The greatest advertising medium in the world is radio.
Rudy Vallée, 1930
- Music has power. Musicians know it, listeners
know it. And so do advertisers. The story here begins
with the early history of broadcasting immediately following the
burst of radios popularity. It will examine how this new communications
technology became conceptualized and employed as an advertising medium.2
essay charts the slow rise of radio advertising through the subsequent
processes of informing reluctant advertisers of radios usefulness,
translating print advertising techniques into sound, and the debates
over which music to use in broadcast advertising. There is also a consideration
of two programs, the early Aunt Jemima, and the popular and
Fleischmann Hour with Rudy Vallée.
- Before proceeding, however, it must be understood
that the rise of radioand advertisingcan only be grasped
in a larger framework of changing patterns of American consumption.
This is a topic of growing interest among scholars (with important recent
books by Gary Cross and Lizabeth Cohen, among others), so this is only
the briefest of introductions. Simply put: mass production necessitated
a rise in wages that allowed workers to participate in the economy as
consumers. Coupled with this development, the increasing banalization
of work with the implementation of Taylorist and Fordist models of management
and production also meant that the consumption of goods and services
came to occupy a larger role in American life. As American workers were
transformed into consumers, the old American ideals of thrift and self-sacrifice
ceased to serve an economy that increasingly demanded spending (Rubin
24). To quote one observer from 1935: As modern industry is geared
to mass production, time out for mass consumption becomes as much a
necessity as time in for production (Ware 101).
- The growth of consumption in this period was
aided by changes in American spending habits: the practice of credit
rose, and the use
of the installment plan accelerated greatly in the beginning of the
20th century.3 Settings of
consumption increased the allure of purchased goods, as department
stores became increasingly like churches, temples of consumption (Cross
29).4 And of course, advertising,
a young field in the early part of the 20th century, was instrumental
in shifting Americans toward this new mode of consumerism.
- Advertisers were well aware of their mission,
which they conceived of not simply as selling goods, but as promoting
the idea of consumption
itself. The influential trade magazine Printers Ink said
in 1923 that advertising was a means of efficiently creating consumers
and homogeneously controlling the consumption of a product (Senator 152,
quoted by Ewen 33). An entry in The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences in
1922 said that what is most needed for American consumption is
training in art and taste in a generous consumption of goods, if such
there can be. Advertising is the greatest force at work against the
traditional economy of an age-long poverty as well as that of our own
pioneer period; it is almost the only force at work against Puritanism
in consumption (Lyon 475, quoted by Ewen 57). Advertising, to
put it bluntly, was viewed by its practitioners and proponents as a
force of modernization, designed to obliterate customs of ages, to
remove the barriers of individual habits of limited thinking. Advertising
viewed itself as at once the destroyer and creator in the process
of the ever-evolving new. Its constructive effort [was] ... to superimpose
new conceptions of individual attainment and community desire (Hess
- Selling and buying were thus the order
of the day in the 1920s. Radio, in effect, was sold
to the American public. Just as radio aficionados, the radio industry,
the general public about the potential benefits of radio, advertising
agencies and sponsors had to be appealed to as well.5 When
public awareness of radio emerged in the mid-1920s, advertising agency
Radio Department staff members devoted much of their time to informing
their clients about what radio, and advertising on the radio, was all
about. They had to promote radio to their colleagues who had learned
advertising as a print business, and who saw themselves as rather highbrow,
especially at the J. Walter Thompson Company, the biggest company in
America at the time; Stanley Resor, who with others had purchased the
from Thompson himself in 1916, was the first head of a major advertising
firm who had a college degree, and his was from Yale. To Resor and
others in the advertising industry, radio was not simply unknown and
chancy compared to print advertising, it ran the risk of being offensive
in that it was difficult to ignore, since the consumer could not simply
turn the page as in a print ad. (The J. Walter Thompson Company will
be the focus of much of the following discussion because of the availability
and usefulness of its archives).
- The Thompson Company staff meeting minutes
reveal a good deal of proselytizing on behalf of radio by members
of the agencys
newly-formed radio department. The first head of this department, William
H. Ensign, defended radio to his bosses and colleagues in the meeting
of July 11, 1928. Ensign began his report by saying that as far
as J. Walter Thompson is concerned, the latest developments are along
lines of loss of ground rather than making progress as far as billing
is concerned, because two of its clients had decided to cancel
most of their radio programs. Ensign nonetheless defended the new medium:
radio was not the problem, but the clients cold feet, and once
new sales data were in, the clients could be urged to resume broadcasting.
Ensign went on to mention broadcasting plans for other clients, and
then introduced his main evidence in favor of radio: that 15
national advertisers and 6 semi-national or local have entered the
ranks of broadcast advertisers in the previous six months, and
he included a list of Thompson competitors who had started radio departments
(J. Walter Thompson Company Staff Meeting Minutes, Box 1, Folder 5).
- Attempts to convince colleagues continued
in other company venues. J. Walter Thompsons News Letter from
September 15, 1928, displayed on its first page an article by one
of the companys
first radio program producers, Gerard Chatfield, who was a classically-trained
musician formerly employed by the National Broadcasting Company. He
began his article, Advertising Agency Should Recognize and Use
Radio, by writing that radio broadcasting has become a
major medium in record-breaking time. It should be considered as such
not as a freakish mystery, a plaything or an experiment. It is simply
another means of gaining entrance into approximately 10,000,000 of
the most prosperous homes in the United States (Chatfield 1).
These homes were the most prosperous because radio was still something
of a luxury item for many families in this period.
- In the staff meeting of April 3, 1929, Henry P. Joslyn (who had succeeded
Ensign the previous month) provided several examples of how music had
been used on the air to sell products. His first and best example concerned
the Lucky Strike Hour, described as a straight jazz program
of dance music, interspersed with the reading of anti-fat testimonials
taken from the printed advertising, read by the announcer. No
famous jazz orchestra was hired, no name, such as Paul Whiteman,
was used to make this campaign stand out. No gimmicks. George
Washington Hill, the imperious president of Lucky Strikes parent
company, American Tobacco Company, wrote to the president of the National
Broadcasting Company, which aired the program, to say that sales went
up in excess of 47 percent, an impressive figure since the American
Tobacco Company had suspended most of their other advertising during
a two-month trial period of advertising on the radio.6
- Joslyn also listed some local examples, such as the so-called spot advertisements
that aired on one station with a link, or what was called a tie-in,
to a local dealer or local product. An example is Dr. Strasskas
Toothpaste, which sponsored a program in Cleveland featuring a Mr.
[Charles W.] Hamp, who sang, played instruments, cracked jokes
and otherwise stirred up the air for twelve weeks during the dinner
hour, every day. Joslyn and John Ulrich Reber, who was soon to
replace Joslyn as head of the Radio Department, both agreed that the
show was terrible, and that Hamp has no particular form or class. This
ultimately did not matter, however, because the people who buy
toothpaste like it. The radio show, combined with a program in
some department stores that gave away free samples of the then-unknown
toothpaste, resulted in 8,412 requests for samples; local stores sold
47,500 tubes (J. Walter Thompson Company Staff Meeting Minutes, Box
1, Folder 7).
- Erik Barnouw writes that in a June 1932
issue of Chain Store Management magazine,
the Kellogg Company told its dealers how merchandising through the Singing
Lady program, a childrens show, was working:
Just think of this: 14,000 people a day, from every state
in the Union, are sending tops of Kellogg packages to the Singing Lady
for her song book. Nearly 100,000 tops a week come into Battle Creek.
And many hundreds of thousands of children, fascinated by her songs
and stories and helped by her counsel on food, are eating more Kellogg
cereals today than ever before. This entire program is pointed to increase
consumptionby suggesting Kellogg cereals, not only for breakfast
but for lunch, after school and the evening meal. Its another
evidence of the Kellogg policy to build businessand its
building (quoted by Barnouw 26).
Spot and national advertisements frequently
had a tie-in, often
simply a plain poster or print ad, and frequently more. A brochure about
Ipana Toothpaste produced by NBC in 1928 included photos of the tie-ins
that Ipana provided to customers who wrote in: a Magic Radio Time
Table pad, so that listeners could write down their favorite programs;
a bridge score card; a photo of the Ipana Troubadours, the programs
resident musicians; a card with a paean to the smile. All of these items
had the Iapana name prominently displayed. Then there
was the tie-in material made available to dealers: posters, brochures,
applause card that listeners could take to send in comments on
the program, and more (National Broadcasting Company, Improving the
Smiles of a Nation!).7 By the
mid-1930s, consumers could be positively bombarded by advertisers, as
the figure below shows.
Figure 1. NBC merchandising chart, circa 1936 (National Broadcasting
Company, Broadcast Merchandising 3)
In this figure, the sponsored radio program is represented
as the central advertising force, surrounded by an array
of various modes of print advertising and tie-ins. NBC
is obviously emphasizing the idea of the centrality of
radio broadcasting, and also providing a useful diagram
for how consumerism was entering the home, and American
culture more generally, via every conceivable avenue.
- Just as radio menand they were mostly menin advertising
agencies sold radio to their colleagues, networks proselytized for
radio among advertisers, potential sponsors of programs. Broadcasters,
who made their income primarily by providing facilities and leasing
airtime, were thus constantly wooing advertisers. A document produced
by NBC in 1929 stated boldly that because Broadcast Advertising
appeals to the prospective purchaser through the medium of his ear
instead of his eye, it acts on him in a subconscious manner, supplementing
all other advertising to him employing language from psychology
that increasingly found its way into advertising discourse following
World War I (National Broadcasting Company, Broadcast Advertising:
A Study of the Radio Medium 25).
- NBC and its younger, upstart rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System,
produced countless lavish brochures on products such as Ipana toothpaste,
as well as programs, stars, and their overall stable of entertainers
in order to hype themselves to potential advertisers.8 I
will examine some of these below. First, however, some discussion of
the early history of radio is necessary to lay the groundwork for considerations
of music on the air.
1. Thanks are due to the good people
at the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History,
Duke University, especially Jacqueline Reid and Ellen Gartrell; Michael
Henry at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland;
and Sherry B. Ortner, as always. I would also like to thank the audience
at the University of California, Los Angeles, who heard this paper no
March 11, 2003, for questions and comments that helped improve this paper.
All images are from the Library of American Broadcasting at the University
of Maryland, except where noted.
2. For a treatment of this earlier
period, see Taylor.
3. See Olney.
4. For more on consumption in this
era, see Ewen and McGovern.
5. For a discussion of the efforts
to inform the public about radio, see Taylor.
6. Hill was the model for the authoritarian
and intimidating Evan Llewellyn Evans in Frederic E. Wakemans bestselling
novel on the advertising industry.
7. Merchandising was an important
consideration for sponsors; in 1929, NBC produced a booklet for potential
The first volume was all about broadcasting and programs. In 1930, a
second volume appeared: Broadcast Advertising, vol. 2, Merchandising.
This booklet contained many more merchandising ideas than NBC promoted
in their Ipana Troubadours pamphlet, including program theme song sheet
music, a personal budget book, pamphlets about programs, and more.
8. See, for example, National Broadcasting
Company, Musical Leadership Maintained by NBC.