ones, I'd never go for Levi's. If they were a tenner I would, I wouldn't splash out. The jeans nowadays are all dear...there's that many people unemployed, people are not going to buy that stuff anymore.

[unemployed males 18-20]

"Outsider" Perspective

Perhaps because financial constraints prevented them from approaching numerous ads as potential consumers of products, there was a sense that some unemployed informants approached advertising as outsiders. Many demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of advertising conventions and imagery. For example, commenting on the use of a boxing celebrity to endorse a brand of tissues, someone observed

They're probably using that as a contrast. It's not the kind of thing you would expect, so you'd probably remember it more than if it was someone you would associate a product with.

[unemployed males 21-24]

Some unemployed informants, however, communicated a certain naivety regarding the economics and workings of the advertising or marketing system, which was not evident in other people's comments. For example, in the younger male group, it was suggested that Tina Turner was paid "about fifty million or a thousand or something" for her appearance in Pepsi ads. It was also in this group that someone thought that cigarette manufacturers should stop advertising and give the savings to the Government, which could then cut taxes and make cigarettes cheaper. Another unemployed informant was not well-informed about the cost of duration of a typical television spot, remarking that advertisers

...in the short run they maybe have to spend a few thousand pounds for roughly about a minute and a half.

[unemployed males 21-24]

Others expressed some uncertainty about what the Scottish electricity privatisation campaign had been about:

- The two Scottish electricity companies, that one's been on the go for a while now. But it's stopped because they've started whatever they're all doing.

- Yeah, the shares have started to [pauses] operate.

[unemployed females 18-20]

These informants also discussed the logic of targeting:

- It's always the expensive clothes on the telly, I think that should be changed to cheaper clothes for the people who are unemployed because unemployed people can't afford to spend a lot of money on a pair of jeans.

- That would be great but it's the folk with money that pay, that's why they do that.

[unemployed females 18-20]

The naivety of some of these comments may be related to unemployed informants' lack of purchasing power: in Morley's terms, it could be argued that having less experience as consumers of goods and services restricts access to some of the cultural codes and competencies concerning advertising.

The older female group seemed to derive a great deal of pleasure and entertainment from ads. Among other unemployed informants, there were various references to jokes and games played with ads:

...the person I was with bought a pint of this Red Rock and then we were sort of mucking about, just reciting bits from the advert.

[unemployed male 18-20]

He's just a great little cartoon cat, and my boyfriend likes him too so we sit and go "Yes, here's the cat!".

[unemployed female 21-24]

In general, however, there was less sense of fun and playfulness in unemployed informants' approach to advertising. Indeed, several strongly emphasised its informative role, and seemed less willing to engage with "pointless" imagery. Thus, someone suggested that, while ads for sales were boring, they were

...probably the best kind of adverts. Well, for getting the point across anyway, cos there's nothing else apart from, there's no sort of side gimmick.

[unemployed male 18-20]

Similarly, flicking through a magazine, another informant found an ad for a shower featuring a picture of a pig:

To me, what's wrong, they're talking about showers, so what's the point of not just sticking somebody in having a shower, rather than a picture of a pig?

[unemployed female 18-20]

Several explanations may be offered for the relative lack of playfulness in unemployed informants' comments. Firstly, while many young adults expressed cynicism or wariness with respect to product claims, there was a strong sense among some of the unemployed informants of needing to be on guard against advertising, because they literally could not afford the luxury of being caught out. For example, someone was unhappy at the way in which a three day sale had been advertised:

They didn't say on the television that you had to pay 5% VAT plus you had to pay 17.5% VAT on top of that as well...they forgot to say that on television and they forgot to advertise it in the newspapers.

[unemployed males 21-24]


The more you wash with Radion, the more it removes dirt and stains"...And it was "The more you wash". And I thought "Well, it doesn't happen first time round, you've got to keep washing and washing with the same product all the time". Basically that's a big con.

[unemployed females 18-20]

Secondly, the images offered in many ads were not ones with which many unemployed informants felt any great affinity. The gap between their level of income and that of the people portrayed in ads did not go unnoticed.

I hate all the Martini adverts as well because they give the idea it's the high life...talking about richness and I don't know, they just seem to use images that are just so far out from life.

[unemployed female 21-24]

The coffee ones tend to be like...Gold Blend goes with your bought house...There was one with "The Good Life", (an old television comedy series), I think it's Richard Briers. I'm not sure of their names, even the programme was middle class. They speak dead "A, E, I, O, U". Pronounced.

[unemployed males 18-20]

In addition to expressing a sense of personal alienation from particular ads or even types of ads, unemployed informants also criticised advertising at a more general level. While some comments addressed issues of stereotyping, particularly in the individual interviews, others revolved around price and affordability. There was some discussion of advertising's role in encouraging materialism. Thus, it was suggested that ads might depress people, by

...showing them all these sort of ideal situations with people having everything that they need, like. Sort of like microwave ovens, washing machines and all the like. You think it's normal to have them cos everyone on telly's got them.

[unemployed male 21-24]

Finally, unemployed informants seemed to be particularly concerned about the hypocrisy of cigarette advertising. Some informants related these ads to their own experience, as they were finding it hard enough to give up smoking which helped to "calm your nerves":

And then you get hit by your doctor, "Oh cut down, give up". But at the same time you've got the opposition saying "buy, buy, buy".

[unemployed females 18-20]

It seems like they're advertising something and then having a completely opposite effect in the same advert then, with the health warning underneath...it's like advertising a pair of shoes and then saying at the same time "Don't buy the shoes cos you'll end up with mangled feet"...

[unemployed male 18-20]

"Insider" Aspirations

As well as sometimes sensing their exclusion from the world of advertising, unemployed informants expressed a desire to be part of it, as indeed the older female group believed they still were. While there was undoubtedly a material aspect to this, Grafton Small (1993) has argued that desire to belong also exists at a social and symbolic level. Indeed, Cooper (1979) has referred to brands as badges of membership, and it may be that one of the older unemployed women was at pains to stress her four pairs of Levi's for such reasons. Similarly, another informant, who had discussed the technical accomplishment of a Reebok ad in some detail, mentioned on several occasions that she had recently bought a pair of Reebok trainers. Eventually she felt obliged to offer an explanation for her purchase:

Well, the reason I got wasn't - well, I must admit I know the Reebok image, the adverts and everything. It is, I'm familiar with Reebok and I associated them with quality but I got recommended them by an instructor because I had trouble with my knees ... so it was really half and half. I knew I'd heard of them, and I thought "Well, Madonna wears them, she's ace, so I'll get them".

[unemployed female 21-24]

Someone else talked about how being able to respond to some ads as a consumer allowed him common ground with others:

There are some things that come on the television, like new biscuits or something like that. Everybody will try them - if you've got a sweet tooth you'll try it, new bars of chocolate, things like that. You might only try it once, but at least you can say you have tried it and have an opinion on it, whether it was good or it wasn't.

[unemployed males 21-24]

Indeed, another informant suggested that

To be more realistic they should put adverts on for people that can afford it. Think, people are unemployed. Right. They may not be able to afford a ,30 pair of jeans but if they put on say Whatties [A nickname for What Every Woman Wants, a discount store.] or whatever, a cheap shop, and "we've got jeans at ,10.99" then people can go up and buy them.

[unemployed females 18-20]

Thus, while she might like to be able to afford a ,30 pair of jeans, she seemed more unhappy to be excluded from the advertising dialogue than from the market for more expensive jeans. Similarly, another group suggested that

- The thing about the coffee adverts is that they're seen as rich adverts, like rich people should only drink coffee.

- Yeah, middle class, upper class.

[unemployed males 18-20]

Once again, it seems that it is the sense, as well as the reality, of being excluded from much advertising which these informants found galling.

A Note from the Margin : Donna's Experience of Advertising

The contributions of one informant in particular highlighted the sense of alienation and marginalisation from advertising which it is possible to experience when unemployed. Donna (not her real name) was 20 years old, and had a 15 month old son. She talked about being "tied to the house", and the problems of "getting up town", having to trudge the baby around on buses. Money was very tight for her; she talked about an advertised bottle of juice costing two pounds, compared to sixty-seven pence for a big bottle which could be diluted. She went to a particular shop because it advertised cheaper milk, and she started buying TV Quick, a television listings magazine, because it was only ten pence. She liked ads informing her of "good offers", and tried to screen out ads for products she could not afford by pretending she had not seen them. However, this did not always work:

I'm getting hit with "You can buy this suite at ,400 that costs a grand everywhere else". What use is that to people?

She wished ads would give an indication of price, because she was often let down by not being able to afford things when she went to look at them:

It could be a really simple thing, you think "I'll go and take a wee look". And you build yourself up, the excitement cos you're buying something new or whatever. When you go up and see the price, "What?" You're knocked back for six because you couldn't afford it. And of course you're not getting told on the telly a price range so you make all that effort to go up and look and probably buy it until you see the price of it. That's the thing about advertising.

Even when she could afford an advertised product, she was very suspicious of claims and promises. While she thought that advertisers were honest "to a certain extent", she thought that ads would not tell the whole story, "so you have to check it out yourself". At times her wariness seemed to verge on paranoia. It was Donna who was so suspicious of Radion's claim of removing more dirt and stains the more it was used. Similarly,

They say in the adverts you can bring them back but you're lucky if you get your money back. I'll go into a shop and say to them "If I'm not sure this'll fit him, can I bring it back?" And if they say yes, I say "I want you to write on the back of the receipt that I can return it if it doesn't fit my child".

She also referred to endorsers receiving "back-handers" (bribes) to praise brands. This wariness seems light years away from the cynicism of other informants. It was more than her ego which would suffer if she were taken in by an ad, and she could not afford to let her guard down. Indeed, her language at times ("getting hit" by various ads, or "getting Radion right in the face") suggested that she was under attack by advertising. There was also a sense of being besieged in her own home by television ads, particularly by those for products which she could not afford. Tied to the house, she saw television as her main source of information, whereas those who could afford expensive products could also find out about them in newspapers, or even by shopping around. She suggested that half the time, advertisers would be as well putting new products on a shop's shelf,

...and if somebody wants to try it, let them try it. I think it's off about hitting you with adverts on the telly and that.

Rather than seeing expensive products advertised, she wanted to see ads for cheap things which she could buy, or information which would be helpful to her, such as details of adult education courses. Her suggestion that some ads could be replaced with programmes of interest to unemployed people may be economically naive, but was important to her:

Even if they gave you an advert on telly, once during the day, saying at this college or at this school you can do bla bla bla. Things that can help people more. To buy you've got to learn, to get a job and afford this sort of stuff.

While she ultimately wanted greater buying power, the phrase "even if they gave you an advert" also seemed to encapsulate the desire of other unemployed informants to be included in the advertising system. So too did her comment that

The more everyday stuff, like your shopping, paying your bills, you see adverts showing how you can pay your TV licence and that now. They make sense, ones like that, everybody's got the opportunity to do it the easier way.

However, she had a very narrow view of the advertising system. If she were involved with an ad, it tended to be because she was interested in the basic product or special offer. She thought advertising should be factual and informative, that it should, in Levitt's (1970) terms, "celebrate the literal functionality" of products.

It's just generally what's in the shops, what they're selling. People do need to know about about these things, they are there. But the way they're put across to people, they're just a waste of money and time.

Thus, she preferred ads which showed a product and gave some information about it. While she enjoyed an ad for Anchor butter, she would have preferred to see the product rather than the dancing cows. Similarly, in the case of cigarette ads,

For Regal King Size, they've got a big bright red,yellow, green poster and it says "It's the blue you're looking for". And the Regal's a blue and white packet...they could have just a big poster with a packet of fags just the same as Regal King Size. And say "20 Regal King Size", and however much they are. But no, you've got every other colour apart from blue in this picture.

Donna's perspective may be explained in terms of Williams's (1980:185) argument that people are not materialistic enough, but need advertising to create "magic" (or added value) around the products:

If we were sensibly materialistic...we should find most advertising to be of insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young at heart or neighbourly...we have a cultural pattern in which the objects are not enough but must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings...

For many of us, this "magic" may persuade us that a particular product or brand is more desirable than an otherwise very similar offering. Thus, advertising's "magic" becomes an integral part of the brand, a key criterion in the process of choosing. For Donna, however, it is the other way round: the "magic" is peripheral, superfluous, and it is the actual products, their characteristics and functions which are central to her choice. If she had the money, and saw what she wanted, she would buy it. All she would need to know was that it was there.

There were traces of this perspective in other people's comments, when advertising imagery was described as "obscure", "pointless", or "irrelevant" to a brand. While others could identify with Donna's perspective, however, they did not maintain it so consistently: although they recognised it as a position, they also seemed to have accepted and been implicated in the dominant "magic" system to a greater extent. Thus, they enjoyed many ads and became involved with them. They made fun of their most blatant promises (such as the alchemy of chocolate bars, making women slim, elegant and glamorous), but they were also bored by informative "cardboard cut-out" ads.

One occasion when Donna did get involved with the "magic" was in relation to the Guinness ads featuring the actor Rutger Hauer. She talked at great length about these, and how she did not understand them: she knew as soon as she saw "the guy with the black jacket and white hair" that they were for Guinness, but she did not understand what they were trying to "put over", what they meant about Guinness. In fact, she had read somewhere that "you need the mentality of God knows what age to understand them". She tried to explain what she thought of Rutger Hauer in them :

[He's] not so much weird, but seems, how can I put it? Like there was somebody inside that he was wanting to...not let out, but he's not telling anybody. Sort of quiet and mysterious person. That's the sort of impression I get.

Later, talking about advertising and school, she suggested that it would be good if English classes dealt with advertising:

Like there's some adverts I don't understand. Although they've got the product there, but what they're trying to say about the product is not really coming over. Just to talk about it, know more about it, an ad that came on. Like Guinness. So I've got more of an idea of what they're trying to put across.

Again, there is a sense of wanting to belong, to share in the understanding of what advertising is about. Given that she did actually seem competent at decoding advertising imagery, however, it seemed that what Donna really did not understand was that artifice and magic are needed to persuade people to buy. If so, she was doubly alientated from advertising. Firstly, she could not afford many of the products advertised on television and sensed that she was being excluded, through a medium which should be more relevant to her needs at that. Secondly, she was alienated from the "magic system", as she could not relate to the way in which even products that she could afford were presented.

As one of the practitioners interviewed in the orientation phase of this study observed,

The phenomenon of advertising is based on the premise that we're allowed to have fantasies and that there is some hope of those people realising these fantasies...now a lot of people haven't got a hope in hell of improving their lives.

[advertising agency]

Not only did Donna recognise that improving her life would be an uphill struggle, but she could not imagine that fantasies or magic were needed to persuade others to buy, when she would buy so readily if she could. If she did understand this, perhaps her sense of alienation would be even greater, because she would recognise exactly how wide the gap was between her own position and that of many others.


There is a danger that focusing on what separated the advertising experiences of unemployed young adults from their student or working counterparts obscures the great deal which united them. Some distinctive aspects of unemployed informants' advertising experiences did emerge in this study, however. These could be related to their social position and thus limited access to the cultural codes and competencies involved in marketing exchanges. Nonethless, this explanation requires some qualification. Firstly, how we feel about our social position may influence our interpretations as much as our "objective" position. In this study, for example, the older unemployed female group behaved in many respects like their working counterparts rather than the other unemployed informants. Secondly, as Morley has argued, audiences are complex structures, composed of many overlapping subgroups. Thus, another female informant approached one ad as a vegetarian, another as a fan of the celebrity endorser, others as a member of a women's group, and some as the possessor of a business studies qualification. To expect her advertising experiences to fit a mould labelled "unemployed" would be naive as well as insulting.

However, among many of the unemployed informants, there was a sense of being "outsiders" to the world of advertising by virtue of their limited resources and prospects. They recognised that ads for different goods and services were aimed at different groups of people, but rarely at them. Thus, ads generally presented images of middle-class people with comfortable lifestyles, and promoted many goods and services beyond the reach of those who were unemployed.

While they expressed some alienation from and criticism of advertising, these young adults also aspired to be "insiders", in a symbolic as well as material sense. Their desire to be part of the world of advertising at a symbolic level emphasises the way in which advertising is woven into the social fabric of everyday life, leading to greater concerns about its implications for those without work than expressed by the Advertising Association (1988, 1990).

Of course, their economic and material exclusion from the world of advertising is the fundamental problem. However, exclusion at a symbolic level appears to rub salt into the social wound. It is unlikely to be helped by many advertisers of goods and services: they rely on advertising to trade in magic, fantasy and aspirations, and the lack of resources and prospects among many unemployed people will make it more difficult for those who are unemployed to engage with such ads. However, at the very least, unemployed people can be included in the advertising system to some extent if organisations providing benefits, training and other facilities relevant to their needs communicate through advertising, particularly on television. In doing so, however, such organisations should not add insult to social injury through the crude presentation of ideas, which denies their audience's sophistication.

This study involved a small number of unemployed young adults in one Scottish city. Certainly we cannot assume that advertising experiences would be similar for those who are older or living in other cultures, for example. However, following Quinn Patton's (1986:206) argument concerning "extrapolations" from qualitative data, this study may be used to make

...modest speculations on the likely applicability of findings to other situations under similar, but not identical condition. Extrapolations are logical, thoughtful and problem-oriented rather than purely empirical, statistical and probabilistic.

It may be, for example, that many aspects of the experiences described in this paper would resonate with people who, while not currently out of work, have suffered or expect to suffer periods of unemployment, or are on very low incomes.

Turning to avenues for further research, there is scope for a more detailed and systematic study of advertising experiences among those who are unemployed. These may differ, for example, according to the length of time people have been unemployed, their educational qualifications, or their family and social circumstances. Our understanding of the unintended consequences of advertising may also be enhanced by studies of other groups which may feel marginalised, for reasons such as their ethnic origin, sexual orientation or physical disability.

Given the focus of advertising on target audiences, it is unrealistic to assume that it would be able to address all or many of such groups' concerns. Furthermore, their problems with advertising are likely to be symptoms of deep-rooted social injustices. Nonetheless, unless they understand just how steep the "societal marketing" challenge is, marketers and advertisers are in danger of simply peddling plattitudes about social responsibility.


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Stephanie O'Donohoe, The University of Edinburgh


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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