How do things such as media and advertising impact our understanding of how we should act or behave in a culture or group?

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In the history of television advertising, if we focus on it as perhaps the most important subset of advertising as a whole, there are several key factors we can look at that demonstrate its influence upon major behavioral patterns. Our discussion here is necessarily selective, but the points below illustrate...

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In the history of television advertising, if we focus on it as perhaps the most important subset of advertising as a whole, there are several key factors we can look at that demonstrate its influence upon major behavioral patterns. Our discussion here is necessarily selective, but the points below illustrate general trends that have been established over the decades.

Nearly fifty years ago, a decision was made to ban all cigarette advertisements from television. This came less than a decade after the surgeon general's report that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.

It would be difficult to believe that the absence of these ads since the early 1970s has not had an impact on the public perception of cigarette smoking as an acceptable activity. Before the ban was put in place, cigarette commercials had been perhaps the most prominent and memorable type of advertising on television. Even now, people who were alive during the 1960s can often remember the specific ads, the cigarette brands, the wording and imagery of the commercials, and their music—the jingles that accompanied these words and pictures and were perhaps the most forceful part of the advertising. The adjunct to the explicit ads was the fact that in movies and television shows during the same period—and this is even more obvious and disturbing now, looking back at them when one catches the old films and shows on the throwback channels on TV—it seems that everyone smoked cigarettes. Everyone in a film or show is constantly lighting up at every opportunity imaginable. Not only was the impression given that all people smoke, but that everybody was a chain-smoker as well.

Even today, it appears that smoking is shown in movies more frequently than it actually occurs in real life. This could still be a subliminal (or even explicit) message added to the films by tobacco-industry sponsors, or it could be simply because smoking is still supposed to be cool, just as using the f-word every five seconds is supposed to be cool. In any event, it makes sense that both the presence and the absence of such advertising, explicit or implied, has an influence upon the audience and the public as a whole. Years ago, far more people smoked cigarettes than one would have thought likely, given that even before the facts about cancer were known, it didn't exactly take the proverbial rocket science to see that smoking is an unclean habit and that by drawing smoke into one's lungs, it was likely health problems would be created for oneself, even if the specific nature of those problems was not yet known. Fortunately fewer people smoke today, and it's not coincidental that the TV ads disappeared when they did and were never reinstated. Human behavior and cultural attitudes about cigarettes have definitely changed for the better.

A second phenomenon of importance in the media and its influence is the advertising for prescription medications on television. Given that a physician is the one normally expected to tell you which medications, if any, you need, it seems odd that pharmaceutical firms would spend the millions or billions they do on TV advertising. One would think the money put out for this would exceed any possible return they could achieve on their investment. Why? For one thing, usually it's very difficult for a lay person even to remember the names of the drugs being advertised. (It seems that the ads are being aimed chiefly at the non-specialist public, since physicians normally get their information from medical journals and directly from the pharmaceutical firms that send representatives to the physicians' offices.) To me, it's always seemed far-fetched to think that an ordinary person would see an ad on TV and then at their next medical appointment say, "Doctor, can you prescribe x-medication or y-medication for me?" when the names of the drugs are odd-sounding and unmemorable, when most people trust their doctor enough to let him or her take the initiative to prescribe meds if they're needed, and when on all of these commercials, the speaker rattles off the possible dangerous side effects (including death), which one would think would dissuade people from asking for these drugs even if there is a legitimate need for them.

What, then, is the reason drug firms have expended all of this money on advertising? My guess is that the subliminal effect on the public is to make them implicitly believe that medications are the solution to everything. The specific drug being advertised is not the point—it is, rather, prescription meds in general that are being promoted to the public. These commercials probably have, in fact, influenced the culture as a whole and our general behavior, as we've found that the "opioid crisis" has resulted in increasing addiction and deaths from overdose. It's true that opioids are obviously not the drugs advertised on television. But this, at least in my speculative opinion, merely reinforces the possibility that the intention of the ads is a non-specific message. The idea is that drugs in general are good, even when they're dangerous. There is no way of proving that this has influenced the general culture, but it would be a surprise if this somehow has nothing to do with the increased use of some drugs and the overuse of them to the point where there has been increased addiction and overdosing.

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