Thursday, June 3, 2010
The Archives Center’s business history collections contain thousands of examples of commercial imagery, including printed reproductions of both hand-rendered illustrations and photographs. We are all familiar with the prevalence of such imagery in our daily lives, whether it appears in printed form in newspapers and magazines, on television, the Internet, or in other media or forms. These collections are constantly consulted by scholars of cultural history whose research traces the development of such advertising imagery and its impact on society. In my May post I offered some cynical remarks about the significance of Mother’s Day for advertisers, who adopt holidays as sales targets and themes. This month I salute Father’s Day with commentary on another soap advertisement!
The aim of commercial advertising is to sell products, which few people find objectionable per se, but critics often excoriate advertising devices and “trickery” which seem to exploit or manipulate viewers’ emotions unfairly. Consider this advertising illustration for Ivory soap from 1945. It depicts a father returning from his service in World War II, meeting and holding his child for the very first time. The accompanying text, including a sentimental poem, explains the narrative behind the image. Buried in the text is a comparatively subtle message suggesting how Ivory soap can support healthy family life. The ad appeals to the patriotism of a public which was suffering through a horrible war and to the strong emotions which such a homecoming scenario would generate. These were emotions with which most viewers—and consumers--could identify. The advertiser counted on consumers to be so favorably impressed by this image and its appeals to patriotism and a sentimental theme that they would be moved to purchase the company’s soap. Terms like “soft sell” and “soft soap” spring to mind!
Contrast this commercial image with a Scurlock Studio photograph, probably created a few years after the Ivory advertisement. The subject is Dr. Clarence Greene, a prominent surgeon, showing slides to his young daughter. It is from an extended series on Dr. Greene, probably taken by Robert S. Scurlock, depicting him with patients and in the operating room, as well as at home with his family. Although this photograph probably was semi-posed, it seems to document a genuine moment of quiet interaction between a father and his child, through the medium of photographic slides projected on a screen. Social historians often interpret photographic evidence in a somewhat different way. They might ask whether Dr. Greene’s child is enjoying the slide show or is she bored? Does the slide show ritual bring a family together or is it an artificial and ultimately unsuccessful device? Leaving these questions unanswered, this photograph documents a popular kind of family entertainment—over which the father typically presided for decades—until the impact of television and computers helped to transform family life.
David Haberstich, Archives Center, National Museum of American History