An Industry and Cultural Force, 1920s–1930s

Bruce Barton at a Desk

Bruce Barton at a Desk

Larger-than-life advertising man Bruce Barton kept consumers in mind with a photograph of Coney Island in his office.

Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHi-32687

“Advertising is the spark plug on the cylinder of mass production…”

Bruce Barton, 1927

After World War I, advertising became a mature industry and a cultural force that presented the social benefits of consumption: individual liberty, social status, convenience, and improved personal relationships. The Great Depression cut revenue and changed the tone of advertising in the 1930s. In these lean years, advertisers perfected the hard sell, invested in the new medium of radio, and studied consumers with gusto. Americans consumed it all with a mixture of interest and skepticism.

Christine Frederick, 1917

Christine Frederick, 1917

A home economist and market researcher, Christine Frederick co-founded the Advertising Women of New York in 1912 and published Selling Mrs. Consumer in 1929, identifying women as the primary purchasers of household goods.

Courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Harvard University

Trends, 1920s–1930s

1920s: Artists became integral to the work of advertising.
1922: WEAF radio in New York began selling airtime for advertising.
1923: Arthur C. Nielsen Sr. founded his market research firm and later coined the term “market share.”
1926: The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) created the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
1929: Lucky Strike cigarettes spent a record $12.3 million on advertising.
1930: Advertising Age, a monthly trade journal, began publication.
1930: Dr. George Gallup, pollster, joined Young & Rubicam as vice president of market research.
1931: Ballyhoo, a satirical magazine that spoofed advertising, began publication.
1933: Ad spending dropped by half in the worst year of the Great Depression.
1936: Life magazine began publication. It became one of the largest carriers of advertising.
1938: Radio advertising surpassed print.

Who spent the most on advertising?

Soap, cereal and packaged foods, tobacco, and automobiles.

Top spenders:

  • Procter & Gamble
  • American Tobacco Company
  • Coca-Cola
  • Kellogg’s
  • Woodbury Soap

Where was advertising?

Radio, magazines, comic books, billboards, buildings, newspapers.

Who made advertising?

Copywriters, designers and artists, account managers, pollsters, and market researchers.

Direct to Your Door

Before radio, television, and the Internet, the post office brought advertising to the consumer’s door. Beginning in the late 1800s, direct mail became one of the most reliable forms of advertising. Who could resist a free sample, a Christmas catalog, or a coupon?

"To the Grain Harvesting Public, Anywhere, United States, 1891

"Tearing their shirts...that's what our competitors are doing," 1920

"That National Money-Saving Style Book," 1922

"Every Field is a Field of Profit," about 1925

"Make money this year wtih startena chicks," 1935

"How to Use Direct Mail to Promote Your Business", about 1950

"Why Use Direct Mail?," about 1962

Criticism

Advertising had its share of critics, and Americans debated the merits of the business in books, plays, films, and at least one spoof magazine—Ballyhoo.

Ballyhoo magazine, 1932

Ballyhoo magazine, 1932

Helen Rosen Woodward, 1920s

Helen Rosen Woodward, 1920s

Through Many Windows, 1926

Through Many Windows, 1926

Helen Rosen Woodward, one of the highest-paid women in the business in the 1920s, developed celebrity endorsements. Retiring at the peak of her career, she later criticized the emptiness of advertising in her book Through Many Windows.

Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth, 1927

Stuart Chase and F.J. Schlink, Your Money’s Worth, 1927

F.J. Schlink, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, 1933

F.J. Schlink, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, 1933

Frederic Wakeman, The Hucksters, 1947

Frederic Wakeman, The Hucksters, 1947

Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957

Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957

Catalogs and magazines, 1910s–1930s

Catalogs brought an entire department store’s worth of goods into the home. Magazines, which were funded through advertising and subscriptions, often blended sales pitches with advice.

Helen Landsdown Resor, about 1925

Helen Landsdown Resor, about 1925

Helen Lansdowne Resor ran J. Walter Thompson with her husband, Stanley. She developed illustrated feature stories in Ladies’ Home Journal and used emotion to sell products.

Courtesy of Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University

Ladies' Home Journal, 1935

Ladies' Home Journal, 1935

Commercial Radio

In the 1920s, the new medium of radio became commercialized. This continued a tradition of using advertising to finance media. Commercial radio built intimate relationships between sellers and consumers, filling living rooms with the friendly voices of radio pitchmen and women. These characters became savvy neighbors who advised listeners daily about what brands to buy.

Female consumer with radio, 1920-1930

Female consumer with radio, 1920-1930

George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Philco 16B Cathedral Radio, 1931

Philco 16B Cathedral Radio, 1931

Alka-Seltzer counter display, with radio star Uncle Ezra, about 1930

Alka-Seltzer counter display, with radio star Uncle Ezra, about 1930

Outdoor Advertising

Outdoor advertising blossomed as Americans bought cars and spent more time on the road. Advertisers realized the potential of turning highways into “buyways.” As roadways became commercial space, the advertising industry came under fire from groups who wished to preserve rural views.

Wonder Bread blimp, 1945-1955

Wonder Bread blimp, 1945-1955

Courtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

A Friendly Face

“Spokes characters” became the face of national brands in the 1890s. They pitched all kinds of products and asked consumers to buy based on emotion. As friendly faces, they connected through humor, reached kids, and built brand loyalty. Many became so popular that their parent companies gave copies away as premiums or sold them as licensed products. A few even got their own comic strips, games, and television shows.

Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett

Beginning in the 1930s, Leo Burnett’s Chicago agency turned out some of the most famous spokes characters of all time, including the Pillsbury Doughboy, Tony the Tiger, and the Jolly Green Giant, with his “Ho, ho, ho!”

Courtesy of Leo Burnett Worldwide

Pillsbury Doughboy

Pillsbury Doughboy

Tony the Tiger

Tony the Tiger

Elsie the Cow

Elsie the Cow

Pron-Tito

Pron-Tito

Morris the Cat

Morris the Cat

Campbell’s Soup Kids

Campbell’s Soup Kids

Planters store postcard, about 1950

Planters store postcard, about 1950

Nipper, about 1960

Nipper, about 1960

Buster Brown, 1960s

Buster Brown, 1960s

California Raisins, about 1986

California Raisins, about 1986

Scrubby, 1990s

Scrubby, 1990s

Bullseye, 2000s

Bullseye, 2000s