Phil Livingstone
Phil Livingstone 11 October 2016

Does Our Advertising Reflect Modern Society?

Throughout the decades, advertising messages, propelled by advances in technology have always represented changes in society, trends and the mood of a nation. Some topics like colour, sex, racism, war, homosexuality, and diversity remained a challenge to explore. H&M, Malteasers and Channel 4 have led the way but more support is needed from advertisers. Does advertising really reflect local communities and modern society.

World War II altered our society and forced us to re-examine our values and attitudes. This was the age of respectability and conformity. In the 1950s, life was different, rationing had just ended, jobs were plentiful as the manufacturing sector grew and childbearing blossomed.

Post-war prosperity helped raise spirits. For the first time in a while, young people had money of their own. Suddenly there was a fascinating array of must-have products linked to the increase of consumerism.

The advent of television allowed advertising to flourish and reach the masses. It allowed the ‘hard-sell’ of products to be thrust right into living rooms for the first time. The perfect environment for advertising agencies (companies back then) to develop.

This paved the way for a creative revolution in advertising. By the time the 1960s came along, confidence made way for a brazen attitude. The concept of success subjugated society and it made its way into advertising. Misogyny, sexism, and homophobia was rife back then.

Advertising was dominated by men and it showed in their ads.

Don’t choke on your testosterone fuelled martini but Camel cigarettes were once marketed as "the doctor's favourite brand" and endorsed by the medical community. Very difficult to imagine these days.

 A time where suggestive and risqué imagery partnered with long form copy. But look beyond the sexually charged and often offensive ads, this era defined what the essence of advertising was. A happy marriage of ideas, message, creativity and personality.

Technological advances in photography and colour printing pushed advertising further. 

Society changed again and gender equality was pushed into public psyche. Now, the public’s demand for better advertising was more in tune with this thinking.


The lessons learned during that period provided the foundation for everything we do as marketers today. This period is often referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Advertising’ and pioneered by greats, such as Maxwell Dane, Ned Doyle, William Bernbach and David Ogilvy. These trail blazers carved out the very essence of advertising.

They were different; they celebrated life, sometimes controversial, but always pushing the boundaries of taste, indifference and chauvinistic opinion. They sold products.

Ogilvy famously commenting “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

Internally though, the power structure in the agency would move from account executive to the creative department and copywriter. Imagery and copy jostling for position amongst innuendo, sarcasm and humour, but one thing never changed, successful campaigns relied on research, audience, a great headline and the product to back it up.

Alcohol, automotives, smoking, politics, fashion and travel provided fertile subjects to explore as the big budgets rolled in. The admen (and most of them were men) of the sixties, seventies and eighties created some of the most unforgettable images of modern times.

But these iconic advertising messages in categories ranging from sparkling beverages (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) to alcohol (Cinzano – the series of Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter), from credit cards (“American Express. Don’t leave home without it”) to air travel (“British Airways: the world’s favourite airline”). All great ads but considered relatively safe creatively. Traditional advertising was becoming dreary, in particular so-called "life-style-advertising", of being dull and unimaginative, creating and portraying an ideal world that does not exist.

Throughout the decades, advertising messages, propelled by advances in technology have always represented changes in society, trends and the mood of a nation. Some topics like colour, sex, racism, war, homosexuality, and diversity remained a challenge to explore. 

Fearless brands like Benetton (with their United Colours of Benetton campaigns) chose to take public stands in support of issues. Powerful images conveyed a simple yet potent message. No tagline, no headline, just thought provoking imagery. It gained a reputation for shock-advertising that whipped-up controversy and stimulated debate – but it has to be said, helped boost the brand recognition of the Italian fashion giant. This triggered more and more companies to come out and express public support or opposition towards social-political issues.

Yet, few brands have explored disability or really embraced diversity in their advertisements. Why? 

Diversity offers the ability to provide better perspective and a different point of view.

Different backgrounds have different perspectives on the same thing, so it’s always beneficial to hear several varied interpretations on life. It’s a shame this isn’t explored more.

Hats off to Channel 4 (in the UK) for their recent diversity initiative and a new set of Maltesers ads feature characters making light of their disabilities in the latest iteration of the brand’s ‘Look on the Light Side’ campaign.

Special mention to for H&M’s new campaign celebrating diversity amongst women.

I’m not so sure the golden age of advertising was in the 50s and 60s. Modern consumers have a mind-boggling number of media and device choices, and agencies must meet them and provide a cohesive, consistent brand experience.

The challenge is to get the same experience across mobile, experiential, digital, film, outdoor and TV. We expect master storytelling, visually stimulating cinematography and crafted messages delivered across multiple platform, channel regardless of what device we are on. Creative ideas can travel to so many places and take so many forms.

So where to next?

How do you portray different perspectives of modern society in advertising? Are we reflecting enough of the different communities?  Real people. Real issues. Do we need more Benetton’s of this world?

How long before we take the next step and see a gay couple marketing a brand of tea, or a Polish family promoting washing up liquid or a woman in a hijab advertising makeup? Is advertising a reflection of society or still playing catch up?

Does it matter? Would you see the products in the same or a different light? Makes you think doesn’t it.

Only then will advertising truly reflect modern society.

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