Motorola Citizens

Hello again readers. Apologies for the recent lack of updates; I have been taking exams and organizing writing for submission, so WordPress has been on a back burner.

I was considering writing about the alarming Trump/North Korea situation, but decided that to avoid depressing everyone, in this post, I’d discuss the image featured in the background of this blog (and header of this post) instead. The image is a magazine commercial for Motorola television sets. It was printed in the September 5, 1950 edition of the Daily News although which region that paper covered is unspecified. If anyone has any clues to that, please let me know in the comments.

The commercial is of interest to me because of its enthusiastic endorsement of televisions not so much as a form of entertainment, but as a means for dealing with (possibly wayward) children.

In many ways, the ad is typical of the period; the images show, respectively, a pair of children watching (a frankly quite creepy looking puppet on) TV, a man leaning over a young boy, presumably supposed to be his son, who has a homework book spread in front of him, and, finally, the entire family of four seated around the TV set, all smiles, watching a football game.

In the first and last images, we can see that the television set has, in a sense, replaced the hearth. It is contained in a cabinet, minimizing its potential to be unsightly, and is adorned with a bowl of flowers, which in previous years may have been placed on a mantelpiece, or even atop a baby grand piano. As Lynn Spigel writes in Make Room for TV, “the appearance of the television set correlates significantly with the vanishing piano,” noting that in 1953, “Better Homes and Gardens suggested as much when it displayed a television set in a ‘built-in music corner’ that replaces the piano.”[1]

The idea that the TV could replace earlier locations of focus in a living room was widespread in advertisements and even on TV itself.

cohen image

This image, cited in Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic,[2] is even clearer on this point; the TV is once again contained in an attractive cabinet, topped with a floral Christmas decoration. One the wall above it hangs a picture, adorned with Christmas stockings. If we are to take cues from popular culture (films, magazines, TV, and so on) it is fireplace or mantelpiece that is the usual location for these items in the popular imaginary. The TV has come to take its place, both as a central focus of a room, and as a unit around which families can gather. This commercial shows two young boys staring at the television as they appear to wait for their stockings to be filled.

However, the rhetoric of television in the immediate postwar period was often contradictory; one side of the argument presented TV as a means of repairing family relations that may have been disrupted by the war (especially in terms of the absence of fathers, and the attendant shift in women’s roles from the domestic to the workplace,) while the other suggested that the TV had families in its thrall to the extent that it could render members neurotic (women,) catatonic (men and kids,) or even violent (kids.)

As Spigel notes, the television was frequently seen in terms of health; it would allow people to witness the world – and “others” in it – vicariously, from a safe distance to avoid actual contact, and could also prevent children from leaving the safe, hygienic realm of the home. It was “hailed for its ability to keep youngsters out of sinful public spaces, away from the countless contaminations of everyday life.”[3]

However, health arguments were also given in reverse, as these ads from Ladies Home Journal in 1950 and 1955 illustrate.

 

The kids in these commercials are described as “skinny,” “limp,” and “dull[er],” and “less healthy.” The drawings show them as catatonic and in thrall to the screen. Presumably, these kids are not doing their homework as directed, nor are they using television in moderation.

The fact that this Motorola ad shows the family watching active pursuits may be a key here; not for these children the pacifying dullness of too much TV, they are only interested in wholesome entertainment, sports, and westerns (as depicted in the image at the bottom of the ad.)

These themes also tie with American ideals: the puppet represents good, old-fashioned entertainment, rather than the perils of the likes of rock’n’roll or James Dean movies; football is a national pastime, but one that involves exercise and fresh air, no doubt something these kids also managed to squeeze in around their homework, on their suburban lawn; finally the western epitomizes the American spirit of pioneering progress. This is a modern family, with belief in the power of scientific progress, represented by television, to improve their lives, but have not forgotten the cultural draw of the cowboy.

Suburbs were often seen negatively as hotbeds of cookie-cutter living, steeped in the kind of conformity that risked morphing into the blind obedience associated with communism. Therefore, it is telling that the ad, while clearly supporting the suburban nuclear family ideal, and promoting the idea that families should, so to speak, “get with the program,” also draws attention to older, more tried-and-true, American values: rugged individualism, pioneering spirit, and adventurism, along with a nod to the idea that it is the job of Americans to tame nature (including, of course, through the subjugation of non-white peoples) to create a modern, “civilized” America. In this sense, the tv set itself provides a clear thread between the old values and the new.

Therefore, in its own way, this ad draws the family into a new form of citizenship. During the postwar period, consumerism was heavily tied to citizenship, with the purchase of homes, and appliances to furnish them, being a key part of economic progress. Participation in these activities was viewed as an ideal form of contributory citizenship. It’s important to remember that this was a heavily racialized phenomenon; as I’ve said in other posts, black and other nonwhite communities were largely excluded from homeownership (as Dianne Harris remarked, only 2% of the GI Bill housing budget went to non-segregated areas,[4]) and redlining and other discriminatory practices were rife. Therefore, such communities were largely excluded from this kind of participatory citizenship as well.

By positioning this family as modern consumers: white, nuclear, suburban, modern, progressive, affluent, well-behaved, and hard-working (remember, these kids just love doing their homework!,) but also in touch with traditional, time-honored values, the purchase of the TV is shown to be a rite of citizenship. Therefore, whereas the content of television shows is frequently (and correctly) seen as reflecting, representing and perpetuating social structures, in this case, the television set itself can be seen as fulfilling the same function.

[1] Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press)1992, 39.

[2] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books) 2003, 303.

[3] Lynn Spigel, The Suburban Home Companion: Television and the Neighborhood Ideal in Postwar America, in Beatriz Colomina et al, Sexuality and Space (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) 1992, 191

[4] Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press) 2013, Kindle edition location 711.

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