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When the Ad Replaced the Icon

May 16th, 2022 | 11 min read

By Tara Thieke

Ellen Wayland-Smith. The Angel in the Marketplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 288pp, $30.

Throughout the 2010s the signs of a new holy month became undeniable. Each June seemed to mark an exponential increase in rainbow flags. Early summer became its own holiday season, only unlike Advent or Lent there was no Mass and Feast to which the season built. The consumption of Pride imagery was meant for all time and all places: everywhere, anywhere, nowhere. There was no particular point of celebrated incarnation.

That is the endgame of the marriage of capitalism and technocracy: a modular, manageable people willing to consume with no end-point, no fasts, no Feasts, stripped of particulars. This is the 24/7 culture of permanent capitalism where day is night and night is day, where the seasons are meaningless, let alone religious holy days. Millions who allowed President Reagan to be their sandman for Free Market dreams rubbed their eyes to find themselves floating in a culture immersed in the corporate-sponsored rhetoric of self-creation.

The phenomenon of Woke Capitalism confused people who identified, however clumsily they defined the terms, as left or right. It flew in the face of decades of anti-advertising campaigns from leftists who had spent decades pointing out the social engineering and manipulation engaged in by Big Business. It troubled conservatives who imagined corporations, even as they protected their bottom line and outsourced millions of jobs across the ocean, to be allies of stability and traditional norms.

Woke Capitalism didn’t have to catch us unawares. Edward Bernays, the 20th century father of modern propaganda renamed public relations, was frank about the need for social engineering via advertising. But Woke Capitalism did astonish people, and it has left both critics and supporters bewildered and sometimes in denial. Most tragically it has set left and right fighting one another over content as the significance of the phenomenon marches forward unencumbered.

This is the particular tragedy of Ellen Wayland-Smith’s 2020 biography of one of the mid-20th century’s premier women in advertising, Jean Rindlaub, The Angel in the Marketplace. It is this tragedy and its implications which require understanding if we are to retain some space for the person in a world dominated by for-profit institutions.

Jean Wade Rindlaub’s life neatly straddles the 20th century with a career spent in the center of a solidifying neoliberal hegemony organized for private capital. With tireless good cheer and an emphasis on Christian womanly duties to the home and fatherland, she worked to electrify the mind of neoliberalism, re-ordering the desires and goals of the public according to the needs of corporations.

According to the author, her career is the prototype for the selfish individual female, “more Betty Draper than Peggy Olson.” She sold millions of women the goods that kept them chained to domestic servitude while rejecting such a role for herself (or her daughter). She was personally delighted to work with men, to encourage women to enter the marketplace during World War II to keep manufacturing rolling, but participated in the post-war betrayal that pushed them back into their prison as soon as they were unnecessary. So much for sisterly solidarity! By page 6 Rindlaub has already been identified as a “collaborator.”

A collaborator in what? The reader need not worry about being left in the dark. The perpetrator is identified on nearly every other page of the book: it is “the white patriarchal free market edifice,” and “Judeo-Christian” hegemony. The condemnations are motivated by a sincere and well-documented anger at the crimes of Big Business, but a critical error is made in emphasizing where responsibility lies, and in that mis-placed emphasis Big Business has found the key to defending itself against meaningful structural change.

In the years following the 1999 WTO Seattle protests, the progressive movement endured a series of shocks: the initiation of the post-9/11 security state; the media build-up to the disastrous Iraq War only to be followed by all the major cheerleaders retaining their power; the religious fervor which elected President Obama only to be disappointed in the destruction of the public option and escalation of drone warfare and whistleblower persecutions.

Perhaps the most significant failure to stop the engine of neoliberalism was the collapse of the Occupy Wall Street protests. The 2008 economic disaster punished the poor and marginalized for the sins of the wealthy, but all calls for justice went unanswered. The encampments were whisked off the streets by the end of the 2011-2012 winter.

The repeated failure to win concessions regarding class inequality and the surveillance state have been traumatic, and the human ego cannot endure too much failure. While this cycle of defeat was playing out, a new language of gender ideology was spreading like wildfire on blogs and Tumblr during the mid-aughts. Here was a ready-made consolation prize for the progressive justice crusade that Big Business was more than willing to offer. Soon after the tents and protestors were swept aside in the winter of 2011-2012, a dramatic escalation began that has been successfully documented: a notable increase in the use of identity language in legacy media, an interesting phenomenon previously relegated to social media sites and academia.

This burgeoning obsession with deconstructing and reconstructing gender roles has filled the void vacated by the movement for economic justice. One can sympathize with the progressive movement, disappointed when not outright betrayed by its leaders, desperate to make progress somewhere. But as Wayland-Smith clearly illustrates, the sentimentality she eschews in Rindlaub’s 1950s portraits of domesticity is still at the core of corporate advertising. Throw out the home, now feature the rainbow. From the viewpoint of Big Business, so much the better.

Ivan Illich’s seminal 1982 book Gender is critical to understanding where Wayland-Smith goes awry in her understanding of work-gender roles. It is a little confusing to the post-2010s reader to enter into his terminology, but if one is willing to do so, Illich distinguishes between something called “vernacular gender” and professional “key word” sex. Vernacular gender belongs to peasants. It arises from the complementarity of male/female and is a decentralized but deeply rooted and felt phenomenon that varies according to the needs of a community.

Key word sex roles appear with the rise of free market philosophy and enclosure, creating genuine sexist roles which segregate women in the home and men in the factories. These new sex roles predominantly benefit the upper class and as soon as they are felt to be a burden they are abandoned in favor of new uni-sex understandings. Upper-middle class women evoke the language of identity to rebel against the marketplace not being 50/50, failing to understand that the new system is far more alienating for the majority of females than the old kinship-based networks of vernacular gender.

This understanding is absent from contemporary discussions of gender ideology. Increasingly we are moved to a confused unisex understanding of the body. Wayland-Smith deplores the patriarchy while seeking a matriarchy, castigating men for chauvinism while demanding women display the same aggression and self-interest. All of this is rooted in advertising’s successful skewing of the conversation, entrapping us in an upper-middle class, postmodern understanding rather than one rooted in the cycles of reproduction, child-rearing, food-gathering, cloth-making, protection, and death.

And so Wayland-Smith misses what is most insidious about what Rindlaub’s work represents: a further transfer of power away from the home in favor of a top-down organized marketplace, where housewives need to be guided by expertise as community life fractures and neighbors are drawn away from the community and into the marketplace to survive.

Selling the Home: First as Target, Then as Product

This tale of how tools displaced creative impulses, the dissatisfaction found in women’s housework as the home was relegated from a place of production to consumption, is peripheral to The Angel in the Marketplace when it should be central. Much of the conflicting 20th century attitudes towards working women is chalked up to the patriarchy rather than working to understand the causes of the schizophrenic reactions towards career women.

The 1950s home, the subject of much of Wayland-Smith’s ire, had been made a place of consumption by a hundred years of industrialization. As community self-sufficiency was destroyed after the capture of the commons, lower-class women were frequently forced to work jobs of tedious drudgery. Meanwhile upper-middle class women equated the situations as they pursued jobs that did not scald the hands or wear out their feet.

Woke capitalism represents an extension of the same crisis: a co-option by capital of the imagery of civil rights movements to distract from the alienation inherent in monopolizing production. Wayland-Smith’s story accepts that this conflict predates Rindlaub’s career. Advertisers use the language of progressivism and social justice throughout the 1920s, but the genius of Woke Capitalism means Wayland-Smith primarily sees a Christian patriarchy imposing hypocritical, shaming virtues on the public rather than power centers cynically adopting the tone of the culture only as long as needed.

That capitalism and its advertising agencies have not repented but stayed true to their primary goal of self-growth is too painful for the modern social justice movement to wrestle with. This is an understandable tragedy. When confronted with the genuine lack of representation for people of color in post-war advertising, we hunger for justice. We yearn for peace and prosperity. But we should hunger for even more: for a radical rejection of advertising as a vehicle for our self-understanding.

For there is a contradiction in the heart of advertising: it is not a merely capitalist adventure. Advertising was a valued pursuit in the USSR, filling a critical space in an exploded society. Advertising is not bound solely to the marketplace but overflows the boundary of pre-20th century economic philosophies: it is tethered to the institutional capture of social and cultural life. Whether the powers that be define themselves as capitalist or communist, advertising is there to shift power from decentralized homes and communities to centralized bureaucracies.

In 1977 Christopher Lasch wrote,

“The history of modern society, from one point of view, is the assertion of social control over activities once left to individuals or their families. During the first stage of the industrial revolution, capitalists took production out of the household and collectivized it, under their own supervision, in the factory. Then they proceeded to appropriate the workers’ skills and technical knowledge, by means of ‘scientific management,’ and to bring these skills together under managerial direction. Finally they extended their control over the worker’s private life as well, as doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, child guidance experts, officers of the juvenile courts, and other specialists began to supervise child-rearing, formerly the business of the family.”

Lasch’s work Haven in a Heartless World was, like Ivan Illich’s Gender, taken as a great insult by upper-middle class feminists who monopolized public discourse regarding gender roles and child-rearing. Both Illich and Lasch, though, have found renewed relevance online in the early 2020s as former members of the DSA-left have struggled to understand why their movement was so easily derailed by corporate advertising campaigns.

To understand this, the critics of capitalism, whether they be social liberals or social conservatives, will have to move beyond tribalism to approach the kernel of the dilemma articulated by many thinkers and even saints over the past 100 years: the tool is as significant as the content, and it is the tool which is re-modeling our ways of understanding reality.

The Ad and the Icon: Two Opposite Ways of Knowing

The most serious accusations one can level against Rindlaub’s work was not the content, however infantilizing and hypocritical it often was, but the existence of the work itself. Advertising by its very nature attempts to capture our attention, selling off increasingly more of existence in order to grow itself. Mass marketing attempts to reorient human attention for the purpose of profit.

Rindlaub studied housewives. Committees tracked their every purchase; the homemaker was treated as a lab rat. Was this in order to discover what she needed? Rindlaub wished to believe she “taught women how to think of consumption as an act of love.” This was the tragic self-delusion. The data-harvesting was not to see if women needed more friends, closer kin, cleaner water, or a spouse within vocal range during the day. Rather it was to redefine love as something to be purchased. For Wayland-Smith, though, it is Jean’s Christian veneer of patriotic motivations that are toxic, not the presumption to data-mine and manipulate.

Wayland-Smith’s tale, which is rooted in the post-Occupy progressive emphasis on identity over class, is of a woman who believes in the tool of advertising for social betterment and whose definition of social betterment was post-war suburban patriarchal Christianity. Wayland-Smith sees that purpose as bad and the tool as bad when put to that end. Her book gives Rindlaub a redemption arc in later life as Jean comes to believe in racial and gender equality, and hints Rindlaub begins to doubt whether the tool of advertising was indeed a good tool.

But Wayland-Smith never grapples with the dangers of the tool itself, never touches at all that in our current day the tool is cynically wielded to deflect critiques of economic injustice because, at the moment, some of her own causes are celebrated. Advertising campaigns celebrate self-definition; it’s good for business. The implications of big business’s adoption of this previously underground discourse remain unaddressed by the post-Sanders left.

Towards the end of Rindlaub’s life she began to appreciate the need for diversity in advertising. If we narrow the scope of “the common good,” then indeed, commercials which reflect the actual people of the United States are good. Visible representation is undeniably important.

However, a society where organic and bottom-up cultural life is stripped away, where the power of icon and religion and the practice of music and the arts are diminished in the lives of most people, then the advertisement as the primary signifier of cultural self-understanding becomes a danger which no amount of diversity can off-set. A world where anything and everything is for sale is a greater message than the contents of any given ad.

Functionalists accept advertising as necessary, even good, in a world governed by economic growth. There is a refusal to acknowledge the shift from commodity to brand-based advertising, to reckon with the power given to advertisers to shape our self-understanding, or to confront how unconstrained advertising affects consciousness and health.

We see 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements a day. They are never far from awareness; indeed, significant subconscious efforts are made to fight them off. Pinging, buzzing, flashing, shouting; pop-ups, billboards, signs, commercials. The phone hears a carelessly spoken word and its owner is inundated with advertisements for something they weren’t even sure they had said aloud.

They fracture our attention, spike our cortisol, distort our landscapes, increase our feelings of inadequacy, and are impervious to escape attempts. They diminish our attention to reciprocal relationships and demand we instead focus on pre-engineered messages. Advertising seeks to capture the attention commons, what Ivan Illich named the vernacular world and is the foundation of a conscious society, and hollow it out for private profit. Jacques Ellul wrote of the great and terrible noise of this propaganda:

“One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones. Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them.”

The half-hearted struggle to grapple with the deepest implications of Rindlaub’s work is due to the failure to accept what unconstrained advertising is doing to society and what advertising necessarily does to a society. Whatever the content, such manipulation and attempts to monopolize attention do harm to individual and social well-being. The advertisement is the aggressive replacement of the icon. It represents the roof we put over our world to shield ourselves from the transcendence of the stars. The advertising industry is the flattening of all that cannot be sold.

The icon invites contemplation while the ad uses noise to disarm contemplation. It is at odds with poetry and destroys the ability to perceive the world without profit-seeking or mediation by an institution. It seeks to fill the silence of thought with its own noise. It brooks no mystery. There is no room for the ‘other’ who can be imagined. The world Rindlaub and her committees of women in swishing skirts, noting every soap purchase, is a de-sacralized and fractured world with everything, including the home, including the housewife’s labor, for sale.

4,000 to 10,000 advertisements a day. How many icons do we see a day? How many images of reverence that invite contemplation? How many of those are drowned out by their own noise?

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” wrote Simone Weil. Advertisers once would have us believe we suffered from an inadequate facial lotion, improper floor wax. Today’s advertisers would have us believe the same things, but whereas once they used the language of serving husband and country, now the imagery is soaked in progressive social causes. But advertising in its nature seeks to induce anxiety and fracture our attention, to manipulate our deep need to be known by throwing our sense of inadequacy in our face and rendering us dependent.

The breakdowns induced by advertising cannot be healed by Rindlaub’s post-war norms or today’s identitarian progressive ones. The antidote is, rather, a different way of approaching reality. Attention is what advertising destroys even as it hungers for it, and it is our capacity to bestow attention and care which remains beyond the reach of packaging.

The post-2010s progressive movement means well but without a renewed appreciation for goods which cannot be sold it will continue to sentimentalize a corporate-sponsored version of justice in the same way Rindlaub sentimentalized a corporate-sponsored version of domesticity. Without the Beatific Vision, without an understanding of the inherent need to be makers and creators, without attention to the peace beyond name number and profit, then our digital billboards, eavesdropping phones, and endless pop-ups will continue to proliferate, distract, and immiserate.

The advertising way of knowing is the way of control and manipulation. It is doomed to breed anxiety. If we allow our attention to the transcendent to enter into our understanding, then we may once again know in a different way: one oriented around communion rather than control. If we do, then we will know the great gift of the permanent things, including the home, including justice, which are particular gifts that cannot be sold.

Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.