VAL 140/ 340
Prejudice & Discrimination
Professor Kathryn Russell
Stereotypes in context
    The political economy of ads


Bloomberg News, Hispanic, 12-98

Advertising, as many people say, is all about money. In this unit we will use the critical analysis provided by Berger in Ways of Seeing to look at the role ads play in capitalism. Both Berger and William Myers in "The 'Hidden Persuaders' Get Down to Business" argue that as cultural forms, ads taken together define a certain way of looking at ourselves and society.

PEA Assignment 1: Analyze the quotes below, then write a paraphrase of them. Discuss what sorts of ads and advertising practices might illustrate their points. Do you agree with their point of view? Why or why not?

**Remember that by 'publicity' Berger means advertising.

Publicity is the culture of the consumer society. It propagates through images that society's belief in itself. (Berger 139)

...Ad Alley's wizards have firmly established themselves as the creators and controllers of our consumer culture. (Meyers 4)

When we consider the roles that ads play in capitalism we need to bring in the concept of a society's ideology. That concept provides a convenient intellectual context for the analysis of ads. We believe we live in a free, democratic country with lots of choices to make us happy.

Ads are tied to our conception of freedom: consumer choice and the producer's opportunity to benefit from entrepreneurial skill. But for Berger, the choice of which brand of shoes or car to buy is a sham democracy, a substitute for the real thing. But it's such an effective substitute, it even makes us feel free!

Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world. (Berger 149)


Barely There, Vogue, 6-99
This woman's underwear makes her happy. Click on the image to read the revolutionary claims made by the ad's copy.

On a more serious note, some ads subtly appeal to members of oppressed groups by appropriating issues they are concerned with.

PEA Assignment 2:

Click on the picture at the left to see ad samples and discussion questions.

Compare the two pictures below.

The one on the left is of Rebecca, a real woman living in Newark in 1994. The right one is of Nicole Kidman represented as a wealthy woman in the tradition of portraits by John Sargent.

Study Berger's argument about the contrast between the Badedas ad and the news story about Bangla Desh in Ways of Seeing, pages 151-53.


Rebecca, January 1984
No Easy Walk by Helen M. Stummer

Vogue, 6-99


Berger says: "The contrast between publicity's interpretation of the world and the world's actual condition is a very stark one. . ." (151)

  • Does the picture on the left reveal a "stark" reality, a world very different from that suggested by the glitter of advertisements?
  • Would you agree that the world of Rebecca is one that ads make invisible?
  • Does the contrast between the two illustrate Berger's perspective that ads are an ideological cover for what is really true?
  • What do you think Berger is trying to show about the nature of advertising and our society with his argument?



Click the book cover to read a review of Ways of Seeing in which discusses Berger's argument that advertising and oil paintings "speak in the same voice about the same things." (135)



PEA Assignment 3: Study Berger's analogy between oils and ads in Ways of Seeing, pages 134-142. In light of Berger's argument, the comparison below should be illustrative.

Click the picture on the left to see larger images and answer some questions.
Created by Kathryn Russell
SUNY Cortland - Philosophy
Last modified on 1-14-00