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!

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  • afterallthat

    Having been a “mad man” in those days, I agree with you. Our quest was to manipulate human beings to become borrowers and real consumers. In fact, the government used the term “consumer units” instead of citizens, humans or Americans. It projected how many consumer units would be born, how many would die and how many would be good for the economy, etc. It also pointed out that the way new dollars could be printed would be only through debt—consumer debt—by (and this is my summary) “getting them in debt and keeping them in debt.” This motivated the banks to begin tearing apart regulations. It motivated us ad guys to delve into consumer behavior like never before. We invented “psychographics (lifestyle research)” and also tried to follow media consumption so that we could follow the consumers. But those days also ushered in an explosion of creativity. We created new products like Dimple Toilet Paper and Screaming Yellow Zonkers, for example. Those were heady times.

    • Wael Fadel

      Thank you for saying all of that afterallthat. :-) As much as I enjoyed reading Thomas Frank, this article was seriously lacking on the policy effects that this industry has had in shaping the post-world war II society that we currently have. Much of what we see as advertising/marketing is an offshoot of the government’s efforts to “modernize” the country and force people off the farms and into large cities as industrial fodder. The consequences of these policies are still felt to this day.

  • Alex McNeil

    The first half of this piece–in which you give your context and some background on your work–reminds me a bit of Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram essay. The thrust of Wallace’s argument has more to do with advertisement in relation to fiction, but you both touch on the idea of self-criticism as a tool by which ad agencies pacified hordes of homogeneity-conscious consumers. Have you read his essay? Wallace is a big hero of mine, but I know he’s given to writing on subjects that he’s not nearly expert in. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your take; if you haven’t read it and are interested, here’s the essay: http://jsomers.net/DFW_TV.pdf

    Cheers!

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