While commercials and other advertisements are often the target of widespread social critique or even outright disdain, one Texas A&M University expert says advertising still serves an important purpose in our world — in fact, it might even make us happier.
David A. Griffith, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, has brought new insight to long-standing debates about the function of advertising in society, recently showing that people in countries with higher levels of ad spending per capita tend to experience greater overall life satisfaction.
His forthcoming paper in the Journal of International Business Studies is the product of an extensive empirical study carried out in collaboration with fellow marketing scholars from Miami University and the University of New Hampshire. Griffith and his co-authors took information on ad spending from 34 different countries over a period of nine years and related it to survey data on life satisfaction from the annual World Happiness Report, controlling for a host of factors such as a country’s GDP and population size.
While their findings may be surprising to some, Griffith said the positive correlation the researchers observed between ad spending and happiness at the country level is in line with theories on the role of advertising as a vital source of information for consumers.
“There’s always been this misconception that at a broad market level, advertising tries to create wants and needs and it’s trying to manipulate you,” said Griffith, who holds the Hallie Vanderhider Chair in Business and serves as associate director of research at Mays’ Center for International Business Studies.
But as he explains, “there is one school of thought in economics which really looks at advertising as an information vehicle to allow consumers to make better decisions,” often by connecting specific groups with products for which they have a genuine need or use.
“It’s about creating satisfaction, not dissatisfaction,” Griffith said. “A firm selling dandruff shampoo wants to advertise to people who have dandruff. Firms want to make sure they are targeting those people who can best use the product, otherwise they are wasting money.”
Griffith is the first to admit that while they don’t hold a dominant place in today’s advertising landscape, the more manipulative types of advertisements are still very much alive and well, from bogus health claims to brands that use social media to sell an unrealistic or unattainably luxurious lifestyle.
“Clearly there are advertisements that may not be providing a strong positive information source,” he said. “But I think many of us see them and recognize that and therefore discard them.”
Still, Griffith said, governments can help ensure advertising is filling its proper informational role by imposing restrictions that curtail these sorts of false or misleading ads.
In fact, the study shows that a more lax regulatory environment tended to weaken the correlation between ad spending and happiness, perhaps highlighting the need for such interventions.
“If you don’t have some sort of regulation in the marketplace, there can be greater distortions to the relationship,” Griffith said. “If there is no consequence for misleading advertisements, then that could create problems in the marketplace and disrupt the ability of consumers to truly make informed decisions.”
Ultimately, Griffith said his work on this study has given him plenty of food for thought. And he plans to continue exploring big questions about the ad industry’s impact on society — from studying associations between advertising and economic factors like employment, to exploring the potential social benefits of various ad regulation strategies.
“We have a lot of people across the Mays Business School doing research in areas that are socially important,” Griffith said. “And really that’s part of our mantra of advancing the world’s prosperity.”
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