The marketing tie-ins to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby have been denounced in recent weeks as a travesty of art. Rebecca Rothfeld declared in the New York Daily News that the Gatsby-themed marketing of shirts, suits and jewellery is “an insult to its literary merit, not to mention a perversion of the very ideas F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel represents.” Zachary Seward wrote in The Atlantic that Gatsby revealed “the hollow rotting underbelly of class and capital in the early 1920s” and he compared the marketing events to holding “a Lolita-themed children’s party.”
The moral indignation is misplaced. Fitzgerald was no latter-day Savonarola, and The Great Gatsby, with its vicarious thrills of excess and retribution, is all about the allure of pretty things and images. The novel was published during the first golden age of American advertising, when Madison Avenue became synonymous with the industry. Fitzgerald worked for one of those ad companies, Bannion, Collier, in the spring of 1920. It’s no surprise that The Great Gatsby is pervaded with references to advertising.
Listening to Jay Gatsby’s ridiculous fabricated account of his life, says the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, was like “skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.” The billboard with the watchful gaze of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg suggests that mass marketing has replaced God. Gatsby’s entire constructed personality can be seen as an advertising campaign to win one customer, Daisy. At the critical point in the novel, when Daisy publicly shows her love for Gatsby by telling him: “You resemble the advertisement of the man,” and then repeats: “You know the advertisement of the man.”
From a practical perspective, a $100-million movie does not get made these days without some commercial tie-ins and, compared with the average animated children’s film, The Great Gatsby’s key partners are few and astutely chosen: Certainly, there’s nothing on the level of The Hunger Games cookbook, Princess Leia Underoos underwear or The Passion of the Christ souvenir nails.
F. Scott Fitzgerald favoured suits made by Brooks Brothers, one of the movie’s partners. Brooks is the traditional default ready-made suit for the self-made American man – worn by Andy Warhol, most U.S. presidents, American Psycho protagonist Patrick Bateman and the team on Mad Men.
Similarly, Tiffany and Co. was already a byword for fancy jewellery in the 1920s, and the store’s archives provided inspiration for the bling shown the film. Probably a tie-in with Chanel would have been a better fit than Prada – Coco Chanel defined the fashionable Twenties woman – but the 1920s saw the beginning of middle-class chic, carried by off-the-rack designer labels like Prada today.
The Toronto-founded cosmetics company M.A.C also has a legitimate claim: One of the signs of women’s emancipation in the 1920s was a much wider use of cosmetics, including the introduction of compact mirrors and lipstick tubes. The Fogal hosiery tie-in is also appropriate. This was the era when women exchanged black woollen socks for sheer hose, often patterned or pastel-coloured, sometimes worn rolled around their knees.
The same goes for the Plaza Hotel, an important location in the novel and a favourite Fitzgerald drinking hole. Another partner, Moët & Chandon, has been one of the world’s biggest champagne makers for centuries. Fitzgerald coined a phrase that could be a flippant advertising line: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”
Though The Great Gatsby is an allegory of excess, it is not simply moralistic. As the authors of 2011’s Marketing: A Critical Textbook suggest: “The Great Gatsby provides an excellent way to understand the production and consumption of economic and social identity through wealth, leisure and class.” From the marketers’ perspective, Gatsby is a book about how “individuals attempt to exploit the delicately poised relationship between artifice and reality.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Fitzgerald’s novel did not gain its current reputation until the second advertising boom of the post-Second World War period. (After the commercial disappointment of its initial publication in 1925, Fitzgerald, thinking like a modern demographer, suspected that the problem was the absence of an admirable female character for women readers.) The Great Gatsby began its popular re-evaluation in the 1940s (the army issued 155,000 copies to soldiers in 1945), but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it began to earn academic interest and reputation as an American literary classic.
Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road (1961), a novel of the postwar alienated man caught between artifice and reality, described The Great Gatsby as “the most nourishing novel I read.”
Revolutionary Road is often compared to the television show Mad Men. More than a few commentators have noted by now that James Gatz, the Midwestern kid from humble beginnings who changed his name and moved to New York, is the prototype for Mad Men’s morally tainted, self-invented hype merchant, Don Draper.
We can’t extract ourselves from our consumer identities any more than a fish can step out of water, but through perspective of the past, we may understand our context more clearly. The benefits of surplus wealth – including movies, TV shows and novels – are things to be enjoyed, which does not mean that the pleasures are not complex, and sometimes even contradictory.