Summary:  Advertising the American Dream

            Using close readings of the advertisements themselves as well as extensive information on the marketing and advertising industries, Roland Marchand argues that the advertisers of the 1920s and 1930s worked both as “apostles of modernity” and as advice-givers about the problems of modernity.  His analysis is divided into three sections:  the advertising industry, advertising as visual culture, and a brief concluding section on the effects of the Depression.

            Using three highly successful campaigns as examples, Marchand illustrates why the early twenties were a turning point in advertising., the most central reason being the shift in the ads themselves from being product-centered to consumer-centered, where the product is a solution to a consumer problem. He then goes on to an extensive analysis of these new “admen” who, while being primarily well-educated upper middle class professionals in major urban centers (particularly New York) also had to assure their clients that they were uniquely able, through their specialized skills, to understand their middle-class, suburban, primarily female consumers. 

Noting the rise of tabloid media and movies that catered to a “matinee crowd” of women looking for “vulgar emotionality or escapist illusions” Marchand notes the condescension of the admen to their mostly female consumers even as they worked to connect with them.  However, any hope they may have had of uplifting their consumers through advertising itself or media in general—early radio, a high moral tone—foundered in reality.  Radio moved from a sponsorship-only model to being heavily commercialized; advertisers reacted to saturation in magazines and newspapers by making their ads more like the editorial surrounding them (including the down-scale funny papers) and no topic was off limits for a sales pitch.

Marchand then begins a series of close readings of the ads themselves, uncovering general themes running across categories during the 1920s and early 1930s, beginning with a look at how advertising encouraged increased consumption through an evocation of visual style.  Color moved into consumer goods as a selling point as the products themselves evoked works of art that could be put together in coordinated “ensembles.”  Illustrations borrowed from the latest movements in art for that added air of “modernity” while photographs indicated sincerity.  Increased consumption was also pushed through planned obsolescence and consumption as a female ethic equivalent to the “male” work ethic.

As advertising became more visually sophisticated, it began to evoke what Marchand refers to as “social tableaux”:  the woman as the business manager of her home, using modern conveniences to help her have a clean house, an active social calendar, a beautiful countenance and more leisure time with the family; the high fashion woman that looked more like a work of art than a person; the man as generic business man.  Non-whites, when portrayed, were generally servants (though it should be noted that Marchand was only looking at portrayals within mainstream media) and class, when depicted, was nearly always of the very upper:  men and women in fine evening dress listening to the radio while a young maid brings them coffee.  While these tableaux could not be said to directly reflect society—or even a society consciously desired by consumers—they “did graphically reflect central social and cultural dilemmas of the age”(167).

Another way that advertising addressed these dilemmas was through parables that illustrated a problem, then presented the product as the solution.  First Impressions (“Critical eyes are sizing you up right now!”) were crucial in selling yourself within the modern, and more anonymous, society.  The Democracy of Goods found class equality through a universal status as a consumer.  Civilization Redeemed parables took a problem that modern society had caused, such as physical softness, and produced a modern solution:  Grape Nuts.  The parable of the Captivated Child assists mothers in the newly scientific child-raising methods by advising them to get Jimmy to eat his vegetables in soup.  What these parables had in common was the identification of a new consumer problem or anxiety, a problem created by modernity itself, and illustrate how modernity could also supply the solution to the problem it created.

As the copy-intensive ads of the turn of the century yielded to the image-heavy creative of the 1920s, admen used certain visual images so often they became a sort of clichéd shorthand for the consumer.  The business man as the king of all he surveys through his factory window, the soft focus warmth of the cozy family circle, heavenly cities and happy villages, and the product as a heroic icon bathed in beams of light—all transformed certain ideas within the culture into a strong visual message that helped to sell the product.

With the arrival of the depression, advertisers not only faced the reduced purchasing power of American consumers but also the insecurity of clients with smaller marketing budgets and less patience.  Visual styles shifted from high art to photographic melodrama.  Products still offered solutions to problems, but now the problems were less social and more monetary in nature—how Ethyl gas can make your car run like new for longer, how Listerine toothpaste can help you save money for other necessities.  The democracy of goods gained new relevance.  Parenting anxieties shifted from impressing the neighbors to making sure that little Sally has every opportunity to excel in school and therefore in life.  Meanwhile consumers were urged to face hard times with determination.  In this way the paradigms of advertising that had been developed in the 1920s were simply refined to meet the challenges of the 1930s.

Advertising during the 1920s and 1930s helped the consumer negotiate this new world of nearly unlimited choices.  Advertisers used endorsements in an attempt to talk “personally” to the consumer and reduce the enormous scale of modern life to a more human size.  Ultimately, advertising worked as a method to acculturate the consumers, to bring them into the modern world while offering them products and advice that would solve the problems that this modernity created.