Ad Women: How They Impact What We Need, Want and Buy

February 12, 2009

Despite its title, Ad Women is more a history of the development of US consumer culture viewed through a female lens. Throughout there is a tension between the feminine and the feminist, which is unresolved.

While Juliann Sivulka claims to tell the gendered story of women's contribution to the evolution of American consumer culture, the book focuses on four areas where, she claims, women have gained presence and a degree of power - beauty and personal-care products, fashion, food and furnishings. No heavy industry or fast cars for these business pioneers.

Sivulka shifts between stories of advertising women and products advertised to women, so while the narrative of how the use of "real" women rather than professional models for Jockey underwear reflected an apparently increased desire to see women with "freckles, moles and blemishes", it is not clear whether this was the brainchild of a woman or a man. Either way, it doesn't seem to have had a lasting effect.

The first two chapters describe the often serendipitous way that women entered advertising; the next, "It takes a woman to sell a woman: Designing Mrs. Consumer", briefly analyses marketing and advertising techniques.

The remainder of the book is largely a chronological story that runs from the Depression up to the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout, the author shifts between mini-vignettes of advertising women and a commentary on American consumption and culture.

The vignettes themselves offer only limited insights into these women and their working lives. We hear about what they wore, their marital status and their salaries, but rarely about their business philosophy.

Still, in some cases the lessons of history resonate down the decades. For example, Bernice Fitz-Gibbon's Depression-era phrase "It's smart to be thrifty" sounds like a call to arms for all of us facing a frugal 2009.

Similarly, her line "How do you keep it up night after night?" could be reused for some products today - however, she was referring to a "magic strapless evening gown" from Macy's.

The commentary on women's relationship with work is complex and, again, somewhat contradictory. While on the one hand Sivulka suggests that in the late 19th century women did not only work for wages but because it was empowering, she also points out that there was little room for advancement. Women were restricted to "ladylike" products and paid lower salaries than men.

Back then, women entered advertising as copywriters, illustrators or via the death of a partner. Rose Markward Knox, for example, created the wonderful line "Dainty desserts for dainty people" for Knox Gelatin Company, which she founded with her husband. But it took his death in 1908 to propel her to marketing fame as the firm became the world's largest manufacturer of unflavoured gelatine.

Even in the 1990s husbands still had their part to play. Rochelle Udell (of "You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing" fame) took a night-school design course to enable her to help out in her husband's graphic design business; after they divorced, she went on to head Calvin Klein's in-house agency.

The back cover of Ad Women suggests that women dominate today's advertising business, yet Sivulka also tells us that in the 1990s they held only 2.5 per cent of senior executive positions. Plus ca change.

Ad Women: How They Impact What We Need, Want and Buy

By Juliann Sivulka. Prometheus Books, 415pp, £22.50. ISBN 9781591026723. Published 31 October 2008

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