The Evolution of Advertising “Health”

By: Jenna Ritter

What is Health?

According to most contemporary media, health is: buying the iPod, wearing Nike shoes, eating Quaker Oatmeal, drinking Muscle Milk, and reading Health Magazine. Health has been commodified into a media object that is packaged up and sold to us. Through advertisements, media has commodified the essence of health and has been made into another way to sell us things and support capitalism. We are told by advertisements that we need to look, dress, eat, and essentially think a different way in order to fit the contemporary status quo of “health.”

Advertising plays a huge role in not only determining what is healthy, but what our society considers is unhealthy. Media constructs certain natural body functions to be unhealthy, such as sweating or having a pimple. Media plays on our insecurities. It even creates false notions of being unhealthy, so we have more insecurities. By doing so, it forces us into believing the only way out of these unhealthy disasters is by buying chemicals to make us “healthier.”

Evolving Health Advertisements

Since the beginning of advertising, newspapers, store shelves, and billboards all claimed certain products to have “healing powers” and health benefits.  Americans were attracted to these products because of their limited access to qualified information from medical professionals as well as limited funds.

Little did we know, these medicines and products were not regulated. Most of them contained unhealthy ingredients like alcohol, borax, mercury, and formaldehyde. In the late 19th century journalists started reporting on these industries for the safety and health of the American public. These muckraking techniques led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The purpose was to protect the public against adulteration of food and from products identified as without scientific support. Then, in 1927 the Food and Drug Administration formed. It regulates advertisements for prescription drugs, while the Federal Trade Commission regulates advertisements done for over-the counter drugs.

The Numbers

In a recent report on food economics, data shows that a whopping 84 cents of each dollar we spend on food is actually toward the marketing and advertising for that product. Only 16 cents actually goes to what we are getting, when purchasing a food product.

Drug and health advertising is a HUGE business. Why? Because it works. It is one of the largest industries in the United States. Media has given this notion of health the means to flourish in our society. In 2007 alone, drug companies spent $5.375 billion dollars on advertising.  The cosmetics and toiletry industries spend around $468 million in advertising annually.

What Marx has to Say…

Karl Marx came up with the idea of historical materialism in relation to political economy of media. This approach is about  humans collectively producing the necessities of life for the development of society.  The idea of health has been collectively commodified to equal something that you must buy. The way our society work is humans evolve on nature to produce things people must buy. Below is a contemporary example of how Muscle Milk is shown as a product we need to “evolve.”

In Marxist terms, the mass media are the “means of production.”  In capitalist society this meas the ruling class has ownership. The mass media pushes ideas and ruling class views on us and deny anything else. This leads media to have the means to control material production. This is a stance “…whereby media products are seen as monolithic expressions of ruling class values, which ignores any diversity of values… and the possibility of oppositional readings by media audiences” (Marx, Karl).

Health as a Media Commodity:

Health: The Foundations for Achievement by David Seedhouse, discusses the theory of health as a commodity. He discusses that in today’s increasingly Westernized world, health is something that can be sold, bought, lost, and given. This theory is compatible with capitalism. The media has made health something that can be supplied “piece by piece if necessary without any effort from the recipient.” It can be purchased just that anything else tangible. He concludes by saying that if we seek health as a commodity we hold on to a false hope of health and that it undermines our spiritual and intellectual strengths in relation to health. This goes hand in hand with Marx’s concept of historical materialism.

In our society, media has cultivated false needs by creating health insecurities. Culture industry, a term coined by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, says popular culture produces standardized goods that people buy into because they have been manipulated into passivity.


So, who is telling us what is healthy? The answer: Media. Advertisements in the media commodify our notion of health and that notion comes from the companies that are trying to sell us things. Media companies let these other companies tell us what health is. As you can see, health=capitalism in some ways. Think about the products we buy into to be healthy, or to keep from being unhealthy. Media tells us in order to become healthy, we have to spend money. Here is an example:

Our bodies are regulated through ideas of profit maximization for companies. The concept of what is healthy and unhealthy has been used across all media industries. The advertising industry focuses on what is “unhealthy” since unhealthy preys on our fears and idealization of health.

In conclusion, health is related to wealth. The health advertising industry sells us much more than things. As Sut Jhally analyzes, advertising sells us ourselves and who we want to be in the name of private profit. Even though ads appear senseless, they carry a powerful unifying message of what we need to do prevent us from being unhealthy and buy into what the media tells us is healthy.

Food and Drug Administration

Food Economics

Federal Trade Commission

History of Health

Historical Materialism

Health Advertising Numbers

Jean Kilbourne

Cosmetics Advertising Numbers

Karl Marx

Sut Jhally

Culture Industry


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