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  • The Paradox of Plenty: The Advertising Council and the Post-Sputnik Crisis
  • Robert H. Zieger (bio)

The men of the Advertising Council could not find a viable answer to the Paradox of Plenty that suffused public discourse in the aftermath of the spectacular launch of Sputnik in October 1957. Public reaction to Soviet space achievements revealed an apparent contradiction at the heart of mid-Cold War America: mass consumption of consumer goods was at once American capitalism’s achievement and its Achilles Heel. This uncertainty was vividly reflected in deliberations and pronouncements of Council, as president Theodore Repplier and his associates struggled to reconcile its role as promoter of the industry with that of public tribune. Thus, they celebrated advertising’s role in promoting consumption even as they questioned the ability of a goods-saturated people to meet the test that the Communist challenge posed. In the end, the Council’s most extensive public campaign on the theme of the Soviet challenge—a much-vaunted Challenge to America campaign, launched publically in the winter of 1962–63—backed off from its initial invocation of themes of discipline and sacrifice in favor of anodyne appeals to civic awareness.

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In the years immediately after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the Advertising Council grappled with an apparent paradox at the heart of America’s mid-Cold War crisis. The Soviet space achievement triggered widespread fears of national vulnerability and sparked much soul-searching among academics, journalists, politicians, and corporate leaders. In innumerable magazine articles, books, television programs, and public forums, they contrasted Communism’s discipline and purpose with the American people’s perceived softness and hedonism. As the most visible spokesman for the advertising industry, the Advertising Council could not escape participation in the escalating public discourse over the nation’s ability to respond to the Soviet challenge and to muster the purpose and resolve that a free people would need in combating a dangerous adversary.

Yet the response of the Council to the perceived crisis that followed in the wake of Sputnik was ultimately evasive. One the one hand, in its role as spokesman for the industry, the Council heralded advertising’s role in persuading Americans to consume an expanding array of goods. Both explicitly in campaigns that championed free enterprise and promoted mass consumption, and implicitly in depictions of daily life, the Council celebrated the abundance and plenty that would safeguard American freedoms and render obsolete the militancy and bitterness that had characterized the Dirty Thirties. Americans, declared historian David Potter, a frequent participant in Council forums, were a “People of Plenty,” whose relentless quest for material well-being rendered irrelevant in the US the divisive ideologies and angry politics of the Old World.

At the same time, in their roles as guardians and promoters of civic culture, the Council’s leaders lamented the complacency and hedonism of a goods-saturated people, doubting Americans’ ability to stand the test that the Communist challenge posed. In internal deliberations and private communications, Council president Theodore Repplier and his associates frequently expressed fears of moral decline and civic disarray. But the Council’s most extensive public campaign on the theme of the Soviet challenge—the much-vaunted Challenge to America campaign, launched publicly in the winter of 1962–63—soft-pedaled the people’s complicity in the country’s failure to match Soviet achievements. In the end, as was the case in the country at large, the Council could not find a viable answer to the Paradox of Plenty that permeated public discourse in the aftermath of Soviet space achievements.1

Origins and Structure of the Advertising Council

The Advertising Council was born in the grim early days of World War II. Even before Pearl Harbor, industry leaders recognized that U.S. involvement in the conflict posed unique problems for their trade. Their normal business of persuading fellow citizens to consume obviously clashed with the requirements of wartime sacrifice. With business already a target of depression-era public opprobrium, with the rise of industrial unionism, and with a liberal administration in Washington, advertisers feared that wartime regulation and reduced...

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