History of advertising: No 153: Marshall McLuhan's global village

Marshall McLuhan, the communications theorist who famously declared that "the medium is the message", had a love/hate relationship with the ad industry.

The 60s Mad Men hailed him as a prophet, particularly after the above aphorism, by which he meant the way people acquire information affects them more than the information itself. 

However, the Canadian was ambivalent towards adland. He had little time for the industry itself, once claiming that "the hullabaloo Madison Avenue creates couldn’t condition a mouse".

On the other hand, he loved what it produced, going so far as to claim that "advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century".

Ironically for somebody who predicted they would become obsolete, it was books that propelled him to fame, most notably The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man (1964).

With his penchant for speaking in riddles, McLuhan was a highly controversial figure. Some thought him a charlatan – Time described Understanding Media as "fuzzy-minded" and "lacking in perspective".

Others thought him a visionary, and his insights into the impact of increasingly powerful media technology were well ahead of their time. He died in 1980, more than a decade before the internet became an everyday reality, but had predicted what was to become the world wide web. 

More than half-a-century ago, he was outlining his concept of the "global village" in which new electronic communication technologies were turning the world into "a continually sounding tribal drum where everybody gets the message all of the time".

McLuhan often remarked that even he failed to fully comprehend his own work. "I don’t pretend to understand it," he said. "After all, my stuff is very difficult."

Things you need to know

  • McLuhan owed much of his profile in media circles to his championing by the legendary copywriter Howard Gossage and the electronic media pioneer Tony Schwartz.
  • In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character argues with someone about McLuhan’s philosophy. McLuhan intervenes to settle the dispute.
  • McLuhan rarely went to the cinema or watched TV. He preferred spending his evenings at home reading from one of a pile of 20 books at his side.