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.