Differences Between American and British Advertising

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England =/= Britain....

Persuading the Masses: The Differences between American and British Advertising, and the Impacts of Digital Media.


Everyday, we are bombarded with hundreds of advertisements trying to persuade us to purchase whatever is on display with colorful images, humorous one-liners, and a cascade of facts that advertisers believe will sway us to buy. Here in the States, we are unable to escape this barrage, and to a degree the same can be said for our neighbors across the Atlantic, England. There are however, many differences between British and American advertising. At first glance, they are not always so obvious; the same general notion of wanting a consumer to buy something is still there. Observed long enough though, these differences really begin to present a separation of characteristics, especially with television commercials, which is still the number one viewed media in both countries. But with new technology such as digital video recorders (DVR) and the Internet, will advertisers have to adapt their methods in order to attract consumers? Having always had an interest in the creativity behind all great advertising, and a love for all things English, I decided this paper would be a perfect opportunity to research the dissimilarities between advertising here in the U.S. and that of the United Kingdom. I will begin by discussing the origins of the separation; what impact these had on creative approach; and the characteristics that make each unique to their country. Once established, I will discuss the effects of the Internet and DVR have on traditional advertising.

History of Division

Here in the United States, commercials are just considered synonymous with television; we have never had one without the other, with the few exceptions of public broadcasting stations (PBS) or movie networks such as HBO. In the U.K., this was not always the case.

Television advertising was not permitted in the U.K. until 1956. Many British advertising agencies hired employees with American experience, and numerous American ad agencies seized this opportunity to open new branches in the United Kingdom and the rapidly developing European market (Nevett). With no surprise, early British television advertising tended to be dominated by commercials made in the American style, which consisted of live commercials, sponsored programs, and film spot commercials that ran as long as minute. Most were not visually appealing and heavily characterized by demonstrations from experts and celebrities holding a product and reading from a cue card that said how much they love it. It was soon discovered that this type of advertising was not suitable for the British consumer. They found these commercials to be too pushy. A prominent London ad agency head characterized them as featuring “loud-mouthed, salesmen who confused shouting with communicating, and bullying with persuading (Nevett).

There was also much opposition to television advertising by the upper and upper-middle classes. Traditionally, the elite have always detested commercialism, and wealth derived from trade rather than land. Those in the House of Lords compared advertising to smallpox and the Bubonic Plague. Not surprising then, advertisers using television commercials would be sensitive to this type of criticism and anxious to please and entertain.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s British advertising began to evolve into its own unique entity. Television commercials from these decades abandoned the inappropriate, aggressive style of American ads and adopted a new approach that made frequent use of features characteristic to British culture, such as the prominence of class divisions and affection for eccentricity.

A Mirror of Culture

To the everyday person, advertising is just elaborate forms of persuasion that want us to buy something. In reality, many researchers believe that advertising shapes the way people live and echoes existing patterns. It has become an important factor in reinforcing the life that it portrays (Englis).

One of the ways in which advertising can influence reality is by showing us a distorted image of life. What is meant by this exactly? Think of a commercial for Bounty paper towels. They almost always take place in a pristine kitchen with an attractive suburbanite mother and equally cute child. The kid usually ends up spilling something in which the mom responds with just a smile while wiping up the mess. In the real world, most kitchens have a least a little disorder to them, especially right after dinner, and mothers are usually less than pleased when their children spill things. But the point of an advertisement is to persuade us that by purchasing the product being sold, we can obtain a much happier existence or better way of life.

Also, in the context of the communication process, studies have shown that a receiver’s cultural background can be a determining factor in the way a message is perceived (Englis). This is also true about message style. As stated earlier, American advertising was not received well in England because the in-your-face manner of the hard sell method did not mesh well with British culture. In order to win over consumers, advertising agencies had to develop a much more subtle approach.

Soft Sell vs. Hard Sell

The method of persuasion most common to British commercials is soft sell. In the early years of commercial television, advertisers were considered unwanted visitors in people’s homes. The only way they would let them in was for the advertisers to be polite, quiet and entertaining (Nevette). Metaphorically speaking, this is how the soft sell method works. Unlike the American hard sell that is all about information and pressuring the consumer to buy, soft sell focuses predominantly on the entertainment factor of commercials and is considered very noninvasive. Also, there are other factors that characterize the distinct subtle approach of British soft sell.

The British find that the use of humor in their advertisements is a great way to enhance attention, comprehension, mood, persuasion, name recognition, and credibility (Englis). They also use many different types of humor: pun and satire being the most common. These types of humor require the audience to pay closer attention to the dialog, unlike straight farce. American advertisers do not like to use these types of humor because they feel their audience will not take the time to think about such subtle delivery, considering the amount of commercials Americans view (Englis).

Humor in the two countries also differs in reference to the targeted populations. American advertisements tend to target their humor towards younger, better-educated, professional audiences because they feel it is better suited for them (Englis). The British, on the other hand, target their humor to a much broader population.

As mentioned before, information presented in commercials highly differs in each country. In fact, information is at the heart of the American hard sell method. An example of a hard sell would be a product demonstration, where whatever is being advertised is tested against the “leading competitor” and comes away the victor. It is stated directly why you should the product. Comparative ads are seldom ever used in the U.K.

Product centrality also differs in the two selling methods. In British commercials, products are often treated as secondary elements, unlike American commercials where they are predominantly the stars. Products are sometimes not even introduced until the very end of the commercials and discussions of their features is very minimal. Instead humor and drama are used to evoke interest with the audience (Englis).

The final dissimilarity between American hard sell and British soft sell is the manner of structure and execution. Lectures and dramas are two broad execution types that represent the two methods of selling (Englis). Commercials using drama are more like mini movies than advertisements. They captivate the viewer with entertaining story lines and eventually mention the product. In other words, they are indirectly selling to the audience. A lecture on the other hand is basically what it sounds like. A narrator speaks directly to the audience through the television, often while displaying a product. It is the quintessential description of a hard sell.

As polite and entertaining as the soft sell method may be, it does have its downfalls and those suffer most are the advertisers themselves. First of these would be unexploited functional advantages. British brands with competitive function advantages are sacrificing opportunities to exploit these advantages just to stick to the soft sell method (Jones). This lack of interest from ad agencies in functional properties of the brands they handle discourages them from taking a proactive role in persuading their clients to spend more money, time, and talent on an ad campaign (Jones).

Another drawback of the soft sell method would be the obvious lack of aggressiveness. Many British advertising agencies do not necessarily care so much about making a profit (Jones). In America, the attitudes are starkly different; but this mainly due to the highly competitive American market.

British advertising is also vulnerable to competition from store brands. In England, store brands account for about 30% of volume, compared to only 15% in the United States (Jones). Because competition between manufacturers’ brands is so soft in the U.K. due to ad agencies lack of interest in exploiting product qualities, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the price-driven competition of retailers’ brands.

The final disadvantage of the British soft sell method is artificial restrictions on the use of market research. Basically, ad agencies act that there is a constraint on the amount of research they can do. In response, they tend to focus predominantly on focus groups and interviews (Jones). These techniques are needed in order to develop an effect advertising campaign, but on their own, are insufficient.

Influence of Television on British Advertising

A major contributing factor to the unique style of British advertising is the way television systems operate in the U.K. Unlike the United States, there are significantly less stations. There are many more public stations, such as the BBC1 and BBC2, that are funded by the government and in turn do not show commercials (Englis). Cable is also not nearly developed in the U.K. as it is the U.S., and Sky TV is Britain’s only satellite television provider.

Since there are less spots for advertisers to purchase, commercials in England appear much more infrequently than they do in the United States. When commercials were first broadcast beginning in the 1950’s, the Independent Television Authority set a limit that allowed only be six minutes of advertising per hour with a maximum of seven during any clock hour (Nevette). This is still enforced today. Due to the restrictions, most British advertisements appeared at the very beginning of a television program and the very end. However, this standard is beginning to change, as commercials in England are increasingly being shown in between a program as they appear in the U.S.

Despite less channels and the popularity of digital video recorders (DVRs), commercial viewing by Brits is at an all-time-high. It is estimated that in 2007 viewings reached an estimated 2.25 billion a day (Hall). Brits watch an average of 3.63 hours of TV a day and 2.24 of those hours are spent watching commercial television. People now much 11 more minutes o f ads than they did a decade ago (Hall). Many believe the increase in commercial viewing is due to the rise of digital penetration into 85% of British homes.

Impact of the Internet and Other Digital Media

Many people predicted that with the explosive popularity of the Internet, television and commercials would soon go the way of the vinyl record. However, experts are finding that impact of the Internet and other digital media are not as devastating as once presumed.

When digital video recorders, or DVRs, were first introduced, talk of an impending doom for television advertisements was all too apparent. Years after the initial release of DVRs and their soaring popularity, commercials are still being created and broadcasted for our viewing. It turns out that DVRs have actually become more of a help than a hindrance. This is because most people forget that they are even recording something and do not think to fast-forward through commercials (Hall).

In terms of the Internet, it seems there is more of a bonding of it with television than a hostile takeover. Many advertisers now use an integration strategy in their advertising campaigns. They will create commercials that tell you to head to a website in order to get more information on a product or see the conclusion to a skit. M&Ms created a fun and creative campaign that showed a commercial of people turning into the colorful chocolate treats and displayed their website address where consumers could also “become and M&M.”

Tess Alps, chief executive of Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial television believes TV can prosper simultaneously with the Internet. She says, “people online are doing things they never used to do in the real world…The Internet has not diminished the demand for the immersive, relaxed entertainment that TV offers” (Hall). It is no wonder that Internet advertising still has not quite caught on.

There is also still a lot of resistance to Internet advertising. Competition is fierce and often too much for traditional retailers to handle. Even if operating an online store is costless, it is easy for consumers to click between competitors when shopping online; however they are less likely to just walk out of a store and travel to another (De Meglio).


On the surface, television commercials may not seem all the different between the United States and Britain; but on closer inspection there are many factors such as culture, selling techniques, and media influences that bridge a gap between the distinct styles in the two countries.

Even though many thought that the Internet and DVRs would be the death of television advertising, it still continues to be the most popular medium in both countries. Integration between TV and the Internet is a very popular trend at the moment and resistance to the Web is also a factor of the lack of popularity in digital advertising.


Jones, John, Phillip. International Advertising: Realities and Myths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2000. Englis, Basil G.. Global and Multinational Advertising. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1994.

Nevette, Terrence. "Differences Between American and British Advertising: Explanations and Implications." Journal of Advertising 21(1992)

Di Meglio, Francesca. "In Ads, It Pays to Aim for the Heart." Business Week Online (2006)

Hall, Emma. "Brits Watch More Ads than Ever." Advertising Age 79(2008)

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