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IT CERTAINLY SAYS something about our civilization—and probably nothing good—that many of us have a favorite commercial, whether it is “Where’s the beef?” or “Think different.” It says something else that one of our most beloved television shows is about the moment in history when advertising became a cultural force of its own. I don’t think these phenomena are unrelated.

Do you sense a little bitterness here? I had to get it out of the way, especially since there is very little of this sort of thing in Andrew Cracknell’s new book. The examined life might be the only kind worth living—unless, that is, you happen to work on Madison Avenue. Here, after all, is Cracknell’s opening serve: “It was the best of times, it was the best of times. To be white, male, and healthy in New York in the 1950s was to be as blessed as any individual at any time in human history.” The bygone rajas of the Hindu Kush might quibble with his certainty, but I take Cracknell’s point. That does mean, however, that Mad Men’s fictional Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with all its casual sexism, misogyny and anti-Semitism, was for better or worse—for the worse, I suspect—an accurate depiction of the times.

Then again, as Cracknell writes in this sympathetic history of New York’s advertising industry, back in the nineteenth century “early agencies ... cut their teeth on ... patent medicines—quack remedies sold in vast numbers throughout the United States.” Cracknell quotes one less-than-scrupulous visionary who says, “I can advertise dishwater and sell it, just as well as an article of merit. It’s all in the advertising.” That sort of cavalier attitude about the art of the sell would lead the historian Arnold Toynbee to acidly proclaim a few decades into the twentieth century, “I cannot think of any circumstances in which advertising would not be an evil.”

I don’t know about evil, but it had certainly become boring by the ’50s, dominated by sober, patrician types who would have been just as comfortable filling legal briefs as writing ads. Indeed, their work reflected all the creativity of contracts law. Cracknell calls the hidebound industry “little more than a shouted bulletin board.” Ads of that time were for the most part dutiful, accurate descriptions of products—“fiercely honorable” Cracknell brands the ad man of the ’50s, in what is not even remotely a compliment.

And then Don Draper walked into the room. Well, not quite, but advertising was ripe for a revolution. Back in 1947, Bill Bernbach had written, “It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing.” That was the same year that Edward Bernays, the acknowledged “father of public relations” published an essay called “The Engineering of Consent,” a work that laid out many of the psychological principles behind advertising. The emphasis, from now on, was to be less on truth than on persuasion—by pretty much any means necessary.

Previous advertisements had applied straightforward appeals to reason: “Buy X for reason Y.” By the time the Marlboro Man took his first drag in 1954, the appeal was all in the packaging, which now tugged at the invisible strings of superego and id that Freud’s work had uncovered and popularized—and which, in a parallel development, were being unspooled in the art of the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1957, the first subliminal message was deployed by James Vicary, in a study that flashed messages about popcorn and Coca Cola to moviegoers—an experiment in which the CIA took interest. That was also, not coincidentally, the same year that Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, which promised to reveal “how advertising men are using our hidden urges and frustrations to sell everything from gasoline to politicians.” Frustrations? Not when I’m sucking down on a Marlboro.

Meanwhile, a young George Gallup had taken to polling focus groups on their reactions to advertising, trying to discern what, precisely, attracted  the public to certain products over others. It is telling that the man who would later become the nation’s political barometer took a job with ad giant Young & Rubicam. He found, unsurprisingly, that sex and vanity sold.

By the ’60s, it really was Draper time. Text receded, while the image loomed large—this much is evident from the many lush, full-page reproductions Cracknell features in his book. The goal had once been to persuade the potential customer with unassailable argument; now, it was to entice and lure through artifice that, if less accurate, was a lot more enticing to the ego and the eye.

Thus we arrive at British, affected David Ogilvy and his upper-crust ads for Hathaway shirts and Schweppes ginger ale, the latter showing woman and dachshund chauffeured through the countryside with cases of the fizzy stuff; Bernbach’s firm did the classic “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye” campaign, one of the first companies to not only play on but actually create ethnic stereotypes. And of the ninety-two covers that George Lois would create for Esquire, many would came close to bridging the gap between advertisement and art—none more so than Muhammad Ali, at the height of his radical phase, depicted as a martyred St. Sebastian stabbed through with arrows.

The social revolution of the ’60s eventually found its way even to buttoned-up Madison Avenue. Suddenly, there were Italians in the art department, Jewish writers, and women managing copy desks, rather than only sitting at them. It is during advertising’s entry into the national bloodstream during the ’60s that Cracknell’s book should be strongest—these are men whom he knew or knows, and many of them blurbed his book. And he has included much of their best work here: Nixon has never looked so frightening, nor a Volkswagen so good. But there is too much inside baseball, too much industry history and not enough history of the general kind. The procession of ad men, with their companies melding and splitting apart like amoebas, starts to blend into one Roger Sterling figure. For example: “In retrospect it’s obvious that P&G, who were always committed to Rosser Reeves’ school of advertising, should never have gone to PKL.” I can tell you what the acronyms mean, but not why any of this is important.

And from all the fawning over Mad Men, you’d think that Cracknell would at least discuss the wider role of advertising in popular culture, which for many decades has been considerable. After all, the “ad man” was a cultural trope long before Matthew Weiner ever penned a pilot, but Cracknell has his face pressed so close against the Madison Avenue glass that he misses developments in the surrounding culture. Sloan Wilson’s “disillusioned” ad executive in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, in 1955, barely gets mentioned—and then, only to point out that his sartorial choice would have been Brooks Brothers. Jack Lemmon’s drunk ad hack in Days of Wine and Roses, in 1962, is absent from the narrative. Same for Putney Swope, one of the wilder films of the late ’60s, which skewers Madison Avenue’s racial attitudes by imagining an agency that comes under the control of its only black employee. On television, too, the ad man became a comic trope, most notably in Bewitched.

This is not to say that Cracknell gives short shrift to history, from the boozy martini lunches that Don Draper & Co. seem to particularly revel in, to the “Daisy” advertisement for Lyndon B. Johnson, whose “warning” of nuclear holocaust would spell the rise of television advertising. In fairness, he details the entry of women into the field, as well as the resistance to minorities on Madison Avenue. On some level, a book that is going to celebrate a “golden age” of anything can’t be expected to do much more than that.

Then again, I had an uneasy feeling that Cracknell was selling this book primarily to the men who still remember that time, and remember it rather fondly, if not first-hand then at least through the stories they heard at Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather. So while the story may be a fine one, I don’t quite buy it. The pitch is no good.

Alexander Nazaryan is the editor of the Page Views book blog at the New York Daily News and is on the paper’s editorial board. He is at work on his first novel.