Soap, Sex and Cigarettes

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You may ask yourself how many histories of advertising do we really need? Even your intrepid reviewer, as much as we personally are fascinated by the topic, realizes that advertising does not hold the same enchantment for others that it does for us. There’s so much to obsesses over. War, for instance. Pestilence. Sin. Late Night Television. All topics which have proven again and again worthy of – and apparently needful of – repeated analysis and bloviation as new data sheds new light upon new facts.

But advertising? What’s to know? And even if we were fuzzy on the facts, there’s Stephen Fox’s groundbreaking classic The Mirror Makers to explain it all for us, right?

So why do we need, for example, Juliann Sivulka’s Soap, Sex and Cigarettes?

Three reasons, actually.

First, because it’s actually quite good. Flawed, yes, and we’ll get to that. But it’s readable and comprehensive and interesting and informative. Those are qualities that make any work compelling, and in the world of business and marketing literature, they are positively a godsend.

But second, Soap, Sex and Cigarettes fills a gap that the estimable Mr. Fox left even after updating his classic 1984 work in 1997. Specifically, the massive changes that have taken place this century.

Think about how different the world we live in is today than it was then. There’s the dominance of personal computers, for example and the not coincidental rise of the internet. Or the subsequent dot.com bubble and how that effected advertising and its agencies. Or the rise of social media which continues to this day. Or the great recession and its fallout that we’re still fighting through. Not only did all of these events fundamentally change the economy, culture and politics of America, but because they did, they fundamentally changed the way human beings engaged with commerce. And that in turn reflects a fundamental change in the nature of advertising. For what is advertising, if not the place where art and culture and business and commerce and human beings collide? The fact that Mr. Fox didn’t cover these earthquakes creates an opportunity that Ms. Sivulka fills admirably.

Third, Ms. Silvulka’s approach is more sociological than Mr. Fox’s. The Mirror Makers is more of a classic history, charting the timeline of American advertising history: the who, what, where, when and how before everything disappeared. And while this is not to say that Mr. Fox didn’t have a specific thesis which illuminated these facts, nor that certain terrific insights did not grow out of his telling of the story, the focus was not particularly sociological or cultural as it is in Ms. Sivulka’s work. Soap, Sex and Cigarettes, by comparison, spends more time exploring the emotional and psychological reactions of, and impacts upon, the consumers and society at large of advertising, both in the micro (that is, on an ad by ad basis) and macro (that is, as an industry) level.

An example of the latter in Ms. Sivulka’s work is her greater emphasis upon the role of women in advertising – in terms of the pioneers within the industry, the way they were represented in the work, and the impact advertising had upon them as consumers. This is all extremely valuable, and while we are not implying that Mr. Fox turned a blind eye to women in his work, one has to believe that the increased attention the culture at large has paid to women since 1997 as well as the vast accessibility to previously unavailable resources that the internet provides, created an opportunity that Ms. Sivulka makes admirable use of.

The result, then, is a book that provides a valuable perspective upon the history of advertising. Of course Soap, Sex and Cigarettes overlaps at times with The Mirror Makers, but that’s to be expected and a small price to pay for the context and proportion the two works provide the reader and student of the industry.

There are, it must be noted, some serious flaws in Soap, Sex and Cigarettes that it disappoints us to point out. Throughout the book there are typographical errors, editorial inconsistencies and factual inaccuracies that aren’t simply annoying, they actually detract from the authority of the book. From the mundane (words left out of sentences, names mis-spelled) to the annoying (inconsistent addresses and locations) to the confusing (inaccurate citations), these errors occur with such maddening consistency that they mar the scholarship and will no doubt provide detractors with unfortunate ammunition.

And this is a profound shame, because this deceptively slim book (with over four hundred pages of densely packed type) brings much to the table that those who are fascinated by advertising would be wise to know. Here’s hoping that they are corrected in future editions allowing Soap, Sex and Cigarettes wider circulation and greater appreciation.

Soap, Sex and Cigarettes by Juliann Silvuka was published by Wadsworth Publishing on 7/19/2011– order it from amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here, – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

 

 

 

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