BOSTON ( MainStreet) -- Well-executed advertising can accomplish many objectives. It can introduce a product, create buzz, manage brand perception and encroach on a competitor's sales. At its most successful, advertising, as part of a marketing campaign, can change culture. If you are reading this story on your smartphone you are proof. The technology behind all those Droids ( MOT) and iPhones ( AAPL), as marvelous as it is, has been amplified by a media blitzkrieg. Commercials hammer into our collective brain that you need not only have such a device, but that you must have the latest and greatest immediately upon its arrival. And, once you own one, you can't stop staring at it. Similar to how BlackBerry ( RIMM) users once referred to the device as the "crackberry," recent research by the British Psychological Society has shown what was already suspected: We have become a culture addicted to smartphones, so much so that there is separation anxiety and phantom ringtones when we don't have our palm-held safety blanket. Companies can indeed influence how society thinks and acts. We took a look at five examples of cultural engineering in the name of profits:
In the U.S. and the U.K. it has become a fashionable norm for women to remove what advertisers and fashionistas deem "unwanted" hair. Why is it that this is such an imperative here, while it doesn't exist as such in Europe (and was not even the case in the U.S. before the Roaring '20s)? While there is evidence that, from time to time, various cultures included hair removal as an ideal for female beauty (the ancient Greeks and Egyptians among them), it took Gillette's focus on selling "safety razors" to men in the late 1800s to kick-start the trend in the U.S. Company founder King Camp Gillette, who invented the disposable razor in 1885, saw sales close in on 100,000 units sold in just the second year they were made. By 1915, the huge success of the product led to internal debates over how to reach a new sales plateau. The answer came that year as Gillette introduced its first razor for women. It was a product in search of a market, however, as women of the time rarely shaved either their legs or armpits. Historian Christine Hope, in a 1982 article from the Journal of American Culture, Caucasian Female Body Hair and American Culture, detailed Gillette's efforts to change this. Ads in both the relatively upper-class publication Harper's Bazaar as well as more middle-class magazines such as Ladies Home Journal promoted clean-shaven armpits as a must-have for open-sleeved summer dresses. Other companies jumped into the fray with ads of their own and momentum began to build, reaching a mass-market victory when Sears Roebuck ( SHLD) began selling razors and depilatories through its catalog in 1922. With armpits as a mission accomplished, advertisers set their sights closer to the ground, executing similar, fashion-based campaigns against leg hair. The short skirts of the 1920s led many American women to start shaving their legs, a practice that came and went as hemlines fell. In the World War II era, marketing campaigns got a much-needed boost from the smooth, showcased gams of pinup girl Betty Grable and took hold as an aesthetic norm.
Corporate America has found ways other than shaving to mold our efforts to look good into profitability. Fashion houses routinely tell the women of America how short (or long) their skirts should be hemmed and how fat or skinny a man's tie should be. Jeans -- thanks to Levi's, Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt -- went from rugged pants perfect for farmers and juvenile delinquents to must-have fashion. Ditto for sneakers, which evolved from utilitarian sports accessories to a pricey, sometimes riot-worthy footwear mainstay thanks to youth culture outreach by Nike ( NKE), Adidas and others. Makeup, in one form or another, has existed for centuries. It took some effort by companies to ensure that its application became a daily routine. Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden were the pioneers, the grand dames of makeup -- cutthroat competitors in the beauty business, each with a company bearing their name. Over the years, helped immensely by the advent of color movies, their companies leveraged celebrity endorsements and magazine ads to push the message that makeup was every bit as important, in a fashion sense, than any outfit one could wear. Helping their cause was that the American male, in the years after World War I, were more interested in the sexual energy of bold colors rather than the prim and proper past practice of women using "powder" to stay pale and regal. After a marketplace lull during World War II, makeup companies flourished and multiplied and a multibillion-dollar industry was built persuading the women of America to buy every imaginable variation of makeup and skin care products. According to market research firm Kline & Co., U.S. sales of cosmetics and toiletries in 2010 totaled roughly $36.5 billion.
The practice of a smitten man on bended knee offering the object of his affection a diamond ring in exchange for a promise of marriage is now standard practice. Credit clever advertising by diamond industry giant De Beers for making both the practice and the associated costs part of global courtships. Investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein laid out the history of De Beer's campaign for gemstone ubiquity in his book The Rise and Fall of Diamonds: The Shattering of a Brilliant Illusion (Simon & Schuster, 1982). In the 1930s, after two decades of plummeting diamond sales due to World War I and the Great Depression, De Beers hired the firm N.W. Ayer to develop a national advertising, PR and marketing campaign intended to get its profits back on track. Engagement rings were already fairly common. What De Beers hoped to accomplish was to make the practice universal and more profitable. Because the majority of stones sold were of lesser quality and cost, the goal was to equate true love with a high price point. Step one -- easily accomplished -- was to get movie stars and fashion designers to promote diamonds as an elegant and desirable accessory. From 1938 to 1941, diamond sales spiked by more than 50%. The next step was the dropping of tidbits in newspaper society pages about elegant and enviable diamond engagement rings. DeBeers also unleashed a slogan that endures today: "A Diamond is Forever." Year by year, unyielding campaigns helped fuel ever-increasing sales of diamond engagement rings. By 1965, De Beer estimated that roughly 80% of American women got a diamond ring as part of their proposal. "N.W. Ayer noted also that its campaign had required 'the conception of a new form of advertising which has been widely imitated ever since. There was no direct sale to be made. There was no brand name to be impressed on the public mind. There was simply an idea -- the eternal emotional value surrounding the diamond,'" Epstein writes. "It further claimed that 'a new type of art was devised ... and a new color, diamond blue, was created and used in these campaigns.'" Not content with sparking a sparkling tradition, De Beers and its agency set to work influencing what hopeful grooms-to-be should shell out. Initially, in the 1930s, they pushed the notion that a ring should cost the equivalent of one month's salary. More recently that's been redefined as two months of salary. Using the template that brought it great success, De Beers applied a similar strategy to increase sales outside the U.S. as well as to introduce the concept that husbands owe their wife yet another diamond to celebrate their 25th anniversary.
McDonald's ( MCD) is among those rare companies that can take direct credit (or blame) for permanently changing American culture. Ray Kroc, after getting into the burger game in 1948, launched the first official McDonald's restaurant in Illinois in 1955. The concept was as simple as it was forward-thinking: to build a chain of restaurants that could serve hot food fast with a level of quality consistent from location to location. It wasn't so much the food itself that made McDonald's a phenomenon; it was the cultural backdrop it inserted itself into. The 1950s -- well into the '60s -- saw the automobile hit its stride among consumers. As advertisements touted the freedom of the open road, the public increasingly demanded the highway infrastructure that made such cruising a reality. Paired with the rise of suburbia, Americans were no longer tied to their hometown business district or local diner. As they roamed, McDonald's was there to feed them in a familiar way. This led to a chain reaction of sorts. The success of McDonald's led to similar concepts, including Burger King ( BKC), Bob's Big Boy, Yum! Brands' ( YUM) Kentucky Fried Chicken and A&W eateries and a long list of others, under the ever-growing umbrella of fast food. As these restaurants became more popular, they ate away at traditional family dinners, which, in turn, led an even greater number of families to rely on takeout. A greater amount of disposable income also led to growing families (the post-war baby boom endured into the 1960s), something McDonald's capitalized on over the years by introducing Ronald McDonald, Happy Meals and in-store playgrounds. Ever since, restaurants (as well as a wide range of other enterprises) have kept cash registers ringing by empowering kids to dictate how their parents spend. As a less desirable impact on culture, by creating the template for American mealtime McDonald's is blamed by many for the poor eating habits and obesity that plague much of society.
Did Coca-Cola ( KO) craft the iconic imagery we use to celebrate Christmas? Although Sana Claus, in his many forms and names, has existed in times and places unaffected by Coke's marketing muscle, the company has nevertheless played a role in the modern image of St. Nick that is inescapable every winter. In fact, it is a point of pride for the beverage company. "Most people can agree on what Santa Claus looks like -- jolly, with a red suit and a white beard," the company boasts on its corporate Web site. "But he did not always look that way, and Coca-Cola advertising actually helped shape this modern-day image of Santa." Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola (which began in the Saturday Evening Post) featured St. Nick as a kind, jolly man in a red suit. That particular image was crafted by artist Haddon Sundblom. "Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on our advertising," Coke says. "Through the centuries, Santa Claus has been depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to an elf. He has worn a bishop's robe and a Norse huntsman's animal skin. The modern-day Santa Claus is a combination of a number of the stories from a variety of countries." Coke does give credit where due to Civil War-era cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew a popular image of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly back in 1862. In his version, however, Santa (in addition to being a Union supporter) was small and elfin. So why did Coca-Cola get into the Santa game? The answer is simple: seasonal market share. The product had always been considered a warm-weather beverage. In 1922, an ad campaign ("Thirst Knows No Season") tried to break it free of calendar-dictated restraints. From there, crafting Santa as a wintertime spokescharacter seemed a savvy move. A 1930 ad featured a department store Santa gulping down a coke. The following year, ad executives decided that the "real" Santa made a more compelling focus and the new image was crafted, in part, from passages in Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas. The imagery has been a Coke tradition ever since, although the company does admit one important detail was not its doing. "It's a common misconception that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola," Coke's history of Santa says. "In fact, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him for Coca-Cola advertising." There is also this awkward admission: The "Sprite Boy character, who appeared with Santa Claus and was used in Coca-Cola advertising in the 1940s and '50s, was also created by Sundblom. Though The Coca-Cola Company does have a drink called Sprite, the Sprite Boy character was not named for the beverage. Sprite Boy's name came because he is a sprite -- an elf." Sprite Boy first appeared in ads in 1942, while the drink Sprite was not introduced until the 1960s. -- Written by Joe Mont in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Joe Mont. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/josephmont. >To submit a news tip, email: email@example.com.
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