Saeed Khan's recent series of posts about social media started with a video that purports to explain the new rules of marketing in which social media play a critical role. This video repeats a familiar argument: old-style marketing went one direction, from the vendor to the customer. The consumer, presented with a smaller number of choices than they have today, based their purchase decisions on a variety of motives, both tangible ("Costs less!") and intangible ("Be more attractive to the opposite sex!"). Vendors created their own messages and transmitted them through normal advertising and marketing channels, in the hope that they would deflect consumers in their direction ("We cost less, and we'll make you look even better!").

The video uses a familiar motif, a campy Fifties aesthetic, which is more than just an aesthetic decision. This isn't the first time that someone has used the Fifties as the baseline for measuring changes in modern marketing. Unfortunately, it's wrong to assume that we're the period of change, and the Fifties were a fixed starting point. The Fifties were also a period of social and technological transformation, to which the marketing professionals of the time struggled to adapt.

Ward Cleaver wasn't normal
The demographic story of the United States in the 1950s is by now familiar. After World War II, the US represented an unusually large amount of the global economy, on both the production and consumption sides. Post-war prosperity generated opportunities that American families followed in their exodus across the map of the United States. (As first-generation native Californian, by the way, I'm a child of that post-war migration from East to West.)

This exodus from one region to another, to jump from one job to another, had other aspects. Americans moved, in large numbers, from both the cities and the countryside to the rapidly-expanding suburbs. Ironically, as the suburban sprawl increased, people living in their newly-constructed tract homes felt more isolated from one another. The back yard replaced the front porch; the cul-de-sac replaced the neighborhood.

Simultaneous with these economic changes were major leaps forward in communications technology. Television may have been the iconic medium, but it was hardly the only one. Mass communications in every form, from the car radio to the morning newspaper, provided a wealth of  marketing and advertising activities, pitched to an audience enjoying a period of prosperity, opportunity, and even leisure time. This consumer society was open to suggestions about what to buy, including goods that previous generations might not have given as much consideration, from new homes to European vacations.

You usually don't have to look very hard to find some degree of condescension in depictions of this period. The Ozzie and Harriett-like nuclear families appear oblivious to anything but the quest for an increasingly middle-class existence. Consumers appear less like informed buyers, and more like credulous primitives excited about the shiny objects dangled in front of them.

Rod Serling wasn't abnormal
However, many Americans in the 1950s were all too conscious of the changes that had occurred, and the effects it had on mass behavior, often in dark and dangerous ways. A generation of social scientists saw this shift to a highly atomized society as dangerous for democracy. C. Wright Mills blamed the rise of a "power elite" on the emergence of a "mass society," which created a power vacuum that political and business power blocs were all too happy to fill.

In fact, this "mass society" was the cornerstone of many popular explanations of the rise of fascism and communism. Economic and social upheavals had sundered the lasting bonds of family, neighborhood, work, and voluntary organizations. Fearful of the future, and without other places to turn, citizens flocked to nasty political movements that promised to take care of them.

You can pick apart these theories of capitalist democracy and totalitarianism, as decades of scholars have. However, the important point here isn't to debate their merits. Instead, it's worth nothing them as signs that, not only were the Fifties an unusual time in American history, but people at the time were aware of how unusual it was.

Marketers in the Fifties recognized a good opportunity when they saw one. The unusual circumstances of the Fifties fostered the one-way communications between vendor and customer, because the audience was unusally receptive, and mass-scale communications channels made it easy to transmit their messages.

The marketing acumen of yesterday…today!

Product marketers today should not be congratulating themselves on how much smarter they are than the Don Drapers of some mythic marketing past. Instead, we should take a humbler view of how the marketing discipline adapts to current exigencies. That perspective makes it easier to understand why some traditional elements of the marketing mix, such as direct mail, haven't withered in the light of social media.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]