The First 200 Years

By Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple

Abrams. 288 pp. $49.95

This early entrant in the season's gift-book sweepstakes is a handsome, amusing and even informative survey of two centuries of American advertising -- or, more precisely, advertising in print for products sold to a national market. If you are looking for a history of broadcast advertising, so important a part of the business for much of this century, you must look elsewhere; ditto for a history of local advertising, through which consumers obtain essential information about everything from supermarket prices to job opportunities.

But at its most basic, advertising is advertising, whatever the medium and whatever the product or service being offered, so the underlying themes of this book are as pertinent to radio and television as they are to the national magazines in which most of the ads under consideration here were published. The book's essential subject is "how advertising got to be what it is in America," and it seeks to "find out how it has influenced our taste, the way we live, the places and clothes we live in"; these of course are questions raised by all advertising, wherever and whenever it appears.

The authors -- both are connected with the Library of Congress -- are quick to warn the reader that theirs is not an alarmist view of advertising. Though "Advertising in America" is not a puff piece for Madison Avenue, neither does it take the unrelentingly hostile view popularized by Vance Packard in the 1950s and subsequently given broad legitimacy in the intellectual and journalistic communities. Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple do not shy from pointing out the unfortunate commercial and cultural effects that advertising has had, but they also are aware of its more positive influences, and give them due notice.

Chief among these may well be "the contribution advertising has made to the introduction of new technology." Dismissing as "nonsense" the argument that this technology was unnecessary, the authors argue that advertising "has shown the new machines, demonstrated their role in the ordinary lives of the citizens, and even shown the customer how to use the gadget successfully." They mention "the electric light bulb, the hand iron, the vacuum sweeper {and} the washing machine" as early innovations that advertising helped introduce; later they devote an entire chapter to the role of advertising in making photography, safety-razor shaving and airplane travel accessible to millions.

In playing this role as handmaiden of the future, advertising has been entirely true to its 20th-century character. In a consumer economy in which the multiplicity of choice is as essential as the onward rush of technology, advertising exists above all else to persuade. How it does so has changed radically over the years, from the purely informational ads of the past to the heavily emotive and suggestive ones of the present, but the constant has been what a turn-of-the-century ad man described as follows: "The modern advertisement is not intended for the man who wants the thing already. It is for the one who don't in order to make him."

The techniques and weapons that advertising brings to this process have become increasingly sophisticated over the years, not to mention responsive to changes in American demography and society; it's a long leap from the Springmaid girls of the 1940s to the "Charlie perfume woman" of three decades later. In the process of trying to persuade, advertising is always quick -- quicker, often, than other areas of the marketplace -- to sense changes in the country and respond to them.

To what extent advertising merely mirrors these changes and to what extent it creates them is, if not imponderable, certainly not susceptible to easy explanation; to their credit, the authors decline to offer any. Instead they concentrate on the ads themselves, and the ads have plenty to say. Nearly 600 of them are shown, many in color and all handsomely reproduced. Several pages are devoted, as well they should be, to the evolution of ads for Coca-Cola, to the work of popular artists such as James Montgomery Flagg, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, to the inventive, influential work of David Ogilvy and William Bernbach.

"Advertising in America" isn't exactly a celebration of its subject, but it comes close. What's genuinely noteworthy is that it manages to convince even the skeptical reader that if there's plenty to deplore, there's also much to praise. Advertising is here to stay, so coming to terms with it is a lot more useful than merely wishing it would go away.