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Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940

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It has become impossible to imagine our culture without advertising. But how and why did advertising become a determiner of our self-image? Advertising the American Dream looks carefully at the two decades when advertising discovered striking new ways to play on our anxieties and to promise solace for the masses.

As American society became more urban, more complex, and more dominated by massive bureaucracies, the old American Dream seemed threatened. Advertisers may only have dimly perceived the profound transformations America was experiencing. However, the advertising they created is a wonderfully graphic record of the underlying assumptions and changing values in American culture. With extensive reference to the popular media—radio broadcasts, confession magazines, and tabloid newspapers—Professor Marchand describes how advertisers manipulated modern art and photography to promote an enduring "consumption ethic."

472 pages, Paperback

First published August 17, 1985

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About the author

Roland Marchand

3 books1 follower
A specialist in 20th century American history, Charles Roland Marchand taught at the University of California, Davis from 1964 until his death in 1997.

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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
712 reviews15 followers
February 26, 2018
Exhaustive, detailed, and occasionally hilarious account of the birth of corporate advertising. Marchand says that a blend of exhilaration and anxiety characterizes the "modern," and he argues that ads reflect an idealized, not objective, reading of past eras. The ads tell us what advertisers thought; the ads are not a documentary record of social issues in the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression. There is something naive yet cunning to the tales of early advertisers, who on the one hand wanted to give consumers advice to assuage modern anxiety and make good choices, but on the other hand scorned consumers as rubes and promoted products and new "experts." Capitalism gives individuality and takes it away. The illustrations are fascinating. Marchand includes a disturbing account of how the makers of Lysol promoted themselves as experts on feminine hygiene and suggested that Lysol could be used as a contraceptive.
5 reviews1 follower
January 14, 2008
Good contextual history of advertising in the 20s and 30s in the US. Gets a bit repetitive, but when a book so thoroughly and fairly captures an era of industry, it can be forgiven.
Profile Image for Mary Catelli.
Author 52 books171 followers
November 17, 2013
A cross-sectional view of advertising over the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression.

Lots of interesting stuff. An overview of the agencies themselves, their geographical concentration, their somewhat touchy attitude -- and why (no man was considered for Who's Who based on his advertising career), the people who wanted to elevate taste vs the people who threw everything aside to sell, the problems that they were unquestionably among the urban and the prosperous, which raised questions about their ability to fathom ordinary people and seems to have fostered a great deal of contempt, too.

The beginning of True Story and the tabloids. Once they managed to accept them as advertising venues, they imitated not only their writing style ("short words and shorter sentences" -- the editor tried them on the elevator operator and rejected what did not past muster) but their sensationalistic stories. "Because I Confessed, I found the Way to Happiness" was the title of an ad for condensed milk and a recipe book (featuring only recipes needing the milk, of course); a woman confessed how she loved a man, but while he liked her, he wanted a good girl who could cook, and her married friend saved the day by lending her the cookbook.

Radio had the opposite problem. It had spread from the rich to the poor so it was supposed to be elevating, and they were wary of using approaches that lowered it.

The discovery that you could sell useful articles in color -- which advertisers loved, since you could make new colors new announcements. And the ensemble of clothes and handbag and shoes that enabled so much more to be sold.

Moral stories often told. Unlike movies and other stories, in ads, the First Impression could not be overcome. How you could enjoy the same goods as a member of the upper crust -- or how the upper crust suffered from the same problems. How civilization had weakened us through some lack of our natural lives, but that could easily be fixed by this product. (Chewing gum was sold as jaw exercise; the softer food of civilization meant we needed the exercise.)

Visual cliches, like the painting of the business man's office overseeing a factory below -- lasted for some time after the offices and factories were usually separated. The soft focus family circle -- a woman alone never got the soft focus treatment, but a child increased the chances, and a husband made it almost certain. Staring off at the city of the future. The sentimental village, which was shown with cars and phones, but on the other hand, always had only one church steeple, and seldom featured a grain elevator. The ray of light from an unknowable source.

The changes brought on by the Depression. Such as ads listing the prices much more often. The increase in images -- a lot less white space. And the determined men. Particularly the young men whose fathers had failed to buy life insurance for their education.
Profile Image for Jay Colson.
3 reviews
February 20, 2022
I came across this via my university studies. Great book about advertising history with many images. Demonstrates the manipulative essence of advertising in an entertaining way.
Profile Image for Emily.
Author 2 books51 followers
October 11, 2015
Focused on the period 1920 to 1940, Marchand’s is a canonical text in the history of advertising, as he explores advertising’s relationship to modernity. With plenty of accompanying images, he analyzes every aspect of advertising from the ad images and copy, the admen who created them, advertising firms, and consumer audiences.
Profile Image for Leonard Pierce.
Author 18 books28 followers
May 23, 2008
Fascinating academic study of the massive shift in tone and effect of advertising in the 1920s and 1930s and how it helped define our culture, our literature, and even our economic life.
Profile Image for Marley.
516 reviews19 followers
July 7, 2009
My favorite book ever on advertising or how to talk people into anything. If adoptee rights activists did advertising instead of rights, we could win.
Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews

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