What's the good of advertisers?

Much of what I read and hear in debates about obesity, nutrition, and public health seems to assume that all corporate food marketing is "bad".  Food marketers are nudging us away from healthful choices toward the more profitable (for them) unhealthful ones (never mind that some companies sell healthy products).  Many people argue that the government needs to make its own commercials to counter-nudge us back toward health eating.

With that backdrop, I was interested to read the back-and-forth letters between Rory Sutherland and George Loewenstein at the beginning of this paper, The Behavioral Economics Guide 2014. (HT: Andreas Drichoutis)

Here's an interesting point by Sutherland:

Interestingly the late, mostly great, Gary Becker (in a paper with Kevin Murphy) seems to agree with me on this. Their model of advertising seems to suggest that advertising should be viewed not as persuasion (something which distorts preferences, as you suggest) but as a complementary good, the consumption of which, alongside the main product, increases the value of that main advertised product and which therefore allows sellers to capture more of the consumer surplus. He sees advertising as potentially a value-add, not as manipulation.

Nonetheless, I agree that we are right to be suspicious of manipulation. After all, the most successful advertisers over the past 150 years have been totalitarian regimes.

Sutherland also responds to Loewenstein's story about a recent joy-ride to the country ending in a meal of burgers and beer which was ruined when Loewenstein learned he was simply playing out a scene he'd seen in a credit card commercial.  Sutherland writes: 

But what is strange is that we are already affected by frames, without being remotely aware of them. When you described your cycling experience, it was clear that you saw the cycle ride as virtuous and the food and beer as sinful. Yet people have been enjoying the consumption of beef products and fermented beverages since the time of the pharaohs.

Indeed, perhaps 900m people in China would have read your story and said, “The beer and the burger I understand. What I don’t understand at all is why a presumably wealthy Yankee professor would get to the restaurant by bicycle, when I have been dreaming of owning a car for the last ten years. Travelling by bicycle is the lowest form of drudgery.” You have clearly been manipulated here. But it’s not the credit card company I blame, it’s Nike.

Loewenstien responds with some interesting observations of his own.  Do read the whole exchange.