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« If I Were an Editor 6 | Main | Crunchy Cons rereredux »

September 24, 2002

Social History of Advertising


I believe you once expressed the opinion that advertising was the true offspring of the traditional visual arts, serving business today with the same subtlety and skill as painting, sculpture and architecture once served church and state. I got to thinking about this, and I guess there’s not much question in my mind that advertising is sort of the “essence” of all pop culture art forms, the way math is the "essence" of the hard sciences.

So over the weekend I picked up a book by Philippe Lorin on “5 Giants of Advertising.” While this book reads as if it had been written to the publisher’s specs in about a week (and then translated into English), it did introduce me to a remarkable individual, Albert Lasker. Lasker is “the founder of the modern advertising industry” according to the website of the American National Business Hall of Fame. During his life he was a successful journalist, art collector, inspiration behind the creation of the National Institutes of Health, part-owner of the Chicago Cubs and, as you might expect, really rich guy. However, he is remembered in advertising chiefly for creating the first modern American agency, Lord & Thomas, and for playing a significant role in the launching of a whole series of products that changed the way Americans live.

That's Mister Lasker to you

Lasker’s first exposure to changing-the-world via advertising came at the turn of the century while he was a Chicago-based ad salesman and copywriter making a lot of trips to Battle Creek, Michigan. This diminutive city was the epicenter of the newfangled packaged cereal industry, in which as many as 24 companies fought out the “Battle of Battle Creek” for commercial dominance. Eventually Post and Kellog were the last men standing, but the true significance was that by the time it was all over, oatmeal and home-made grits had been replaced across America by packaged cereal. As Lorin observes, “[t]his experience taught him…that a good product supported by advertising could revolutionize consumer habits throughout the country overnight.”

A few years later, Lasker got a chance to try his hand at this game when the California Fruit Growers Exchange (later known as Sunkist) became a client. The fruit growers were in the process of cutting down many of their orange trees, as the current market demand wasn’t large enough to justify the acreage in cultivation. This outraged Lasker (who didn’t like wasting natural resources like mature fruit trees) and led him to suggest that the growers needed to sell Americans on drinking orange juice in addition to eating the fruit. It’s kind of weird to realize that one guy was responsible for the mass consumption of orange juice.

Drink an orange?

No one-hit-wonder, Lasker went on to launch such consumer staples as Pepsodent (the first mass market toothpaste), Kotex (the first mass-market sanitary napkin), and Kleenex (well, you know.) He was also the guiding hand behind Lucky Strike cigarettes and tobacco advertising targeted specifically at women. And this wasn’t just being in the right place at the right time; Pepsodent, Kotex and Lucky Strike had been around and not going anywhere fast for several years prior to his involvement. He wasn't a narrow specialist; he got involved in product and package design, relations with distributors, and when necessary did missionary work with the journalistic community.

In 1926, Lasker entered a new advertising medium – radio, creating the modern radio commercial. And that wasn’t the end of his innovations in radio: Lord & Thomas created the first soap opera to advertise Kleenex, and the Amos and Andy radio show to advertise Pepsodent. Lord and Thomas were the first to broadcast the Metropolitan Opera, "authentic" police and FBI dramas and to chain sponsor football games.

So what does Lasker’s colorful career tell us about pop culture? Well, for one thing, it got me to thinking that the central problem in mass communications—whether artistic or commercial—is the lack of face-to-face feedback. How does the advertiser or artist know what their audience/target market is looking for, what they’ll like, what they’ll reject? Obviously Lasker would have to be judged very, very highly at his ability to guess what the American consumer of his day would go for. Today market research is widely used in popular culture to address this problem. Lasker, interestingly, was utterly contemptuous of such research (he also despised art directors--don't even ask why.) And it's not as if Lasker cultivated the common touch; he called everyone Mr. or Mrs. So and So and expected them to call him Mr. Lasker in return. I suspect Lasker mistrusted research because he was passionately interested in new products (hell, revolutionary products if at all possible). He wanted to lead people to the promised land, not merely mirror their own thinking back to them. As Lorin notes, “[l]ike all true romantics, [Lasker] sometimes seemed to be disenchanted, but could equally easily develop intense enthusiasm for some new company, preferably foolish and high-risk.” Perhaps if we had a few more Laskers, we’d have a more vital popular culture.



P.S.--Lasker was also famous for his utter lack of fear of clients; he would call up, say, General Motors and chew them out if they weren’t putting the right features into their Frigidaire line. When Pepsodent sales were slipping, Lasker warned the president that the company needed to be much more aggressive with its new product development. The president demurred, saying that the situation wasn’t so bad; Lasker replied that he was reminded of a man who had fallen off a thirty story building, and was overheard to say, as he passed the fifteenth floor, “so far so good.”

posted by Friedrich at September 24, 2002


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