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  • Dealing with Depression: Australia’s Advertising Industry in the 1930s
  • Robert Crawford (bio)

Facing cautious advertisers and cash-strapped consumers, Australia’s advertising industry was forced to fight a life or death battle to remain afloat amidst the Great Depression. However, as the 1930s were drawing to a close, the industry was confident about itself and its future. By examining the growth and development of Australia’s advertising industry through the 1930s, this paper will demonstrate how commercial radio not only provided another advertising medium for the industry; it altered the advertising industry’s view of itself, and with it, its quest for legitimacy. Moreover, this study will also provide a new perspective on developments in American advertising during the same period.


“Why has advertising and only advertising been singled out for this special sermonizing?” asked Arthur O Richardson in 1937. “Truth,” he claims, “is becoming more and more an outcast—kicked out of the world’s many parliaments, churches, peace conferences. Believe it or not, the buying public likes to be hypnotized by hyperbole. They find the truth too commonplace, prosaic and unbelievable.”1 Such comments provide a revealing insight into the state of the Australian advertising industry in the 1930s. Although Australia’s economic recovery was not yet complete, advertising men like Richardson now felt secure enough to admonish those who had criticised it in the past. Moreover, they were publicly rejecting their former idealism. Such proclamations are indicative of advertising industry’s own triumph over adversity. If the Depression could not stop advertising, admen assumed, then nothing could.

Contemporary international trends and developments certainly appeared to confirm Richardson’s bold claims. In Europe authoritarian regimes were manufacturing their own versions of the “truth”. The situation in the United States was perhaps more pertinent to Australian advertising men. There, the re-emergence of the carnivalesque in both print and radio advertising during the Depression indicated that audiences no longer regarded advertising as “news”.2 However, Australian admen could also draw confidence from the achievements of the world’s leading advertising industry. America’s advertising industry had not only overcome the economic crisis, it had also withstood a hostile consumer backlash. Gaining momentum during the Depression, the consumer movement and its calls for the regulation of advertising had posed a very serious challenge to the advertising industry. Identified as one of the defining events in advertising’s historical development, this threat forced the industry mobilize.3 Its ensuing campaign to improve its public image would ultimately prove successful, leaving the American advertising “in a more impregnable position than ever before.”4 While this success story boded well for Australian admen, it was not necessarily a definitive one; conditions in Australia were not the same those in the United States.

The Depression placed an enormous strain on Austraila’s advertising industry. With a smaller consumer market and local manufacturing sector, the battle to keep consumers consuming, to maintain accounts, and to remain in business was as cutthroat in Australia as it was along Madison Avenue. However, unlike their American counterparts, Australian admen did not have to contend with an organized consumer movement. While frustrated consumers certainly criticized the local advertising industry, there were no moves to organize a formal body. Yet the discourse in Australian advertising literature reveals that local admen shared with their American counterparts a deep-seated concern about the issues raised by consumerists. Such trepidation about a non-existent movement, I will argue, indicates that this discourse was in fact an expression of the advertising industry’s own ongoing quest for legitimacy.

The self-assuredness of both the Australian and American advertising industries at the end of the turbulent 1930s suggests that they had successfully overcome their detractors and were confident about their future. While Pease suggests that it stemmed from the industry’s victory over the consumer movement, the Australian experience indicates that this interpretation is perhaps somewhat simplistic.5 It not only downplays the significance of the ongoing discourse of legitimacy in advertising history, it also fails to recognize radio’s impact upon the advertising industry. By investigating the changing ways in which the Australian advertising perceived itself, its place in society, and...