Advertisers are usually bad, says historian

Charles McGovern, in his book Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890-1945, argues that advertisers in the first half of the 20th century shared a goal of replacing notions of a public sphere (citizenship) with a corporate-dominated market (consumption).

Attributing this ideology to “advertisers” generally, McGovern documents the way he says advertisers tried to force the equation of consumption with citizenship in order to create a common culture:

“the ubiquitous presence of commercial images and language and insistent intrusion of marketplace imagery in public life eroded American’s [sic] political and civic vocabularies” (p. 130).

So, before those advertisers insistently intruded on us, we cared more for the civic good! Back in those good old days when only white men voted.

So after hammering away at this, suddenly at the end of the book, McGovern notes that

“Advertisers’ dreams of forging a stable culture, based solely on common commercial experiences, might ultimately be neither possible nor desirable” (p. 371).

Wait, advertisers did or did not “forge a stable culture” based on “commercial experiences”? Wasn’t the whole point of the book to prove that advertisers destroyed our authentic American culture to create one based on buying things instead of caring about each other?  Now we learn it might not be “possible” to do this?

McGovern concedes that in the present, at least, advertisers are no longer interested in creating a homogeneous culture:

“Certainly, previous iterations of vast unified ‘mainstreams’—commercial or political—have proven easily undone by a marketplace logic that finds greater profit now in addressing niches, not masses, and in capitalizing on imagined difference at the expense of meaningful commonality” (p. 372).

Oh no, now that advertisers don’t want to address homogeneous masses, they want to divide us up by “imagined difference” and destroy any attempt of “meaningful commonality” we might share! The new evil is market segmentation.

Here we go again: when advertisers addressed mass markets, they were evil for homogenizing us. When advertisers target segmented markets, that is, addressing different kinds of people for different kinds of products, they are still evil because they are now preventing us from sharing “meaningful commonality.” It seems advertisers can do nothing right.

Perhaps the real complaint is that advertisers advertise.

Mass media critiques of the 20th century attacked media for being “mass” and “homogeneous.” Media critiques of the 21st century tend to rage about the opposite:  segmentation and personalization (see Joseph Turow, Eli Pariser, and many others).  And in McGovern’s book, he intends to have it both ways.

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One thought on “Advertisers are usually bad, says historian

  1. You’re right. Academics are silly to blame advertisers for either homogenizing or segmenting the public. Rather, they should blame the public itself, which, whether homogenized or segmented, is reliably greedy, lustful, cruel, and vain. And then, having identified these flaws in the public nature, they should set about correcting them, making the public generous, temperate, kind, and humble, by means of graduate seminars and prestigiously published monographs. Perhaps they will thus have more success in altering human nature than advertisers have had.

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