Even if affluence carried unexpected problems, such as a national tendency to overeat, a host of new products and an attendant regime of advertising promised more goods now and inevitable solutions to whatever ill might arise.
It was less often mentioned that the new advertising regime and flood of products were an essential component in the maintenance of national affluence, rather than simply an effect. A permanently expanding culture of consumption was the apparent solution to the problems that had undercut the previous affluence of the 1920s and ushered in the disaster of the Great Depression.
Robert McElvaine has demonstrated that:
The growing power of advertising in the 1920s […] was a sign of a fundamental change in the economy. The nation’s industries had seemingly conquered the age-old problems of production. John Stuart Mill had expressed the nineteenth-century economic view when he said “if we can only produce enough, consumption will take care of itself.” He was wrong. The key to the economy was now consumption. To stimulate sufficient consumption, advertising was essential.(McElvaine 17)The disaster of the Great Depression and the 1930s came about largely through a collapse in consumption primarily attributable to a mal-distribution of economic resources such that “0.1 percent [of American families] held 34 percent of all savings” (36-38).
By contrast, fundamental demographic changes seemed to immunize the post-war decade from future collapse. Chief among the societal change engendered by war was the “baby boom”, which, with an increase in national population from 150 million in 1950 to 179 million in 160, “meant more of everything: jobs, workers, goods, services—all the ingredients for a boom economy” (Young 3). This was augmented by the war-time expansion of industrial infrastructure and the post-war expansion of educational opportunity through the device of the G.I. Bill of Rights by which approximately 6.4 million veterans attended colleges and universities (American Dream 26). This increased upward social and economic mobility, and, by 1956, “industry employed more white-collar (office) employees than blue-collar (factory) workers […] real wages increased 30 percent, so that food, clothing, and shelter no longer took away so much of each paycheck” (Young 4-5).
Yet, to maintain this cycle of prosperity it was necessary that the nation psychologically return to 1920s attitudes toward fiscal responsibility, shaking off the Depression mindset of frugality. Advertising was an essential component in this shift.
Daniel Boorstin writes, in The Image (1961) that:
[Advertising] transports us to where the rigidities of the real world have dissolved. As we stroll through the world of advertising, the half-intelligibility of what we see and read and hear encourages us to hope that our extravagant expectations may be coming true. […] When the function of newly contrived objects becomes more attenuated, when an automobile is no longer merely a transportation machine, but something we wear and luxuriate in or something that gives us “that carefree feeling” and “that sense of indescribable luxury” […] then we can no longer be “deceived” about the “function” of anything. (Boorstin 223)The psychological association of “good” with the consumption of “goods” is the key feature of advertising.
Examples from the decade are abundant. The advertisement at right is a 1955 commercial for Chrysler automobiles. The slogan, “Don’t Miss This ’55 Feeling”, clearly disassociates the car from its function as, a machine for transportation. The vehicle becomes instead the repository for a “feeling” that threatens to be “missed.” The association with a specific year-model suggests that the consumer who “misses” this “feeling” will be “behind the times”. Thus, the car is a device for the attainment of inclusion, or more appropriately a necessity for the avoidance of exclusion from the progress of the American century, the evolution of humanity into the future. To miss this car is to be left out of the American family.
The visual imagery reinforces this reading: the viewer watches from the perspective of the driver, figuratively “inhabiting” both the car itself and the persona of the driver. The elegance hinted at by the coat sleeves and gloves of the driver/viewer associate the vehicle, the “feeling,” and the culture whose progress is not to be “missed” with wealth and power. To be the driver of this vehicle is to be “someone”. In the same way, the slowly unfolding road ahead, opening on the lake and the village in the distance, imply leisure and the capacity to both enjoy the fruits of the future and technology and also a gentler, more nature-attuned past.
Similarly, this Ford advertisement goes so far as to promise love itself. This is a doubled offer as the car itself becomes an object of love, but also facilitates the relationship of the couple who speed off. The depiction of motion in the advertisement is essential to this effect. The couple begin as small, anonymous figures high in the remote corner of page, but, once in the car, they sweep toward the reader, becoming large and distinctive and closer, not only to each other, but to reader as well. The ad becomes an offer of inclusion in a family composed of the figures, the vehicle, and the reader. Further, this is an offer with no risk, unlike interactions with real human beings, the car-family will make you “lose” your heart but it will never break your heart.
The smaller type, serving along with floating hearts as a visual loop to draw the reader’s eye back to the beginning of ad, reinforces the negligible risks and substantial rewards for consumption of the vehicle. It is a “budget-minded beauty” whose aesthetic appeal will cause “love at first look”. It is a “honey” that drives “like riding on air”. This last phrase suggests a smooth ride, but also the romantic phrase, “walking on air.”
Ads such as these invoke the culture of the automobile as the height of individual attainment. Ownership of cars had reached 70% of all American families by 1958. With the increase of use, and development of suburban culture as a possibility for newly middle-class masses, came an increased reliance and a re-formation of culture around the vehicle (Young 247-248). The most significant of these changes was the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, “the most ambitious public-works program undertaken in American history. That act committed the federal government to pay, from a nondivertable Highway Trust Fund, 90 percent of the construction costs for 41,000 miles of toll-free express highways” (Flink 176). Americans spread out, attaining a sense of independence in their capacity to move at will from place to place around the nation.
Fixed investments in plant and machinery, advertising expenses, and labor costs were about the same for a subcompact and a “standard-size” car, and the raw materials could be sold for as much as several thousand dollars more than the subcompact. (Flink 284-285)Flannery O’Connor depicts the conflation of autonomy and auto-mobility in works such as “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and the novel Wise Blood. In the former, Shiflet, the one-armed drifter, covets the car owned by Mrs. Crater, because it confers status; a man with a car is a “man who had a responsibility” (CS 155). Hazel Motes in Wise Blood declares that “‘Nobody with a good car needs to be justified’” (WB 113). Yet, in each case, the car becomes not a source of perfect freedom, but a device by which the character’s assumptions are undercut. As I shall show, such undercutting of the platitudes of consumer society emerges as a consistent motif in O’Connor’s fiction.
Freedom of movement inaugurated a new era of transportation as entertainment In addition to autonomy and power, the culture of affluence also employed the sentiments of personal belonging, position, and family. Advertisements played on the images of children, promising that products would defend innocence against a world that remained uncertain for those who could not or would not consume.
Family “togetherness” became a major cultural pattern during this period. With affluence, reduced infant mortality, and the baby boom, family sizes grew (Young 6-7). Togetherness “meant families looked inward, that parents and children learned from one another, and the home became a nexus of sharing,” including shared exercise of organized religion (Young 8).
Of course, with the increased significance of the family as unit, advertising soon incorporated the motif into its repertoire. An extreme example of this commercial sentimentalism is this painting by Norman Rockwell, one of the most popular artists of his day, for a Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance ad. The family prayer is idealized as a self-contained totality, floating on an ethereal white background. Yet, posed as an insurance ad the ideal is also employed as symbol of what can be lost. Insurance is the embodiment of the ethos of the culture of affluence: monetary exchange as guarantor of security; both physical, emotional, and spiritual. Here “togetherness” and the practice of religion are explicitly united in the arena of commercial advertisement. Robert Ellwood identifies this conceptual union as a component in the expansion of church and synagogue attendance during the decade (Ellwood 2).
This effects an elevation of social stability to a status both sentimental and holy. The resultant ethos acts as a method for the containment of potentially disruptive forces, such as race, sex, and variation in religion. They are made part of a stable social fabric by means of sentimentilization even as they are at the same time decontextualized, converted into products for consumption, either personally as aspects of a persona constructed by the power of purchasing, or in the other as exotic modes of entertainment. The genuine divergences in interest, need, and power of minority or individual agents from the proclaimed homogeneity of the dominant mode is effaced in this overarching process of commoditization.
We have already seen how this process creates the family “unit” as a cog in the society of consumption. This 1955 Pepsi-Cola add presents an example of the employment of sexual roles as commodity. The woman is described as a source of happiness for others, from those who view her to “her insurance company” because she drinks Pepsi-Cola. The drink makes her physically attractive, healthy, and long-lived, but she does not enjoy any of these qualities personally, rather, they make her an object for the enjoyment of others. Any personal or individual meaning is effaced by association with product and audience.
Religion is affected in the same manner. Life shortly after its “Food” issue ran an issue of “Hinduism,” as the first in a series on “The World’s Great Religions”. By this act, an ontological system by which millions of people define reality, and which has genuine conflicts of meaning with other such systems, is reduced to a regional entertainment. Looking down on a young, attractive woman, the viewer is encouraged to assume an acquisition of knowledge about her and the world she inhabits, solely based on his or her capacity to purchase Life magazine. Simultaneously, the reader/consumer is placed “outside” of any reality that could conceivably perceive any inner reality in the girl’s religion, for hers is “Part 1 in a Series”. The specific religion is immaterial; what matters to the viewer/consumer is the “Series,” by which he or she will acquire all of the “World’s Great Religions” as a de-contextualized whole the individual parts of which are endowed with aesthetic quality but denied any independent meaning.
In this way, consumerist culture acts as a means of emptying out particular meaning or identity in place of a larger, generalized “value” in the consumerist exchange.