Advertisements Aren't Things

By Martin Loeng (Editor)

In this article I explore a theory which understands advertisements not as objects or things, but as parts of an everyday set of relations. This distinction between a thing, and a set of relations, brings to the fore the contested notion of 'public space' and the politics of everyday life. As we trundle further into the Information era and strategies of communication become increasingly important as society-shaping tools, advertisements, I argue, become a democratic issue.

There are various possible intentions behind the choice to engage in consumer advertising. The purpose may be to impart information, stimulate interest and demand, or affect public attitudes about products, organisations and ideas. Many would say that the purpose of commercial advertising is to ultimately increase sales, and more generally, to build brands, establish familiarity with ideas, or facilitate positive associations. Arguably, an advertisement can be defined in terms of its relationality; that is, its function in relation to human observers.

I have here adapted terms from pragmatics' Speech Act Theory,1-4 which we can draw on to understand how advertisements are inherently relational. In Speech Act Theory, we distinguish between the intention to communicate, the intended meaning, and the interpretation. Firstly, consider an unpublished advertisement with the words “Unleash a Jaguar” next to a pair of car keys, as the intention to communicate. When published and placed on a large visible wall, that intention is realised. The advert enters into a communicative process when passers-by take notice and start reading. It is the passers-by who completes the process by working out and interpreting the meanings of the advertisement; without people the ad is functionless and valueless, as there is no one there for it to communicate to. This stage of grabbing attention is important because in the noise of everyday life, advertisements have to shout louder to be noticed.5-6

What I am trying to say is that an advertisement is only a small and incomplete part of the process of advertising – it is essentially 'co-constructed' by the relation between the advertiser and the observer. This relation happens through the advertisement itself. This relationality is taken into account when pricing advertisement slots or locations. A higher number of expected viewers often increases prices, as it did during the 2015 Superbowl, with a top price tag reading 4.5 million dollars for TV advertising7.

By looking at how advertisements use indirectness and implied meanings to engage viewers, we may come to understand this relation more deeply5-6. What can we interpret the Jaguar car-manufacturer's ad to mean?

“Unleash a Jaguar.”

The literal interpretation of this ad would be a direct command to go into animal activism and liberate one large cat from captivity. However, we understand that it is meant to imply a metaphorical relationship between the powerful cat and the make of car. In short, it requires the observer to 'work out' what the implied meaning is. Interpretation is the key step in this process because it is that which connects advertising to people's behaviour, thoughts, and habits, and thus, to society.

Though the value and function of advertisements is often measured in its relation to human observers, this does not seem to be the case with ownership. The question to ponder is: should ownership of advertisements, and thus the process of advertising, be based on the advert as an object alone? Though countries undoubtedly differ in their legal approaches to advertisement ownership and regulation, in general the legal owner of the physical object owns the advertisement or can lease that space to willing advertisers10. This implies private ownership over the process of advertising, despite it being co-constructed.

The process of understanding and interpreting words and images is automatic. This process can be triggered by companies, and so resistance to the messages of advertisements must happen after the observer has already perceived and interpreted the advert. In other words, you can only decide not to see an advertisement, after you have already seen it and interpreted it. This unwilling exposure is often referred to in terms of psychological tricks to capture attention11-13, or feelings of irritation at a sense of intrusion. In the context of public spaces, and the politics of everyday life, this is not unimportant.

Many believe that the distribution of advertisements and the availability of products in supermarket aisles are chiefly controlled by supply and demand. Rather than 'make desires' they 'reflect desires'14-15. But Døving argues that it is rather strong political and economic forces which influence what is available for us to see and buy16. This brings us to the contradictions of 'public space'. A paradox of the ever-evolving city is, of course, that so much of it is in private hands. Through lucrative advertising contracts the strong political and economic forces indirectly influence the politics of everyday life, arranging the urban landscape in a certain way to facilitate 'communication'. This became a point of disagreement between the mayor of Grenoble and global advertising giant JCDecaux when the city decided to replace outdoor adverts with trees, denying the renewal of advertising contracts17. Mayor Eric Piolle explained that more space was going to public expression, such as that of local cultural and social organisations18.

Don Mitchell in his book on social justice and public space19 emphasises how important public spaces have been for the social justice movements and as an avenue of democratic expression. He writes that the privatisation of public spaces is threatening their 'publicness'. Advertisements in public space are in need of being re-imagined as relational, not as things, and to be approached in more ways than accusations of misdirection.

This is an argument in the brewing. It relates specifically to democratic control over these tools of the politics of everyday life.  It is really only relevant if the reader believes advertising is a force for social change to a certain degree, large or small. And even if public space advertising forms only a small part of those forces, it is a good place to start re-imagining the relation between people, power, spaces and communication. 

1. Jenny A. Thomas, Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics, 1st ed. (London ; New York: Longman, 1995)

2. Dawn Archer, Karin Aijmer, and Anne Wichmann, Pragmatics: An Advanced Resource Book for Students, 1st edition (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012);

3. Betty J. Birner, Introduction to Pragmatics, 1 edition (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)

4. Keiko Tanaka, Advertising Language: A Pragmatic Approach to Advertisements in Britain and Japan, 1 edition (London ; New York: Routledge, 1994).

5. Francisco Javier Díaz Pérez, “Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and Its Applicability to Advertising Discourse: Evidence from British Press Advertisements,” Atlantis 22, no. 2 (December 1, 2000): 43

6. Fang Liu, “A Study of Principle of Conversation in Advertising Language,” Theory and Practice in Language Studies 2, no. 12 (December 2012): 2619–23, doi:10.4304/tpls.2.12.2619-2623.

7. Scott Polacek, “Super Bowl Ad Costs for Casual-Fan Entertainment,” Bleacher Report, 2015,

8. Francisco Javier Díaz Pérez, “Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and Its Applicability to Advertising Discourse: Evidence from British Press Advertisements,” Atlantis 22, no. 2 (December 1, 2000): 43

9. Case summary available at: (

10. See U.S. example:

11. Douglas Van Praet, “How Your Brain Forces You to Watch Ads,” Psychology Today, October 30, 2014,

12. Douglas Van Praet, Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing, Reprint edition (Palgrave Macmillan Trade, 2012)

13. Marc Andrews, Matthijs van Leeuwen, and Rick van Baaren, Hidden Persuasion: 33 Psychological Influences Techniques in Advertising (BIS Publishers, 2014).

14. Greg Foyster, “Against Advertising: The New and Improved Argument,” accessed February 15, 2015,

15. Thorolf Helgesen, Markedskommunikasjon: Prinsipper for Effektiv Informasjon Og Påvirkning, 1st ed. (Cappelen akademisk, 2004), English translation, “Market communication: principles for effective information and influence”.

16. Runar Døving, Merkevarer: 45 Korreksjoner, 1st ed. (Cappelen akademisk, 2007), English translation: “Brands: 45 Corrections”

17. Rory Mulholland, “Grenoble to Replace Street Advertising with Trees and ‘Community Spaces,’” November 24, 2014,

18. “Green and Noble? French City Grenoble to Get Rid of Street Advertising,” Euronews, accessed February 20, 2015,

19. Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, 1 edition (New York: The Guilford Press, 2003).