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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 23, 2001
This book is a penetrating analysis of the origins of our mass-culture, consumerist society. First, the author debunks the notion that consumerism was a natural technological development or clearly represents progress.
The author makes evident that the captions of industry sought to exert control over the entire social milieu beginning in the 1920s. Their foremost project was to define American life as consumerism. Consumption was marketed as far more than acquiring the essentials of life; it was a means to transform one's life: to achieve social esteem, to escape otherwise mediocre, humdrum lives. It was very much an individualistic approach to life in contrast to the traditional focus on small communities or extended families.
Industrialism was not easily swallowed by workers of the 19th and early 20th century. Traditional social bonds became irrelevant in factory production. Also under scientific management work was systematically deskilled and redefined by management. The strike wave of 1919 and the "Red Scare" of the early 20's convinced economic elites to set upon a course of pacification of discontented citizens in addition to measures of suppression.
The advertising in the 20's tried to convince that the mass production of consumable items was of tremendous benefit to society. The "freedom" of workers as consumers to transform their lives more than offset the actual loss of control over work processes. Every effort was made to see that mass-culture goods penetrated and hence defined all areas of life. Non-acceptance of that corporate-defined world was not viewed kindly. Virtually all non-market activity was cast as secondary, if not illegitimate. Buying superceded voting as the means to social remedy. Even families became purchasing units.
By the 1950s the transformation of the US to a consumerist culture was virtually complete. The penetration of corporate-owned television into all households ensured that alternatives to consumerism would not surface which was a continuation of the trend of centralization of all media outlets. The free-market and free trade ideologues of the 1990s are merely following in those same footsteps.
Though written 25 years ago, this book remains relevant today. More recent authors such as Kuttner, Schiller, Lindblom, or Frank can only add to what Ewen has already said.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 1997
Captains of Consciousness, written more than twenty years ago, remains a classic in the field. A fascinating look at the rise of American consumer culture, the book places advertising firmly within the context of pivotal social developments that have shaped the life and mind of twentieth century America. A must read for anyone interested in understanding where we come from, where we are going
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2001
When this book appeared twenty-five years ago, it blew my mind. Filled with amazing insights and information, it's still the best book on the topic. Provocative, thought-provoking, gutsy. Great that this new edition has appeared. It's still the book to read on the subject of advertising.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2007
Stuart Ewen. Captains of Consciousness. Basic Books, 2001

Preface says that some reviewers labeled the book as "Marxist". They definitely missed the point. Feeling sympathetic towards Proletariat isn't Marxism exclusive trademark. Yet the book definitely lacks the depth of economic analysis and feeling of history (including actual class struggle) to fit the best standards of historical materialism. H. Zinn's "People's History of the USA" is much more monumental in collecting the social and economical realities of the US of the period.

As M. Schudson rightfully noted, the author of "Captains" too often takes the bluffing of second-rate admen at face value as the industry's real best practices. All this comes under obvious ideological inspiration of Marcuse.

Still the book seems to be the only study of advertising history that takes into consideration the working-class, including immigrants. Virtually all others suggest that there was no life outside of "Middle Class America".

Thus "Captains" are the must for any researcher or student in advertising sociology who wants to broaden his/her prospective.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2005
Ewen's book "Captains of Consciousness" is an insightful analysis of the rise of consumerism through advertising. He starts by covering the technique and effects of mass production. Of course workers were not pleased with their dehumanizing roles in line production that made them easily replaceable. Where industrialization standardized the means of production, there was a need to modernize the consumption end of the deal; this is where advertising came into play. The book focuses on the 1920's during the advent of mass advertising. Advertising provided a desire in the public to comsume a variety of new productions as well as ameliorated a society who had become increasingly upset with the wage system. Much of the later part of the book deals with how advertising was primarily meant for women, who had become the managers of the household and responsible for most consumption. Overall, the book is well worth the read, even though it is over 25 years old. Many of the advertising tactics that Ewen speaks of, such as the youthful ideal, are still present today.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2003
If you've ever spent a considerable amount of time living in a 3rd World nation like I have, this book can help you understand why the USA has such an intense consumer culture which is almost unheard of in other such countries. I'm a big fan of capitalism, and this book makes a lot of sense. It's not a critique of capitalism nearly as much as an explanation of how it can shape cultures.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 3, 2008
This book has had a huge influence on me. With the information in this book and a little bit of your own thought and imagination you can see how our reality is manufactured. Admittedly, any societal structure is "manufactured", but this particular consumeristic one is having incredibly destructive consequences. We have become a true "throw away" society; from razors to family; from paper cups to morals.
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on August 25, 2013
Ever wonder how we got to be the way we are -- consumers not people. Focusing on the rise of advertising in the 1920's, Ewen does a comprehensive job on filling in the pieces. Later chapters on the fifties and beyond could carry more heft, but the core if the book is a delight.
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on August 9, 2012
Captains Of Consciousness is a must read text for all who want and need to know the powerfully influential and controlling power of mass marketing and mass media.
Read this book to know how and by who our opinions, thoughts, impulses, and feelings are influenced and shaped.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2011
This is one of the best non-fiction works I have ever read -- it explains advertising in such a simple way and shows that even in the early 20th Century things were not so different from today. It is a great piece of social commentary and living history.
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