From New International, Vol. I No. 2, August 1934, pp. 62–63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Our Master’s Voice: Advertizing
by James Rorty
x+394 pp. New York, The John Day Co. $3.
To our finicky forefathers advertizing was a thing distressing but under some circumstances inevitable – like a belch. The least one expected of the advertizer was some restraint in the gustiness of his blast, and a deprecatory “Excuse me.” As capitalism conquered, however, advertizing, its mate, grew more blatant and boorish, casting off entirely restraint and shame. Giant billboards sprang up like mushrooms over capitalist scenery, blocking all view of verdant green and rippling brook, and driving pastoral poets to drink and suicide. Circulars fell like snow. Megaphones bawled into the ears of passersby. Advertizing became as raucous, as obscene, as dishonest, as a small-town carnival.
And a honky-tonk racket it is to this day, despite the fact that it is the twelfth largest industry in the United States, doing several billion dollars worth of business annually that, so far as society is concerned, is pure economic waste, and subordinating to its purposes the press, the radio, the movies, art, literature, science and education – in brief, the whole of American bourgeois culture.
The newspapers in this country fought the originally feeble Tugwell Food and Drug Bill, and even the emasculated Copeland revisions, as if their very life depended upon the struggle – as, indeed, it did. They fought for the right of manufacturers to sell adulterated and poisoned products, and to palm off these products (in the pages of the press, at so much per line) as pure and health-giving. They fought for the right of the producer to lie and swindle, and rob and kill. Upon this right the entire advertizing business depends, and the daily press, which is no longer a medium but the organ of the advertizing business.
Legislators are bought, magazines are subsidized, public schools are utilized. Scientists gladly, for a proper fee, take part in the grand chorus which says “Buy! buy! buy!” Vitamins are discovered so that breakfast foods may be sold. Children are taught to brush their teeth every day so that the manufacturer can dispose of his poison-containing toothpaste. The health-giving properties of the sun are disclosed in order that ultra-violet lamps may find a proper place in the market. Fiction is written by authors with reputations in order to make the public car-conscious, yacht-conscious, clothes-conscious. An ounce of truth will be inserted only when it means a pound of profit. Advertizing has corrupted our entire civilization, has exalted sham, and glorified ostentation above all virtues.
All this James Rorty, himself an advertizing man, makes plain in his excellent and valuable book, Our Master’s Voice: Advertizing. He does more. He takes us into the inner dives of the racket, and where he goes he plants bombs or scatters rat poison. Rorty is a poet: the vulgarity of advertizing offends his nostrils, its sway over literature and the arts drives him to a proper fury. He is a satirist of first order: he pounces down gleefully upon the chromium-plated pretenses of his confrères, and reveals them at their tawdriest and worst. He spares no one, but pursues his quarry relentlessly, and without regard for the rules of sportsmanship. Any and all weapons, dogs, razors, double-barreled shotguns, dum-dum bullets, trench mortars, arsenic, mustard-gas are legitimate for bringing down the prey, so far as Rorty is concerned. He uses all of his talents, in poetry, satire, fiction and good, sound logic, and he leaves of the science and art and social-service of the advertizers and their high-hat flunkies, a sorry spectacle indeed – corpses mutilated, battered, bruised beyond description, wounded in a thousand places. For all of this he might yet be forgiven by the bourgeoisie if only he permitted them some substitute, some less evil-smelling beast that could still perform to suit their needs. But Rorty is the last man in the world to allow anyone to sprinkle perfume over the skunk and pass him off as a domesticated tabby. The battery is wheeled into position again, and in a few short chapters it is all over with the reformers, and with their substitutions.
“I have tried to show,” he writes, “that this business perverts and stultifies our essential instruments of social communication; that its fantastic economic wastefulness is the least important aspect of its viciousness; that this leering, cajoling, bullying caricature of truth, decency, service, education, science, is something that a sane and vigorous people must reject in its totality, on pain not merely of economic chaos but of cultural death.”
Nor will legislation reform or the disapprobation of right-minded men help in the least against the evils of advertizing, which are the evils of capitalism, which must somehow sell its surplus products, which in turn must be adulterated and faked to make the profit which becomes capital. For the process of robbing the worker of his just wages, and then cheating him; again when he goes to buy is one and the same. And, as Rorty gleefully quotes Bruce Barton:
“There is nothing the matter with advertizing that is not the matter with business in general.”
Elsewhere, referring to the attempt at far-reaching reform contained in the Consumers’ Research Bill, Rorty says:
“The bill is well calculated to freeze the blood of the admen, drug men, vitamin men and cosmeticians. Incidentally, it constitutes an excellent reductio ad absurdum of the whole idea of progress by reform, capitalist planning, etc. Obviously, it would) be much simpler to socialize pharmacy, medicine, and the production and distribution of foods, and also obviously, no such revolution could be achieved without a social revolution.”
* * * *
As was to be expected, the book was greeted in the bourgeois press with “modified raptures”. Some reviewers, who were distressed by his conclusions but nevertheless overwhelmed by his proof, sought refuge in the feeblest of liberal formulae: “There is much in what he says, the condition is undoubtedly a sad one, but ...” and then assailed him for his radicalism. His attacks upon the press itself were discreetly hushed up.
What was astonishing – to anyone who can be astounded by the Stalinists – was the treatment the book received in the official communist press. It was ignored by all publications excepting the New Masses, where the reviewer exceeded all previous masterpieces of spleen and venom, and dirty back-biting, that have featured that magazine in the past.
The review begins with a sneer. “This book represents a prodigious effort by ex-comrade Rorty.” The “ex-comrade” gives the trick away. Follows the usual abuse, “in the revolutionary movement, nothing short of a general’s post could satisfy his all-consuming ego. No generalships being proffered, Rorty did not tarry long among the communists.” “From the internal evidence contained in this volume, one is justified in the faint suspiciou that James Rorty will be among them [the American versions of the Fascist Minister of Propaganda and Enlightenment, Goebbels].”
To all of which the proper answer is that the reviewer is a liar. Rorty sought no office in the communist movement, and accepted with reluctance the then supposedly important one that was forced upon him – the secretaryship of the League for Professional Groups. He resigned and quit the movement because of fundamental disagreements – right or wrong – with the policies of the CP and its related organizations. His hatred – his fighting hatred – of Fascism has been so apparent in his career, that to bring against him the faintest charge of Fascist tendencies requires rank impudence as well as dishonesty. But the Stalinists have both.
Rorty is not clear politically, and the fact that he has found his way into the ranks of the American Workers’ Party has not added to his political clarity. Nevertheless, his book must be recognized by every honest revolutionary as a good and able piece of work, calculated to serve, in the long run, the cause of proletarian revolution, and no other cause.
Last updated on 25 February 2016