December 16th, 2003

flavored with age

Those fabulous '40s

After a particularly shitty day, thaitea suggested exchanging an early Christmas present as a cheer-up method. We aren't going to see each other over the holidays, since we're both out of town, so I figured, what the fiddle. I gave her the big fat biography of Mark Rothko, and she gave me one of the Taschen books of 1940s advertising art.

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.
flavored with age

'40s addendum

I'll probably quote at length from this book of '40s ads in the future, particularly the goofy slogans and the flagrant racism bits, but here's some of the wartime ads I was talking about before. Try and imagine any big US corporation saying anything REMOTELY like this today. This was what you got during a REAL war, as oppose to the "spend $200,000 on an earth-raping 1-MPG Hummer, now available with built-in DVD player with surround-sound" ads you get during our current bogus 'war'.

“Americans – this Thanksgiving – welcome the privilege of ‘all-out’ effort. Schenley, on a war footing, does its part by using its vast facilities to make War alcohol. The Schenley Royal Reserve you enjoy today is drawn from our reserves – the largest in the U.S.A. – made and laid down in years gone by, and blended with finest grain neutral spirits for perfect mildness.”

“Trying to catch up with your demands…thousands of new Proctor irons and toasters. Your Proctor dealer will have some if them – though not nearly enough. But he’s on your side, remember – anxious to meet your needs. If your needs are not urgent – be patient. It won’t be long.”

“This must wait, of course, for peace. Today all of Farnsworth’s research, all of the skill and experience and knowledge gained through 16 years of development and manufacture are devoted to the production of superlative weapons and equipment for America’s fighting men.”

“In the spirit of ’43…’all out for Victory’…we are serving out Country first, and our customers to the best of our ability. Hickok: Where War Work Comes First.”

“So rich are oranges and grapefruit in vitamin C, that Uncle Sam has set aside the entire supply of canned grapefruit sections, canned orange juice, blended juice and concentrates for the armed forces. Fortunately one of the juices – grapefruit juice – is so plentiful that a moderate amount is available for civilian use. If you can’t always get your canned grapefruit juice, at any rate you’ll be glad to know it is reaching those boys who are teaching the Japs to ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’…in a way they’ll never forget!”

“Today Java is Jap held. Tomorrow the Japs will be blasted out of there. Hallicrafters short wave radio equipment in the first assault wave will help do the job. The day after tomorrow Hallicrafters will help introduce Java to the widening circle of new, world neighbors. On that day, and through this medium, new knowledge, new understanding will help secure the peace we’re fighting for. Hallicrafters radios, constantly refined under fire of war, will be ready for the peace with the finest short wave radio equipment available.”

“Millions of Cannon towels are now going to the Armed Forces. So you may find a smaller selection in the stores – fewer styles and a limited variety of colors. When the war is over, Cannon will again present the newest styles in the most charming colors.”

“The Emerson Electronic Radio is on the way. In the meantime, we urge you to take good care of your present Emerson. Try to make it last until the new Emerson Electronic Radio is available. Start saving for that Emerson Electronic of tomorrow. Buy extra war bonds and stamps today!”

“Naturally war needs have first call on ‘Scotch’ Tape for the duration. We hope that if you miss its convenient help around the house, you’ll remember it’s still working for you wherever it is. When those war jobs are done, ‘Scotch’ Tape will be available again for home use…better and handier than ever before.”

“If you can’t always get just the Interwoven Socks you want…please bear in mind…Interwoven was called upon to supply millions of pairs of socks to the armed forces. If you can’t find our products, you’ll know why.”