By modern standards, Americans have become nearly desensitized to every tool, campaign, and ambition brought forth from the imaginations of ad executives. Familiarity with commercial concepts across all mediums of communication has brought audiences to the point of disdain for ads where they notice particular hidden motives. Criticism of physical appearances, possessions (or a lack thereof), and lifestyles are well-established approaches that many are uncomfortable with, or simply ignore. Approaches such as those did not appear spontaneously, as they have deep roots with the innovative brainstorming formed by ad agencies during the 1920s and 1930s. Roland Marchand explains in deep analysis how advertisements changed from mere details about a product into a phenomenon that promoted status and class, mass consumption, and a “personal” relationship between buyer and seller.
Due to the related combination of dramatic adjustments in technology and the rise of urbanity, people sought out an advisor to help reassure themselves of whatever incompetence they felt. These emotions opened an opportunity to create a new connection to consumers, one which they could be address on an individual basis, even if anxieties were widespread. Advertisers not only offered counsel, but they additionally suggested solutions to help cope with the evolving times; a conventional factor in their persuasion was to give dominant attention directed toward the consumer instead of the product itself. Ad executives foresaw (even fabricated, at times) dilemmas that would make consumers feel insecure, so they accordingly engaged potential buyers to improve their status or situation with their idea of an antidote.
Advertising The American Dream is essentially an encyclopedic source for understanding the developments from the timeframe in focus. The book contains several detailed investigations including the differences in gender depictions, the use of photography and art to stimulate interest, the importance of radio as a household commercial device, and the interweaving of entertainment with commercials. However, one of the more consistent themes is the introduction of intimate messages directed to consumers; Marchand elaborates on this groundbreaking progression by discussing how ads showed “average” Americans participating in everyday events and the creation of fictitious “common” characters that addressed readers informally. In addition, Marchand associates capturing the American dream with exploring new frontiers of urbanity along with emphasizing style, color, and sophistication as essential to realizing success. Of course, Marchand exposes the archetype for the American dream as dramatically exaggerated.
Marchand uses a colossal amount of sources to supplement his argument, which are not limited to newspaper articles, business reports, and surveys used to transport the reader into the thought process of the “guardians of uninterrupted progress”. However, the most powerful sources are the primary visual advertisements. Every section of the book contains ads that communicates exactly what Marchand is arguing; for instance, he includes ads from the Great Depression that portray people emerging from dark shadows and walking toward an illuminated location, symbolizing a journey from hard economic times to eventual prosperity. The basis for pushing inferiority complex parables onto consumers is also highlighted with the celebration of impossibly slim women and criticism of general hygiene. Examples provided by Marchand demonstrate the goals of past advertisers in comparison to current sales pitches, and although they may be seen as cliché by today’s standards, the psychological messages behind the visuals remain true.
Despite the immense strength that backs up the general thesis, a glaring weakness is discovering how advertisements had a lasting social impact on the average consumer. Marchand points out that buyers actually paid closer attention to ads for products they already purchased, and he discusses how ad men bought into their own evolution from businessmen to “missionaries of modernity”. However, there is little insight into if audiences were disgusted by, embraced, or felt neutral about the social undertones placed in ads. The reader understands that products were bought because of the presence of ads, but were the proposed social ideals adopted as well? This uncertainty is answered through some examples of other media channels, but there is a lack of a concrete answer to whether consumers completely understood the ads.
Modern day advertisements have obviously become more grand and flashier since the first third of the 20th century. Regardless of what audiences have historically observed, the question remains: do advertisers accurately reflect the zeitgeist of society, or do advertisers create an illusion as to what our culture’s goals should be? According to Marchand, it’s a distorted combination of both; either way, “people believe what they see”. Advertising The American Dream explains how the business world capitalized on a transition from a utilitarian, rustic society to a culture that was more self-indulgent and urban by promoting human experiences.