Captains Of Consciousness | Stuart Ewen

Summary of: Captains Of Consciousness: Advertising And The Social Roots Of The Consumer Culture
By: Stuart Ewen


In Captains of Consciousness, Stuart Ewen dives deep into the social roots of American consumer culture, tracing its origins back to the advent of mass production during the early 20th century. Through the rise of advertising and the transformation of traditional values, Ewen illuminates how mass consumption became an integral part of American life. The book examines the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the evolving dynamics of the family, and the role of media and advertising in shaping modern society. In doing so, the author offers valuable insights into how industrialists used the power of advertising to create a homogenous consumer culture and exert social control over the public.

The Transformation of American Consumerism

The rise of mass production in 1910 sparked a shift in American consumer culture, as manufacturers sought to cultivate a mass market of compulsive buyers. By replacing traditional values like thrift and self-reliance with a desire for an endless stream of commodities, these industrialists employed mass-media advertising to transform the American consciousness. The concept of mass production spread to other industries by the 1920s, resulting in a growing number of businessmen speaking of the ways that human instinct could be mobilized to turn consumption into an inner compulsion. This required mass consumption, and the development of a corresponding mass market of compulsive buyers became essential. With over 1,000 vehicles daily being produced by Ford’s plant, the time needed to assemble automobile chassis dropped dramatically. This led to an increase in production rates, which required the promotion of consuming goods at a similar rate. Mass-media advertising became a primary tool in the reeducation of the US consumer.

The Birth of Consumer Culture

In order to expand their market beyond the upper classes, industries had to create a consumer culture that appealed to low-paid workers, subsistence farmers, and immigrants. This required the advertising industry to develop modern marketing techniques using psychological insights to manufacture a market for commodities. Ultimately, modern advertising was a direct response to the needs of mass industrial capitalism.

The Art of Diverting Attention

Advertisers in the early 20th century needed to tap into universal instincts to appeal to a mass audience and make their cultural milieu as efficient as production. They achieved this by asking readers to look critically at themselves and their flaws, diverting attention from the features of a product. Ads suggested that personal flaws, such as bad breath or unpolished nails, could be the root of dissatisfaction or failures. This led to the rise of passkeys to the good life, such as Woodbury Soap or Colgate Dental Cream. Advertisers’ social management skill in creating a cultural milieu was as efficient as line management’s skill in the process of goods production.

The Birth of Consumer Culture

In the 1920s, American industrialists like Edward Filene believed they needed to launch a comprehensive program of “social planning” to educate consumers to accept mass production and consumption. They sought to absorb various subcultures into one homogeneous culture with consumerism as its distinctive characteristic. This required corporate leaders to quell any anti-capitalist attitudes, redirecting demands for social change into demands for consumer goods. The result was the birth of a new era in American culture and the rise of advertising to the dimensions of a major industry.

The Paradox of the Consumer Society

The rise of mass production and advertising shaped Americans’ experience of work and consumption in the 20th century, but in ways that created a paradox between the ideal of the consumer society and the reality of factory work. Skilled craftspeople gave way to interchangeable cogs on assembly lines, where workers’ endurance mattered more than their skills. Advertising and PR messages focused on the end product, deliberately avoiding any reference to factories or the hazards of industrial labor. This allowed sellers to promote consumer products as a cure-all for the problems of modern life caused by the very factories that produced them. The result was a contradiction between the language of citizenship that celebrated the American way of life, and the reality of a culture built on surface fluff and environmental degradation. Despite this cautionary tale, the system of mass production and consumption remains a fixture of American life, pointing to the enduring power of advertising to shape our desires and ideals.

The Capitalist Vision of Advertising

Industrial leaders aimed to eliminate traditional practices, especially among immigrant communities, in order to promote consumerism. Advertising agencies created “antidote ads” to discredit old-fashioned beliefs and practices, such as home production and non-English speaking. They linked patriotism with consumption in foreign-language publications to push their message. The ultimate goal was to elevate the consumer marketplace to the level of an encompassing “Truth” through the eradication of cultural expression. Advertisements subtly denigrated traditional practices while promoting modern products. The Fels-Naptha laundry detergent ad, for instance, discouraged the traditional practice of boiling clothes, arguing that it was unnecessary when using their product.

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