Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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." 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 some-

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