- Historic Sites
The Golden Age Of Advertising
The twenties and thirties saw a host of new ways to separate customers from their money. The methods have not been forgotten.
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
No era provides such revealing insights into the cultural values of both producers and consumers of American advertising as the 1920s and 1930s, when admen not only claimed the status of professionals but also saw themselves as missionaries of modernity.
During the era, advertising came to focus less on the product that was for sale and more on the consumer who would do the buying. (An ad in the Ladies’Home Journal of the late 1920s assured each reader that “Elizabeth Arden is personally interested in you.”) The scale and tempo of contemporary life left the average citizen anxious, advertisers saw, and they offered their products as palliatives. What made advertising “modern” was the advertisers’ discovery of techniques for both responding to and exploiting the public’s insecurities.
Advertisers regularly created detailed vignettes of social life to arouse empathy, envy, or guilt—with huge sums of money riding on their effectiveness. And since these ad agents worked with ingenuous self-assurance, they filled the trade press with gossip about their techniques. Their own enthusiastic naïveté and their facile assumptions about the masses they addressed make the ads of this era particularly revealing—about the men and women who wrote them, the consumers who responded to them, and the cultural anxieties they reflected.
On the following pages we will look at some of the more bumptious processes and the legendary successes of the age when advertising grew up.
During a single year in the early 1920s, major advertising campaigns rescued two fading products so successfully that the entire advertising industry had to ponder the lessons they offered in modern advertising technique.
Fleischmann’s Yeast, the first of these advertising legends, had been “something merely to bake bread with—until Fleischmann advertisements said otherwise,” the copywriter claimed. Prohibition had destroyed one sales outlet for yeast, and in the face of a steady decline in home baking, even Fleischmann’s lofty characterization of its product as the “Soul of Bread” could not stem declining sales. Could a product with such specific functions be salvaged by promoting it for some new use?
Within a year, with the impetus supplied by its new agency, the J. Walter Thompson Company, Fleischmann’s advertising had transformed yeast into a potent source of vitamins, a food to be eaten directly from the package. Two years later, when the market had become saturated by new vitamin products, Fleischmann’s Yeast evolved once again, this time into a natural laxative. A prize contest brought in hundreds of testimonials for the product’s newly advertised properties. From 153 of the winners, the agency gained permission to use their letters and “illustrate them in any way we saw fit.”
Capturing the tempo of popular journalism, the J. Walter Thompson copywriters established a brash format for the Fleischmann campaign and placed their ads in the high-priced rotogravure sections. They injected as much human interest and eye appeal as possible by using multiple “candid” photographs and succinct, first-person testimony. Sometimes the ads so closely copied the layout of the magazine or newspaper that the reader might become thoroughly immersed in one before discovering that it was not an editorial feature.
By 1926 the Fleischmann Company had become one of the nation’s ten largest magazine advertisers and a major purchaser of newspaper space. By the spring of 1926, sales had increased 130 percent over 1923, when the candid, man-in-thestreet testimonials had begun.
When sales threatened to recede, the Thompson agency called doctors to the rescue. Authoritative physicians in white coats explained how the pressures of modern civilization had led to constipation and advised readers to eat half a cake of yeast three times a day to counteract “intestinal fatigue.” “Fatigue is universal,” one agency executive explained. “We simply have to credit it to the intestines, that’s all.” The agency dramatized the role of the intestines by superimposing bold diagrams of “where the trouble starts” over photographs of lovely young women. The American Medical Association was outraged and prohibited its members from testifying for Fleischmann. Undaunted, the agency turned for paid testimonials to European doctors, whose impressively unpronounceable names and prestigious hospital affiliations were most effective.
The success of Fleischmann’s Yeast in the 1920s—in spite of the product’s high price, its repulsive taste, and, according to the agency, “the almost complete absence of quickly apparent results”— seemed to confirm the power of advertising. One pleased copywriter reflected that advertising alone had increased sales, and had done so even though the home baking market had declined sharply.
The success of the Fleischmann campaign was overshadowed, however, by the even more spectacular story of Listerine. The profits of its manufacturer, the Lambert Pharmacal Company, mushroomed from approximately $100,000 per year in 1920 and 1921 to over $4,000,000 in 1927. Not surprisingly the company’s strategy gave rise to a whole school of advertising practice.