Critical studies in advertising

The following list is a start in identifying existing approaches to the critical study of advertising and key works. It represents an initial map of its development, at least in the U.S.

We’ve tried to keep it narrowly focused on advertising explicitly. Of course, works that address consumerism, commercialization, etc. are relevant to advertising, too, but we want here to keep a narrow focus.

If any key, core works are missing, please let either Robert or me know, or post them or other thoughts in a comment to this page.

A start toward a map of critical approaches to the study of advertising

Earliest is what could be called a “consensus” approach to critical advertising studies, which developed within traditions of popular mass-culture criticism of its deleterious effects.

  • Press criticism by Upton Sinclair, George Seldes and others who bemoaned the influence of advertisers on newspapers. This was a populist, structural critique, not one that dealt in any depth with issues of culture and representation, etc.
  • Popular criticism of advertising by the 1950s was articulated through fears of propaganda and in the terms of behavioral psychology, which left the structural critique behind for one that centered on (fetishized) images. Examples include Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders; and, later, Brian Winston Key’s books on subliminal advertising.
  •  The consensus approach in scholarly terms is best represented by the collection titled Advertising and Society; Classic and Contemporary Readings on Advertising’s Role in Society, edited by Roxanne Hovland and Gary B. Wilcox (1989). (This has been updated as Roxanne Hovland, Joyce Wolburg and Eric Haley, eds. Readings in Advertising, Society, and Consumer Culture, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2007). The sections in which it is organized suggest as much: institutional issues, sociodemographic issues, legal and regulatory issues, economic issues, ethical issues. All are couched within a reigning liberal-pluralist political philosophy and Lockean rationality, which place at the forefront issues of individual freedom vs. social control (yet, with some exceptions, such as Schudson’s pieces).

This consensus approach, characterized by structural critiques of market deformation and psychological critiques of all-powerful images, is what still reigns currently as the touchstones for consensus approaches to advertising criticism.

Yet, post 1970s, we see the emergence of a very different critique, premised upon different philosophical bases (combinations of Marxism, Critical Theory, structuralism(s), and psychoanalytic approaches combined in many cases with an overtly historical perspective), although by no means a clear break in all cases from the consensus position.

In no necessary order:

Leiss, William, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally. (1986). Social communication in advertising: persons, products, & images of well-being. New York: Methuen.

Jhally, Sut. (1987). The codes of advertising : fetishism and the political economy of meaning in the consumer society. New York : St. Martin’s Press.

Jhally, Sut. (2006). The spectacle of accumulation : essays in culture, media, & politics. New York: Peter Lang. [Only some selected essays.]

Ewen, Stuart. (1999). All consuming images : the politics of style in contemporary culture. New York: Basic Books.

Ewen, Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen. (1992). Channels of desire: mass images and the shaping of American consciousness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ewen, Stuart. (1976). Captains of consciousness : advertising and the social roots of the consumer culture. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ohmann, Richard. (1996). Chpt. 6, “Advertising: New Practices, New Relations,” and Chpt. 8, “The Discourse of Advertising.” In Selling Culture; Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century. New York: Verso.

McGovern, Charles F. (2006). Chpt. 1, “Advertisers and Consumers, 1890-1930”; Chpt. 2, “The Nationalization of Consumers: The Political Language of American Advertising”; Chpt. 3, “Making Consumption American: Advertisers, Consumers, and National Identity.” In Sold American; Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945, pp. 23-131. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth, Penguin. [In particular the final section of the book.)

Williams, Raymond. (1980). “Advertising: The Magic System.” In Problems in Materialism and Culture, pp. 170-195. London: Verso.

Nixon, Sean. (2003). Advertising Cultures; Gender, Commerce, Creativity. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Stole, Inger. (2012). Advertising at War; Business, Consumers, and Government in the 1940s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Schwarzkopf, Stefan. (2007). “Transatlantic Invasions or Common Culture? Modes of Cultural and Economic Exchange between the American and the British Advertising Industries, 195-2000.” In Anglo-American Media Interactions, 1850-2000, Joel H. Wiener and Mark Hampton, eds., pp. 254-274. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Spring, Dawn. (2011). Advertising in the age of persuasion: building brand America 1941-1961. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Williamson, Judith. (1978). Decoding advertisements: ideology and meaning in advertising. London: Boyars.

Marchand, Roland. (1985). Advertising the American dream: making way for modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lears, T.J. Jackson. (1994). Fables of abundance: a cultural history of advertising in America. New York: Basic Books.

Wicke, Jennifer. (1988). Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement & Social Reading. New York: Columbia University Press.

Frank, Thomas. (1997). Conquest of Cool; business culture, counterculture, and the rise of hip consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (It discusses changes in advertising organization and creative culture in the 1960s and their aftermath.)

Turow, J. (2011). The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

McFall, L (2004) Advertising: A Cultural Economy. London: Sage.

Add to this recent readers, such as Turow, Joseph and Matt McAllister (2009). Advertising and Consumer Culture Reader.

And books dealing explicitly with digital advertising:

Christina Spurgeon. (2008.) Advertising and new media. London and New York: Routledge.

McStay, A (2009). Digital Advertising. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

McStay, A. (2011). The Mood of Information: A Critique of Online Advertising. New York: Continuum.

McStay, A. (2013) Creativity and Advertising: Affect, Events and
Process. London: Routledge. View chapters at:


8 Responses to Critical studies in advertising

  1. Tony Wilson says:

    You might care to add:
    Wilson, T. (2012) Global Advertising, Attitudes and Audiences. Oxford and New York: Routledge
    Reviewed at:
    This monograph is based on research with Malaysians on Malaysian Chinese, Indian and Malay responses to advertising. The book is guided by a philosophical critique of positivism (or effects studies) as informing the prevailing approach to advertising’s consequences for audiences.

  2. Olga Fedorenko says:

    Thank you for a comprehensive list! I also found these titles quite inspiring and informative:

    Cronin, Anne M. Advertising Myths: The Strange Half-Lives of Images and Commodities. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

    Stole, Inger L. Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s, History of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

  3. JFHamilton says:

    Keep those comments and additions coming… Lots of great stuff.

  4. JFHamilton says:

    As part of my current research, thought I’d also add:
    Pamela Walker Laird, Advertising progress: American business and the rise of consumer marketing (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

  5. JFHamilton says:

    An update of the consensus-critique reader Advertising and Society (1989) noted above (contains some of the same readings; note as well the addition of “consumer society” in title as well as contents): Roxanne Hovland, Joyce Wolburg and Eric Haley (eds.) (2007) Readings in Advertising, Society, and Consumer Culture (Armounk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe).

  6. Robert Bodle says:

    Four recent books about advertising and promotion thanks to Matt McAllister @CRITADMEDIA-L:

    Michael Serazio, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

    Derek Johnson, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries

    Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture

    Timothy D. Taylor, The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture

  7. Clayton says:

    Fantastic list it’s very comprehensive.

    • Jay Hamilton says:

      Glad it’s useful. This will be part of a soon to be published book, Explorations in Critical Studies of Advertising, to be published by Routledge in its Research in Cultural and Media Studies series. It should be available by the end of 2016.

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