Advertising in the Great Depression

views updated


"Every advertisement is an advertisement for success," claimed an advertising campaign in 1926. During the Depression years of the 1930s, with successes hard to find, the advertising business faced severe challenges. Economic stringency, political attacks, and a need to recast their appeals all made the decade a difficult one for advertisers. Indeed, the advertising industry's achievements during the 1920s in establishing its cultural and economic importance may have made the challenges of the Great Depression more severe.

Spending on advertisements—from local classified ads to major campaigns in national media—plunged by more than 60 percent between 1929 and 1933, and it did not rise above pre-crash levels until after World War II. Although advertising agencies stressed the foolhardiness of cutting back on promotion during hard times and argued that advertising could help lift the nation out of its slump, many businesses, with revenues plunging, viewed advertising as an unnecessary expense.

After initially attempting to slow the economic downslide by exhortation, advertising agencies themselves began to cut back. High-salaried employees were dismissed, and competition for accounts became more intense. Advertisers pressed agencies to accept lower commissions; agencies in turn wooed potential clients away from their rivals. Despite this anxious environment, several new advertising agencies made headway, some by borrowing the florid techniques of tabloid newspapers and comic strips. Other agencies pioneered in radio advertising as commercials became the main support of the medium.

As might be expected, advertising styles did not respond uniformly to the Depression. In the first few years, advertisers recycled themes of more prosperous times. By about 1932, however, there was a notable shift to hard-sell campaigns. Although ads still portrayed an unrealistically affluent, racially and ethnically homogeneous America, ominous threats, fear appeals, and insistent demands to buy became more prominent. As Roland Marchand observed in Advertising the American Dream (1985), campaigns adopted tropes like the "parable of the sickly child" or displayed images of defeated, prematurely aged fathers to warn of the dire consequences of failing to consume the appropriate products. Coupled with this, images of sunbeams promised a hopeful future and clenched fists symbolized the determination to persevere—and purchase—despite hard times.

While advertisements depicted consumers under pressure, the advertising business found itself beleaguered by a reinvigorated consumer movement and the threat of regulation by New Dealers. A bill introduced in 1933 proposed to give the Food and Drug Administration power to prohibit false and misleading advertising of the products it regulated. Advertising interests worked to kill the measure. The 1938 amendments to the Pure Food and Drug Act contained a less stringent definition of "misleading" than earlier versions. The Wheeler-Lea Act, also passed in 1938, gave the Federal Trade Commission explicit authority to act against advertising that deceived consumers. Previously, the Commission's mandate had protected only competitors. The new laws themselves made no dramatic difference to advertisers, but industry efforts to preempt government control by self-regulation, along with public revulsion against the most vulgar publicity of the decade, seems to have reduced blatant dishonesty in advertising during the thirties. Still, as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor approached, advertising leaders saw themselves under siege from power-hungry bureaucrats and radical ideologues.

Despite the Depression-era's adversities, in several ways advertising and the consumer culture it promoted gained ground. In big cities, as Lizabeth Cohen demonstrated in Making a New Deal (1990), economic pressures on workers and their families weakened earlier loyalties to ethnic neighborhood retailers and brought consumers into chain stores offering low-priced, mass-produced products. Commercial radio provided an effective way to reach consumers with national advertising campaigns. In the countryside, inducements to modernize through consumption accompanied drives for rural electrification. By 1940, nearly all homes served by Rural Electrification Administration cooperatives had radios and more than half had washing machines. Although wartime shortages soon replaced the privations of Depressionera America, the industry's struggles during the 1930s marked a delay, not a denial, of advertising's promises of fulfillment through consumption.



Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. 1990.

Kline, Ronald R. Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America. 2000.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. 1994.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940. 1985.

Pease, Otis. The Responsibilities of American Advertising: Private Control and Public Influence, 1920–1940. 1958.

Rorty, James. Our Master's Voice: Advertising. 1934.

Daniel Pope

About this article

Advertising in the Great Depression

Updated About content Print Article