Marshall McLuhan Legitimized Pop Culture by Taking it Seriously


The internet age has done a hell of a job burnishing the reputation of Marshall McLuhan.

After all, the famously cerebral Toronto media theorist more or less foretold the world wide web back in 1978, when he said that “a computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.” [But this quote did not appear in print until The  Global Village (1989) by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers, p. 143].

Marshall McLuhan, the noted writer, educator and communications theorist who coined the phrase ‘the medium is the message,’ is seen in this 1977 photo. (CP)

One of the reasons McLuhan had such a vast perspective on emerging media is that he didn’t limit himself to august sources like books and radio.

He took in the whole media landscape, which inevitably included television, as well as comics, billboards, magazines, even fashion.

Before McLuhan, few people paused to consider the subtle messages being conveyed in such low-brow art forms. To him, they were more than just consumer prompts or escapist entertainment — they were expressions of the zeitgeist.

In writing about them, McLuhan legitimized popular culture. 

Dissecting Dagwood and Blondie

One of McLuhan’s early fascinations was with the syndicated comic strip Blondie (created in 1930 and still running), which stars Blondie, a model of domestic decorum, and her dunderheaded husband, Dagwood.

McLuhan viewed Dagwood as an emasculated male, undone by the daily grind of work and Blondie’s recriminations at home. The analogy is perhaps unfair, not to mention sexist; at the time, McLuhan had recently become a parent, and was likely discomfited by his own domesticity.

Whether you agree with it or not, his take on Blondie showed a willingness to consider comics as more than just a source of fleeting amusement.

He offered more candid interpretations in The Mechanical Bride (1951), a wide-ranging collection of essays that tartly deconstructs comics, movie posters, magazine covers and well-known ads of the day.

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.– Marshall McLuhan

McLuhan called out Superman for his “strong-armed totalitarian methods” and “immature and barbaric mind,” characterized Reader’s Digest as “Pollyanna Digest,” and argued that the appeal of western movies was that they illuminated “the primordial image of the lonely entrepreneur.”

1960s Superman

McLuhan was particularly concerned with the evolving tactics of advertisers. The book’s title was largely a reference to the postwar passion for the automobile, but it also captured his broader conviction that mass media was inciting an almost sexual obsession with new technology.

In his 2010 McLuhan biography, Douglas Coupland called him “arguably the first person on earth to be a metacritic” — that is, the first person compelled to examine the form and meaning of modern media.

Arguably McLuhan’s most important book, Understanding Media (1964) synthesized all of his major themes, which can be distilled in the axiom “the medium is the message.” It essentially holds that every new communication technology alters our perception of the world — or, to use another McLuhanism, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

MAD theories

Understanding Media raised our awareness of the cumulative effects of modern communications. It also made a rousing case for the importance of MAD magazine.

McLuhan wasn’t being flip. Television, with its mesmerizing flurry of images, had diminished the storytelling impact of comic strips like Blondie and Lil’ Abner, which depicted “a pastoral world of primal innocence from which young America has clearly graduated.”

What makes Understanding Media vital is not that McLuhan was always right, but that he was engaged enough to seek meaning in seemingly ephemeral art.

The new comic paradigm, according to McLuhan, was MAD magazine, which employed the visual vocabulary of TV and advertising to spoof all facets of American culture, from politics to psychoanalysis, drug culture to Disney cartoons. In McLuhan’s words, it was “a kind of newspaper mosaic of the ad as entertainment, and entertainment as a form of madness.”


Understanding Media is a heady text, filled with insights that remain startlingly on-point more than 40 years later. But the book also contains its share of overripe prose, and at times even seems to contradict itself. (Perhaps as a hedge against his critics, McLuhan once quipped, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”)

What makes Understanding Media vital is not that McLuhan was always right, but that he was engaged enough to seek meaning in seemingly ephemeral art.

Without his lead, it’s quite unlikely that serious journalists nowadays would write book-length volumes on the history of comic books or dissect the political resonance of last night’s episode of Game of Thrones.

McLuhan showed a keen interest in pop culture, and pop culture gamely returned the favour, finding ways to name-check the fusty-looking academic. His very name became a poetic refrain on the U.S. sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (“Marshall McLuhan / what are you doin’?”), and he made an unforgettable cameo as himself in the 1976 Woody Allen film Annie Hall.

Several years ago, McLuhan received one of the highest compliments in contemporary pop culture, earning a mention in an episode of the Emmy-awarding cable drama Mad Men, a suave examination of the ad world in the 1960s. In addition to being clever, the scene was written with a knowing wink — Mad Men, for one, would be inconceivable were it not for McLuhan’s penetrating look at pop culture more than half a century ago.