This article chronicles the U.S. advertising industry’s use of public relations during the Second World War. Central in this effort was the rise of the (War) Advertising Council. In addition to exploring how the Council came into being, the article explore some of the advertising industry’s ulterior motives. The article discusses why and how the (War) Advertising Council came to provide invaluable help to Madison Avenue.
Much contemporary discussion of advertising, academic and popular, presupposes advertising’s natural link to capitalism and to the American experience. James Twitchell argues that advertising may be the most significant U.S. contribution to the world, and provides the cultural glue that holds the nation together (Twitchell, 1999; Twitchell, 1996). The renowned sociologist Andrew Hacker calls advertising “this country’s most characteristic institution” (Hacker, 1997). Yet considerable historical research suggests that advertising, far from being deep-seated in the American psyche, is actually a twentieth century phenomenon (Bird, 1999; Ewen, 1976; Fox, 1997; Jackall and Hirota, 2000; Lears, 1994; Laird, 1998; Marchand, 1985; Pease, 1958; Pope, 1983; Schudson, 1984; Sivulka, 1998). Modern advertising was hardly accepted with open arms by the public. Indeed, this quintessentially American institution appears to have been an acquired taste. The fact that advertising, when it rose to prominence around the First World War, was attacked and criticized, and eventually gave birth to a social movement with the intent of seriously reforming it, are frequently overlooked facts.
This early discontent with advertising was frequently linked to its economic function. The early twentieth century witnessed a series of mergers and acquisitions. A dominant economic trend was towards large firms operating in oligopolistic markets. Major industries were soon dominated by a handful of firms. In terms of price and quality, what one firm produced differed little from that of its direct competitors. In other words, what we today refer to as product parity saw the light of day. What set one firm apart from another was its brand name. And this is where advertising entered the picture. To large corporations, advertising represented a competitive weapon superior to cutthroat price competition in the battle to expand and protect market share. The role of advertising was twofold. First, it served to create an aura of desirability around a certain product or service, thereby making it less susceptible to price competition. Second, advertising allowed firms to increase their sales without cutting prices, thereby maintaining healthy profit margins. Advertising became not merely an adjunct to the “real business” of manufacturing; in fact, it became as vital as the steel, the workers, and the machinery because advertising created its own by-product — the loyal consumer, the actual purchaser of goods and services (Veblen, 1938; Veblen, 1954; Baran and Sweezy, 1966). The task of making consumers prefer one brand over another was left to advertising copy writers. This lead to advertising strategies that attempted to capture and exploit both the true and the conjectural emotions of their audiences.
It did not take long before the public began to question the industry and its strategies. Many found solace in Ballyhoo, a humor magazine launched in 1931. Only five months after first issue, this publication which lampooned notorious and well-known advertisements had reached a circulation of a million and a half, and had become, according to advertising historian Roland Marchand, “one of the most sensational new business enterprises to defy the depression” (Marchand, 1985, p. 314).
More threatening, from the advertising industry’s perspective, was a growing interest in books that exposed advertising’s true function and spotlighted the lack of laws to protect consumers against such practices (Gallup, 1940; Guinea Pig Books, 1936). The books provided fuel for a rapidly expanding consumer movement. The 1930s consumer advocates demanded that, rather than confuse and impress, ads should provide buyers with information that enabled them to comparison shop. If manufacturers did not comply with these demands, consumer advocates were willing to seek federal regulation (Tedlow, 1981; Stole, 2000).
Not only were these demands a threat to advertising, they did not promise well for industries where...