Marshall McLuhan, What Are You Doin’?

Marketing lives somewhere at the intersection of commerce and art, science and inspiration. The first person who made me understand that, some 40 years ago, was Andy Warhol. The second was Marshall McLuhan and Images
his wonderful book “The Mechanical Bride.” It was published in 1951, and came out in paperback in 1967, which is shortly before I read it. it now sells for $35. The price on the cover of my thoroughly underlined edition is $2.95, which gives you some idea of just how long it has been since I bought my copy. I recently pulled it off my bookshelf and was amazed again about how insightful McLuhan had been in this collection of ruminations on advertisements, book covers, news stories, movie posters, and cartoons. Even a table of contents from a 1947 Reader’s Digest (or as McLuhan calls it Pollyanna Digest). In aiming at our subconscious, the advertising of any given era reveals much about the society that spawned it. Looking at the images and reading the copy, is a bit like looking through an old photo album and thinking, my God, what was I thinking with that hairstyle?

Take, for example, this ad for men’s suits from Bond Clothes. It features an illustration of a serious-looking business man, brow furrowed, nostrils flaring, cigar in hand. The headline reads: “I’M TOUGH” and the copy reads as follows:
Panty-waist stuff burns me. Work ten hours a day. Been at it since I was a kid. Gang at the plant call me ‘Chief.’ Own the place, now.
Sure I’ve made money. Not a million — but enough to buy steak when I can get it. And good clothes.
Been getting my duds at Bond’s — ever since I shed knee pants. Like the way they do business. No fancy fol-de-rol. No big promises. No arty labels dangling high-hat prices. Just good clothes with plenty of guts.
Give me cold facts, straight from the shoulder. I know that any outfit which makes its own stuff and takes it straight to the consumer plays fast ball. That’s why Bond’s story clicks. Show me topnotch woolens, honest tailoring, and I’ll look. Kick out wasteful, in-between costs the way Bond’s does it, and old Tough Tom signs on the dotted line. Horse-sense, that’s all.
Looks like I’ve plenty of company. They say more men wear Bond clothes than any other clothes in America. Always knew the Yanks were smart traders.
One thing I want to tell the boss at Bond’s. Those clothes wear like iron. Durned fools to make ’em so good.

McLuhan comments: Is this guy’s slip showing?
The ad says an awful lot about American society of that era (late 40s, early 50s) and its idea of manhood. And McLuhan takes no prisoners in pointing out exactly what it is saying. He saw the funny hairstyles in your photo album, and knew they were funny even before they were passé. What will our current advertising campaigns look like in hindsight? What will they reveal about us?

Of course, in a particularly striking example of irony, McLuhan himself became a pop phenomenon, widely known because of Henry Gibson’s oft-repeated one-line poem on the TV show Laugh-In (the Saturday Night Live of its day): “Marshall McLuhan/What are you doin’?”

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