Friday, October 23, 2015

An Age of Images

The proliferation of the mass media, new communication technologies, and a cultural focus on personal images and "image management" led to the significant growth of "personal image law" in the post-World War II era.

Advertising surged in the 1950s. By the mid-50s, the U.S. was spending $9 billion to sell products -- and people. Politicians' increasing use of advertising techniques in their campaigns led the New York Times magazine to describe the 1960 election cycle as "The Year of the Image."

Other "image industries" flourished. Cosmetics were used widely, and beauty products began to be marketed towards teenage girls. Cosmetic surgery became popular, promising both men and women the possibility of perpetual youth. The objective was to perfect one's public image, to be envied, to be looked at.
1950s tv (credit)

Television, introduced in the late 1940s, reinforced the idea of pleasing public images as a source of success and approval. By the end of the 1950s, 88 percent of American households had a television set, and in the average home, the television was on for five hours a day.

Celebrity culture spread beyond the realm of entertainment to virtually every other area of endeavor, including politics. Celebrities continued to serve as role models of successful self-presentation, and there was great fascination with the ways that stars publicized themselves -- how they transformed, manipulated, and spun their images. The public was enthralled with backstages, with the activities of publicists and press agents, and the inner workings of Hollywood and other image-making "factories."

As historian Daniel Boorstin observed in his acclaimed 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, a significant part of the national economy -- the fashion, cosmetics, media, advertising, and public relations industries, among others -- was devoted to manipulating personal images for strategic advantage. It was becoming a matter of faith that the right image could "elect a President or sell an automobile," Boorstin wrote.

"Each of us hopes for a pleasing 'personality' -- and our personality is the attention-getting image of ourselves, our image of our behavior," Boorstin noted. The United States had entered an "age of images," and objectivity, originality, and other old-fashioned ideals were becoming obsolete. "Before the age of images, it was commoner to think of a conventional person as one who strove for an ideal of decency or respectability." Now one tried to "fit into the images found vividly all around him.""We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves."

Legal protections for public image expanded in the postwar era, as did the use of the law to protect and defend one's public image. The number of reported privacy and libel suits increased by several hundred percent in the 1950s and 60s. The right to privacy was extended to encompass a right to profit from the commercial exploitation of one's image -- a "right of publicity." Given how much Americans invested in their images -- economically, psychologically, and emotionally -- it was difficult for some to stand by and watch while their images were injured, tarnished, or exploited before a mass audience.