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11.3: Extensions of Imperfect Competition: Advertising and Price Discrimination

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Discuss the possible effects of advertising on competition, price, and output.
    2. Define price discrimination, list the conditions that make it possible, and explain the relationship between the price charged and price elasticity of demand.

    The models of monopoly and of imperfectly competitive markets allow us to explain two commonly observed features of many markets: advertising and price discrimination. Firms in markets that are not perfectly competitive try to influence the positions of the demand curves they face, and hence profits, through advertising. Profits may also be enhanced by charging different customers different prices. In this section we will discuss these aspects of the behavior of firms in markets that are not perfectly competitive.


    Firms in monopoly, monopolistic competition, and oligopoly use advertising when they expect it to increase their profits. We see the results of these expenditures in a daily barrage of advertising on television, radio, newspapers, magazines, billboards, passing buses, park benches, the mail, home telephones, and the ubiquitous pop-up advertisements on our computers—in virtually every medium imaginable. Is all this advertising good for the economy?

    We have already seen that a perfectly competitive economy with fully defined and easily transferable property rights will achieve an efficient allocation of resources. There is no role for advertising in such an economy, because everyone knows that firms in each industry produce identical products. Furthermore, buyers already have complete information about the alternatives available to them in the market.

    But perfect competition contrasts sharply with imperfect competition. Imperfect competition can lead to a price greater than marginal cost and thus generate an inefficient allocation of resources. Firms in an imperfectly competitive market may advertise heavily. Does advertising cause inefficiency, or is it part of the solution? Does advertising insulate imperfectly competitive firms from competition and allow them to raise their prices even higher, or does it encourage greater competition and push prices down?

    There are two ways in which advertising could lead to higher prices for consumers. First, the advertising itself is costly; in 2007, firms in the United States spent about $149 billion on advertising. By pushing up production costs, advertising may push up prices. If the advertising serves no socially useful purpose, these costs represent a waste of resources in the economy. Second, firms may be able to use advertising to manipulate demand and create barriers to entry. If a few firms in a particular market have developed intense brand loyalty, it may be difficult for new firms to enter—the advertising creates a kind of barrier to entry. By maintaining barriers to entry, firms may be able to sustain high prices.

    But advertising has its defenders. They argue that advertising provides consumers with useful information and encourages price competition. Without advertising, these defenders argue, it would be impossible for new firms to enter an industry. Advertising, they say, promotes competition, lowers prices, and encourages a greater range of choice for consumers.

    Advertising, like all other economic phenomena, has benefits as well as costs. To assess those benefits and costs, let us examine the impact of advertising on the economy.

    Advertising and Information

    Advertising does inform us about products and their prices. Even critics of advertising generally agree that when advertising advises consumers about the availability of new products, or when it provides price information, it serves a useful function. But much of the information provided by advertising appears to be of limited value. Hearing that “Pepsi is the right one, baby” or “Tide gets your clothes whiter than white” may not be among the most edifying lessons consumers could learn.

    Some economists argue, however, that even advertising that seems to tell us nothing may provide useful information. They note that a consumer is unlikely to make a repeat purchase of a product that turns out to be a dud. Advertising an inferior product is likely to have little payoff; people who do try it are not likely to try it again. It is not likely a firm could profit by going to great expense to launch a product that produced only unhappy consumers. Thus, if a product is heavily advertised, its producer is likely to be confident that many consumers will be satisfied with it and make repeat purchases. If this is the case, then the fact that the product is advertised, regardless of the content of that advertising, signals consumers that at least its producer is confident that the product will satisfy them.

    Advertising and Competition

    If advertising creates consumer loyalty to a particular brand, then that loyalty may serve as a barrier to entry to other firms. Some brands of household products, such as laundry detergents, are so well established they may make it difficult for other firms to enter the market.

    In general, there is a positive relationship between the degree of concentration of market power and the fraction of total costs devoted to advertising. This relationship, critics argue, is a causal one; the high expenditures on advertising are the cause of the concentration. To the extent that advertising increases industry concentration, it is likely to result in higher prices to consumers and lower levels of output. The higher prices associated with advertising are not simply the result of passing on the cost of the advertising itself to consumers; higher prices also derive from the monopoly power the advertising creates.

    But advertising may encourage competition as well. By providing information to consumers about prices, for example, it may encourage price competition. Suppose a firm in a world of no advertising wants to increase its sales. One way to do that is to lower price. But without advertising, it is extremely difficult to inform potential customers of this new policy. The likely result is that there would be little response, and the price experiment would probably fail. Price competition would thus be discouraged in a world without advertising.

    Empirical studies of markets in which advertising is not allowed have confirmed that advertising encourages price competition. One of the most famous studies of the effects of advertising looked at pricing for prescription eyeglasses. In the early 1970s, about half the states in the United States banned advertising by firms making prescription eyeglasses; the other half allowed it. A comparison of prices in the two groups of states by economist Lee Benham showed that the cost of prescription eyeglasses was far lower in states that allowed advertising than in states that banned it (Benham, L., 1972). Mr. Benham’s research proved quite influential—virtually all states have since revoked their bans on such advertising. Similarly, a study of the cigarette industry revealed that before the 1970 ban on radio and television advertising market shares of the leading cigarette manufacturers had been declining, while after the ban market shares and profit margins increased (Eckard, W., 1991).

    Advertising may also allow more entry by new firms. When Kia, a South Korean automobile manufacturer, entered the U.S. low-cost compact car market in 1994, it flooded the airwaves with advertising. Suppose such advertising had not been possible. Could Kia have entered the market in the United States? It seems highly unlikely that any new product could be launched without advertising. The absence of advertising would thus be a barrier to entry that would increase the degree of monopoly power in the economy. A greater degree of monopoly power would, over time, translate into higher prices and reduced output.

    Advertising is thus a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the existence of established and heavily advertised rivals may make it difficult for a new firm to enter a market. On the other hand, entry into most industries would be virtually impossible without advertising.

    Economists do not agree on whether advertising helps or hurts competition in particular markets, but one general observation can safely be made—a world with advertising is more competitive than a world without advertising would be. The important policy question is more limited—and more difficult to answer: Would a world with less advertising be more competitive than a world with more?