Easy Chair — From the August 2013 issue

Ad Absurdum

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Suppose we decide to take a look at the Sixties from a fresh perspective. Suppose we start not with politicians, or soldiers in Vietnam, or civil rights protesters, or Woodstock performers in their fringes and flares, or with the charmingly tongue-tied Forrest Gump. No, let’s say we start instead with advertising executives. And suppose we approach these admen, their works, and the whole crazy whirl in which they lived as objects of nostalgia — as symbols of a bygone world that is comforting just to think about.

That was my idea back in 1991, when I started working on my doctoral dissertation. I thought there was something sweet and innocent about Kennedy-era advertising, with its dainty society women sipping Pepsi and its tail-finned cars bearing men in stingy-brim hats about their smiling business.

What I was really sentimental about, though, was the critique of advertising that was so common during the Sixties. According to this view, the advertising industry enforced an alarming pattern of conformity, molding us into a nation of unthinking robots. There was even a sense that prosperity itself was hazardous to our spiritual health. By the 1990s, these worries seemed kind of quaint — the stuff of vaguely remembered church sermons about materialism, of old Life magazine articles about mass society and suburban alienation. How easy it had been, back in those days, to see what was wrong!

Nostalgia is not history, however. Eventually I got over those warm feelings about the reassuring past and discovered something I thought was even more interesting: that as the Sixties went on, the advertising industry absorbed this critique and even enlisted it as a weapon in the eternal war of the brands. Worries about conformity became a linchpin of consumer society, echoed in endless advertisements and TV shows. This was the thesis of what turned out to be my first book, The Conquest of Cool, published in 1997.

I had overcome nostalgia, then. But as soon as I ventured out on the lecture circuit, nostalgia overcame me in turn. Far more interesting than my theories, it seemed, were the old ads themselves, which I would present with a slide projector. What people wanted to talk about were the family cars of their childhood, or a beloved Lite-Brite jingle, or that commercial for something or other. Did I remember that one?

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