The Poor Influence of Advertising during the
1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s
April 30th, 2012
Most of us don’t realize how often we really are influenced by advertising or marketing. We wake up, turn the television on, and begin our day. But how would life be if we didn’t have constant commercials or ads blaring at us day in and day out? What if we took it all away from the beginning? Advertising, as a means of production, is used to “announce or praise in some public medium of communication in order to induce people to buy or use it.” However, what is it really used for? We have always been a dignified nation, establishing ourselves as one of the top leaders. But as we grew in strength, our image rapidly changed. The United States has always been a desired place by many; but what made that so? Was it because our Presidents and government were the best? Or was it the land that glorified the nations look? No matter when, the United State has done it’s part to make the nation look great. But why has our image always been so important? I believe it fair to say that advertising is the main culprit. While its intention to create an immediate desired reaction on the consumer was qualified at the beginning, it has evolved into identifying the underlying differences of should and should not. The ethics have been stretched and pulled, just so advertisers could target people properly, by creating an image of “lesser than” unless their product was consumed. The nation as a whole has always remained strong, however individual images have been altered. Despite the glorifying and prosperous look of the nation during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, advertising poorly influenced the nation because it created very materialistic lifestyles, it forced people to buy what they did not need, and it lured people into having false hopes.
Have you ever taken the time to ponder how advertising came to be? Why we have it, why we need it? There is a fine line and a huge discrepancy between what is right and wrong with advertising. Particularly disturbing forms of early American advertisements were notices of sales or appeals for the capture of escaped slaves. Despite the ongoing “market revolution,” early and mid nineteenth century advertisements rarely demonstrate striking changes in advertising appeals. During the twenties advertising’s niche came to be with the use of radios (approximately 1880-1900.) The appeal of the spoken word attracted more audiences, which forced advertisers and publishers to put more effort in improving its image to regain profits. “Television, capable of wireless transmission of moving pictures, was first publically demonstrated in 1936, combining sight and sound to rival radio.” 1 President Calvin Coolidge pronounced an encouragement on the business of advertising in a 1926 speech: “Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is a great power that has been in trusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of regeneration and redemption of mankind.” Advertisements sought to adjust Americans to modern life; a life lived in a consumer society. While advertising generated modern excitement about its social and ethical implications, it nevertheless opened the door to a new centrality during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s. Many advertisers made their profits by changing the roles of individuals in society by substituting daily activities with materialistic situations. People consistently changed their daily routine as the transformation in society rapidly continues. “1920’s overly distorted people’s daily activities during this era of unprecedented consumerism.” (The 1920’s) Women began to look at the twenties as an era to break out and become more independent. Their lives outside of the home now seemed to matter more. However, what enticed them to adventure out? Advertising. According to The 1920’s, people made more income, which ultimately created advertising to skyrocket because they saw an opportunity for people to spend their extra income. Advertisements encouraged more social appearances by women, mostly by enticing women with promiscuity. The posters enticed women to change their roles and act more provocatively, which in return, required advertising agencies to change their methods as well. With women becoming more recognized outside of the home, advertising played into their desire for fashionable trends. The constrictive corset, an essential undergarment to make women’s waist thinner, became a thing of the past. “Flapper dresses,” mush shorter in length, quickly redefined fashion. The twenties showed more flesh than any other decade; and had the desire from and the ability from advertising to change it. Publications caught and exploited the truth about women as they changed with the trend of promiscuity. Advertising also started to erode women's self-esteem. Mothers were repeatedly told that if their families were not healthy, attractive, and popular, and if they themselves were haggard looking or tired, it was their fault since the means to remedy these problems were easily available. Guilt was--and is--one of the most common appeals used in advertising (Schwartz Cohen 1983)(Tacket) The 1940’s pinup girl was an icon and an inspiration in World War II era in America. Advertisements printed women appearing everywhere and anywhere to boost the morale of wartime Americans. Men wanted to fight for these women, and for the hope to someday return to these women; as well did women want to be them. The forties was a big time for advertising agencies due to the breakout of the infamous television. Being able to see the “ultimate, hands-down wanted human,” actually dehumanized our society even more! Advertising became so sophisticated and manipulative during this time that Congress attempted to curb and regulate the advertising industry. An unsuccessful attempt in 1933 was the forerunner to the successful passage of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938. One of the major components of the law required truth in advertising, as well as disclosing accurate information on package labels. Making deliberately frivolous or misleading claims in advertising became a punishable offense. (Bramble) On the flipside, advertising also encouraged women TO stay at home. Many women’s magazines explained that it was unimportant to worry about lives outside the home; they were meant to be Housewives, strictly inside their home. Housewife roles picked up as consumerism increased. The desire to have fancy appliances at home, or ride around in style in new, shiny cars amplified as advertisers saw this as a time to grow. Knowing that these materialistic things had so much influence on women, they sought out advertisements solely for women; to make sure they felt targeted where as if they did not have a certain item, then they should be entirely ashamed of themselves. Advertising fascinated women, seeing what they wanted in such a pristine manner affected the way in which they went about in society. Making sure they had that certain image, became the main, yet extremely detrimental motive. Be glad you're dumb…They don't affect you nearly so much as a lot of other things much nearer home….The great problems of the world are all Greek to you—but the problems of your home and family and community are right down your alley. Be glad you're dumb while your husband is saving the world—be brave and you can save the home. (Matthews 1987)(Tacket) Women have always had such a strong influence in society and it is so sad to see that much of that was tormented and thrown around from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Being taught one way when you’re younger, only to grow up and learn that that has become obsolete had a heavy impact on women. The consistent role changes that advertising encouraged women to take on, was completely wrong and shameful. The severe economic shifts between each decade created such havoc in the minds of society that many looked for ways to raise their spirits. As times were high, people continued with a prosperous dignity. But as times were low, people found themselves obsessing over products that made them feel better, but did nothing to lesser their financial woes. In this decade, termed the "Roaring Twenties", jazz journalism2 was dominant. The press was often preoccupied with entertainment, rather than concentrating on reporting significant stories or interpreting news events. Typical stories glorified celebrities and built up sordid events, such as murder trials, into national sensations. The tabloids thrived on controversy. To gain readership and denounce tabloids, respectable publications would print opinions, such as: "Tabloids are turning readers into witless gossips, gutter vamps and backyard sheiks. 3 People during the twenties became fond of the rich and the famous. As the times proved to be prosperous with economic growths and spending, the nation felt that as an individual they could do the same. However, that proved false even though the Golden Twenties4 deluded people with the image of continuing this lifestyle for eternity. However when the major Wall Street crash hit, people were left with close to nothing.
The economy had been thriving on what seemed to be the next Golden Age. As of then, the technological advances of radios, automobiles, aviation, telephone communication and the power grid were set in stone. However, as stocks reached their highest value, some never reaching it again for another 25 years5, the economic stability soon began to wobble. On October 24th. 1929 (“Black Thursday”), the market lost almost 11% of its value on the opening bell. On October 29th, 1929 (“Black Tuesday”), 16 million stocks were traded and the market lost another 12%. This would lead the next ten years into what is known as The Great Depression. 5 Publishers became economically squeezed as circulation and advertising profits declined… The press faced scrutiny from the public as many jobless Americans began to examine and criticize the newspapers on their content and impact…Radio advertising bloomed in the 1930s. The messages of radio advertising were similar to that of mass magazine advertising. Advertisers paid less attention to the special qualities and focused more on what people wanted or hoped to be. They claimed their products helped people feel young, rich and envied. For example, Listerine (a mouth wash) presented weekly stories of how "lives were ruined forever" because of bad breath. 6 Advertisers found themselves in a pinch and thought that they could regain their own stability by creating advertisements that were illusional. Many advertisements started depicting people with their future roles. For example, many cigarette and drug advertisements placed an image of “fear” on their ads: one woman as she is now, with a dark, shadowy image of her twenty years from now, having gained fifty pounds and wrinkled. They targeted people who didn’t have money by promising them a “Free First Trial” effect, which in the end, ultimately created more addiction. 7
The nation had also adopted the way of Credit. 8 The ability to not always present the money immediately when purchasing items, got carried away very quickly. Many people began to think that their credit would be repayable when they had the money again. That holds true until, people began overextending themselves. They purchased when 1) they forgot how much built up credit they already have or 2) purchased knowing that they would never be able to pay back their credit. As credit became more and more prevalent, advertising saw this as one spark that they could ignite. While the advertising agencies were aware of credit, they made it their goal to make their advertisements even more decadent and rich. The desire became too strong when many people were forced to give up everything, only to be left with nothing.
It was a welcomed distraction to be lured by products and brands. Advertising exposed people to what they could possibly have, installing higher aspirations with an even bigger gap from reality. Advertise: to announce or praise (a product, service, etc.) in some public medium of communication in order to induce people to buy or use it. 9 The goal of advertising holds some truth, trying to gain exposure for companies, individuals, products, etc. that are at benefit to the audience. However, when the line gets crossed from aiding and encouraging purchases, to false advertising and changing the ways of society, then the nation faces serious problems.
Advertising at its best can educate consumers about new products and services that can help them improve their lives. It also increases sales so that companies can produce products at lower costs and make products cheaper. Advertising helps the economy and gives jobs to many people. 10 When used properly, the nation can benefit from advertising. This leads to people being able to aspire to the wants and desires, encouraging them to work and try harder to be able to have these amazing items. However, what advertising also does is create a greater divide between the have’s and have not’s. It was so easy to see, and still is, who had the wealth back then. It was easy to distinguish who lived the affluent lifestyle by the new cars they drove, ne homes they lived in or their social nightlife Advertisements tormented people by showing them what they could “have” versus “need.” It created a division between people by creating a class where you could have the things desired while there were many people who could not come close to affording anything. “Through advertising, people sometimes buy products that they may not need and often cannot afford. This leads to increased personal debt. It also leads to a throwaway society – goods are thrown away and more pollution and waste is produced.” 10
As decades continue and as technology advances, advertising becomes more of a statement. It entices people to see what there is out in the world, but it also creates more of an imbalance within society. Advertisements themselves can be useful, they can provide a means of true exposure, but they can also become demeaning. Throughout the twenties, people saw the time to involve themselves and experience new adventures. Advertisements helped provide the baseline of introduction to society. However, when they start to promote different social skills that is when we need to question the ethics. During the thirties, it was supposed to be a time of encouragement; not a time of taunting. Advertising agencies were hit hard as well, and its difficult to understand why they didn’t take the measures like everyone else in society. Advertising needs to be relatable, not judgmental and stereotypical to one certain part of society. The forties reinvented and re-blossomed many of the past ideals and desired products. But we should always question whether the agencies have ever crossed the line. Nowadays, we struggle with models and Photoshop, and the struggles to believe in yourself. It is not fair for citizens to look at advertisements and then question themselves. We need to go back further than just the twenties to really understand how and when and why advertising took a plunge off the deep end. Advertisements should be attractive, but not end up creating a false society in which the nation is left contemplating what is right and wrong.