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The Rhetoric of Democracy

(from "About Language” by William H. Roberts ) 

Daniel J.Boorstin 

We’ve all heard the cliché "as American as apple pie and motherhood.” A more accurate short list of things quintessentially American would include advertising. As Daniel J. Boorstin explains in this chapter from his book Democracy and Its Discontents, advertising is at the heart of our culture, a phenomenon uniquely American. With notable clarity, Boorstin analyzes the historical reasons for this phenomenon, the qualities of our advertising, and the implications of these qualities. Boorstin is well qualified to speak on the American character. One of our country’s best-respected historians, he has written more than fifteen books on U.S. history and has served as senior historian of the Smithsonian Institution and as director of the Library of Congress.


JOURNAL PROMPT Write about the effects of advertisements on you as a consumer. What qualities do most advertisements have in common? Do advertisements always emphasize persuasion at the expense of knowledge, as Boorstin suggests?


1. Advertising, of course, has been part of the mainstream of American civilization, although you might not know it if you read the most respectable surveys of American history. It has been one of the enticements to the settlement of this New World, it has been a producer of the peopling of the United States, and in its modern form, in its world-wide reach, it has been one of our most characteristic products.

2. Never was there a more outrageous or more unscrupulous or more ill-informed advertising campaign than that by which the promoters for the American colonies brought settlers here. Brochures published in English in the seventeenth century, some even earlier, were full of hopeful overstatements, half-truths, and downright lies, along with some facts which nowadays surely would be the basis for a restraining order from the Federal Trade Commission. Gold and Silver, fountains of youth, plenty of fish, venison without limit, all these were promised, and of course some of them were found. It would be interesting to speculate on how long it might have taken to settle this continent if there had not been such promotion by enterprising advertisers. How has American civilization been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe advertising?

3. Advertising has taken the lead in promising and exploiting the new. This was a new world, and one of the advertisement for it appears on the dollar bill on the Great Seal of the United States, which reads novus ordo seclorum, one of the most effective advertising slogan to come out of this country. "A new order of the centuries” – belief in novelty and in the desirability of opening novelty to everybody has been important in our lives throughout our history and especially in this century. Again and again advertising has been an agency for inducing Americans to try anything and everything – from the continent itself to a new brand of soap. As one of the more literate and poetic of the advertising copywriters, James Kenneth Frazier, a Cornell graduate, wrote in 1900 in "The Doctor’s Lament”:

This lean M.D. is Dr. Brown

Who fares but ill in Spotless Town.

The town is so confounded clean,

It is no wonder he is lean,

He’s lost all patients now, you know,

Because they use Sapolio.


4. The same literary talent that once was used to retail Sapolio was later used to induce people to try the Edsel or the Mustang, to experiment with Lifebuoy or Body-All, to drink Pepsi-Cola or Royal Crown Cola, or to shave with a Trac II razor.

5. And as expansion and novelty have become essential to our economy, advertising has played an ever-larger role: in the settling of the continent, in the expansion of the economy, and in the building of an American standard of living. Advertising has expressed the optimism, the hyperbole, and the sense of community, the sense of reaching which has been so important a feature of our civilization.

6. Here I wish to explore the significance of advertising, not as a force in the economy or in shaping an American standard of living, but rather as a touchstone of the ways in which we Americans have learned about all sorts of things.

7. The problems of advertising are of course not peculiar to advertising, for they are just one aspect of the problems of democracy. They reflect the rise of what I have called Consumption Communities and Statistical Communities, and many of the special problems of advertising have arisen from our continuously energetic effort to give everybody everything.

8. If  we consider democracy not just as a political system, but as a set of institutions which do aim to make everything available to everybody, it would not be an overstatement to describe advertising as the characteristic rhetoric of democracy. One of the tendencies of democracy, which Plato and other antidemocrats warned against a long time ago, was the danger that rhetoric would displace or at least overshadow epistemology; that is, the temptation to allow the problem of persuasion to overshadow the problem of knowledge. Democratic societies tend to become more concerned with what people believe than with what is true, to become more concerned with credibility than with truth. All these problems become accentuated in a large-scale democracy like ours, which possesses all apparatus of modern industry. And the problems are accentuated still further by universal literacy, by instantaneous communication, and by the daily plague of words and images.

9. In the early days it was common for advertising men to define advertisements as a kind of news. The best admen, like the best journalists, were supposed to be those who were able to make their news the most interesting and readable. This was natural enough, since the verb to "advertise” originally meant, intransitively, to take note or to consider. For a person to "advertise” meant originally, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to reflect on something, to think about something. Then it came to mean, transitively, to call the attention of another to something, to give him notice, to notify, admonish, warn or inform in a formal or impressive manner. And then, by the sixteenth century, it came to mean: to give notice of anything, to make generally known. It was not until the late eighteenth century that the word "advertising” in English came to have a specifically "advertising” connotation as we might say today, and not until the late nineteenth century that it began to have a specifically commercial connotation. By 1879 someone was saying, "Don’t advertise unless you have something worth advertising.” But even into the present century, newspapers continued to call themselves by the title "Advertiser” – for example, the Boston Daily Advertiser, which was a newspaper of long tradition and one of the most dignified papers in Boston until William Randolph Hearst took it over in 1917. Newspapers carried "Advertiser” on their mastheads, not because they sold advertisements but because they brought news.

10. Now, the main role of advertising in American civilization came increasingly to be that of persuading and appealing rather than that of educating and informing. By 1921, for instance, one of the more popular textbooks, Blanchard’s Essentials of Advertising, began: "Anything employed to influence people favorably is advertising. The mission of advertising is to persuade men and women to act in a way that will be of advantage to the advertiser.” This development – in a country where a shared, a rising, and a democratized standard of living was the national pride and the national hallmark – meant that advertising had become the rhetoric of democracy.

11. What, then, were some of the main features of modern American advertising – if we consider it as a form of rhetoric? First, and perhaps most obvious is repetition. It is hard for us to realize that the use of repetition in advertising is not an ancient device but a modern one, which actually did not come into common use in American journalism until just past the middle of the nineteenth century.

12. The development of what came to be called "iteration copy” was a result of a struggle by a courageous man of letters and advertising pioneer, Robert Bonner, who bought the old New York Merchant’s Ledger in 1851 and turned it into a popular journal. He then had the temerity to try to change the ways of James Gordon Bennett, who of course was one of the most successful of the American newspaper pioneers, and who was both a sensationalist and at the same time an extremely stuffy man when it came to things that he did not consider to be news. Bonner was determined to use advertisements in Bennett’s wide-circulating New York Herald to sell his own literary product, but he found it difficult to persuade Bennett to allow him to use any but agate type in his advertising. (Agate was the smallest type used by newspapers in that day, only barely legible to the naked eye.) Bennett would not allow advertisers to use large type, nor would he allow them to use illustrations except stock cuts, because he thought it was undignified. He said, too, that to allow a variation in the format of ads would be undemocratic. He insisted that all advertisers use the same size type so that no one would be allowed to prevail over another simply by presenting his message in a larger, more clever, or more attention-getting form.

13. Finally Bonner managed to overcome Bennett’s rigidity by leasing whole pages of the paper and using the tiny agate type to form larger letters across the top of the page. In this way he produced a message such as "Bring home the New York Ledger tonight.” His were unimaginative messages, and when repeated all across the page they technically did not violate Bennett’s agate rule. But they opened a new era and presaged a new freedom for advertisers in their use of the newspaper page. Iteration copy – the practice of presenting prosaic content in ingenious, repetitive form – became common, and nowadays of course is commonplace.

14. A second characteristic of American advertising which is not unrelated to this is the development of an advertising style. We have histories of most other kinds of style – including the style of  many unread writers who are remembered today only because they have been forgotten – but we have very few accounts of the history of advertising style, which of course is one of the most important forms of our language and one of the most widely influential.

15. The development of advertising style was the convergence of several very respectable American traditions. One of these was the tradition of the "plain style,” which the Puritans made so much of and which accounts for so much of the strength of the Puritan literature. The "plain style” was of course much influenced by the Bible and found its way into the rhetoric of American writers and speakers of great power like Abraham Lincoln. When advertising began to be self-conscious in the early years of this century, the pioneers urged copywriters not to be too clever, and especially not to be fancy. One of the pioneers of the advertising copywriters, John Powers, said, for example, "The commonplace is the proper level for writing in business; where the first virtue is plainness, ‘fine writing’ is not only intellectual, it is offensive.” George P. Rowell, another advertising pioneer, said, "You must write your advertisement to catch damned fools – not college professors.” He was a very tactful person. And he added, "And you’ll catch just as many college professors as you will of any other sort.” In the 1920’s, when advertising was beginning to come into its own, Claude Hopkins, whose name is known to all in the trade, said, "Brilliant writing has no place in advertising. A unique style takes attention from the subject. Any apparent effort to sell creates corresponding resistance… One should be natural and simple. His language should not be conspicuous. In fishing for buyers, as in fishing for bass, one should not reveal the hook.” So there developed a characteristic advertising style in which plainness, the phrase that anyone could understand, was a distinguishing mark.

16. At the same time, the American advertising style drew on another, and what might seem an antithetic, tradition – the tradition of hyperbole in tall talk, the language of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. While advertising could think of itself as 99.44 percent pure, it used the language of "Toronado” and "Cutlass”. As I listen to the radio in Washington, I hear a celebration of heroic qualities which would make the characteristics of Mike Fink and Davy Crockett pale, only to discover at the end of the paean that what I have been hearing is a description of the Ford dealers in the District of Columbia neighborhood. And along with the folk tradition of hyperbole and talk comes the rhythm of folk music. We hear that Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, that it’s for the young generation – and we hear other products celebrated in music which we cannot forget and sometimes don’t want to remember.

17. There grew somehow out of all these contradictory tendencies – combining the commonsense language of the "plain style,” and the fantasy language of "tall talk” – an advertising style. This characteristic way of talking about things was especially designed to reach and catch the millions. It created a whole new world of myth. A myth, the dictionary tells us, is a notion based more on tradition or convenience than on facts; it is a received idea. Myth is not just fantasy and not just fact but exists in a limbo, in the world of the "Will to Believe,” which William James has written about so eloquently and so perceptively. This is the world of the neither true nor false – of the statement that 60 percent of the physicians who expressed a choice said that our brand of aspirin would be more effective in curing a simple headache than any other leading brand.

18. That kind of statement exists in a penumbra. I would call this the "advertising penumbra.” It is not untrue, and yet, in its connotation it is not exactly true.

19. Now, there is still another characteristic of advertising so obvious that we are inclined perhaps to overlook it. I call that ubiquity. Advertising abhors a vacuum and we discover new vacuums every day. The parable, of course, is the story of the man who thought of putting the advertisement on the other side of the cigarette package. Until then, that was wasted space and a society which aims at a democratic standard of living, at extending the benefits of consumption and all sorts of things and services to everybody, must miss no chance to reach people. The highway billboard and other outdoor advertising, but and streetcar and subway advertising, and skywriting, radio and TV commercials – all these are of course obvious evidence that advertising abhors a vacuum.

20. We might reverse the old mousetrap slogan and say that anyone who can devise another place to put another mousetrap to catch a consumer will find people beating a path to his door. "Avoiding advertising will become a little harder next January,” the Wall Street Journal reported on May 17, 1973, "when a Studio City, California, company launches a venture called Store Vision. Its product is a system of billboards that move on a track across supermarket ceilings. Some 650 supermarkets so far are set to have the system.” All of which helps us understand the observation attributed to a French man of letters during his recent visit to Times Square. "What a beautiful place, if only one could not read!” Everywhere is a place to be filled, as we discover in a recent Publishers Weekly description of one advertising program: "The $1.95 paperback education of Dr.Thomas A. Harris’ million-copy best seller ‘I’m O.K., You’re O.K.’ is in for full-scale promotion in July by its publisher, Avon Books. Plans range from bumper stickers to airplane streamers, from planes flying above Fire Island, the Hamptons and Malibu. In addition, the $100,000 promotion budget calls for 200,000 bookmarks, plus brochures, buttons, lipcards, floor and counter displays, and advertising in magazines and TV.”

21. The ubiquity of advertising is of course just another effect of our uninhibited efforts to use all the media to get all sorts of information to everybody everywhere. Since the places to be filled are everywhere, the amount of advertising is not determined by the needs of advertising, but by the opportunities for advertising which become unlimited.

22. But the most effective advertising, in an energetic, novelty-ridden society like ours, tends to be "self-liquidating.” To create a cliché you must offer something which everybody accepts. The most successful advertising therefore self-destructs because it becomes cliché. Examples of this are found in the tendency for copy-righted names of trademarks to enter the vernacular – for the proper names of products which have been made familiar by costly advertising to become common nouns, and so to apply to anybody’s products. Kodak becomes a synonym for camera. Kleenex a synonym for facial tissue, when both begin with a small k, and Xerox (now, too, with a small x) is used to describe all processes of copying, and so on. These are prototypes of the problem. If you are successful enough, then you will defeat your purpose in the long run – by making the name and the message so familiar that people won’t notice them, and then people will cease to distinguish your product from everybody else’s.

23. In a sense, of course, as well see, the whole of American civilization is an example. When this was a "new” world, if people succeeded in building a civilization here, the New World would survive and would reach the time – in our age – when it would cease to be new. And now we have the oldest written Constitution in use in the world. This is only a parable of which there are many more examples.

24. The advertising man who is successful in marketing any particular product, then – in our high-technology, well-to-do democratic society, which aims to get everything to everybody – is apt to be diluting the demand for his particular product in the very act of satisfying it. But luckily for him, he is at the very same time creating a fresh demand for his services as advertiser.

25. And as consequence, there is yet another role which is assigned to American advertising. This is what I call "erasure”. Insofar as advertising is competitive or innovation is widespread, erasure is required in order to persuade consumers that this year’s model is superior to last year’s. In fact, we consumers learn that we might be risking our lives if we go out the highway with those very devices that were last year’s lifesavers but without whatever special kind of brakes or wipers or seat belt is on this year’s model. This is what I mean by "erasure” – and we see it on our advertising pages or our television screen every day. We read in the New York Times (May 20, 1973), for example, that "For the price of something small and ugly, you can drive something small and beautiful” – an advertisement for the Fiat 250 Spider. Or another, perhaps more subtle example is the advertisement for shirts under a picture of Oliver Drab: "Oliver Drab. A name to remember in fine designer shirt? No kidding. … Because you pay extra money for Oliver Drab. And for all the other superstars of the fashion world. Golden Vee [the name of the brand that is advertised] does not have a designer’s label. But we do have designers… By keeping their names off our label and simply saying Golden Vee, we can afford to sell our $7 to $12 shirts for just $7 to $12, which should make Golden Vee a name to remember. Golden Vee, you only pay for the shirt.”

26. Having mentioned two special characteristics – the self-liquidating tendency and the need for erasure – which arise from the dynamism of the American economy, I would like to try to place advertising in a larger perspective. The special role of advertising in our life gives a clue to a pervasive oddity in American civilization. A leading feature of past cultures, as anthropologists have explained, is the tendency to distinguish between "high” culture and "low” culture – between the culture of the literate and the learned on the one hand and that of the populace on the other. In other words, between the language of literature and the language of the vernacular. Some of the most useful statements of this distinction have been made by social scientists at the University of Chicago – first by the late Robert Redfield in his several pioneering books on peasant society, and then by Milton Singer in his remarkable study of Indian civilization, When a Great Tradition Modernizes (1972). This distinction between the great tradition and the little tradition, between the high culture and the folk culture, has begun to become a commonplace of modern anthropology.

27. Some of the obvious features of advertising in modern American offer us an opportunity to note the significance or insignificance of that distinction for us. Elsewhere I have tried to point out some of the peculiarities of the American attitude toward the high culture. There is something distinctive about the place of thought in American life, which I think is not quite what it has been in certain Old World cultures.

28. But what about distinctive American attitudes to popular culture? What is our analogue to the folk culture of other peoples? Advertising gives us some clues – to a characteristically American democratic folk culture. Fork culture is a name for the culture which ordinary people everywhere lean on. It is not the writings of Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, the teachings of Machiavelli and Descartes, Locke or Marx. It is, rather, the pattern of slogans, local traditions, tales, songs, dances, and ditties. And of course holiday observances. Popular culture in other civilizations has been for the most part both an area of continuity with the past, a way in which people reach back into the past and out to their community, and at the same time an area of local variations. An are of individual and amateur expression in which a person has his own way of saying, or notes his mother’s way of saying or singing, or his own way of dancing, his own view of folk wisdom and the cliché.

29. And here is an interesting point of contrast. In other societies outside the United States, it is the high culture that has generally been an area of centralized, organized control. In West Europe, for example, universities and churches have tended to be closely allied to the government. The institutions of higher learning have had a relatively limited access to the people as a whole. This was inevitable, of course, in most parts of the world, because there were so few universities. In England, for example, there were only two universities until the early nineteenth century. And there was central control over the printed matter that used in universities or in the liturgy. The government tended to be close to the high culture, and that was easy because the high culture itself was so centralized and because literacy was relatively limited.

30. In our society, however, we seem to have turned all of this around. Our high culture is one of the least centralized areas of our culture. And our universities express the atomistic, diffused, chaotic, and individualistic aspect of our life. We have in this country more than twenty-five hundred colleges and universities, institutions of so-called higher learning. We have a vast population in these institutions, somewhere over seven million students.

31. But when we turn to our popular culture, what do we find? We find that in our nation of Consumption Communities and emphasis on Gross National Product (GNP) and growth rates, advertising has become the heart of the folk culture and even its very prototype. And as we have seen, American advertising shows many characteristics of the folk culture of other societies: repetition, a plain style, hyperbole and tall talk, folk verse, and folk music. Folk culture, wherever it has flourished, has tended to thrive in a limbo between fact and fantasy, and of course, depending on the spoken word and the oral tradition, it spreads easily and tends to be ubiquitous. These are all familiar characteristics of folk culture and they are ways of describing our folk culture, but how do the expressions of our peculiar folk culture come to us?

32. They no longer sprout from the earth, from the village, from the farm, or even from the neighborhood or the city. They come to us primarily from enormous centralized self-consciously creative (an overused word, for the overuse of which advertising agencies are in no small part responsible) organizations. They come from advertising agencies, from networks of newspapers, radio, and television, from outdoor-advertising agencies, from the copywriters for ads in the largest-circulation magazines, and so on. These "creators” of folk culture – or pseudo-folk culture – aim at the widest intelligibility and charm and appeal.

33. But in the United States, we must recall, the advertising folk culture (like all advertising) is also confronted with the problems of self-liquidation and erasure. These are by-products of the expansive, energetic character of our economy. And they, too, distinguish American folk culture from folk cultures elsewhere.

34. Our folk culture is distinguished from others by being discontinuous, ephemeral, and self-destructive. Where does this leave the common citizen? All of us are qualified to answer.

35. In our society, then, those who cannot lean on the world of learning, on the high culture of the classics, on the elaborated wisdom of the books, have a new problem. The University of Chicago, for example, in the 1930’s and 1940’s was the center of a quest for a "common discourse.” The champions of that quest, which became a kind of crusade, believed that such a discourse could be found through familiarity with the classics of great literature – and especially of Western European literature. I think they were misled; such works were not, nor are they apt to become, the common discourse of our society. Most people, even in a democracy, and a rich democracy like ours, live in a world of popular culture, our special kind of popular culture.

36. The characteristic folk culture of our society is a creature of advertising, and in a sense it is advertising. But advertising, our own popular culture, is harder to make into a source of continuity than the received wisdom and common sense slogans and catchy songs of the vivid vernacular. The popular culture of advertising attenuates and is always dissolving before our very eyes. Among the charms, challenges, and tribulations of modern life, we must count this peculiar fluidity, this ephemeral character of that very kind of culture on which other peoples have been able to lean, the kind of culture to which they have looked for the continuity of their traditions, for their ties with the past and with the future.

37. We are perhaps the first people in history to have a centrally organized mass-produced folk culture. Our kind of popular culture is here today and gone tomorrow – or the day after tomorrow. Or whenever the next semiannual model appears. And insofar as folk culture becomes advertising, and advertising becomes centralized, it becomes a way of depriving people of their opportunities for individual and small-community expression. Our technology and our economy and our democratic ideals have all helped make that possible. Here we have a new test of the problem that is at least as old as Heraclitus – an everyday test of man’s ability to find continuity in his experience. And here democratic man has a new opportunity to accommodate himself, if he can, to the unknown.                                                                 



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