- The Erotic History of Advertising
From the first two sentences of The Erotic History of Advertising, readers should know they are in trouble. Author Tom Reichert begins by thanking "America's advertisers for providing me with an interesting topic" and goes on to explain that his goal is "to describe and make sense of patterns" but "not to criticize." Those statements amount to an admission that Reichert, a professor of advertising at the University of Alabama, is not interested in saying anything particularly meaningful about the subject, which—to put it mildly—digs one into a bit of a scholarly hole. The expression of gratitude to advertisers and the vow not to criticize signal that, like most scholars housed in advertising departments at universities in the United States, Reichert simply will not pursue ideas that could result in a serious critique of the role of advertising in a capitalist society based on mass consumption. (In fairness, this unwritten rule of trade schools—"thou shalt not offer serious critique of the industry we serve"—is common in other disciplines, including journalism.)
The book's title also gives readers a clue about the direction in which it is heading. The choice of "erotic," a term typically used with a positive valence, is crucial. Many uses of sexual imagery in advertising and in popular culture more generally are considered by some to be pornographic rather than erotic. Feminism has had a number of important things to say about these matters, and in 2004 it is difficult to imagine a scholarly project that does not at least acknowledge that. But Reichert's title is an accurate reflection of the content—the book almost completely ignores these issues.
The result is a book about sex and advertising in which there is no serious discussion of political economy or gender. That means that Reichert can't even make good on the limited goals he sets. The book describes many advertisements with sexual content but does not make sense of patterns. Indeed, it identifies patterns only in the most superficial ways. And that, in the end, is the fatal flaw of the book: it is relentlessly superficial, offering readers a breezy tour through some aspects of the history of advertisers' use of sex. That tour is sometimes interesting, offering insights into the thinking of advertisers, but because of his ideological limitations, Reichert is never able to go beyond that.
Reichert may contend that by avoiding any critical engagement with capitalism and patriarchy he in fact is avoiding ideology. But, of course, reflexive support for capitalism and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge feminist critique is not the absence of ideology but simply a statement of a different ideology. To argue that Reichert should not back away from critique is not to demand that he reach specific conclusions but instead that he engage with the relevant questions. One need not be anticapitalist or feminist to understand that critiques of capitalism and patriarchy [End Page 120] are relevant to questions of advertising and sex. Reichert derides those who treat advertising as a "whipping boy" to be blamed for society's ills but then proceeds to avoid relevant questions about advertising's effects on society, which makes him little more than a de facto cheerleader for the industry.
These problems are compounded by the book's failure to offer much context for the developments in advertising. It is a rather ahistorical history, in that the descriptions of the ads come with a minimal amount of discussion of the larger society and its economic, social, and cultural changes. There is also no discussion of methodology; it is not clear how Reichert chose the images he analyzes and, hence, no way to know if they are representative of the times. The organization of the book also needs explaining; Reichert proceeds chronologically up to 1975 and then switches to chapters organized around different categories of products. That may be a sensible strategy, but he does not explain it.
Reichert also makes little or no attempt to define terms. For example, he...