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The Art of Baiting America's Product Hook

ADVERTISING IN AMERICA: THE FIRST 200 YEARS. By Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple, New York: Harry N. Abrams 288 pp., $49.50 until 12/31/90; $60 after A FOND entertainment, voice of public concern, chronicle of changing mores, our most intensely shared art, the medium we love to hate - advertising has been all of these. Imported from England where it was thriving, advertising was well developed before the time of the American Revolution. Paul Revere was not only a skilled horseman, but also an adept publicist. He penned the ad for his own brand of false teeth. Today, legions of Paul Reveres ensure that a teenager starting college has viewed close to a half-million commercials.

Although advertising has been a constant presence in our common culture, it has not been studied as closely as have art or literature. That is not because we deny the fund of talent that goes into the production of advertising, but because even the idea of advertising makes us squeamish. As the authors of this profusely illustrated history point out, ``We're afraid the advertisers know too much about us for our own good.''

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Just what is it that they know? To say the least, most advertising data are not the stuff of effective emotional blackmail. For example, researchers have distilled the fact that 40 percent of housewives do not put the spread on the bed in the morning when they make it. (Whether the other 60 percent simply crawl out, leaving the rumples to take care of themselves, did not seem to hold much scientific interest.)

Still, we remain suspicious that advertisers, wielding guilt, shame, and blame, can make us do and think things we ordinarily would not. Certainly they have tried to move us to buy their products by pointing out that we'll be sorry if we do not. A 1910 ad for oatmeal cautioned that ``four-fifths of all college students come from ... oatmeal homes,'' while ``in the lowliest sections of our largest cities not one in twelve serves oats.''

It is soothing to consider that some of our most popular advertisements have not been commercial successes. The smarmy Joe (``trust me'') Isuzu sidled into our national affection with his chicanery, but he did not succeed in selling cars. Remember Alka Seltzer's ``I can't believe I ate the whole thing!'' campaign? The more it ran, the more people bought Pepto-Bismol.

If one were to believe the early 20th-century ads assembled in this book, the body waits to betray the spirit at every moment. Neither the rich nor the gifted are exempt from bad breath and dandruff. ``His hands are insured for ten thousand,'' reads one ad, ``yet he has athlete's foot.'' In another, a middle-aged man, his brow warped with worry, explains: ``She was a BEAUTIFUL WOMAN before her teeth ... went bad.'' (She probably didn't make her bed in the morning either.)

It is too easy to think of advertising as an afterthought - a layer of words and pictures applied to products like so much whitewash. In fact, advertising and brand-name products developed reciprocally.

In the early decades of the United States, most merchants sold goods locally. These products, even the imported ones like coffee and sugar, were generic. One sugar loaf was just like all the others. Only patent medicines had more than a regional reach.

But as newspapers proliferated in the boom years before the Civil War, ads and advertising agents multiplied. During the war, as in many wars, women had to go to work outside the home. Many went to factories to make military uniforms. As an effect, it became socially acceptable for women to buy bread from bakeries, soap from groceries, and clothes off the rack.

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Trademarks and distinctive packaging began to differentiate products. Wood-pulp newsprint, which was invented in response to war scarcities, made paper increasingly cheap. Ads grew even more plentiful.

In its histories of soap and cereal, the book demonstrates the interdependence of products and advertising. Soapmaking, a process using homemade lye and cooking grease, was sufficiently nasty to ensure that our forebears could gather the fortitude to face the laundry only once a month. Moreover, at the end of the last century, personal bathing was as rare as clothes washing. Colonials probably bathed more frequently than Victorian Americans, who were reluctant to be seen in the nude. Brand-name soap couldn't clean up until we wanted to.

Until the Civil War, American breakfast resembled lunch and dinner: ham, potatoes, eggs, pie. Cereal grains, eaten by German immigrants for breakfast, reminded most Americans of animal food. The idea of eating boiled oats eventually caught on, especially in New England. Advertising for Quaker Oats stressed its health benefits and ease of preparation. To remind consumers to buy this brand, the famous trademark was painted on silos, barns, and bridges. Further inducement was provided by premiums. Quaker Oats redesigned packaging machines to drop silverware, drinking glasses, and china saucers into two-pound boxes of the product.

With the introduction of national brands and national advertising came the assumption that women made about 80 percent of the buying decisions. Throughout the early 20th century, this assumption meant that even ads for products associated with men, like automobiles and insurance, were pitched at women. Professional advertising journals counseled that women were emotional and filled with ``inarticulate longings.'' Ads, therefore, should not be realistic, but should ``portray idealized visions.'' In the resulting Lotusland, men were chauffeured to their upscale offices and women ran caring, clean homes. A stream of inventions to save the housewife's time hit the market. Unfortunately, then as now, there was no gadget to make the bed.

The Depression put a temporary damper on aggressive advertising. Muckrakers exposed fraudulent claims and the government began to regulate what could be said and sold. The Consumers Union and Consumers Research organizations were born in this era.

In some ways, the post-World War II period resembled the '20s. People who had postponed buying homes, furniture, and cars, now did so with a vengeance. Women were still the target of ads, but a few advertising directors broke with the tradition and began to treat customers as peers. The growth of television shifted many advertising resources from print to broadcasting. The cost and compression of television greatly affected the character of ads, which began to seek highly specific audiences.

Although ``Advertising in America'' occasionally lapses into the tone of a television voice-over and lacks an analytical conclusion, its images have been chosen with great discernment and thoroughness. Many of the examples are explained in succinct stories of products and advertising campaigns. From the ad for a tonic that ``makes children and adults as fat as pigs'' to Brooke Shields's antismoking poster, this compendium gives us access to the history of our dreams, fears, and excesses.

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