Memo - Week of Oct. 4 - Strategies of Enticement

With this week's readings, we turn our attention to the most conspicuous--some would say most notorious--of the institutions involved in "brokering" the consumer capitalist economy: advertising. In class, we will discuss the history of advertising and how the business of advertising changed in the early decades of the twentieth century. The readings take a more personal look at advertising, focusing on the experiences, motivations, assumptions, goals, and strategies of those who designed advertising campaigns, whose job it was to excite new desires to spend and consume.

The first reading comes from the 1965 autobiography of Edwards Bernays (1891-1995), a.k.a. the "father of public relations." He was not a professional advertising man, but rather he occasionally served as a consultant to advertising agencies and product manufacturers. At other times he advised governments, politicians, diplomats, and a wide range of other individuals and institutions.) Born in Vienna, Bernays was also, interestingly enough, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. During World War I he served on the board of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which was the wartime propaganda bureau of the U.S. government, and throughout his career, he showed remarkable sensitivity to the potential of advertising and public relations to function as instruments of psychological manipulation.

The second reading consists of an excerpt from James Rorty's 1934 book Our Master's Voice: Advertising. Rorty (1890-1973) was an American-born socialist who worked for an extended period in advertising, and this book is both a profile of the advertising business and a social and cultural critique of advertising's place in American life. He was also the father of Richard Rorty, one of the leading American philosophers of the postwar era.

Some questions:
  • Based on these readings, what were advertisers' most effective tools and strategies? How did they work?
  • Why did the modern advertising firm develop when it did, ca. 1900-1930?
  • How would you characterize how advertisers (i.e., the people who work for advertising agencies) thought about consumers? How did they think about manufacturers and retailers?
  • In what ways are advertisers dependent on their clients, and in what ways are their clients dependent on them?
  • What was new about manufacturers' and retailers' need to use advertising agencies? Why didn't they just design their own advertising programs?
  • In some respects, these readings suggest that admen were amoral, cynical, and all-powerful. Do you agree or disagree with this? What were the limits of advertisers' power? In what ways are these limits still apparent today?