The Golden Age Of Advertising


Much the same debate over the characteristics and tastes of the audience for advertising regularly stirred the trade press. As the 1920s progressed, each of the various advertising media sought to capture its own definition of the audience in a pithy slogan. “Tell It to Sweeney,” urged one American tabloid newspaper, the New York Daily News . “Sweeney,” who might live in Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, or Upper Manhattan, and whose real name might be Muller, Cohen, Nelson, or Smith, read the Daily News . The wise advertiser would seek to tell his sales story to Sweeney. On the contrary, Harper’s Bazaar urged advertisers to cultivate the “inner circle,” the class with “the most influential purchasing power,” which set the example for the rest of society. By making no “editorial concessions to the masses,” Harper’s Bazaar achieved the tone necessary for an effective appeal to this discriminating class. By the late 1920s scores of magazines and newspapers steadily harangued the advertising agent with similar slogans and arguments.

The private dialogue over style within the J. Walter Thompson agency and the clamorous competition of the media to define the optimum audience posed questions that never ceased to trouble the creative elite of advertising. What was the class structure of the buying public? What were its tastes and desires? How did the advertiser go about discovering them? Working in the rarefied atmosphere of an ad agency, how could one keep that audience and its tastes properly in focus?

To understand how inventive copywriters dealt with the problems of an inscrutable consumer audience, it is helpful to look at two phenomena of popular culture in the 1920s that fascinated advertising leaders: the tabloid newspaper and the confession magazine.

True Story Magazine and the Daily News first appeared within weeks of each other in May and June of 1919. True Story was the offspring of the magazine Physical Culture , published by the flamboyant strong man and health enthusiast Bernarr Macfadden. For several years Macfadden’s wife, Mary, had been reading the letters and manuscripts that poured into the Physical Culture offices. In many of these, women brokenheartedIy confided their romantic experiences. Mary Macfadden and other female coworkers became convinced that this was salable material. As one staff member remarked: “All the working girls go through the same love troubles. This one will be about themselves and written by themselves.” For his new publication, therefore, Bernarr Macfadden adopted the first-person, confessional formula. True Story later touted its contents as the “first folk-literature since the days of the Bible.” To illustrate the stories of girls gone astray, of jealous husbands intent on revenge, and of sublime love transformed to hatred, Macfadden broke away from the idealized art style of most magazine fiction and used photographs of models in menacing or sensuous poses.


Macfadden unflinchingly aimed True Story at an audience of young, workingclass women. Insisting that the stories came from “common people,” he tested any copy that sounded highbrow on the office elevator operator. Anything that puzzled him was rejected—a practice that provoked one irreverent staff member to compose his own underground confession story: “How I was Demoted to Editor of True Story and Worked My Way Up to Elevator Man Again.” Although it was not sold by subscription and carried a high newsstand price (twenty cents at first, compared with fifteen cents for the dominant Ladies’Home Journal ), True Story soon found an impressive market. By 1924 it had pulled even with the reputable Good Housekeeping at a circulation of about 850,000. By 1927 it was challenging Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s for first place in national circulation among women’s magazines with newsstand sales of over two million per issue.

True Story held fast to its astoundingly successful formula—women’s personal, confessional accounts of temptations, love triangles, and tragic adventures. In the sociologist George Gerbner’s epitome of the genre, the heroine of the confession, “buffeted by events she cannot understand,” began a “headlong flight down the line of least resistance,” which ended in “her inevitable sin.” Punishment, physical or moral, was immediate and severe. Although True Story disavowed any intention to preach, every story proved a “powerful sermon.”