How do TV commercials influence American culture?

The Average American

We've already established that TV ads reflect culture. They parrot back to consumers what consumers already want: a modern household, the ability to properly nurture a family according to cultural standards, the perfect relationship and more.

But this reflection is a magic mirror: one that you can look into and see not you as you are, but a better self. According to the ads, this better self is funnier than you (the misquoted football coaches of Coors), cooler than you (the guy driving a Dodge Charger) and way, way sexier than you (Kate Moss, Tyra Banks or the ever-alluring David Hasselhoff).

In fact, almost all of the 16,000 ads the average American sees every day have one thing in common: They're idealized [source: Savan]. Idealization means that whatever's happening in the ad is ahead of where culture is right now. It's not what we've got, but instead it's richer, sexier and cooler!

TV ads drive culture by reflecting only the lucky top 0.001 percent of what's possible, and then when the remaining 99.999 percent of culture imitates it, the center of culture shifts. Ads show sexy, liberated women smoking, so more average American women start smoking to try to achieve that sexy liberation. Ads show perfect natural beauty, or athletic beauty, or posh beauty, or stick-figure beauty, and when culture imitates these ideals, the center shifts and the ads have to get more extreme to remain ideal. For example, how could you not want to be as cool as the Kia hamsters in their saggy pants, hoodies and dark glasses?

If we're not careful, these ads can be cultural quicksand. Culture suggests something and ads drive it -- whether the destination is worthwhile or not is beside the point.

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Related Articles


  • Allor, Kevin. "The Rise of Advertisement and American Consumer Culture." Maryland State Archives. Aug. 24, 2006. (March 28, 2011)
  • Craig, Steve. "Madison Avenue versus The Feminine Mystique: How the Advertising Industry Responded to the Onset of the Modern Women's Movement." Popular Culture Association. March 27, 1997. (March 28, 2011)
  • Ewen, Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen. "Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness." University of Minnesota Press. 1992.
  • Savan, Leslie. "The Bribed Soul: Ads, TV and American Culture." Center for Media Literacy. (March 28, 2011)
  • Schudson, Michael. "Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society." Basic Books. 1984.