- 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
Ballyhoo also gained overnight success within the advertising trade. Everyone talked about it, joked about it, and shuddered a bit at its ultimate implications. “Anyone with two eyes in his head can see that the public is getting restive,” warned H. A. Batten of N. W. Ayer and Son. Advertising and Selling sensed a growing public skepticism that regarded advertising as a “great joke.” It was all right for advertising agents to enjoy private lampoons at their own expense, but quite a different story when the paying customers reacted to highpriced ads with a “coarse and disrespectful horse-laugh.”
An even more disturbing symptom of rising public distrust of advertising emerged in the form of a fledgling consumer movement. In 1927 the flustered advertising trade had reacted with a flurry of censure, ridicule, and counterattack to Stuart Chase and F. J. Schlink’s muckraking book, Your Money’s Worth . Chase and Schlink had suggested that consumers create a test service to provide an objective source of information about products. Public response to the book encouraged them to expand their initial Consumers Club in White Plains, New York, into a national organization known as Consumers’ Research. Its membership reached twelve thousand by 1930, and with the impetus of the Depression, membership doubled in 1931.
Meanwhile, other consumer-education organizations had emerged. A consumers’ cooperative movement was expanding. In 1933 F. J. Schlink and Arthur Kallet published 1,000,000 Guinea Pigs , a sensational account of the misleading advertising of drugs and cosmetics. The trade press erupted with furious denials.
But some advertising leaders interpreted the incipient consumers’ movement as a symptom of a public skepticism induced by the heavy-handed advertising of the early 1930s. Devoting its first page of copy to an unprecedented lead editorial. Advertising and Selling alerted readers that its October 1931 article on the work of Consumers Research had evoked more concerned responses than any article since a paid testimonials controversy of the late 1920s. The psychologist Henry Link reported survey results that indicated that only 4 to 5 percent of the public believed certain current advertising assertions. Even the most credible assertions convinced only 37 percent of those surveyed. Printers’ Ink Monthly noted the growth of consumer councils and warned the smug creators of “misleading, vulgar advertising” that a “movement of this kind grows with the geometrical rapidity of a snowball.”
By the mid-1930s the tiny new consumer organizations were inspiring fear in the advertising trade because they threatened to pursue their objectives through the new regulatory powers of the federal government. The Roosevelt administration proposed to extend the powers of the Food and Drug Administration to cover cosmetics and to regulate advertising as well as labeling. It also called for government-enforced grade labeling of food. What would happen to brand-name advertising, many advertising leaders wondered, if people were induced to base their buying decisions on a grading system defined by the government? Would it destroy all advertising that celebrated, by implication, the superiority of Jones’s grade-A canned peaches over the grade-A peaches canned by Brown? And once the regulation of drug and cosmetic advertising began, would not other inhibiting forms of regulation follow?
As early as the fall of 1932, Advertising and Selling had begun to warn that such “pseudo-scientific” scare campaigns as the Scott Tissue ads, which dramatically warned of the dire results of using the arsenic-laden brands of toilet paper sold by competitors, were a “direct invitation to government regulation.” The New Deal proposals for the expansion of FDA regulation inspired calls for preventive self-regulation within the industry. A contributor to Advertising and Selling warned that the 1934 elections would bring a new Congress and a “flood of social legislation which will place advertising on a hotter seat than it has ever been on before.” In an editorial entitled “Let’s Face the Music,” Printers’Ink noted the growing number of dignified organizations now testifying to their skepticism of advertising before the Senate Commerce Committee. The specter of advancing government regulation provoked the editor to call upon “honest, intelligent, and high-minded advertisers” to silence the “fakers, charlatans, and crooks” of their trade.
The Golden Age was over. Never again would advertising be so uncritically accepted by the public or so unabashedly composed by the agencies.
Or would it?