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  • The Reframing of Traditional Cultural Values: Consumption and World War I
  • Monica Brasted (bio)

During the early decades of the 20th century, American society changed from an agrarian to a consumer culture. This analysis argues that advertisements facilitated the transition in cultural values that occurred not by merely selectively reflecting those values as a distorted mirror, but by framing those values as inherently linked to goods and the consumption of those goods. During World War I, the traditional cultural values of patriotism, service, thrift, and utility were reframed through a rhetoric of consumption. The values were transposed from the individual to goods as defined and related to one another through the framing in the advertisements.

Consumerism reconfigures the traditional values of a society with values required by capitalism and consumption. A rich body of literature examines the relationship between advertising and cultural values. For example, Bocock (1993) emphasized the role of advertising in furthering consumption:

Modern consumerism . . . depends upon its specific set of values becoming acceptable and comprehensible among sufficient groups of people so that sales of consumer products can be made. These consumption-oriented values have to include those which either allow, or actively encourage, the purchase of the goods and experiences offered

(p. 54).

As a form of communication, advertising is a carrier of cultural values. Cultural values have been defined by Srikandath (1991) as “the governing ideas and guiding principles for thought and action” in a given society (p.166). Richard Pollay and Katherine Gallagher (1990) suggest that these cultural values that are conveyed through advertising are a powerful force that shapes consumers’ motivations, lifestyles, and product choice. Within these advertisements cultural values are endorsed, glamorized, and reinforced (Pollay and Gallagher, 1990). According to Hong Cheng (1998), the way advertising achieves the “transfer” of cultural values is to establish a nexus between what is viewed as desirable in culture and a particular product.

David Potter (1954) was one of the first historians to call attention to the influence of advertising on our culture. For over fifty years, Potter’s work, People of Plenty, has influenced historians’ thinking on advertising. Potter argued that despite the advertiser’s motivation to simply sell more, advertising’s greater significance lies in its cumulative impact providing a pervasive rhetorical environment that surrounds people of all ages, classes, and interests.

Advertising has joined the charmed circle of institutions which fix the values and standards of society and it has done this without being linked to any of the socially defined objectives which usually guide such institutions in the use of their power; then it becomes necessary to consider with special care the extent and nature of its influence, how far it extends, and in what ways it makes itself felt

(Potter, p. 177).

Scholars Richard Pollay and Roland Marchand have taken up Potter’s challenge to examine advertising more closely.

In 1986, Pollay reviewed the work of significant humanities and social science scholars for their thoughts and theories about advertising’s social and cultural consequences. He found that scholars have identified a number of unintended consequences of advertising that have broader social and cultural implications. Pollay argued that advertising’s most profound effect is that it “induces people to keep productive in order to keep consuming, to work in order to buy” (p. 25) by constantly reflecting and reinforcing the value of buying behavior. Another consequence is that as the value of consumption is exaggerated, social relations are sacrificed and the quality of human relations diminished. Pollay’s findings suggest that the positive aspects of advertising, such as facilitating marketplace efficiencies, do not compensate for its high cost in terms of displacing affect from social relations among individuals to the asocial relation between persons and goods.

Based on his review of a wide range of sources, Pollay (1986) formulated “a framework that structures advertising’s supposed effects and causalities” (p. 18). In this framework, Pollay pointed out “not all cultural values are employed and echoed in advertising” (p. 32). He argued that advertising’s unintended consequences have emerged because advertising has selectively reinforced values that can be communicated easily and linked to products, while neglecting the promotion of higher order moral...