You are here

Kerri Steinberg's Jewish Mad Men

Jan 6, 2016
Spotlight Category: Faculty

“The public is aware that advertising is dominant within our lives, but it’s only when you understand how it works can you begin to talk back to it,” says Kerri Steinberg, Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty member and author of Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience.

Steinberg, who has been teaching at Otis College of Art and Design for the past eleven years, was first brought on to teach the history of graphic design, eventually going on to teach the history of all the communication arts. While immersing herself in advertising research, Steinberg observed, “… some of the best examples of advertising that appear in textbooks … I couldn’t help but feel a Jewish sensibility … and it inspired me to dig a little deeper.”

Her research lead her to submit a proposal to the Modern Language Association for a panel on the marketing and advertising of Jewish identity. The proposal was accepted and the digging continued. At one point she found a compelling advertisement from Jewish-owned Joseph Jacobs Advertising and reached out to the almost 100-year-old firm. “They were so hungry to tell their story that they opened their archives to me,” Steinberg recalls. “There was such a story to tell about Jewish advertising and I realized I had more than a twenty minute piece, I had a book.”

Through a faculty development grant, Steinberg was able to travel to New York City and conduct more research in person. What was discovered was essentially a detailed record of the Jewish American experience that had never before been analyzed. “I felt the greatest pleasure in unearthing a medium that hadn’t been touched before. It really reinforced for me the instrumentality of advertising.”

Even as Steinberg uses the lens of advertising to examine complex issues such as culture, identity, and otherness, she acknowledges the industry’s unfavorable reputation. “Advertising is a medium that we love to hate. It’s manipulative, it gets us to spend money we might not have, or gets us to do things that we otherwise wouldn’t. It’s so pervasive that in a sense it becomes invisible. I wanted to bring the Jewish experience, as captured by advertising, out of invisibility.”

And it was exactly these seemingly innocuous advertisements, for the Maxwell House Coffee Haggadah and American household cleaners with Yiddish instructions, which exposed a larger narrative about transition and assimilation in this country. Jewish Mad Men successfully plots the trajectory of the last one hundred years, and as Steinberg attests, “through advertising you can really see a fluid portrait of American Jewish life and experiences taking shape.”

One of the most defining eras discussed in the book is the creative revolution in advertising that occurred in the 1960s. Of course, the Mad Men television series brought the mood, fashion, and societal issues of that era into the fore of popular culture. Steinberg writes, “Through the insertion of Jewish love interests, Jewish clients, and eventually, Jewish employees, [Matthew] Weiner paints a grittier and arguably, more authentic version of Madison Avenue than is customarily portrayed. Even if difference was denied on Madison Avenue, it still existed, but most often behind the scenes.”

Throughout Jewish Mad Men, Steinberg highlights the work of visionaries Bill Bernbach, Albert Lasker, as well as others, putting forth the idea that their success and their transformation of the advertising industry had a lot to do with the fact that they were outsiders and saw things differently.

In more contemporary advertising, companies such as JDate celebrate Jewishness in their campaigns. Steinberg explains why the Jewish identifier has renewed interest - “At one time it was imposed, particularly during eras of heightened persecution, its not something that you chose, it was something that was imposed upon you. And in a country such as America, where we do have the freedom to choose, and to piece together the identities that work for ourselves, I think its important to recognize the role that advertising plays in our selection of those identities.”

Steinberg is able to take these insights directly into the classroom, as she teaches the next generation of advertising leaders. “I try to impart on my students that if they are successful, they will touch millions of people. They have this amazing platform, so the question is ‘what are you going to do with that?’ How to negotiate wanting to be successful and creative, but at the same time having a sense of responsibility. I hope my students will make smart advertisements. Ads that will make people think and not just add to the visual pollution. If they make work that is thoughtful and smart, it will stand out. And that’s when they can move the needle in a positive way.”

Kerri Steinberg’s Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience is available for purchase here.