Media @ McGill

Lisa Sumner - ‘Known by the company it keeps': Popularizing Seagram's in the Canadian imagination

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My dissertation analyzes the advertising, product design, and commissioned works of the Seagram Company. Strategic representations and discursive practices active in advertisements beginning in the 1930s contributed to the company's national success within Canada, while at the same time advancing the assertion of a strong Canadian identity and cultural iconography. Importantly, the ads illustrate the shifting discourses and contested directions of Canadian cultural identity and political economy which were being waged during my period of study (late 1930s-1970s). Visually and rhetorically the Seagram Company constructed a particular imaginary of space and identity which was both fervently nationalistic at the same time it was increasingly cosmopolitan in its vision.

My dissertation research relies primarily on the analysis of archival documents and microfilmed popular magazines. Fortunately an abundance of publicly accessible materials are available revealing of the activities of Seagram's in Montreal and the broader consumer and visual culture of the period. The Seagram collection at the Hagley Library's Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society formed my primary research site. Microfilmed popular magazines at the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec and McGill University inform the comparative, historical context in which to situate Seagram advertisements. The Canadian Jewish Congress and Library and Archives Canada also possessed relevant primary documents offering insight into Seagram's practices and were also examined.

Using both George Grant and Harold Innis as a springboard I investigate how the Seagram Company's communication practices participated in furthering a specific technological and national vision of Canada, one that was being both advanced and contested during my period of interest. My dissertation explores the Seagram Company's efforts in advancing the modern, ‘spatial' bias (Innis, 1964) and its particular set of values, while at the same time investigating how time attentive practices were symbolically expressed in advertising, public relations, product design and commissioned works.

One significant intention of this study is to approach the marketing and consumption of Seagram's commodities as a site from which to explore how objects gain, shift and communicate meaning through the politically-mediated interplay of material and social spheres governing fluxes in taste and value. Material culture studies provide vital insights related to public culture and consumer motivations, as well as important empirical works analyzing material culture and consumer subjectivities as an articulation of difference and identity.

How Seagram's ads participated in an historical period when Canadian content, even within Canada, was popularly delivered refracted through an American lens is explored. Moreover, how the dynamics of U.S. circulating magazines in Canada may have both increased the multinational profile of Seagram's and encouraged a particularly cosmopolitan, yet ambivalent, Canadian outlook is investigated. Conversely, I also examine how patriotism and notions of nation building were capitalized on to increase the competitive appeal of Canadian magazines and products over their popular, foreign counterparts, and how Seagram's engaged with this strategy in their ad campaigns.
Cosmopolitan studies offer theoretical tools to elucidate Seagram's modern vision and spatial logic and its influence in Seagram's imagery, text and product line. Both the canonical, Enlightenment texts and contemporary critical analyses illuminate Seagram's cosmopolitan assumptions and practices most explicitly developed in their ad campaigns and multinational growth in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, John Urry's (1995) notion of ‘aesthetic cosmopolitanism' offers insight into the marketing strategies, rhetoric, and visual signifiers present in advertisements. Mica Nava's (1998) innovative work exploring the relationship between ‘popular cosmopolitanism' and commercial culture is valuable in analyzing Seagram's advertising and consumption in the context of concurrent cultural transformations. Finally, an understanding of how Seagram's cosmopolitanism developed in relation to increasing appeals to universal values in evolving definitions of Canadian identity in the 1960s is explored.

Chapter one provides historical background to the Bronfman family, the Seagram Company and alcohol in Canada while specifically addressing the relationship between advertising and Canadian nationalism which accelerated with the expansion of corporate patronage and the postwar consumer culture. Chapter two presents an analysis of Seagram's Canadian boosterism ad campaigns that ran from the 1930s to the 1950s and popularized the visual imagery and rhetoric, still resonating with imperial loyalty at that point, being produced by Canadian nationalists. In chapters three and four I show how Seagram ads slowly disposed with imperial allusions and also adopted a more casual atmosphere when a pluralistic, civic nationalism emerged in the 1960s and Canadian scepticism surrounding consumption had waned. In chapter three I also look at the ‘middlebrow turn' that occurred in Canadian cultural commentary in the 1950s. I suggest the more democratic approach to cultural nationalism enabled Seagram to negotiate tensions between nationalism and consumerism in promoting their product line and connecting it to uplift efforts and postwar aspirations. Chapter four looks at Seagram's "popular cosmopolitanism"⁸⁷. I suggest Seagram's multinational presence, diversified product line (including gin, rum, vodka, liqueurs and wine) and atmospheric promotions offered a symbolic terrain for acquainting Canadian consumers with the cultural unknown, while the company's public image was increasingly valorized in liberal tropes that were at the forefront of the nation's nascent identity in the changing internationalism. The impact of the Quiet Revolution and the challenges of Quebec's movement for statehood, which Seagram's actively opposed, provide the historical backdrop of chapter six.

Dominant interest in the Seagram Company has tended towards examination of business strategies or biographical accounts of the Bronfman family. My research is unique in providing a critical analysis of the Seagram Company understood as a heuristic site revealing of the interplay between political-economic power, cultural practices and media representations, and transformations in constructions of national subjectivity(s), space and commerce.

Works Cited

Harold A. Innis. The Bias of Communication. Intro. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964.

Mica Nava (1998) "The Cosmopolitanism of Commerce and the Allure of Difference: Selfridges, The Russian Ballet and the Tango 1911-1914", International Journal of Cultural Studies 1(2): 163-96.

John Urry (1995) Consuming places. London; New York: Routledge.