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The Ad Industry Keeps Selling An American Dream That Most Aren’t Living

A new University of Wisconsin study finds the middle class portrayed in advertising is twice the size of the real middle class in the U.S.

The Ad Industry Keeps Selling An American Dream That Most Aren’t Living
[Source images: Flickr user SenseiAlan (Admiral); Flickr user Five Starr Photos (Nissan Cedric); Flickr user Alden Jewell (Cadillac); Wikimedia Commons (Maxwell)]

Would you consider yourself middle class? Chances are, whether you’re wealthy, lower income, or actually somewhere in the middle, you still identify as middle class. There are plenty of reasons why that is–“middle class” might be the most used word in modern politics–but a new University of Wisconsin study posits that it could also be because ads are telling us we’re middle class.

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The study “Marketing Social Class and Ideology in Post-World-War-Two American Print Advertising” appears in the Journal of Macromarketing and reviewed more than 1,300 randomly selected print ads from 1950 to 2015. It found that the middle, upper middle, and upper classes were greatly overrepresented when compared to the actual class makeup of the country, with the working and lower-income classes underrepresented. And yet today,  at a time of growing income inequality in the United States, and long-stagnated wage growth, nearly half of Americans still believe they belong to the middle class.

Speaking with Fast Company, University of Wisconsin marketing professor Tom O’Guinn says they didn’t conduct the study to provide marketers with a new lesson or strategy, but to simply examine the culture reflected in advertising and how it relates to societal reality. “Between WWII and 1980, all social classes in the U.S. grew at about the same rate as income,” says O’Guinn. “From 1980 ’til now, income inequality has increased and our upward mobility has stagnated. The bottom line is, we live in a different world but advertising is still behaving as if we don’t.”

Obviously, this is just one study that only looked at print ads, but the broader trend seems to hold true across TV and social media. Look no further than the deceptive nature of Instagram. Advertising is primarily about aspiration. However, there is certainly room for nuance and realistic representation whether it’s across gender, race, or economic class.

Studies have shown that the prospects of earning more than our parents have fallen from 90% to 50% over the last 50 years. But if all you did was look at advertising, would you even know? “The idea of the American Dream, which is what a lot of advertising in the United States is about, is used to affirm our aspirational goals, and that was really true demographically, economically for a long time,” O’Guinn says. “It’s not true now. The American Dream is very challenged. We don’t have the upward mobility like we used to. Ads have always overrepresented the rich and under-represented the working class, but they were still pretty resonant with people’s everyday reality. Now, they’re more myth.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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