The Mirror Makers

Let’s not beat around the bush: This is a great, great book. It should be required reading by anyone in the advertising industry, by anyone who works with anyone in the advertising industry, and by anyone who has ever or might ever actually see an advertisement of any kind. The fact that that this “updated” version is over a decade and a half old as of this review (late 2011) should not dissuade you. For a comprehensive, insightful and well-written history of how people have tried to convince other people to buy things, nothing I have read beats it.

Now, if this were only a timeline of facts and figures about the men (and occasionally women) who created the advertising of America, it would be valuable. It offers introductions to the all but forgotten greats gone by – like Lasker, Powers, Hopkins, Resor – as well as the titans familiar to anyone who has watched Mad Men – such as Ogilvy, Bernbach, and Burnett. Fox explains what they did that was so distinctive, why it was important, and provides substantive examples, some of which are reproduced in the book.

He also goes the extra mile, identifying some of the lesser knowns (or at least, certainly lesser known to me) like J. Stirling Getchell and Draper Daniels, both of whom brought a certain “I don’t know what” to the business.

But the fact is, its more than a simple history. Fox also brings insight and theory that is as valuable as the names and dates. Specifically, he sees the advertising industry in America over the past century as a business that swings wildly between two poles – as predictably and manically as a rock star gone off his meds.

One pole can be described generally as the “hard sell”. The idea that what people want – what they need, and more importantly, what will drive them to purchase – is the facts, clearly and efficiently stated. Don’t be clever. Don’t gussy up the language with a lot of stuff that people don’t understand. Beautiful writing never sold a sick man a headache powder, neither did an illustration evocative of Monet, Manet or Modigiliani. Give him the facts and he will give you his money. Simple as that.

And the other pole? The evocative. The emotional. That which entertains, that which creates a personality for the brand. That which makes the product memorable beyond the merely mechanical. An idea rooted in the kind of thinking presaged by that master marketer, Alexander Hamilton who said that “Man is a reasoning rather than a reasonable animal”. In other words, that we use our reason, we search for logic, we like to think we pursue facts – but we are not, by nature, reasonable, rational, logical creatures. We are unpredictable, emotional beasts. (A line of reasoning borne out by the work of Dan Ariely).

And while Fox ends his survey in the early 1980s, he makes a convincing case, and I am certain that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the business can sift the successful agencies of the past three decades into one of those two camps.

Now, at the top of this review, I said The Mirror Makers was a must-read for people outside of advertising as well. Why? Why should people who watch advertising, people who, in fact, try to avoid watching advertising, why should they read this book? Because of the nature of advertising itself.

On page 97, Fox writes, “At the AAAA annual meeting in October 1926, Calvin Coolidge stamped advertising with the presidential seal of approval. ‘It is the most potent influence in adapting and changing the habits and modes of life, affecting what we eat, what we wear, and the work and play of the whole nation.’”

That’s why. Because while I would quibble with the 30th president that advertising can ultimately change anything, I would agree with his observation that it is about everything that everybody does. In fact, I would take his line of reasoning in a slightly different direction. Because for me, advertising is the best picture of what people think about and believe that a culture generates. If you want to know how we really feel about race, religion, gender, sex, politics, everything – look at the ads.

And if you want to know how people have used that knowledge to help sell stuff for over a hundred years – read this book.

The Mirror Makers by Stephen Fox was published by the University of Illinois Press on 1/1/97 – order it from amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here, – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

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One thought on “The Mirror Makers

  1. I’m an AfrAmerican artist/writer/recovering adman in Chicago…and I have to agree with your intro.

    I’m actually re-reading this book right now. I remember reading it years ago and thinking it was very good. Now I think it’s even better.

    I haven’t read any other Fox books, but this one sets a very high standard.

    BTW: I’ve just written/compiled a book for Arcadia, the nation’s largest publisher of pictorial regional histories. It’s called “African Americans in Chicago” and it’s already gotten six 5-star ratings on Amazon.

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