Mad Mensches

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This review for the Haaretz newspaper Jerusalem International Book Fair special supplement was published online and in print on Feb 8.

????? Jewish Mad Men

Ad for Pertussin cough syrup and the Ruth Jacobs radio show, 1960s. Photo by Joseph Jacobs Advertising

It’s telling that “Mad Men,” the hit drama about a prestigious New York advertising agency and its enigmatic creative director Don Draper, only welcomed a Jewish copywriter to the office in the show’s fifth season, set in 1966. The field of advertising, a WASP stronghold, was largely restricted to Jews – despite the European immigrant mindset that prompted them to downplay their Jewishness and conform to the broader American culture.

As Kerri P. Steinberg explains in her informative “Jewish Mad Men: Advertising and the Design of the American Jewish Experience,” an anti-Semitic climate existed in the advertising business even into the early 1960s. “Jews were simply not visible on Madison Avenue,” she writes. This, notwithstanding the fact that, starting in the 1930s, they and other white ethnic minorities in New York had access to art courses at special high schools that led them into creative professions.

Inventive Jews began filling the bull pens of advertising art and copy departments at the so-called Jewish agencies, like the formidable William Weintraub Agency, which created ads for Ohrbach’s department store, El Producto cigars and Disney Hats. Steinberg explains how Jewish “Mad Men” wrestled their way into mainstream firms, too, and became influential in imagining and promoting the American Dream and the Jewish American version – and how certain brands were advertised to Jews as the staples of an American lifestyle, which helped consumers assimilate into commercial culture.

Although there was plenty of anti-Semitism in the so-called “white shoe” ad world, this book is about the complexity of being Jewish and American in a field whose ultimate goal is to influence Americans’ daily behavior. Steinberg examines how, in the early 20th century, advertising was used by secular Jews to brand their own people, culture and religion for American public consumption by, among other things, “[s]ituating Jewish difference within the spectrum of American pluralism,” she writes.

“Advertising alluded to how American Jews could simultaneously remain steadfast members of an ancient people and tradition while fully participating in America’s open society,” according to Steinberg. In fact, one chapter is even devoted to a “matchmaker” that told mainstream companies what products were a good fit with the Jewish market, and how to earn their share of the whole mishpocheh.

For 95 years, the Joseph Jacobs Organization, which Steinberg dubs one of the best kept secrets in the industry, “has steadily guided ordinary household products into Jewish homes.” Indeed, Jacobs literally wrote the book on “The Jewish Market,” achieved market segmentation and created the “K” symbol to designate kosher certification.

Jacobs further “reassured Americans that their Jewishness was acceptable and desirable.” But rather than trying to get the American mainstream to accept Jews, Jacobs’ campaigns “brought America to the Jews.” He remixed jingles for Kraft and General Foods within a Jewish context. He also encouraged the use of Yiddishisms and other Jewish vernacular – like blintz, boychik, bubbeleh and oy – to help cultivate a Jewish identity that was not alien but integral to American vocabulary and slang. “Ethnic marketing encouraged Jews to retain their Jewish distinctness …” while embracing their American citizenship, writes Steinberg.

Eating up JewishnessFood and drink have long defined much of that Jewish distinctness, and Steinberg focuses on two major American brands that have pride of place, among others. The first is Manischewitz matzos and wine, which she calls synonymous with Passover in America. “Temporarily bridging the social, political, cultural and religious distances between American Jews, Manischewitz stands as the great American Jewish equalizer,” Steinberg writes. Even I recall their TV commercial jingle “Man-o-Manischewitz” from my childhood.

Maxwell House coffee (“Good to the last drop”), the second brand name, was less familiar to me as a Passover staple, yet Steinberg uses it as a textbook example of how a product can assume an identity and local consumer base. “Countless families have experienced their seders with a copy of the Maxwell House coffee Haggadah in hand …” Even Jell-O “reached out to Americanizing immigrants” and became the dessert of choice for decades (although my grandmother, and observant Jewish families, served KoJel kosher jello instead).

Jewishness became devoutly cultural rather than predictably religious around the time of the advertising “creative revolution” that began in the late 1950s and extended to the early ’60s. That was when Bill Bernbach – a copywriter at the Weintraub Agency who cofounded Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1949 – began a string of milestone ads for Alka-Seltzer and Volkswagen, and also took on the Levy & Sons bakery that originally catered to Orthodox Jews.

First, he changed the name of their crossover product Levy’s Jewish Rye to Levy’s Real Jewish Rye, and soon after released the first “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” ad campaign, written by Judy Protas. The name change initially concerned the Levy’s management, “for fear of calling too much attention to Jewish distinctiveness,” writes Steinberg. But Bernbach’s logic was, “For God’s sake, your name is Levy’s. They are not going to mistake you for a High Episcopalian.”

Bernbach promoted greater diversity in advertising, not only through the conversational (sometimes regional/ethnic) tone of DDB’s copy, like the 1969 “Mamma Mia, that’s a spicy meatball!” ad for Alka-Seltzer, but with the creatives he hired – including Phyllis Robinson, the first woman copy chief, and dozens of other Jews, Italians, Irish and Greeks (reflecting a swath of New York City) to guide the images of national brands. One of his crowning achievements was the storied “Think Small” Volkswagen Beetle campaign in 1959, which sold a Nazi car to New York Jews.

Many decades ago, I visited the former Advertising Club on Park Avenue, housed in a stately old mansion where ad executives ate, drank and boasted about their triumphs. The members looked as old and stately as the building, and presumably there was not a Jew in sight. Steinberg effectively shows that when Jews became a consumer market, the advertising business realized it had to cater to them, forcing the creative demographic to change as well. Today’s Madison Avenue is a mixed marriage, so that national ads do not focus on too many ethnic or religious distinctions. While that’s great, it has rendered the brilliant, ethnically rooted ads, like Levy’s, harder if not impossible to find.

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About Steven HellerSteven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →