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.

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