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Got Consumer Culture? The Rise of Advertising from the 1920s to Today

From billboards to buses to British Airways planes atop buildings, advertising is everywhere
Here's a quiz for you: What product is associated with each character or slogan?

1) The Golden Arches
2) Just do it
3) Snap! Crackle! Pop!
4) Colonel Sanders
5) Melts in your mouth, not in your hand
6) The doughboy
7) Just for the taste of it
8) Jolly Green Giant
9) The Energizer Bunny
10) Toucan Sam

If you were able to answer any of these questions (and I bet you were), you can thank ADVERTISING!


Advertising is everywhere. Turn on the TV, and you will be bombarded by commercials. Drive down the street, and you will see ads on buses and billboards while listening to jingles on the radio. Surf the net, and you will have to maneuver around countless advertising banners. Flip through a magazine or newspaper, and you will read about the latest deals and the newest must-have products. You can't even go to a baseball game without experiencing a barrage of corporate sponsorships.

How did we come to live in such a society? How did advertisements come to rule our lives? And who came up with the idea, anyway?

Advertising is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Greeks used to advertise by distributing engraved announcements of upcoming plays. Medieval towns and villages used pictures to advertise the local inn or barber. But the purpose of these advertisements was primarily to distribute information.

Similarly, advertising in the United States started as a largely informational form. Somewhere along the line, though, it took a drastic turn. After World War I, economic prosperity led to a surge in consumer spending. Paper wealth from the stock market was booming. Ordinary people had disposable income and more time for leisure (for example, at Coney Island in New York). The media were booming, too: The first commercial radio station opened in the 1920s in Pittsburgh, and by 1922, three million American households had radios. The motion picture industry was thriving. Thanks to improvements in the printing process and transportation, magazines now reached a national consumer market.

And production was up: New electric appliances intended for housewives - vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, refrigerators - hit the market. The automobile industry was also on the rise. By the late 20s, one in five Americans owned a car. Factories produced goods at an incredible new rate through a new industrial process: the assembly line. Spending further increased with the advent of the "installment plan" - the idea that you could buy things on credit.

Neda and the Quaker Oats Man share a few laughs at breakfast
With more money being spent and more products being mass-produced, the competition of products for consumer dollars increased. Producers needed to make people believe their product was different from -- and better than -- the others. All of these changes brought about a rise in advertising. In 1918, the total advertising revenue in magazines was $58.5 million; by 1929 it was nearly $200 million. There was also a shift in the way advertising was presented. Images became more colorful and sophisticated. The idea of brand names (to associate an identity to products), became mainstream during this time. Characters and icons, such as the Quaker Oats man or Mr. Peanut, were used to represent these different brand names. Instead of the lengthy descriptions of products, short, catchy words and sentences became the trend.

Let's take a look at an example: tobacco. The tobacco industry made up a large part of advertising market in the 1920s and was one of the first industries to use celebrity endorsements to sell its product. They also knew the power of a catchy slogan: "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." Lucky Strike cigarettes targeted women worried about their weight with the claim that cigarettes were non-fattening and healthier than candy.

Do you think Mr. Peanut, Mr. Clean and Mr. Potato Head ever hang out together?
Since ads weren't yet regulated and could make just about any claim (cigarettes are healthy?! Yeah, right), some people doubted their truthfulness. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge attempted to calm these doubts by delivering an address in which he said, "The basic function of advertising is education." But, despite such arguments by Coolidge and others, it became clear at precisely this time that advertising was no longer in the business of delivering information; it was about persuasion. A new era was being ushered in - an era in which creating demand was more lucrative than simply educating consumers about a product.

Bloomingdale's in New York: consumerism at its peak
This industry of persuasion continued to grow throughout the century, bringing us to the advertising-saturated society of today. Throughout the years, we have gained even more technologies to broadcast information, from television to the Internet. We have more disposable income, and we're even more defined by consumption. And we have even more consumer choices. Take a look around a grocery store and you'll see what I mean. It's not just the basic necessities that we shop for anymore - we have choices in everything from soymilk to potato chips, and there are whole aisles dedicated to items like toothpaste or cereal.

Choices, choices: Daphne debates the fine points of potato chips
Although society has changed a great deal since the 1920s, the ideas of advertising are still the same. We are still being sold an image, even when this image comes with a price, whether it be a disregard to the environment (check out the article on S.U.V.s)or buying into an incredibly unhealthy body image. Advertising still tells us, again and again, that we're inadequate - not thin enough, not cool enough, not sweet-smelling enough - until we buy another product! And although few of us have probably heard President Coolidge's address, I think we still cling to the notion that advertisements are informational and truthful. Yes, I must buy that face cream if I want to look more beautiful. Yes, those new types of berries in Cap'n Crunch will make it taste ever so much better.


Feeling the Beat... an evening of fine poetry readings

The ideas of brand recognition and brand loyalty have also flourished. Advertisers have plenty of chances to cultivate such recognition and loyalty, considering that the average person sees more than 20,000 T.V. commercials per year. Since we Trekkers don't have televisions, this is one category in which we can be glad to score lower than average. But this is not to say that I have escaped the forces of advertising. I was sitting here the other night with my friends Jess and Lisa, trying to come up with slogans and characters to use for the quiz at the beginning of this article. It was amazing how many commercials and brand names we could remember. While Jess and Lisa were going to bed, they were still shouting slogans and singing jingles from their rooms: "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline." "They're magically delicious!" "My bologna has a first name. . . ." Advertising has become imprinted on our minds and our culture.

Ads,ads and more ads decorate Times Square
There are few places you can better witness the influence of advertising than in Times Square, the heart of Manhattan. At the turn of the century, the intersection of 42nd St, 7th Ave and Broadway was a humble place called Long Acre Square; the name changed when the New York Times moved there in 1904. Now, Times Square is anything but humble. Instead, it is an overbearing barrage on the senses, a center of neon lights and monster billboards. In every direction I look, my eyes are assaulted. A huge Cup of Noodles looms above me. Men and women clad in Jockey underwear seem to mock me. Mr. Peanut smiles sinisterly around the corner. As I stand there, my head is spinning.

Nevertheless, a few things are painfully clear. First of all, it is easy to see that we live in a society of consumerism. Too often, we define ourselves by our material possessions. It is all about how much we buy and what we own. I can tell you this: it is not easy living off $15 a day in Manhattan! But as our motto goes, "Live simply so that others may simply live."

Daphne and I are much cooler than N'Sync or Brittney Spears… why aren't these TRL fans screaming for us?
Second, people really are buying into media images. In the middle of Times Square, we run into dozens of screaming fans on the sidewalk. Are they screaming because they just caught a glimpse of two fabulous Trekkers? Sadly, no. We are right below the MTV studios, and a taping of the show TRL is going on. MTV has succeeded in creating an image in which people are screaming to take part.

Finally, the chaos in Times Square reminds me that access to an audience requires money. We all theoretically have the First Amendment right to speak our minds. But you need a LOT of money to buy a slot for a Super Bowl commercial or a huge billboard in Times Square, ensuring that millions of people will receive your message. It's the people with a lot of money, not the people with the best ideas, who get to air their messages to millions.

Too many advertisements! I think I'm going to explode!
So what can you do about all this? I could spout off some catchy advice, but the advertising industry has already taken care of that. Image is nothing. (Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst. Sprite). There are some things money can't buy. (For everything else there's Mastercard). Ahh . . . I can't escape all these jingles!!

What I can do is challenge you to be more aware. Pay attention to what ads are trying to sell you and how they are trying to do it. Look at your own spending habits and those of people around you - is it always about buying brand names or fitting an image? Don't let the advertisers determine your wants and needs. Remember: just because Mikey likes it, doesn't mean you have to; just because Tony the Tiger say they're grrrrreat, doesn't necessarily make it true.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - "You are now entering the Mall of America: Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good."
Making A Difference - Does your community need a facelift?
Rebecca - Out to get us: How GM destroyed our good public
Stephen - "Beans. I want more beans! And gimme some cars, too."