You wouldn’t think of advertising as an art form, just as a mere selling tool. Nor would you associate it with Chicago, but Ky Dickens’s The City that Sold America makes that connection, and makes it well.
The documentary is an exposé of Chicago’s early roots as an advertising maven, home to giants such as Albert Lasker and Leo Burnett. Charting the rise of advertising from the catalogs of Montgomery Ward, to the characters that were designed in the city, such as Tony the Tiger and the Jolly Green Giant, the film displays advertising as an art. The wide array of early catalog covers and, later, photography, is like a gallery exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The level of craftsmanship is astounding.
The City that Sold America is also a change of pace for Dickens. Her previous work, includes Zero Weeks and Sole Survivor, yet this new documentary still retains the same interest in the life-altering. Here, advertising is heralded as a medium that changes not only our buying dollar, but also our everyday practices, such as using seat belts. It can also change our racial perceptions, as Dickens makes the key decision of not concluding the documentary with the decline of Chicago advertising, but continuing to show its next phase.
The lineage of Albert Lasker, to Leo Burnett, to Thomas J. Burrell is fascinating and takes the documentary from being a mere assemblage of facts and archival footage and photos, to a charting of Chicago’s rise in relation to the rise of African-American working professionals. The connections are made in a tidy 67 minutes, and much like the best ads are made quick, punchy, and sweet.