There are those who damn advertising as the craven efforts of little men who manufacture want, who, like Mephistopheles to the public’s Faust, make the innocent lust for things that they would never in a million years want if they just stopped for a moment and thought – thought! – and got off the treadmill, put down the receiver, turned off the television, and slipped off those manacles of consumer bondage that we, evil little bastards that we are, have snapped tight around their brains.

Oh, if it were only that simple. One might go home at five o’clock once in a while.

Those of us mired in the trenches of this business, those of us who are fascinated by the challenges of understanding what people want even when they themselves can not articulate it (which is oftener than not); even when they themselves don’t know what it is they want (which is most of the time); even when they are passionately defending and proclaiming that their motives are something altogether altruistic and pure (which is nearly all of the time); even when clients point again and again to surveys and focus groups and polls with these people and say “Look! 37% of respondents in 4 cities during a 2 week period said this, and this and this; clearly this is what they want”; those of us who endure all of these slings and arrows know the challenge is much more difficult than that. More nuanced. Has more levels and dimensions and colors and shapes and quarks and spins and flavors.

Which is, frankly, half of what makes it so damn interesting.

And which is exactly what makes Virginia Postrel’s The Power of Glamour brilliant. Because not only does Ms. Postrel understand this and not only does she analyze it with acumen, insight and cunning, but she has actually found the perfect topic upon which to do her surgery to illustrate and illuminate our fascination – on both sides of the selling counter – with desire, want, and need; namely “glamour”.

One might have thought that “glamour” was too one-dimensional. But in much the same way that advertising is routinely dismissed as superficial while upon deeper analysis is revealing of valuable insights about ourselves and our lives, a study of glamour – and specifically Virginia Postrel’s investigation of it – tells us more about ourselves than one would think possible.

Postrel’s purpose is not, as one might expect, to pay homage to beautiful people, places and things (though, of course, there are many of all three throughout the well-illustrated volume). “This book” she lays out early in the text:

begins by building a definition of glamour that allows us to distinguish glamour from style, celebrity or fame; to establish the relationship between glamour and such associated phenomena as charisma, romance, spectacle, elegance and sex appeal; and to identify the common elements uniting disparate versions of glamour across audiences and cultural contexts.

That definition is laid out and illustrated throughout the book, but it begins with some fundamental preconditions, not the least of which is, as Postrel writes

the willingness to acknowledge discontent with one’s current situation along with the ability to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances.

This invariably leads her down a lot of paths, nearly all of which are covered in this deceptively slim and artfully designed book. Postrel discusses glamour as a signifier of the inherent conflicting duality of being – of our wanting to fit into a group while at the same time wanting to be distinct from it; she writes of glamour’s relationship to rhetoric and narrative; of its existence somewhere between the obvious and the hidden; even of how the rise of theater in the 19th century and the transference of its staging, spectacle and publicity to the department stores like Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, Harrods, and Printemps, incubated consumerism. In short, of many of the things that are, for good or for ill, central to marketing, advertising and general commerce as we experience them today.

That’s because glamour is about our desires and our dis-satisfactions – the very things that drive us as humans, which are also the tools and symbols we use as marketers. To ignore them and deny their ability to reveal ourselves to ourselves is not simply a dis-service to us today, it is a detriment to us tomorrow. It doesn’t merely disregard where we are, it willfully refuses to tell us where we are headed.

But can a book about glamour really do all that?

Yes, if it is this book.

The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel was published by Simon & Schuster on 11/05/13 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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You May Also Want to Read:

An Interview with Virginia Postrel, author of The Power of Glamour