I’ve been reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise. Above all, it makes me want to live in the twenties, when it would have been possible to call oneself a “Bolshevist,” but it is a fine book for many reasons, including this description of early Fordism:
If all the advertising in the world were to shut down tomorrow, would people still go on buying more soap, eating more apples, giving their children more vitamins, roughage, milk, olive oil, scooters and laxatives, learning more languages by gramaphone, hearing more virtuosos by radion, re-decorating their houses, refreshing themselves with non-alcoholic thirst-quenchers, cooking more new, appetizing dishes, affording themselves that little extra touch which means so much? Or would the whole desparate whirligig slow down, and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow-grease? He did not know. Like all rich men, he had never before paid any attention to advertisements. He had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion. Phantasmagoria—a city of dreadful day, of crude shapes and colours piled Babel-like in a heaven of harsh cobalt and rocking over a void of bankruptcy—a Cloud Cuckooland, peopled by pitiful ghosts, from the Thrifty Housewife providing a Grand Family Meal for Fourpence with the aid of Dairyfields Butter Beans in Margarine, to the Typist capturing the affections of Prince Charming by a liberal use of Muggins’s Magnolia Face Cream.
I’m not sure if Walter Benjamin ever read Sayers (although he did like detective stories, I understand); but this reminds me a great deal of his discussion of the utopian possibilities of advertising, and in particular the Surrealists who, he said, “treat words like trade names, and their texts are, at bottom, a form of prospectus for enterprises not yet off the ground.”