Manufacturing Desire:

After the industrial revolution, the economy produced more goods than people needed. For example, with only two machines, one company “could immediately produce 240,000 cigarettes a day–more than the entire U.S. market smoked. Such overproduction was the rule, not the exception.” [1]Rodney Clapp, “Why the Devil Takes VISA,” ChristianityToday, October 7, 1996, available from: Some business owners saw the normalization of overproduction and recognized that marketing must change as well. John Wanamaker (1838-1922) was one such marketing visionary. He “believed the goal of business was no longer to manufacture products but to manufacture desire for the products.[2]Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle Location 2086-2091. To manufacture desire, Wanamaker bought full-page newspaper ads and created pseudo-holidays like Mother’s Day. In what amounts to religious language, Wanamaker “described the ideal consumer economy as a ‘land of desire,’ and his department store as a ‘garden of merchandise’ where those desires could be fulfilled.” [3]Ibid.

Controlling Other People’s Imaginations:

Prior to the industrial revolution ads looked similar to modern classifieds. They provided essential information regarding a product and nothing more. “There were no pictures and, rather like news items, the ads simply did such things as announce when a shipment of rice would arrive from the Carolinas.” [4]Clapp, “Why the Devil Takes VISA”. Ads quickly changed with the introduction of images.


Instead of providing information about products that people wanted or needed to know, now advertisers used images to to manufacture desire for new products. In 1897, a self-aware reader explained the change this way:

“In the past we ‘skipped ads unless some want compelled us to read, while now we read to find out what we really want.'” [5]Ibid.

The Rise of the Image:

The move from print to images happened quickly. By the late 1890s images rivaled text-based ads for prominence. Marketing gurus gave advice like this (circa 1905): [6]For sources, see W.R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011), 43.:

  • “Pictures are first principles.”
  • “You may forget what you read—if you read at all. But what you see, you know instantly!”
  • “It is hard to get mental activity with cold type, YOU FEEL A PICTURE.”

With the goal of manufacturing desire, American business “pursued the imagination in a way no other group in U.S. history had ever done.”[7]Ibid., 38. And they knew that’s what they were doing. One marketing expert put it this way: the purpose of picture based ads is “the controlling of other people’s imaginations.[8]Katherine Roiston Fisher, “Ad-Writing and Psychology,” Fame 8 (September 1899).

Schooled in Instability:

As this brief history shows, the marketer’s response to overproduction was distraction. The goal is to keep consumers from asking: Do I need this? Instead, picture-based ads inspire the promise of a new future, an experience described well in 1925: “No one has ever in his life bought a mere piece of merchandise–per se. What he buys is the … gratification of some dream about his life.[9]Clapp, quoting John Starr Hewitt. So discontentment becomes the marketer’s secret weapon. Customers are “schooled in insatiability. He or she is never to be satisfied — at least not for long. The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experiences.” [10]Clapp.


What can we conclude from this history lesson? When a culture shifts from word to image, the imagination becomes the marketer’s playground. This in turn socializes people to believe that identity comes from discovering and meeting unmet needs.

Has watching an ad ever made you want something you didn’t even know you wanted? Leave a comment and tell us your story.

This post is part 1 of a multi-part series on the history and differences between a word-based culture and an image-based culture, and how this affects discipleship and preaching. See top of page for links to other posts in the series.

Recommended Books:

[amazon template=thumbnail align left&asin=0310515920,0394543505]
Controlling Other People’s Imaginations: A Brief History of Advertizing


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