- 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
No era provides such revealing insights into the cultural values of both producers and consumers of American advertising as the 1920s and 1930s, when admen not only claimed the status of professionals but also saw themselves as missionaries of modernity.
During the era, advertising came to focus less on the product that was for sale and more on the consumer who would do the buying. (An ad in the Ladies’Home Journal of the late 1920s assured each reader that “Elizabeth Arden is personally interested in you.”) The scale and tempo of contemporary life left the average citizen anxious, advertisers saw, and they offered their products as palliatives. What made advertising “modern” was the advertisers’ discovery of techniques for both responding to and exploiting the public’s insecurities.
Advertisers regularly created detailed vignettes of social life to arouse empathy, envy, or guilt—with huge sums of money riding on their effectiveness. And since these ad agents worked with ingenuous self-assurance, they filled the trade press with gossip about their techniques. Their own enthusiastic naïveté and their facile assumptions about the masses they addressed make the ads of this era particularly revealing—about the men and women who wrote them, the consumers who responded to them, and the cultural anxieties they reflected.
On the following pages we will look at some of the more bumptious processes and the legendary successes of the age when advertising grew up.
During a single year in the early 1920s, major advertising campaigns rescued two fading products so successfully that the entire advertising industry had to ponder the lessons they offered in modern advertising technique.
Fleischmann’s Yeast, the first of these advertising legends, had been “something merely to bake bread with—until Fleischmann advertisements said otherwise,” the copywriter claimed. Prohibition had destroyed one sales outlet for yeast, and in the face of a steady decline in home baking, even Fleischmann’s lofty characterization of its product as the “Soul of Bread” could not stem declining sales. Could a product with such specific functions be salvaged by promoting it for some new use?
Within a year, with the impetus supplied by its new agency, the J. Walter Thompson Company, Fleischmann’s advertising had transformed yeast into a potent source of vitamins, a food to be eaten directly from the package. Two years later, when the market had become saturated by new vitamin products, Fleischmann’s Yeast evolved once again, this time into a natural laxative. A prize contest brought in hundreds of testimonials for the product’s newly advertised properties. From 153 of the winners, the agency gained permission to use their letters and “illustrate them in any way we saw fit.”
Capturing the tempo of popular journalism, the J. Walter Thompson copywriters established a brash format for the Fleischmann campaign and placed their ads in the high-priced rotogravure sections. They injected as much human interest and eye appeal as possible by using multiple “candid” photographs and succinct, first-person testimony. Sometimes the ads so closely copied the layout of the magazine or newspaper that the reader might become thoroughly immersed in one before discovering that it was not an editorial feature.
By 1926 the Fleischmann Company had become one of the nation’s ten largest magazine advertisers and a major purchaser of newspaper space. By the spring of 1926, sales had increased 130 percent over 1923, when the candid, man-in-thestreet testimonials had begun.
When sales threatened to recede, the Thompson agency called doctors to the rescue. Authoritative physicians in white coats explained how the pressures of modern civilization had led to constipation and advised readers to eat half a cake of yeast three times a day to counteract “intestinal fatigue.” “Fatigue is universal,” one agency executive explained. “We simply have to credit it to the intestines, that’s all.” The agency dramatized the role of the intestines by superimposing bold diagrams of “where the trouble starts” over photographs of lovely young women. The American Medical Association was outraged and prohibited its members from testifying for Fleischmann. Undaunted, the agency turned for paid testimonials to European doctors, whose impressively unpronounceable names and prestigious hospital affiliations were most effective.
The success of Fleischmann’s Yeast in the 1920s—in spite of the product’s high price, its repulsive taste, and, according to the agency, “the almost complete absence of quickly apparent results”— seemed to confirm the power of advertising. One pleased copywriter reflected that advertising alone had increased sales, and had done so even though the home baking market had declined sharply.
The success of the Fleischmann campaign was overshadowed, however, by the even more spectacular story of Listerine. The profits of its manufacturer, the Lambert Pharmacal Company, mushroomed from approximately $100,000 per year in 1920 and 1921 to over $4,000,000 in 1927. Not surprisingly the company’s strategy gave rise to a whole school of advertising practice.
Listerine was not a new product in 1920. For years it had been merchandised perfunctorily as a general antiseptic. Initially, the three men who transformed Listerine into the marvel of the advertising world—the copywriters Milton Feasley and Gordon Seagrove and the company president, Gerard B. Lambert—did not so much convert the product to a new use as induce the public to discover a new need. After a year of comparatively awkward ads for Listerine as a mouthwash, the copywriters hit upon a winning formula. The picture of a lovely girl introduced a story cryptically entitled “He Never Knew Why.” The hero, a rising young businessman, was spurned by the “luminous” but “charmingly demure” girl of his dreams after a single romantic encounter. He seemed to have every advantage in life—wealth, good looks, charm—but he labored under one insurmountable handicap. He had “halitosis.”
The term halitosis (exhumed from an old medical dictionary) had a scientific sound and took some of the coarseness out of a discussion of bad breath. The ads mimicked the tabloids’ personalinterest stories and advice-to-the-lovelom columns. As the advertising industry’s journal Printers’ Ink reflected in a tribute to Feasley: “He dealt more with humanity than with merchandise. He wrote advertising dramas rather than business announcements—dramas so common to everyday experience that every reader could easily fit himself into the plot as the hero or culprit of its action.”
By 1926 Printers’ Ink went so far as to eulogize Feasley for having transformed behavior patterns. He had “amplified the morning habits of our nicer citizenry—by making the morning mouthwash as important as the morning shower or the morning shave.” But Gerard Lambert was not content to wed the fortunes of his product to one new habit. To maintain advertising momentum, he kept finding new uses for Listerine. Halitosis had hardly become an advertising byword before Lambert began to proclaim Listerine’s virtues as a cure for dandruff. Between 1921 and 1929 the American public also learned the virtues of Listerine as an after-shave tonic, a cure for colds and sore throats, an astringent, and a deodorant. Lambert capitalized on the new fame of his product to market a Listerine toothpaste, which brought even greater financial returns. The Listerine advertising budget mounted from $100,000 in 1922 to $5,000,000 in 1928.
The financial feats of the Listerine campaign held the advertising trade enthralled. Phrases like “the halitosis style,” “the halitosis appeal,” and “the halitosis influence” became standard advertising jargon. Copywriters soon discovered and labeled over a hundred new diseases, including such transparent imitations as “bromodosis” (sweaty foot odors), “homotosis” (lack of attractive home furnishings), “acidosis” (sour stomach), and such inventive afflictions as “office hips,” “ashtray breath,” and “accelerator toe.”
The promoters of Listerine were not the first to discover the sociodrama as an advertising technique—just as they had not pioneered the appeal to social shame or personal fear. In advertisements headlined “Within the Curve of a Woman’s Arm,” the deodorant Odo-ro-no had earlier confronted the threats to romance posed by underarm perspiration. But Listerine purchased larger space in a wider variety of publications. Its expanding appropriations and spectacular profits impressed the business community. The J. Walter Thompson Company summarized the new perception of proper advertising techniques in 1926: “To sell goods we must also sell words . In fact we have to go further: we must sell life .”
In January 1928 a young woman in the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, who described herself as an “inexperienced but struggling enthusiast,” challenged the recent trend of her own agency’s advertising style. Why, she asked in the agency’s confidential newsletter, had the recent layout and copy of the campaign for Fleischmann’s Yeast “deteriorated… to such an extent that they have assumed the appearance of a True Story Magazine insertion?” Was it to appeal to the “minds of those morons … who daily dole out their 2 cents to secure the latest news not only unadulterated but graphically portrayed?” Had the agency lowered itself to producing “tabloid copy for tabloid readers”?
The agency’s response, written by the experienced copywriter Gerald Carson, was immediate and devastating. In so skeptical an age, said Carson, people should welcome “any manifestation of idealism as precious, there is so little of it.” Nevertheless, duty required the agency not to indulge its preferences but to advance the sale of Fleischmann’s Yeast. This duty could be performed only with copy “comprehensible to the plain people.” It might be more pleasant to “advertise exclusively to ‘nice’ people,” but advertising success was “too dependent upon the franchise of the common people for us to cherish a purpose so aristocratic.” Yes, by all means, “tabloid copy for tabloid minds.”
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.”
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?
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.”
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.
The major breakthroughs in both color and design occurred between 1924 and 1928. After Willys-Overland pioneered with the colored “Red Bird” car in 1923, General Motors, with the new Duco synthetic lacquers, introduced multiple colors in its 1924 models with gratifying results. Meanwhile, Fisher Body ads accentuated the association between automobiles and high fashion. The Parker Pen Company had recently demonstrated that consumers would respond to the attraction of a bold terra-cotta red barrel on so mundane and utilitarian an instrument as a fountain pen. The Crane Company began offering booklets on color in the bathroom in 1925, and Hoosier Kitchen Cabinets cautiously tested the market for color in late 1924 by coming out with units in “French Gray.” Meanwhile, academic psychologists analyzed color preferences—by sex and class, by the attention-getting power of certain colors, and by the “feelingtone” of various color combinations. By 1927 a writer in Printers’ Ink had enthroned color as the “sex appeal of business.”
The evolution of Cannon and Martex towels in the 1920s illustrated how quickly tentative ventures into color and style could kindle the flame of aesthetic sensibility into the raging fire of a full-blown consumption ethic. In the early 1920s a towel was still a utilitarian staple, an accessory to the Saturday-night bath, and was available only in plain white.
But in 1924 the Cannon Manufacturing Company cautiously initiated consumer advertising, and by 1926 it was trading heavily on style. Cannon produced a “class” towel at four times the average retail price and introduced not only color but decorative designs. It employed a professional designer from Macy’s to plan decorative motifs of whales, flamingos, dolphins, ships, and lighthouses. Meanwhile, Martex towels had already engaged René Clarke, an artist and designer with the Calkins and Hoiden advertising agency, to convert its plebian staples into images of exotic sensuality. Martex advertisements in those years displayed towels with feathery fronds and a band of clear blue water in a bathroom with a “sea-blue wall covering and green fish at the water spouts.” Cannon now escalated its merchandising drive. By 1928 it was subtly promoting increased bathing through advertisements that praised readers for their “wisdom” in adopting the habit of a bath a day. Ads even suggested more than one bath a day. They explained the benefits from such indulgence through a series of advice-laden “bathing recipes”: “Because the first towel absorbs impurities from the skin it must never (under any circumstances) be used again before washing.” The textile manufacturers were not alone in the color crusade to emancipate the bathroom from prim utilitarianism. By the late 1920s the Crane Company, the Kohler Company, and the American Sanitary Company were advertising color options in plumbing fixtures and tantalizing the public with luxurious full-color illustrations of model bathrooms. Freed from all connotations of shame and reticence, the bathroom rose to the status of a showplace of style and opulence. The American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation dazzled readers with ornate depictions of its Roman-style bathroom with Pompeian motif and its neoclassic Pembroke Model in a Directoire setting. As early as 1927 a Cannon ad proclaimed that the “pistachio and orange” bathroom had supplanted older “plain vanilla affairs” in the public imagination.
The next color conquests took place in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the cellar. By the mid-1920s, color in low-cost kitchen items had been widely introduced. By 1928 the Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet Company was advertising the “new Hoosier Beauty” in such exotic tints as “Venetian green with Oriental red interior.” Early in that same year Printers’ Ink informed readers that the “humble gas range” was about to “blossom riotously in rainbow hues.” Several electric refrigerators appeared in 1928 in “four intriguing colors.” In the bedroom, advertisers found that the introduction of color and style could even increase consumption of items that usually were not visible. Sheets and pillowcases had previously been “bulk” goods, unbranded and undecorated. But the Pepperell Manufacturing Company brought out the Lady Pepperell line of color sheets and pillowcases in 1928, with an accompanying booklet describing “Personality Bedrooms” in which the sheets harmonized with a woman’s complexion. The “daintiness of Orchid,” for instance, made it “particularly suitable for the ‘feminine’ type of woman, the woman with delicate, fair skin, small features, and a figure of slight proportions.” It was suitable for “blue eyes, black eyes, and gray eyes —if the lashes are dark.” Within three months competitors had announced their own colored lines.
The crowning achievement of advertising’s emphasis on color, beauty, and style in the 1920s was its popularization of the idea of the ensemble. A passion for harmonies of color and style swept through one product area after another—including such unlikely items as galoshes, bedsprings, and automotive accessories—resulting by 1929 in a number of major merchandising successes.
Women’s apparel led the way in the ensemble parade with the sale of purses, for instance, increasing fivefold between the start and end of the decade. In women’s hosiery, so rapidly did shades and textures expand to enable precise matching with other elements of the clothing ensemble that the number of separate items produced by the Holeproof Hosiery Company grew from 480 in 1920 to 6,006 in 1927. A Printers’ Ink writer noted in 1928 that expensive jewelry had largely given way to the preference of women for a large variety of rings, bracelets, and necklaces to harmonize with their various ensembles.
By 1930 advertisements for lipsticks, compacts, watches, and even cameras were promising color and style choices that would contribute to the harmony of the consumer’s ensemble. Elgin advertised women’s watches in several “Parisienne” styles. Each was designed by one of the “great couturiers of the Rue de la Paix to join your hat and your handbag, frock and flower, shoes and shingle, in composing the perfect ensemble .” Although the watch still had a functional value, its preeminent role was to provide the “fashionable touch that emphasizes your entire smartness as an exclamation point accents a sentence.”
Meanwhile, the idea of the ensemble spread to the automobile, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. With Corona’s offer of a choice of six typewriter colors for “perfect harmony” with the user’s environment, it even invaded “that little nook of a study where you write.” The Ternstedt Company introduced the ensemble into automotive fashion with built-in “ensemble sets” of vanity and smoking cases. It urged consumers to notice how perfectly the paneling and the “theme design wrought into the metal” of the cases harmonized with each automobile’s “interior color scheme and appointments.” Du Pont, the manufacturer of Duco refinishing paint, beckoned the “gypsy-hearted motorist” to reflect on the changing natural hues of Indian summer. “Your car—it too can change its garment”; it could harmonize with the “golden orange of the hills or the soft gray of the fields.” Hupmobile Motor Company went further. One of its advertisements asked: “Does the [car’s] contour reflect the modern mode for restrained and governed grace? … Are the accessories placed where they accent the design as tellingly as the correct shoes, hat, and handbag point a costume? … Are the metal trimmings chosen to touch the ensemble with brilliance as skillfully as you choose your jewels?”
Since women sometimes carried cameras as well as handbags, the Eastman Kodak Company reasoned, why should this additional accessory be allowed to disrupt the unity of the ensemble? In 1928 the company brought out the Vanity Kodak, a “highly ornamental and intensely personal” camera “designed to echo the color scheme of the particular costume.” These came in five colored leathers—“Sea Gull (gray), Cockatoo (green), Redbreast (red), Bluebird (blue), and Jenny Wren (brown).”
Silverware might appear even less amenable than cameras to the new strategy of merchandising on the basis of color harmonies, but Oneida Ltd. remained undaunted. They introduced a line with colored handles to form a tasteful ensemble with other table accessories. The handles had the “translucent rose-red of rubies, the clear blue of sapphires, or the scintillant green of emeralds” and would blend with the silverware “in chords of color.”
Reason might suggest that the rage for color ensembles could go no further. The B.V.D. Company perhaps reached the limit in urging a wife to “keep [her husband] decorative even in his underwear”: “Make him a better boudoir decoration.”
While the idea of the ensemble unquestionably appealed to advertising leaders on aesthetic grounds, its virtues as a merchandising strategy were at least equally attractive. In some industries the ensemble provided a welcome solution to the “bugaboo of market saturation,” as Printer’s Ink expressed it. For the woman who aspired to a stylish image, the purchase of a new dress now involved the additional purchase of matching shoes, hat, handbag, and color-coordinated hosiery and jewelry. She might even realize a need for new shades of underwear, makeup, lipstick, and fingernail polish as well. Once accepted, noted a writer in Printers’Ink , the prepackaged ensemble idea was a perfect tool for the smart retailer who “wants to sell a customer as much as he can in the shortest time with a minimum of floor and counter space.”
A flush of anticipation colored the cheeks of the beautiful young lady as her escort seated her at the elegant table. It was her first important dinner among the city’s smart set. But as the butler served the first course, her excitement turned to terror. “From that row of gleaming silver on either side of her plate, which piece shall she pick up?” Suddenly she sensed that her chance of being invited to such an affair again—in fact, her whole future popularity—would be determined by this first impression of her “presence.” As her social destiny hung in the balance, “she could feel every eye on her hesitatins hand .”
Even if she passed the test of the “Hesitating Hand,” a young lady was certain to encounter many other fateful firstimpression judgments. In the episode of the “Open Door,” she and her husband faced the greatest social crisis of their five-year marriage: they had taken the bold step of inviting the vice-presidentin-charge-of-sales and his wife to dinner. For days the eager young wife planned the dinner menu. Her husband researched and rehearsed several topics for appropriate conversation. But both completely forgot about their tasteless front doorway, with its lack of beautifully designed woodwork. And neither realized how dreary and out-of-date the furniture they had purchased soon after their marriage had become. Thus, all their efforts at preparation came to naught, for their guests formed an indelible impression during “those few seconds” from the “touch of the bell” to their entrance into the living room.
Twenty years later, with the husband still third assistant for sales at the small branch office, they anxiously passed on to their children a hard-won bit of wisdom: “Your future may rest on what the Open Door reveals.”
These dramas from advertisements of the late 1920s suggest the pathos with which copywriters could recount the popular parable of the First Impression. According to such tableaux, first impressions brought instantaneous success or failure. In a relatively mobile society, where business organizations loomed ever larger and people dealt far more often with strangers, the reasons one man gained a promotion or one woman suffered a social snub had become less explicable on grounds of long-standing favoritism or old family feuds. One might suspect that almost anything—especially a first impression—had made the crucial difference.
Sensing their power in these circumstances, advertisers made use of the parable of the First Impression. Often they modified the basic formula of the tableau slightly to fit their particular product. Clothing manufacturers stressed overall appearance; makers of gum, toothpaste, and toothbrushes promised a “magic road to popularity in that first winning smile.” Williams Shaving Cream stressed that powerful initial impact of the “face that’s fit” for the “double-quick march of business.” All agreed that “it’s the ‘look’ of you by which you are judged most often.” One of the most important effects of preparing carefully for that crucial first impression, many ads suggested, was the sense of self-confidence it created. A lovely frock, washed in Lux, would enable any woman to overcome an inferiority complex and feel a “deep, sure, inner conviction of being charming,” Dorothy Dix counseled readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal . The House of Kuppenheimer confided to the up-andcoming young man that “someday your father may tell you how a certain famous letter k in his inner coat pocket … put confidence in his heart … the confidence born of good appearance. And so helped him land his first job.”
The parable of the First Impression taught that these impressions were being formed constantly and almost instantaneously. Only because she was constantly prepared could the heroine of a Dr. West’s toothbrush tableau pass the “Smile Test” during that moment when a handsome man picked her up from a fall off a speeding toboggan. A charming hostess who failed to obtain stylish new furnishings would henceforth be condemned to “lonely afternoons, dreary evenings” for being unprepared for acquaintances who called once out of courtesy but never came again. One ardent suitor completely destroyed the good impression he had built up over months “when she noticed a hint of B.O.” as he knelt to pop the question. There was no appeal from such judgments; no way to escape the constant surveillance. The Cleanliness Institute of the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers counseled: “Everywhere we go the people we meet are sizing us up. Very quickly they decide whether we are, or are not, from nice homes.”
Advertisers of home furnishings applied the “nice home” idea broadly. Johns Manville, for instance, argued that roofing shingles bespoke the “taste and standing of the family” and SherwinWilliams cautioned that “many a man has been rated as lacking in community spirit … even as a business failure —merely because of a paint-starved house.”
Advertisers of bathroom furnishings and fixtures boldly applied the parable of the First Impression to the innermost recesses of the home. If every room told a story, then this most hidden and intimate of rooms would clearly reveal family character. In “The Room You Do Not Show,” discerning visitors would find a quick index to your standards and “beliefs on how a civilized person should live,” a Kohler Company ad proclaimed.
The C. F. Church Manufacturing Company narrowed the focus ever further: “The bathroom, most of all, is a clue to the standards of the household and the most conspicuous thing in the bathroom is the toilet seat.” Little wonder that the man in the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company tableau, who had just learned of the impending visit of an influential business associate, thought first of the “old-fashioned wood toilet seat” as his mind’s eye quickly scanned his house for social flaws.
No other medium of popular culture preached the parable of the First Impression with the insistence of advertising or accepted its validity so unquestioningly. Whereas movies and soap operas often provided vicarious experiences of triumphs over society’s false accusations, advertisements emphasized the power, validity, and pervasiveness ofthe world’s judgmental scrutiny. With headlines such as “When they look at YOUR FEET ON THE BEACH ,”“Suppose you could follow yourself up the street. … What would you see?” and “more searching than your mirror … your husband’s eyes,” they encouraged the transformation of this scrutiny into self-accusation. Their cumulative effect was more likely to reinforce the readers’ impression of being surrounded by a host of accusing eyes than to reassure them that new furniture, familiarity with good silverware, or a “face that’s fit” would testify to their “innocence” and spare them social shame.
The Depression brought several new or little-used advertising parables into prominence. One of these was the parable of the Unraised Hand. The school classroom, which rarely had served as a setting for advertising tableaux in the 1920s, now came into wider use. Poignant scenes of the student’s arrival home with a report card, or humiliating comparisons of report cards, also became more common. The most striking of these tableaux began to appear in 1933, when Post Bran Flakes presented a “Real Life Movie” of “The Strange Case of Mary Dodd.” In the most heartrending scene of the “movie,” little Mary sat listless with constipation while the other beaming children in the classroom eagerly raised their hands to answer the teacher’s question. Later that year, General Foods (Postum) confided sadly to the reader, “A Dunce they called him … a sluggard,” while depicting the scene in which a teacher gazed judgmentally down at a discouraged boy kept after school to work alone at his desk amid the deepening shadows of a deserted classroom.
Each parable of the Unraised Hand delivered a message that parents were guilty of neglect. The child was failing through no fault of his own; but his disadvantages could be easily removed by the proper parental purchases. In this respect, Depression versions of the parable of the Unraised Hand departed not a whit from precursors of the 1920s. What did change was the new emphasis on academic failure. In 1929 only one advertiser, Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, had centered a general magazine campaign on possible failures in school examinations. Two other advertisers, Corona Typewriters and Quaker Oats, had given momentary attention to “slow” children and “distressing” report cards. But by 1933 a wide range of advertisers, from producers of breakfast cereals and vitamin supplements to pharmaceutical firms and toilet-paper manufacturers, were preaching the parable of the Unraised Hand.
Why this sudden emphasis on children’s classroom performance? Advertising men during the Depression were fascinated with the topic of competitive struggle. Moreover, they may have perceived that many parents, frustrated in their own ambitions, had now fixed their aspirations and competitive anxieties on their children. And that poor boy, struggling in the ignominy of after-school detention, was not a natural “dunce”; only his parents’ failure to substitute Postum for coffee had made him so.
Advertiser after advertiser found a sales argument in the parable of the Unraised Hand. A young student’s mother in a Scott Paper Company ad confessed: “Mary was so fidgety she couldn’t con—centrate. … I was shocked to find that harsh toilet tissue was the cause.” The Eagle Pencil Company introduced parents vicariously to the terrible tensions of classroom competition: “Jim’s in the 4th grade. … How he does bear down on that pencil! He must hang on hard, for pencils will slip through chubby, damp fingers! 15 examples in 15 minutes … will he make it? You can help him pass his test … make sure he has a smooth pencil, with a strong lead that won’t snap in the middle of 4 x 4 and upset him.”
In the Post Bran Flakes version of the parable, the guilty mother played a particularly villainous role. While several of little Sally’s schoolmates laughed mockingly at her report card, Sally’s mother shrieked: “Sally Lennox! I’m ashamed of this report card. What will your father say?” Sally’s mother should feel ashamed, the parable revealed, but for her own inattention in failing to recognize that Sally’s real trouble was constipation. “Maybe you have a little girl like Sally,” the company suggested, spreading the suspicion of guilt; “and, perhaps, like Sally’s mother, you have been unjust to her.”
And so the message of the parable of the Unraised Hand continued to echo through the magazine pages with minor variations. In a tableau bluntly captioned “Here are the report cards of Two Boys,” General Electric contrasted the A’s of the son of “thoughtful parents” with the C’s and D’s of the boy who studied in poor light. Remington Rand, the typewriter maker, probed the pained conversation of two parents in “We tried to joke about it. … But was Joe really dumb?”
Another closely related tableau gained remarkable momentum with the deep-ening of the Depression. Advertisements had previously touted various food and vitamin products as correctives for the underweight, but never had copywriters tortured mothers so frequently and unforgivingly for the sin of allowing their children to remain skinny as they did in the 1930s. Now a host of scrawny youngsters paraded before the consumer audience, each spindly leg and gaunt chest testifying to a mother’s guilt.
No copywriters imbued the parable of the Skinny Kid with more power as a weapon of reproach and persuasion than those of the Ruthrauff and Ryan agency in ads for the milk supplement Cocomalt. Rejecting the warm, genteel tone of Cocomalt’s previous sunlight-and-happyhealthy-children campaign, Ruthrauff and Ryan launched in the spring of 1931 an exposé of guilty mothers with such headlines as “Whose fault when children are frail?” and “People pitied my boy, he was so thin.” Stark “slice-of-life” photographs and vivid conversational frankness marked the new Cocomalt style. One mother, stooping to pull up her boy’s drooping sock, was “mortified” to hear one well-dressed woman on a nearby park bench comment to another, “That child looks half-starved.”
The parable of the Skinny Kid explored new dimensions of social shame. Middleclass women have worried about their children’s lack of weight at many other times, but in the view of advertisers their children’s thinness made them most susceptible to persuasion through fears of social mortification during the Depression.
In the January 1930 issue of Better Homes and Gardens the buoyant, chatty narrator of a Procter and Gamble advertisement related a heartwarming story. As a result of ads that had publicized her previous nineteen “actual visits to P and G homes,” she was no longer a stranger to the average housewife. On her most recent visit to a randomly selected consumer, she had no sooner introduced herself than “Bobby’s Mother” had “opened the door wide.”” ‘Come in,’ she invited smilingly, ’I’ve read every single P and G Naphtha story. And I’ve often wished on your trips that you could find me.’”
We may be tempted to dismiss this delightful modern fairy tale—in which the consumer longs to get to know better the advertiser of a cleaning product—as an archetypal copywriter’s fantasy. But if we look at the record, we recognize this tableau as one of many signs that the new advertising had recognized another vacuum it might fill. From a variety of sources, advertising leaders perceived that people in the 1930s seemed to suffer from an insufficient sense of “the personal” in modern life. They hungered to be addressed as individuals. They even liked to “personalize” the products they used and to get advice about those products from people they felt they “knew.” From Beatrice Fairfax to Dorothy Dix, newspaper advice-to-the-lovelorn columnists had attracted literally tons of mail from eager correspondents. And True Story and the tabloids were now demonstrating the popularity of “first-person” stories with which people could identify even more directly.
Of all the advertising outlets, however, it was radio that impressed advertising men most forcefully about the public craving for personal relationships through the mass media. Advertisers learned early that listeners formed attachments to radio personalities who were “guests” in their homes. Those who offered information and personal advice were bombarded with intimate letters. “Betty Crocker” had been invented in 1921 to sign company letters to housewives who responded to a contest with “questions that in more neighborly communities had been asked over the back fence.” But it was radio that made Betty Crocker come alive. A 1925 experiment with the “chatty” style on the “Betty Crocker School of the Air” in Buffalo, according to the General Mills historian James Gray, attracted letters by the tens of thousands. Within a year, thirteen Betty Crackers were speaking over regional radio networks, offering friendly advice and reassurance. Eventually, Betty was signing replies to over four thousand letters a day.
Advertising leaders were impressed and astonished by both the number and the intimacy of the letters that poured in whenever a media personality like Betty Crocker, real or invented, invited personal communications. When Postum introduced the friendly adviser “Carrie Blanchard,” this fictitious public confidante was soon receiving “more letters than a movie star.”
By the end of the 1920s, advertising agencies were routinely creating fictitious confidantes and sponsoring helpful, personalized experts for their clients. There was “Ruth Miller” for Odo-ro-no, “Nurse Ellen J. Buckland” and “Mary Pauline Callender” for Kotex, “Marjorie Mills” for Lux, “Mary Dale Anthony” for S.O.S. scouring pads, “Aunt Ellen” for Griswold Cast Iron Cooking Utensils, “Helen Chase” for Camay, and more than a dozen others. Even the U.S. Bureau of Home Economics had its “Aunt Sammy” on radio. The J. Walter Thompson agency described the chatty column in the Libby ads by their Mary Hale Martin as “brimful of real ‘heart interest.’” And advertisers made sure that those who wrote letters received “personally signed” replies from Mary Hale Martin, Aunt Ellen, or Helen Chase.
Advertising men often spoke of the outpouring of confidential correspondence with bemused contempt. They were amazed at the credulity of people and their eagerness to discuss their personal problems with invented commercial characters. But the confidantes sold goods, and young copywriters were urged to visualize the audience as “ one person at a time” and to talk to each reader “just as you would if you were seated before a cheery log fire or chatting over tea cups.” Scarcely anyone, either in the advertising trade or outside, objected to the illusion of human intimacy that such ads sought to create. Edward Bok, the crusading editor of the early-twentieth-century Ladies’ Home Journal , had once campaigned zealously against the Lydia Pinkham ads for the fraud of soliciting personal letters to Mrs. Pinkham long after the company’s founder had died. But no muckraker of the 1920s came forth to expose the “bored young men struggling for the feminine touch” who often wrote the copy for the fictitious public confidantes of the new advertising.
By the early 1930s the dulcet, friendly voices of commercial personalities were saturating the airwaves. Among the first celebrated radio confidantes were Don McNeill (of “The Breakfast Club”) and the radio-show hostess Mary Margaret McBride. Advertisers noting the tons of mail that poured in to characters on the new radio soap operas eagerly recruited such personalities. In 1933 the Voice of Experience, a radio adviser on intimate problems, broke a record by eliciting more than sixty-five hundred letters on a single day. Another program, entitled “Your Lover,” featured a male voice against the background of muted organ music in a virtual parody of the “one person at a time” approach: “Hello, young lady. Yes, I mean you. … It’s grand to be with you. And it’s sweet of you to let me have the thrill of talking to you. … Come over here near me— won’t you. … Just for a minute let’s forget everyone else in the world.”
“Your Lover” also delivered the commercial message in the same intimate style. Trade journals like Tide might deplore the mawkish excesses of “Your Lover” and its willingness to play on the “sick day-dreams of … maladjusted women,” but they also reported the heavy mail this program had inspired.
By the early 1930s advertisers had thoroughly accepted the public hunger for personalized communications, and advertising men were looking for new ways to apply the “personal touch.” Advertising agencies convinced several company presidents to shed their dignity and become familiar friends to the public through “personalized … racy, man-to-man talks.”
Given the rage for the personal touch, it was perhaps inevitable that advertising writers would eventually seek to “personalize” the product itself. “When all else fails I’m your best Friend,” promised the protagonist of a Lucky Strike ad—the product itself. A Lucky was a “better friend than others,” it promised the reader, because “in personal tragedies, minor or major, a Lucky stands you in good stead.” Printers’Ink praised new techniques of bringing the ingredients of products to life by depicting them as “little characters with names,” and tradejournal writers called on the advertising copywriters to find the “face” that lay embedded in every product.
Perhaps more than any other institution, American advertising, although preeminently the spokesman for modernism and technological progress, tried to reassure an anxious public that society still operated on a comprehensible human scale in which people could expect their individual needs to be recognized and catered to.
During the summer of 1931, an irreverent new magazine entitled Ballyhoo exploded like a bombshell on the advertising scene. An overnight financial success, this unlikely Depression phenomenon offered vivid evidence of a latent public skepticism of all advertising. Launched as a humor magazine, Ballyhoo relied for laughs entirely on lampoons of notorious advertisements. Its parody of Listerine toothpaste’s whatyou-can-buy-with-the-money-you-save campaign proclaimed the wonders of “Blisterine”: “Buy yourself some false teeth with the money you save on toothpaste.” In “How Georgie Cursed when Milktime Came,” Ballyhoo lampooned the new Cocomalt style with a worriedmother ad for Creme de Cocoa: “Georgie’s weight has gone up a pound a week … since I began giving him milk this easy way. … You’ll be surprised what Creme de Cocoa will do for your baby. It will darn near knock him outen his little bassinet!” Movie star “La Belle Zilch” kept her girlish figure by bathing “every fortnight” with “Lox Toilet Soap.”
With ad copy of this character, the initial edition of Ballyhoo (August 1931) sold out the entire run of 150,000 copies in a few days. It simply burst into existence, an agency executive complained, “like some rank tropical flower.” The September issue sold almost double that number—275,000 copies. October brought another sellout, this time of all 650,000 copies. Within five months Ballyhoo magazine, with a circulation of a million and a half, had become one of the most sensational new business enterprises to defy the Depression. The publisher began accepting paid ads at $3,750 a page but insisted that all adopt an appropriate satirical approach.
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?