Advertising at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

At the turn of the twentieth century a dramatic shift occurred in the American economy, as consumerism ran rampant and industry switched from producing capital goods to producing new consumer goods. As the consumer economy grew advertising began to play a new and integral role in both the market and culture. Advertisers became important to both the public and big business; according to Juliann Sivulka, “the annual volume of advertising surged nearly six-fold in the twenty-year period following 1900, from $540 million to just less than $3 billion” (Soap, Sex and Cigarettes 93). Mass produced goods called for mass communication, and the ad agencies of today began to develop, along with (more slowly) consumer market research. The abundance and power of these ad agencies profoundly impacted the content of newspapers and the newest media technology, radio. As women were targeted as the primary purchaser, content became targeted towards their supposed interests and emotions. The increasing mobility and depersonalization of modern society, as well as a new era of self-consciousness led to a number of recurring themes and moral tales in print and radio ads. As profit-making became the main interest of advertising and media outlets, advertisers played a darker role in upholding capitalism’s status quo as well as covering up many negative incidents in the news. Finally, advertising heavily influenced the cultivation of radio programming and content, which in turn shaped the way that television developed and remains to this day.

Advertising has played a much larger role in the evolution of modern society than most people know. From encouraging health practices and sanitation, to promoting electricity and new electrical appliances, to assisting in the popularity of the automobile, advertisers have had a hand in much of American progress. As Americans searched to assert their identities in this new and unfamiliar society, the media began to play an integral role in determining the “American Dream,” and advertising heavily shaped this as well. In his text Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920-1940 Roland Marchand discusses what he has termed “The Great Parables;” an advertising tactic which aimed to draw practical moral lessons from everyday life and succeeded in shaping the content of new media as well as the thought process of new Americans.

These parables reinforced a burgeoning new consumerism which gave the public a taste for certain recurring themes in media content. One example, the Parable of the First Impression, “reinforced Americans’ growing perception that they must create their own identities in the face of superficial and unsympathetic judgments by impersonal others” (Marchand 216). This parable’s influence on media content can be seen in magazines like TrueStory and radio programs such as Memory Lane. True Story moved the private lives of women into the public sphere, scandalously telling tales of murder and sex but always upholding traditional moral and gender values by finishing up with judgment, shame and punishment for the perpetrators. This type of reinforcement, initially begun by advertising campaigns which stressed appearance and external scrutiny, continued in media content for many years. The emphasis on gossip and the superficial in social tableau advertisements “convinced economist Paul Nystrom that advertising was “necessarily the enemy of privacy”” (Marchand 212), which can be seen in the radio “homelog” Memory Lane as well as other dramatic serials such as The Real Folks of Thompkins Corners. These guilty pleasures allowed Americans to not only eavesdrop on the lives of “real” small-town families, but to judge them and compare them to themselves as well. Despite NBC’s claim that the program “touches analogous sympathies, drawing an almost universal response from all classes in sophisticated cities and rural villages alike” (Hilmes 104), the radio shows followed suit with advertising in excluding black people and immigrants as well as any non-nuclear families.

The Parable of the Democracy of Goods had major repercussions for American beliefs and American media content. This parable preached a new, modified form of equality which defined democracy not by equal political power but “in terms of equal access to consumer products” (Marchand 218). This attempt to disguise the widening socioeconomic gap of the early twentieth century encouraged unchecked materialism inspired many to covet the goods and lifestyles of both their neighbors and the elite. The parable influenced media content specifically built around product promotion, such as True Stories, which worked sponsors such as Vaseline into everyday plots. One could claim that the Democracy of Goods parable paved the way for the absolute saturation of commercials and product placement that plagues media content today.

This commercialization of radio was not necessarily the only route for American media, as Robert McChesney posits in his essay Conflict, Not Consensus: The Debate over Broadcast Communication Policy, 1930-1935. McChesney details the evolution of network-dominated broadcasting as well as the little know struggle for control of the airwaves between the nonprofit sector and the powerful advertising-supported corporations. In the middle 1920s U.S. broadcasting was vastly different from today’s system, with “several hundred nonprofit broadcasters [which] had commenced operations in the first half of the decade, the majority of which were affiliated with colleges and universities, and well over 200 of these, or approximately two-fifths of all stations, remained on the air in 1925” (McChesney 223). Public discourse on the subject of radio airwave allocation came to a general consensus agreeing on the importance of nonprofit broadcasting and skepticism towards commercial advertising. However, a chain of political and legislative events soon shifted the tide for radio, beginning with the emergency legislation of the Radio Act of 1927, which created the FRC to bring order to the stations and encourage applicants with public interest in mind. Unfortunately, the power of the two major networks as well as dissent among the nonprofit movement led to the passing of General Order 40, which “established the framework for modern U.S. broadcasting” and essentially failed to protect the interests of both the public and the nonprofit broadcasters (McChesney 226).

The failure of the broadcast reform movement and the overwhelming power of the advertising and radio lobby ultimately determined the media content on radio and television up to this day. Although networks are subsidized by the government under the agreement that they will provide public service programming, there is an incredible lack of that today. Media content upholds capitalism and largely ignores public interest. Few channels such as PBS exist to singularly serve the American public. There is also a dramatic lack of educational programming, as this does not appeal to profit-driven networks. Furthermore, this system has allowed for media which ignores the interests of the public in favor of the interests of advertisers. No newspaper or magazine will ever print material that attacks or offends their advertisers, or even the basic principles of the capitalist system. In his essay The Power of Advertising, George Seldes discusses the impact of the profit system on specific media content, particularly in news programming. When the son of a Pittsburgh department store owner was charged with rape, the case was all but ignored by the news. “Suppression of news by the department stores is the most frequent and flagrant story. The department stores are the largest local advertisers; almost all newspapers live on this sort of advertising, and a boycott by the stores is frequently fatal to the publisher” (Seldes 140). But beyond pertinent public information, advertising even determines media content which can mean life or death to the audience. “In 1933 there was an epidemic of amoebic dysentery in Chicago, It was the height of the World’s Fair season and not a word appeared in the press” (Seldes 142). One can see the omnipresent danger in a system which determines content based on profit analysis.

During the Progressive Era advertising underwent scrutiny for its less honest practices. “After years of exposure to unsubstantiated product claims, consumers eventually focused their growing resentment on ads for patent medicines, cure-alls, and health devices” (Sivulka 117-118). This consumer dissatisfaction led to changes in the ad industry inspired by both government and self-regulation. Federal laws including the Meat Inspection Act and the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act were passed, and producers were mandated to include ingredient lists on food, medicine and pill containers. On the advertisers’ side, the “truth in advertising movement” was started and the National Better Business Bureau was formed. However, as advertising became the main source of income for newspapers and radio stations, ad agencies’ power grew almost unchecked and their mendacity did not cease. By analyzing media content from the early twentieth century to today, one begins to comprehend the massive influence played by advertising. Sadly, today’s American public has become numb to the infiltration of commercial interests in media, and only a little hope for system reform exists. Hopefully with the dissemination of the history of advertising’s tight grip on American media, the public movement for reform will grow.

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