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2.3: The Specters of Consumption

Specter: Exploring "Design for Dreaming," a musical extravaganza celebrating the consumer lifestyle set at the GM 1956 "Motorama."

Published onJun 04, 2021
2.3: The Specters of Consumption

The Specters of Consumption

The Ghost at the Motorama

While technological solutions in urban planning were, for better or worse, the narrative focus of many corporate films produced by General Motors and Ford, the purpose of these films was the marketing of consumer items—particularly cars, but also, courtesy of companies like General Electric and Westinghouse, large home appliances such as refrigerators and ovens. Infrastructural projects like the highway were enthusiastically supported by these companies, who harnessed the compelling vision of the Futurama as integral to a burgeoning consumer dreamscape. Geddes’ future-forward technological landscape was the ideal backdrop for selling futuristic cars and home appliances.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair had featured many technological marvels aimed at women and designed to minimize household labor, including Roll-Oh, the household robot manservant. In postwar advertising, women were again encouraged to aspire to time-saving domestic technologies which, as the ads claimed, would create a space for the pursuit of leisure activities. While this claim would not, ultimately, go unchallenged, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1985 account of the labor-intensifying effects of household technologies, More Work for Mother, suggests, the compelling narrative of “leisure through technology” nonetheless represented a win-win for companies: large time-saving technological purchases could be combined with the purchases necessary to maintain a post-housework leisure lifestyle. Increasing media saturation meant that large-scale corporate advertising was no longer confined to spaces such as the World’s Fair. With the rapid growth of the television, the soothing paternal voice of the Polyrhetor was quickly being displaced by the exuberant, hectoring tones of the mid-century ad-man.

The General Motors film that was set at the 1956 “Motorama” in New York City, Design for Dreaming (MPO for General Motors), offered audiences a surreal vision of an idealized suburban life in the automotive age. Staged as a dream sequence experienced by an attractive young woman, the film showcases a perfectly automated kitchen, a range of futuristic-looking cars, and a model superhighway. The crown jewel of the “Populuxe” genre of corporate film, Design for Dreaming was a lavish musical song-and-dance number impelled forward by the narrative scaffolding of a woman dreaming of the perfect man, the perfect kitchen, the perfect car, and ultimately, the perfect highway. Everyone in the film is white, affluent, and eager to participate in postwar American prosperity in the decade that Thomas Hine calls “one of history’s great shopping sprees” (3). Like its younger cousin, A Touch of Magic (1961, MPO for General Motors), Design for Dreaming represents a kind of blueprint for “designed dreams”—the careful staging of cars, manufactured goods, and the film itself painstakingly construct a vision of a comfortable, modern consumer future.

In the film, romance and luxury are linked with both technological objects and suburban comforts: wide highways, two-car garages, perfectly manicured backyards, and spacious kitchens. During a dance sequence, the dreaming woman is whirled around the floor of the showroom by a man in a silver mask (presumably the “man of her dreams”), exclaiming over the cars as she goes:

HER: I’m a girl who happens to think that a brand new car is better than mink.
HIM: Excited?
HER: Delighted! So glad I got invited.
HIM: Since it’s just a dream and involves no money, which one would you like me to buy you, honey?
HER: They’re all so beautiful, I really don’t know, so let me go down, get the lowdown, and look at each one much closer. [pause] I want a Corvette.
HIM: I thought you would.
HER: Ooh! I want a Pontiac too.
HIM: Okay, we’ll have the usual two-car garage. How do you feel about this fine Oldsmobile?
HER: It’s easy to see myself taking the wheel.
HIM: This Buick’s a beaut.
HER: I’ll try it. Ooh, what a dreamy ride! I think that we ought to buy it.
HIM: Let’s go all out and buy a Cadillac too.
HER: I can hardly wait for this dream to come true!

“It’s easy to see myself taking the wheel.” Design for Dreaming. 1956. MPO for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

This dream, a veritable orgy of consumerism, is temporarily interrupted by an unwelcome reminder of everyday life when a man from the crowd shouts, “Hey lady, your apron is showing!” The spell broken, the woman is transported to her natural environment—the kitchen—only to discover that it too has been transformed into the kitchen of her dreams, engineered to make traditional womanly tasks like baking and cleaning quick and painless, allowing her to spend more of her day indulging in leisure activities like tennis, golf, and sunbathing. The film ends with the mysterious man and the dreaming woman driving onto the highway of tomorrow. Sitting in their futuristic car (“designed for the electronic highway of the future, the fabulous, turbine-powered Firebird II!”), they prepare to head out, the man reporting to a “control tower” that recalls Geddes’ 1939 radio tranceivers: “Firebird II to control tower, we are about to take off on the highway of tomorrow, stand by.” As they speed onto the highway we see a starlit Jetsons-esque scene showing model cars driving on a series of curved highways. The music swells as the woman sings:

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, our dreams will come true...” Design for Dreaming. 1956. MPO for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, our dreams will come true.
Together, together, we’ll make the world new.
Strange shapes will rise out of the night,
but our love will not change, dear.
It will be like a star burning bright,
lighting our way, when tomorrow meets today.


Design for Dreaming exposes a fissure already forming in the 1950s with the saturation of mass consumerism. Advertisers had picked up on a key piece of insight: that women, as well as men, were influential and often primary in making major household purchases. The challenge became how to market expensive products specifically to women, now a substantial part of the workforce but still subordinate to their male counterparts in terms of purchasing power and financial decision-making. One answer, already intimated in 1939 by Leave It to Roll-Oh and Middletons’ “Mrs. Drudge,” was that technology and automation would free women from tedious household labor.

This narrative was extended to encompass the new automobile-age suburban lifestyle as cars became a key marker of domestic efficiency. With the movement of white middle-class families to the suburbs, a shift facilitated by highway development, domestic tasks now required the dedicated use of an automobile: driving children to and from school and after-school activities, doing weekly grocery expeditions to fill their new large-capacity refrigerators, and shopping in the new suburban shopping centers (Walsh 385). With the increase of female participation in the labor market (ironically, to help pay for consumer goods such as cars), women also needed vehicles to get to and from work; given the poor implementation of public transportation in the suburbs, women “preferred the easier journey to work by car because they could then minimize travel time and also “multi-task” by taking care of some of their domestic responsibilities on the way to or from their paid work” (Walsh 386).

Promotional film extolling the virtues of Redbook magazine to advertisers keen to market to the new suburban dweller. In the Suburbs. 1957. Prod. On Film Inc. Prelinger Archives.

At the same time, though, showroom cars were being marketed to women as an essential part of a fashionable lifestyle, creating a connection between automobiles and changing styles, bringing consumer desire among women to a fever pitch. Margaret Walsh shows that automobile advertising had started taking note of women’s influence in the car-buying market as early as the mid-1920s, so that manufacturers “emphasized style, comfort and safety as well as reliability and price, and advertising took on a more emotional tone deemed to appeal to women” (383). In the postwar economic boom, there was a rapid escalation in emphasis on “style.” The alignment of fashion and its high turnover with more durable items such as cars had obvious benefits.

As Jonathan Bell notes, “[b]y promoting style as the primary indicator of sophistication, and by incrementally adjusting and developing car styling, the market could be encouraged to buy more, ultimately even changing their models on an annual basis to keep abreast with the latest trend” (11). Designers of the period (led by GM’s Harley Earl and his progressive group of female car stylists dubbed the “Damsels of Design”) began working to appeal to “feminine” considerations of automotive styling, incorporating features such as luxury fabrics, purse holders, and makeup mirrors into their new cars.

The auto advertising industry’s double appeal to domestic efficiency at home and style on the road plays a significant role in structuring Design for Dreaming. One notable theme in the film is the emphasis on clothing. The dreaming woman is repeatedly subject to changes in attire as she moves through the spaces of the film: from frilly pink pajamas (representing, presumably, the comfortable everyday home environment), to an elegant evening gown provided by the masked man, to an apron and kitchen attire, to sporting and dancing costumes. All of these wardrobe changes reflect different spaces in the middle-class domestic sphere: the bedroom, the public gathering space, the kitchen, and the new space of the road.

“Better get her to the kitchen, quick!” Design for Dreaming. 1956. MPO for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

The cars themselves are each displayed with an accompanying designer outfit— “the magnificent El Dorado Towncar, by Cadillac” is accompanied by an “ensemble by Christian Dior of Paris”—encouraging women to consider the car as an item one can “try on” like an article of clothing. The costume changes move between sportiness/practicality (tennis/golf outfits and pajamas, preferred by the woman), and glamour/elegance (provided by the masked man in the shape of an evening gown and furs).

This tension between practicality and luxury structures the film into two types of space: first, the domestic space of the kitchen with its emphasis on thrifty time-saving devices that enable leisure activities; and second, the dream space of the car exhibit and final highway diorama, emphasizing “feminine” public displays of luxury in the form of furs, couture outfits, and fast cars.

Design for Dreaming’s movement between the spaces of domesticity and luxury reflects what Christine Sprengler identifies as a contemporary tension in postwar American media between thrift and expenditure. Thriftiness, a long-held Puritan value encouraged during the Depression and lean war years, was having to compete with the necessary economic imperative to encourage consumer growth. Sprengler points out that “opposing thrift and hard work to greed and credit (increasingly a staple of 1950s consumer culture) seemed to compromise the corporate agenda to convince audiences to part with their money” (52), and notes that advertising and media representations of thrift reflected “attempts to graft new desires onto traditional values” (54), paradoxically using the idea of thrift to sell consumer goods. Certainly the Frigidaire dream kitchen reflects this tension, emphasizing the canny virtues of a clean kitchen and the “saving of time,” while offering a consequent reward for these responsible behaviors—save time in the kitchen now, and be rewarded later with a game of golf or an afternoon of sunbathing by the pool.

The role of the automobile in 1950s’ representations of the middle-class lifestyle, though, was not nearly as straightforward as the “responsibility-equals-reward” model reflected in the kitchen. Sprengler, referencing Nina Leibman, notes that “some products were granted superior status over others (238), rendering them exempt from these economic lessons. The close and long lasting relationship between the automotive industry and television, as well as the car’s place in national myths of exploration, ensured its place among these privileged goods” (54).

Design for Dreaming neatly creates a space for the “privileged good” of the automobile by placing it in a dream world without the material constraint of having to save before spending: “since it’s just a dream and involves no money, which one would you like me to buy you, honey?” The car, in this case, has become an object of desire that stands in for “freedom”—not only freedom from housework, but freedom from the Puritan values of “honesty and thrift bounded by hard work and the continuous acquisition of material products” (Leibman 165). Driving in the car of her dreams with the man of her dreams, the woman can forget that the ghost underpinning all this luxury is the accumulation of consumer debt.

The dream cars of tomorrow. Design for Dreaming. 1956. MPO for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

The Man in the Mask

Design for Dreaming goes beyond mere references to the usual marketing tropes of the “dream kitchen,” the “dream man,” and the “dream car” to embrace typical common dreaming experiences: the anonymous sexual encounter, the transformation from one space to another and one body to another, the sensation of flight and floating, the experience of being offered treasures or gifts (including a dream-within-a-dream in which the possession of a car is associated with flight). Transitions happen abruptly and contexts change without warning, especially with regard to clothing and identity: the sudden appearance of an apron, the instantaneous switching of outfits, the sudden realization that one is standing in front of a crowd with her “apron showing.”

Mediating these dreamlike context-and-costume transitions is the ghostly figure of the man in the mask. Appearing at first as Prince Charming to her Cinderella, he materializes in the woman’s bedroom and, like the fairy tale, brings about the occasion for her first costume change, from her comfortable sleeping attire to an elegant, wispy gown, noting with some disapproval that “girls don’t go to Motoramas dressed in a pair of pink pajamas.”

The anonymity of the masked man allows for him to assume several abstract masculine roles: notably, as the transportation mechanism that allows the dreaming woman to move physically between domestic and public spheres. He gives her an invitation and a dress, the two entrance requirements to attend the Motorama. Like a tollgate attendant, he checks her invitation at the door, allowing her access. When she cannot see through the crowds, her masked companion lifts her above them. Then he transports her to the kitchen and promptly disappears, leading her to observe that “just like a man—you give him a break, and you wind up in the kitchen baking a cake.” In the second half of the film, he reappears in the public space of the Motorama, helping her into her dream car and dressing her in a fur stole. And finally he gets into the driver’s seat and takes her for a ride on the highway of tomorrow.

The second role of this ghostly man seems to be as an anonymous economic entity, enabling the suburban housework/leisure lifestyle. Walking her through the exhibit, he offers to “buy” her a car, then two, and proposes that they build a two-car garage to house them. He installs her in the kitchen of tomorrow, and presents her with furs. Nowhere is it suggested that the woman might have earning power in her own right. In this sense, she is the perfect consumer, spending all her time either happily operating expensive household appliances, trying on sporting wear, or encouraging her companion to purchase cars. But the man’s physical presence itself is not necessary to provide her enjoyment; indeed, the two moments that the woman allows herself to express true pleasure in her surroundings are marked by the man’s absence: alone in her dreamy reverie in a flying Buick, and in the kitchen sequence when she merrily switches costumes to signify her true desire: leisure. In the film the man is still the enabler of her desires in that he provides the (imaginary) funds for cars and furs, and he still sits in the driver’s seat, but he is an anonymous figure, elegantly dressed and amiably accommodating. He is, after all, guided by the control tower of the future highways, and who really needs a man when you can have a machine do the driving for you?

Finally, the ghostly Prince Charming acts as a figure that distinguishes dream from reality. As they drive out onto the highways of tomorrow, his mask disappears, and the woman exclaims, in an instance of recognition, “Oh! It’s you!” It is unclear from the film who exactly it is that she recognizes—her husband? A boyfriend? But what is implied is that with the removal of his fairytale mask she has awakened from her dream only to discover that she really has been transported, corporeally, into the future.

“Where tomorrow meets today.” Design for Dreaming. 1956. MPO for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

Singing “our dreams will come true/together, we’ll make the world new . . . when tomorrow meets today,” the happy couple drives off into the night. This brave new world of the American consumer dream has come to fruition on a highway harking back to Geddes’ Futurama. But rather than collapsing the space between city and country, the highway’s role in the film has been to collapse the space between dream and reality: between the desire for a new refrigerator and a luxury car, and its fulfillment in the shopping malls of America’s suburban landscape.

Going Retro: The Ghost of Harley Earl

Here, well on the other side of the century from GM’s Futurama and fifty years after the last Motorama show, the pre-war dreams of a technological fix for urban decay seem quaint, as do the colorful, optimistic representations of the consumer future embodied in 1950s-era Populuxe design. But ironically, in the face of suburban ennui and the collapse of the housing bubble, nostalgia for the techno-landscapes of the Futurama and the lush dreamy interiors of the Motorama has reached new heights, manifesting itself in the self-conscious popularity of Mad Men (a cable television show about the heyday of advertising in the 1950s and 60s) and the crazes for retro- and mid-century modern design. It has been easy to make light of the kinds of “futures” offered by the bombastic advertising of the first half of the twentieth century, but the popularity of mid-century design taps into a more deeply felt longing, not just for the design elements themselves but for the technological and consumer optimism they represent. Thomas Hine, who coined the term Populuxe, notes that “[it] is less about the design of the houses, cars, and appliances of the time than it is about the feelings they embodied” (ix).

Stills from Look at Pontiac for 1954! 1953. Handy (Jam) Organization for Pontiac Motor Division, General Motors Corporation. Prelinger Archives.

In the space of retro-futuristic desire, ghosts occupy a peculiar place in time: they come from the past to tell us about the future. In ad campaigns in 2002 and 2003, the Buick Motor Division of General Motors played on this revived nostalgia for progress with its “Return of Harley Earl” series of television commercials starring actor John Diehl. In the ads, industrial designer Harley Earl—famous for his innovative streamlined car designs for GM between 1927 and 1958 and a key player in the Motorama shows—appeared as a semitransparent ghost who had “come back” to help a new generation of designers create a line of Buick sedans.  In “Briefing,” an advertisement for the 2003 Rainier, he walks through the Buick plant whispering suggestions in the ears of designers, advising them to incorporate “leather . . . curves and chrome . . . it should ride like it’s gliding on air.”

Buick’s tagline during this campaign, “The Spirit of American Design,” uses spirit loosely in the sense of both ghost and essence.  Earl, as the disembodied embodiment of “American Design,” was meant to signify a revivified inspiration to be gained from a nostalgic version of the future. Print ads from the “Spirit” campaign make prominent use of Earl’s iconic fedora, placing it on top of new cars in the Buick series as a signifier of the ghost’s presence.  In the parallel “Da Vinci of Detroit” campaign, John Diehl is photographed posing next to both new and old Buick models.

But, as Svetlana Boym points out, nostalgia is a fundamentally impossible operation:

Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee. Encountering silence, he looks for memorable signs, desperately misreading them. (8)

The “memorable signs” that the Harley Earl ad campaign tried to capitalize on—chrome grills, leather interiors, streamlined fins—were precisely the wrong signs to highlight: the new Buicks had none of these eccentric design features, and ended up looking drab by comparison. 1950s Buick cars were featured in the same campaign as the new cars; in one photograph, Earl’s fedora is placed jauntily on the tail-fin of a 1958 Buick Limited. But this eye-catching original design only calls attention to the lack of such sleek aeronautical design features in the new Buicks. The tail-fin, signifier of a past vision of the future, was now firmly a marker of a bygone era, and all that remained was the walking, talking televisual specter of a future that never came to be.

The aim of the Harley Earl advertising series—to recapture the American romance with domestically designed cars in the 1940s and 1950s—suggests a kind of nostalgic wish for a future that never was.

The “tail-fin.” Still from American Look. 1958. Handy (Jam) Organization for Chevrolet. Prelinger Archives.

The Buick campaign promised that the American consumer could have that excitement about the future again, as the American car industry, moribund and lagging behind its Japanese and Taiwanese competitors, called back to the past in an attempt to rescue itself from the other side of “progress”: global competition and the rapid decline of the middle-class dream in the face of a stagnant economy and increasing unemployment. But the ad’s creators failed to understand how thoroughly that narrative had already been subsumed by a much more presentist mode of consumption. Replacing the Puritan moralistic model of thrift-and-reward so prevalent in 1950s culture, the credit economy had come to dominate advertising, with its buy now/pay later mantra. There was no longer a need for a narrative that deferred material satisfaction onto an imaginary “future.”

Emptied of a belief in progress, the fascination with what Davin Heckman has called the “retro-futures” of the 1930s through 1960s (2) now manifests itself as a peculiar mixture of nostalgia and postmodern kitsch, collapsed into a much more superficial mode of consumerist celebration. The futures of the past have become commodified as both second-hand and new consumer items. Items from the World’s Fairs regularly surface on eBay, as the futures of the past, carefully preserved in plastic sheath-binders, labeled and numbered, have morphed into consumer items for collectors of memorabilia. The future, once used as a compelling narrative to drive the material economy forward, is now simply a nostalgic design feature, emptied of optimism and the dream of driving off on a perfect highway.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

A Touch of Magic

A Touch of Magic was made in 1961 by MPO Productions for General Motors on the occasion of the 1961 Motorama. A musical film following in the tradition of Design for Dreaming (even recasting choreographer/dancer Tad Tadlock in the lead female role), A Touch of Magic is a surreal blend of community theatre–like reenactments of a knights and dragon fairy tale, modern ballet, and Populuxe era sets like Frigidaire’s “dream house.” In the film, the “newlyweds” drive GM concept cars through fantasy landscapes, entertain a household full of invisible guests who gluttonously devour intricately prepared foods and “teeny-weeny polka-dot martini[s],” and dance on moonlit clouds.

Whereas the underlying message of Design for Dreaming was that a single woman craves healthy leisure activities and a handsome boyfriend, A Touch of Magic seems aimed at the more mature couple who spends their leisure time—made possible by the conveniences of the modern kitchen—throwing cocktail parties and reigniting the passion of their marriage. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the film is the evil wizard, representing a dreadful, drudge-filled past before the time of fancy cars and dream kitchens. The villain repeatedly appears, only to be vanquished by the happy couple and their modern consumer appliances.

Image Credit

A Touch of Magic. Dir. William Beaudine. Prod. Victor Solow and MPO Productions. Perf. Thelma “Tad” Tadlock and James Mitchell. General Motors Corporation, 1961. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


“Populuxe” is a portmanteau that blends “popularity” and “luxury” to describe the industrial design characteristics of the mid-century modern or “atomic age.” Characteristics of Populuxe design include sweeping curves, simplistic geometric forms such as the boomerang, and bold colors. Thomas Hine, who coined the term, dates the Populuxe period as falling between 1954 and 1964 and describes this era of push-button convenience and conspicuous consumption as a time of extravagance, novelty, and optimism.

Populuxe’s architectural companion is the space-age-like “Googie” form, a gaudy mid-century architectural style seen, even today, in diners, movie theaters, gas stations, and roadside motels left over from the atomic age.

Further Reading

Hine, Thomas. Populuxe: The Look and Life of America in the ’50s and ’60s, from Tailfins and TV Dinners to Barbie Dolls and Fallout Shelters. New York: Overlook Press, 2007.

Image Credits

American Look. Dir. W. F. Banes and John Thiele. By Sidney Knight. Prod. Jam Handy Organization. Chevrolet Division, General Motors Corporation, 1958. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

“Googie style gas station in Beverly Hills, CA.” 2006. Photo by Googie Man. Wikimedia Commons. GFDL.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Design for Dreaming


Design for Dreaming was a musical film sponsored by General Motors for the occasion of the 1956 Motorama car show. The film was directed by William Beaudine, who was also known for making low-budget thrillers. The film starred choreographer and dancer, Tad Tadlock, as the attractive young housewife who is swept off her feet by a masked Prince Charming (played by choreographer Marc Breaux), dapperly clad in a black tuxedo and driving a Harley Earl-designed Firebird II onto the “road of tomorrow.” As well as showing off GM’s line-up of concept cars, the film featured Frigidaire’s “Kitchen of Tomorrow,” a showroom kitchen with spinning glass cupboards and a magical countertop oven that, according to the film, bakes, frosts, and decorates a cake (complete with lit candles) at the touch of a button.

Image Credit

Design for Dreaming. Dir. William Beaudine. Prod. Victor D. Solow and MPO Productions, Inc. Perf. Thelma “Tad” Tadlock and Marc Breaux. General Motors Corporation, 1956. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


General Motors staged the Motorama auto show from 1949 to 1961. At these extravagant events GM displayed tricked-out display models and futuristic concept cars. While initially held at the swanky Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, later Motoramas were designed to tour the United States, and over the years drew in several million visitors. Exemplary of the Populuxe era of American consumerism, GM’s Motorama auto shows often included props and special effects, song and dance numbers, orchestras, and short films. Design for Dreaming features scenes from the 1956 Motorama while A Touch of Magic creatively documents the 1961 show.

Image Credit

Design for Dreaming. Dir. William Beaudine. Prod. Victor D. Solow and MPO Productions, Inc. Perf. Thelma “Tad” Tadlock and Marc Breaux. General Motors Corporation, 1956. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Harley Earl

Harley Earl (1893-1969) was an industrial designer for General Motors. He eventually became vice-president of the corporation during its heyday in the 1950s. Earl was a pioneer in automotive design, introducing the concept car as a way to both gauge consumer response to new car designs and as a marketing tool. Hi concept car the Firebird II (shown above) was featured in Design For Dreaming. Earl is also credited with introducing the tail-fin to automotive design in 1948.

Image Credit

“GM Firebird II Concept Car.” 2007. Original photograph by user Karmann. Wikimedia Commons. GFDL.