Wed May 4 19:14:27 EDT 2011
old as mankind. In some cases, they are explicitly told that
"advertisements in some shape or form have existed not only from time
immemorial, but almost for all time," that it "flourished" three
thousand years ago and "played an important role in the development
of countless societies and cultures."
Inserted amid such nonsense is "proof" in the form of examples. One
encounters the same examples in one text after another. The
repetition suggests a good deal of inbreeding or, perhaps, despite
the statements to the contrary, the true paucity of advertisements in
the ancient world. Further, many of the examples were not
advertisements at all. Some were mere on-premise identifying signs.
Others were personal selling. One text even claims that the wall
inscriptions on Hammurabi's temple in Uruk were early examples of
corporate billboard advertising, and that the Rosetta Stone was an
Of course, one of the best ways to legitimatize anything is to say
that it is as old as mankind-that, as Kleppner says of advertising,
it is "human nature." An interesting variation on that theme is the
inclusion of an out-of-context discussion of advertising in the
Soviet Union-presumably to show that even communists can't get along
Only one text explains that advertising is associated with market
activity and even more so with market economies, and that until very
recently there was very little of the former and none of the latter.
The explanation is far too brief, however, to enable the beginning
student, who has never known anything but capitalism, to understand
the fundamental differences.
Every society, even a group of castaways, must cope with two basic
economic problems: how to allocate scarce resources, and how to
distribute output (wealth). By far, most of the "countless societies
and cultures" humankind has developed during its time on this planet
solved both of those problems according to principles of reciprocity,
redistribution, and householding-types of economic organization in
which there is no place for advertising.
Reciprocity, simply, is gift-giving, according to traditional,
well-defined patterns, so that every member of the society knows his
assigned tasks and receives his rightful share of the wealth. Neither
giver nor receiver has any reason to advertise.
Redistribution is based on central authority, and functions much like
the public sector of modern economies. The people, motivated by
loyalty, respect, and ultimately by the threat of force, give some
part of their produce to the leader as tribute or taxes. Some in turn
is redistributed (hence the name) in the form of feasts, public
works, and so forth. There is no need for advertising in this system,
Householding is economic self-sufficiency by families or other small
groups who produce for their own consumption, engaging in little or
no exchange. The absence of need or opportunity to advertise is
THE COMING OF ECONOMIC SOCIETY
Since virtually all the texts fail to point out that the economies of
the ancient world and medieval Europe were fundamentally different
from modern free-enterprise capitalism, it is not surprising that
little is said about the arrival of capitalism in the western world a
few centuries ago, or about the historical forces associated with its
birth, or even about how a capitalist economy is supposed to function.
Although two texts mention the guilds in passing, not one mentions
the Commercial Revolution. Nothing is said of the Reformation or of
the Protestant Ethic and how it differed from the Catholic Church's
view of commercial activity. The word "mercantilism" is not mentioned
in a single text. Not one text mentions the Scientific Revolution or
the Enlightenment, and only one discusses (too briefly) the classical
liberal Weltanschau-ung and its important role in developing
Neither do the texts explain that, even after the market assumed an
important role in Western economies, householding remained the
predominant feature of economic life for the majority of the
population. Much is made of Benjamin Franklin as though he
exemplified the Americans of his day. But in Franklin's time it
required many farmers to produce a sufficient surplus beyond their
own needs to feed and clothe a single city dweller. Prior to the
Industrial Revolution, more than 90 percent of the population lived
on farms, householding. They sold their small surplus and bought the
few things they could not produce, but money played a tiny part in
their lives. They did not earn a living, they made a living. One New
England farmer, far more typical of his contemporaries than was
Franklin, wrote in his diary:
My farm gave me and my whole family a good living on the produce. One
year it left me with another $150 dollars, for I never spent more
than ten dollars a year, which was for salt, nails and the like.
Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought as my farm produced it all.
So, while it was possible for authors to reproduce advertisements
from early newspapers, their importance in the lives of the general
population is exaggerated unless the reader is told how little
advertising and commerce there were. Even among merchants,
advertising was of little importance. As Max Weber said, "the
advertisement as a notice by the merchant, directed toward finding a
market, first becomes an established phenomenon at the end of the
eighteenth century." He was speaking of England, where the Industrial
Revolution was well underway by that time.
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND NATIONAL ADVERTISING
The Industrial Revolution not only made possible the quantity and
forms of advertising we have today, it transformed every aspect of
the economy and of life in general. From a society in which more than
nine out of ten families lived substantially like the New England
farmer quoted above, America became in only two lifetimes a society
in which only one family in 25 lives on a farm. And that family, like
those in towns and cities, earns rather than makes its living,
selling virtually all its produce and buying virtually everything it
consumes. Householding is now so rare as to be a curiosity, practiced
only by those who have "dropped out" of society.
Most of the texts do not note these effects, characterizing the
Industrial Revolution merely as a period of increased production.
Neither do the texts show how the Revolution led to national
advertising, nor even that national advertising is fundamentally
different from retail advertising-a matter I will discuss later.
One book does mention the population growth of a few cities but fails
to explain the significance of urbanization. Only at the end of the
chapter does one find any reference to the most important changes of
the Industrial Revolution, but merely in the form of a disconnected
list of "Forces Behind the Facts." Thus the growth of the middle
class is brushed off in a one-sentence afterthought, while P. T.
Barnum receives two paragraphs. Most of the texts provide an even
less satisfactory treatment of the Industrial Revolution.
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