Shooting Marbles: Another Look at the Landmark Campbell Soup Deceptive Advertising Case
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Shooting Marbles:
Another Look at the Landmark Campbell Soup Deceptive Advertising Case

“What we did with the marbles was purely and simply to prop the ingredients. We did not add ingredients to make the soup have more ingredients than it was supposed to have,” recalled Vincenta Meehan, the home economist assigned to Campbell Soup photoshoots in the 1960s. Meehan, like others who were on the set when the practice of putting glass marbles in the bottom of the soup bowl was introduced, was actually surprised and shocked when the advertiser and its agency, BBDO, were charged with deceptive advertising after their competitor, the Heinz Company, allegedly filed a complaint. E. E. Norris, the long-time management supervisor on the business remarked, “The only law we thought we were breaking was the law of gravity—it all seemed perfectly legitimate to us.”1

My purpose here is to talk about the historical setting in which Meehan and Norris, as well as others working with them, might have engaged in what seems like an obviously deceptive practice and yet were genuinely surprised when judged dishonest by others. I will argue that the evolution of photographic technology over the life of Campbell Soup caused those making the advertising to alter their representational practices. Coping with technological change had become a common theme in their experience. Food photography had, in parallel, become an elaborate set of artifices for all food companies. Propping up the soup with glass marbles seemed merely an extension of evolving technological circumstance. Once confronted with the suggestion that the practice was deceptive, the players did not feel caught in a lie, but instead became suddenly self-aware. “It sounds awful,” remarked E. E. Norris, remembering the moment, “‘They’ve got marbles in the soup.’”

Image and Innovation in Early Campbell Advertising

Many years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the history of Campbell Soup advertising, having spent a year using the Smithsonian’s Modern Advertising History Archive, which includes audiotaped interviews with an array of key players, as well as market research and a limited number of advertisements.2 At the time I was writing, in the mid 1980s, it was said that nearly every household in the United States had at least one can of Campbell’s Soup in the house. Very few brands can make that kind of claim. So, though the advertising had long since become extremely conventional, Campbell Soup had created such a major impact on American consumer behavior that it made sense for me to analyze the history of their messaging, right alongside more “creative” work such as the Nike, Pepsi, and Alka-Seltzer campaigns that are also featured in that collection.

The Campbell Soup brand was nearly 100 years old even then. So, most of the history of the campaign was in print, rather than broadcast. The archive had very few examples of these ads, but the interviews made reference to the fact that Campbell Soup had “owned” a particular position in the Saturday Evening Post for most of the 20th century. So, I went to the Library of Congress, where I spent hours requesting old volumes of the Post and making notes about the Campbell Soup ads, while also attending to the surrounding material, to get a sense of the development of a discourse.

What I found was the record of an advertiser who had been adapting its representational style to culture and technology throughout the life of its most famous brand. In its first years, the company put posters on the sides of its delivery wagons, showing an oversize picture of its main product, a canned beefsteak tomato. This was the first of many instances that the tomato would appear in what would be to any normal viewer an obviously exaggerated size (for instance, Figure 1).

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Figure 1.

In newspaper, however, they were limited by technology that was only able to reproduce pictures in very simple black line drawings (Figure 2).

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Figure 2.

In 1904, Grace Gebbie Drayton’s Campbell Soup Kids were introduced into transit advertising, but quickly also appeared in newspapers...