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Marlboro: Communication in Advertising Essay

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Updated: Sep 30th, 2021

Advertising communication is based on unique perceptions and attitudes of consumers, their cultural and social values. The advertisement selected for analysis is a controversial one as it promotes tobacco and cigarette smoking. This advertisement was selected for analysis because it represents one of the most popular brands, Marlboro, and its unique description and representation of culture and cultural environment. The analysis of the advertisement will be based on meaning transfer.

“Meaning transfer” is based on unique issues and perceptions of the ad. In this ad, affect and cognition have each been assumed to play a major role in consumers’ reactions to Marlboro advertisements. There are many ways to see this, but one of the most obvious is simply to look at the two historically dominant ways of assessing advertising effectiveness (McCracken, 1986). When customers see the ad, there are cognitive (especially memory) measures of meaning transfer. These measures are based on the assumption of “the more”, “the better”, although the actual reasons for why this should be the case have never been fully articulated. On the other hand, there are also effective measures of advertising effectiveness based on meaning transfer principles such as attitude toward the brand, attitude toward the ad, and so on (Martin and Matta, 2006).

The Marlboro ad shows that the meaning transfers through cultural symbols and images such as an image of a cowboy and a strong man. The underlying reason for this attention is clear: mood matters. Mood effects, some of which are quite large, have been reported from several different laboratories and by researchers of widely divergent theoretical persuasions (Martin and Matta, 2006). Moreover, a wide array of issues and mood states has been employed. In short, customers perceive the ad differently based on different situations and circumstances. For meaning transfer, the mood is important, and its effects must be taken into account. This is particularly true for anyone interested in developing a complete theory of individual responses to advertising. Buyers perceive the unique cultural meaning of cowboy traditions and values associated with Marlboro and its culture (McCracken, 1986).

In the case of the Marlboro ad, the meaning transfer is associated with the creation of a special cultural environment. The effects of culture pose a serious challenge to information processing approaches to advertising and consumer behavior. Philosophers and psychologists have long made a conceptual distinction between cognition and affect, thinking and feeling, and the rational and irrational sides of existence. Unique meaning poses an important and difficult challenge because information processing has seldom dealt with the affective system. However, there is nothing in principle that prevents an explanation of such effects in information processing terms (Martin and Matta, 2006). The ad is based on three main colors: red, white, and light brown. These colors have a special meaning because they are by Marlboro at the cigarette pack: The importance of this strategy is to remind the audience about the Marlboro brand and create certain associations between the picture and the company’s colors. Marlboro man’s shirt resembles the logo of the company while his hat has the same color as a pack. Light brown can be associated with golden lines and coleus of Marlboro light.

The meaning transfer allows us to say that the most common interpretation of the Marlboro ad continues to be one in terms of a spreading activation model of meaning transfer. Activation from this node and its associates then spreads through the system. Eventually, this will be associated with the particular object one is thinking about a particular brand, and the positive aspects of one’s experience will rub off onto the object (McCracken, 1986). It is a known fact that consumers in a positive mood give more favorable ratings to objects (e.g., a particular brand or ad) than people in a neutral or negative mood. People in a positive mood are sometimes said to “see the world through rose-colored glasses.” However, this phrase also points to the problem that is endemic to classical models of judgment. According to these models, judgment is a function of the absolute value of any attribute and the context in which a particular stimulus is judged. Consider a subject in a psychophysical experiment who is asked to judge a six-ounce weight either in the context of much lighter weights or much heavier weights (Martin and Matta, 2006). The weight will be judged as much heavier in the first case than in the second. In other words, the weight is psychologically contrasted away from its context stimuli. The Marlboro ad shows that this type of “contrast effect” is extremely robust and present in virtually every judgment domain. Now consider a consumer judging the favorability of a particular brand. The problem is that, if the person is in a positive mood, he or she will see the world through rose-colored glasses. In other words, the person will see all brands more favorably. It is very likely, however, that when this occurs, the brand being judged will be contrasted away from all of the other (context) brands, and thus receive a more negative rating than it would under other conditions (Sherry, 2005).

In this case, it is important to understand the role of culture and tobacco usage in meaning transfer. Tobacco use is generally acceptable in the United States, and prevention efforts are limited. Typically, tobacco prevention efforts form a small part of the health curriculum (Sherry, 2005). A growing awareness of the problems related to tobacco use has led to increasing pressure on tobacco companies. Thus tobacco manufacturers like Marlboro use unique cultural symbols such as cowboy to transfer the meaning of strong men and personal identity (Martin and Matta, 2006).

The Marlboro ad shows that buyers perceive information and meaning using memory-based processing. In many cases, a person will acquire brand-related information with no specific objective in mind, or only a very general objective such as to comprehend the information being presented in the ad. Under these conditions, a global evaluation of the brand will typically not be made at the time of information acquisition (Martin and Matta, 2006). If later asked to make a specific evaluation, the Marlboro consumer will be forced to retrieve the previously acquired information from memory, or some subset of it, and use this information as a basis for his or her evaluation of the brand. In other words, a judgment will need to be computed on the spot. Such a model has been found to be very heuristic (McCracken, 1986). For example, one prediction is that memory-based judgments (because they require both retrieval and computation) should take longer than online judgments (because they require only the retrieval of a judgment that has already been made); in fact, this is true. Another prediction important for the ad analysis is that the time required to make memory-based judgments will be affected by the total amount of information presented (e.g., the number of claims in the ad), but online judgments will not; this is also true (Martin and Matta, 2006). However, for a memory-based condition, they had subjects anticipate making one judgment, but later asked them for a different, unrelated judgment (Sherry, 2005).

In terms of the meaning transfer theory, the affective state of the consumer will have an effect on Marlboro brand evaluations if it is experienced at the time the internal computational procedures are activated. Thus, affective states at the time of encoding will influence the judgments of subjects using online processing because the judgment is being formed at the same time the affective state is being experienced. On the other hand, affective states during the encoding of meaning should not affect the evaluations of subjects using a memory-based processing strategy because the evaluation is not computed until the time of judgment (Sherry, 2005). Essentially, the opposite is true of consumers’ states that are experienced at the time a judgment is requested. In this case, there should be no effect for consumers who have already formed their brand evaluations online. As long as they can easily access their prior evaluation, they can simply report it to the experimenter. However, consumers who are forced to use memory-based processing will be affected by mood states experienced at the time of judgment because that is precisely the time during which the computations are made.

It should also be noted that this is a very general information processing model within which more specific theoretical commitments can be made. The example of the Marlboro ad allows us to say that no assumptions at all were made about the nature of the mental representation of brands and their attributes. More specific models could be built by postulating associative networks, feature lists, bins, schemata, or nearly anything else. Similarly, no assumptions were made about the integration rule; this could be modeled by postulating adding, averaging, weighted averaging, or even a more complicated rule (Martin and Matta, 2006). At this time, and for the purposes, such assumptions are unnecessary. As the relevant database grows, and other types of data need to be accounted for, more specific theoretical commitments will be required (Sherry, 2005). The more general point is that information processing approaches to studying mood should not be dismissed prematurely. Accounting for meaning transfer is a definite challenge, but it is a challenge that must be met. Even if such models are ultimately rejected, we are sure to learn a great deal in the process of exploring their implications. In both of the situations described above, the viewer is processing the ad. In the first situation, the focus of that processing is on the brand; in the second situation, the focus of the processing is on the specific ad (Martin and Matta, 2006).

In sum, the ad of Marlboro man allows us to say that advertising continues unabatedly to persuade the American public to consume alcohol and tobacco. Much of our knowledge of our culture, our nation, and even ourselves is a result of media images advertisers construct. As representations are produced, common-sense assumptions about those representations are reproduced. The ideological elements of media practices are often invisible to most or dismissed as unimportant. Does ideology conjure images of domination and coercion for many-why are so many people “duped” by it? The answer to these questions can be found in the concept of hegemony. Ideology, on the other hand, represents social and group assumptions rather than individual assumptions. Individuals can subscribe to or believe in particular ideologies, but these ideologies represent social formations. Combining this idea with the notion of hegemony, it becomes clear that “a dominant ideology” does not exist alone, but coexists with many different ideologies. The social and cultural terrain, or everyday life as we know it, that this presupposes is never won but must constantly be struggled over. Casting and characterization are not merely about individual roles.




McCracken, G. (1986). “Journal of Consumer research 13 (1), 71-84. Online Database. 2008. Web.

Martin, M., Matta, M. (2006). Branding Strategies, Marketing Communication, and Perceived Brand Meaning: The Transfer of Purposive, Goal–Oriented Brand Meaning to Brand. Extensions. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 33 ( 3), 275-294. Online Database. 2008. Web.

Sherry, J. (2005). Advertising as a cultural system. in Umiker-Sebeok, J. (Eds), Marketing and Semiotics, Mouton, Berlin,, pp.441-62. Online Database. Project MUSE. 2008. Web.

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