Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Advertising and politics

I've now seen a paragraph about advertising in Jill Lepore's latest New Yorker piece in a few places, including Andrew Sullivan's blog. Digital history blogging should resume soon, but first some advertising history, since something weird is going on here:
Political consulting is often thought of as an offshoot of the advertising industry, but closer to the truth is that the advertising industry began as a form of political consulting. As the political scientist Stanley Kelley once explained, when modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation.
I can see why this paragraph seemed interesting enough to print. It offers a counter-intuitive spin on the role of advertising—and business in general—in the history of American politics. No one likes advertisers, no one likes political consultants, and they seem somewhow connected. But although we’re tempted to blame some modern debasement of politics on the over-reach of consumer culture, this suggests a much more direct approach: in fact, the subversion of politics was the goal of big industry all along, and the anti-consumerist clich├ęs about consumerism only make us ignore that big fact.
Unfortunately, though, it has nothing to do with the actual history of advertising. Standard Oil and DuPont were not the 'big clients' of the advertising agencies, and the industry's roots have little to with the corporate image-making. For example: browse through the files, paying attention to size and year, in the portfolios of J Walter Thompson to see who was paying their bills in the 1920s and 1930s. Or just trust me: it's far and away consumer goods, companies like Quaker Oats, Lever Brothers soap, and Kraft foods.