Ad Women by Juliann Sivulka

[10 February 2009]

By Rob Horning

Under ordinary circumstances, an academically oriented book like advertising professor Juliann Sivulka’s would probably not have received much of a publicity push. But presumably, the popularity of AMC’s show Mad Men has made it an opportune time to publish a book called Ad Women, particularly considering that one of the show’s central plotlines is to trace how Peggy, initially a secretary in the show’s fictional firm of Sterling Cooper, blossoms into a full-fledged copywriter.

With her presupposed insight into the female mind, Peggy represents a competitive advantage for Sterling Cooper over the firms reluctant to empower women. As the show depicts it, Peggy is able to introduce a more sophisticated psychology to the way her firm’s ads construct female desire. But is she thereby also selling out her gender for her own personal advancement?

This is the sort of question that Sivulka’s study seemingly intends to takes up. In the introduction, she argues the indisputable point that “as American women become increasingly involved in the design, marketing, and advertising of commodities, they also had a significant influence on shaping lifestyles, perpetuating stereotypes, and engendering the practice of consumption as a feminine pursuit.” Advertising, after all, is a principal way of leveraging gender difference for capitalism’s benefit, highlighting tensions in the expectations for the sexes and exploiting them to sell products.

Women who got ahead in advertising were engaged in a tail-devouring sort of process: Through their work in honing restrictive gender norms, they obviated the opportunities that had brought them to a position of influence in the first place. Advertising women may have flattered themselves into believing that their success proved they transcended gender and were superior to the stereotypes they trafficked in.

But that stance is undercut by the way in which ad women became pawns in a de facto divide-and-conquer strategy, doing the dirty ideological work of preserving male privilege in order to enjoy a limited taste of its fruits for themselves. At the same time, because their success was linked to special insight into the feminine, they perpetuated the view that a woman’s only natural and authentic area of expertise was herself.

Sivulka would not have us take such a harsh view. Ad Women is structured so that a cursory history of the advertising business and all its dubious innovations for fashioning a consumerist hegemony can be contrasted with the women in the industry, who Sivulka generally presents in a positive light as innovators or progressives, exerting a moderating influence on an otherwise ruthless practice. Much of her well-illustrated text, which teems with photos and examples of advertising from the past century, catalogs prominent female advertisers in America, presenting brief biographies and summaries of their résumés (many, we are told, are in the “American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame”).

We are also introduced to women who sought to influence gendered marketing discourse, such as conservative “home economist” Christine Frederick and Herta Herzog, who probably inspired the Germanic harridan market researcher in Mad Men’s first season. (After she tersely supplies a Freudian analysis of a market segment in a meeting, Don Draper throws her report in the trash.)

But despite the parade of ads and ad executives in the book, very little of the means by which femininity is constructed is actually explored nor are we supplied a close examination of the tension in the work of women in advertising. Unlike, say Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements, which offers a poststucturalist account of how advertising can function as ideology, Ad Women merely offers examples of ads targeted at women, and tracks how the approaches changed.

Despite Silvulka’s gestures toward causality and her vague assertions that advertisements have helped shape social mores, the book tends to present history—served up in the book chronologically in sweeping, general terms—as something that just happens and to which advertising then accommodates itself accordingly.

It’s a shame that Sivulka attempts to cover the overarching history of advertising along with the women within it, because it seems a much leaner and more useful book could be carved out of the material she assembles. At its best, the book hints at how advertising women identified the shared fantasies and frustrations of their gender—the limited horizons, the impossible idealized standards they were expected to live up to, the yearning for freedom and independence, the desire for recognition—and used ads to offer fleeting amelioration.

Sivulka quotes Ruth Leigh, a pioneer in using celebrity endorsements to advertise beauty products: “Women demand vicarious experience. They know they are not like the pretty, dainty young housewife in the kitchen cabinet advertisement, but they like to think of themselves in terms of that trim young thing.” The ads could serve as vehicles for escape, just like the entertainment products they sponsored, regardless of what they advertised. 

But Sivulka shies away from considering how ads function at that level; instead we get anodyne, party-line assertions like this: “In selling a product. ad women could educate people in the knowledge of the comforts and conveniences of life, to speed up and eliminate drudgery, and to raise standards of living.” This is the standard advertising-as-customer-service argument that marketers prefer in their own self-justifications.

To counterbalance the apologia for advertising, Silvulka could have supplied more detailed investigation of women like Helen Woodward, who left the marketing profession in revulsion. A different book might focus exclusively on the discrimination women experienced at ad agencies and the strategies they adopted to circumvent it. Another might focus on ad women’s ambivalence as they succeeded in exploiting other women’s dreams of a more fulfilling life.

Though Ad Women covers a great deal of territory, the analysis is often necessarily tentative, and the generalizations don’t always inspire confidence. For example, in a capsule bio about J. Walter Thompson copywriter Helen Landsdowne Resor, Silvulka writes, “In everything she did, Landsdowne was committed to women’s rights.” Everything? The way the ad business’s workings are explored seem a bit remedial as well—definitions for such familiar terminology as planned obsolescence and focus group bog down the book unnecessarily and makes one wonder just who the intended audience for this book is (high schoolers?).

Also, the text sometimes lapses into clumsy term-paperish prose marked by unparallel structures, misplaced modifiers, and redundancy. (It’s a telling sign that the word impact is used as a verb in the subtitle.) Such traits tend to sharpen a reader’s skepticism, making it harder to enhance the text’s insights with sympathetic understanding. 

More distressing, Sivulka at times presents potentially important distinctions in a hopelessly muddled way. For instance, she stresses the fact that “the very notion of this business of femininity”—women marketing to women—“contradicts feminist theories that claimed it was the ad men, acting from their limited ideas of female character and aspirations, who turned women into sex objects and portrayed them in narrow roles. In doing so, they discounted or even ignored significant market-oriented women’s contributions in the mass-consumer goods industries.”

But it is impossible to tell what we are supposed to make of that “contradiction”: Are we supposed to think the ad women’s “significant contributions” are laudatory, or are we supposed to see feminists as having been short-sighted in failing to recognize how women in advertising have helped implement their own oppression? That such points remain ambiguous renders it impossible to figure out in what light to view the facts she presents. It’s not clear what argumentative point they are evidence for, or whether there is an argument at all.

Riddled with ambiguous passages, Ad Women never can overcome the contradictions that beset it. It wants to praise the dignity of women in advertising while raising questions about the ethics of advertising medium. It wants to champion high-profile ad campaigns designed by women that ultimately diminished or curtailed the dreams of the women they were targeted toward. Without an analytical framework to synthesize these perspectives, the book comes across as a perplexing mass of details and generalizations in search of a more rigorous reckoning.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/69914-ad-women-by-juliann-sivulka/