In Defense of Madison Avenue


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May 14, 1958, Vol. III, No. 29

In Defense of Madison Avenue

By Marc D. Schleifer

Judging by his column in The Voice on April 16, Nat Hentoff has been impressed by the swelling chorus of liberal intellectuals damning Madison Avenue from here to the pages of the New Republic or the Nation. The variations have been numerous, but they all have evolved from one indignant theme–that Madison Avenue is responsible for the mediocrity and vulgarity in our American culture.

The basic role of an advertising agency is to create and place ads for a client with the purpose of persuading an audience to purchase the client’s item…The creation of advertisements involves writing and art, but not as an end in itself…

If the liberal intellectual has come to recognize that there is mediocrity and vulgarity in the American culture, let him place the blame where it belongs.

But this he finds difficult to do…Advertising can only reflect taste, not set taste. When the consumer-audience for a particular product is reasonably literate…then advertisements for that audience are distinctively literate.

Of course I am aware that the liberal intellectual will raise the banner of “social responsibility” and education as a role that the agency must assume. But such an argument is neither functional nor logical. The agency does not ask the educators of America to sell products–that is the agency’s job. The agency should not be asked to assume the educator’s job.

Until mass media does merit approval, an individual who finds it lacking should simply refrain from participating in its audience. No one forces the intellectual to read the Daily News, and there is no one forcing him to watch television or listen to commercial radio.

The advertising agencies and the networks serve as butler to a consumer-public master. The television set, the radio, and the printed ad constitute the master’s dining table. If what is served on that table is of superior quality, it is the master, not the butler, who is considered the gourmet. But if the master has vulgar taste and demands that he be served inferior fare, where is the justice in damning the butler?

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]