Michael Ross explores the profound impact of advertising as a cultural institution – one designed not merely to sell products, but rather to sell consumption as a "way of life" and to reinforce consumerism as the "dominant social paradigm." While advertising has long been a focus of several notable media and cultural studies scholars, Ross's approach to the subject matter is unique in that he chooses as his object of study ten fictional works and one contemporary television show (Mad Men) which have attempted to confront the contradictions and implications of living in a social universe saturated by promotional messages. Designing Fictions is largely concerned with the "literary representations of advertising's steadily encroaching social influence" and how such representations have evolved over the decades in the works of English-language writers ranging from H.G. Wells (1909) to Joshua Ferris (2007). Building on a relatively new wave of scholarship arguably started by Jennifer Wicke's groundbreaking Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading (1988), Ross also considers the synergetic unfolding of advertising and literature as mutually intermingling discourses.
After an entertaining prologue in which the author addresses, among other themes, the fetishism of commodities vis-à-vis a discussion of Silas Marner's relationship with a cherished earthenware pot in George Eliot's classic work and the conspicuous consumption on display in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the first chapter provides an overview of scholarly perspectives on advertising and promotional culture. Here we encounter the thought of Jean Baudrillard, Raymond Williams, Marshall McLuhan, Judith Williamson, James Twitchell, Zygmunt Bauman, Stuart Ewen, Andrew Wernick, and others as Ross sets the conceptual stage for his subsequent literary analyses.
In four of the book's chapters, Ross employs a comparative method, contrasting the works of Henry James (The Ambassadors) and H.G. Wells [End Page 121] (Tono-Bungay), Christopher Morley (The Haunted Bookshop, Thunder on the Left) and George Orwell (Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Nineteen Eighty-Four), Frederick Wakeman (The Hucksters) and Herman Wouk (Aurora Dawn), and Blake Morrison (South of the River) and Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End). An entire chapter is dedicated to a close reading of Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman, one of the first novels to engage the advertising ethos from a distinctly female perspective. In each of these chapters, Ross brings to bear an impressive range of theoretical concepts without distracting from the richness of the detailed textual analyses he provides.
Many of the fictional examples Ross dissects have pitted "promotional business against 'artistic' pursuits" and the cultivated heights of literature, or to phrase it another way, commercialism versus culture, yet Ross identifies a fundamental tension insofar as there is a demonstrable overlap between literary and promotional writing. One of the key questions animating Designing Fictions is, therefore, whether literary works can offer authentic critiques of consumer culture given that the authors of such narratives are not only immersed within it but also reliant upon promotional discourses to sell their own work. As Ross notes, such critiques "tend inevitably to be conditioned by their own participation in modern commodity culture." In short, even the most unflinching of detractors is inexorably caught in the web of marketing and none exist outside the logic of consumer capitalism.
In the last chapter, focused on Mad Men, the critically acclaimed and recently concluded television series, Ross cleverly incorporates observations made in previous chapters into an analysis of Mad Men's ironic and dialectical portrayal of the advertising world and a discussion of how the show itself embodies the tensions between artistic impulses and commercial imperatives.
Overall, Designing Fictions offers readers important insights into the ways in which classic and contemporary literary works have grappled with the complexities and seductions of advertising. At a time when virtually every moment of human existence is being transformed into a marketing opportunity, Ross forcefully concludes the book by urging contemporary writers to continue to use literature as an intellectual resource of cultural resistance against the onslaught of promotional culture. [End Page 122]