In the early 1900s, people spent less time at work and there was an increase in wages. For the first time in a while, there was disposable income and more leisure time for the average American. There was also a major shift from the ethic of production to one of consumption. Thus, desire was being manufactured at unprecedented rates. Shopping became an important part of American pop culture, as it was one way to spend leisure time (and money, too).
People needed to be taught to think that what they want is actually a necessity. The main issue was not how to produce the goods, but how to produce the customers. Only advertising was able to keep up the consumption pace with that of production. It implied that everybody could afford consumer products. Advertising captured the impersonality of mass society by focusing on the individual.
With the capacity to produce increasing so rapidly, advertising emerged in the United States. If you only buy what you need, then you don’t need advertising. In order to increase consumption, you need to persuade the public that they need something more than they think they do. By investing in a product, greater benefits will come their way.
Advertising emerged as a profession first in the United States in the 1870s and 80s. Advertisers assumed most purchases would be made by women, so they pitched their products at a more feminine audience. Women were responsible for roughly 80 percent of purchases made. Advertisers were predominantly men. They seduced customers by assuming women were capricious and more susceptible to impulse buying and emotional appeal.
Initially, advertisers had to overcome the generalization of tacky ads. Eventually, they would argue that their ads (essentially) provided news and information about products and trends. By the 1890s, advertisers began to use American figures to endorse products.
Holidays also became appropriated for commercial reasons. Merchandisers made Santa Claus the center of Christmas. He wasn’t much of a commercial figure before this change. Department stores. Thanksgiving day parade.
The democratization of leisure was driven mainly by the movies. By the 1920s, people were seeing movies three times a week. Because ticket prices were relatively inexpensive back then (especially compared to the $14 I had to pay to see Star Wars), people went often, even if they had a lower-end income. Theaters were associated with royalty and castles. They were modeled after regal designs and were called movie palaces with their eye-catching architecture.
The significance of movies is that they served as an alternative and more subliminal form of advertising. They told audiences what was in fashion. Product placement became integral to movies, and it still is. You become more attracted to purchasing what you see onscreen.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and we enter the boozy and scandalous world of New York advertising epitomized by Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. This show shows how consumerism became a seductive business in order to sell products and ideas. Mad Men went to great lengths in researching and writing the series in order to make sure it accurately portrayed what manufacturing desire was all about.
Ultimately, once advertisers figured out they could persuade people to buy things they don’t need by creating “new needs,” they could sell ice to an eskimo.
Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on alternate Fridays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected]