I'm gonna have a lot to say about this thing later, because it's really an amazing document on any number of levels. It's simultaneously depressing and enthralling, and it instills you with a real aesthetic confusion when you realize how incredible and influential the art and design are, but also how completely our national iconography revolves around advertising.
But I do want to touch very quickly on something that I've mentioned before, but that's really driven home by reading this book. People like James Lileks are incredibly fond of comparing (unfavorably) the national character now to the national character during WWII, just as if (a) we were in a remotely comparable situation or (b) we were, you know, actually at war. People like this will always wheeze about how back in the Big One, you didn't have a bunch of muddleheaded naysayers second-guessing everything the military did and the President said. This is all well and good if you're trying to come off as a sort of colorful, ignorant crank, but it doesn't bear even the slightest scrutiny. The divergence of attitudes has nothing to do with America have become soft or self-centered or overly liberal or befuddled by relativism or any of that horseshit; it has everything to do with the fact that what happened in New York two years ago was a crime and not an act of war, that we weren't attacked in even remotely the same way as we were back then and we remain unconvinced that we're attacking the right people (something that wasn't even in question in 1941), and that people today aren't certain that the President has their best interests at heart.
Anyway, when you look at ads from the 1940s -- which I do a lot -- one thing strikes you: the tone of the advertisements is...well, not anti-consumer, really; but reflective of the national attitude that everyone was going to have to pull together, cut down on consumption, and make do for the duration. "If you can't find our product," one ad reads, "you'll know why." Another says "See you after the war"; another, "When there's peace, we'll be glad to have you back in the family". The government took out ads urging people not to buy new products, to make their old goods last, to conserve and re-use for the sake of the country. And, for the most part, nobody complained.
This is literally unthinkable today. Even though a big part of why the Arab world loathes us -- and a big part of why we're fighting this "war" in the first place -- is because of our suicidal, ultimately unsustainable addiction to oil and entirely disproportionate consumption of the world's resources, no advertiser even contemplates asking us to buy less, to be patient, to wait and see. We're given credit to buy what we can't afford; we're urged to buy the newest things as soon as they come out; we're told that only by buying and consuming can we show our national unity and prove to the terrorists that they haven't won. Far from pitching in for the war effort, big corporations soak the government (and, ultimately, the taxpayer) for the goods they supply. Far from telling us the ugly truth -- that in order to survive, we must cut back on our massive overconsumption -- the government refuses to sign the Kyoto protocols, spends half its time denying that there's any problems with the environment, and gives us tax breaks for buying fuel-chugging SUVs. Neither advertsers nor politicians dare tell us that reality demands that we pull together and live within our means; rather, we are told, you get what you want when you want it no matter what, and it will never run out or be scarce, because the world and everything in it belongs to us.
See you after the war? There is no "after the war". Not this time.