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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
Might the success of such a formula carry important lessons for advertising? In a series of sociological sermons to the trade, True Story ads proclaimed the magazine’s discovery of the once downtrodden. True Story readers constituted a whole new market: the wives of skilled workmen, women who “can’t comprehend the more sophisticated ‘silk worm’ magazines written for white collars.” These women were not yet deafened by the “billion dollar din of repeated advertising.” They were more likely to live in a modest frame house on Main Street than in a “palace on Lake Shore Drive,” but they had plenty of money to spend on cars, radios, and appliances, as well as on soup, soap, and breakfast food.
At first, advertising agencies hesitated to buy space in True Story , despite its mounting circulation figures. Its tenor seemed incongruent with the copy they were producing for most of their clients. As late as 1926, with a circulation approaching two million, an issue of True Story often carried fewer than a dozen full-page or half-page ads for national advertisers. It still drew the bulk of its considerable advertising revenue from smaller ads for bust developers, weight reducers, cures for bunions or baldness, and moneymaking schemes.
By the beginning of 1928, however, when the principled young copywriter was bemoaning J. Walter Thompson’s new “tabloid” style, True Story clearly had won many converts within the agencies. Here was a new reading public. Never mind how meager its vocabulary or narrow its interests; it could actually read advertisements, if properly written in the True Story style of “short words and shorter sentences,” and could afford to buy the brands it chose. By 1928 products such as Fleischmann’s Yeast, Kotex, Lux, Pond’s Jell-0, Pepsodent, Cutex, Lysol, Bayer, Wrigley, Camels, and the Cleanliness Institute’s wares had joined True Story ’s roster of nationally advertised goods.
The idea of not only reaching the huge True Story audience but reaching it with advertisements in the True Story formula now began to take hold. The J. Walter Thompson agency, which was already placing ads for several clients in True Story , initiated seminars for its copywriters on the True Story approach. Gerald Carson opened up “whole new vistas” with a talk on “The Mental and Emotional Life of a Tabloid Reader.”
The headlines of advertisements in True Story now began to echo the titles of its confessional stories: “Could She Be the Helen Brown I Used to Know?” (Golden Glint Shampoo); “Because I Confessed … I Found the Way to Happiness” (the Borden Company); “I Deceived My Husband and I’m Proud of It!” (the Postum Company); “Some Wives Do It, but I Wouldn’t Dare” (Wheatena Corporation). The same confessional ads soon appeared in newspapers and in such staid women’s magazines as Good Housekeeping ana Ladies’Home Journal .
Meantime, the conception of a “tabloid audience” had gained even greater credibility from the prosperity of the tabloid newspapers themselves. True Story was a national magazine. But the Daily News gained its sensational success right in New York City, where no New York advertising agent could ignore it or its imitators. First introduced in 1919 as the Illustrated Daily News , in two years the Daily News was selling more copies than any other New York newspaper. By 1925 it approached a million in daily circulation, far surpassing any other daily in the United States. Tabloids had now appeared in eleven other American cities. In June 1924, William Randolph Hearst launched his own New York tabloid, the Daily Mirror , and Bernarr Macfadden joined the New York tabloid competition with The Daily Graphic .
The tabloids of the early 1920s—with their emphasis on sex, violence, and photographs—surpassed even True Story in their impact. The advertising agencies at first disdained them, but by early 1926 Advertising and Selling Fortnightly was noting that the tabloids were now “overriding the delicate sensibilities of advertisers and agents,” convincing them no longer to “disdain to practice their art in terms of the lowest common denominator.”
In its continuing “Tell It to Sweeney” campaign, the Daily News extolled the free-spending qualities of the newly prosperous common man, the “plutocrat in overalls.” But it also boldly assured advertisers that its audience did not exclude the affluent. As the News succinctly put it: “Tell it to Sweeney; The Stuyvesants Will Understand.”
How, then, did the creative elite of American advertising in the 1920s and 1930s characterize its audience?