DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

“How Does Advertising Work?”


Though often ignored or blindly reviled by the public, advertising is vital for the survival of the American capitalist economy and thus for American society as a whole. Studying the history of advertising is essential to understand American consumer society and what the nation values.


Advertising functions by selling a lifestyle – of luxury, simplicity, modernity, or happiness – made possible by the purchase and consumption of a certain good.[1] By manufacturing artificial desires, advertising becomes an industry of dreams. Advertising’s portrayal of reality is impossibly distorted, promoting a lifestyle of luxurious consumption without mention of the inequalities or real-world problems that cannot be solved by purchasing the newest gadget or choosing the hippest brand.


As the advertising industry has grown, it has come to dominate American culture, serving as the art of capitalism.[2] And, just like art, advertising goes through phases that reflect the society of the time. In the late nineteenth century, small print advertisements announcing goods started popping up in the few national magazines. As a national culture became more cohesive and production boomed, advertising provided an avenue to introduce new companies and explain the use of new products and innovations to consumers.[3] As advertising flourished, individual advertisements became more visually striking in order to stand out amongst the plethora of competing ads.


The industry continued to expand even as international politics jeopardized American prosperity in the early twentieth-century. Advertisers did not react against historical developments that might threaten the consumption ethic, but instead simply adjusted their tactics to argue for the continued need to consume throughout the Great Depression, two world wars, and multiple political and social movements.[4] Advertisements are varied and continue to evolve over time, but the message is always the same – no matter what problems we face as individuals or as a nation, consumption is vital to our continued success.

[1] Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 23.

[2] Michael Schudson, Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 222.

[3] Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 123.

[4] Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 26.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.