History of Advertising in America After World War I Radio and the 20s

About the history of advertising in America after World War I, mass radio in the 20s, the stock market crash and advertising.


After W. W. I, advertising skyrocketed. In the U.S., the total advertising expenditure in 1918 was almost $1 1/2 billion. By 1919, it was almost $2 1/2 billion. By 1925, advertising expenditure had jumped up over $3 billion. Advertising became almost as important as industrial production itself. Americans felt giddy and strong in the '20s, and advertising sold them images of "the good life." Keeping up with the Joneses, the race for material status, became a major factor in American social relations. People were taught to seek pleasure through the acquisition of nonessential products.

Advertising and politics shook hands in 1918 when Will B. Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee, hired superadman Albert Lasker to promote the Republican party with advertising techniques. Lasker produced propaganda in favor of the party and U.S. isolationism, and against Wilson's internationalism. Lasker himself believed that Europe was "blighted, decayed and evil." The Republicans went on to win in 1920.

Bruce Barton, an agency man, wrote a book claiming that Christ was an advertising man. He described Jesus as a business executive, and told how he had founded modern business practices and the advertising used to establish it. The book, The Man Nobody Knows, became a best seller. "He picked up 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." If Jesus had been alive, he would have been "a national advertiser," according to Barton.

Mass radio happened in the '20s. Advertisers were spending over $4 million for radio time by 1927, and $10 million by 1928. Radio ads were harsh and repetitious. Radio produced a number of changes in the advertising scene: It gave advertising a human voice with consequent emotional and dramatic appeal; it pushed advertising directly into the home; and, perhaps most important, it provided a medium where advertisers and ad agencies actually controlled program content--advertisers chose programs and directed them according to their own tastes. This relationship had not existed in the printed media. Additionally, radio had the effect of blurring the lines between program content and advertising messages. The foreground and the background were purposely mixed and overlapped in such a way that it was hard for the listeners to figure out when they were being solicited.

The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. Advertising plummeted by billions of dollars from a peak of $3 1/2 billion in 1929 to a little over $1 billion in 1933.

Advertising came under heavy attack, as did the entire economic system. Two fronts led the assault: consumer groups and the Government. The National Consumers' League, which had been formed in 1916, started in the 1930s to issue lists of manufacturers whose labor relations were reasonably humane. The publication of Your Money's Worth, a book by Stuart Chase and F. J. Schlink, in 1927, precipitated and exemplified the onslaught against advertising. The authors attacked not only false and misleading advertising, but the entire concept of competitive salesmanship. They formed the Consumer's Club--which became Consumer's Research, Inc., in 1929--with Schlink as president. The organization tested products and gave the results to subscribers. A split developed, and striking employees left to form their own Consumer's Union (1936), which also evaluated national products. Both groups used advertising to advance their cases, and to claim superiority over rival product-testing groups.

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