The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators
Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940
Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products, and Images of Well-Being
The Trouble with Advertising
Adventures of an Advertising Woman
Between 1875 and 1920, advertising helped to create a new kind of economy and a new kind of society. Until then, many of the commonest articles of consumption were made at home. Virtually all other goods came from local workshops and local merchants. Relatively little merchandise circulated nationally or had brand names. Most products were in chronically, and sometimes catastrophically, short supply. Religion and philosophy alike deprecated the vanities and illusions of this world.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a hundred years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, consumer industries were finally mechanized. Their output and number grew dramatically. But while the sheer quantity of things exploded, society’s will to consume them did not. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had to be persuaded to satisfy their material needs with mass-manufactured wares, and it was advertising that persuaded them. Its message was, “Thou shalt covet thy neighbor’s car and his radio and his silverware and his refrigerator and everything that is his.” This transformation was no less profound than the Industrial Revolution, and did much to eliminate ascetic attitudes that were as old as the human race.
Yet the current intellectual orthodoxy, shared to one extent or another by all of the works under review, suggests that advertising no longer has such power. Stephen Fox, whose book The Mirror Makers is arguably the best general history of advertising, speaks for the consensus among historians when he suggests that since the Twenties advertising has “functioned more as a mirror than mindbender, responding to American culture more than shaping it.” Even Torben Vestergaard and Kim Schroder, the Danish authors of The Language of Advertising, who charge that the business promotes bourgeois mentalities, think that it reinforces rather than imposes them.
If, however, advertising currently seems less important, it has lost none of its appeal as a subject for analysis. All the authors under review see it as a royal road into the mind of the inarticulate majority—especially women, who make at least 80 percent of all consumer purchases and are thus the prime target of advertising.
The business does not want for apologists—most recently David Ogilvy, the founder of a very big agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and the author of the celebrated Confessions of an Advertising Man, the best-selling book about advertising; John O’Toole, the chairman of Foote, Cone & Belding, another giant; and Jane Maas, the president of Muller Jordan Weiss, a mid-sized firm. Ogilvy’s new book, Ogilvy on Advertising, which takes a strictly practical approach, will fascinate anyone who has ever done any kind of self-promotion—writing a résumé, for example. O’Toole and Maas, who devote more effort to defending their profession than to analyzing its work, are sincere but dull.
Those who defend advertising are themselves defensive, resisting attacks upon its effectiveness and ethics on one page, admitting them on another. Respectable opinion has always disdained advertising, so it is one of the few industries that must talk its product …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.