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The Sociology of Ads: Selling What Can’t Be Sold

Billions of dollars are spent each year on advertising in an effort to shape the way you think. In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to take another look at the advertisements that are all around us and the messages they communicate.

Want to see something cool? Turn on your TV or load up an internet video and instead of fast forwarding or clicking “Skip Ad”, stop and watch the commercial closely. Pay attention to what they are talking about and more importantly, what they are not talking about.

Commercials for diamond rings focus on how happy your romantic partner will be when they receive your gift. Commercials for minivans focus on how cool you will look in your “swagger wagon.” Coffee commercials focus on loved ones returning home to share a pot of coffee.

Isn’t it strange that commercials don’t focus on the qualities of the product they are trying to sell?

There are of course, exceptions to this rule. Most notably “infomercials” for products like OxiClean, Xhose, or Might Putty. But the fact that we call them infomercials suggests that “regular commercials” are largely absent of info about the products they are selling.

Selling What Cannot Be Sold

Modern commercial advertisements don’t sell the product, they sell a lifestyle image. Ads show happy people, friendship, companionship, love, affection, people working together, people expressing themselves, and people accomplishing their dreams. Advertisements are selling us products by promising us that they will satisfy our social needs (e.g. human connection, the respect and admiration of those around you, etc.). But these are all things that you can’t buy.

Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely use physical goods in the process of satisfying our social needs. For instance, think about how the giving of gifts is used to establish human connection and create a sense of community. Furthermore, communities can form around products (e.g. motorcycle clubs) and then those communities can satisfy social needs. My point here is, while we use physical goods in the process of satisfying our social needs, physical goods themselves cannot satisfy our social needs.

The Magic of Advertising

If an alien from another galaxy watched our commercials, they would conclude that we believe in magic (Jhally 1997). Over and over again in commercials we see people solving their problems with consumer products and a little bit of magic. In this way, commercials are using magical realism (i.e. introducing some magical elements into an otherwise realistic depiction of the world). This classic Mentos commercial is a great example of what I’m talking about.

Did a jerky guy just box you in? Pop a Mentos and viola four burley dudes will magically appear to pick up your tiny car.

It’s not uncommon to see advertisements combine magical realism with promises that their product will satisfy social needs. The quintessential modern example of this are the Axe Body Spray commercials.

What is Axe body spray in this ad if not a magical potion? The “Axe Effect” advertised is one that transforms women into feminine beasts that will do anything to gratify male sexual desires. In ad after ad we are shown Axe Body Spray to be a magical potion that satisfies the sexual social needs of men. At the risk of stating the obvious, we should also acknowledge that these ads objectify women’s bodies and reinforce misogynistic ideas about women and heterosexual relationships.

Manufacturing Needs for Manufactured Goods.

We live in a consumer society. Our capitalist economy relies on us buying things that we want, but don’t actually need. From this point of view advertisements are designed to manufacture desire for frivolous manufactured goods (Baudrillard 1998). One way to do this is to promise that consumer goods (most often something you don’t need) can satisfy your social needs (e.g. human connection, love, admiration, etc.).

Dig Deeper:

  1. How does consumption (i.e. the buying and consuming of products) bring people together or otherwise contribute to the satisfying of social needs?
  2. Can consumption get in the way of satisfying social needs or split people apart? Explain your answer with examples.
  3. Find an advertisement online that implies that it’s product can satisfy a social need. Describe the advertisement briefly and then explain how you see it promising to satisfy a social need.
  4. Find an advertisement online that uses magical realism. Describe the advertisement briefly and then explain what magical elements it uses.


  • Baudrillard, Jean. 1998. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
  • Jhally, Sut. 1997. Advertising and The End of The World.