The Consumer Era, 1940s–1970s

During the Consumer Era, production boomed and consumerism shaped the American marketplace, which spread from cities to suburbs. Innovations in technology, expansion of white-collar jobs, more credit, and new groups of consumers fueled prosperity. Business and political leaders claimed consumerism was more than shopping: it defined the benefits of capitalism. This era marked a high point of American productivity and a high standard of living. But it ended with many Americans questioning the promises of consumer capitalism. As the economic engine slowed in the 1970s, productivity waned, wages flattened, and Americans faced an energy crisis that reshaped consumer expectations.


Broadcasting

In the 1950s consumers made television the centerpiece of the home, fueling competition among broadcasters. Scrappy upstarts challenged established networks, innovated programming, and catered to underserved audiences. As television grew, Americans worried about its effect on children. A national conversation about television and the common good fostered public broadcasting.

DuMont Revere television, 1947

Television sets mirrored popular furniture styles. The DuMont Company’s Revere model wrapped modern technology in colonial revival cabinetry.

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Ruth Handler, 1916–2002

Observing her daughter, Barbara, playing with paper dolls, Ruth Handler had the idea that dolls could be styled as adults. In 1959 she convinced her husband, co-owner of Mattel, to develop an adult fashion doll, Barbie. TV marketing made it the world’s best-selling toy.

Barbie doll, about 1960

In 1959 the Mattel toy company introduced Barbie. Unlike most dolls at the time, Barbie was a grown-up—a teenage fashion model who could date, drive, and wear fabulous clothes. While often criticized for her unrealistic physical proportions and for promoting gender stereotypes, Barbie has also evolved with the times to reflect social and cultural changes in American culture. Since the 1980s she has taken on many new careers, from police officer to paleontologist to presidential candidate.

Raoul A. Cortez, 1905–1971

Raoul A. Cortez thought media should serve the community and promote the common good. After working in a Spanish-language newspaper, he founded a radio station, which became the voice of the Spanish-speaking community in San Antonio. In 1955 he opened KCOR-TV, expanding his broadcasting business and community-centered media vision to television.

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African American Markets

After World War II, African Americans challenged decades of racial segregation by demanding recognition by advertisers and equal access to goods and services. Nationwide, manufacturers' efforts to expand consumption coincided with civil rights activists’ goal to desegregate business.

WANN banner, 1950s–1960s

WANN, a white-owned radio station in Annapolis, Maryland, cultivated African American consumers and demonstrated their buying power by connecting their audience to retailers and manufacturers who hoped to expand sales.

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Franchising

Franchising increased after 1950 and offered Americans the opportunity to own a small business. Franchises were also a good deal for parent companies, shifting much of the risk to proprietors while requiring them to adhere to certain standards for branding and service.

Kentucky Fried Chicken weather vane, 1960s

In the mid-1950s Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland Sanders and his first franchisee, Pete Harman, innovated cooking methods and insisted that local owners maintain service and stick to the “original recipe.” Sanders succeeded through standardizing his product and making his brand reliable. This weathervane used the iconic image of Colonel Sanders as the company’s unifying brand.

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From Mass to Targeted Markets, 1970s–2000s

Cable television and later the Internet changed broadcasting into narrowcasting. This technology allowed media firms and advertisers to divide consumers into ever more specific markets. They created channels such as MTV, Lifetime, Nickelodeon, HGTV, and the Fishing Channel. Advertisers used these outlets to link buying to distinct lifestyles.

Latino Marketing

In the 1960s and 1970s, Latinos in advertising and Spanish-language broadcasting advocated for the buying power of Latino consumers. Latin American immigrants entered the ad industry and eventually opened agencies of their own that focused on recognizing and defining the market. The founding of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies in 1996 marked a turning point, as Latinos in the U.S. grew in numbers and became more visible as consumers.

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