Advertising: Art as Society's Mirror

Article excerpt

Advertising. If you're reading this on a bus, you're surrounded by it. It is that overwhelming bombardment of the senses that, supposedly, drives you to buy certain brands, deepening your subconscious loyalty to Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Many opinions exist on whether advertising works or not. My view steers away from that, presenting the idea that advertising, even more than purely aesthetic art, reflects society, giving a slice of the era in which it aims to persuade. This Instructional Resource is, therefore, a history overview with a pop-culture twist. The focus is a retrospective of American print advertising from the 1890s to the 1990s.


To begin, one connection between art and advertising is the creator: the artist and the advertiser, respectively. Harold Demsetz defines the advertiser as that "keen and concerned observer of society" (1974, p. 68) . The definition of "artist" nearly matches this. The motivation behind the concern differentiates the artist from the advertiser. The advertiser: a) holds a bias toward the advertised product or service, and b) has the viewer's persuasion as the goal. Let us look at history through this lens.


Advertising has had a long, vivid history, but what we see of it today is almost entirely the outgrowth of the late Victorian age, the first era in which the middle class had a disposable income (Goodrum & Dalrymple,1990). The great inventions in use during the late 1800s make the 1890s an ideal decade to begin a look at advertising.

Among other things, the Industrial Revolution had given America the sewing machine (1846), the shoesewing machine (1858), the Bessemer steel-making process (1864), and the adding machine (1872)-all of which worked to make life simpler, production faster, the new consumer more secure. Factories drew rural masses to the cities, folks dreaming about the good life they saw advertised on billboards and posters, in pamphlets and magazines. Railroads linked towns to cities, transporting people and products with relatively affordable ease and speed. Packaging innovations like bottles, tin cans and lined boxes kept products from spoiling. Manufacturers soon realized the power of packaging and of branding their products: to sell more product (Goodrum & Dalrymple, 1990).

The telephone, electric light bulb, and phonograph all led the prospering middle class to a more leisurely life. Among the first products to receive a celebrity endorsement, this Coca-Cola calendar from 1903 features opera singer Lillian Nordica (see photo). It reflects the mindset of those who were able to afford elaborate dress, drink and entertainment.

The result of bottling innovation and the railroad system's speedy delivery allowed shoppers in New York to drink Coca-Cola that was bottled in Georgia. Prior to the urban population influx, people grew food, made soap or sewed clothes, with little need to go to the local General Store. City dwellers began shopping in stores with shelves lined with packaged products. Shoppers, however, needed an education in what to buy-so, in stepped the advertiser. 1910s

The First World War began in 1914 with the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire. The carnage of the war inspired maternal images of the Red Cross as `"The Greatest Mother in the World." As part of the peace movement, suffragists sought to unite women as a civilizing force in politics. New magazines, including the Ladies' Home Journal and McCall's, reached unprecedented circulation among middle class women, serving as manuals for how to lead a proper feminine life. In an attempt to heighten consumers' morale, advertisers learned to wrap products in "the tissue of dreams" (Fox, 1984, p. 150) . Instead of selling phonographs, they sold enjoyment The focus was more on the consumer, less on the product.

This ad for Arrow Collars & Shirts For Dress was published in 1913, illustrated by J. …