Marchand, Roland. 1985. Advertisements as social tableaux. In Advertising and the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 164–205. Text reprinted with the permission of The University of California Press; illustrations were courtesy of the Area 3 History & Cultures Project, University of California at Davis.
The scene opens upon the covered veranda of a spacious country club. In the foreground, two women and a man are seated in large, smartly designed wicker chairs around a low table.
They are carrying on a casual but obviously engaging conversation. A waiter in a white coat, black bow tie, and slicked-down hair stands near the table, opening a bottle. A golf bag rests beside one chair. The two women are seated with their backs to us, but their stylish cloche hats, their trim figures, and the slightly angular but nevertheless graceful way in which one leans forward toward the gentleman who is speaking unmistakably suggest fastidious demeanor and social confidence. The man faces us. He is impeccably dressed in a summer suit with his handkerchief precisely squared in his coat pocket. He has a tiny, trimmed mustache. As he speaks, he projects an image neither aggressive nor retiring, but simply confident and relaxed. His hands rest comfortably on his crossed knees.
The larger setting is opulent and refined. In the foreground and to the extreme right, a distinguished-looking man in knickers, seated in a wicker chair, serenely puffs a pipe and rests his book in his lap. He gazes out through the veranda’s pillars toward the lawn, the boxed and sculpted trees by a low wall, and the golf course beyond. In the far background more waiters hover about several tables of genteel club members, as yet another couple emerges onto the veranda from the club-house doors. Everything suggests spaciousness as well as leisure. The central figures are well separated from each other with ample “talking room” and sufficient privacy from other tables. They are small. yet not dwarfed by the clubhouse. The pillars at the right, with several Italian cypress trees interspersed, open out for the entire length of the veranda, as far back as we can see, on the expansive open areas of the golf course. Several indistinct figures of golfers can be vaguely glimpsed. Although no color is apparent, the tiled floor of the veranda, the vines covering its roof and the grassy expanses convey a sense of vivid opulence. Tiny goblets on the table of the three characters in the foreground complete the image of fastidious restraint.
Having taken in the scene, we then learn something about the sprightly conversation that is unfolding at the table in the foreground and about some other characters soon to make an appearance: “A woman’s laugh falls gaily upon their ears, and the company learns of a well-played match. The talk turns to yachting and a youth tells of winning the King of Spain’s cup. Fleet horses engage their interest and a Master of Hounds recounts a thrilling hunt in Maryland.” 1
The scene just described might have served as the opening tableau for a play, reproduced in precise detail from the instructions of a playwright who wished to convey an immediate impression of the characters and their society at the raising of the curtain. In fact, it appeared in a 1929 Canada Dry Ginger Ale ad from the Chicago Tribune. Advertising tableaux such as this confront us directly with the dilemma posed by the rather offhand but frequently repeated truism that “advertising reflects society.”
We should recognize, first, that advertisements may be said to reflect society in several ways that have little relevance to the problems raised by the Canada Dry tableau. Advertisements depict and describe the material artifacts available for purchase at a given time. They reveal the state of technology, the current styles in clothing, furniture, and other products, and sometimes the relative prices commanded by various goods. Whereas archaeologists must deduce the probable social uses of the artifacts they unearth, and then interpret from...