Making Sense of Advertisements Daniel Pope
(from the Making Sense of Evidence series on History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web, located at http://historymatters.gmu.edu) Advertisements are all around us today and have been for a long time; advertising-free “good old days” just don’t exist. This guide offers an overview of advertisements as historical sources and how historians use them, a brief history of advertising, questions to ask when interpreting ads as historical evidence, an annotated bibliography, and a guide to finding advertisements online. Author Daniel Pope has taught at the University of Oregon since 1975 and is currently Associate Professor and History Department Head. He teaches courses on American economic and business history and on the history of American radicalism. He is the author of The Making of Modern Advertising (1983) and editor of American Radicalism (2001); he has written many articles on the history of American advertising, marketing, and consumer culture, and on the history of nuclear power and anti-nuclear activism. Introduction Over a century ago, Harper’s Weekly commented that advertisements were “a true mirror of life, a sort of fossil history from which the future chronicler, if all other historical monuments were to be lost, might fully and graphically rewrite the history of our time.” Few if any historians today would claim that they could compose a complete history of an era from its advertisements, but in recent years scholars have creatively probed advertisements for clues about the society and the business environment that produced them. The presence of many excellent online collections of advertisements provides learners as well as established scholars the opportunity to examine these sources in new ways. The experience can be tantalizing and frustrating, since advertisements don’t readily proclaim their intent or display the social and cultural context of their creation. Yet studying advertisements as historical sources can also be fascinating and revealing. Most of us—avid consumers though we may be—pride ourselves on being able to “see through” advertisements. We can interpret this phrase in several ways. Most simply, we “see through” ads when we are oblivious to them—when we look right past them, as we do with most ads we encounter daily. Much of what advertising professionals do is aimed at “cutting through the clutter,” overcoming our propensity to ignore most ads. In another sense of “seeing through,” we dismiss ads because we judge them to be misleading or dishonest. As historians, however, we need to focus on ads and see or hear them. As Yogi Berra put it, “You can observe a lot by watching.” American Advertising: A Brief History Despite or because of its ubiquity, advertising is not an easy term to define. Usually advertising attempts to persuade its audience to purchase a good or a service. But “institutional” advertising has for a century sought to build corporate reputations without appealing for sales. Political advertising solicits a vote (or a contribution), not a purchase. Usually, too, authors distinguish advertising from salesmanship by defining “Making Sense of Advertisements,” Daniel Pope, page 1
it as mediated persuasion aimed at an audience rather than one-to-one communication with a potential customer. The boundaries blur here, too. When you log on to Amazon.com, a screen often addresses you by name and suggests that, based on your past purchases, you might want to buy certain books or CDs, selected just for you. A telephone call with an automated telemarketing message is equally irritating whether we classify it as advertising or sales effort. In United States history, advertising has responded to changing business demands, media technologies, and cultural contexts, and it is here, not in a fruitless search for the very first advertisement, that we should begin. In the eighteenth century, many American colonists enjoyed imported British consumer...
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