The Author’s Corner with Lawrence Kreiser

KreiserLawrence Kreiser is Associate Professor of History at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This interview is based on his book Marketing the Blue and Gray: Newspaper Advertising and the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKA billboard in Alabama proclaiming a nationally distributed soft drink as a “Southern Original,” caused me, indirectly, to write a book on newspaper advertising and the Civil War.  I wondered whether the sign had increased sales in Tuscaloosa, where I teach?  Did it even run on the West Coast, or in the Northeast?  Did I, who grew up in the Midwest, and refer to soda as “pop,” somehow gain identity as a southerner if I purchased a two-liter

Those questions turned into a research project when I realized that one might ask similar questions about advertising and the Civil War.  Although historians make use of contemporary newspaper headlines and editorials to write many excellent studies on the Union and Confederacy, they all but ignore the advertisements.  Yet, between 1861 and 1865, merchants took advantage of the wide readership of newspapers to pitch everything from war bonds to biographies on military and political leaders, and from patent medicines that promised to cure any battlefield wound to “secession bonnets” and “Fort Sumter” cockades.  My book is the first full-length study on Union and Confederate newspaper advertising, and it’s a project that I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LKThe book argues that commercialism and patriotism became increasingly intertwined as Union and Confederate war aims evolved, with Yankees and Rebels believing that buying decisions were an important expression of their civic pride.  The notices also helped to expand American democracy by allowing their diverse readership to participate in almost every aspect of the Civil War, with readers perusing notices for, among others, the capture of deserters, the reunion of former slaves with their families, and the embalming, and transporting home, of family members and friends killed in battle. 

JF: Why do we need to read Marketing the Blue and Gray?

LK: Americans continue to debate the role of advertising and society.  Do words and images from clothing companies, restaurants, and political lobbying groups, to name just a few examples, exert too much influence?  My research helps to provide insight into the debate by exploring advertising while still in its early stages.

Still, although we live in a commercialized age, my study avoids using the nineteenth century to anticipate the twenty-first century. There are parallels between sales notices then and now, especially with lofty appeals mixed with low gimmickry; and a better life balanced against greater appetites. But throughout the book, my focus remains on how advertisements provide an understanding of mid-nineteenth-century Americans as a people and a nation modernizing even while they passed through a period of great peril and suffering. To view these notices as an idle curiosity would mean missing a window into how advertisers influenced their readers’ lives and society during the most turbulent domestic event in the nation’s history.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LK: Great question!  The short answer is on the fourth-grade flag football fields, when I realized that I had not one iota of the athletic talent to become the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, my hometown team!  The more serious answer is that history claimed me.  I have been very fortunate to do what I love—working with great students and colleagues at Stillman College and researching, to my mind, the pivotal moment in American history.  I know that it sounds cliché, but sometimes I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do.  I hope that all of my students go onto careers where they have such rewarding opportunities and wonderful experiences.

JF: What is your next project?

LKI’m researching the role of newspaper and magazine advertising in national reconciliation during the late nineteenth century.  Almost as soon as the guns had fallen silent in 1865, publishing companies marketed their war-themed histories and memoirs as “objective” and “factual,” even though these works often were highly partisan.  Patent medicine dealers pitched their pills and potions as having saved the lives of almost countless numbers of soldiers, whether they had worn the blue or the gray.

While national advertisers attempted to find a profit in downplaying the results and causes of the war, local merchants pursued a different marketing strategy.  In the former Confederate states, store owners encouraged potential customers to “buy southern” to help the region regain its former economic clout.  In the black-owned press, salesmen encouraged readers to patronize their businesses as a blow for self-sufficiency and, ultimately, civil rights.  Whether in the North or South, veterans formed a new commercial market.  Merchants pitched their material wares and services based on why these men had fought and how they transitioned to peacetime.  The advertising pages offer a treasure trove of primary source materials on the memory and meaning of the Civil War during the Gilded Age.

As a closing note, and veering slightly off topic, thanks, John, for maintaining the “Way of Improvement” blog.  I find it fascinating, and appreciate the time you spend on its upkeep.

JF: Thanks, Lawrence!

Did Men Invent “Likability?”

Hillary nominated

Check out historian Claire Potter‘s piece at The New York Times: “Men Invented ‘Likability.’ Guess Who Benefits.”  She reflects on the origins of the idea of “likability”  advertising culture and, eventually presidential politics.

As Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and others jumped into the race, each seemed to affirm the new power of women in 2019, a power that was born when President Trump was sworn into office, exploded during #MeToo and came into its own during the 2018 midterms.

But no female candidate has yet led the polls. The men keep joining — Michael Bennet this week, Joe Biden the last — and keep garnering glowing press coverage. Although Mr. Biden fumbled two previous presidential bids, we are told he has “crossover appeal”; Bernie Sanders has been admired by this newspaper as “immune to intimidation”; and Pete Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay man nominated for president, is “very authentic.” By contrast Ms. Harris is “hard to define”; Ms. Klobuchar is “mean”; and Ms. Warren is a “wonky professor” who — you guessed it — is “not likable enough.” Seeing comments like this, Mrs. Clinton said wryly in January, “really takes me back.”

Likability: It is nebulous, arbitrary and meaningless, yet inescapable — and female politicians seem to be particularly burdened with it even when they win and especially when they run for president.

In a recent interview on CNN with Michael Smerconish, Potter challenged the audience to find one female candidate in the 2016 race who has been called “likability.”

Here is another small taste of her piece:

Americans were also taught that being likable was a quality that could be cultivated as a means to get ahead. In 1936, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” warned that those who tried too hard to be liked would fail: Theodore Roosevelt’s naturally friendly greetings to everyone he passed, regardless of status, Carnegie noted, had made it impossible not to like him, but Henrietta G., now the “best liked” counselor at her office, had been isolated until she learned to stop bragging. (Though looking back, we have to wonder: Would Henry G. have needed to hide his accomplishments?)

As presidential candidates put advertising experts in charge of national campaigns, perhaps it was inevitable that likability would jump explicitly to politics. In 1952, some of the first televised election ads sought to highlight Dwight Eisenhower’s likability. The advertising executive Rosser Reeves put Eisenhower in controlled settings where his optimism, self-confidence, humor and nonpartisanship could be emphasized over his political inexperience and what Reeves viewed as his “inept” speaking style. The animator Roy Disney was commissioned to make a cartoon spot with a catchy jingle: “Ike for President,” the song repeated, cutting to Uncle Sam leading a parade down the streets. “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike,” the chorus sang as Eisenhower’s smiling cartoon face passed.

Read the entire piece here.

Super Bowl Commercials and the American Revolution

Andy Schocket, a history professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the author of Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, is a true historical thinker.  He even thinks historically when watching the Super Bowl!

Over at his blog he analyzes three 2016 Super Bowl commercials that had something to do with the American Revolution.

I do not think the Jack in the Box/Washington’s Crossing commercial aired in the Harrisburg, PA market, but his analysis of the Apartments.com and PayPal ads are on the mark.

Here is a taste:

This next one will get a lot more attention. It’s an offering from Apartments.com. It’s another in a series of ads featuring longtime Hollywood actor Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, sure, and Independence Day, of course, but do you remember The Tall Guy?) in his continuing Apartments.com pitchman role as Brad Bellflower, “Silicon Valley Maverick.” It’s worth spending an entire minute of your life watching the over-the-top silliness of the whole commercial, much of which is a reference to the intro and theme song of ’70s sitcom The Jeffersons, but the part that interests us begins at :37, as we see, incredibly enough, on the penthouse, none other than some random actor portraying George Washington and rapper Lil Wayne, calling themselves George and Weezy, again a reference The Jeffersons’ title characters.

Read the entire post here.

BTW, Schocket did the same thing last year.

Do You Know About the Adverts 250 Project?

hebberd

Carl Robert Keyes of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts is running a very impressive project on advertising in eighteenth-century America called The Adverts 250 Project.

Here is what it is all about:

The Adverts 250 Project explores the history of advertising in eighteenth-century America.  It features a daily image of an advertisement published in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago that week.  Brief commentary accompanies each advertisement.

Daily updates are supplemented with longer posts that analyze individual advertisements in greater detail, highlight other marketing items from the period, or examine issues related to research and accessibility of historical sources.

In other words, Keyes posts an ad from a historical newspaper and places it in historical context.  For example, today Keyes posted an ad from the January 17, 1766 issue of the New London Gazette from a man named Robert Hebbard who no longer wants to be responsible for his runaway wife.

The ad reads:

“Whereas my Wife Joanna Hebbard, hath for some time past Eloped from me, and gone into some Parts of the Colony of Connecticut; There are therefore to warn and forbid all Persons whatsoever trusting, trading, ordealing with the said Joanna; hereby declaring that I will never pay any such Debt contracted by her. –Robert Hebbard.

Read Keyes’s analysis of this ad here.