The Golden Age Of Advertising

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First, the consumer was a “she.” As one ad in Printers’ Ink succinctly put it, “The proper study of mankind is man … but the proper study of markets is woman .” No facet of the advertiseraudience relationship held such consequence for advertising content as the perception by the overwhelmingly male advertising elite that it was engaged primarily in talking to masses of women.

Demographically, of course, women composed no more than a razor-thin majority of the nation’s population, but contemporary statistics indicated that they—the family “purchasing agents”—did about 80 to 85 percent of the nation’s retail buying.

Once the audience was understood to be overwhelmingly female, certain implications for copy content and selling appeal seemed evident. In a tone of scientific assurance, advertising leaders of the 1920s and 1930s asserted that women possessed a “well-authenticated greater emotionality” and a “natural inferiority complex.” Since women were “certainly emotional,” advertisements must be emotional. Since women were characterized by “inarticulate longings,” advertisements should portray idealized visions rather than prosaic realities. Copy should be intimate and succinct, since “women will read anything which is broken into short paragraphs and personalized.”

Although the articles in the quality women’s magazines pictured their sophisticated readers as leading busy, diversified, action-packed lives, advertising agencies generally adopted a very different model of the typical woman consumer, one that owed more to the contemporary stereotypes of the True Story reader. “We must remember,” wrote a Printers’ Ink contributor, “that most American women lead rather monotonous and humdrum lives. …“The advertising pages, he argued, should become the “magical carpets on which they may ride out to love.”

The second advertising man’s assumption was about the consumer’s level of intelligence. Army tests during World War I had recently startled Americans. New techniques of evaluation revealed that a shocking percentage of prospective inductees had not possessed the minimal level of intelligence to qualify for military service. Advertising writers followed these reports avidly and reminded their colleagues of the latest figure that had lodged in their memory: “Remember, the average citizen has the mentality of a child of twelve”—or “ten” or “thirteen.”

The content of the popular press reinforced this image of an unintelligent public. Several advertising writers recalled that Arthur Brisbane, the editorial genius of the Hearst papers and the guiding spirit of the tabloid Daily Mirror , had posted a sign in the Hearst city rooms that read, “You cannot underestimate the intelligence of the American public.”

Movie content, also, offered a measure of public intelligence. “We say Hollywood people are stupid, the pictures are stupid,” reflected one agency representative. “What we are really saying is the great bulk of people are stupid.” The Ruthrauff and Ryan advertising agency, flaunting its own success in following the example of “editors, movie directors, and popular novelists,” instructed the trade in the deplorable but inescapable facts of life: “After all, men and women in the mass are apt to have incredibly shallow brain-pans. In infancy they are attracted by bright colors, glitter, and noise. And in adulthood they retain a surprisingly similar set of basic reactions.”

A third assumption, closely related to the theory of the limited mental capacity of advertising’s audience, was the assumption of public lethargy. “The mass mind is averse to effort,” an experienced woman copywriter warned agency novices. “Women don’t like to think too much when buying,” added a contributor to Advertising Age . George Gallup, reporting on his polling information for the Young and Rubicam advertising agency, suggested that the success of the New York Daily News was related to the tendency of “whole legions of women to read only the headlines except in the case of a juicy crime story where their interest overcomes their mental inertia.” The prolific advertising writer Kenneth Goode reminded the trade m How to Turn People into Gold that “man in the mass,” except when caught up in emotion, “won’t exert himself beyond the line of least resistance.”