by J.F. McKenna
The other day I mentioned to my father-in-law that the general advancements in advertising—the speed of delivery in particular—haven’t done much to improve advertising in general, much to my regret and others. I myself have engaged in advertising at times, and I figured I’d find a sympathetic ear with dear old dad. I did. He chimed in with, “Yeah, Joe, advertising is instantly worldwide now, but it doesn’t sell any better than it did 40, 50, or 60 years ago.”
That got me to thinking about Daniel Joseph Boorstin and some of his historical scholarship from 40-plus years past. In 1975 I was a newly minted Kent State graduate, with a newspaper job in Cleveland to go along with my journalism major and a history minor. Boorstin himself was a well-established historian and a 1974 Pulitzer winner for his latest book. Moreover, Boorstin was a grand critic of advertising from as early as 17th century England: “Never was there a more outrageous or more unscrupulous or more ill-informed advertising campaign than that by which the promoters for the American colonies brought settlers here.”
With a distinguished pedigree that included Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, Boorstin was named the 12th Librarian of Congress in 1975 and served in that role until 1987; he died in 2004 but lives on in his books and other writing—not just about advertising but about history, canned food, and air conditioning.
As newsman Wayne Green wrote almost three years ago, “Boorstin came to believe that the central features of American history were to be found in what the nation agreed on, not what was fought over. There were disagreements in American history, as Boorstin saw it, but they were within a narrower range than we see in Europe (no royalists, no real socialists) because there is a greater reserve of mutual assumptions in the American experience. This made him a leading light in the so-called Consensus School of history writing and put him in contrast to the Progressives of an earlier era–Fredrick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Vernon Parrington.”
Green also noted: “Rather than looking for revolutionary changes, Boorstin emphasized the continuities of American history. Boorstin was distrustful of doctrinaire thinking. As an undergraduate he toyed with Communism and eventually rejected it soundly. In his histories, he minimalized the role of thinkers, and emphasized the role of problem-solvers. Boorstin was conservative in his politics and his approach to culture. He had disdain for canon-bursting ideas, such as minority study programs. He was a capitalist. He was repulsed by the vulgarities of American life and advertising.”
In his Timetables of History, published in 1975, Boorstin wrote about how the “historian’s neat categories parse experience in ways never found among living people. For people in the past, just as for us, experience has had no academic neatness.” For instance, the Declaration of Independence was issued in the same year as Gibbon’sDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. And to facts like that, Boorstin warns, “We must therefore be wary of assuming that because different events occurred in the same year they were known to contemporaries at the same time.”
The flood—a deluge today, actually—“of confused contemporaneity has itself become a dominant and bewildering feature of life in our time,” adds Boorstin.
If you don’t believe him, just watch five minutes of advertising on TV or the Web.
CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, former magazine editor, and marketing-communications consultant. McKenna and his wife, Carol, now live in Steeler Country with their Papillions, Lord Max and Prince Teddy. Reach him at email@example.com .