On the Cusp of Postwar Modernization: Americanization, International Culture, and Gender Roles in Finnish Commercials, 1955–1975
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On the Cusp of Postwar Modernization:
Americanization, International Culture, and Gender Roles in Finnish Commercials, 1955–1975
Abstract

This article uses selections chosen from a large sample of Finnish commercials produced in the period 1955 to 1975 to demonstrate the changes, particularly in the representation of gender roles, that resulted from the rapid modernization experienced by postwar Finland. The selection includes ads for appliances, household products, toiletries, and cosmetics. Though forces normally seen as “Americanization,” especially in the form of advertising and consumption influences, are discernable, so too, are international innovations in fashion and film, along with global movements such as the rise of feminism and the birth of youth culture. Finally, the impact of the local culture, in the form of Finnish tastes, traditions, and production, is also clearly visible.

Introduction

America was the symbol of modernity in postwar Europe. America meant wealth, a comfortable standard of living, freedom, and a peaceful life—“the American dream.” The US was also seen in the 1950s as a place where things were better, faster, and more effective. American cultural influence took a strong hold all over postwar Western Europe through media.1 As Briton Jeremy Tunstall noted in the 1970s, “media are American.”2 Not only were American films very popular in the postwar period, but US television series and shows were a significant part of programming in many Western European countries as early as the 1950s. Television thus became a major and very effective vehicle for transferring American ideas, including American consumption standards, to Europe. Postwar America was also the leading country in advertising professional practice, providing conceptual models like the Unique Selling Proposition and the lifestyle commercial, which in turn affected the commercials that ran in countries far removed from Madison Avenue. In this way, advertising was part of the process now known as “Americanization,” which not only advanced ideals of democracy and freedom, but also served as the shorthand reference to America’s leadership in technology, consumption, and media.

Over time, however, “Americanization” became a contested process, resisted especially by intellectuals, and the term is now normally used in a discourse of rejection to point to the ways America exerts its hegemonic influence on European cultures. In this pejorative sense, the term symbolizes America as the antithesis to Europeanism, that which European intellectuals conceive of as their common cultural heritage. As Dutch Bob Kroes puts it:

Europe values quality; America knows only quantity. Europe has a keen sense of authenticity; America adores the fake and phony. Europe appreciates things old and genuine, it has ‘depth’; America dissipates its energies in shallow pursuits. Europe experiences itself as meaningful and finds in America what is pointless. Europe knows and appreciates individuality; America subjects it to ruthless standardization.3

In spite of this contentious theme of Americanization, which figures prominently and often in the discourse about postwar European history, Finnish advertisements of the period show a number of influences, some broadly “international” such as British film or Italian design, some profoundly historical, such as the rise of feminism and the global youth subculture, and some distinctively local, such as the adaptation of Finnish ideas, culture, and customs to the emergent consumer society. Thus, the rise of a peculiarly Finnish postmodern society can be discerned growing out of a rather unlikely backdrop.

Postwar Finland

Throughout Europe, including the Scandinavian countries like Sweden, modernization and Americanization were closely linked phenomena—and consumption was one of the primary institutions through which both were constructed.4 Before the 1950s, Finland was the least developed country in Scandinavia; it was also the only country participating in World War II that did not receive aid under the Marshall Plan. Nevertheless, American ideas of freedom and democracy were well suited to Finland, since, unlike so many other European countries, no court or strong nobility had ever existed there. Finnish values, in the progressive tone of its nation building during this period, were not unlike the “frontier” ideology of an early period in the United States.5

Finland’s economic growth in the postwar period was extraordinary. The average annual rate of real national product growth by country was 5 percent in Finland in the 1960s...