About Centuries of Advice and Advertisements

In Jack Finney’s classic time travel novel Time and Again, the protagonist learns that the past still exists and time travel is possible if you replace all the “uncountable millions of threads that…bind us” to our current place in history with the corresponding “threads” of a time in the past. These threads are made up of things we don’t even consciously acknowledge: “you know the year, the day and the month, for literally millions of reasons: because the blanket you woke up under may have been at least partly synthetic…because red and green lights signaled when you might cross a street…because the soles of the shoes you walked in are a synthetic that will outlast leather.” (1)

Reading that started me thinking about how all the tiny strands of what we now call “pop culture” tie us to the time we live in. For example, I was born in the late 20th century and as a result something as simple as the word “spam” can bring to my mind anything from potted meat, unwanted email, or a Monty Python sketch, depending on the context. If I suggest jokingly that someone “can’t handle the truth”, the chances are good that most people about my age will understand that I’m refering to the movie "A Few Good Men". Although the specifics change over time, the tendency to use shared cultural references to connect with the people in our lives isn’t a new one, and vintage advertisements are a great source of these references - they have a wide audience that crosses many class divisions and are recognizable to people that may not have been familiar with the latest novels, plays or music. In addition, due to the longevity of some products, advertisements can “cross time” and reach out to people a century after they were first relevant: an ad for cigarettes can speak to someone born in 1895 as well as someone born in 1995, although it will say something different to each.

Advertisements can also be viewed as a form of societal advice. For example, the number of advertisements for deodorants and soaps increased over the twentieth century as cultural standards for personal hygiene changed. By ignoring the increase in these ads a person would in effect be ignoring society’s “advice” in this area and which would have resulted in real life consequences. But of course society has been handing out advice a lot longer than it’s been advertising face cream, and publications such as cook books, fashion magazines, and almanacs are good places to find examples of advice from older time periods.

One type of advice that seems to have existed in all time periods refers to an earlier period as the “good old days” while predicting that recent changes will result in the Destruction of Society. In just about any time period you can find examples of people bemoaning the antics of the “younger generation” and worrying that the newest changes will result in the disintegration of society. Predictions that society is “going to hell in a handbasket” have resulted from dancing the waltz, reading novels, roller skating, playing the harp, coeducation in higher education, women’s suffrage, reading the sports page, solving crossword puzzles, singing in church, reading comic books and drinking tea, among other things. In particular, as Steven Pinker notes (below), new forms of mass media always seem to give rise to doom-saying, and just within the last century the end of society has been predicted as resulting from radio, television, movies, video games and the internet.

In the end, both advice and advertisements give us a way to understand that while the specifics of culture change over the generations, in the end humans have always been interested in, and worried about, the same things: raising healthy children, getting old, being popular, finding love, conforming to cultural norms, etc. The details may change, but the big picture stays the same.

The New York Times
By Steven Pinker
Published June 10, 2010

Truro, Mass.

NEW forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber…

But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciation of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously…

Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turn your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

(1) Time and Again, Jack Finney, 1970. (If you haven’t already read this you really, really should.)