A look at a few Duesenberg, Fisher Body, and Cadillac/LaSalle Ad Campaigns from the early 1930s
Léon Benigni, 1931.
To write this paper, I spent several days buried in the depths of Widener (and I do not say “depths” lightly; the bound periodicals are kept on the lowest floor (4 below the main floor, that is), in the farthest possible corner from the stacks entrance—getting there is a self-interrment as well as a commitment). I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining. I definitely don’t spend enough time in Widener (partly because its hours are ridiculously silly) and I had a blast sitting on the floor between the stacks surrounded by old editions of Life, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Saturday Review, Harper’s, and Collier’s. (I will complain, though, about having to carry stacks of bound Saturday Reviews up 4 flights of stairs to get to a scanner and having to manhandle them onto the scanner itself.)
The assignment was open-ended (like everything else for the class that assigned it—more on that later) and only asked that we use anything from the course so far (lecture, class handouts, the many books we’d been assigned) to think about image (broadly, this course was on “image”) in connection with anything found in a magazine published before 1940. So down I went into Widener to page through magazines published before 1940. I began about 1890, but nothing really gripped my attention (at least in terms of finding a subject for a paper) in these earlier magazines and I moved very quickly until I hit about 1920 and the explosion of color print advertising. Then, I was snapping a photo of nearly every ad on my phone, liking each one more than the last.
I ended up back in my room with hundreds of photos to go through, searching for some sort of connection between any of them and to any of the material of the course. I was obsessed from the beginning with a 1931 Cadillac/LaSalle campaign done by Léon Bénigni and the rest of my paper-planning and -writing process pretty much centered on using that ad campaign for something.
The campaign was beautiful—gorgeous art deco illustrations of glamorous women printed in stunning colors and metallic inks. This isn’t to say, though, that they were the only gorgeous ads; they weren’t at all. Alcoa Aluminum, Pontiac, Goodyear, Lynite Pistons, Fisher Body and so many others had beautiful campaigns. But I had to narrow my focus and eventually I settled on the famous 1935 “She/He drives a Duesenberg” campaign, the Bérnigni Cadillac/LaSalle campaign, and two Fisher Body campaigns, both from 1931.
The paper itself is all over the place. It’s really mostly a series of meditations on and analyses of these campaigns and what they do and how they work. Behind it all lies glamour—in all its nebulous glory. If anyone is interested in anything I say here on glamour, I advise that they go look into John Stilgoe’s Old Fields, which does the subject far more justice than I do and is a pleasure to read even if glamour doesn’t interest you (it does interest me, so I might be a little biased). (And while you’re at it, you should probably just look up and read all his books. I’ve read six and thoroughly enjoyed each one. Full disclosure: he taught the course this paper was for.)
So, without further ado, the paper:
The Visual Rhetoric of Glamour in American Automobile Advertising
What is glamour, that elusive and illusive concept which so defies any attempt to describe or distill it? “Mystery” and “visual magic” John Stilgoe calls it in his Old Fields. “A form of nonverbal rhetoric” Virginia Postrel labels it (Postrel 6). “The illusion that individual lives could be enhanced and improved by ostensibly magical means” concludes Stephen Gundle in his study of the concept (Gundle 388). In all of these there is an emphasis on the visual, tying glamour inextricably to image, but also there is an intimation of deeper possibilities of power. What is suggested by Stilgoe and Gundle’s use of the word “magic” boils down to the same concept as Postrel’s “rhetoric.” Magic persuades the world to change at the behest of a few well-chosen words; rhetoric persuades people to act with the power of a few well-chosen words. Somewhere at the heart of glamour lies a power to persuade, to suggest, to snag attention and hold it. As such, glamour provides an ideal vehicle for advertising, whose foremost goal itself is to persuade.
Advertising is—or at least attempts to be—both rhetoric and magic. It operates primarily through the visual, plays on the sensual, and attempts to impress itself upon those who see it—precisely what glamour achieves by virtue of being itself. Glamour does exactly what advertising strives for as, “by binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more” (Postrel 6). Advertising has long been aware of its close connection to glamour and the potential power it might yield if wielded correctly and, as a result, has come to shape much of how glamour is now understood. The glimmer of glamour has become the glitter of advertising in our public imagination, blurring the line between where glamour ends and schtick begins and begging the question of whether advertising, in all its contrived glory, manages to produce what might be called “genuine glamour” and whether that glamour serves the advertisers’ purpose of persuasion or its own.
Looking at automobile advertising campaigns from the first half of the 1930s, the striving toward glamour is more than apparent. Glamour in its popular modern conception originated in the ‘30s and ‘40s with the heyday of the Hollywood film star and her perfectly lit face, her radiant hair, her pencil-thin eyebrows, and mysterious expression (Stilgoe 28). This understanding of glamour in its constant young female symbolic vessel is evident everywhere in the ads of the same period. Her ubiquitousness would seem to be a testament to her effectiveness, but one wonders while flipping through page after page of what amounts to the same girl endorsing everything from cigarettes to toothpaste to airplanes to soap whether her power has been dulled by this replication or perhaps whether there are other forces at work in her efficaciousness.
Having sketched what glamour is, it becomes necessary to trace what it has been. According to Gundle, the word was popularized by Sir Walter Scott in his The Lay of the Last Minstrel wherein he used it to “mean a magical power capable of making ordinary people, swellings, and places seem like magnificent versions of themselves” (Gundle 7). The word had existed long before that, though, as the old Scots word for a magic spell, particularly spells having to do with illusion. As a 1721 glossary of poetry explains it, “When devils, wizards or jugglers deceive the sight, they are said to cast glamour over the eyes of the spectator” (Postrel 10). Thus, from the beginning glamour has been intimately connected with sight and illusion.
Glamour has not lost all but its metaphorical connection to fantasy, though. As Stilgoe demonstrates in his analyses of both glamour photography and the landscape, glamour lives on in the modern world in a liminal space lying at the edges of our consciousness. Seen from the corner of our eye, glimpsed at twilight or only from a certain angle, momentarily, unconsciously, glamour as a realm at the edge of our own still exists. Intimately connected with illusion and fantasy, glimpses of glamour while walking in an old field at twilight transport one to a space not wholly real, not wholly fantasy—a nether world with ill-defined borders wherein the image reigns supreme, the mind bowing before it. Thus there is a tension inherent in glamour and “glamour itself creates tension” (Stilgoe ix). It is this tension which the ad campaigns I will focus upon exploit. In these ads, not only is glamour a thing of the surface, allied with Hollywood starlets and perfectly done hair, but a relationship between consumer and product, consumer and ad, which attempts to pull the viewer into that liminal world between reality and fantasy.
Perhaps one of the most celebrated print car advertisement campaigns, Duesenberg’s “He/She drives a Duesenberg” quite apparently engages with the concept of glamour. In the simple campaign, illustrations of glamorous men and women (the radiant socialite, the strong cowboy) are accompanied by the single line “He [or she] drives a Duesenberg.” In none of these ads does a Duesenberg actually appear. No intimation of what the car looks like, what it can do is given; it is simply allied with the rich, the powerful, the glamorous. By refusing to represent the product they advertise, the Duesenberg advertisements force the viewer to imagine the product themselves, placing the car on an imaginary plane, outside the real, but not fully divorced from it—connected to us as it is by the image of the glamorous woman.
Here, environment is everything.
Though the campaign features both men and women, the illustrations featuring women are interesting for their de-emphasis of the women’s environments, whereas those featuring men give their environments at least equal precedence if not greater. In the image of the baronial gentleman sitting before his roaring fire, the fireplace alone is four or five times larger than the man. The room itself is cavernous, the man relegated to the corner of the frame so as to convey its scale. He is not the point; his environment and the life it symbolizes are. We see him and we want his life, the ability to own that cavernous room. Even if the whole aesthetic of it doesn’t suit us, the ability to have it if we wanted to is enough. We want the kind of car a man who can afford a room like that would have. Looking at the woman on the other hand, we want to be her. She’s at the opera—this we know from her opera glasses and dress—but we do not envy her for the opera, but for being who she is. She is glamour personified and we want that glamour—moreover, we want the car that a woman that glamorous would drive, viewing it perhaps as a rung on the ladder to becoming her.
The logic here is circular: we want the car because it is the kind of car she would own and we want the car because it might make us more like her. She defines the car and the car defines her. The proliferation of characters and scenes in the Duesenberg illustrations emphasizes the role of the people we see in them as avatars for ourselves. We can imagine ourselves the baronial gentleman, the sophisticated socialite, the cowboy, or the companion of anyone of these people. We can eliminate them entirely and inhabit their spaces. This Duesenberg campaign plays precisely on that superficial function of glamour Postrel describes when she identifies glamour’s power to inspire yearning. “We see glamorous clothes, cars, or homes and imagine how good it would feel to inhabit them” because these things hold “a promise of escape and transformation; grace; and mystery—that appear in all glamour” (Postrel 45, 9).
We simultaneously want to be her and drive the kind of car she would drive.
However Duesenberg takes it a step further than this literal representation of glamour to inspire longing. Duesenberg does not actually show the consumer the glamorous car he’s meant to begin yearning for. Rather, it is shrouded in a layer of mystery, and forced into the imagination of the viewer with only the clues of the other glamorous people and objects depicted in the illustrations to guide them by association. For, of course, it’s nice to see that glamorous car and imagine ourselves in it, imagining how much better our lives would be if we had it, but it is even better to see the person we wish to feel like, wish to become, and imagine the ideal car that would suit us as this person (Postrel 43). Not only does this suit the consumer better, for his vision becomes personalized and ideal to him, but it suits the advertiser, for the imagined ideal will always be better than the actual thing, let alone the thing as represented in an advertising campaign.
Glamour, however powerful, in the end remains subjective. What for one person might be considered the height of glamour, for another, while perhaps being admitted to be glamorous, might not be equivalent with that particular person’s idea of the concept’s highest expression. In eliminating representation from the advertisement, the consumer—forced to imagine the product—unwittingly provides his ideal vision of the car that would match that woman, or that space. Thus not only does Duesenberg employ the popular conception of glamour, but it makes a foray into that in-between space, somewhere between fantasy and reality, pushing the consumer towards a confrontation glamour gleaned from their subconscious.
Duesenberg was not the only car company to leave its ad campaigns automobile-less, however. Indeed, The Fisher Body Company, in two 1931 campaigns, performed a similar feat, though working to do so from two completely separate angles. The first—and more longstanding—of these was the Fisher Body Girl, who quickly became something of a universal symbol of stylish, glamorous femininity in the later 20’s and early 30’s, appearing outside of the ads themselves, even, on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere (Marchand 105). The invention of illustrator McClelland Barclay in the late 1920’s and modeled on his 19 year old wife, The Fisher Body Girl appeared in the company’s advertisements through the early ‘30’s—sometimes alone, sometimes with a man, but invariably without any of the cars the campaigns advertised.
McClelland Barclay, 1931. The hard black line surrounding the girl emphasizes her surface.
Unlike the women and men of the Duesenberg campaign, the Fisher Body Girl is entirely environment-less, set off completely completely from the white negative space surrounding her by a thick black line. The assumption is that the viewer either wants to be the Fisher Body Girl or to be with the Fisher Body Girl—in either case, the viewer wants the glamour, the style, the life that she symbolizes. Perennially youthful, always well-dressed, she represents an ideal even more symbolic and stylized than that of the Duesenberg campaign, which at least accommodates and admits differences in sex and age (the aging, baronial figure alone in his grand hall, the middle-aged cowboy, the sophisticated female hunter surrounded by her dogs). While the Duesenberg figures function primarily as avatars by which the viewer might imagine his or herself into the space that surrounds these symbols of wealth, the Fisher Body Girl is the height of symbolized glamour.
Despite her slight variations (sometimes she is blonde, sometimes brunette, occasionally her age might approach something like thirty), she is always “slender, youthful, sophisticated. . . attired elegantly, but not exotically,” while “her finely etched facial features [form] a slightly aloof smile, suggesting demure self-confidence in her obvious social prestige and her understated sexual allure” (Marchand 181). She is doubly symbol: standing in for for a world of glamour, like Duesenberg’s socialite at the opera, but also for the car itself. The ouroboros of the logic of “we want the car because it is the kind of car she would own and we want the car because it might make us more like her; she defines the car and the car defines her” is objectified in the Fisher Body Girl.
It is no mistake that an ad campaign for Body by Fisher focuses on just that—the body, though not the one the viewer expects, nor that the ad sells. That hard black line emphasizes the nothingness which surround her, focusing the attention in on her, but also on her as a unity. Were she to appear simply as she is without that black line, she would not appear the contiguous unit she does—she would simply be a glamorous girl, something like that Duesenberg socialite. But the black line highlights her shape , drawing connections between her form and that of the car the image advertises. Body by Fisher literally sells surface; it sells the mask the machine wears to appear in public. The body of the car, though the designer may talk about form reflecting function, does not reflect what lies beneath it—it is simply form. The Fisher Body Company sells that hard black line, it sells the surface of the girl the consumer sees.
Where in the Duesenberg campaign the wealthy women and men who drive Duesenbergs are avatars for the viewer, the Fisher Body Girl is simultaneously an avatar for the car and for the viewer. In her, the line between subject and object, consumer and product is blurred. Looking at her, we simultaneously want to be her in buying the car we assume she drives (as in the Duesenberg campaign) and we want to own the car that she herself symbolizes with her sophisticated, freed, confident, modern glamour. Thus, the Fisher Body Girl ads simply add a layer to the superficial side of the relation Duesenberg achieved with glamour. The Fisher Body Girl forces our imagination to provide a car worthy of her glamorousness and a car inspired by her glamour. Again we have wound up in a liminal space, contemplating her superficial glamour to create an ideal glamour at the edges of our consciousness.
Fisher Body, though, did not limit itself to advertisements starring the Fisher Body Girl. In 1931, it ran a campaign of double-page spreads in which the left-hand page was simply a full-page illustration, while the right hand one contained two columns of copy under ambiguous titles and headed by the Fisher Body symbol of a Napoleonic carriage. This campaign is something of an antithesis to that of the Fisher Body Girl; while the ads starring her are all about surface, these double-page spreads place an unusual stress upon depth, considering what is being sold is surface. Here, there is no clearly outlined girl to serve as symbol for the surface of the car. What is being sold is not even symbolically represented. Rather, the consumer is asked to reflect on the history of Bodies by Fisher and its role in the progress of mankind.
“It would be absurd to say that closed-body development ever equalled in importance the development of the automobile itself” a November 28th ad in The Saturday Evening Post admits, but, as a result of the Fishers’ vision, “the attitude toward the automobile changed” leading to increased demand, decreased cost, and constant improvement. These are big ideas, far beyond the scale of “buy this car because it will suit your needs for the best price.” The image of “the endless chain” which is welded by the Body by Fisher’s innovation not only conveys grandeur upon Fisher Body, but also upon the consumer who, by buying a car fitted with a Fisher Body, forges another link in this future-thrusting chain. In buying a Body by Fisher car, the consumer participates in innovation, in history.
These double-page ads are disconcerting when first encountered, particularly from the standpoint of someone who does not recognize the Body by Fisher symbol. With their full page illustration and accompanying full page of text—both understated in mood and sophisticated in presentation and style—they look more like very short articles than advertisements. In presenting themselves as they do, these ads pretend to step outside the world of advertisement—and therefore above. There is an assumed superiority both with regard to the company itself and to the type of person who would choose Body by Fisher. The sophistication of the illustrations—particularly presented almost as plates as they are—coupled with the sophistication of the ideas and style of copy elevates the campaign above “regular” advertising, which engages in the rather unsophisticated business of “selling something.” These ads do their best to sell without selling, assuming a consumer who likes to think of themselves as “above all that.”
In 1989, as Nissan launched its new luxury brand Infiniti, its advertising firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulous came up with an ad campaign designed along much the same lines as this Fisher Body Company one (albeit in the form of commercial spots rather than print ads) which reveals much about the potential logic behind the Fisher ads. Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulous, thinking that the target audience for the Infiniti brand “didn’t want to be sold,” embarked on creating a campaign that would “differentiate Infiniti. . . from all its competitors” by emphasizing not the car itself, but what they hoped the car would come to represent—that is “taste and class” and “a concept of total ownership experience that goes beyond the car” itself.
In order to convey this message, Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulous decided not to feature the car in the spots at all, instead presenting video of natural scenes designed to reflect the image Infiniti hoped to achieve, accompanied by a philosophical voice-over hammering the point home. “The minute we drop a car into the ads, we fall into line with everyone else,” David Hubbard, Infiniti’s national advertising manager said, justifying the campaign to a mystified and unconvinced public (Brown). The campaign (which acquired the nickname “Rocks and Trees”) didn’t last long—public and dealer pressure forced the company to begin putting the cars they advertised in the spots (Horton).
The language of the voice-over in these spots (“concept,” “unity”) together with their general concept is reminiscent of the double-page Body by Fisher ads to be found in 1931 editions of The Saturday Evening Post. Both emphasize a philosophical bigger picture, which it attempts to slot the viewer into. Both rely on a combination of word and image to a higher degree than the Fisher Body Girl campaign and the Duesenberg campaign (for the images of these Fisher Body spreads would not only be inexplicable without the copy, but would be unidentifiable as ads, mistaken for color plates in the magazine). And in order to achieve this idea of a greater unity, both revert to nature.
Generally in car ads or commercials, if landscape enters into the picture, it is as an illustration of the places the car can take you or the various terrains the car can conquer. Not so here. In this campaign, landscape and environment are used to place the viewer in the long form of history. Though we read about factories and assembly lines and cutting edge research, the accompanying images are timeless ones, even if the clothes of the people in them denote specific periods. The people depicted in each of these images are situated wholly within the landscape which surrounds them. They become a part of it, surrounded by the age-old rocks and ancient trees as they are. As we metaphorically become links in Fisher Body’s chain of progress, we see ourselves slotted into history via the proxy of harmony with surrounding landscape. Though the environments these three images depict are very different, as are the people within them, in each man and nature are at peace with one another, even in the vaguely prelapsarian image of the girl staring at the ripples in the pool, no reflection staring back to distract her from her contemplation. The rocks are eternal, the young man’s enormous tree eternal by comparison to his short life span. The reader of these ads feels himself slotted into a long process, which began long before his time and will continue long after he’s gone.
Reading the copy in these Fisher Body advertisements, though, has the opposite effect of the Dusenberg and Fisher Body Girl ones wherein identification forces closeness with the product. Though these double-page spreads also force the consumer to imagine the product, they do not do so out of identification with the people the ads depict. The images are merely allegory for the philosophical concepts of knowledge, time, curiosity, and progress that the ads contain. This allegory, in combination with the earnestness with which the copy is written, serve to distance the consumer from the product, rather than brig them closer—though not necessarily to the detriment of the campaign.
In her 1933 mystery novel, Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers (a former ad-woman herself) sends her aristocratic detective Lord Peter Whimsey undercover at an ad-agency. In the process of solving a few murders, he picks up a thing or two about advertising: “Mr. Bredon [Whimsey] had been a week with Pym’s Publicity, and had learnt. . . that the most convincing copy was always written with the tongue in the cheek, a genuine conviction of the commodity’s worth producing—for some reason—poverty and flatness of style” (Sayers 32). A successful ad, believes Sayers (creator herself of such wildly successful phrases as “My goodness, my Guinness” and the Guinness Toucan campaign) maintains or introduces a distance between the consumer and the product—something she most often achieved through “tongue in cheek” humor.
However, the earnestness and philosophical abstraction of the Fisher Body campaign amounts to the same thing: a certain “poverty and flatness of style” arising from “a genuine conviction of the commodity’s worth producing.” These Fisher Body ads are so convinced of the importance of Fisher Body and the continuing production of its bodies that the reader can’t help be convinced by it. And yet the consumer is not bound up in it, as with the Fisher Body Girl ads. Though not always, distance often becomes necessary to the maintenance of glamour so that the illusion might hold (Gundle 14). This is partly what Sayers approaches in Murder Must Advertise. Too engaged, too caught up in the nitty-gritty and the illusion of the ad, of the glamour breaks down. Set-off by humor or abstract philosophy, the illusion can stand, glamour can remain at the edges of one’s vision, unexamined. Thus glamour not only becomes medium, but metaphor for the persuasion of advertising.
However, the liminal space of generative fantasy that is one form of glamour is not solely accessible in advertising through the absence of the object and the thrusting of it into an imaginative space somewhere between reality and full fantasy. In 1931, contemporary with both Fisher Body campaigns, Cadillac/La Salle ran a campaign illustrated by Léon Bénigni which did indeed include representational depictions of the new V8, V12, and V16 models. Though beautifully rendered, there is nothing particularly interesting or extraordinary in the way in which they are statically situated just below center of the page. However, it is not the cars upon which the eye rests, but rather upon the gorgeous stylized art deco illustrations which rise vertically above the car in which a woman partakes in an activity varying according to the season. In May she leans against a palm tree; in August, she goes to the races, binoculars in hand, her male companion faded into the background; in September, the leaves are blown about her as she walks with her Borzoi; in October, she hunts; in November, she attends the opera, the well-dressed man on her arm lost out of the frame; and in December she strolls down a snow-covered Manahattanian avenue, hands stuffed in a muff.
In none of these illustrations does the advertised car—or any car—appear. The only link provided is one of color, the car presiding over the bottom of the page taking the color of its body or trim from the illustration: the red of the fall leaves, the black of her scarf, the blue of her sun hat, the the green of the hothouse plants or of the raceway. The colors are bold and blocked, the lines fluid and alive. And, as if the illustration themselves weren’t arresting enough, metallic gold, bronze, and silver inks were used in the printing, making them catch the light and the eye. The woman herself is preternaturally tall, with almost disturbingly long, slender fingers and legs. She is almost always shown in profile, and only rarely does she look out of the page and even then her gaze does not meet that of the viewer. Because her skin (and sometimes parts of her clothes) is always printed with the metallic ink which fills in large portions of the background, she blends into her surroundings, becoming one with the landscape around her. Taken together, the effect is fantastic in its most literal sense: these illustrations inhabit a realm beyond the real, a realm based in fantasy.
The landscapes which surround these women (whether Scottish highlands, glistering beaches, hothouses, or the flowing lines of winds on an autumn day) flow into and around them, blending with them by virtue of their shared pigmenting and often loose lines. To be these women is to be totally unconstrained—something which is hinted at by the geographic variety of their environments, but is symbolized in the manner of the illustration. Unlike the Fisher Body Girl (whose glamour is thoroughly conventional), and the Duesenberg socialite (whose glamour finds its basis in wealth and mystery), the Cadillac/La Salle women (for they are most certainly women, not girls) have a glamour which finds its basis in freedom. Unconstrained by the necessity to represent reality as the women of the previous two campaigns must, these women flow outwards, unifying with their surroundings, yet remaining central, allowing “landscape [to] flow and shape itself around” them, to borrow Stilgoe’s description of World War Two era self-portraits given by girls to their sweethearts (Stilgoe xiii).
The woman flows into the landscape, the landscape into her.
In Old Fields, Stilgoe argues that part of the success of any model in glamour photography comes from her understanding visual power. In understanding how to make “light surround themselves. . . . Such models radiate light. . . energiz[ing] [their] surrounding landscape” (Stilgoe 386). Part of the glamour of Bénigni’s Cadillac/La Salle ads is achieved through a similar understanding and manipulation of light via the reflective metallic inks with which they are printed. In her essay The Apollonian Androgyne and the “Faerie Queene,” Camille Paglia too connects glamour to light, seeing the origins of the connection in “the light streaming from the Olympian Gods. . . prefigur[ing] the nimbi and flame-halos which circle the heads of Christian saints.” Light, she believes, “is intensified and projected” through blondeness in the works of Edmund Spenser, something which she sees as “analogous to the ‘glamour’ of American film starts of the Thirties and Forties” which was “symbolized in the shimmering gauze veil through which the camera contemplated the face of the female star” (Paglia 61). Very few of the women of Bénigni’s ads have a discernible hair color, but their metallic and reflective skin and surroundings take on the same function that Paglia argues Spencer’s blondeness does; the ink, in reflecting light, appears to emit it, giving the illustrations the same visual power wielded by models of glamour photography, ’30’s and ’40’s movie stars, and Spencerian heroes.
Thus, in the Bénigni ads, stylization contributes greatly to superficial glamour, but also to placing the ad and the relation between the consumer and the product in an in-between realm. While in the Fisher Body and Deusenberg campaigns this liminal space of sidelong glamour enhancement was achieved simply by the forced engagement of the imagination, in the Bénigni ads, the relation is complicated by the presence of the illustration of the car. Glamour both produces and relies on the tension between the real and fantasy, a tension highlighted by the proximity of the stylization of the glamorous women with the representational cars.
To this point, I have confined myself to studying these advertisements in something of a vacuum. This, however, is of course not how they were designed or experienced. The year of both Fisher Body campaigns and of the decadent Cadillac/La Salle ones was one of the worst of the Great Depression, which begs the question of why these companies did not go the route so many other car companies did and emphasize affordability and dependability over this nebulous concept of glamour, something so intimately wedded to luxury, style, and wealth in the popular imagination. In his study of glamour, Gundle puts forward the theory that glamour as we understand it today is thoroughly wedded to the ideas of a commercial society. Glamour originated as a visual fabrication by an emerging middle class of the visual styles and values of the aristocracy, a voluntary illusion and self-delusion. It is, he claims, “a function not of aristocratic social influence but of the dreams of the commercial society” (Gundle 6-7). Glamour has built into it not simply a yearning towards change which dates back to its magical properties—the turning of a frog into a prince, an old hag into a beautiful young woman—but a striving upwards.
Glamour is a fabrication based on a dream of upward mobility—and it is written into our makeup as human beings to be attracted to glamour and glamours. Whether it is in the fantasy of the frog on the edge of the well turning into a prince at a kiss or the dream of a Cadillac V-8 sitting out front, humans love to dream. Most of the things advertised (especially now-a-days) in magazines are well beyond the means of the magazine’s average reader. And yet we love to look. And we love to imagine. What would I look like in that car? How would those jewels look around my neck? If only that watch were on my wrist. . . Such is the stuff of fantasy, but when caused subconsciously, by the suggestions of reality in a magazine, they are not purely fantasy, but occupants of that liminal space in which glamour thrives. Denizens of twilight, caught only by a glimpse of the inward-flashing eye. In designing their ad campaigns as they did, Cadillac and La Salle, Fisher Body, and even Duesenberg four years later, were banking on the trust that even during the Depression, the human desire to dream, to enter that liminal state, would be greater than ever before. It just might need a little more help than usual.
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Postrel, Virginia. The Power of Glamour. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2013.
Sayers, Dorothy L. Murder Must Advertise. New York, Harcourt Brace and Co., 1933.
Stilgoe, John. Old Fields. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2014.
When I get back to school, I’ll update this post with my own photos and scans. I’ve made do with what’s the internet for now, since I left all of my things on a drive at school.