In Defense of Radio Ad Men

Political correctness is when someone, in an effort to resist some bad “ism” such as sexism or racism, simply turns the “ism” on its head. If sexism is to assume a person is not qualified because she is a woman, then PC is assuming that someone is qualified because she is a woman. Political correctness can be just as bad as the original “ism” because it also categorizes people on the basis of identity.

So I am disheartened when I see political correctness run amok in scholarly work. I just read a lengthy historical monograph by someone who has apparently pored over thousands of primary documents and read thousands of words by actual humans of the period but who still cannot represent those people except in broad dismissive characterizations.

This author hopes to show how advertisers victimized consumers, so he aims particular vituperation at advertising men in the early decades of the 20th century. This author claims to know what all ad men feel and think: “The more successful the selling the greater the contempt advertisers had for the consuming public.” Ad men involved in early radio are characterized over and over as disdainful, condescending, and contemptuous.  Ad men did not understand consumers, accuses the author, and they held themselves apart. Radio, in particular, “threatened the barriers that advertisers carefully maintained between themselves and the masses.” Where were those “barriers” located and how were they “carefully” maintained?

To me, this is an example of a reverse “ism.” The author seems intent on over-generalizing in negative terms a group of people he believes threatened some mythical form of authentic culture because they produced advertising campaigns.  This author paints ad men as villains in a culture war.

This culture war is fought only within the minds of certain academics, who must characterize all media history as a struggle between the “good guys” (consumer activists, leftists, the state (!)) and the “bad guys” (corporations, profit-seekers, advertising agencies).

The author’s ideological critique inadvertently replicates what he is critiquing.  By insisting on the most negative interpretation of admen’s words and activities, the author betrays his own contempt and disdain for them. By refusing to imagine their individual agency within the confining structures of their time, the author “reifies” them as the “other”– exactly what he accuses those ad men of doing to consumers.

I think media history–and advertising history–is far more interesting and complex than this type of scholarship allows.

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