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A Billboard Lovely as a Tree

Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

by Jackson Lears
BasicBooks, 492 pp., $30.00

I thought I’d learned all about the Puritans’ take on advertising from accounts of Salem divines igniting the occasional witch as a public service announcement. I discovered I was wrong one day in the Cathedral at York. I was staring at the stump of a tiny vandalized statue of the Virgin. Long ago, some Roundhead had lopped her off like a suburbanite lopping off a toadstool with a nine iron. How briskly righteous, how chillingly petty, I thought. How philistine.

But how easy for me to think so. Like the best minds of my generation, I’ve acquired the curious belief that art (along with sex, nature, and various liberations) can be sacred and harmless at the same time. So the destruction of the little statue had the special unpleasantness summed up in the word “gratuitous.”

But assume that the statue was like the peculiar mix of art and religion we think of in our time as advertising. Assume that the Roundhead was thinking about the York Minster statue the way we think about ads—profane, seductive, subversive, powerful. If so, the lopping seems less philistine and gratuitous, in the manner of our latter-day puritans lopping away at ads for cigarettes, war toys, sugar-coated cereal, and the other party’s candidates; taking a swing at all of television for that matter; grumbling at magazines full of neo-fascist men’s underpants ads; snorting at Guess jeans spreads in which jeans hardly appear because what’s being advertised is not a material object but a mood, an idea.

Things get complicated fast when we talk about advertising. Now, with Jackson Lears’s long-awaited Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, they will get more complicated still. Along with the late Warren Susman, whose position he now holds at Rutgers, Lears is one of cultural history’s masters of linking popular moods and ideas with arts, philosophies, industries, and commodities, those queer things “abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties,” as Marx said.

Lears’s last book was the brilliant No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, about the shock of changes in technology and communications, and how they pitted the old WASP upper class against the rising industrial bourgeoisie, calling into question the nature of reality.

In Fables, the subject is advertising, seemingly simpler but ultimately far more abstract. Usually advertising gets described as a subliminal brain-washing technique, or a pop-ironic art form. Lears, however, attempts to meet the challenge offered by Daniel Boorstin, who said that advertising is “the omnipresent, most characteristic, and most remunerative form of American literature…a gross national influence without parallel in the history of sacred or profane letters.”

Lears describes this unparalleled influence with much detailing, intellectual fretwork, and historical scrimshaw: Lévi-Strauss, EI Dorado, Talcott Parsons, Ogilvy & Mather, D.H. Lawrence, Benjamin Franklin, Aunt Jemima, Ayn Rand, Partisan Review, Mad magazine, Campbell’s soup, Frank Capra, Batten, Barton, Durstine, and Osborn; and long passages on Edith Wharton, William Gaddis, and Frederick Exley. He is as much critic as historian. Describing the illustration in an 1890 ad for corsets: “The corset is an object of prurient fascination, yet it is set in a hard, dry desert landscape. It is giving birth to vegetation, but the growth is cactuslike, not luxuriant or inviting. The stone wall suggests the parallel function of the corset: a barrier to be overcome, a fetishistic aid to excitement.”

The heart of the book, however, and the source of its difficulties, is Lears’s finding the origins of advertising not in the rise of mass marketing or mass media, but much earlier in the split between Puritan and Cavalier, New Englander and Virginian, Calvinist and Anglican, science and animism. To anyone who paid attention during the Sixties, this is a familiar argument: mind-body dualism, the demon Descartes, estrangement from nature, Eden, and ourselves in the name of rationality.

Like a faire Virgin, longing to be sped
And meete her lover in a Nuptiall bed,
Deck’d in rich ornaments t’ad- vaunce her state…

Thus was the New World described as utter abundance in the seventeenth century by Thomas Morton of Mary-mount—an Anglican. According to William Bradford of Plymouth—a Puritan—Morton was fond of setting up “a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together…” Morton and Bradford represented the two visions of the New World: an Anglican paradise of unending bounty, and a Puritan howling wilderness where evil lurked; Anglicans seeing the abundance of teeming streams and black topsoil as opportunity for materialist orgy of all sorts; Puritans seeing abundance as opportunity to work, earn, and thereby demonstrate their place among the Elect.

Morton wallowed in the cornucopian abundance. The Puritans stepped back and kept their shoes dry. Morton saw the world as a living creature. The Puritans shunned animism, in the manner of the Roundhead fearing the little Virgin in York Minster. Morton, in Lears’s formulation, saw matter and spirit as one. The Puritans divided them. In America, this dualism, splitting matter and spirit, body and soul, triumphed over maypole materialism, and Bradford put Morton on a ship back to England.

Here, says Lears, modern advertising was born. No matter that it was serving Mammon—the Puritans’ dualistic cast of mind would someday prove perfect for the profane purposes of separating the spirit of products from their physical fact. American salesmen would come to sell the sizzle, not the steak, and the Guess company would sell mood rather than denim. The difficulty here is that we’re asked to think of the Puritan tradition as both creating and then attacking advertising.

Lears cites nineteenth-century patent medicine ads that promised more than an end to rheumatism—they promised renewal and rebirth. In 1875, Karl Barton of Buffalo, New York, offered his testimonial that Dr. Chase’s nerve pills had saved him from his “debilitated, languid, played-out feeling.” Rev. Henry Ward Beecher endorsed Pear’s Soap: “If Cleanliness is next to Godliness, then surely SOAP is a means of GRACE.” Amazing soap, how sweet the suds.

Advertising, Lears says, also served to control the buying public, to create docile workers dreaming of bicycles, fountain pens, electric corsets, revolvers, adventure, and meaning. He asks with Socratic coyness: “What do advertisements mean? Many things. They urge people to buy goods, but they also signify a certain vision of the good life; they validate a way of being in the world.” Advertising, he says, has functioned as a combination of “dreams of magical transformation and moralistic or managerial strategies of control.” There are times when an advertisement is only an advertisement, but none of them is in this book.

Lears writes: “I began to realize that modern advertising could be seen less as an agent of materialism than as one of the cultural forces working to disconnect human beings from the material world.”

As Ogden Nash said:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.

The Battle of the Billboards has been going on since the spread of the automobile caused the spread of outdoor advertising, which caused the spread of protests.

On the other hand, even the most incorruptible Sunday drivers couldn’t resist chanting the Burma Shave slogans strung out along the road—the rhymes had an educational lilt, after all. Nowadays, progressives in the Burma-shave tradition sometimes say that ads are the best thing on television. Thus they establish their disdain for television. At the same time they signal their hipness to pop culture by slumming with the Swedish Bikini Team and the Energizer Rabbit.

Generally, though, our latter-day puritans see conspiracies, hypnosis, and corruption of morals in advertising. However deservedly, in the land of the First Amendment, ads are harassed like King Kong and branded like medieval felons, as in cigarette ads bearing government-composed warnings of cancer and blighted babies. And what does it say about the relative power of ads and movies that beer-drinking in television ads is forbidden but beer-drinking in television movies is fine? A few years ago in Washington, a Naderite reformer and an ambitious media professor in an Armani suit held a press conference to call for investigation of “product placement” in the movies, which is to say the paid showing of products as part of the plot, such as the Reese’s Pieces candy in E. T.

Imagine watching two hours of bizarre sex and violence in Pulp Fiction and walking out of the theater worrying that you’d been corrupted by a soda-can label. There’s nothing new here. The J. Walter Thompson agency was bragging as long ago as 1930 about getting products placed in Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies.

Lears traces our fears to a Victorian notion called “influence,” which

stemmed in part from republican fears of one person’s yielding his autonomy to another, and perhaps as well from the zymotic theories of disease…Sinister influence, like cholera, was “in the air” of antebellum cities.

Emerson inveighed against the idea that “an adept should put me asleep by the concentration of his will without my leave.” Lears cites Henry James’s The Ambassadors: “Advertising scientifically worked presented itself as the great new force.” Chad Newsome says, “It really does the thing, you know.” And asked if advertising affects a product’s sales, he answers, “Yes, but affects it extraordinarily; really beyond what one had supposed.”

In the 1920s, businessmen saw that “the advertiser must plan elaborate national campaigns consult with psychologists, and employ all the eloquence of poets to cajole, exhort or intimidate the consumer into buying—to break down consumer resistance,” said Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday.

In the 1950s, The Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard, showed us how “motivation researchers” like Ernest Dichter sang to our subconscious minds with phallic shampoo bottles and other Freudiana. A subliminal advertising scare warned that soon we’d go to movies where words would flash on the screen too quickly to be consciously seen: BUY POPCORN BUY POPCORN. And we would all lumber to the lobby like a battalion of the Living Dead. In the Sixties, Marshall McLuhan warned that “ads are not meant for conscious consumption. They are intended as subliminal pills for the subconscious in order to exercise an hypnotic spell.”

In Leslie Savan’s The Sponsored Life,1 a collection of columns in The Village Voice over the last decade, we learn:

Studies estimate that, counting all the logos, labels, and announcements, some 16,000 ads flicker across an individual’s consciousness daily. Advertising now infects just about every organ of society, and wherever advertising gains a foothold it tends to slowly take over, like a vampire or a virus…. The real masterwork of advertising is the way it uses the techniques of art to seduce the human soul.

Could the Puritan have said it any better about the statue of Mary?

Advertising has done more than sneak into the arts and media. It has become them. Think of the rock videos of MTV, which has talked about gearing up its own shopping network where consumption, production, advertising, and news will be the same. Or the immaculate confection of so many George Lucas and Steven Spielberg movies—they don’t depict reality as much as they advertise it. Their production values become our consumption values, out here in Popcorn Land. Think of Life magazine at mid-century—one big advertisement for Pax Americana and the American Century, the triumph of techno-democracy, suburbia, and gods of things as they are.

Meanwhile, ads have coopted their natural enemy, the idea of authenticity. The word once meant “genuine” and “trustworthy,” but it has come in this century to have a connotation of originality as compared to imitation, of the modernist New York World’s Fair of 1939 compared to the classicist Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Gustav Stickley furniture was authentic and Grand Rapids veneer was not.

Authenticity prompted the founding of Consumer Reports and the European pilgrimages of young Americans who confused a favorable exchange rate or unshaven armpits with life lived to the ecstatic fullest. The authenticity of something came to be measured by your feelings about it. It was a buzzword of existentialism, and a weapon against advertising and the consumer ethos, not to mention boosterism, conformity, and, in the 1960s, everything denoted by the word “plastic.”

The problem was, authenticity was wonderfully suited for exploitation by Madison Avenue, too. A monthly magazine called People, published by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, ran a piece in 1937 that made shopping sound like sex in a Henry Miller novel:

Selecting a necktie gives him a gratifying sense of power. Buying a fur jacket is a great adventure for a woman… Yes, spending is fun. No wonder all the increase in national income will not be spent “sensibly”—for the rarer the purchase, the greater the adventure.

Finally marketers subverted authenticity itself. Stores now sell “authentic imitation bush hats” and “authentic reproduction bomber jackets.” Authenticity has become a fashion accessory. It was supposed to put mind and matter, spirit and body back together again, but it became just another shop-window trick. Lears writes: “The quest for personal authenticity, as many critics have observed, became the project of assembling the right brand-name goods.”

Lears takes a very long leap indeed when he links WASP domination of the ad business with Puritan dualism. At the start of the twentieth century, he writes,

the most influential agencies with the biggest accounts were staffed by a remarkably similar group of Anglo-Saxon males… the sons of the late-nineteenth-century liberal Protestant elite, and they clung to a secularized version of their parents’ world view—faith in inevitable progress, unfolding as if in accordance with some divine plan.

Well, yes, but Episcopalians have no truck with Election. Unitarians are direct descendants of the Puritans, but they probably have more in common with Reform Jews. And, in the late nineteenth century, the same Protestant elite staffed government agencies, brokerage houses, railroad headquarters, naval commands, university faculties, and just about everything else of consequence without being troubled much by dualism. Meanwhile, other countries created powerful advertising industries without any help from Skull and Bones or Mayflower ancestors.

By the 1950s, the advertising man had become a mascot and exemplar of his time, a defender of WASPdom in its ironic, self-reflexive, dry-martini twilight, the Madison Avenue executives in tweeds, cash-register books listing all the hip advertising slang: “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” for “So it goes,” and “Let’s run it up the flag-pole and see who salutes,” for “Let’s give it a try.”

Then in the Sixties, ad guys stopped being modal figures. Movie guys took their place. Lears says that “the young WASP executives at JWT, for example, returned from the West Coast smirking about their sojourn among ‘the semitic tribes.’ It was as if Jewish moviemakers reminded admakers of their common peddler past.”

In Where the Suckers Moon,2 an account of the attempt to change the image of Subaru automobiles, Randall Rothenberg tells the story of J. Walter Thompson’s New England Room, taken from an eighteenth-century house in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and reassembled in New York as “the manifestation of J. Walter Thompson’s Yale roots, a silent signal to clients that they and the agency were of the same seed.” But after a takeover in 1987, “one of the first acts by its new chairman, Burt Manning, a driven Jew off the streets of Chicago, was the dismantling of the New England Room—an act one former Thompson executive called ‘an attack on the culture,’ which, indeed, it was.” An attack on dualism, though? On Thomas Morton’s maypole materialism? After three hundred years, things get complicated.

Lears, who has been described as a leftist with Confederate instincts, or a Confederate with leftist instincts, has found his own Lost Cause to fight for. It’s not the WASPs or the hope that the puritans of progressivism can reform advertising but the hope that we can escape the dualisms that survived the Sixties unscratched. Lears wants to make the world whole again, a place where “creativity can coexist with connectedness to the past, and with a sense of our own finitude in a reanimated universe.”

A great hope. Lears is calling for nothing less than a transformation of the American psyche. A book about advertising seems a shaky foundation for this proposition, but, then, given the advertisers’ efforts to do the same thing, it’s an appropriate one.

  1. 1

    Temple University Press, 1994.

  2. 2

    Knopf, 1994.

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