ADVERTISING IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
the Civil War and World War I, advertising grew tremendously as a field,
though no one thought of it as a science. The United States experienced a
boom in newspaper and magazine publishing funded largely by advertisers. Every
major city had inexpensive competing dailies and a national magazine industry
grew. Advertisements at this time were text-driven with perhaps an illustration
of the product. Extensive information, the kind one might find on a patent
application, was included, as well as information on price.
ADVERTISING AS MASS PSYCHOLOGY
in photographic technology and the emergence of radio definitely encouraged
the move away from text-driven advertising. But major shifts in beliefs
about human nature in the early twentieth century also profoundly changed how
advertisers addressed audience. Freud's psychoanalytic theory posited unconscious
drives, repressed childhood conflicts, and sexual fantasy as the roots
of human action. Behaviorism's stimulus/response model similarly suggested
a determinism to human decision-making. John Watson (1924) even posited a "metaphysical
behaviorism" where the mind and mental states were denied, experience
was reduced to glandular secretions and muscle movements, environmental learning
was stressed over biological factors, and conscious processes (if they
existed at all) were beyond the realm of scientific inquiry. Watson left academia
and brought his philosophy to a Madison Avenue advertising firms of J.
Walter Thompson and Co. and later William Esty, where he closed out his career
as an account executive. (Bogart, 1966, p.3)
As psychology called
into question the Enlightenment vision of humans driven by reason, advertisers
began to attach emotional values like friendship and status to products. Rational
science now conceived of humans as irrational. As reason no longer seemed
like the force driving people, religious rhetoric masked techniques of persuasion.
President Calvin Coolidge speaking to the American Association of Advertising
Agents in 1926 stated his belief that advertising "speaks to the spiritual
side of the trade", that advertisers have "the big responsibility of
inspiring and enobling the commercial world", and that this responsibility was
"part of the greater work of the regeneration and redemption of mankind."
(Twitchell, 1996, p.7) The rational mind provided only a small portion of decision-making;
therefore, the task of convincing people took on mystical qualities.
The unknown, the unconscious and emotions, could be conceived of spiritually,
but needed science to explain and direct the newly discovered forces within
the human mind. And now that the formerly humble field of sales had elements
of a quasi-mystical science, social scientists would be needed to professionalize
So social scientists from academia followed Watson
and migrated to sales. John Alfred Stevenson (1929) was a professor of education
at University of Illinois who also trained 10,000 insurance salesman,
"according to the most up-to-date educational theories". He believed that if
salesmen engaged in "study of principles underlying human behavior", they could
increase "demand which is artificially stimulated by salesmanship". He advised
salesmen to approach their job like scientists, to classify types of pitches
and categorize answers to customers objections. If salesmen followed simple
rules of human behavior, they could build receptivity to a pitch. His rules
for effective interaction included respecting the customer's intelligence,
expressing the exact wishes of the customer, listening as effectively as talking,
showing interest in the customer as an individual (e.g. talk about family
and hobbies), and maintaining a cordial air even after the customer has
refused to purchase. Treating people well, positive reinforcement, creating an
aura of common interest work equally well for the teacher and the salesman.
Science can not predict exactly how people will respond to such social stimuli,
but "human beings are pretty much alike and usually give much the same response
to a given stimulus".
Stevenson's insistence on addressing
the individuality of the customer while believing in the basic uniformity of
human response is a paradox that the advertising industry has never overcome.
Stevenson saw a scientific approach to sales as a great uplifter of mankind,
as the methods could be employed for altruistic purposes as well as the profit
motive. A scientific methodology of human behavior could legitimize a trade
into a profession, at a time when Stevenson saw the reverse happening-- professions
like law and medicine, "becoming so much a business". The salesman
would link company with community.
Advertising literature in the
1920s became infused with academics applying the rhetoric of psychology to
sales. D. Kitsons The Mind of the Buyer (1929) began the tradition of
research that deconstructs "the process of the mind of the buyer". This Professor
of Education at Columbia University devised the process as "attention,
interest, desire, confidence, decision, action, and satisfaction". Stanford psychology
professor Edward Strongs The Psychology of Selling (1929) analyzed
the methods of 300 expert salesmen when confronted with sixty common problems
in the closing of a sale. Survey research methods applied to sales would
professionalize training and a spread knowledge of successful techniques
to all. If sales could be conceived of as "stimulating demand" then academics
could wed the psychologist's knowledge of stimulus and response with the economists
notion of supply and demand. Other professors who contributed to scientific
sales research in the twenties were W.W. Charters, director of the department
of Educational Research at Ohio State, and Delton Howard, professor of
psychology and director of personnel at Northwestern. These pioneer academics,
following the path of John Watson, birthed the rhetoric of scientific advertising
and opened up sales as a possible career avenue for social science researchers.
The advance of academic knowledge into a field that had
formerly seen knowledge of people as a non-academic pursuit created tension.
E.T. Guidlachs (1931) excellent, prophetic Facts and Fetishes in Advertising
represents the efforts of an old-school salesman to come to terms with
the changes in his profession's methods and purposes. He understood advertising
as performing great services for the advancement of civil society in that
it had funded a democratic revolution in literacy. Advertising was responsible
for millions of cheap newspapers in the hands of nearly all citizens. Advertising
did not quiet editors from stirring up controversy, in fact, "the
greater the volume of advertising, the more independent was the managing editor.
. . Wider reading is the direct result of heavier advertising". (Guidlach,
1931, p.589) It had brought newspapers, magazines, and now radio to people
all over the nation. Advertising delivered information and entertainment, promoted
literacy, and supported newspaper reporters' jobs. These tangible societal
benefits he contrasted directly to the supposed claims of emerging theories
of mass psychology.
Guidlach saw the concept of mass psychology
as a "pompous misnomer for mob psychology". He mocked almost religious belief
in "the great spiritual mystic force". Mass psychology "produces the belief
in an aroma or an atmosphere surrounding the product". (Guidlach, 1931, p.302)
Psychological theory posited that advertising "gives birth to specific relations
within individual brain cells, but also to ethereal waves floating about
and around us; until finally with a rush the mass psychology pulls the money
out of a million pocketbooks".(Guidlach, 1931, p.304) He saw a great cleavage
in scientific advertising as between the psychology and the arithmetic.
He believed "the fetish worshippers dwell only in the psychic realms". Guidlach
was perhaps first to note the relationship between advertising and fetish,
or obsession with objects. He wrote at length about the fetishes advertising
He did not like the trend toward enhancing the image
of a product, attaching emotional values to the product by building "semi-conscious
and subconscious impressions in other words an atmosphere" around the
product. Not only was this purpose built on dubious propositions, it moved
advertisers away from their public service function. He believed advertisers
performed a public service when they "do something worthwhile, then tell
us what they have done, while promising to do it again". His hope for the
future was that "those who serve will thrive better than those who first
think of the words and then of the service", but he saw trends
moving in the opposite direction. (Guidlach, 1931, p.553)
from advertising as funder of literacy and information to promoter of fetish
included evils that Guidlach considered. The association of a product with
a particular social status promoted "snobbishness. . . mans lowest emotion.
. . the final rejection of the Message, the message of the brotherhood of man".
(Guidlach, 1931, p.483) Advertising in its new role was no longer a democratizing
force but a promoter of hierarchical thinking.
He also saw
advertising assist to "consolidate industry into the hands of the few". "The
immensity of twentieth century Publicity has made it more difficult for a newcomer
to be heard". (Guidlach, 1931, p.544) The new, better product with distinctive
features may never become known to the customer if substantial advertising
did not accompany improvements. In attempting to influence "word of mouth"
opinions about products, advertising added cost to products and gave advantage
to well-established large manufacturers. He posited that between 1921-1931,
less than twenty new companies engaged in national advertising for the
first time. It was already apparent that the added expense of advertising would
benefit the largest companies disproportionately, limiting both consumer options
and vocational opportunities.
Guidlach joked about the pretense
of "the present dawn of Science in advertising". He seemed aware that the
science had elements of religion--he referred to psychology as "the unknown god"
and "the Unknown One". (Guidlach, 1931, p.9) He believed sales to be a pseudo
-science, or more accurately, "a game". He knew plenty about behavior change,
and was glad "the game" was beginning to receive respect. He wrote at length
about human learning processes. He suggested that a request for the slightest
action, active engagement of the customer, was necessary in order to influence
buying behavior. A question was a much more powerful pitch than a statement,
because the question required response. Active "expression would
seem to outweigh scores of impressions passively gained". He clearly
knew peoples learning processes and engaged in concrete wisdom such as "intensity
of momentary interest far outclasses dull repetition in memory value".
(Guidlach, 1931, p. 217) The knowledge of learning and behavior change he
gained through selling stands as much more sophisticated than the crude academic
behaviorism of his day. The insight that passive repetition does not promote
engagement and influence holds true in the classroom as well. Guidlach saw
such knowledge of people and learning as part of the game. The academic knowledge
he found influencing advertising was predicated on grandiose, potentially-dangerous
concepts such as mass psychology.
And in the 1930s, the
advanced industrialized nations of Europe applied mass psychology to inhumane
ends. Hitler's total propaganda system told people what to think with great
success. He masterfully used print, radio, and film to circumvent reason and
compassion. Though not comparable to fascist states in purpose or degree, American
advertising took a similarly ominous position with respect to controlling
people. A CBS radio sales brochure from the mid-30s entitled You Do What
You're Told included the ditty:
9 times out of 10
People do what theyre told.
(Twitchell, 1996, p.88)
In the same decade,
advertisers lobbied successfully to defeat the Wagner-Hatfield Act, which
would have reserved one-fourth of the public radio airwaves for non-commercial,
university-run radio. In the United States, a commercially-driven culture
was insured. And in the 1930s, a physical stimulus-response model of human
nature prevailed in advertising psychology (Percy & Woodside, 1983, p.25) Behaviorism
at its crudest, the stimulus was conceived of as a command, and the
response as the action obeying the command. To the modern ear, propaganda and
advertising from this era may seem too obvious to be effective. We are products
of much more sophisticated models of human motivation. Advertisers avoid
command statements now, though recent beer billboards have commanded "In an
hour, you will want another one" and "in your lifetime, you will drink 14,573
beers". Command statements were once quite common in advertising. When a command
theory of stimulus-response prevailed, "you will" was a natural linguistic
construct for propagandists and advertisers. Guidlach's discomfort with mass
psychology was well-placed. But his skepticism about its effectiveness may
have been naive, as mass psychology aided mass destruction on a global scale.
With World War II, faith in science as a liberating force was shaken, and the
modern era came to an end.