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The selling of wartime needs sold the U.S. on advertising, author says

Inger Stole
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L. Brian Stauffer

Advertising was an embattled and unpopular industry in the 1930s, but World War II gave it the opportunity to turn things around and cement its role in American society, says communication professor Inger Stole, in her new book “Advertising at War.”

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11/27/2012 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While it might be hard to imagine in the midst of the ad-soaked holiday season, there was a time – in the 1930s – when advertising faced fierce opposition from the public.

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Inger Stole's newest book will be published in December. | Photo courtesy U. of I. Press

Then came World War II, and everything changed, says Inger Stole.

Advertisers and the advertising industry helped the federal government sell war bonds and the need for wartime security (“loose lips sink ships”). It promoted “victory gardens” and scrap metal drives. It helped recruit men into the military and women into the workforce (“Rosie the Riveter”).

More than 150 different home-front campaigns in all.

“It was World War II that really consolidated advertising in the American economy and psyche,” according to Stole, a University of Illinois communication professor and the author of “Advertising at War: Business, Consumers, and Government in the 1940s,” to be published in December by the U. of I. Press.

Stole told the story of the pre-war opposition to advertising in her 2006 book “Advertising on Trial.” She described the rise of a consumer movement in the late 1920s and into the 1930s that challenged a commercialized environment almost unknown a few decades earlier.

That movement objected to the industry’s reliance on image and emotions to sell products, and labeled many industry practices as business propaganda and even undemocratic, Stole said. Consumer advocates demanded advertising that provided only legitimate product information and gave consumers “their money’s worth,” she said.

Movement leaders wrote best-selling books, formed organizations such as Consumers’ Research and Consumers Union, and lobbied for legislation that would regulate advertising practices.

They ultimately lost that battle, settling for watered-down legislation in 1938, Stole said. And that’s where she thought the story largely ended.

Through further research, however, Stole found that the true victory for the advertising industry lay in the war years. During those years, she writes, “advertisers turned a situation that by all rational accounts should have worked to their disadvantage into a priceless opportunity to cement their place in a postwar society.”

“I’m still in awe at how they managed to pull this off,” Stole said.

In the years leading up to the U.S. entry into the war in 1941, the advertising industry was still on the defensive, Stole said.

Two federal government agencies were investigating the role of advertising in fostering monopolies and uncompetitive markets. Raw materials were becoming increasingly scarce and production was shifting to wartime needs, causing critics to question the need for advertising consumer goods.

Critics also were questioning the business tax break for advertising at a time when citizens were being asked to sacrifice or risk their lives.

The federal government, however, quickly saw a need to publicize home-front initiatives, Stole said, “and the advertising industry stepped forward as the knight on the white horse.”

Leading the industry’s effort would be the newly formed War Advertising Council (years later to become the Ad Council), and much of Stole’s book focuses on the council’s challenges in balancing politics, public perception and industry participation.

The council essentially acted as a clearinghouse between the government and the advertising industry, Stole said.

When a government office or agency identified a home-front problem in need of publicity, it would consult with the council – which cooperated closely with the government’s Office of War Information – to see if advertising could play a role. If the project moved forward, the council would assign the task of creating an advertising campaign to one of the many advertising agencies that had volunteered to help.

Once the campaign was approved, the council would then work to find manufacturers willing to incorporate the campaign message in their advertising copy or media owners willing to provide space for free.

Sometimes the war-related message might be the central focus of the ad, Stole said. Most commonly, however, an ad combined the war-related message with its product promotion, she said. Quite frequently, an ad’s plea to buy war bonds or salvage scraps was overwhelmed by the advertiser’s quest to sell products.

Getting businesses to participate often required pleading and cajoling by the council, Stole said, and only about a third of manufacturers participated, and at different levels.

By the war’s end, however, the council estimated that the advertising industry had contributed more than $1 billion in time, space and talent to the war effort, Stole said.

As a result, within the span of a few years and continuing after the war, the image of advertising had been transformed, according to Stole.

“The difference between the stature of the advertising industry in the late 1930s and in the early 1950s was almost night and day,” she writes. “Having positioned itself as a patriotic institution able to sell war and peace, advertising was now comfortably established as an essential and non-controversial component of American society.”

Editor's note: To reach Inger Stole, call 217-244-1576; email istole@illinois.edu.

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