Advertising on Trial
Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s
Publication Year: 2006
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Series: The History of Communication
From its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, national advertising has evolved into a massive enterprise. In 2003, U.S. advertisers spent an estimated $236 billion, and today some scholars conclude that each day the average American is exposed to several thousand advertisements. ...
1. The Rise of a Corporate Culture: Early Consumer Response
The end of the Civil War heralded a new industrial era in the United States. By the mid-nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution, already a century in the making, was gaining strength and momentum. Some technological innovations spurred more efficient factory production whereas others, such as the railroad, steamboat, and telegraph, ...
2. Advertising Challenged: The Creation of Consumers' Research Inc. and the Rise of the 1930s Consumer Movement
After the first wave of consumer activism in the early twentieth century, organized consumer activity tapered off by the end of World War I. No longer pushing for major federal regulation, consumer organizations largely concerned themselves with retail prices and sanitary issues. The National Consumers’ League (NCL) remained active. ...
3. The Drive for Federal Advertising Regulation, 1933-35
Until the 1930s the few existing advertising regulations were passed and enforced at the state and local levels. In 1906 when the Federal Food and Drugs Act was passed, advertising played only a minor role in food and drug sales. Thus, it did not occur to Congress to outlaw false and misleading advertising along with misbranded foods and drugs.1 ...
4. A Consumer Movement Divided: The Birth of Consumers Union of the United States Inc.
By the mid-1930s even the most optimistic consumer activist had come to realize that consumer protection in the form of strict federal regulation was not forthcoming. Given that its key objectives had served as a model for the original Tugwell bill, Consumers’ Research Inc. (CR) was greatly disappointed by the battle’s outcome. ...
5. Defining the Consumer Agenda: The Business Community Joins the Fray
The very nature of advertising in an economy dominated by oligopolistic markets suggests that advertising would find itself in a perpetual PR war to establish its legitimacy and undermine its foes. Indeed, by 1939 the industry’s various trade organizations had established permanent PR programs ...
6. Legislative Closure: The Wheeler-Lea Amendment
If popular antagonism to advertising in the second half of the 1930s seemingly grew, and certainly did not diminish, the status of legislation for federal advertising regulation did not reflect this sentiment. The advertising industry had largely eliminated the threat of advertising’s aggressive regulation by 1935, ...
7. Red-Baiting the Consumer Movement
Although advertising’s federal regulation was essentially established in 1938, in subsequent years the advertising industry redoubled its public relations efforts to improve consumers’ perceptions. By the late 1930s business groups and trade organizations had established permanent PR programs, and several pegged them as requiring high priority. ...
Although the advertising industry’s strategy to control its practices was crowned with success, its PR program was far from foolproof. The start of World War II in early fall 1939 further complicated its plans for garnering public support. Even before the United States became actively involved in the war a large portion of all raw materials ...
Appendix A: Key Players
Appendix B: Legislative Developments, 1933-38