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Annual Reports Print Advertising Packaging Publications Online Broadcast Events Space Branding Programs March 22, 2005

©2000 John M. Haake; Defended Aug. 2000 Syracuse University, NY

American Reflections:

Societal Influences on Post-War American Advertising


Flush with the excitement and pride of landing my first job in advertising, I proudly explained the ins and outs of my new position to a longtime friend. He politely listened as I ran on about the great clients I would work with, the places I’d go, the famous people I’d meet and the money I’d make. I told him of opportunities to work on national accounts and how "my stuff" would be seen all across America and in other countries too. I shared with him that this was my first opportunity to do good work that would make a difference. When I finally finished, he smiled, shook his head and said, “You are now officially part of the problem.”

In his laconic way, my friend spoke volumes to me. “The problem” to which he referred was that America is entirely too materialistic. We live in a society where we work ourselves to death in the pursuit of manufactured goods that we think will bring us happiness, when in fact, the acquisition of these things only succeeds in complicating our lives while pushing us further from real fulfillment. And my new job in advertising meant that I now participated in the manufacturing of false wants and needs and perpetuating the myth. You see, in the eyes of my friend, advertising was the unholy root of mass consumption. Without it, society would not waste its strained resources chasing a consumer nirvana that does not exist.

My friend’s words stung. Their effects were intensified by the fact that innately I had similar criticisms. Nobody likes advertising, especially bad advertising. Our lives are constantly interrupted by the endless barrage of poorly crafted, badly targeted ads. It interferes with our books and magazines, movies, computers, sports, education, arts and solitude. It is a twentieth-century institution that cannot be avoided. It is truly everywhere. But this is as far as I agreed with my friend.

The simple fact is that you cannot measure the relationship between advertising and consumption. If it were possible to prove a correlation, advertising agencies would demand payment according to increases in sales and not by media purchases or hours billed. Advertising doesn’t create wants and needs — at its very best, it taps into wants and needs that already exist. Successful practitioners do not attempt to manipulate a gullible public. They instead mold their messages to reflect the lifestyles and trends of the time. Advertising does not define society; society defines advertising.


Advertising is often credited — or blamed, depending on one’s perspective — with exerting a significant influence on popular culture. American Reflections: Societal Influences on Post-War American Advertising takes a contrarian stand as the author details the economic, political and cultural issues that shaped advertising from 1950 through 2000.

Through research conducted using various published works, interviews with industry professionals, and several examples of print and broadcast advertisements, the author examines decade by decade the various social, political, and cultural influences on advertising.

The paper begins in 1950 with Mom, Dad, Technology & Conformity, wherein post-war American culture is examined relative to specific examples of advertising from various industries. Technology, idealism and pursuing the American Dream characterize advertising during the heyday of post-war America.

Conformity is Out & Creativity is King examines the rebellion of the 1960s and how that rebellion led to a “creative revolution” in advertising. Protests, youth, and the dare to be different reigned — in society and in advertising.

Hard Sell Take Two discusses the 1970s relative to challenging economic times and public mistrust — as a result of war, governmental scandal and warnings of subliminal advertising. Advertisers responded to the disco decade by taking a conservative and non-creative approach.

In the 1980s Advertising Mirrors Wall Street; Media Mirrors Society. The decade’s advertising is marked by big business and its influences on the industry. Marketers exploit lifestyle fractures in society with more focused communication efforts.

Advertising in the 1990s marks The Second Creative Revolution. Characterized by Generation X and more skeptical and media savvy consumers, advertisers respond by producing creative work with a low-key, above-board style.

2000 marks The Rise of Mega-retailers and the Death of the Brand. Armed with optical scanners and untouchable volume discounts, retailers like Wal-Mart® and Target® become the most relevant brands to consumers.

Regardless of a widely held opinion that advertising influences popular culture, its is the author’s opinion that research presented in this paper clearly demonstrates that it is, in fact, society that defines advertising.


GE 40s
7Up 50s
Volkswagon 60s
Charlie 70s
Apple 80s
Mountain Dew 90s
Target 2000

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