Ads, Fads, & Consumer Culture: Advertising's Impact on American Character & Society, 2d ed. Arthur Asa Berger. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004. 196 pp. $65.00 hbk. $19.95 pbk.
The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. Michael Dawson. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. 203 pp. $27.00 hbk. $17.95 pbk.
The Consumer Trap lists the author's credentials as follows: "Michael Dawson is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Portland State University and also works as a paralegal." I mention his credentials first because, as I was reading this book, I was left continually wondering about the extent of his expertise on the subject matter of his book.
Dawson's work is a critical look at the machine he calls "big business marketing in American life." His point of view is clear from the start: "The essence of my argument is that big business marketing is neither more nor less than a system for profitably Grafting and applying stealthy little versions of the force and fraud that have always sustained class dominance."
While his critical view is obvious from the beginning, it does not seem to shape the first third of the book. In fact, chapter 3 is an extremely factual-and thorough-overview of the historical development of market research. Professors teaching advertising or public relations research classes could use this chapter as a complete background on their topics.
Another quite interesting part of the book focuses on the marketing of cigarettes in the Third World. Dawson talks about the tobacco companies' efforts to frame cigarettes as "American glamour." It is these interesting little factoids that are most interesting about Dawson's work. The book also suffers from some serious flaws, however, that I believe result from Dawson's lack of background in the field of marketing.
The first problem with Dawson's book is his assumption that "big business marketing" and "corporate marketing" are synonymous. Advertising practitioners and academics, who have struggled in the past to differentiate the seemingly nuanced terms, are likely to take offense at Dawson's lumping corporate marketing, and more specifically corporate advertising, into his catch-all terms.
Dawson researched this book, in part, at two highly respected marketing archives, one at the Smithsonian and one at Duke University. While his examples throughout the book are quite specific, which is a positive, his focus on Campbell's Soup marketing and his negative perception of the automobile industry get a little tedious. As for the latter, it seems Dawson has a personal stake: He dedicates the book, in part, to his aunt Lisa, "one of the 53,172 people who lost their lives in American automobile 'accidents' in 1980." Since I read book dedications, I got the feeling from the beginning that any mention of the auto industry was going to include a conspiracy-plot feel.
Generally speaking, the fatal flaw in Dawson's work is that his critical approach lacks credibility in a marketing context because it lacks any practicality. Sure, there may be a lot wrong with marketing, but what is the substitute? How else is our media system, and our free press, going to get the support it needs without such a system of financial support?
Also, Dawson seems to make his attack on marketing personal. For example, he writes that, "Another common tactic is smarmy emotional inflation, where the 'good feelings' associated with a product are blown out of proportion in order to increase buying." I began to wonder whether Dawson is a perpetually disgruntied consumer, readying his aim on the entire capitalist system.
Finally, as evidence of the extremes to which Dawson relates marketing's influence, he borrows from the advertising industry by employing a classic fear appeal. In discussing the possibility of a chemical or nuclear war, he writes: "If we follow our present course of big businessled social development, will at least one of these massive calamities befall us in the next century? …