Jackson Lears has argued that advertising and the emergence of a consumer culture came about circa 1900 in combination with other social and cultural shifts, most notably a wrenching cultural divide confronted by an increasingly urbanized middle class that had lost its faith in the gospel of rugged individualism espoused by Protestantism. Though advertising is indeed manipulative, it does not exist by working on a purely passive audience. "To thrive and spread, a consumer culture required more than a national apparatus of marketing and distribution; it also needed a favorable moral climate" (Lears: 4). The hegemonic nature of advertising is concealed, maintains Lears, through the invocation of what he calls the 'therapeutic ethos.'
Prior to mass industrialization and production, the Protestant work ethic dominated American culture and notions of morality about work, consumption and the morality of self. The heritage of the Protestant ethic stressed "salvation through self-denial" (Lears: 4), and this simply did not coincide with the consumption mandated by capitalist institutions around 1900. Therefore, the new ethic -- one of consumption -- was "a muddle of calculated self-control and spontaneous gratification" (Lears: 3). The focus shifted away from the producer to the consumer. Yet this was a difficult transition -- whereas religion had once provided a framework of meaning and action, the new consumption-oriented ideology left the middle class in an anomic-like state (Lears: 10).
Lears asserts that the therapeutic ethos was a response to this middle class angst about desires for fulfillment amidst an erosion of belief in Protestant authoritarianism. This same ethos targeted a 'crisis of reality' in the middle-class worldview. The therapeutic ethos implicitly cast the advertiser as a modern replacement for the priest. The emergence of the therapeutic ethos permitted the individual to consume and still be absolved (minus the oppression!) of guilt and sin. This was inherently different from the Protestant ideals which preceded it.
Drawing on the insecurities and fears of people about their lives and their relations to others, the 'therapeutic ethos' of advertising pushed the concept of gratification, fulfillment and peace-of-mind through the consumption of commodities. This ideology -- the therapeutic ethos -- of advertising allowed for, and created, an environment in which consumption was not only acceptable and necessary, but also fulfilled the soul of the individual.
Taken from writings of Lynn Kaplan and Claire Spurlock-Cohen, edited by Bob Goldman.