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Advertising and its methods put 'on trial' in the 1930s, author says

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor
217-333-2894; cdchambe@uiuc.edu

6/26/2006

Inger Stole
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Inger Stole, a professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois is the author of “Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s,” being published in July by the University of Illinois Press. 

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In the current world of product placement, cross-promotion, pop-up ads, and ad-driven politics, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when advertising as an institution was severely challenged.

We’ve come to see advertising as a given, “as part of who we are,” says Inger Stole, a professor in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In the 1930s, however, advertising and its practices faced “ferocious political opposition” in the U.S., Stole writes in her new book “Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s,” being published in July by the University of Illinois Press.

The book chronicles the now little-known story of how a consumer movement rose to prominence in the late 1920s, its participants reacting to a commercialized environment almost unknown just a few decades earlier.

A prime target of the movement was advertising, which was viewed by many Americans as “business propaganda” and as “a controversial, even scorned, undertaking,” Stole wrote. The movement objected to the industry’s view of consumers as “helpless and irrational” and to its reliance on image and emotional appeal, often playing to people’s fears and insecurities.

Instead, the consumer advocates wanted advertising that provided only legitimate product information, such as that required by any business or government purchaser, Stole wrote. Because it failed to provide that, they believed that advertising “was not just flawed … it was antidemocratic,” she wrote.

The leaders of the movement wrote several best-selling books, with titles such as “Your Money’s Worth: A Study in the Waste of the Consumer’s Dollars” and “100,000,000 Guinea Pigs,” which dealt harshly with advertising in the context of other consumer issues. They formed organizations such as Consumers’ Research and Consumers Union, published a popular magazine called Ballyhoo that lampooned well-known ads, and lobbied for legislation that would include regulation of advertising.

“The emergence of radio broadcasting in the 1930s as an explicitly advertising-based medium also fanned the flames of public discontent with advertising,” Stole wrote. In fact, the story of the consumer movement in the 1930s strongly resembled that of the struggle over U.S. broadcasting regulation that played out over the same period.

The advertisers and their advocates fought back with new techniques of corporate public relations, recasting their case for the benefits of advertising and working to discredit the movement, according to Stole. At one point late in the decade, that effort even included “red-baiting,” accusing parts of the movement of being infiltrated with communists.

Because most newspapers, magazines and radio stations were dependent on advertising by the time of the movement, “the media basically did not write or say much about this process,” Stole said. “Thus most people were unaware of the issues at stake.”

Ultimately, consumer activists lost their battle for legislation and regulation, settling for a severely watered-down bill, the 1938 Wheeler-Lea Amendment, still the main law regulating advertising, Stole wrote. “Advertising never again faced a direct challenge to its legitimacy.”

“It was a period, however, when things could have gone quite differently,” Stole said, and the history of the movement may hold as much relevance today as it did in the 1930s, if not more.

In today’s environment, “most Americans logically assume that advertising is a given, that it is a natural institution built into the American experience, much like free enterprise and its governing institutions. Nothing of the sort is true,” Stole wrote.

Modern advertising grew out of significant changes in capitalism toward the end of the 1800s, and did not really mature until the 1920s, after World War I, she wrote.

The consumer advocates of the 1930s “would very well have remembered a time when advertising was virtually nonexistent, or at least very, very marginal,” Stole said. And they “understood something we have since forgotten: In our self-governing society the role and nature of advertising and commercialism should be determined by the citizenry,” she wrote.

Commercial speech does not enjoy the same First Amendment protection as political speech, and “everyone seemed to get that in the 1930s,” Stole said. Even in our “hypercommercial society,” she said, the public needs to remember that advertising is an institution that “if we want, we have the power to regulate it back to a way we find more suitable to the way we want to govern society.”