The advertiser's art

 Posted by on December 1, 2009 at 12:00 pm  Books, Mad Men
Dec 012009

Guest-post by Kisses in the Hallway

In my Mad Men research I came across a book entitled The Image, A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel Boorstin. I haven’t heard Matt Weiner mention this book anywhere, but in my attention to Mad Men detail, I noticed a copy of another book by Boorstin sitting on Cooper’s shelf. It’s The Americans: The Colonial Experience and it sits next to Atlas Shrugged.

So Boorstin’s Image book–written in 1961–is mainly about something he calls America’s national self-hypnosis. His thesis is that there’s a vast, booming industry, from the news to advertising to travel to celebrity, devoted to creating an illusion that’s not exactly false, but isn’t quite true, either. More controversial, he claims we in fact want to be seduced by this illusion. Contrary to Packard, there are no villains. Instead, the illusion’s exactly what we want. Now, in the chapter on advertising, I found this interesting passage. This could very well be Don’s pitch from Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. From page 215 of Boorstin:

The advertiser’s art then consists largely of the art of making persuasive statements which are neither true nor false. He does not violate the old truth-morality. Rather, like the news maker, he evades it….When Claude C. Hopkins, one of the pioneers of American advertising, took on the Schlitz Beer account some years ago, he prepared himself by learning all he could about brewing. On his tour through the Schlitz brewery Hopkins noticed that bottles were purified by live steam before being filled. This caught his fancy. He developed an advertising program around the notion that Schlitz beer was pure because the bottles were steam-sterilized. Schlitz quickly rose from fifth place in national sales to near first place. What he said was, of course, gospel truth. Consumers simply did not know enough about beer making to realize that the beer of every respectable brand was bottled this way. The use of live steam by Schlitz became a more vivid fact than its use by any of the competitors. Hopkins had concocted the pseudo-event he was looking for. He had made news. This pseudo-event was then given a nationally advertised dignity making it predominate over the same prosaic fact which was equally ‘true’ about all reputable beers. Competitors dared not match the boast for fear they might seem to be imitating Schlitz.

Lucky Strike cigarettes sold well by pre-empting the slogan ‘It’s Toasted.’ They were toasted! So was every other American cigarette. Soon the sales of Lucky Strike reached nearly six billion cigarettes a year.

As Sterling says–I don’t have to tell you what you just witnessed. Boorstin’s book is very fascinating. I highly recommend it for it’s own sake, but it’s themes do resonate with Mad Men’s first season quite well.


  7 Responses to “The advertiser's art”

  1. "America’s national self-hypnosis"
    Wow! What a perfect description….thank you for that phrase.

  2. I have a copy of that book and plan to read it. New York Magazine did a close up of books on Don's shelf and they included Image, so I've been going through my books to see which ones I have that are mentioned on the show.

    Lucky Strikes started using "It's Toasted" in the 1930s – along with the statement that they pay more for premium tobacco leaves.

    by the 1960s, they were selling Lucky's to men and women by offering it as a substitute for eating.

  3. It's a myth, but this reminds me of the old story about tuna or salmon marketed as "won't turn pink in the can."

  4. Boorstin was Librarian of Congress at some point.

  5. I read it as a college freshman in 1972, and have never forgotten the premise–that most of what passes for news are pseudo-events, whether it's a sound bite for "medical death squads", Tiger Woods' peccadilloes or Sarah Palin's book. I don't think of this book often and remember few of the details, but it had a huge impact on the way I view the news. Two other books by Boorstin sit on my library shelves and are very lively reads: "The Discoverers" and "The Creators", which are survey histories of human invention and human creativity, respectively.

  6. Lord Bottletop…so true. I look forward to reading Boorstin's other books one day. Thanks for the heads up.

  7. I'm from france and just want to say that i love your website.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.