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Soap Operas and Suburbia

Betty Draper

Betty Draper, Mad Men's essential housewife, in her suburban paradise

"Revolving Shelves"

Young & Rubicam, 1958, General Electric "Revolving Shelves" Campaign, Print. 

The General Electric campaign reflects perhaps one of the most important aspects of 1950s America--the move to suburbia and the need to fill new homes with new appliances to keep up with new neighbors and enjoy this new prosperity. The post-war period was profoundly defined by an increased demand for consumer goods, a demand driven by pent-up wartime desires, federal policies like the GI Bill, the vast expansion of consumer credit, a booming population, and the sense that a healthy economy and happy consumer families were perhaps some of the most potent anti-communist Cold War weapons available. Young & Rubicam infused the GE campaign with everything rosy about the booming post-war economy, especially the way this new suburban lifestyle emphasized the American family and the happiness that consumerism could achieve.

Women played a large part in this portrait of the American dream, as they were seen as primarily responsible for the home. However, as the witty interaction between May and Nichols in the television spot shows, household appliances were expected to be purchased as a cooperative effort between provider and caregiver to enhance the idyllic home of an American suburbanite family. Young & Rubicam succeeded in reinforcing traditional gender roles under the guise of promoting a prosperous family culture while embracing the 1950s sentiment that consumerism and suburbia lay at the heart of post-war America. It was extremely fitting, too, for the campaign to rely heavily on the success of the television ad, as it used one of the products it sought to sell as the very medium through which to do so. By the late 1950s, television advertising had begun to comprise the majority of budgets of the major advertising agencies as they began to acknowledge the potential of this new medium for information distribution. Until then, magazines had been the primary outlets for home appliance advertising, as publications like Life magazine featured page after page of ads that featured products with which its readers could fill their house. The advent of television brought these products into the living rooms of its watchers as their programs were interrupted with bids for any number of goods. Networks and agencies grappled for control over the sponsorship of programs by advertising as the payoff from such ads became clear. The GE campaign reflects this growing trend through its successful exploitation of this new advertising medium in an attempt to cash in on the market potential created and sustained by the widespread suburban growth and consumer culture that grew out of the 1950s.