Modern advertising is a product of the late nineteenth century and reflects the changes that took place in the economy and the revolutionary transformations that occurred in the communications field. In response to the Industrial Revolution, advertising’s early development was linked to that of the mass-circulation newspapers. American and European newspapers prior to the nineteenth century had published short, factual, paid advertisements that occasionally contained a persuasive element. In the main, however, they tended to be what we would now term “classified” advertising intended to inform potential customers of the availability of goods and services.

In the final two decades of the nineteenth century the situation changed as a result of the emergence of mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, both of which depended upon advertising revenue. The small factual notices were replaced by larger advertisements intended to stand out from the printed page. This fundamental change in the physical appearance of advertisements—large print, pictures, and even some color—reflected a substantial shift in intention: the main purpose of advertising was now to persuade the purchaser to buy goods and services rather than simply to provide information.

In the 1880s brand names were first used as a means of distinguishing products that were more or less identical. Brand-name advertising tried to persuade the public to associate a particular brand with quality and other desirable attributes. Slogans and catch-phrases became ubiquitous. Perhaps the most famous early example of an advertising slogan that created a popular awareness of a product was “Good Morning! Have you used Pears’ Soap?” The slogan became part of everyday language in Britain and served to distinguish Pears soap from its competitors.

The period 1890—1914 witnessed the development of fully fledged advertising agencies. Large-scale advertising campaigns were launched that coordinated newspaper and magazine advertisements with outdoor poster advertisements and shopfront displays. With mass production came mass consumption and the need for mass persuasion. For example, the total annual volume of advertising in the United States expanded rapidly from $682 million in 1914 to $1.409 billion in 1919 and $2.987 billion in 1929.

World War I marked another watershed in the development of modern advertising. Following the experiences of wartime propaganda and the imperative need to manipulate public opinion in the first total war, “psychological advertising” was introduced in the in-terwar period, heavily influenced by the new field of behavioral psychology, which claimed that consumers were best reached through emotional appeals rather than reason. It is no coincidence that during the interwar period fascist states also based their propaganda along these lines. Both Hitler and Mussolini saw propaganda as a vehicle of political salesmanship in a mass market. The masses were viewed as malleable and corrupt, swayed not by their brains but by their emotions. Accordingly, propaganda for the masses had to be simple, focusing on as few points as possible, which then had to be repeated many times, concentrating on such emotional elements as love and hatred. One of the ramifications of mass society and psychological advertising— especially in the United States—was that advertisements moved away from the product and increasingly focused more on the consumer in an attempt to convince the masses that conspicuous consumption was essential for their well-being.

Although American advertisers continued to exploit the printed word, beginning in the late 1920s they were able to exploit the new medium of radio, which had gained nationwide coverage with the creation of broadcasting networks. In 1928 the American Tobacco Company illustrated the power of this new medium when it increased sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes by 47 percent in two months after embarking on a concerted radio advertising campaign. By the 1930s, as its audience expanded, radio advertising became more sophisticated, with radio “personalities” emerging as both entertainers and salespeople. Women in particular were targeted since they tended to be at home most of the day; radio advertisements combined an emphasis on progress with appeals to traditional values of domesticity. As advertising revenue increased, radio networks now interwove advertisements into the entertainment schedules. By 1930 advertising provided almost 100 percent of the revenue for radio programs in the United States. (This would later be the case for television.) Whereas American advertising in the 1920s and 1930s (in contrast to European advertising) appealed to middle-class values, even outside the United States advertisers gradually began to identify the masses as “consumers” rather than “citizens.”

American advertisers lent their talents to national propaganda by cooperating with the Office of War Information during World War II. After the war, advertisers formed the Advertising Council, which sponsored a number of patriotic propaganda campaigns, the most famous being the “Freedom Train” exhibition, which traveled throughout the United States between 1947 and 1950, and the “People’s Capitalism” exhibition, which toured the world under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (USIA) during the mid-1950s. Senior advertising executives who subsequently moved into state propaganda included William Benton (1900—1973), founder of Benton and Bowles, who pioneered U.S. postwar propaganda overseas in his capacity as assistant secretary of state for public affairs from 1945 to 1947.

After World War II assumptions about the power of advertising were informed by a new liberal critique of society. Particularly influential in the 1950s and 1960s were the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908— ) and the historian David M. Potter (1910— 1971), both of whom questioned the immense influence that advertising wielded in American society. Liberal critics argued that not only did advertising raise the price of products (since manufacturers passed on the cost of advertising to the consumer) but it also operated against rational consumer choice and the efficient use of resources. The manipulative influence of advertisements created false needs by persuading consumers to buy products that they did not need. In the 1960s Marxist writers like Herbert Mar-cuse (1898—1979) also made a distinction between real and false needs and condemned the burgeoning advertising industry for instilling illusory attractions of consumerism as a capitalist mechanism for controlling the working class. In the late 1960s and 1970s these liberal and Marxist critiques were themselves questioned by scholars, who argued that advertising was not as powerful as was previously assumed. Such conclusions, replacing earlier assumptions about the all-powerful impact of the media on mass attitudes and values, are confirmed by recent scholarship devoted to the history of the mass media. A newer, more sophisticated model emphasizes the complexity of this relationship and the need to understand advertising—and media influence in general—as a product of the interaction with broader cultural factors.

Next post:

Previous post: