Heather Cox Richardson
Many years ago, I had the good luck to hear Werner Sollors illustrate the importance of cultural understanding in interpreting popular history. He did it by describing what a Martian would guess about American life if his only source of information was The Brady Bunch.
The Martian would assume that American humans in the 1960s reproduced by cloning, Sollors guessed, since it was clear that the adults had no sexual contact. Male clones were always brunette and females blonde. And a Martian could easily conclude that humans kept older members of the species set off from the others in the kitchen, like a sort of pet.
I remembered Sollors’s talk recently when I discovered the new Old Spice advertising campaign. The ads have certainly hit a popular chord; the videos have gotten more than 12 million hits and have boosted sales of Old Spice by more than 107%.
And the ad campaign shows, again, just how much cultural understanding you need to make sense of popular history. This particular image plays on age-old popular stereotypes of the American West, with their heroic men and devoted women. But without that cultural knowledge, what on earth would a Martian examining modern American life through this image conclude?