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Published by EH.Net and H-Business (August 2002)

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Daniel Delis Hill, Advertising to the American Woman, 1900-1999. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. vii + 329 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8142-0890-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Bryan Wuthrich, Department of History, University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale.

The connections between advertising and the modern American woman have a long tradition in American cultural historiography. Modern writers and American cultural observers as far back as John Dos Passos in his novel Manhattan Transfer have linked the modern female identity and the burgeoning advertising industry as mirrors of each other (the female lead in Passos’ narrative is frequently coupled with various advertising spokeswomen and products but in particular she is coupled with the Danderine woman, that lovely vision of a Lady Godiva like woman on her horse “cur[ing] dandruff where ever it grows.” Most frequently, as is the case with Dos Passos, the connection is not a flattering one. For men who find the modern woman to be distastefully shallow they can, like Dos Passos, dismiss her as a freakish creation of the advertising industry. For many feminists, frequently in response to allegations of feminine narrow-minded consumerism, the advertising industry is merely the main vehicle for the perpetuation of male sexism in the modern world. Either way advertising comes across as a negative influence on modern American womanhood.

By the fifties and such historians as Daniel J. Boorstin, advertising as a cultural force began to get a much deserved reappraisal. As the key element to consumer culture, advertising was reassessed along with consumerism in general as a powerful democratizing influence by many American thinkers: instead of leading down the road to ruin, advertising was re-envisioned as a trail blazer leading to, what is often overstated as, the democracy of the market place. While it is indeed uncertain that the persistent reality of economic inequality (especially for women) permits anything resembling the rhetoric of a ‘democracy of cash’ as Boorstin puts it, it is far more certain that the rise of consumerism and the access which it gives to commodities once considered to be out of reach for the overwhelming majority of Americans is a decidedly empowering and democratizing experience, even if it does not remotely achieve democracy as an ideal.

It is within this fairly recent historiography of apologia for consumerism that Daniel Delis Hill’s new book Advertising to the American Woman, 1900-1999 fits. Women, he argues, were particularly empowered by consumerism because they occupy such a crucial role within consumer marketing strategy, thereby placing more focus on them as a group and moving their role in society from the margins to the center. Hill is quick to point out the importance of feminist activists and women in general for the change of female roles types within society but he seems especially intent on pointing out in his book the role that consumerism and advertising played in women’s history. The main historiographical influence on his writing is Roland Marchand and his impressive work Advertising the American Dream which he refers to frequently. Marchand argues that advertising served an important social function within modernity by getting to know ‘the people.’ More so than modern philosophers and theorist and even more than most politicians, advertisers worked to know who Americans really were, what their cares, fears, and desires were; ultimately, they, according to Marchand, were far more successful than most of their fellow professionals in helping Americans adapt to modernity with all the freedom and risks it entails. The questions then, with regard to Hill’s book, is how well did advertisers know women and what role their ‘knowledge’ play in women’s self perception and liberation.

Hill’s book is an impressive display of advertising imagery throughout the past one hundred years. It is wonderfully illustrated with a broad range of advertising copy nicely exemplifying the various evolutions in marketing strategy through the years. Beyond its impressive look Hill provides his book with some fine historical research. He has gone into the background of professional adverting looking into the various trade journals since the turn of the century. He also provides some of the basic background historiography leading up to the rise of American consumerism. In other words, Hill’s book has the polished look of a nice coffee-table book and some of the rhetoric of a serious historical monograph. But, as often is the case, its strength is ironically also the source of its weakness. Advertising to the American Woman suffers from a sort of identity crisis (perhaps, not unlike the one suffered by the role of women in advertising which it purports to study) Is it a broad and fairly unambitious overview of women in advertising or a serious (and more ambitious) work of historical writing? Or, even more importantly, what is its main focus, advertising history or women’s history? The latter problem has to do with the focus of its examination, or lack thereof. Frequently, Hill seems to lose sight of his focus on women in advertising and the book becomes more of an overview of advertising in general. To be fair, Hill, in his preface, does not make any ambitious claims about his goals regarding the relationship between women and advertising, saying that he is looking only to make an ‘ examination of what and how marketers advertised to the American Woman.’ (xi) In fact, he states more explicitly in his preface what he does not have as goals than he does his actual goals: one of these non-goals is ‘an in-depth examination of advertising as an accurate reflection of social reality across the decades. . .'(ix) If Hill kept to his intentions as stated in the preface he would have had a successful if uninteresting book, that he does not brings up some interesting issues but in a less than satisfying manner.

Taking his cue from Marchand and other apologists for advertising and consumerism, Hill’s rhetoric in the body of his book leads to some pretty provocative inferences. The social and economic status of women, Hill states, ‘was hardly more than that of chattel’ during the nineteenth century. (191) Hill is reticent to state this openly but the implication is clear in his rhetoric that advertising had something to do with the loosening of restrictions on women–this is in keeping with Marchand’s thesis that advertising helped paved the way for the loosening of traditional assumptions and attitudes and the fashioning of more modern ones in their place. The key issue at hand here is what role does advertising play in influencing social reality? This is a question which Hill has some difficulty addressing.

It is a question, of course, which does not really have to be solved–no one has answered it yet–but it is one that has been the subject of quite a lot of thought. Beyond Marchand and a smattering of other thinkers Hill does not bring much historical or philosophical insight to bear on the subject. One gets the impression that Hill is opening up a can of worms when he brings this subject up in his historical overview of women and advertising, one that he has difficulty dealing with within the flow of his narrative. More than likely, this is simply a subject that is too involved to mention briefly as an aside when discussing how marketers catered to the new phenomenon of the career woman during the early twentieth century. As it is, Hill allows himself to get caught at times saying either that advertising has no role in defining sex roles and merely reflects long standing biases that are ‘deeply ingrained’ (194) within society or that advertising is indeed powerful and that it is ‘truly shaping public opinion.’ (195)

The problem that Hill is grappling with seems to be that if he states that advertising really does effect society in a significant way then he has to account for its complicity in both its successes and failures regarding women. Rather, Hill works diligently to sidestep the difficult question of advertising’s role in society even when he begs the question himself within the framework of his own discourse on the subject, ultimately making what would otherwise be effective points somewhat muddled. As a result, provocative statements like the one made by Seventeen magazine in a 1955 advertisement in an advertising trade journal–‘It’s easier to start a habit than to stop one. Start her with your brand in Seventeen’ (17)–are often presented by Hill without any sense of irony given some of his earlier statements. One is left to wonder, did women in the twentieth century leave behind their status as chattel within a society dominated by patriarchy only to become chattel once again in a society dominated by marketing demographics?

Hill is on the right track in pointing out many of the positive aspects which advertising and consumerism have brought to American women (and all Americans for that matter) but all advances come at a cost, particularly in this case. Taking into account these negative aspects has proven more difficult for Hill to cope with. Advertising to the American Woman is nonetheless a useful and thought-provoking overview of female oriented marketing during the past 100 years; the fact that it seems at times incomplete only shows how much work there is still to do in the field.

Bryan Wuthrich is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern Illinois and is currently working on his dissertation examining the influence of the Beat movement on sixties’ counterculturalism. One particular aspect of this examination is the role which small business plays (especially in the alternative press) in the preservation and growth of a viable counterculture.