Fables Of Abundance

A Cultural History Of Advertising In America


By Jackson Lears

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Fables of Abundance ranges from the traveling peddlers of early modern Europe to the twentieth-century American corporation, exploring the ways that advertising collaborated with other cultural institutions to produce the dominant aspirations and anxieties in the modern United States.


For my mother, my father, and my brother Lee
and for my daughters, Rachel and Adin,
in remembrance and hope

"Le superflu, chose très nécessaire."
"There is no wealth but life."
—John Ruskin

WHAT do advertisements mean? Many things. They urge people to buy goods, but they also signify a certain vision of the good life; they validate a way of being in the world. They focus private fantasy; they sanction or subvert existing structures of economic and political power. Their significance depends on their cultural setting.
And they can show up almost anywhere. Consider the meaning of advertisements to the Abelam of New Guinea. The Abelam are well known among anthropologists for their tambarans: polychromatic sacred designs embodying the most powerful ancestral spirits of the tribe and covering the outside walls of the houses used for important ceremonies. "Coloured magazines sometimes find their way into the villages, and occasionally pages torn from them are attached to the matting at the base of the ceremonial house facade," the British anthropologist Anthony Forge observed in 1963. "In all such cases I have seen, the pages were brightly coloured, usually food advertisements of the Spam and sweet corn and honey-baked ham type. Inquiries revealed that the Abelam had no idea of what was represented but thought that with their bright colours and incomprehensibility the selected pages were likely to be European tambarans and therefore powerful."1 In New Guinea as in the industrialized West, advertisements could slip past the narrow, instrumental purpose of selling goods to acquire broader and more elusive cultural meaning.
Without falling into a facile definition of advertising as "the folklore of industrial society," it is possible to admit that the Abelam were on to something. 2 During the last two hundred years, in the capitalist West and increasingly elsewhere as well, advertisements have acquired a powerful iconic significance. Yet they have been more than static symbols: they have coupled words and pictures in commercial fables—stories that have been both fabulous and didactic, that have evoked fantasies and pointed morals, that have reconfigured ancient dreams of abundance to fit the modern world of goods. By the late twentieth century, these fables of abundance—especially the ones sponsored by major multinational corporations—had become perhaps the most dynamic and sensuous representations of cultural values in the world.
Interpretations of those values depend on the observer's angle of vision, and this interpretation is no exception. Rooted like all books in its author's own personal and historical circumstances, Fables of Abundance tries to provide evaluation and critique as well as chronicle. It aims to locate the rise of national advertising in the United States within wider transatlantic currents of cultural history: the disenchantment of an animistic worldview with the rise of Western science; the spread of market exchange beyond traditional boundaries of time and place; the growing dominance of an individualistic model of controlled, unified selfhood; the triumph of bureaucratic rationality in the factory system and the modern corporation; and the persistence of irrationalist and animist countertendencies in the popular and avant-garde arts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is the story of how advertising collaborated with other institutions in promoting what became the dominant aspirations, anxieties, even notions of personal identity, in the modem United States. It is an effort to show how advertising helped recast our relationships with material goods and the surrounding environment, and how people on both sides of the Atlantic (some of them involved in the advertising business themselves) sought to sustain or create alternative ways of being in the world.
An obvious retort to such wide-ranging claims is that I am inflating advertising's significance. From this view, the advertising industry is primarily about selling goods, not promoting values, and it is misleading to single out advertising as the source of cultural tendencies that may have originated in other institutions (or in sheer human perversity). There is something to this argument. College professors and other educated professionals were as involved in the disenchantment of the world as advertising people were (perhaps more involved, as even national advertising preserved some attachment to the realm of fantasy). That is why I have explored the entanglements between advertising people and other occupational groups: ministers, political leaders, physicians, lawyers, social scientists, journalists, writers and artists. Throughout, I have tried to locate the rise of national advertising within a many-voiced cultural conversation.
I have not tried to write a comprehensive historical survey of American advertising. Some readers may be disappointed to find that certain agencies, campaigns, or personalities are missing from these pages. Nor have I asked whether or not a particular advertising campaign has helped to sell a particular product. This question does not, in my judgment, reveal very much about the broader cultural significance of advertising. Instead, I have tried to explore what were, for the most part, the unintended consequences of advertisers' efforts to vend their wares: the creation of a symbolic universe where certain cultural values were sanctioned and others rendered marginal or invisible.
In a synthesis this broad, even more than in most works of historical scholarship, the arguments advanced reveal their character as regulative fictions, metaphors constructed by the historian to make sense of multifarious evidence.3 The materials he uses for construction will reflect his own frame of mind at the time of the project. So a brief account of this book's intellectual genesis is in order.


When I began working on this book there were almost no cultural histories of advertising available. (A number of talented historians, led by Roland Marchand, have since remedied that lack.)4 In the United States, efforts to interpret advertising's cultural significance were embedded in a critical tradition that included Thorstein Veblen and John Kenneth Galbraith, Stuart Chase and Vance Packard. Though it was articulated in secular idioms, their critique derived from Protestant commitments to plain speech and plain living, as well as from republican fears of conspiracy against the independence of the individual self. Critics in this tradition derided advertising for employing deceptive strategies against a passive, hapless audience, and promoting the cancerous growth of a wasteful consumer culture.
I started research on this book just when that tradition was going out of style, among both popular and scholarly audiences. Jimmy Carter's calls for ecologically grounded sacrifice had been drowned out by Ronald Reagan's strategies of systematic denial. America was "back," and weekly newsmagazines spoke of a "return to elegance"—which mostly meant stretch limousines and suspenders for stockbrokers. In academic circles, scholars re-examined the older critique of advertising and found it wanting. Some discovered the liberating potential in acts of consumption and the creative energies in corporate-sponsored advertising.5
Yet more than simply a shift in intellectual fashion was going on. The scholarship of the 1980s raised serious empirical and conceptual questions about the narrowness of the existing critical tradition. The older critics could accurately be criticized for their naive and literalist views of language. They could also sometimes fairly be said to harbor puritanical traits: a distrust of fantasy and sensuous display, a preference for production over consumption, a manipulative model of advertising as social control, and a masculine bias that led them to typecast the mass of consumers as passive and feminine. Implicitly they elevated the rational producer over the irrational consumer, embracing a productivist ethic that devalued leisure and aesthetic experience. Finally, as the social scientists Mary Douglas and Michael Schudson observed, the early critics' Veblenesque attacks on materialism overlooked the nearly universal human tendency to make cultural meaning from material objects. Goods have always served symbolic as well as utilitarian purposes, and advertisers' efforts to associate silverware with status or cars with sex were but a recent and well-organized example of a widespread cultural practice.6
In formulating my own perspective on advertising, I tried to take these arguments into account, while acknowledging the power of the plain-speech tradition—especially in political discourse. However naive the plainspoken outrage of an Orwell, it was still a bracing counterpoint to a political culture where constituencies were packaged and presidents were test-marketed. But I hoped to do more than issue another jeremiad against the corruptions created by Madison Avenue. In an era when obsessions with "productivity" had become ecologically dangerous as well as aesthetically repellent, I felt the need for a perspective on advertising that was more open to the symbolic uses of goods, more sympathetically and playfully connected to the material world, than the critiques generally spawned by the existing tradition. Gradually I began to realize that modern advertising could be seen less as an agent of materialism than as one of the cultural forces working to disconnect human beings from the material world.
There were many intellectual resources available for refining this point of view. One was Marxist intellectual tradition, unfashionable but indispensable, which focused on the fetishistic qualities of goods—their capacity to become endowed with "a life of their own." The character of the fetishism changed in accordance with particular economic circumstances. Outside the orbit of industrial capitalism, according to Marxian tradition, products became animated by embodying the beliefs and practices of their particular social milieu; they epitomized a sense of intimate relatedness to the material world. Under industrial capitalism, in contrast, production was severed from consumption, and an atomistic, dualistic worldview prevailed; things were isolated from their origins and seemed to move mysteriously on their own: a different sort of fetishism emerged.7
The first version of fetishism envisioned people as the makers of objects, enmeshed with the natural world and each other, exercising a flawed but actual freedom; the second, commodity fetishism, represented humans as the objects of forces, divorced from the material world and one another, caught up in a reified process of development. Technological determinism was the perfect vision of history for a society whose rulers were committed to commodity fetishism: things acted autonomously, creating "cultural lag" between old "myths" and new "realities," requiring people to jettison their cultural baggage if they were to stay on the train of progress. Part of that baggage consisted of goods rendered outmoded by stylistic change and planned obsolescence. Commodity fetishism directed desire toward the acquisition of things but not their leisurely enjoyment; it underwrote a Cartesian vision of an isolated self in an inert world of objects.
This was the dominant attitude toward things enshrined in modem advertising, but (as my own research began to make clear) there were many other attitudes as well: longings for links with an actual or imagined past, or for communal connections in the present; professional aspirations, personal conflicts, idiosyncratic tastes. The rhetoric and iconography of advertising could not be reduced to a mere propaganda of commodities. There were too many variations and ambiguities arising from advertisers' own private needs and confusions.
The Marxist tradition, though it illuminated many issues, did not encourage exploration of idiosyncrasies. Many Marxist thinkers suffered from an attachment to a linear, progressive framework of historical change. Despite their romance with primitive communism, they often embraced the masculine productivist ethos, celebrating "man's" capacity for making more and more things. Promethean optimism, in Marxian as in Veblenian tradition, encouraged a utilitarian, work-obsessed orientation toward the material world.
In my dissatisfaction with the productivist view, I discovered a number of thinkers who had questioned it. American antimodernists from Henry Adams to Lewis Mumford, attacking faith in progress, explored the driven rationality that powered the unending upward spiral of production and consumption. The Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, fresh from their experience with fascism, acknowledged that the sphere of consumption could shelter utopian longings for release from drudgery; but, they charged, advertising and mass culture had colonized leisure, bringing it under the "performance principle" that governed organized capitalism. Unlike critics in the productivist traditions, all of these thinkers realized that the spread of mass consumption had not brought about the promised reign of leisure.8 The problem, I sensed, was not hedonism but the lack of it—and not materialism, but the spread of indifference toward a material world where things were reduced to disposable commodities.
But what were the alternatives? One possibility was that commodity fetishism was not as universal as critics believed. Anthropological research suggested that most societies sorted things on a continuum stretching from complete commodification (or standardization) to complete singularity.9 For centuries, powerful institutions—the state, the church, and most recently the art museum—mobilized their resources to sacralize objects and remove them to a "priceless" sphere; ordinary folk did the same with heirlooms, keepsakes, and souvenirs. These projects embodied a desire to create other realms of meaning, based on alternative relationships to objects, alongside the throwaway culture promoted by modem advertising. Efforts to articulate those meanings focused on gift exchange, craftsmanship, and collecting.
Inspired by a rich anthropological literature, a few intellectuals have explored gift culture as an alternative to commodity civilization. Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, and the American poet Lewis Hyde associated gift-giving with an erotic expenditure of energy that paradoxically created a sense of overflowing abundance: "the more I give to thee," says Juliet, "the more I have." This they contrasted with the pinched, prudential outlook allegedly fostered by commodity exchange. Bataille and Baudrillard put a Nietzschean spin on the contrast; Hyde gave it a social-democratic turn. While gift-giving created a sense of abundance even amid poverty, he argued, commodity exchange reinforced feelings of scarcity even amid a cornucopia of goods.10
Craftsmanship energized another discourse of objects. Its most distinguished recent articulator was Hannah Arendt. Distinguishing between work and labor, she defined work as the fabrication of durable objects that in their comparative permanence could stabilize human life. Their durability gave them the independence to withstand "the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users." People could "retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table." Labor, by contrast, in our "consumers' society," was merely "making a living." As "labor and consumption are but two stages of the same process, imposed on men by the necessity of life, this is only another way of saying that we live in a society of laborers." Arendt rejected that society's utilitarian criteria of worth. "Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of 'making a living,' " she complained, lodging her hopes in a notion of art as a realm where "the sheer durability of the world of things" appeared with greater "purity and clarity" than anywhere else. But the "consumers' society" made that vision increasingly difficult to apprehend. "The ideals of homo faber, the fabricator of the world, which are permanence, stability, and durability, have been sacrificed to abundance, the ideal of the animal laborans." Arendt understood that the major flaw in "consumers' society" was not materialism, but an implicit contempt for "the thing-character of the world." Her alternative to consumption was not asceticism but fabrication, maintenance, and care of a durable world of things.11
The collector was one ideal type who seemed to answer Arendt's description. Systematic collecting may have been "the most abstract of all forms of consumption," as Baudrillard said, but collecting could occur in many modes. It could be the ordering of rarities by the connoisseur, but also the reclaiming of ephemera by the artist or the devotee of camp, who transforms the kitsch figurine into the sacral artifact, making the impermanent permanent, the outmoded commodity into the "timeless" work of art—still granting its materiality and history, but inverting its place in the cultural hierarchy. Things, like people, could assume different identities at different stages of their lives.12
All these ideal types, I discovered, shared a connection to the serious play that Johan Huizinga identified with artistic creation. We refer to the exceptionally talented artist as "gifted," conceive her work as a gift to the world, and focus on the spontaneous self-forgetfulness that is often said to characterize both play and the creative process. Only our reduction of work to labor has led us to stigmatize play as frivolous. "From the standpoint of 'making a living,'" Arendt wrote, "every activity unconnected with labor becomes a 'hobby.'"13 Play involves the construction of a parallel universe of meaning, with objects that have become charged with symbolic significance.
The child at play and the artist absorbed in her work were, in a sense, engaged in reanimating the world. Both examples of human subjectivity embodied an imaginative connection to the material world that could be found as well in a variety of cultural forms, in animistic or magical worldviews as well as in more contemporary modes of thought. What these cultural forms had in common was an outlook unbound by dualistic conventions of matter and mind, self and world—a point of view that placed the person amid things animated with meaning.
In searching for a critical perspective on advertising, what I found was less a coherent countertradition than a cluster of attitudes that crossed the borders of ethnicity and religion, geographical region and historical epoch, high culture and low. One could locate these attitudes in the popular magic of medieval Catholics and the domestic rituals of nineteenth-century Protestants, in the "local knowledge" of vernacular craftsmanship and the "science of the concrete" practiced by Lévi-Strauss's bricoleur, who made do with castoff artifacts and fragments of cultural tradition. And one could find a similar cast of mind in the work of avant-garde artists from James Joyce to Joseph Cornell: blurring familiar boundaries, they engaged in serious play and truthful fantasy.14
This animistic sensibility poses fundamental challenges to the subject-object dualism at the heart of Western culture—including the culture promoted by advertising. Enfolding the natural as well as the humanly constructed world, a version of animism has even resurfaced in science, in the growing recognition that a "feeling for the organism" holds the key to sensitive observation of nature. The phrase was coined by Barbara McClintock, the geneticist and Nobel laureate who pioneered research on mutations in maize plants, discovering genetic relationships decades before they were confirmed by molecular geneticists. Some observers claimed this insight bordered on the mystical. McClintock cultivated a sympathetic understanding with the objects of her study until they became "subjects in their own right," as her biographer puts it.15 This shift away from dualism, with all its ecological implications, captured the philosophical perspective that informs my interpretation of American advertising and its historical significance. That does not mean I pretend to transcend the category of isolated selfhood in my own life, or that I think the notion of separate identity should or could be abandoned; rather, I simply suggest we rethink some implications of human-centered individualism, and some alternatives to it.


Throughout this study I have tried to strike a balance between my desire to recognize the contradictory character of advertising's cultural role and my impulse to locate larger patterns of change. So I have ended with contradictory patterns that, I believe, embody some recurring tensions in commercial culture: between the deceptions of the confidence man and the plain speech of the self-made man, between the spontaneous force of consumer desire and the managerial drive for predictability and control. Overall, the balance of tensions has gradually been restructured in accordance with the requirements of organizational rationality, especially during the past century with the rise of national and multinational corporations. But neither confidence men nor consumer longings could ever be entirely integrated into a managerial system. Indeed, it was precisely the variety and unpredictability of the marketplace that had attracted people to it in the first place.
For centuries since the great commercial fairs of early modem Europe, market exchange has been associated with a carnival atmosphere, with fantastic and sensuous experience, perhaps even with the possibility of an almost magical self-transformation through the purchase of exotic artifacts in a fluid, anonymous social setting. Consumer goods, in other words, could still sustain traces of an animistic sensibility, but they began to circulate widely in the West during the early modern period (1500—1800), when the cosmic explanatory power of a magical worldview was becoming problematic for some people. The magic of the marketplace was fragmentary and attenuated; it had less to do with a coherent cosmology than with a developing world of free-floating, shape-shifting selves. But under certain circumstances, it held out a vision of transcendence, however fleeting.
Advertisements preserved that fitful promise down to the twentieth century. Consider a vignette from Henry Roth's autobiographical novel Call It Sleep (1934), which re-creates the experience of a sensitive Jewish immigrant boy growing up in Brooklyn before the First World War. Battered by street punks and living in fear of his father's rages, the boy imagines that if he had a tricycle, "he'd ride away," past the telegraph poles on the outskirts of the city, to "a place like a picture in the candy store. That lady who stood on a big box of cigarettes and wore a handkerchief under her eyes and funny fat pants without a dress and carried a round sword. A place where those houses were that she lived in, that all ended in sharp points." His erotically charged ruminations return quickly to his immediate situation; still, for a moment he has been lifted from his chronic anxiety and transported to a fantastic place by remembering a fragment of commercial exotica—perhaps a label from a box of Egyptian Deities cigarettes. 16
But as rhetorical constructions, advertisements did more than stir up desire; they also sought to manage it—to stabilize the sorcery of the marketplace by containing dreams of personal transformation within a broader rhetoric of control. The urgency of that project was rooted in circumstances peculiar to Anglo-American Protestant culture: extraordinary natural abundance, combined with a proliferation of charlatans and confidence men in a society committed to sincerity and self-command. In the nineteenth century the rhetoric of control often originated outside the advertising business, issuing from ministers and other moralists. Advertisements themselves became a carnival of exotic imagery. But as the marketplace in commercial images became more organized and more dominated by large corporations, the rhetoric of control came from within the advertising business, in the managerial idiom of efficient performance. At about the same time Roth's young narrator was fantasizing about the lady in the fat pants, most national brand-name advertisers and their agencies were sanitizing exoticism and standardizing ideals of beauty. Those newer images tended to show up in the national magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, and not in marginal locations like the candy store in Roth's working-class Jewish neighborhood. In the national advertisements, which were designed increasingly in agencies by educated Anglo-Saxon professionals, pleasure was subordinated to a larger agenda of personal efficiency. To be sure, sensuality survived, but it was increasingly clothed in the sterile idiom of clinical frankness. In general—despite a welcome resurgence of irony, humor, and even surrealism during the past decade or so—managerial values have set the agenda for most national advertising down to the present. Even the flagrantly sexual advertisements of recent years have presented erotic appeal as the product of disciplined conditioning.
By emphasizing the centrality of management imperatives, I mean to correct the common assumption (which my own earlier work encouraged) that advertising ushered in a "hedonistic culture of consumption." Consumer culture there was, from the 1910s to the 1970s, but it was less a riot of hedonism than a new way of ordering the existing balance of tensions between control and release. During its heyday, the post—World War II decades, consumer culture was based on an unusual set of institutional circumstances: a system of tradeoffs between labor and management (labor discipline in exchange for steady, high wages), and the temporary global ascendancy of the U.S. economy. As capital became more mobile and management began looking overseas for cheap labor, consumer culture lost its institutional base. Without a well-paid working population, mass consumption could no longer serve as the integrative glue of civil society. Americans could no longer count on a steady increase in their standard of living.
Still, the assumptions and values of consumer culture have lasted down to the present. Presidents and political parties continue to base their claims to power on their capacity to deliver the goods, though the goods are usually defined in abstract statistical terms. Advertisements are more pervasive and brilliant than ever, though their innovative forms mask the conventionality of their content. Despite their sensuous surfaces, most brand-name advertisements remain dominated by the ethos of personal efficiency. They continue to construct a separate striving self in a world of fascinating but forgettable goods.


On Sale
Nov 3, 1995
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Jackson Lears

About the Author

Jackson Lears is the author of No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920, and the editor (with Richard Fox) of The Culture of Consumption and The Power of Culture. He is professor of history at Rutgers University.

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