Thursday, December 30, 2010

Marchand - Advertising the American Dream

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

In the 1920s and 30s the advertising industry in America boomed. Marchand studies advertisements from the period (and the men who created them) in an attempt to understand what they can (and can't) tell us about American society as a whole. The title indicates two key parts to Marchand's argument. First, he credits advertising as playing a key role in shaping American consumer values that would resonate with the middle class after World War II. Second, he argues advertising men (and they were mostly affluent white men) saw themselves as serving society by advancing the benefits of modernity.

Key Terms
Modernity - Essentially, "progress;" advertisers saw themselves as "town criers" for new technology, styles, and ways of life. (1) Marchand also notes the heavy influence of modern art on advertising design.
Uplift - Recognizing that the masses of consumers to which they were advertising occupied a lower status on the socio-cultural-intellectual scale than they, some members of the advertising elite saw their role as affecting improvement among the American masses on these terms. Skilled advertisers could find a way to communicate with the ignorant masses and offer them products and services that might improve their life and, in the long run, improve their minds.
Social Tableau - a category of advertisements that depict several persons and their relationship to each other, thus offering a glimpse of the perceived social structure.

Studying Advertising to Understand Society as a Whole
The careful yet nonetheless evocative ways Marchand used advertising as sources was interesting for my own desire to use film and television as sources. The social tableau chapter was one example.

He also identified several "great parables" used as a formula for many advertisements. Marchand argues these parables "reinforced (and even encouraged conversions to) a modern, secular 'logic of living'..." (207). They "subtly redefin[ed] the terms of [the American dream]" as "the older values of discipline, character-building, self-restraint, and production-oriented achievement were subordinated to the newer values of pleasure, external appearance, and achievement through consumption." (234) Thus, advertising played an important role not only reflecting but inspiring the shift in American values of the 20th century. In the final chapter, Marchand goes on to show how by the end of the period advertising methods were firmly engaged in offering therapeutic solutions to the dilemmas of modern life.

Marchand also identifies several common cliches in advertising, such as "the office window" portraying the male CEO surveying his domain and "the family circle" demonstrating the relationship between father, mother, and children. He suggests such cliches can be useful in understanding values of the age.

He also explore depression era developments in advertising, revealing shifting tactics. Advertisers strove to emphasize the equalizing power of consumerism, as well as the dangers of ill-advised purchasing decisions.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Cohen-Consumer's Republic - This is something of a prequel to Cohen with a more specific focus. Advertisers in the 20s and 30s were laying the groundwork and fighting for the shift to a "Consumer's Republic" of purchaser consumers who saw their buying power as a way to self-improvement rather than community- or national- improvement. According to Marchand, advertisers painted a picture of consumption as the secret to individual and family happiness relative to individuals and families around them, rather than consumption as a way to improve the wealth of the nation as a whole.

Well-written, clear and interesting. Marchand was also able to include numerous black-and-white and color examples throughout the pages that really drive his point home. His chapters are nicely organized and accessible. His methods are clear and his argument is well-made.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Boddy - Fifties Television

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Illinois studies in communications. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Boddy's stated aim "is to suggest that the development of American television, and specifically the era of network hegemony which stretched from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, was not "natural" or inevitable, but indeed the result of specific economic and political forces and structures with complex determinants." (8) In thematic chapters, arranged in a rough chronology, Boddy explains these factors. He claims to be one of the first to bring together more specialized research into 50s television with broader social science perspective. However, his discussion is mostly focused on the effects of networks, studios, advertisers, the government and the FCC on the transition out of the "Golden Age", and the critical response to this transition. Other than critics and passing mention of ratings as they were being understood by networks and advertisers, he leaves out audience reception. The actual programs are mentioned only in passing. (see Critique) To his credit, Boddy takes a neutral - even contrarian - position to the standard narrative that television got worse in this period (typified by the work of Erik Barnouw).

Key Points

Chapter 2 - Early hopes for television were that the medium would not be "corrupted" by advertising as radio had been.
Chapter 3 - NBC, owned by RCA, tried to block attempts at opening up the UHF bandwidth as its produced televisions were exclusively VHF. CBS, the second largest early network, wanted the UHF bandwidth opened to allow for more stations.
The Freeze - between Sept 1948 and April 1952 the FCC suspended license approvals (50-51). This was the result of an earlier ruling to narrow station separations, which resulted in disastrous station interference and a flood of license applications. At the same time, the number of stations on the air exploded (50 to 108), as did the number of television sets (1,200,000 to 15,000,000). The result was a firming up of network control over the industry. NBC and CBS benefited hugely, while ABC and DuMont were (respectively) almost critically and critically effected.
Chapter 4-6: The Early 1950s - To the approval of critics, networks avoided Hollywood-produced content intent on reaping the rewards themselves of produced shows. Live television tended to be single-sponsor. Programs were created in New York in the dramatic theater style rather than the "lower" Hollywood style.)
Chapter 7-10: Eventually, networks (led by ABC which charged back from behind) found it cost-effective to buy Hollywood studio-produced content. Live broadcasts, which were praised by critics as the epitomy of the artistic possibilities of the medium, faded away. Multiple sponsors moved in, and the prestige of writing for television declined, ex. Rod Serling. Meanwhile, the FCC did its best to break up Network control of too many stations and too much of program creation, further incentivizing the network search for programs created by Hollywood studios.
Chapters 11-14: 1958-60 - The Quiz show scandal, followed by Newton Minnow's "Vast Wasteland" speech led to a public relations crisis for the networks. Boddy argues the Minnow speech had less of an effect than the Quiz show scandal. Advertisers blamed networks, networks blamed advertisers. Network presidents changed the way they talked about their programs, turning towards an argument that "mass audience indicates serving the mass public interest." Critics screamed, but at the same time the newspaper TV column disappeared accross the country, as critics had less serious drama to comment about and were left mainly criticizing the medium as a whole over and over.

This book has to be read along with Castleman and Podzrazik's "Watching Television" to get a sense of what the networks were actually putting on, because Boddy barely does that. He merely describes the type of show on TV rather than the actual show. Without examples, the prose is terribly dry. It was a fast read, quickly digestible, but largely because it is written plainly with little attempts at argument and insight. Perhaps Boddy takes his claim at being a neutral observer of the decade too seriously. This is yet another book about television that I feel could be written much better.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jackson - Crabgrass Frontier

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Covering a period from the market revolution of the early 19th century to present day (1985), Jackson attempts to explain the unique degree of suburbanization in the U.S. relative to other industrialized nations. Going beyond the obvious explanation of transportation (because not every global industrialized city underwent suburbanization to the degree seen in the U.S.), Jackson argues there are two conditions and two causes of "American residential deconcentration." (summed on 287-)
The Conditions
1. "The Suburban Ideal" - Encouraged by real estate speculators, transportation visionaries and suburban land planners, Americans early on idealized a detached house as a worthy goal for people entering the middle class. Jackson highlights specific individuals who marketed the suburban dream as early as before the Civil War. However, his explanation for why Americans in particular had such a strong desire for suburban living that such businessmen were able to profit from is lacking. But to be fair, that explanation is perhaps as complex as (and related to) the question of American exceptionalism.
2. "Population growth" - America's vast land and abundant resources, plus the high rate of immigration created rapid population growth, leading to overcrowded cities. Indeed, Progressive reformers looked favorably on suburban growth as a remedy to overcrowding problems.
The Causes
1. "Racial Prejudice" - White middle class desire to leave America's uniquely diverse cities was in no small part motivated by racial attitudes and fears. Moreover, while suburbs originally strongly identified with the city they surrounded, suburbs have come to reject that connection in part because of the racial divide.
2. "Cheap housing" - In the period under question, America was the wealthiest country with the most available land. Government programs, most importantly the Federal Housing Administration (created in the New Deal and in charge of the housing aspect of the GI Bill), arranged affordable mortgages. The balloon frame house, more trusted in America and more possible because of vast lumber, was key. Inexpensive transport is another aspect. The Levitt family led the way in producing cheap detached houses, while government housing (blocked by suburban authorities) was located almost exclusively in the city. Even the tax code benefits home owners over renters.

Great Quote
"No agency of the United States government has had a more pervasive and powerful impact on the American people over the past half-century than the Federal Housing Administration." p.203

Though my page-per-minute late was below average, I think the brevity of this entry emphasizes how easy this book was to understand. This is one of my favorite books on the comp odyssey so far. I love the bite-sized chapters. I love the broad chronological scope. I love Jackson's presentation of a wealth of quantitative data in easily digestible prose. I love the discussions about why cities came to look the way they do. Most of all, I love the subject matter and the persuasive conclusions. It's the kind of book that will rattle around in my brain for a long time. The only strike against it: he mentions Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany but not Syracuse!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Watson - Defining Visions

Watson, Mary Ann. Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience in the 20th Century. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008.

Since its emergence after World War II, television has had a powerful role in shaping Americans' perceptions and understandings about their nation and the world. Watson explores fictional programming and news coverage in a broad overview of American programming from the Golden Age to 9/11. The chapters are arranged thematically, with each theme taken chronologically in an attempt to reveal larger trends.


Chapter 1 - Television's invention and replacement of radio. Radio shows transition to television.

Chapter 2 - RACE: 1950s and 1960s, problematic portrayals of minorities. 1970s and 80s begins to change. But 1990s, portrayals become increasingly fragmented, as audiences themselves split and watched different programming.

Significant programs: Amos & Andy, Beulah, Nat King Cole Show, I Spy, The Cosby Show, WB & UPN, 1990s all-black v. all-white sitcoms

Chapter 3 - GENDER & FAMILY: 1950s into 1960s portrayed women as a homemaker supporting working husband and raising children. 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore Show breaks mold with single working woman, early 1990s conservative critics accuse TV of undermining family values

Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed Show, Dick Van Dyke Show (beginning to undermine), Maude, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Family Ties, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Murphy Brown, Simpsons

Chapter 4 - VIOLENCE: 1950s violence was a last resort for a hero who generally tried to wound or disarm rather than kill. 1959 Untouchables was a key turning point with weekly scenes of death committed by villains and heroes. From there, violence has increased as has violent behavior by youth. The author sees a direct correlation. From time to time, under government or public pressure, television has attempted to address the problem - ratings system, V-chip. Another significant change was many programs began to show the gruesome effects of violence as a way of emphasizing their negative effect on society. 1977 Zamora case: 15-year-old boy murders 82-year-old woman during burglary, defense argues television influenced him.

professional wrestling, The Untouchables, MTV, A-Team, Homicide, The Sopranos

Chapter 5 - SEX: 1960 as a turning point year. Dick Van Dick Show, Petries still in separate beds but Moore's character wears capris rather than typical dresses and more chemistry between the couple than ever before. Sexual innuendo increases into 70s. Actual sex increases into 90s. Watson is particularly concerned with the portrayals of rape and harassment. 1979 General Hospital episode where Luke rapes Laura, but the two go on to fall in love. Condoms are rarely used on TV, STDs rarely discussed. Teen sex increasingly portrayed. Depictions of homosexuals as predators common into 70s, but more normalized even by the time Ellen came out.

Elvis on Ed Sullivan, Dick Van Dyke Show, Charlies Angels, Three's Company, Soap (Crystal's flamboyent gay character), Cheers, Married...with Children, Beverly Hills 90210, Clarence Thomas Hearings, Clinton scandal, Seinfeld, Friends

Chapter 6 - WORKPLACE: Beginning in 1950s professional organizations (such as the AMA) offered to partner with producers to ensure a realistic (read: positive) portrayal of their profession. Lower class workers largely disappeared between Honeymooners and All in the Family. Disappointments of 1970s US led to portrayals of lower class workers who, despite having more brains then their superiors, couldn't move up the ladder.

Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Laverne and Shirley, West Wing, CSI

Chapter 7 - ADVERTISING: Concerns with advertising to children. Product placement. Restrictions on advertisement for unhealthy products. Cigarettes, alcohol, fast food.

Chapter 8 - PERSONALITIES: Displaying famous people and their lives. Alcohol as an effective mean of coping with stress, and drunkenness as fun and without consequence. Death of 13-year-old Carol Lightner in 1980 by hit-and-run drunk driver leads mother, Candy Lightner to start MADD. Begins to change presentation of drinking on television. Towards end of 1990s, alcohol on TV begins to loosen. Fashion: Farah's hair. Increasing use of vulgar language on TV (you suck, bitch, etc).

Person to Person, This is your Life, Dean Martin Show, Party of Five, Drew Carey Show, Michael Jackson's crotch grab on Black or White premiere, Madonna

Chapter 9 - NATIONAL CHARACTER: The steady decline since Bishop Sheen. Quiz show scandals disillusion viewers. Shows like Queen for a Day gave false hope to impoverished viewers. Grey Panthers critique portrayals of elderly on TV, with some success in 80s (Murder, she Wrote, Matlock, Golden Girls). Portrayal of people with disabilities. Jerry Lewis's telethon increasingly critiqued for portraying disabled as helpless victims. Watson claims sports are more violent and suffer from bad sportsmanship and role models. Seinfeld typifies the decline.

Chapter 10 - DEMOCRACY: Christmas in Korea (Murrow), See It Now: Murrow takes on McCarthyism and wins, MLK's use of television for Civil Rights. Pete Seeger appears on Smothers Brothers and sings antiwar folk song. Cronkite questions Vietnam. Nixon loses debate in 60 but succeeds in managing his appearances in 68. Televised coverage of Watergate hearings. SNL takes down Gerald Ford. Reagan masters the medium, impressing after his assassination in 81. Hostage crisis. Challenger explosion, like JFK assassination, leads Americans to gather around the TV. Military controls footage of Persian Gulf War. OJ Simpson chase and trial. Chandra Levy case looks foolish as TV news goes 3 months before 9/11 without mentioning Al Qaeda once.

Epilogue - Election of 2000 and 9/11. Election coverage was chaotic. 9/11 coverage excellent for first day, but exploitative after as channels refined footage.

As an overview of countless hours of programming over 50 years, this is useful. But in terms of analysis, Watson offers little that is surprising or significant. She seems to think that, other than occasional moments of temporary reform, television programming has been on a downhill decline. Norman Lear's programs in the 1970s are given short shrift. The quality revolution slides by unnoticed and uncommented on. It could be argued that her simplistic criticism of the art of television is in sync with the way average viewers perceive the programming. However, it is easy to counter-argue that what viewers think they perceive from television does not match how it actually informs them. Unfortunately, Watson offers no discussion of these theoretical problems. She merely claims at the outset that television is "a cultural and historical force" (11) that "confers status on ideas, quite apart from their legitimacy or accuracy." (8) I think she is right, but I think such claims deserve more delicate treatment. The last paragraph of chapter 8 is typical:

"Beginning in the post-World War II era, the broad reach of television was socializing the national personality in sundry ways. Over the decades it brought harmless trends that enlivened daily lives and interactions. But by the end of the 20th century, it was also defining as acceptable lewd and selfish behaviors that diminish and weaken communities."

This book could be useful as a text for an undergraduate survey course on the history of television. For my own purposes, it was somewhat lacking.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Freud - Civilization and Its Discontents

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962.

Freud attempts to apply his psychoanalytic theories to civilization. What are the psychological motivations behind the organization and direction of human civilization? Freud defines civilization as "the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes - namely to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations." (36)

Answers and Arguments
Civilization has grown up around the tension between the human desire for happiness and the human tendency for aggression and destruction. Religion, which Freud touches on often, is a cultural construct and self-deception that provides a promise of happiness in the afterlife via a deity if a person represses their aggressive behavior. Love (Eros) is also a key factor, as it represents the greatest form of happiness (sometimes but not necessarily sexual). "Love your neighbor as yourself," is a phrase Freud sees as co-opted but probably not created by religion. He muses that the phrase is meaningless on examination, as loving one's neighbor arbitrarily would undermine the meaning of love, affecting relationships with closer friends more deserving of love and diminishing the happiness one receives from love. Again, the phrase remains upheld as one of the greatest values in human civilization only because it encourages resistance among humans to their aggressive tendencies. The conscience (super ego) "arises through the suppression of an agressive impules, subsequently reinforced by fresh suppressions of the same kind." (77) Thus the conscience is also a force leading towards civilization.

As the individual experiences an inner struggle between self-preservation and the demands of the libido, neuroses emerge. Freud wonders but does not conclude whether civilization may suffer from a sort of mass neurosis, since it has evolved out of a struggle (desire for life and desire to destroy).

Other Thoughts
I had never really thought of the Oedipal complex as something that Freud actually thought once happened in human history (though here he only discusses it is possible that it happened). But Freud actually suggests, somewhat in passing, that ancient man (or an ancestor of man) may have well killed his father regularly. So, Freud's theories about the Oedipal complex have an evolutionary and instinctive origin. Realizing this helped me to understand how indebted Freud is to Darwin. I had never thought about where Freud claimed all of these elements of the human subconscious came from, but I now understand that he supposes they emerged through the evolution of the species.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Lears - No Place of Grace Freud briefly mentions neurasthenia in the first chapter, a psychological anxiety about the changes of modern society that Lears's antimodernists struggled with. Freud's use of the term suggested to me the relation between his own work and the wider struggles with modernity going on within the world he was working.

For as much as I've read other people who use Freud or other people who write about Freud, I really haven't read that much of Freud himself. I was a little intimidated opening the book, but I found his writing pretty accessible. Partly, I think I'm smarter than I give myself credit for. Partly, I know more about Freud than I think. And partly, his writing just wasn't quite as dense as I expected.