Summary of Captains of Consciousness

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In the first decades of the 20th century, American business needed to create a mass market for the cars, furniture and beauty products flying off its assembly lines. The solution, says Hunter College professor Stuart Ewen, was psychologically informed ad copy ruthlessly targeting people’s deepest fears and desires and encouraging palliative purchasing and self-criticism. “Suspect yourself first,” ran one headline touting Listerine mouthwash. The good life is just out of your reach, asserted the ads, unless you combat bad breath, acne or body odor with mass-produced products. Published in 1976, Ewen’s classic study focuses mostly on the 1920s. His descriptions of how the industrialists of that era deliberately created today’s consumer society are fascinating. His ideas are so provocative, that it is unfortunate that his unavoidably out-of-date and verbose academic style makes them difficult to decode. Nevertheless, getAbstract recommends this classic text to students, entrepreneurs – who may want to understand classic advertising techniques – and ad and public relations professionals interested in the origins of modern marketing.

About the Author

Hunter College professor Stuart Ewen studies consumerism, aesthetics and media. He is the chair of the college’s Department of Film & Media and the author of All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture and PR! A Social History of Spin.



Modern Times

America’s advertising-saturated consumer culture can trace its origins back to 1910, when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line. Once he had the system up and running at his plant in Highland Park, Michigan, Ford could replace skilled craftspeople with quickly trained workers who would each perform one routine task on a single-purpose machine. As a result, the time needed to assemble automobile chassis went from more than 12 hours in 1910 to a little more than an hour and a half in 1914. Ford’s plant cranked out more than 1,000 vehicles daily.

By the dawn of the 1920s, the concept of mass production spread to other industries, and manufacturers were whipping up all manner of widgets faster and cheaper than previously thought possible. Industrialists faced a daunting challenge: The mass production rate was soaring, and they needed to cultivate a corresponding mass market of compulsive buyers to purchase their expanding inventory. To do so, they needed to transform the American consciousness – to replace traditional values like thrift and self-reliance – with a desire for an endless stream of the latest commodities. Mass-media advertising...

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