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It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the idea of “modern living” had to be vigorously sold to us.  But there was, and in some parts of the world, the case has still not been made.

SELLING MODERNITY:  Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany (eds. Swett, Wiesen, Zatlin, Duke 2007) is about the conversion (or conversions – it’s complicated) of Germany to the modern way of life by means of advertising.

It’s complicated because Germany has a complicated history:  World War I, Weimar, Nazis, Hitler, World War II, occupation, East vs. West Germany, capitalism vs. socialism/communism, the poor years, the Cold War, the rich years.  It’s a messy history, too, and nasty.  All you have to do to get a headache is to read about how the Nazis were anti-American yet pro-American when it came to advertising methodology, and both medieval in philosophy while being simultaneously a very modern, scientific regime.  The contradictions boggle the mind.

But you don’t read the essays in SELLING MODERNITY for the specifics of German advertising.  You read it to get the big picture.

And the big picture is that Germany, like the United States, had to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the mass consumption and marketing of the 20th Century, as late as the 1990’s in the case of the former East Germany.  At the same time that citizens craved modern goods – TVs, washing machines, Rayon – their brains craved traditional tribalism and the comforts of old ways.

A professor once said that the Middle Ages did not end until the late 19th Century, or, perhaps, even as late as the 1950’s.  And some places still haven’t caught on.

I’ll buy that.  Because even as we love to jet to Las Vegas or curate our own TV schedules, we still get a kick out of making our own jams and jellies, listening to the blues, and pounding on our own drums.

And no advertising has been invented that can heal that split.

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