09/12/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

The Official Art of Capitalist Society

One effort at defining advertising -- this modern phenomenon that is so much a part of contemporary life -- stands above all others. The British social theorist Raymond Williams (1921-1988) dubbed it the official art of capitalist society. In doing so, he located it in time, place, and history.

Many others have had a go at defining it. James Laver, curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (1922-1958), wrote: An advertisement is "any device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange." The selling point of his definition is its focus on advertising's antiquity and universality in human culture. Although this includes the open-air markets in villages all over the developing world as well as the walls of the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, it is not precise enough to exclude the relationship of bees and flowers.

In 1905, John E Kennedy, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman turned copywriter, called it salesmanship in print. His definition focused on the transformation of face-to-face commerce into a mass-mediated effort at the same thing. Were he writing today, he would probably want to call it salesmanship through mediated communication in order to include radio, TV, cable, and now the Internet, each of which has successively become the primary medium for communication between sellers and potential buyers.

What precisely did Williams mean when he called advertising the official art of capitalist society? First, he wanted to recognize that modern advertising rose hand-in-hand with the industrial revolution and the era of mass consumption. Indeed, American advertising emerged around 1875, first in New York and Philadelphia, as clever entrepreneurs offered first to take ads from stores to newspaper offices (because many newspapers required fresh copy daily) and then to help by writing the copy itself. From there sprang the global commercial communications of today.

Second, Williams wanted to recognize the omnipresence and ascendency of advertising as the preeminent and most popular form of art of the 20th century. He recognized that just as Michelangelo and other great Renaissance artists had city-states, wealthy families, and the church as patrons, so too do contemporary artists have their own patrons. They are no longer Florence, the Medici, or the Vatican but rather JWT and McCann-Erickson (of New York and the world), Dentsu (headquartered in Tokyo), the Publicis agencies (based in Paris), and the many other local, national, and global advertising agencies that today prefer labeling themselves total marketing communications facilitators.

Third, his definition referred to advertising as the official art of capitalist society. By this, he meant that advertising only exists in a certain kind of society and economy. He compared it to the state-sponsored art of the Soviet Union and other socialist/communist states whose most common form of public art we derisively term propaganda. From that point of view, someone looking at American and European advertising from outside might just as well call it capitalist propaganda.

Call it what you will but the fact remains that advertising is the most common form of art not only in our society but now in our globalized world. It would not nor could not exist outside a society that depends on it to encourage mass consumption of the bountiful production of goods and service upon which our economy is based.

The ironic thing about all this is that we are preserving such a poor record of this most common form of art. Although it is everywhere from American baseball stadiums to the floors of supermarkets in South Africa to the facades of ancient buildings along the canals of Venice, it is oddly ephemeral. Newspapers are meant to be thrown away, TV commercials evaporate, and Internet pop-ups change as you watch them. Only a few prescient collectors like the Smithsonian, the New York Public Library, the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Public Libraries, and the Hartman Center at Duke University actively preserve them. The record of the first TV commercials from the late 1940s and the 1950s (when commercials were mostly live) is sparse. An art historian of Byzantine art once reckoned that it was perhaps easier to study the church art of Byzantium than yesterday's advertising.

Two hundred years or so from now, if there are indeed still people on earth, they will likely look back upon this age and wonder how we could have been so oblivious to so important a part of our culture. Williams was right in recognizing the time, place, and historical context of this thing most of us still call advertising.

William M. O'Barr is professor of cultural anthropology, sociology, and English at Duke University and author of ADTextonline.