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A Word from Our SponsorAdmen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio$

Cynthia B. Meyers

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780823253708

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823253708.001.0001

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Dramatizing a Bar of Soap

Dramatizing a Bar of Soap

The Advertising Industry before Broadcasting

(p.13) 1 Dramatizing a Bar of Soap
A Word from Our Sponsor

Cynthia B. Meyers

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter traces the development of the modern advertising industry. The advertising industry structured itself—forming agencies and a system of compensation by commission—to mediate among print media publishers and advertisers. By establishing itself as a key mediator, the advertising industry would, in time, shape the development of emerging media, and affect the fortunes of its clients—the advertisers. Two schools of thought influenced advertising strategies during the first half of the twentieth century: the hard sell and the soft sell. The hard sell emphasizes on rational appeals, using reason and facts to persuade. Soft sell strategies focused on users, specifically on how they thought of themselves, and how they felt or might want to feel.

Keywords:   advertising industry, commission system, media, advertisers, hard sell advertising, soft sell advertising, advertising strategy

What is the significance of advertising, and why did it develop the way it did? Advertising industry critics often assume its role is to produce myths that might perpetuate power structures or to brainwash consumers into pursuing false desires.1 When the advertising industry aims to align cultural artifacts with commercial goals, when it seeks congruence between cultural salience and profit making, it most definitely does express the economic power of its clients, the advertisers.2 However, the impact of advertising messages, usually the focus of academic “effects” research, cannot be substantiated any more than the impact of other cultural discourses.3 Advertising boosters and critics, ironically, share the same unproven assumption: The former may claim that it produces higher sales, the latter that it produces false desires, but both impute to it enormous power, the latter generally trusting the self-promoting claims of the former on this point. In fact, both the worst fears of the critics (that advertising corrupts and undermines authenticity and truth) and the fondest hopes of its practitioners (that advertising actually influences and shapes behavior) seem equally dubious if we examine them amid the conflicts and contingencies of actual practices and effects.4

Instead of attributing magical powers to advertising, I propose we consider it as it is: not a single, unitary force, but a diverse set of institutions and practices, complex and contradictory, pulled this way and that by tensions, competing world views, and internal doubts about its use and effectiveness. We can learn much more about advertising as a social, cultural, and economic force if we study not its unknowable effects but its specific causes in the industry that produces (p.14) it, an industry torn by internal debates and buffeted by changing practices, purposes, and goals. Through such study we may not only historicize advertising but also humanize it.

In order to better understand the role of the advertising industry in the development of broadcasting, we first need to know something about the advertising industry before radio arrived, about the formation of agencies and professional standards, the debates over selling strategies, and the underlying concerns of its practitioners. These inform many of the debates and concerns of admen in radio.

The Advertising Industry before Broadcasting

When did advertising begin? In his 1929 history of advertising, adman Frank Presbrey makes a claim for cave painting as its first recorded appearance, thereby expressing a faith, typical among his class, in its timeless presence and universal human relevance.5 National advertising, however, did not arise until the nineteenth century, when mass production and consumption were made possible by the increased use of flow production (assembly lines), the improvement of transportation technologies (railroads), the branding of standardized goods to facilitate national distribution, and the development of new retail outlets, including department stores.6 All this required increasingly specialized labor, including that of the new advertising agencies, which brokered newspaper space to advertisers beginning in the 1850s and 1860s. Agents bought advertising space from newspaper publishers at the lowest possible price and sold it to advertisers at the highest, making their profit in the resulting spread. The increase of nationally distributed branded goods and the rise of mass market magazines soon led to changes in the space-brokering business.7 Agents such as George Rowell, J. Walter Thompson, and Francis W. Ayer introduced innovations such as compiling circulation figures in order to compare space rates, designing “open contracts” to ensure the agent represented the advertiser instead of the publisher, writing copy for advertisements, and researching a market.

(p.15) By the 1870s, the space-brokering system was superseded by a commission system of compensation, in which newspaper and magazine publishers paid agents 15 percent of the value of the space sold. The commission system is at the root of two major characteristics of the advertising industry. The first is its organization into agencies operating as entities independent of both publishers and advertisers. The businesses buying the advertising space might have sought to analyze and purchase advertising space in-house—and in fact many companies developed internal marketing departments. However, the majority of such businesses found that independent advertising agents provided more flexibility and expertise in media pricing and placement than they could develop in an internal department.8 In other words, advertising agencies evolved in part to mediate between the sellers of advertising space—that is, the publishers of newspapers and magazines —and the businesses that bought it.9 Each benefited from the independence of the agencies: the sellers from the agencies’ shared desire to sell space for the highest price possible and their contacts with buyers, the buyers from the preferential pricing offered by the agents with the most media access.

This led to the second important characteristic of the industry, its dependence on a commission system. Consider a typical transaction. The agency would contract for advertising space in a publication at a negotiated price reflecting “circulation” (or number of readers), and perhaps a discount for bulk space buying. The agency would bill its “client,” the company seeking to advertise, for the cost of the space. When the client reimbursed the agency for the space, the agency would forward all but 15 percent of these “billings” to the publication; the agency would deduct 15 percent as the commission it earned from the publication for selling the space. Officially, then, publishers paid the agencies, not advertisers; but in actuality the agencies paid themselves by deducting their commissions from the advertisers’ payments, most of which went to the publishers. To attract clients, agencies developed various services, such as market research, copywriting, layout, and art direction, but “billed” advertisers only for the media placement, thus avoiding the problems of setting fees for smaller services. Some advertisers suspected that the commission system provided too (p.16) much incentive for agencies to buy unnecessary space, but clients also liked having the extra services agencies provided.10 Agencies pointed out that the commission system benefited all parties—buyer, seller, and agent; by 1917, the agencies and the commission system dominated media buying.11

Despite the steady growth and increasing professionalism of the advertising business, admen were shadowed by images of earlier salesmen: the itinerant peddler, the drummer, the traveling salesman, the circus man, and the medicine tent show promoter—shady characters whose manipulative strategies succeeded in part because they were strangers passing through town.12 The “medicine shows” were the common marketing device for nostrums, such as Lydia Pinkham’s Herb Medicine, that promised cures for all manner of ailments. Traveling from town to town, they would attract audiences with dancers, musicians, and stunts, then deliver a sales pitch. Known as “patent medicines” because makers kept the ingredients secret, they were in fact not patented, nor always safe. Patent medicine makers were early and enthusiastic advertisers in print media; many early advertising agencies owed their success to patent medicine clients. However, they were thus entangled in their clients’ disreputable practices—overcharging for cheap ingredients, promising unattainable cures, and including dangerous or addictive substances, such as radium, laudanum, alcohol, or cocaine. By the turn of the twentieth century, muckraking reports on patent medicine practices created political pressure for food and drug regulation, such as the federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required product labeling. Although patent medicines declined over the next several decades, the advertising industry remained strongly associated with fraudulent tactics.13

To raise professional standards, as well as to deflect increased government regulation, members of the advertising industry founded trade organizations, promulgated industry standards, established clearinghouses of information, and supported the war effort.14 The Associated Advertising Clubs of America (formed in 1905) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (formed in 1917) sought to improve the public image of advertising and standardize practices by (p.17) establishing codes of conduct. The Truth-in-Advertising movement emphasized the importance of credibility to the continued viability of advertising.15 Hoping to eliminate distrust and fraud, publishers, advertisers, and their agents collaborated in the creation in 1914 of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), an organization that collected circulation data on publications. Because advertising space rates were set in part by circulation, or number of readers, ABC built reliability into the market by pooling this information in an organization overseen by buyers, sellers, and agents. Before the ABC, agencies held a virtual monopoly on circulation information; giving up that monopoly was a small price to pay for becoming more credible marketing advisors for advertisers. The advertising industry also improved its status during World War I by contributing bond drive slogans (such as Frank Hummert’s famous slogan “Bonds Not Bondage”) and participating in propaganda efforts under the aegis of the federal information agency known as the Creel Committee.16

As the advertising industry expanded and professionalized in the 1920s, its boosters sought to align it with educational and even religious ideals, and many admen began to adopt the language, goals, ethics, and professionalism of the progressive businessmen of the era.17 “Business must aim to serve, instead of to sell,” wrote Kenneth Goode in his 1929 how-to advertising book.18 Alluding to progressive ideals of business practice, in 1926 President Calvin Coolidge claimed that advertising was “inspiring and ennobling the commercial world” and was part of the “greater work of the regeneration and redemption of mankind.”19 Coolidge suggested that advertising could help civilize capitalism because it “ministers to the spiritual side of trade.”20 One of the best-known proponents of progressivism in advertising was Bruce Barton, of the advertising agency Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn. Barton, a minister’s son, published in 1924 the best-selling book The Man Nobody Knows, which presented the teachings of Jesus Christ as lessons for modern progressive businessmen. Barton claimed that business, and by extension advertising, should emphasize the ideals of service and sincerity, ideals that Barton believed Jesus Christ exemplified. Barton urged businessmen to apply biblical aphorisms to the practices (p.18) of modern business. Although some accused Barton of reducing religion to sales slogans, his intention was to elevate and sanctify contemporary business methods, including advertising.21

Despite the efforts of boosters such as Barton, advertising in the 1920s still suffered a poor reputation. William Benton, a founder of Benton & Bowles, described it thus at the moment of his entry into the field: “At this time advertising was not looked upon as a good, sound, solid business by the business community of America. On the contrary, it looked a bit like a back alley business, a sort of shady business.”22 Consequently, in the spirit of professionalism that had transformed “real estate men” into “Realtors” and “undertakers” into “morticians,” some advertising men sought to be called “attorneys” and the like.23 Terms such as “consumption engineers” and “psychological engineers” echoed the scientism then fashionable in the business world, but they also implied suspiciously manipulative powers. Other suggested terms, such as “ambassadors of the consumer” and “liaison officers,” also failed, perhaps because they sounded too high-minded.24

Members of the advertising industry, unable to elevate their professional status to that of engineer or attorney, more often went by the term “advertising man” or, in a breezily modern contraction, “adman.” Although some viewed it as a vulgar term, many embraced it, undermining its pejorative power. The term “adman” reflected the demographic actualities of the industry and connoted the sense of fraternity within it. Most advertising agents of the 1920s and 1930s were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant urban males from upper-middle-class families. The hiring practices of many firms were discriminatory, reflecting the belief that only such men could have successful and personable relations with their clients, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant urban males from upper-middle-class families who ran American businesses.25 However, as the targets of most advertising were women, women were often welcomed into agencies as copywriters to provide “the women’s point of view.”26 The J.Walter Thompson agency established a separate women’s copywriting department that operated under the aegis of Helen Lansdowne Resor, the copywriter who was married to the agency’s president, Stanley Resor. Helen Resor, while wielding great influence in the agency, never took the title of vice president that (p.19) would have reflected her role.27 Anne Hummert, married to Frank Hummert of Blackett-Sample-Hummert, wielded significant influence, yet she was also an exception in the male-dominated industry. Despite these openings for women copywriters, few women were able to penetrate the managerial ranks of the advertising industry.

Advertising Strategies: The Hard Sell versus the Soft Sell

As personal face-to-face salesmanship was gradually displaced in importance by manufacturers’ reliance on impersonal, mass-mediated advertisement of nationally distributed branded goods, admen sought to extend the personal approach of the salesman into the impersonal medium of print.28 Consequently, the advertising industry developed advertising strategies that emphasized sincerity and credibility. Positioning themselves rhetorically as “side by side” with the consumer, anonymous copywriters confidentially advised their unknown readers how to navigate the treacherous waters of modern living.29 But did consumers believe these claims, in the wake of the fraudulent practices of the patent medicine trade? While tempted to stretch the truth in product claims, some admen believed in avoiding outright falsehoods, not on moral or legal but on practical grounds, because the credibility resulting from honesty would in the long run be a more successful goal.30 Urged one advertising man to his peers, “[I]f we want to be credible, we would better be sincere.”31 The well-known advertising theorist Earnest Elmo Calkins argued that sincerity and honesty “have a definite dollars and cents value in business …. They build up that one commodity on which we all depend: belief and confidence.”32 That admen were debating the role of honesty and sincerity in advertising indicates how little such qualities had been deemed necessary up to this point. However, these proposals to at least appear sincere also reflected a growing unease with the outright deceptions of the patent medicine era. To develop credible and sincere advertising techniques, admen would have to develop theories of appeal.

Two schools of thought influenced advertising strategies during the first half of the twentieth century: the hard sell and the soft sell.33 Each (p.20) was rooted in basic assumptions about consumers—their cognitive abilities, their motivations, their malleability. The hard sell evolved in part because it seemed a means of reaching customers in the manner of face-to-face salesmen. In order to convince businesses that the impersonal medium of print could be just as effective as a live salesman, an adman named John E. Kennedy promulgated the concept that advertising is “salesmanship in print.”34 Kennedy inspired both Albert Lasker, who became the influential head of the Chicago-based Lord & Thomas agency, and Claude Hopkins, whose writings on advertising strategy, Scientific Advertising (1923) and My Life in Advertising (1927), are still widely consulted. Lasker and Hopkins, like other hard sell practitioners, assumed their audiences had limited intelligence and could not grasp complex ideas, an assumption apparently supported by U.S. military testing of inductees’ “intelligence quotient” during World War I.35 Hopkins dismissed new-fangled ideas from growing professions like psychology that could complicate his ideas about his audiences. According to Hopkins, “Human nature is perpetual. In most respects it is the same today as in the time of Caesar. So the principles of psychology are fixed and enduring.”36

Lasker and Hopkins became chief proponents of what they called “reason-why” advertising. An ad should provide various “reasons why” to buy the product; the product, rather than the user of the product, should be the focus of the ad. Like the face-to-face salesman who, when one reason-why fails to clinch the sale, tries another reason, and yet another, reason-why copywriters would structure the advertisement to present a problem, such as dingy laundry, bad breath, or sleeplessness, solved by the product. For example, a 1926 Ruthrauff & Ryan ad for the laundry soap Rinso (see Figure 1-1), headlined “Who else wants a whiter wash—with no hard work?,” lists multiple “reasons why” housewives should choose it to solve their washday problems: “Dirt floats off—stains go”; “No laundry soap is easier on clothes or on hands than Rinso”; “there’s no hard rubbing against a board”; “Recommended by 23 leading washing machine makers for safety, and for a whiter, cleaner wash”; “Safe for clothes, easy on hands”; “Contains no acids, harsh chemicals or bleaches”; “In half the time, without a bit of hard rubbing, the wash is on the line—whiter than ever!37 If one of those (p.21)

Dramatizing a Bar of SoapThe Advertising Industry before Broadcasting

Figure 1-1. Rinso: “Who else wants a whiter wash—with no hard work?”

(Reproduced in Julian Lewis Watkins,The 100 Greatest Advertisements [New York: Dover, 1959], 80.)

reasons was insufficiently convincing, another one might be, or perhaps all together the multiple reasons would overwhelm the consumer’s resistance.

The “reasons why” were to be clearly listed and repeated in case the reader misunderstood the first time. Repetition was important; a copywriter could not risk assuming a reader’s easy comprehension. Repetition might also reassure a client that his adman was making (p.22) every effort to push the product. An advertisement placed by a reason-why proponent in the trade magazine Printers’ Ink explains the strategy thus: “True ‘Reason-Why’ Copy is Logic, plus persuasion, plus conviction, all woven into a certain simplicity of thought—pre-digested for the average mind, so that it is easier to understand than to misunderstand it.”38 The “logic” refers to the rational appeals of the advertisement, which ask the consumer to rationally consider the benefits of a whiter wash, softer hands, and an easier washday. “Persuasion” and “conviction” reflect the sincerity of the copywriter’s effort. “Simplicity of thought” refers to the belief that explicitly challenging readers’ ability to comprehend would risk losing the sale. The best strategy was to use the most direct, obvious, and clear language, “pre-digested for the average mind,” to avoid any misunderstanding by the cognitively challenged consumer.

The hard sell’s emphasis on rational appeals—using reason and facts to persuade—might appeal to the many critics who today decry advertising’s deviousness.39 However, hard sell practitioners like Hopkins were infamous for manipulating “facts.” Hopkins realized that statements which resembled facts, especially if those statements included unverifiable figures and scientific-sounding claims, could persuade without being actual facts. For example, Hopkins’s ad copy describes Puffed Wheat cereal as “scientific foods,” “invented by Prof. A. P. Anderson—a famous dietician,” with “the grains puffed to 8 times normal size.” Moreover, “They are the only grain foods so prepared that every food cell is exploded. Digestion is made easy and complete, so that every atom feeds.” This miracle is effectuated by shooting the wheat from guns: “A hundred million steam explosions occur in every kernel.”40 How could Hopkins know exactly how much larger a puffed wheat kernel was than a normal kernel—did he measure it? How could he or anyone count these “steam explosions” in a kernel of puffed wheat so as to prove or disprove such a claim? How could he know that every “atom feeds”? And on what basis rested his claim that exploded “food cell[s]” provide better nutrition? Hopkins was careful to create “facts” out of the unverifiable. He also employed the incomplete fact. In a campaign for Schlitz beer in which Hopkins trumpets the actual fact that the Schlitz brewery washed its bottles (p.23) with “live steam,” an industry term for pressurized steam, Hopkins implies that Schlitz bottles were more hygienic than other bottles. But he omits the fact that every other brewery also washed its bottles with live steam.41

This reliance on the partially true, the borderline deceptive, and the unverifiable but fact-like, scientific-sounding claim, and the attendant exaggeration and hyperbole reflects the legacy of the patent medicine trade, but it may also reflect a continuing belief that consumers had to be manipulated for their own good. Consumers could not be trusted to understand on their own, hence repetition, exaggeration, and excessive facticity were mainstays of an advertising strategy that was presumably based on rational appeals. Advertising critics called this type of advertising “ballyhoo” and “puffery.” Admen seeking higher professional standards worried that ballyhoo increased the risk of greater government regulation and would undermine the credibility of all advertising. Hard sell proponents dismissed this last point by citing sales results—the only results that mattered to their clients.

While hard sell strategies focused on the product, soft sell strategies focused on the user and the user’s feelings. Copywriter Theodore MacManus was one of the best-known early proponents of the soft sell, relying on the indirect means of suggestion, association, and atmosphere. In his 1915 campaign for General Motors’ Cadillac, MacManus eschews product description or “reasons why.” In a full-page ad in the Saturday Evening Post headlined “The Penalty of Leadership,” MacManus describes how those who produce great art are often criticized or misunderstood before they are accepted and celebrated.

Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious continue to cry out that it cannot be done …. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy—but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he tries to supplant …. That which is great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live, lives.42

Without ever mentioning the automobile or its features, MacManus implies that Cadillac belongs to an august group of misunderstood (p.24) geniuses, including the painter Whistler, the steamboat inventor Fulton, and the composer Wagner, all subjected to ridicule before being acknowledged as masters. The “penalty of leadership” is to suffer attacks before being recognized for achievements. MacManus thus disposes of any Cadillac critics as the “envious few” who deprecate its superior quality. Those who understand the Cadillac’s quality, by contrast, take on almost heroic qualities because they are just and brave enough to acknowledge the “great” who live on “no matter how loud the clamor of denial.” MacManus cleverly avoids specific product claims, allowing the reader to anthropomorphize the product with admirable traits such as bravery and strength. This strategy of association would become an important technique in soft sell advertising.

MacManus criticized reason-why theorists such as Hopkins for “a clever and semi-scientific application of the thesis that all men are fools.” MacManus claimed to hold “the mass-mind in somewhat higher esteem” and to make “appeals of a substantial and more or less virtuous character.”43 Soft sell proponents like MacManus believed that consumers are rarely influenced by direct admonition. Hard-hitting direct advertising threatened to alienate them, while the indirect approach, using association and user-centered appeals, might lower their resistance. Appealing to consumers by associating a product with feelings or ideas rather than with “reasons why” may have seemed vague to the hard sell proponents, but MacManus designed his advertising not so much to produce immediate sales as to develop a good image for an advertiser’s company, which might then build a relationship with consumers over time. MacManus sought to make a reader have positive feelings about an advertised product. As the magazine publisher Cyrus Curtis describes the effect, “It’s the atmosphere in these [advertisements] that sells … the quality that gives prestige, the little imaginative sure touches that bring the thing before you.”44 By focusing on “atmosphere” and building a sense of “prestige,” MacManus trusted readers to understand the implications and draw their own conclusions.

While reason-why theorists made scientistic claims about the efficacy of their advertising, MacManus believed consumers’ responses were too variable to be reliably predicted by some objective scientific (p.25) method. His followers disdained the copy testing and research many hard sell proponents engaged in to “prove” their advertising’s effectiveness and develop new campaigns. Soft sell proponents, avoiding behaviorist theories of consumer response, instead relied on their own imagination and intuition for generating advertising ideas. For MacManus and his followers, such as Raymond Rubicam, founder of Young & Rubicam, advertising was an art, not a science. Consequently, soft sell print advertising evolved to emphasize the images over the words. Rather than craft a dozen “reasons why” to fill multiple paragraphs of text, soft sell proponents preferred the eye-catching visual. While text-based advertising relied on rational appeals that the product would solve a putative problem, soft sell advertising’s emphasis on the visual association opened the door to a wider variety of appeals: appeals that depended on feelings, such as a sense of belonging or desire for a mate, or associations, such as with tradition or wealth, none of which are inherent in the product or the result of product use. The soft sell focused on the user, on how the user thought of herself, how the user felt or might want to feel, rather than on the product and its attributes.

Emotional appeals often centered on the need for love. A 1928 Woodbury Facial Soap ad, headlined “A Skin you love to touch,” shows an illustration of a handsome, wealthy couple in an embrace (see Figure 1-2).45 The woman, dressed in a frock cut low enough to expose her shoulders, gazes directly at the reader, her lowered eyelids indicating pleasure and satisfaction. The man, presumably her husband, dressed in white tie, has wrapped his right arm possessively around her shoulders and is holding her right hand with his left. His face, in profile, nuzzles hers; the intimacy of the gesture delicately implies the pleasure of further skin-on-skin contact. Associating soap with wealth and beauty, the ad also implies that the true desire of soap buyers is emotional intimacy and love, not just clean skin. All soaps clean skin, with more or less the same effectiveness, so why choose one over the other? By shifting the consumer’s attention away from product attributes, so relentlessly enumerated in the reason-why hard sell strategy, and refocusing attention on the consumer’s deepest desires, emotional appeals (p.26)

Dramatizing a Bar of SoapThe Advertising Industry before Broadcasting

Figure 1-2. Woodbury’s Facial Soap: “A Skin you love to touch.”

(Reproduced in Robert Atwan, Donald McQuade, and John W. Wright, Edsels, Luckies, and Frigidaires: Advertising the American Way [New York: Dell, 1979], 337.)

(p.27) could succeed in managing that attention in ways that the hard sell could not.

In their effort to attract attention and disarm consumer resistance, soft sell proponents often depended on humor. A 1920s advertisement for Kelly-Springfield tires is dominated by a large illustration of two men getting into an automobile late at night (see Figure 1-3). We can see the light on their faces, and the view of the rear of the automobile shows clearly the brand of tire mounted as a spare: “Kelly Springfield Balloon.” At the very bottom of the illustration, we read this dialogue:

  • “Well, Bob, it’s five minutes past two. What’s the story going to be?”
  • “Oh, I’ll tell her we had a blowout.”
  • “That would never get past my wife. She knows I use Kelly-Springfield.”46
  • Rather than list product attributes, the ad sets up a visual of a situation, easily understood as two husbands out too late on the town faced with the problem of how to explain themselves to their wives. We learn that one man’s wife “knows” that Kelly-Springfield tires are too reliable for them to claim they had a “blowout.” Thus, unlike the direct address of a hard sell ad, this soft sell ad implies indirectly that everyone “knows” the quality of Kelly-Springfield. A product claim is communicated through the humorous situation rather than through a list of “reasons why.” The humor may amuse the reader, who may recall the positive feeling when shopping for tires.

    Humor could bring pleasure to the reader, creating positive associations with the product; however, humor is difficult to measure and difficult to control: Could it backfire and reflect badly on the product? As Calkins warned in 1915, “Humor is a very good servant but a bad master.”47 Hard sell proponents feared that humor undermined the seriousness of advertising and deflected consumers from the real purpose of the ad: to sell, not to entertain. Soft sell strategies such as humor or elegant visual design might please consumers, but would they buy? Hard sell proponent Lasker dismissed humor as the “Circus ideas” of an “unenlightened age.” He also dismissed the soft sell proponents’ strenuous attention to visual aesthetics: “Vanities and furbelows (p.28)

    Dramatizing a Bar of SoapThe Advertising Industry before Broadcasting

    Figure 1-3. Kelly-Springfield Tires.

    (Reproduced in Watkins, 100 Greatest Advertisements, 24.)

    (p.29) have no place in salesmanship to the millions.”48 For Lasker and other hard sell proponents, the success of an advertisement is measured by increased sales, not by increased readers’ attention, and humor or attractive illustrations risked deflecting attention from the product.

    Eventually, Lasker and his followers would lose these arguments; by the end of the twentieth century, most advertising depended on soft sell strategies emphasizing images, emotional appeals, associations, and humor. But during the radio era, debates over the efficacy of these two competing approaches helped shape radio advertising and programming. Hard sell advertising strongly shaped much radio programming, especially soap operas, as detailed in Chapter 5. Likewise, many of the criticisms leveled against commercial radio in its first decades—repetitiveness, obviousness, lack of subtlety—were precisely the criticisms that soft sell proponents made about hard sell advertising.

    The Culture of the Advertising Industry

    As these debates over the hard sell and soft sell indicate, the advertising industry reflects, incorporates, and comments on the culture of its society and time. Even a cursory analysis of advertising illuminates its deep involvement in multiple ways of talking about the world: medical, scientific, and sociological discourses on the one hand; artistic, literary, and religious ones on the other.49 Advertising practice, then, evolves not in a vacuum but in dialogue with myriad other institutions and practices. And the industry itself is a diverse set of institutions, primarily privately held partnerships and professional organizations, rife with conflicting aims and strategies that reflect internecine power struggles, anxiety over efficacy, and differing views on the relative importance of commercial and cultural goals.50 Members of the advertising industry also debated advertising’s cultural salience, the risks of innovation, the problem of instrumentality, the burdens of anonymity, and the need for “two-faced-ness” in meeting the conflicting needs of clients and audiences. A close analysis of advertising institutions and (p.30) debates explains a large part of why radio and advertising, separate but intertwined media industries, evolved the way they did.

    Admen’s success depends on their work’s perceived salience to existing cultural discourses. They must “be sensitive to the latent correspondences in the cultural order,” the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins writes, “whose conjunction in a product-symbol may spell mercantile success.”51 Admen must aim to innovate, but at a carefully calibrated pace. Advertising relies on existing aesthetic conventions in order to be recognizable and easily understood. But in order to attract favorable attention, it must also display a degree of innovation or originality. If too original or unusual, it may be incomprehensible to its audience; if too conventional, it may fail to attract attention. Advertising photographers have used the term “original standard picture” to describe the ideal goal of their work.52 Such a picture is fully recognizable within operating aesthetic conventions and yet involves enough innovation to elevate it into originality. Thus, as the media historian Eileen Meehan points out, the economic structure of media industries must allow for and encourage “bursts of innovation and creativity just as surely as it mandates duplication and imitation.”53 Culture industries like advertising cannot afford simply to reproduce the past; they must continually innovate, yet the innovation cannot be too radical or it will not find a market.

    Despite the pressure to innovate, advertising workers lack full recognition as authors of their creative work. Many display an acute awareness that their profession’s instrumentalist aims preclude them from engaging in the individualistic form of expression so valued in the bourgeois and romantic ideologies of art.54 Nonetheless, many in the advertising industry subscribe to those ideologies, claiming their work to be as culturally and artistically significant as that of those normally designated “artists.”55 One barrier to fully claiming such authorship is the fact that the advertising creators’ creativity, innovation, and showmanship are not publicly credited. Despite one bold proposal in the 1920s that copywriters sign their copy, print advertisements were not labeled as written by either a copywriter or an agency.56 Advertising industry ethics require that the makers of advertising subordinate their individual creative contributions to the economic (p.31) imperatives of their clients, the advertisers. Claims of authorship by admen might shift attention away from the advertised product and thereby undermine the effect of the advertising message. As the well-known J. Walter Thompson executive James Webb Young reminisces: “As an Advertising Man you may conceivably produce a piece of deathless prose—but your name will never appear on it. You may initiate an advertising campaign that eventually brings about a minor revolution in social habits, but there will be no mention of it in your obituary.”57 During the radio era, when advertising agencies produced many prime time programs, a 1933 NBC policy specifically banned on-air credits of advertising agencies as “contrary to advertising industry ethics” and a potential annoyance to listeners.58 Thus, the J. Walter Thompson agency intentionally presented host Rudy Vallee as the “author” of The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour despite the fact that the agency wrote the program and booked the guests.59 Advertising ethics and network policy intentionally obscured the deeply intertwined relationships between advertising agency producers and performers of radio programs. Thus, unlike the film industry, in which directors were later labeled as authors despite similar industrial production practices, the authors of most radio programs were never publicly acknowledged as such.

    While admen of the radio era were perhaps more resigned to the anonymity of their work than today’s “creatives,” as copywriters and art directors are now called, many of them nonetheless chafed under the yoke of subservience to their clients, the advertisers. Advertising agents, hired for their expertise, sometimes complained of being undermined by the meddling and arbitrary demands of their clients. Given their clients’ power to replace them on any whim, agencies had little incentive to insist in the face of an uncomprehending or dismissive client. This form of impotence deeply disturbed some radio admen. The adman author of the bestselling 1947 novel The Hucksters lays the blame for poor radio programming at the feet of the obnoxious sponsor, modeled on American Tobacco’s chief George Washington Hill, known for humiliating his underlings. Although the author wreaked revenge in the form of a thinly disguised roman a` clef, opportunities to even the playing field with clients were few.

    (p.32) The obsequiousness necessary for maintaining good client relations encouraged the perception that admen lacked honesty. Advertising agents were accused of being “two-faced”: on the one hand, eager to convince the client that their advertising would direct consumers to buy, while on the other hand reassuring consumers that their work merely reflected existing consumer desires and could not, of course, manipulate their minds. While admen bowed and scraped to their clients, only occasionally insisting on their superior expertise, they commonly saw their audiences—the readers, consumers, listeners—as dim-witted and malleable.60 Because the industry accepted the flawed IQ testing of the Army in World War I, which concluded that the intelligence of most Americans was low, many advertising makers offset their discomfort about subservience to clients by feeling intellectually superior to their audiences. However, at least in appearance, admen had to mediate between advertisers and consumers, appealing to both. They assured advertisers they were expert at manipulating the weak public mind, while to audiences they likewise insisted they were only reflecting back the audiences’ truest needs and desires.61 And yet they often resented their clients and despised their audiences. These competing claims undermined their fervent claims of integrity and objectivity.

    The advertising industry structured itself—forming agencies and a system of compensation by commission—to mediate among print media publishers and advertisers. By establishing itself as a key mediator, the advertising industry would, in time, also shape the development of emerging media, such as radio, and affect the fortunes of its clients, the advertisers. Advertising makers in the early decades of the twentieth century struggled with how to establish professional standards, develop effective advertising strategies, claim authorship, and conceptualize their audiences. These concerns would shape their role in the new medium of radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Most important, the debate between hard sell advertising proponents and soft sell practitioners would strongly shape radio advertising and programming. The many contemporary criticisms of radio—that it was strident, loud, repetitive, and dumbed-down—may actually have been a form of resistance to the predominance of hard sell strategies on radio.


    (1.) In the large literature of this area, the best known include Raymond Williams, “Advertising: The Magic System,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: New Left Books, 1962, 1980); Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (London: Marion Boyars, 1978); Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social (p.299) Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976); William Leiss, Stephen Kline, Sut Jhally, and Jackie Botterill, Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace, 3d ed. (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Sut Jhally, The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987).

    (2.) Jackson Lears, “Some Versions of Fantasy: Toward a Cultural History of American Advertising, 1880–1930,” Prospects 9 (1984): 350.

    (3.) The scholarly “effects” literature, using social scientific methodologies, is designed to identify behavioral responses to specific advertising strategies or the potential effects of advertising on vulnerable populations, such as children. Samples of this vast literature can be found in journals such as Journal of Advertising Research, Journal of Advertising, International Journal of Advertising, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, and others.

    (4.) Michael Schudson, Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society (New York: Basic Books, 1984), makes this argument.

    (5.) Frank Presbrey, The History and Development of Advertising (New York: Greenwood Press, 1929, 1968).

    (6.) Susan Strasser, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (New York: Pantheon, 1989); Daniel Pope, The Making of Modern Advertising (New York: Basic Books, 1983); Pamela Walker Laird, Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1993). For a history of salesmanship, see Walter A. Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

    (7.) Richard Ohmann, Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets and Class at the Turn of the Century (London, New York: Verso, 1996); Ellen Gruber Garvey, The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

    (8.) Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 92–93; Ohmann, Selling Culture, ch. 6; Pope, Making of Modern Advertising, ch. 4.

    (9.) Laird points out that early ad agents discouraged clients from using media that did not pay them commissions, such as chromolithographs and posters. Advertising Progress, 158.

    (10.) Ibid., 232–33.

    (11.) Ibid., 246.

    (12.) Timothy B. Spears, 100 Years on the Road: The Traveling Salesman in American Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995).

    (13.) James H. Young, The Toadstool Millionaires (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961).

    (16.) Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators (New York: William Morrow, 1984), 75–76.

    (17.) Otis A. Pease, The Responsibilities of American Advertising: Private Control and Public Influence, 1920–40 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958), 20.

    (18.) Kenneth M. Goode, How to Turn People into Gold (New York: Harper, 1929), 215.

    (21.) Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers, rev. ed. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1965, 1988), 179.

    (22.) William Benton, “The Reminiscences of William Benton,” 73, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, New York.

    (23.) C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 139; Pope, Making of Modern Advertising, 173.

    (24.) Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 29.

    (25.) Ibid., 36–37, 66.

    (26.) Ibid., 33.

    (28.) On the professionalization of salesmanship, see Friedman, Birth of a Salesman.

    (31.) Irwin Rosenfels, Address to Annual Meeting of Association of National Advertisers, “How Much Sincerity Does Advertising Want?” 1 November 1927, New York, Box 1, Bruce Barton Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison.

    (32.) Earnest Elmo Calkins, “The Practical Ethics of Sincere Advertising,” Advertising & Selling, 2 November 1927, 20.

    (33.) Fox, Mirror Makers, charts the swing back and forth between the two tendencies decade by decade.

    (34.) Albert Lasker, The Lasker Story: As He Told It (N.p.: Advertising Publications, 1963), 21. See also Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz, The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Industry (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2010).

    (36.) Claude Hopkins, My Life in Advertising; Scientific Advertising (Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Business Books, reprinted 1966), 22.

    (37.) Reproduced in Julian Lewis Watkins, The 100 Greatest Advertisements (New York: Dover, 1959), 80.

    (38.) Emphasis in original. Printers’ Ink, 6 September 1905, n.p.

    (39.) For example, see Inger Stole’s criticism of admen who defended the use of emotional appeals: Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 31, 61.

    (40.) Reproduced in Frank Rowsome Jr., They Laughed When I Sat Down (New York: Bonanza Books, 1959), 70.

    (42.) Saturday Evening Post, 2 January 1915, n.p. Reproduced in Watkins, 100 Greatest Advertisements, 22.

    (43.) J. George Frederick, ed., Masters of Advertising Copy (New York: Frank-Maurice, Inc., 1925), 119.

    (44.) Printers’ Ink, 22 January 1914, n.p.

    (45.) Reproduced in Robert Atwan, Donald McQuade, and John W. Wright, Edsels, Luckies, and Frigidaires: Advertising the American Way (New York: Dell, 1979), 337.

    (47.) Printers’ Ink, 11 February 1915, n.p.

    (49.) Jennifer Wicke, Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement, and Social Reading (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 16; Lears, Fables of Abundance.

    (50.) John Thornton Caldwell, Production Culture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008); Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” American Historical Review 90 (June 1985): 587.

    (51.) Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 117.

    (52.) Barbara Rosenblum, Photographers at Work (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1978), 81.

    (53.) Eileen Meehan, “Conceptualizing Culture as Commodity: The Problem of Television,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 3 (1986): 450.

    (54.) Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

    (55.) Advertising workers in “creative” departments often analogize themselves with artists like Michelangelo, whose work was supported by a patron/client. Aimee L. Stern, “Selling Yourself on Madison Ave,” New York Times, 1 October 1989, F4.

    (57.) James Webb Young, How to Become an Advertising Man (Chicago: Advertising Publications, Inc., 1963), 93.

    (58.) “Agency Air Credit Gets NBC ‘No’ as CBS Tries It Out,” Variety, 25 July 1933, 37.

    (60.) Charles F. McGovern, Sold American: Consumption and Citizenship, 1890–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 48.