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  • Advertising as Capitalist Realism
  • Michael Schudson (bio)

Schudson, Michael. 1984. Advertising as capitalist realism. In Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Itâs Dubious Impact on American Society. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 209–233. Copyright © 1984 by Michael Schudson. Reprinted by permission Basic Books. All rights reserved.

Advertising, as the early agency Lord and Thomas put it, is “salesmanship in print.” It is just that simple, just that complex. Understanding advertising entails understanding the difference between personal and printed or broadcast communication; the differences entailed in the “decontextualization” of thought and feeling that systems of mass communication make possible. With the invention of writing in human history, anthropologist Jack Goody observes, “Speech is no longer tied to an occasion: it becomes timeless. Nor is it attached to a person; on paper, it becomes more abstract, more depersonalized.”1 For Goody, this opens the way to science, to the growth of criticism, and to a more tolerant attitude toward one’s own frame of reference. But the same forces that enable people to see themselves as individuals independent of social and traditional contexts make people susceptible to the appeals of mass media, including advertising. This is an openness or susceptibility qualitatively different from the householder’s vulnerability to the direct sales pitch. Among other things, it connects the consumer not only to an item for sale and a person selling it but to an invisible, yet present, audience of others attuned to the same item for sale and the same symbols used to promote it. The advertisement, like the sales talk, links a seller to a buyer. Unlike the sales talk, it connects the buyer to an assemblage of buyers through words and pictures available to all of them and tailored to no one of them. Advertising is part of the establishment and reflection of a common symbolic culture.

Advertising, whether or not it sells cars or chocolate, surrounds us and enters into us, so that when we speak we may speak in or with reference to the language of advertising and when we see we may see through schemata that advertising has made salient for us. Whether advertising is, as David Potter claimed, the distinctive institution of an affluent society,2 or, as Mason Griff wrote, the “central institution of mass society,”3 can at this point be legitimately doubted. At the same time, it is a distinctive and central symbolic structure. And, strictly as symbol, the power of advertising may be considerable. Advertising may shape our sense of values even under conditions where it does not greatly corrupt our buying habits. I want now to take up the position of the UNESCO MacBride Commission (and many others) that advertising “tends to promote attitudes and life-styles which extol acquisition and consumption at the expense of other values.”4

The Concept of Capitalist Realism

When a person places a classified ad or when a department store announces a January white sale, the intention is to sell goods. In the classifieds, this usually means a unique transaction - a particular house is for sale, a particular job is available, a particular used car is offered. When the given item is sold, the ad is discontinued. With the department store, the situation is less individualized. The store wants to attract customers not only to the linens department but to the store in general and not only in January but always. Still, the ad does relatively little to attract customers except to announce what goods it has to sell at what price. This may be an effort to make a store-loyal customer as well as to sell the product. But the main task is to identify the product, plainly, and to announce its price, breathlessly.

National consumer goods advertising differs sharply from this model of advertising. The connection between ad and sale, so direct in classified ads, or between ad and customer contact, reasonably direct in the January white Sale ad, is very remote in the national consumer-goods ad. It is indirect in both space and time. The commercial for Coca-Cola or Alka-Seltzer does not say how the customer can buy the advertised product; it does not typically announce a phone...

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