Ear­li­er this week, Ker­ri P. Stein­berg wrote about the Jew­ish women in adver­tis­ing a in 1960s New York. She is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished book Jew­ish Mad Men: Adver­tis­ing and the Design of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Expe­ri­ence and has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Grow­ing up in the sev­en­ties ful­ly embrac­ing the spir­it of funk and dis­co music in my fan­cy foot­work and swivel­ing hips, my ears took it hard upon hear­ing that Jews have no rhythm. I, for one, knew oth­er­wise. Even if this asser­tion were true, I would argue that what some Jews lack on the dance floor oth­ers have more than off­set with the quick tem­po and intel­lec­tu­al wit­ti­ness they have con­tributed to Amer­i­can advertising. 

His­tor­i­cal­ly, Jews had to be one step ahead to out-maneu­ver a hos­tile world, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the height of anti-Semit­ic pogroms in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Quick think­ing, adapt­abil­i­ty, and resilience — all syn­ony­mous with cre­ativ­i­ty — became instru­ments of sur­vival both in the Old World and as they tran­si­tioned into the new. The Jew­ish fond­ness for text found new forms of expres­sion in an open soci­ety, one of them being copy­writ­ing. Begin­ning with Albert Lasker in the 1920s (sole own­er at age 32 of the Chica­go based agency Lord and Thomas, lat­er to become Foote, Cone & Beld­ing), Jews have had an affair with copy­writ­ing. Catchy klitchiks (an unex­pect­ed twist in a piece of copy) made much Jew­ish copy­writ­ing mem­o­rable. Of course, there were the leg­endary taglines that spelled out a product’s Jew­ish asso­ci­a­tions like, You Don’t Have to Be Jew­ish to Love Levy’s Real Jew­ish Rye,” script­ed by Jew­ish copy­writ­ers at the two-thirds Jew­ish owned firm, Doyle Dane Bern­bach (DDB). But from Mama mia, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” to Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is,” to Try it, you’ll like it,” even non-Jew­ish prod­ucts like Alka Seltzer — first a client of DDB, then a client of the swanky 1960s agency Wells, Rich, Greene — have a whiny, dep­re­cat­ing, Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty to thank for their notoriety. 

From the birth of copy­writ­ing in the twen­ties, to the cre­ative rev­o­lu­tion of the six­ties, attrib­uted to DDB, Jew­ish clev­er­ness has cer­tain­ly made a last­ing impres­sion on Madi­son Avenue. Equal­ly, if not more inter­est­ing though, is how adver­tis­ing brought Jews from the out­side to the inside of Amer­i­can life. Sure, Jew­ish moves on Madi­son Avenue shaped the indus­try. But, all the mun­dane ads that, albeit unknow­ing­ly, inte­grat­ed the klitchik or the ques­tion­ing sen­si­bil­i­ty of New York Jews, unknow­ing­ly also uni­ver­sal­ized the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of Jews. Intru­sive and col­o­niz­ing of our pre­cious space and time, adver­tis­ing can eas­i­ly be dis­missed as the back­ground chat­ter of mod­ern life. How­ev­er, it is pre­cise­ly because of its ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence and influ­ence that we should heed adver­tis­ing. Doing so teach­es us how Jews moved on Madi­son Avenue, and how Madi­son Avenue moved the Jews.

Ker­ri P. Stein­berg is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of art his­to­ry at Otis Col­lege of Art and Design in Los Angeles. 

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