- 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
Advertising men associated consumer lethargy with weak-kneed conformity. The masses, the copywriters were convinced, never looked beyond the need for immediate gratification. They would greet with suspicion any invitation to differ from the crowd. Subtleties entirely escaped their “careless, uncomprehending mentality.” They refused to respond to anything but the most blatantly sensational stimuli. In trying to capture a sense of the culture of the “people,” a Ruthrauff and Ryan ad verbally panned across the advertising audience for a quick, cinematic impression: “Perspiring thousands at Coney Island. … Gaudy pennants. The crunch of peanut shells underfoot. Chewing gum. Mustard dripping from hot dogs. People struggling for a view of some queer freak in a side show. Redfaced men elbowing and crowding for a vicarious thrill of a cooch dancer. … Stopping for the shudder of gaping at a gory accident. … Women tearing other women’s clothing in the scramble at a bargain counter … huddling at a radio to hear a crooner drone Tin Pan Alley’s latest potion of vapid sentimentality.… Waiting in line for hours to view the saccharine emotional displays of a movie idol. Taking a daily dose of culture from the comic strips.”
Unlike the varied ways in which women were depicted in advertising tableaux, men usually appeared in nondescript, standardized parts as husbands or businessmen. But their occupational roles were more varied than women’s—an accurate reflection of social realities.
As doctors, dentists, or business executives, they might endorse the product; as truckers, deliverymen, house painters or gas-station attendants they entered the tableaux only when it was necessary to demonstrate the product’s manufacture or use. But working-class men never appeared as consumers: an unspoken law decreed that the protagonist in every ad must be depicted as a prosperous member of the middle class, dressed in a suit, tie, and hat or fashionable sporting togs.
When merchandising strategy did not call for a particular occupational function, the leading man tended to conform to a single stereotype: he was a businessman. Remedies for nerves, fatigue, and constipation regularly attributed such ills to the stress of business. Among the hundreds of thousands of advertisements that appeared during the 1920s and 1930s, I have yet to discover a single one in which the husband or the ambitious young man is defined as a factory worker, policeman, engineer, professor, architect, or government official, and only one in which he is a lawyer. Even such solid citizens as doctors and dentists appear only in their functional roles, duly proclaimed by a white coat—not as typical husbands.
Within the role of businessman, some slight differentiations emerged. Older men were likely to be cast as business executives. Young men were often salesmen, aspiring to the intermediate step on the business ladder of sales manager. When husbands telephoned their wives to prepare for an unexpected dinner guest, they always brought home either a “sales manager” or a “client.” The spectrum of men’s activities was described in one tableau in the phrase “wherever they may be, at their desks or on the golf course.”
Ads also suggested that, in the struggle of business, the man had often lost “a bit of the sentiment that used to abide in his heart.” He had been “shackled to his desk” and might even need to slacken his pace, get to know his wife and children again, and experience those softer sentiments preserved within the shelter of the home. But only for a brief respite. The competitive world of business helped make him a true man, and advertisers occasionally worried that the attempt to pretty him up for the collar ads and the nightclub scenes would sissify and weaken man’s image, tailoring it too much to feminine tastes. Edgeworth Smoking Tobacco even suggested that the growing number of women smokers had effeminized cigarettes; men should respond by giving them up and turning to pipes. An Edgeworth ad proclaimed: “A man looks like a man when he smokes a pipe.”
Although the notion that adding certain qualities of style or “fashion” to a product could enhance its value to the consumer is a very old one, the 1920s saw an enormous expansion of the range of goods merchandised on this basis. One obvious method of creating style was to introduce a choice of colors. But even this degree of novelty required the manufacturer to make a mental leap. He had to persuade himself that his product belonged to the realm of “fashion” goods.