Non­fic­tion

Jew­ish Mad Men: Adver­tis­ing and the Design of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Experience

  • Review
By – December 19, 2014

In a heav­i­ly com­mer­cial soci­ety like Amer­i­ca, the study of adver­tis­ing can pro­vide valu­able insights into social and cul­tur­al his­to­ry. By doc­u­ment­ing how providers of goods and ser­vices have appealed to poten­tial con­sumers, adver­tise­ments tell us how those providers — and, by impli­ca­tion, soci­ety as a whole — iden­ti­fied those poten­tial custom­ers, con­struct­ed them as dis­tinct groups, and inferred their val­ues and col­lec­tive motives. 

In Jew­ish Mad Men, Ker­ri P. Stein­berg uses adver­tis­ing as a lens through which to exam­ine the expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­can Jews from the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry to the present day. Her exam­i­na­tion yields few new insights — rein­forc­ing the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom of the Jew­ish expe­rience in Amer­i­ca pass­ing through var­i­ous stages, from attempts to cling to Old World iden­ti­ties to a rest­less desire to assim­i­late to the more recent resur­gence of inter­est in assert­ing a dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish iden­ti­ty while ful­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the broad­er sec­u­lar soci­ety — but the explo­ration itself is of great interest. 

Stein­berg cov­ers three dif­fer­ent modes of Jew­ish Amer­i­can advertis­ing: the adver­tis­ing of dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish brands to Jew­ish audi­ences (Man­is­che­witz foods and wines, JDate); the adver­tis­ing of dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish brands to non-Jew­ish audi­ences (El Al Air­lines, Levy’s Rye Bread); and the adver­tis­ing of non-Jew­ish brands to Jew­ish mar­kets (Maxwell House Cof­fee and, even more curi­ous­ly, attempts by gen­tile cloth­iers around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to per­suade Jews that they should upgrade their wardrobes come East­er time). 

Along the way, Stein­berg focus­es on sev­er­al impor­tant fig­ures in the Jew­ish his­to­ry of adver­tis­ing — most notably Bill Bern­bach, whose agency Doyle Dane Bern­bach was respon­si­ble for a rev­o­lu­tion in the cre­ative style of Amer­i­can adver­tis­ing, and Joseph Jacobs, who found­ed the first adver­tis­ing agency dom­i­nat­ed by Jews, which spe­cial­ized in mar­ket­ing to Jew­ish mar­kets. Jacobs’ sig­nal achieve­ment was persuad­ing Maxwell House to dis­trib­ute mil­lions of free Passover hagadahs, which not only became vir­tu­al­ly canon­i­cal texts in Amer­i­can seders but estab­lished Maxwell House as the undis­put­ed cof­fee of choice among Amer­i­can Jews. 

But the book’s focus remains on how Amer­i­ca at large came to iden­ti­fy, define, and under­stand a dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish” tar­get mar­ket. If her treat­ment comes across as heav­i­ly reliant on gen­er­al­iza­tions, it is large­ly because adver­tis­ers chose to treat that mar­ket as homo­ge­neous. This is a well-writ­ten, pro­fuse­ly illus­trat­ed book that suc­ceeds admirably in achiev­ing its admit­ted­ly nar­row goals.

Relat­ed content:

Read Ker­ri P. Steinberg’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Jew­ish Mad Women

We’ve Got the Moves: Jew­ish Mad­ness on Madi­son Avenue

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

Discussion Questions