1920s / Automobile & Modern Advertising
Perhaps the most famous American novel of the 1920s, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, contains two memorable images. One is the vast billboard by a car repair shop, with a pair of "blue and gigantic" eyes looking through eyeglasses -- it is an advertisement for a professional optometrist, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The other is the yellow car that leads to the novel's tragic climax -- when the car strikes and kills the wife of the owner of the auto repair shop, he takes revenge by killing the car's owner, Gatsby, even though he was not the driver. Although the giant advertisement and the fatal automobile are central to the plot of Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, what is astonishing to recollect is how new and revolutionary both advertising and automobiles were for American life in that decade. It is worth considering how these two suddenly booming industries were integrated into American life at that time.
First we must recall the economic conditions that had made this sudden industry possible. Norton, Kamensky and Sherriff report that over the course of the decade of the 1920s, from 1919 to 1929, the gross national product "swelled by 40%" (628). This is an astonishing percentage, and it is worth considering this in light of the fact that 1913 marked the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and was thus the first time that the federal government began to collect income tax. It is worth recalling this whenever a pandering politician of the twenty-first century claims that economic growth will follow the reduction of taxes -- in the first decade that an income tax existed at all, the U.S. experienced an astonishing level of economic growth. It is worth recalling the Thirteenth Amendment and the beginning of the income tax, however, because this greatly increased the federal budget. It thus made possible legislation like the 1921 Federal Highway Act, which "provid[ed] funds for state roads," and for 1923's inauguration of the federal Bureau of Public Roads which intitiating planning of a system of highways that would stretch from coast to coast (Norton, Kamensky, Sherriff, 657). In some sense, we can imagine the economic boom as being the result of these various elements all combining to augment each other: the federal spending on infrastructure like a highway system made possible an increase in interstate commerce, while the increase in commerce led to more revenue for the federal government to spend on infrastructure. With the increase in road-building, suddenly cars became useful rather than a mere novelty -- with the onset of Henry Ford's assembly-line production techniques, they also became affordable to the average consumer. Suddenly a new technology that had once been reserved for the wealthy or the eccentric was affordable, ubiquitous, and changing every aspect of American life -- the role that the automobile played in the 1920s was not unlike the role that the computer played in the 1990s and 2000s. The invention was not new in the decade: personal computers had existed for a while before the 1990s, and automobiles had been around for a while before the 1920s. What was new was affordability, accessibility, and utility. By 1925 -- the year that The Great Gatsby was published -- an advertisement for automobiles compared them to "fresh air" and food, not a luxury item or even a consumer good, but an absolute necessity (Norton, Kamensky, Sherriff, 657). And the statistics do make it seem like Americans quickly found the automobile to be a necessity in this precise time period: over the course of the 1920s the number of registered automobiles climbed "from 8 million to 23 million" until twenty percent of the American population owned one. (Norton, Kamensky, Sherriff, 656). It cannot be understated the role that the automobile played in the economic boom of the 1920s. For a start, it created or expanded industries that were previously marginal. Petroleum, for example, had been in the 19th century a substitute, discovered in desperation, for whale oil, when the American whaling industry had depleted the animal's populations to feed demand. Although petroleum quickly found its uses, the size of the oil and gasoline industries did not become truly mammoth until the automobile had made them so. Likewise the automobile created jobs for anyone associated with it in some way -- like the auto mechanic who shoots Gatsby in Fitzgerald's novel. His job would not have existed twenty-five years earlier. Likewise, we can consider how the increase in highways and transportation suddenly affected the economy in other ways: produce now no longer had to be transported by train. Workers could now live farther away from their places of employment. Cities witnessed the invention of suburbs. It was, in its own way, a revolution driven by a consumer item...
This was advertising. Obviously advertising was not a new invention in the 1920s -- there had been products and ways of selling them for a long time before that -- although there were some crucial new inventions in the decade. For example, Norton, Kamensky and Sherriff note that the new techniques of advertising in the 1920s were "blending psychological theory with practical cynicism" (657). What they do not mention is that this reference to "psychological theory" is, in itself, an allusion to one man who would almost single-handedly change American advertising as completely as Henry Ford changed American manufacturing: this was Edward Bernays, the nephew of the legendary European psychologist Sigmund Freud. Bernays was born in his uncle's city of Vienna, but his parents emigrated to New York when he was still a baby, arriving in 1892. During the First World War, Bernays would essentially work on behalf of the U.S. government in terms of its propaganda campaign for the war effort -- but by the end of the war, when the wartime manufacturing economy became repurposed into domestic manufacture of consumer goods, it became clear that Bernays's future lay essentially in advertising.
As with the federal income tax -- placed into law shortly before the start of the First World War -- the War itself greatly expanded the role of government in daily American life. Suddenly the business of mass mobilization for war created new industries, in the construction of armaments, the recruitment or drafting of soldiers, and so on. But there was also another aspect to the war, which was where Bernays had worked: the molding of public opinion. To a certain extent, America had such a large immigrant population in this time period that there was a slight unease about how they might affect domestic politics or assimilate into American life -- as a result, in this time period, discussion about how to mold and shape "public opinion" (a phrase coined by Walter Lippmann in the 20s) and how to control "the manufacture of consent" (i.e., to essentially sell social and economic policies to the voting base. But at this point, the mass media existed -- although the mass media were already changing rapidly in the 1920s with the addition of the radio to a culture already dominated by daily newspapers. The number of people who could potentially be exposed to advertising, or to any other form of tendentious information, had increased vastly -- and the invention of public relations by Bernays, as a way of navigating between the demands of commerce and the needs and effects of mass media, shows the way in which the federal government (which had, after all, set this ball rolling in its efforts to "market" an unpopular war to the American people) in some sense led the way, and helped an entirely new commercial arena to emerge. By the end of the decade, as Norton, Kamensky and Sherriff note, "more money was spent on advertising goods and services than on all types of formal education" (657). Advertising itself became a booming industry, and its successes helped every other form of industry to boom as well.
The conclusions that we may draw about the emergence of these new vital economic arenas in the 1920s are varied. We can and should note the crucial role played by the federal government in funding the infrastructure that made these new industries possible. There could not have been a Henry Ford without the federal government's commitment to building highways upon which Ford's Model T. could be driven. Similarly Edward Bernays transitioned…
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