An Industry and Cultural Force, 1920s–1930s
“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.
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.
- Procter & Gamble
- American Tobacco Company
- 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?
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.
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.
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.