Advertising Gets Respectable
Advertising Gets Respectable
The Early Agencies. Unlike contemporary advertising agencies, which work for advertisers, most agencies of the 1870s worked for publishers or acted as independent brokers between advertisers and the media. A typical agency employed a staff of five: the principal, whose name the agency bore; an estimate man who dealt with rates and expenses; a bookkeeper; a clerk; and an office boy. There were no such things as copywriters, marketing departments, or account executives. Most newspapers derived less than a third of their income from advertising. In 1870 the total revenue from newspaper advertising amounted to $16 million; by 1900 it had grown to $95 million.
A Shadowy Business. Advertising was not regulated by the government, nor did it have a voluntary code of ethics. Publishers routinely lied about the circulations of their newspapers and magazines in order to charge higher advertising rates. Advertisements made claims that often bore little resemblance to the truth and offered outrageous enticements. Claims for gold mines, oil wells, cure-alls, and foolproof investment opportunities regularly appeared in all manner of publications, and the public had not developed the innate skepticism shared by many consumers a century later.
Patent Medicines. The most heavily advertised commodities of the 1880s and 1890s were nonprescription medicinal “cures” for everything from lethargy to cancer. One patent medicine purveyor bragged, “I can advertise dish water, and sell it, just as well as an article of merit. It is all in the advertising.” Some of the concoctions were harmless, while others contained addictive proportions of opium, morphine, or alcohol. By the turn of the century the annual revenue in this industry reached $75 million each year. The most heavily advertised product of the 1880s was St. Jacob’s Oil, a so-called all-purpose cure. It was initially called Keller’s Roman Liniment, supposedly because it was the secret behind the success of Caesar’s legions, but the public did not buy it. The name was changed to St. Jacob’s Oil, and the manufacturer claimed that it was made by monks in the Black Forest of Germany. It sold well, but the manufacturer stopped advertising, and the public stopped buying it. Meanwhile Drake’s Plantation Bitters cured a variety of ailments and were advertised on the sides of barns, houses, and rocks along the train route from New York City to Philadelphia. The cryptic slogan “S.T. 1860X” accompanied the advertisements. Dr. J. H. Drake insisted the slogan was meaningless, but one cynical observer claimed it meant “Started Trade in 1860 with Ten Dollars Capital.”
Growth and Reform. Slowly the advertising industry began to reform and regulate itself. Publishers swore to the accuracy of their circulation figures; national campaigns were conducted on behalf of reputable products; advertising became more honest. Francis Wayland Ayer, a Baptist Sunday-school superintendent, started a Philadelphia advertising firm in 1869 and counteracted the image of the advertising agent as con man. His “open contract” became the norm for the advertising business by clearly stating the exact financial terms between publisher and advertiser. At the same time, the explosion in manufacturing capacity after the Civil War helped businessmen see the profitability of increasing knowledge and demand among potential consumers. The first products that manufacturers marketed in this way were small household products that they wanted consumers to buy repeatedly, such as soap. These industries became the heaviest advertisers, later even spawning their own broadcasting genre, the radio and television soap opera.
The First Copywriter. In 1874 John Wanamaker, who had started a dry-goods store in Philadelphia after the Civil War, announced a fixed-price policy and a money-back guarantee. His business boomed, and in 1880 he hired an employee whose sole responsibility would be writing advertisements, the first copywriter. John E. Powers, who deliberately cultivated an air of mystery about himself, was not well known or well liked, but he became the most influential advertising man of his day. He first convinced Wanamaker to change the name of his Grand Depot store, since Americans always mispronounced depot. Powers’s advertisements were full of understatement and near deprecation of the goods. In the “great, rough, unhandsome store,” prices were “pretty apt to be below the market,” for goods that “look better than they are, but worth a quarter, we guess.” The public loved this peculiar style, and sales volume doubled within a few years. Powers’s relationship with Wanamaker was a rocky one: he was fired in 1883, rehired the next year, and then fired for good in 1886.
Magazines Open Up. The polite magazines of the late nineteenth century accepted only a few advertisements for the back of each issue. It took another advertising pioneer, J. Walter Thompson, to change the minds of editors. He helped put advertisements between the covers of thirty-five publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Century, Harper’s, Lippincott’s, God-ey’sy Petersons, and North American Review. When the Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post grew popular, their publisher, Cyrus H. K. Curtis, was determined to keep them—including the content of their bountiful advertising—respectable and serious. By the end of the nineteenth century, advertising was a $500 million-a-year business and constituted 3.2 percent of the gross national product. The largest agency employed more than 160 people, and the potential growth of the business had not yet been glimpsed.
Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators (New York: Morrow, 1984);
Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994).