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Overview of Doing History Through Advertising

Digital History TOPIC ID 1

Advertisements are much more than mere mechanisms for selling products. They also provide a valuable window onto a changing American culture. They offer insights into, among other things, the growth of a consumer economy and American society’s shifting conceptions of masculinity and femininity and its changing attitudes toward sex and sexuality.

Advertising played a crucial role in the transformation of the American economy from one in which most goods were produced and sold locally to one dominated by brand names and products distributed nationally.

Before the 1880s, most advertisements consisted entirely of print. The print itself was primarily informational: It described the product and where it could be obtained. The few images that ads contained were highly stylized and rarely illustrated the specific product for sale. Very few ads featured slogans or brand names.

Beginning in the 1890s, however, advertisements underwent a profound transformation. They began to resemble advertising today, emphasizing visual images, slogans, catch-phrases, and appeals to individual’s health and psychological well-being. The J. Walter Thompson advertising agency promoted Scott tissue by warning consumers of "the troubles caused by harsh toilet tissue." Lucky Strike promoted cigarettes to women first by adopting the slogan "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" and later by describing cigarettes as "torches of freedom," as symbols of modern values.

Advertisements helped to transform American values. They made Americans aware of such "problems" as halitosis and body odor. More seriously, they helped promote a shift from an emphasis on savings toward consumption. They also helped to shift a culture oriented toward words toward visual images.

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