Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s [NOOK Book]


In Living Up to the Ads Simone Weil Davis examines commodity culture’s impact on popular notions of gender and identity during the 1920s. Arguing that the newly ascendant advertising industry introduced three new metaphors for personhood—the ad man, the female consumer, and the often female advertising model or spokesperson—Davis traces the emergence of the pervasive gendering of American consumerism.
Materials from advertising firms—including memos, manuals, meeting minutes, ...
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Living Up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s

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In Living Up to the Ads Simone Weil Davis examines commodity culture’s impact on popular notions of gender and identity during the 1920s. Arguing that the newly ascendant advertising industry introduced three new metaphors for personhood—the ad man, the female consumer, and the often female advertising model or spokesperson—Davis traces the emergence of the pervasive gendering of American consumerism.
Materials from advertising firms—including memos, manuals, meeting minutes, and newsletters—are considered alongside the fiction of Sinclair Lewis, Nella Larsen, Bruce Barton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Davis engages such books as Babbitt, Quicksand, and Save Me the Waltz in original and imaginative ways, asking each to participate in her discussion of commodity culture, gender, and identity. To illuminate the subjective, day-to-day experiences of 1920s consumerism in the United States, Davis juxtaposes print ads and industry manuals with works of fiction. Capturing the maverick voices of some of the decade’s most influential advertisers and writers, Davis reveals the lines that were drawn between truths and lies, seduction and selling, white and black, and men and women.
Davis’s methodology challenges disciplinary borders by employing historical, sociological, and literary practices to discuss the enduring links between commodity culture, gender, and identity construction. Living Up to the Ads will appeal to students and scholars of advertising, American studies, women’s studies, cultural studies, and early-twentieth-century American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A strikingly thoughtful study of a crucible period in American cultural and literary history. Bristling with intelligence, highly engaged, and critically informed, Living Up to the Ads investigates the shifting nature of selfhood as commodity capitalism and public relations converge on the subject.”—Jennifer Wicke, author of Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading

“A very stimulating book. Davis explores the complexity of the relations between advertising and personal identity, and between advertising and literature, with a lively, sharp, idiosyncratic style.”—Rachel Bowlby, author of Shopping with Freud

“Davis offers a new and provocative perspective on a cultural shift that, even in the 1920s, was marked as much by its subtle presence in fiction as it was by its heavy-handed presence in print media. This book will contribute a great deal to interdisciplinary studies of commodity culture.”—Jennifer Scanlon, author of Inarticulate Longings: “The Ladies’ Home Journal,” Gender, and the Promises of Consumer Culture

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822377641
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2012
  • Series: New Americanists
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 264
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Simone Weil Davis is Assistant Professor of English at Long Island University.

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Living Up to the Ads

Gender Fictions of the 1920s

By Simone Weil Davis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7764-1


Doubled Truth Uplift and the Bottom Line

The Industry

Advertising emerged as an identifiable profession in the mid-nineteenth century, functioning in its earliest forms as a kind of "space brokerage" whereby agents sold ad space in newspapers. Whether the adman-in-the-middle should represent the company with something to tout or the newspaper with a circulation to sell was something that it took a generation or two of entrepreneurially minded advertisers to iron out. Meanwhile, this unregulated indeterminacy meant that advertising was perceived as a somewhat dubious enterprise among the businesspeople who used it; it likewise suffered from a bad reputation among audiences in that it was linked with the "quackery" and deceptions of patent medicines, the first products to be heavily advertised across the United States. P. T. Barnum, an early and voluble figurehead for the profession, generated much excitement and a certain umbrage during the 1860s and 1870s with his energetic humbuggery, which proved a sizable contribution to the development of advertising and public relations principles.

At the century's turn, wage earners, often Immigrants and/or recently urbanized, were heterogeneous in their affiliations, predilections, and cultural values, and frequently politicized in their dissatisfactions. One significant reaction was an increasingly aggressive call from business and government circles for what department store magnate Edward Filene called consumer "education": "Mass production demands mass education.... [T]he masses must learn to behave like human beings in a mass production world" (quoted in Ewen 1976, 54). For Filene and others, the masses acceptably "humanized" would commit their wallets, leisure time, and value systems to the logic of the marketplace and commodity. Since many American salaries did not provide adequate disposable income for such wholesale dedication to consumerism, credit options emerged, and "by the end of the 1920s, Americans were buying over 60% of their cars, radios, and furniture on the installment plan" (Marchand4).

That so much of this consumer "education" should be conducted by advertising professionals was partially a result of the industry's engagement with the First World War effort. Advertiser George Creel's Committee on Public Information proved as much a publicity campaign for the respectability and indispensability of advertising as for American involvement in the war, and advertisers' National War Advisory Board ushered the profession into the managerial elite even as it counciled the government. The collaboration was recompensed: a "wartime excess profits tax which defined advertising expenditures as exempt business costs" helped motivate a widespread enlargening of advertising budgets (Marchand 6).

By the 1920s, advertising, already a significant presence in national and local commerce since the 1870s, took its place at center stage: American commerce would not be conducted without it. Organizations like the American Association of Advertising Agencies, which touted its oversight of professional standards and truth in advertising, had already laid the groundwork for the industry's legitimization and self-regulation. Statistics of growth in advertising volume, agency's incomes, and the percentage of distribution costs allotted to advertising all reflect huge gains made by the profession during this period. Between 1914 and 1929, U.S. advertising revenues increased from $682 to $2,987 million (Pope 22–29), and between 1916 and 1926, national magazine advertising grew by 600% (Marchand 7). As we will see, the newly emergent radio and cinema, both valuable forums for product placement and commercial address, also contributed to the industry's accelerated growth during the twenties. Additionally, systems of transportation and communication had been gradually improving since before the Civil War (and because of the infrastructure created by that war), allowing nationalized chain stores, product distribution, and commercial campaigns to burgeon simultaneously.

The Incorporated Snicker

The early ad industry's first job was to sell itself as an indispensable component of American commerce. Practitioners in this self-conscious industry worked to develop narratives of justification that explained and promoted the profession's role in the economy. One can trace acts of projection in advertisers' texts, where traits that actually appear to be endemic to the advertising project itself are ascribed to the observed consumer-object. The often contradictory means whereby advertisers rationalized their profession, then, wound up shaping the models for individual subjectivity that advertisers envisioned and promulgated.

From its inception among the patent medicine salesmen through today advertising has evoked associations with the charlatanesque, the theatrical, the charming, the carnivalesque. In the face of these somewhat disreputable connotations, the industry has strived for many decades (and especially so in the 1910s and 1920s) to take its place among the new "expert" professions, which were using the guise of the specialist and the "plain speech" discourse of empiricism to invest themselves with the right to exert managerial authority over other peoples lives (Lears 1990). To climb, the adman needed to negotiate the tension between these two models of narrative authority: the carnivalesque and normative. And this industry-specific tension between two visions of power can be understood as more widely significant, providing a key component of advertising's metaphoric impact on a culture it both shaped and reflected. Throughout Fables of Abundance, Jackson Lears emphasizes and revalues the disruptive, creative qualities of the carnivalesque element running through commercial cultures history, a fundamentally Bakhtinian formulation. Yet the difference between the "carnivalesque" and "normative" modes in commercial culture is ultimately less profound than is their collaboration in hegemonic formation.

Historian Marjorie Beale describes how French advertisers of the 1920s, struggling to overcome the reputation of charlatanry, worked to "pool" these modes of authority: they often cited the work, for instance, of Dr. Hippolyte Bernheim, who brought the "rigor" of scientific discourse to the terrain of the mesmeric, focusing on hypnosis and the use of visual images in his study of the powers of suggestion. "Charlatanry" and "scientism" may be more aligned than would seem likely. American advertisers certainly hoped to employ both means. Whether you are persuaded by the sheer pleasure of the seduction, or because you have been daunted into submitting to the injunctions of an expert, you are letting an address from without change your behavior. Hence, the subjectivity of a seduction and the cool rationality of a logical presentation of the "facts" wind up as collaborating planes of influence in the advertisement. Advertising discourse often strikes a "realist" tone, whether via "hard facts" or "folksy" affability, but at the same time, ads engage in a disruption of normative narrative cohesion that is ultimately postmodern. The career of the typical, and indeed prototypical advertising personality P. T. Barnum exemplifies just this strange partnership. Barnum claims in his autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs, that he offers his readers the potentially profitable realism of exposé—talking them through the "backstage" mechanics of a lifetime of practical jokes and staged humbuggery—yet instead, he performs the postmodernist gesture of an exposure that reveals only more spectacle and the impossibility of a real core to be unmasked. "Now and then someone would cry 'humbug' or 'charlatan,' but so much the better for me. It helped to advertise," Barnum brags (142).

Neil Harris and Jennifer Wicke have both remarked on the way that Barnum addressed and incorporated his audience's interpretive sawiness by inviting its members to chuckle knowingly at the spectacle of their own hood-winking. As Lears notes, this phenomenon is essential to advertising as a whole. On the face of it, many ads attempt to neutralize the critical faculties of their audience by presuming the absence of such, giving rise to the ubiquitous cry that advertisers talk down to consumers and view them as gullible to the extreme. This states the case too simply, though. Despite the fact that some advertisers did express great contempt for their audience, they did not fail to prepare for a complex response to the advertising message on the part of the "incoherent masses" they addressed. The target of an ad is not expected to take in the main address of the ad purely, simply, ingenuously. Rather, the consumer's "leftover" interpretive sophistication, although apparently belied, does not go untended to. This more perspicacious level of reception is simultaneously engaged through a sort of incorporated snicker, which works in tandem with the broad face of the "show" itself to create a two-pronged strategy for audience absorption. In addition to the surface thrust of the ad's main "story," the competitive drive of the advertiser who tells this story to manipulate the audience successfully becomes, itself, a metaspectacle, and this covert valuation of the manipulative illusion seeks a spot at the heart of the American identity.

The reflexivity of the advertiser asks not for scrutiny but applause, a reflexivity that supports the status quo, not subverting but partnering the normative realism of the advertiser's pitch. The incorporated snicker is subtextual, subliminal; it attempts to incite a sort of pleasure in the epiphenomenology of Persuasion and therefore can be seen as aligning with the carnivalesque mode of achieving narrative power. Running concurrent with the overt narrative of the ad, then, is the picaresque subtext of the advertiser's endeavor to charm and persuade; the audience is supposed to be "sold" by the ad's surface story and simultaneously soothed about their own susceptibility in the pleasure of observing the mechanics of persuasion as it unfolds. Today, this endeavor is often more than implicit, as articles tracking successful ad campaigns proliferate in the popular media and contextualize the ads themselves with a scorekeeping metanarrative akin to sports coverage.

The incorporation of the audience's skeptical faculties via the tongue-in-cheek stance is a common ingredient in modern narrative. Its linkage to the commercial process throws into question any formula that would too quickly read all irony and fractured narrative as indicators of resistance or subversion. Advertisers are consummate experts at experimenting with semiotic fractures, at creating impact by attending to and incorporating the different levels of reception set into motion by a narrative address. So this kind of fracturing of narrative is not implicitly subversive, even though it apparently does not rely on the myth of a unified whole that has been posited by deconstructionists as the main tool of a liberal bourgeois cultural hegemony. Anne McClintock asks "whether it is sufficient to locate agency in the internal fissures of discourse. Locating agency in ambivalence runs the risk of what might be called a fetishism of form." She cites Homi Bhabha: "Caught in the Imaginary as they are, these shifting positionalities will never seriously threaten the dominant power relations, for they exist to exercise them pleasurably and productively." The advertising agenda is not to subvert or oppose, but to sell; audience pleasure in an advertisement's ironic, winking address will hopefully lead to the productivity of a sale. Advertisers, however, are not mustachio-twirling villains, driven to distort narratives by their lust for lucre. Rather, they are an ambivalent lot, by and large savvy, highly creative, and often of two minds about their work. The multileveled, sardonic quality of so many ads bespeaks the subtle, wry, even analytic, self-consciousness of the advertiser. Still, this acute, ambivalent consciousness does not change the fact that advertising typically gains in efficacy via just such multilevel approaches to commercial address.

The advertising narrative's remarkable ability to appropriate and reincorporate subtexts and fissures is inherent to the Barnumesque mounting of commercial spectacle. In fact, the fracturing seems to strengthen rather than deconstruct that narrative. This may be possible because, spectacular appearances to the contrary, the notion of an inhering truth is not repudiated by the injection of the reflexive subtext in an ad. The concept of "essence" does live on in the commercial address—in a specific form: the supposed self-evidence of the Profit motive, its introduction into the "plot" as a first cause beyond questioning or examination, often becomes the ground, in a modern capitalist culture, for the enduring notion of inhering, nonconstructed, fundamental essence or truth. For it is profit above all that is spectacularized both in the advertisement's picaresque subtext about persuasion and in industry manuals—profit, no matter what, Barnum explained; profit, the getting of which is a pleasure to behold even at one's own expense; profit, because any catastrophe can be transformed into good publicity; profit, the ultimate proof of corn-modification's limitless appropriative powers.

The Opposing Imperatives of Transcendence and M-C-M Prime

The self-evidence of the bottom line is a key principle at work in many advertising texts from the twenties. This profit-based textual structure, though, intersects with another structuring thematic element: the repeated insistence not on the need to make money, but on advertising's transcendent capacity to civilize. The "treble line truth" of the profession, coded feminine, is advertising's "uplift" function, allowing society to ascend to new heights of civilization; the "bass line truth," coded masculine and ultimately celebrated even more, is the "fundamental bottom line" or the profit motive.

Both the moral and profit-based stances play a part in mobilizing advertisers; in the 1920s, despite their uneasy relation to one another, both postures needed to be assumed, it seems, in order to enable and explain the commercial endeavor to its own practitioners. Often, the search for profit is treated as the advertiser's "real" motivation; both critics and proponents of the advertising industry are quite likely to treat the utopic, transcendent "justifications" for advertising as just that—justifications—far more flimsy, superstructural, and veil-like than the hard, solid, bottom line quest for profit. Yet most advertisers who painted their profession as an agent of civilization were driven by genuinely powerful concerns about and hopes for the twentieth century and the modern industrial project.

One avenue by which such ideals were brought to the commercial endeavor was the social gospel movement: a review of Susan Curtis's work in this area suggests that the utopic, even philanthropic stances of some advertisers were shaped by cultural cross-pollination. As Curtis limns it, Protestant hunger for a revamped Christianity committed to social reform began to express itself as a bona fide social movement in the 1880s and 1890s; eventually, this led to social gospel's significant engagement with and influence on an emergent commodity culture. The influence, though, clearly flowed in both directions: this period of interchange had an impact on both American Protestantism and American commercialism. This push for an accessible, efficacious social reform movement, one that would ameliorate the lot of the common person while invigorating and modernizing the Christian experience, was ultimately incorporated and subsumed by the corporate commercial sphere, Curtis argues. It also set a tenor for the ad industry: if social gospelers began to figure Christian faith using the tropes of consumption, so too did advertisers (regardless of their religious or ethnic identifications), often describing their task as one of uplift and societal transformation. Industry memoirs indicate that the vision of advertising as an instigator of social progress held authentic allure; at the least, the amount of time spent returning to the site of the transcendent claims in these texts implies that the advertising authors hungered after the utopic.

So, the "transcendent" mode in advertisers' writing is apparently more than a hypocritical veneer, an artifice glazed for effect over some sort of naked greed for profit. Perhaps the most lively, least saccharin exemplar comes from Christine Frederick, whose 1929 manual Selling Mrs. Consumer became an industry classic. Here, she responds to a critique of consumer culture from an unnamed source.

As a writer recently facetiously put it:

"The Anglo-Saxon male tradition is slipping! Our civilization is lush soil for the feminine, but barren soil for the masculine characteristics of history and legend. We make much ado over our so-called modern industrial age, but what is it except kindly taking in women's washing and calling it a laundry—doing women's scullery work and calling it a food factory—taking in women's sewing and calling it a textile industry? So we busily mix dough, ply the needle and bustle about with soap and laundry machinery and call ourselves he-men!"

To this Mrs. Consumer can only reply that both men and women seem to be agreed upon what constitutes real civilization, especially since the World War so apparently finally warped and destroyed the last vestige of the male's romantic notion about war. Man has decided to glorify the fireside rather than the God Mars, and to graft upon himself some of the more humanitarian principles with which women have always been concerned. He will fight nature, not himself, make war upon disease, discomfort, ugliness, hunger, ignorance, poverty and misery rather than upon other men. He will live gorgeously and luxuriously, not upon goods taken from others in conquest, but upon goods which he himself manufactures and distributes. If this be feminine, then make the most of it! is woman's reply to the iconoclast.... A new concept of glory which is neither male nor female but human is being substituted by the American man, in which the prize is the lifting of living standards in this country, as well as in the backwards countries of all the world.... That it makes Mrs. Consumer the pivotal center of modern life is simply the logic of nature. (15–17)


Excerpted from Living Up to the Ads by Simone Weil Davis. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Doubled Truth: Uplift and the Bottom Line,
Chapter 2: The Pep Paradigm: Masculinity, Influence, and Shame in Babbitt and The Man Nobody Knows,
Chapter 3: "Complex Little Femmes": Adwomen and the Female Consumer,
Chapter 4: "Lending an Air of Importance": Vehicles at Work,
Chapter 5: In the Tutu or Out the Window: Zelda Fitzgerald and the Possibility of Escape,

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