The medium is the message in 1958

McLuhan seems to have begun using his trademark slogan, “the medium is the message”, at a conference in Vancouver on  Radio in the Future of Canada’. This was early in May 1958:

Print, by permitting people to read at high speed and, above all, to read alone and silently, developed a totally new set of mental operations. What I mentioned earlier [although not in these same words] becomes very relevant here: the medium is the message. The medium of print is the message, more than any individual writer could say.1

He continued to develop the point at the end of the same month at an educational TV meeting in Washington DC:

We should long ago have discovered that the medium is the message. The effect of reading is far more decisive than anything that gets said from moment to moment on the page. The page is not a conveyor belt for pots of message; it is not a consumer item so much as a producer of unique habits of mind and highly specialized attitudes to person and country, and to the nature of thought itself (…) Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.2

McLuhan stressed this notion over and over again in his many public and private interactions with the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters) which began that year, perhaps as a direct result of the Washington meeting.  For the meeting was co-sponsored by the NAEB and attended by Harry Skornia, the president of the NAEB who would become the moving force in the conception, funding and organization of McLuhan’s project with the NAEB on “Understanding New Media”.3 It may well be that McLuhan and Skornia first met at this May 1958 event. Furthermore, the funding for that project would come from the other sponsor of this meeting in Washington, the US Office of Education.

In that same year of 1958, Otis Pease, a professor of history at Stanford, published his Yale PhD thesis, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940. The cover of the book edition shortened the title to American Advertising.  Although McLuhan had written extensively on this topic, especially in The Mechanical Bride (1951) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (1953), his work was not mentioned by Pease. But McLuhan wrote an unpublished review of Pease’s book which is preserved in his papers in Ottawa. In it he continued to flesh out the notion that “the medium is the message”.

Professor Pease states a basic fact, namely that the techniques of advertising and politics have never been separate from each other. (…) It is one of the prime qualities of this book that it sees advertising as having scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information about available goods.

In his review McLuhan concentrated on these wider implications of advertising: its “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information”. The question was, how does advertising function, not as an informational message, but as a medium.4

Now the affects and effects of a medium are variously located. In the first place, they express themselves in and on the external landscape. Just as cars require an extensive infrastructure of factories producing their components and assembly, roads, gasoline production and distribution, roadside amenities like restaurants and hotels, etc, etc, and just as it is this whole medium of implicated infrastructure that constitutes the real message of the automobile, so advertising exists in “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information” by functioning within a broad nexus including politics, economics and culture.5 It is this nexus — or medium — which advertising at once enables and is enabled by.

Secondly, that external landscape could not be constituted and could not continue to function aside from a parallel manipulation of society’s “interior landscape”:

It has been the task of the ad men, as Professor Pease puts it, “to persuade the individual citizen to conceive of himself primarily as a consumer of goods.” This, he shows, was not an easy task in a semi-frontier world of self-reliance and contempt for sissie comforts. Moreover, there was the huge establishment of Puritan asceticism to be liquidatedIt is the feeling of Professor Pease that the attitudes of American Protestantism were deeply modified by the ad campaigns for consumer goods: “Advertising… is almost the only force at work against puritanism in consumption. (…) In the 1920s the business leaders of America were still steeped, it appeared, in the ethic of producers, who considered thrift and frugality to be virtues.

Advertising worked to convert the dominating impulses in the internal landscape as an essential factor in the transformation of the external one. As McLuhan further cited Pease: 

“National advertising in the period 1920-1940 became a continuous powerful technique for mass persuasion, employed to inculcate specific goals and values. It grew in response to the needs of an industrial society which had achieved efficient methods of mass production and distribution, but which had not yet developed standards of consumption sufficiently lavish to maintain that production.” 

McLuhan concluded:

Of course this meant that the manufacturer sought control of the politics and social ends of the whole society as the natural reward of his technological ascendancy.

Advertising was an essential means — or medium — toward that end.

  1.  Radio in the Future of Canada, UBC, May 5-9, 1958. For information on UBC’s communications programme at this time, see  Communications Programme at UBC.
  2. McLuhan’s talk at the Conference on Educational Television, sponsored by the US Office of Education and the NAEB, Washington, D.C., 26 May 1958, was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems’. It was issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then printed as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  3. McLuhan wanted the project to be called “Understanding Media” and, indeed, some copies of the research report were issued with this title. (For an image of this cover see McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946.) His argument was that the identification of a medium depended on identification of the class of media. To study any one medium it was necessary to study more than one. But Skornia at the NAEB argued that the Office of Education was specifically interested in new media and that the application to it for a research grant should be aimed at that interest. Without changing his mind on the methodological point, McLuhan agreed.
  4. As McLuhan came increasingly to stress, concentration on the message of advertising, or of any medium, served to hide awareness of its effects as a medium: “Professor Pease provides a well-documented account of the complicated story of public criticism of the ad industry. (…) It is here that we learn the pathetic story of the muckrakers and their exposure of dishonesty in ads and adulteration of products. (This is a ‘pathetic story’, not because such dishonesty and adulteration do not occur, but) because the concentration on this Simple Simon approach to the ad world has rendered literate people quite helpless in the face of the icon power of the ad world.  For that power is non-verbal and subliminal.”
  5. McLuhan as regards advertising and culture: “It has perhaps escaped the attention of Professor Pease that not only does no ad have its meaning alone, but that the advertising industry would have been a puny thing these past forty years were it not for the movies. The drama of consumption staged by the magic of the movie camera in the name of entertainment has been far more effective in boosting consumption [than advertising in the strict sense.”