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Reviewed by:
  • Selling Modernity: Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany
  • Jonathan Silberstein-Loeb
Pamela E. Swett, S. Jonathan Wiesen, and Jonathan R. Zatlin, eds. Selling Modernity: Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. xx + 364 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-4047-8, $89.95 (cloth); 978-0-8223-4069-8, $24.95 (paper).

The essays in this volume constitute a useful contribution to a relatively small body of literature written in English concerning the development and practice of marketing in Germany during the twentieth century. The premise of the book is that ‘advertising informs consumer habits, contributes to the formation of national identity, and expresses the anxieties and opportunities produced by modern consumer society.’ German twentieth-century history, the editors explain, by virtue of its turbulence, offers a unique opportunity to assess the power and endurance of ‘commercial imagery’ in the most extreme circumstances. In exploring these ideas, the authors focus explicitly on the supply of advertising. ‘Selling’, we are told, ‘is, after all, a gerund’, and the authors inquire ‘Who is doing it?’ (2–3). A forward by Victoria de Grazia bespeaks the powerful influence her work has had on the contributors to this volume.

Although the essays are of consistently high quality, by choosing to focus exclusively on the cultural considerations of company [End Page 866] managers and advertising executives, the editors have too narrowly defined the parameters of their study. Pamela W. Laird’s book, Advertising Progress (1998), also relies on an examination of the marketing problems that motivated businesspeople to advertise in order to elucidate the interrelationship between business and culture. Her success is due partly to a conviction that such a study must be rooted in institutional, business history. The editors of Selling Modernity would have profited by adopting a similar approach.

Debates over advertising were shaped as much by the need to sell a popular product in a competitive market and by the enhancement of pre-existing strategies, as by theoretical and nationalistic considerations. Studies that combine these two approaches, such as Sarah Howard’s recent essay on the advertising industry and alcohol in interwar France,1 enable scholars to explore the history of European advertising on its own terms rather than through the dominant paradigm of Americanization. Absent a sufficient exploration of the economics, strategy, and technology of marketing, it is unclear in Corey Ross’s essay on the Americanization of advertising in interwar Germany to what extent convergence of marketing techniques was due to cultural influence or to changes in the modes of advertising production.

An unwillingness to explore changes in consumption patterns, or to provide any data on market trends, undermines some of the central arguments expressed in this volume. Michael Imort’s intriguing essay on visualizing the Volksgemeinschaft through advertising in German forestry journals, although entirely devoted to a discussion of images in periodicals, contains no circulation figures. This omission does not necessarily undermine his central argument that the forest has formed an important element of German political discourse, but readership figures would help to provide a sense of how important the forest really was. Holm Friebe’s biographical essay on Hans Domizlaff, the advertising theorist, might benefit from an explanation of how changes in patterns of consumption affected the implementation and reception of Domizlaff’s ideas. Elizabeth Heineman’s essay on the marketing of sex aides and erotic products would be strengthened if she linked her findings with the extensive literature concerning the history of fertility, contraception, gender, and sexual frigidity in the twentieth century. An analysis of changes in German counterculture might better contextualize Robert P. Stephens’s essay on attempts to counteract drug-usage through advertising. The history of [End Page 867] self-service in East and West Germany, as explained by Rainer Gries, is difficult to understand without any data on changes in consumer demand and disposable income. A consequence of these omissions is that it is unclear how much and what kind of influence the authors attribute to advertising.

The best essays in this volume are those that go beyond considerations of marketing techniques and into the realm of the market. It is not without irony that Anne Kaminsky’s excellent essay...


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