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The greatest advertising medium in the world is radio.
—Rudy Vallée, 1930

  1. 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 first burst of radio’s popularity. It will examine how this new communications technology became conceptualized and employed as an advertising medium.2 This essay charts the slow rise of radio advertising through the subsequent processes of informing reluctant advertisers of radio’s 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 long-running Fleischmann Hour with Rudy Vallée.

  2. Before proceeding, however, it must be understood that the rise of radio—and advertising—can 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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 Printer’s 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 211).

  5. 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, and broadcasters had educated 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 company 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).

  6. The Thompson Company staff meeting minutes reveal a good deal of proselytizing on behalf of radio by members of the agency’s 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).

  7. Attempts to convince colleagues continued in other company venues. J. Walter Thompson’s News Letter from September 15, 1928, displayed on its first page an article by one of the company’s 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 and 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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. Strasska’s 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).

  10. 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 children’s 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 consumption—by suggesting Kellogg cereals, not only for breakfast but for lunch, after school and the evening meal. It’s another evidence of the Kellogg policy to build business—and it’s 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 program’s 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, a “radio 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.

  11. Just as radio men—and they were mostly men—in 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).

  12. 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     2     3     4     Works Cited

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. Wakeman’s bestselling novel on the advertising industry.

7. Merchandising was an important consideration for sponsors; in 1929, NBC produced a booklet for potential advertisers. 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.


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