Further Reading: MLK for Dodge

 

Confidential to cave dwellers: a Dodge commercial aired during last night’s Superbowl that featured a heavily edited speech from civil rights leader (and outspoken anti-capitalist) Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It offended a great many people who (surprise!) took to the Internet to express their displeasure.

 

 

Pod Save America host Jon Lovett joked about Gandhi appearing in a Doritos ad. Does he know that Apple already appropriated Gandhi’s image for its “Think Different” campaign, which ran from 1997-2002?

In fact, using the images of revered dead people who can’t consent to appearing in commercials is by now a proud American tradition. Recall Marilyn Monroe’s Pepsi Ad from Super Bowl 50Jack Kerouac’s print ad for GAP. Kurt Cobain for Dr Martens. The list goes on—as does the list of outstanding books about the oft-bewildering practices of the advertising industry. Here are some standouts I’ve linked to their excerpted Booklist reviews.

 

 Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, by Safiya Umoja Noble

While searching the web with her stepdaughter, Noble, an academic specializing in information studies, was horrified to see that Google results for “black girls” were almost universally sexual and demeaning, whereas results for “white girls” were not. This experience led her to plumb the depths of online search algorithms and to write this account of her discovery that, rather than being neutral or objective, they, in fact, reflect the biases of their (mostly white and male) creators. Noble demolishes the popular assumption that Google is a values-free tool with no agenda, pointing out that advertising and political pressure have long influenced Google results.

 

 The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get inside Our Heads, by Tim Wu

Acclaimed Columbia University law professor Wu explores in surprising detail the history of those “attention merchants” among us who have ingeniously drawn our notice, then packaged it for financial and political gain, beginning with the eighteenth-century “penny papers” of New York City and posters of Paris, then moving to British WWI propaganda campaigns, the emergence of Madison Avenue in newspaper and magazine advertising, Hitler’s theories of persuasion (“[the masses] will lend their memories only to the thousandthfold repetition of the most simple idea”), the almost accidental development of commercial TV and radio in America, the parsing of geographical clusters for advertising specificity, computer games, commercially successful search engines such as AOL, and the growth of the “celebrity-industrial complex,” clickbait, and, of course, Facebook, Google, BuzzFeed, and the smartphone.

 

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, by Thomas Frank

One of the most damning charges one could make during the 1960s was to accuse “the Establishment” of co-opting the principles or ideals of the so-called counterculture. Frank’s look back at this period shows that the question of who subverted whom may be moot. Frank argues that many executives working in these two industries were themselves products of the counterculture and that, rather than exploit prevailing attitudes and trends, they helped dramatically and permanently transform the face of business. The many examples Frank uses to bolster his case make for a fascinating flashback.

 

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life, by Nato Thompson

Thompson explores the intersections of art, culture, and manipulation in society. He offers compelling historical examples of how government, corporations, and individuals, including artists and activists, have utilized and harnessed the powers of art and culture to shift and influence perceptions and images in public dialogue. Thompson writes confidently that governments and big businesses have employed marketing techniques in order to influence consumers to drive up profits or support specific agendas. This is a swift read for those who enjoy cultural and social politics and the history of marketing and advertising in America.

 

 

 The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century, by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz

This well-notated narrative dives into the beginnings of promotional selling, along with its first practitioner, Albert D. Lasker, founder of the Lord & Thomas agency (the predecessor of Foote, Cone & Belding and its heirs and successors). Think raisins, Lucky Strikes, Sunkist orange juice, even the state of California as nascent advertising accounts. Yet this Texas-born, prone-to-depression entrepreneur was never quite convinced of the worth he brought to America, nor of his enduring legacy.

 

Our Bodies, Our Data: How Companies Make Billions Selling Our Medical Records, by Adam Tanner

Tanner, a former Reuters correspondent who conducted research at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, begins his thoroughly reported story with this alarming line, “Soon after you tell your doctor about an intimate medical problem, data about your condition are sold commercially to companies that have nothing to do with your treatment or billing.” Originally, scientists thought that programming computers for hospital pharmacies would save lives by preventing patients from getting multiple prescriptions for the same drug and alerting pharmacists about prescriptions that might cause adverse interactions with other medications. Today, digital files are also used to make money and target advertising.

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About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist. She worked in bookstores for twelve years, reviews books for The Boston Globe, and writes about books, culture, and politics for several other publications. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Genie.

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