09/12/2014 01:26 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

A Plea for Taking Advertising Seriously

kentoh via Getty Images

If had a dime for every time I've heard someone say, "Oh, I don't pay any attention to ads. I don't let them affect me," I'd be very rich indeed.

Truth be told, ads do affect us -- and often in ways that we never even stop to think about. Ads aren't just selling messages about this or that product or service, they also convey a whole host of social and cultural information that comes along with the selling promotion at no extra cost.

Take, for example, an orange juice ad. How might it look? It very well might be on a breakfast table with a family sitting around in their kitchen having breakfast. One thing is for sure -- it wouldn't just be a naked glass of orange just sitting there on its own. Rather, the ad would place the orange juice in its context of use, showing how it fits into our lives in some way.

And in, let's say, that hypothetical orange juice ad we see what the family looks like, what kind of clothes they are wearing, what the interior of their house looks like, as well as whose job it is to prepare and serve the breakfast and who just gets to sit and eat it.

I've been teaching about advertising and society at Duke University since the 1970s and used this example time and again in my lectures. Then I stop and ask the class some questions: What's the family look like? Almost always: mom, dad, 2 kids. Boys, girls? One of each. Which one is older? The boy. Who's serving the breakfast? The mom. What's the family's ethnicity? Almost always: white, although in recent years answers have become a bit more variable with white still winning out by a lot.

Then I pose the real question. How come there is so much agreement among us about the answers to these questions? This exercise is a way of demonstrating the fundamental way that advertising, willy-nilly, teaches us not only about products, services, and brands but perhaps just as importantly about values, gender roles, how to live in society, what our houses should look like, and a whole host of other social and cultural information.

Not influenced by ads? Think again. You may be able to resist buying Brand X but how good are you and I at parrying these other lessons? Let's face it, we are exposed to thousands of advertising images every day and their afterimages linger on with us and help shape not only our selves but our society and culture.

To say you aren't influenced by ads is to abdicate any responsibility for managing what we get taught beyond the selling message.

I remember hearing some years ago about a TV talk show in France that featured a panel of professors, writers, journalists, and lay people who would for a half-hour every Sunday discuss and critique an ad from the previous week. Talk about taking ads seriously! And perhaps the more amazing thing is that the program was very popular, or so the story goes.

I can't vouch for any of this from personal experience but I love the story. I just wish we had a place in our public culture where we could do the same. The one time when we come close -- the commentary on Super Bowl commercials -- produces such inane sound bite statements that it's actually worse than nothing at all. That is not ad critiquing, it's a popularity contest.

I think it's high time that we stop saying we aren't influenced by ads and ask instead about the influences that advertising imagery (and other popular cultural media, movies, TV shows, and so on) have on us.

Fortunately, the technologies of the modern age offer us some unprecedented ways to do this. I hope you will take a moment and post your ideas about how we might begin that public discussion about how we, as citizens and consumers, can stop ignoring advertising and begin treating it seriously.