Does advertising "work"? Do ads actually determine consumer decisions and
choices? Maybe advertisers and their critics both overstate the powers of sug-
gestion. How preposterous
think that we would be fooled, agog over an ad
that wears its agenda on its screaming neon sleeve. As consumers, we all feel
like well-versed readers, sophisticates-while we may guffaw or sigh over a
well-crafted ad (or an especially bad one), we readily discern the manipulative
ploys of advertisements, and when we decide what to buy, we would like to
think that we rely more on word of mouth and personal experience than
hypnotic commercial command. This point has certainly been made.
the thing is this, though: Ads
"work," but their primary function is not to
lead a consumer to choose between brands. Rather, through inundation, ads
produce an all-around ambiance that encourages consumerism in toto,
making it seem as desirable and natural as air.2 Advertiser Christine Frederick
noted in a
manual: "I always think of advertising as a tremendous
moving-picture device
keep ever and constantly changing before us, in film
after film, reel after reel, all the good things that manufacturers make every-
where, set in a dramatic scenario which compels attention through the touch of
advertising genius."3 In the seventy years of technological innovation and
marketing consolidation since Frederick's comment, advertising has become
an ever more influential part of a hegemonic matrix of social and economic
institutions. We do indeed attend its panorama and, whether slack-jawed or
skeptical, are gripped by all these "good things ... set in a dramatic scenario."
At first it was just a byproduct; then, it became a stated goal of the commer-
cial endeavor. To practitioners, it was implicit that the advertising industry
should help shape popular notions of identity-and by extension, gender, race,
and class. Jackson Lears remarks that "national advertisers ... participated in
the construction of the modern subject-a normative self that suited the
emerging corporate structure of power relations in the early-twentieth-century
United States."4
Living Up to the Ads
examines both fictional and commercial
representations of identity from the
the decade that secured a place for
advertising at the heart of American business. Considering fiction by Sinclair
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