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FABLES OF ABUNDANCE: A Cultural History of Advertising in America by Jackson Lears, HarperCollins pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE popular culture went legitimate, cultural commentators and academics have constructed elaborate theories to justify our taste for what they obviously consider mass-produced tat. Jackson Lears' solution to this dilemma is the proposition that the disenchanted pre-packaged world of commodities can be redeemed by what he calls a poetics of everyday life. Through this poetics, he argues, the mass commodity can be re-animated and re-valued - transformed from banal consumer product into a talismanic, magical object that functions as a window onto different worlds.

It is significant that he believes that this poetics is illustrated in the writings of Proust and in the combinatory art of Joseph Cornell, rather than in the work of say, Pee-Wee Herman. In any case, Lears' thesis is not original. Since Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, the notion of the creative art of the bricoleur has been as commonplace as the Blue Peter gift. But if Fables of Abundance lacks intellectual glamour, it does have other seductive qualities.

Lears couches his argument in a fascinating history of American advertisers, descendants of pedlars and patent-medicine salesmen transformed into self- styled social engineers, guardians of democracy and the rightful heirs of the artistic genius of Michelangelo.

According to Lears, US advertising has always been haunted by its origins in the contradictory desires of 19th-century America. The Puritan suspicion of ornament and emotion produced a thwarted longing for rapture and self- transformation, and because advertisers were the offspring of Puritans, the advertiser's own self-image has always been at least as important as the image of the product. The great colon campaigns of the early 1900s, for instance, reflected Calvinistic desires for purgation and WASPish fears about ethnic purity, in the language of personal hygiene and efficiency. One laxative was sold with a quote from an Italian statesman-physician: "Many men are failures because of intestinal fatigue." Constipation was a threat to social evolution, a drag on productivity: when in 1928 Thomas Edison was asked about "the most hostile feature of the average human being's environment", he replied "His lower bowel."

By the 1920s advertisers had already adopted the role of custodians of enlightened values and democracy. "It is a great responsibility to mould the daily lives of millions of our fellow men," wrote copywriter James Wallen in 1925, "and I am persuaded that we are second only to statesmen and editors in power for good." Along with this lofty calling went absolute confidence in the artistic merit of their work: Mac Artzt, writing in Printer's Ink in 1930, asserted that the day would come when the copywriter would attract a "reputation on a par with an established writer or artist".

Initially, art served simply as a design tool. But by the 1950s agencies began to seek the cultural kudos that came with being associated with the art world. Lears examines advertisers' transitory obsessions with realism, modernism, abstract expressionism and photography. And despite their bumptious self-elevation, the advertising agencies were staffed by some undoubtedly talented people. Edward Steichen, who collaborated with Alfred Stieglitz, produced in The Saturday Evening Post an innovative back-lit photo of a surgeon and nurse operating. The ad (for Scott's Tissues) asserted in a dramatic Milk Tray kind of way "the trouble began ... with harsh toilet tissue", and resulted in a fad for advertisements with "real- life" drama.

The problem with the book is Lears' belief that we must be saved from our desire to consume through a contemplative poetics. But desire is more visceral than that, and just because it judges as much with the crotch as with the head doesn't mean it has no taste. One has only to look at the libidinal discrimination teenagers show in their judgement of Take That! Advertisers understand only too well that money smells like teen spirit.