Let me ask you a question. When you sit down after a long day of work or studying, in front of your TV or in front of your computer, are you convinced with the advertisements you see? Obviously they are targeted towards you and they strive for your dear attention. Do you buy into it? Or do you imitate it? That’s a strange way to look at it, but this is “social learning theory.” These advertisements are not only trying to sell products, they seem to be selling societal norms.
If you aren’t familiar with social learning theory, this blog post by Stephan Dahl expresses this theory in which people learn through observation and eventually will begin to imitate these behaviors. Being a psychology major myself, I find this theory to be truly fascinating because it is outright shown and expressed in advertisements. Not only are advertisements being creepy stalkers and watching your every move, they are teaching you things! Although this doesn’t sound bad, I mean come on learning is great…. But it’s what they’re teaching us that really matters. Social learning theory is extremely important when we are talking about children. When children are growing, they are constantly observing people who are similar to them or their parents and they begin to mimic their behaviors. Why do you think they say bad words after seeing a parent cussing? Or when a son sees his dad do something, he most likely will imitate? This is because they look up to them and want to be like them.
How does this involve advertising though and is it necessarily a bad thing? In an article posted on makewealthhistory.org, some impacts of advertisements on culture as regards to social learning theory are explained. Not only are advertisements selling and marketing goods, they’re selling normativity and values in our society as the article explains. Advertisements work extremely subtly to reinforce societal norms. For example, when you see an advertisement about the “Swiffer sweeper,” hopefully most of us have seen commercials about this or maybe some type of home-good. Who is shown doing the cleaning? Who is always the person wiping off the counter top after a child has spilled juice with the best paper towel ever invented (or the advertiser hopes)? A woman. A mother. A female figure. Who is shown in advertisements for lawn mowers (I apologize for the randomness)? It’s usually men. Barbies? Younger girls. Toy helicopers? Boys.
Advertisements teach us gender norms and they have been for quite a while. They teach us what is expected in this society and what is seen as normal. This is an extremely touchy topic as well, but if you notice, advertisements are targeting a certain audience, but they are also reinforcing behaviors to conform to societal expectations. These days, our country does seem to be growing more liberal and you see more things seen as stereotypical as stepping out of the norm, but these reinforcements are still there. For example, when an advertisement for swim suits comes on and there’s models that are showing the “thin ideal” body image of our society, it makes women think they must look this way and this could be potentially dangerous even if our society deems it “normal.”
As ads show us behaviors done by other people similar to us or by whom we may look up to such as celebrities, we wish to imitate it most of the time. We conform to these subtleties, usually to create a sense of belonging or a sense of fitting in with the norm. If we don’t fit, social learning theory then says that we try to readjust our behaviors in order to fit or we are typically seen as an outsider. Advertisements are just another medium to allow for reinforcing belief systems. Whether we notice it or not and most of the time, these things are unnoticed or unconscious in our awareness, it’s there. We are being sold something, but there might also be something else they’re trying to get us to learn intrinsically.