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The Faithless Shepherd

The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators

by Stephen Fox
Random House/Vintage, 383 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940

by Roland Marchand
University of California Press, 448 pp., $27.50

Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products, and Images of Well-Being

by William Leiss, by Stephen Kline, by Sut Jhally
Methuen, 327 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The Trouble with Advertising

by John O’Toole
Random House/Times Books, 248 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Adventures of an Advertising Woman

by Jane Maas
St. Martin’s, 227 pp., $15.95

Between 1875 and 1920, advertising helped to create a new kind of economy and a new kind of society. Until then, many of the commonest articles of consumption were made at home. Virtually all other goods came from local workshops and local merchants. Relatively little merchandise circulated nationally or had brand names. Most products were in chronically, and sometimes catastrophically, short supply. Religion and philosophy alike deprecated the vanities and illusions of this world.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a hundred years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, consumer industries were finally mechanized. Their output and number grew dramatically. But while the sheer quantity of things exploded, society’s will to consume them did not. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had to be persuaded to satisfy their material needs with mass-manufactured wares, and it was advertising that persuaded them. Its message was, “Thou shalt covet thy neighbor’s car and his radio and his silverware and his refrigerator and everything that is his.”1 This transformation was no less profound than the Industrial Revolution, and did much to eliminate ascetic attitudes that were as old as the human race.

Yet the current intellectual orthodoxy, shared to one extent or another by all of the works under review, suggests that advertising no longer has such power. Stephen Fox, whose book The Mirror Makers is arguably the best general history of advertising, speaks for the consensus among historians when he suggests that since the Twenties advertising has “functioned more as a mirror than mindbender, responding to American culture more than shaping it.” Even Torben Vestergaard and Kim Schroder, the Danish authors of The Language of Advertising, who charge that the business promotes bourgeois mentalities, think that it reinforces rather than imposes them.

If, however, advertising currently seems less important, it has lost none of its appeal as a subject for analysis. All the authors under review see it as a royal road into the mind of the inarticulate majority—especially women, who make at least 80 percent of all consumer purchases and are thus the prime target of advertising.

The business does not want for apologists—most recently David Ogilvy, the founder of a very big agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and the author of the celebrated Confessions of an Advertising Man,2 the best-selling book about advertising; John O’Toole, the chairman of Foote, Cone & Belding, another giant; and Jane Maas, the president of Muller Jordan Weiss, a mid-sized firm. Ogilvy’s new book, Ogilvy on Advertising, which takes a strictly practical approach, will fascinate anyone who has ever done any kind of self-promotion—writing a résumé, for example. O’Toole and Maas, who devote more effort to defending their profession than to analyzing its work, are sincere but dull.

Those who defend advertising are themselves defensive, resisting attacks upon its effectiveness and ethics on one page, admitting them on another. Respectable opinion has always disdained advertising, so it is one of the few industries that must talk its product both up and down, depending on whether it wants to attract customers or deter regulators.

What is known about its effectiveness, at least, can be stated quickly. On the one hand, direct-mail advertising shows which ads are and are not effective, since the prospective purchaser receives the sales pitch solely through the ad and responds directly to it.3 Written and broadcast appeals clearly influence behavior. On the other hand, this influence is limited, since one half to four fifths of all new products fail to find a long-term place on the market.

But the tendency to belittle the effectiveness of advertising has gone too far. Although few now credit it with the ability to create primary demand for commodities, almost all experts believe that it can shape secondary demand for particular brands. As we shall see, that power and its implications have often been underestimated. Advertising is far from impotent and quite as far from harmless.

The actual number of ad agencies in the United States was something of a mystery even before 1985, when the current wave of mergers began. More than 650 of the largest firms, employing some fifty thousand men and women in the United States, belong to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. About three thousand firms hang out their shingles in The Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies.

In 1982 they had a gross income of $6.51 billion. Their clients paid $44.2 billion for space and time in the mass media. (Agencies usually receive 15 percent of these costs as a commission.) Since 1925, the total expenditure on advertising in the United States has amounted to 2.3 percent of the gross national product. That outlay, the world’s highest, does not, in the opinion of such practitioners as O’Toole and Ogilvy, even get us the world’s best advertising, by their standards of effectiveness and inventiveness. Both O’Toole and Ogilvy find that the “best” ads are prepared in the United Kingdom, where only 1.24 percent of the GNP is spent on advertising.

In any case, advertising accounts for one fifth of the total selling costs of American industry, behind both sales promotion and direct salesmanship. Absolute expenditures on advertising vary among industries, of course: those that spend the most money produce alcoholic beverages, candy, cars, cleansers, cosmetics, electrical and office equipment, food, toiletries, and soft drinks. Proctor & Gamble, which sank $773 million into national advertising in 1983, heads the list. Sears spent $732 million. Then came Beatrice Companies ($602 million), General Motors ($595 million), and R.J. Reynolds ($593 million). The federal government holds twenty-eighth place.

Highly concentrated industries, like motor vehicles and tobacco, spend about 1.6 percent of their sales incomes on advertising—more than industries, like clothing and printing, where productive capacity is dispersed (0.9 percent of sales). Farming, that truly competitive industry, spends nothing whatever on advertising.

Ad agencies first appeared in the United States in the 1840s. By the 1860s, agents had evolved into brokers who bought newspaper space in bulk and resold it at a profit to advertisers, who provided the copy. The owner or foreman of the printing shop prepared the physical ad. Copywriting first emerged as a separate activity in the 1890s, and by 1910 many agencies specialized in preparing ads rather than in placing them.

This was the heroic age of advertising, when it created needs out of thin air. The need for mouthwash, for instance. Gerard Lambert had inherited a company that made a lotion used first as a surgical antiseptic and then as a treatment for throat infections. He didn’t really care how it was used, so long as he could sell a lot of it.

Together with two copywriters, Lambert hit on the idea of promoting Listerine as a “mouthwash” in the early 1920s. Having invented the cure, the three men proceeded to invent the problem, which they called “halitosis.” The country was soon informed of its existence and dangers in a series of advertisements written by Milton Feasley.

The ads “resembled scientific efforts to control for independent variables,” as Roland Marchand nicely observes in Advertising the American Dream. “Night after night,” reads a typical story,

she would peer questioningly into her mirror, vainly seeking the reason.

She was a beautiful girl and talented, too.

Yet in the one pursuit that stands foremost in the mind of every girl and woman—marriage—she was a failure.

Many men came and went in her life. She was often a bridesmaid and never a bride.

(This line, used for more than thirty years, is among the best known in the history of advertising.) What could be wrong? Only one thing, apparently—halitosis. “And even your closest friends won’t tell you” (another celebrated line). Feasley would read these lines for laughs at Lambert’s parties.

Respectable opinion was not amused. In the middle of the nineteenth century, only marginal businesses, such as those producing medical concoctions, advertised routinely, and when they did they jeopardized their credit ratings. Serious magazines, if they condescended to run ads, kept them in the back of the book. Early in the 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover called it “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service [as radio] to be drowned in advertiser chatter.”

Meanwhile, most economists had little to say about advertising. Some thought the expenditures of competing companies largely nullified one another. Others saw advertising as a sort of guilty secret because it seemed both to promote and subvert “perfect competition,” the reference point of the classical theory of the market.

Perfect competition requires highly standardized products, many buyers and sellers, and “perfect information.” Every buyer knows what every seller proposes to charge for every product and feature. Price competition, the inevitable result, forces sellers to use their resources efficiently. Consumers benefit doubly—first, because all products are as cheap as possible and, second, because the sum of society’s wealth is greater than it would be in an imperfect market.

The point is not that the conditions of perfection obtain in reality, or even that they ought to. The point is that insofar as they do obtain, they have certain social consequences, at least if other conditions, such as advertising, do not nullify them. Advertising dose nullify them, however. It thus helped to generate the theory of “imperfect,” or monopolistic, competition. The theory of monopoly concedes that advertising deflects consumers from the rational aim of buying in the cheapest market and makes them, instead, want a certain brand, irrespective of cost. (Since the company that produces the brand is the only one that can do so, it has a “limited monopoly.”) Advertising therefore supplies information but also helps sellers to evade price competition, even when products are standardized.

Alfred Marshall (1842–1924), Keynes’s mentor, was the first major economist to investigate these matters. In a book published in 1919, he distinguished, opaquely, between “constructive” advertising, which helps consumers to “satisfy their wants without inordinate fatigue or loss of time,” and “combative” advertising, which “obtrudes itself in the incessant iteration of the name of a product, coupled perhaps with a claim that it is of excellent quality.”4 Combative advertising he denounced as a “social waste,” for its expenses must be deducted from the seller’s profits or added to the buyer’s costs, and it often enables the “force of mere capital” to defeat worthier enterprises.

Born under the dark cloud of informed disapproval, advertising soon became an object of fear, anger, and, finally, regulation, as brazenly and even cruelly manipulative ads, like those for Listerine and most cosmetics, became commonplace. In the late Twenties, a powerful inhibition collapsed, and agencies started to exploit radio, formerly regarded as too private for commercials. During the 1930s George Gallup found out that more people read comic strips than the news. This discovery led advertisers to exploit emotional symbols and techniques derived from psychoanalysis and behaviorism. In the 1920s, John B. Watson, a founding father of behaviorism, went to work for the J. Walter Thompson agency. It is not difficult to detect his influence in some of its work (“The Eyes of Men…the Eyes of Women Judge your Loveliness Every Day”).

  1. 1

    Ballyhoo magazine (1931), quoted in The Mirror Makers, p. 123.

  2. 2

    Atheneum, 1985.

  3. 3

    Often a company will place two ads in a Sunday newspaper. The ads will differ in some way, and the coupons attached to each reveals which ad the reader is answering. If one ad receives many more responses than the other—and this is very common—it is obviously the more effective ad.

  4. 4

    Alfred Marshall, Industry and Trade: A study of industrial techniques, and business organization; and of their influences on the condition of various classes and nations (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 305 and 306.

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