While business scholars downplay the impacts of product promotion based on the lack of evidence proving it persuades consumers to buy, Aeron Davis, in Promotional Cultures: The Rise and Spread of Advertising, Public Relations, Marketing and Branding, suggests promotional culture is influential in more indirect ways. Promotional culture, he argues, extends brand awareness, shapes values and ideals, impacts decision making and functions as social communication. This is inline with key works in the field examining the cultural effects of advertising. However, Davis extends the argument by demonstrating the ways in which promotional practices (not just advertising) are daily shaping organizations, society and individuals. Davis explores how the development of promotional industries has influenced social relations and cultural change since the 19th century. He argues that society has become more promotionally oriented and that individuals and organizations have grown to accommodate promotional discourse as a normal part of life and allow it greater priority and more resources, including time and money.
Key to Davis’ argument is his definition of “promotional culture.” Unlike advertising, which describes the practice of promoting goods and services, “promotional culture” includes the related activities of marketing, public relations, branding and lobbying for the purposes of promoting people, ideas and organizations. Although Andrew Wernick proposed a similar definition in 1991, Davis further refines the concept by limiting it to the active practices of individuals (promotional intermediaries) and organizations (promotional industries) instead of including the resulting cultural output. This distinction is core to Davis’ contribution. While many have studied the impacts of advertising and promotional materials on society, Davies breaks new ground by refocusing the lens on the people who work in the industry and their influence on larger cultural shifts.
Chapter 2 reviews the history of promotional culture from both an industry perspective (professionalization) and a critical perspective (propaganda). The industry perspective follows a narrative of “professionalization” and provides a more positive approach to understanding how promotional culture has contributed to the development of markets, mass media and democracy. On the other hand critical historical approaches, often grounded in Marxist theory, suggest promotional culture has functioned as propaganda to serve the interests of corporations and the government. Davis concludes the chapter by favouring the second approach and pointing out the weaknesses of the first argument.
Chapter 3 outlines the same timeline as chapter 2 from a consumer/audience perspective. The first part examines how consumers have agency to re-appropriate, reinterpret and decommodify promotional culture while the second part addresses critiques of this position who suggest it is a false narrative put forth by capitalists to justify their own selfish pursuits and perpetuate consumerism. Consumerism, they argue, is wasteful and not sustainable given the limited global resources.
Chapter 4 provides an overview of methods and approaches to studying promotional texts. This chapter would be a valuable resource for introducing students to key methods within the study of advertising form a liberal arts and social science perspective. The methods described are:
- Quantitative Content Analysis (p 53)
- Semiotics (pp 53-55)
- Discourse Analysis (pp 55-56)
However, Davis himself doesn’t clearly draw from any of these methods in constructing his argument in this book. Instead he conducts a socio-historical review of literature and inserts promotional culture into the discussion.
Davis then relates these methods to four key approaches within the field:
- Industry (pp 56-58)
- Critical (Marxist and feminist) (pp 58-62)
- Audiences (pp 62-64)
- Poststructuralist/postmodern (pp 64-67)
Davis favours a combination of critical and postmodern approaches to ensure material conditions are not overlooked, but at the same time, not structurally determining.
Development of Argument
Davis develops his argument by examining how promotional culture has impacted and shaped a number of cultural institutions including commodities (chapter 5), media and popular culture (chapter 6), celebrity (chapter 7), politics (chapter 8), civil society (chapter 9) and markets (chapter 10).
While some scholars limit their study specifically to “advertising” or “brands” as distinct research subjects, Davis contributes a broader and more encompassing framework that includes public relations, lobbying and marketing. In a period marked by media convergence, these once distinct practices are increasingly merging so that the effects of a single practices cannot be isolated.
No less significant is Davis’ “third way” approach to the understanding of individuals and how they are affected by mass consumerism in a global economy. In a time when most academics are surveying the damaging effects of consumer culture on individuals, Davis explores the ways in which specific individuals have agency in both social and business networks. Promotional intermediaries, he argues, have greater power to impact entire sectors of the economy and popular culture. At the same time Davis rejects to structuralist notion of consumers as “dupes” who passively accept and internalize market messages. This is not an uninformed analysis, as Davis acknowledges the ulterior motives of professional studies that describe the consumer as a completely free agent in society while providing a full account of key Marxist and feminist critiques.
Individualism – Promotional culture emphasizes the concerns of the individual over the greater good of society. Advertising appeals to individual needs, wants and fears. Celebrities, CEOs (Steve Jobs), sports heroes and politicians all act as individual figureheads that funnel the image/reputation of an entire organization into one individual. Neo-liberal thought emphasizes the importance of choice and freedom for individuals so that they can rise to the top unhampered by collective concerns.
Power– see page 202
Media – Increasing mediatization of promotional culture. It is dependent upon news, commericals and social media instead of face to face interactions. Media disinterest can end the career of a celebrity, sports hero, public figure or politician.