In 1985, Roland Marchand published Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940; and every knowledgeable person who read it immediately knew that at last a genuinely masterful historian had turned his attention to one of the most puzzling of modern phenomena - American advertising in the era of big business. All of us who had studied these advertisements knew they conveyed important information about our society. But how could they be used as source material? Professor Marchand provided the key that unlocked the puzzle of advertising's message.
Advertisements were not reportage which "recorded completely and vividly" a "picture of our time," as one advertising agency claimed in 1926 (Dream, p. xv). Nor were they fantasies completely disconnected from the reality of everyday life that the "typical" American experienced. Neither were they some kind of capitalist plot to brainwash Americans into regarding any day with horror if unprotected by deodorant.
What advertisers aimed for, Professor Marchand believed, was "not a true mirror but a Zerrspiegel, a distorting mirror that would enhance certain images."(1) Even this metaphor did not quite capture Marchand's view. A Zerrspiegel distorted, but it "nevertheless provides some image of everything within its field of vision. Advertising's mirror not only distorted, it also selected. Some social realities hardly appeared at all" (Dream, p. xvii). Without this insight, one realizes that a scholar could conduct a content analysis of numberless advertisements and learn nothing at all.
Advertising the American Dream takes (or at least took me) a long time to read. This was not because of its length (363 pages with a lot of print per page but with 201 illustrations) nor was it because of any problem with the style of writing. Indeed, Professor Marchand's writing is remarkable in its acuity and in the respect that it shows for the meaning of words. This is one of the few books I have ever read in which I found myself underlining an author's captions for illustrations. The writing is blessedly free of the jargon which discussions of advertising attract like a magnet.
What made Dream a slow read were the numerous passages which brought the reader up short, which forced you to stop and think. Advertising-not only during the period Marchand studied but today as well - is often quite confusing. Consider the assertion from a McDonald's advertisement: "We do it all for you." If one merely allows that phrase to glide by it seems perfectly acceptable. Given a moment's thought, however, it becomes mildly disorienting.
At the heart of the confusion are the pronouns. They have no antecedents. Who, for example, is "we" - the person who actually serves the food? the cook? the franchisee? the McDonald's Corporation? Ronald McDonald himself? all of these people together? What is "it" - the food? the service? the restaurant itself? And who is (or are) "you"? A quarter of a century ago, an executive with one of the nation's largest advertisers told me that the two most important words in copy are "you" and "new." Perhaps he was correct. But he did not really know what he meant, and neither did I. This inexactitude was useful.
In an observation that typified the perspicacity of …