Fables of abundance : a cultural history of advertising in America /

American advertisements have become perhaps the most pervasive social icons in the modern world. This book traces their rise against a richly varied backdrop. Its range encompasses literature, religion, and the visual arts, as well as economics, public policy, and the history of medicine. Its cast o...

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Main Author: Lears, T. J. Jackson, 1947- (Author)
Format: Book
Published:[New York] : Basic Books, ©1994.
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Review by Choice Review

Lears has written an essay on advertising from the perspective of an intellectual historian. He discusses numerous minor writers and artists who did stints in advertising, but avoids dominant figures like Albert Lasker. The book examines a few ads, though unfortunately the artwork is poorly reproduced by the publisher. Lears's true concern is with the artwork and iconography of the ads--how female sexuality was depicted, for example, or themes of magical cures in blurbs for 19th-century patent medicines. Only print ads are considered--radio and television get two pages. Most of the book represents Lears's reading of what various intellectuals have said about American advertising. His primary interest is in how democratic intellectuals confront a basically materialist culture that listens to voices other than theirs. Graduate, faculty. R. Jensen; University of Illinois at Chicago

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

History professor Lears's study of the rise of American consumerism explores the repressive aspects of advertising's equating of material abundance with social status. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Excessive ambition weighs down this important revisionist history of advertising in the United States. Lears (History/Rutgers; No Place of Grace, 1981) argues that modern advertising does not, as most think, promote hedonism but on the contrary serves class and state interest by controlling social energies. In fact, he says, scientific and nationalist myths promoted by advertisers alienate Americans from the potentially subversive pleasures of material objects. Lears casts previous critiques of advertising--in particular those in the sociological tradition of Thorstein Veblen--in a new light, claiming that their puritanical condemnations of consumption further this containment of pleasure. These sophisticated arguments will make a significant impact on cultural studies. The difficulties here arise from Lears's efforts to embed his reflections in a social history of American advertising and a meditation on its relationship to art. Tracing traditional New World themes of magical abundance through the 19th-century era of peddlers and medicine shows, he shows how Protestant values of personal authenticity and plain speech formed an uneasy dialectic with promises of transformation offered by commercial culture. But his narrative dissipates as it moves into a string of meandering mini-biographies of figures like P.T. Barnum, Theodore Dreiser, and Edward Steichen while eschewing the case studies of particular advertisements and their reception that might have lent more weight to his theoretical contentions. In the final chapters he interprets treatments of advertising by novelists from Frederick Exley back to Henry James, concluding with a paean to American artist and ad designer Joseph Cornell. Lears seems to claim that the artistic imagination, high or low, can transcend our culture's dualisms. But these artists, with their fabled neuroses, seem problematic sources for a new vision of everyday life. While Lears's inquiry bears abundant fruit, he has stunted some of his ideas by cramming three books' worth of intellectual goods into one package.

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