1930s Radio Captivates a Nation

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Population: 123.2 million (1930), 132.2 million (1940)

Employment: 49.5% employment (1930), 52.2% employment (1940). Peak of 23.6% unemployment in 1932

Presidents: Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

Big names in advertising:

Hill Blackett, Blackett-Sample-Hummert; Ernest Elmo Calkins, Calkins & Holden; John Caples and Roy Durstine, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn; Henry Ewald, Campbell-Ewald; Albert Lasker, Lord & Thomas; Neil McElroy, Procter & Gamble Co.; Conde Nast, Conde Nast Publications; Maurice Needham, Needham, Louis & Brorby; Stanley Resor,

J. Walter Thompson Co. and co-founder of the American Association of Advertising Agencies; Alfred Sloan, General Motors Corp.

The decade that launched Advertising Age started with the Great Depression and ended as World War II was spreading across Europe. In between, the U.S. saw its highest unemployment ever and the Dust Bowl, the worst drought in U.S. history, running from 1931-39. Prohibition came to an end in 1933, the same year the New Deal was passed. Technological innovations were offering amazing promises, from the advent of frozen foods to air-conditioning to commercial air travel. The Empire State Building opened in 1931 and the Boulder Dam in 1936. Motion pictures and radio were changing people's concepts of leisure time, providing unheard-of entertainment for the masses. And despite the lean times, advertising was hard at work, pushing the transformation and the hope that recovery was, truly, just around the corner.


The 1930s saw a number of new ad agencies join such older shops as Lord & Thomas, J. Walter Thompson Co. and Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn. Two old-line agencies merged in 1930 to form McCann-Erickson. William Esty & Co., which became the Camel cigarette agency; D. P. Brother, with client Oldsmobile; and Campbell-Mithun, which would handle General Mills, launched in 1933. And Leo Burnett Co. and Kudner Agency opened in 1935. Each was soon making waves in radio, and by the end of the decade, many were opening radio departments in Hollywood to be near the film industry, with which they shared stars, scripts and properties.

The agencies were also becoming increasingly savvy about radio buys, making "spot" buys in key markets for clients who couldn't afford national, network radio advertising. At the same time, technology was being developed that required more accountability from agencies. In 1930, the Association of National Advertisers began checks of radio broadcasts to analyze radio "circulation," using Crossley Inc. In 1936, two professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a machine they called the Audimeter. A.C. Nielsen Co. later adopted the machine to start its own radio ratings plan.

On the marketer side, new products were cropping up, thanks to advances in technology, and a new system was introduced that would revolutionize marketing: brand management, an idea developed by Neil McElroy of Procter & Gamble Co. Another idea that would catch on was the 15% commission agency compensation system, supported in a report by University of Chicago professor James Webb Young. But the debate over the system proved to be a lasting factor as well.

The decade saw the launch and expansion of frozen foods, thanks to advances in refrigeration; the debut of Oscar Mayer's Wienermobile in 1936; and the birth of consumer campaigns for air travel, with Boeing Air Transport Co. touting the speed of its service-only 20 hours from Los Angeles to Chicago.

By 1939, P&G was the leading national advertiser, according to Advertising Age, spending $11.2 million in magazines, network radio and farm papers. General Foods Corp. was second at $7.3 million, and General Motors Corp. was third with $7.2 million. Overall, the top 10 advertisers spent $57.2 million.

The 1930s closed with a scandal in the ad world when it was found that Tower Magazines had submitted false circulation figures to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The publisher and other executives were convicted; the Audit Bureau, suffering from a blow to its reputation for not auditing the numbers, undertook major reforms that ultimately strengthened its credibility.

New media

Radio as a mass medium was still relatively new as the 1930s began. Only two out of every five American homes had a radio in 1931. While radio in the U.S. had developed by now into a commercial medium, as opposed to a public one, it wasn't until passage of the Communications Act of 1934 that the idea was set in stone. Despite the Great Depression, network radio's ad revenue grew from $18.7 million in 1929 to more than $80 million by the 1930s' end. That growth was due to the influence of the advertising agencies.

Seeing an opportunity to promote their clients, agencies started developing programming that they then placed on radio stations-a system that would continue through the early years of TV, ending only with the quiz show scandals of 1959, when media owners reclaimed their airwaves. Putting together their own radio departments, agencies produced variety shows, comedies, adventure series and prime-time dramas. J. Walter Thompson Co. produced "Fleischmann's Yeast Hour" with Rudy Vallee, while Young & Rubicam offered up "The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny." Perhaps the most prolific agency was Blackett-Sample-Hummert, thanks to the powerhouse team of Frank and Anne Hummert, who developed daytime serials, or the "soap opera," such as the long-running "Ma Perkins" for P&G.

While the majority of marketers approached the new medium with taste and subtlety, one, in particular, stood out for taking the opposite tack: Lucky Strike cigarettes and its agency, Lord & Thomas, became symbolic of everything that was rude and intrusive about advertising. Its campaigns, created under the supervision of American Tobacco Co. Chairman George Washington Hill, were aggressive and endlessly repetitive.

Print, meanwhile, was running strong as the decade started, with U.S. ad volume in newspapers and magazines in 1929 at about $1 billion. The decade saw the launch of such long-running consumer publications as Fortune, Esquire, Life, United States News (which eventually would merge with World Reports), News-Week and Glamour.

And, as the decade closed, another medium surfaced: TV. On April 20, 1939, President Roosevelt opened the New York World's Fair before an RCA TV camera in what is considered to be the first commercial TV broadcast.

Everyday life

In the 1930s, 44% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, compared with 19% in 2000. Overall, 40.9% had telephones. According to Colgate-Palmolive Peet, only 40% of Americans brushed their teeth.

Radio as entertainment was relatively new in the 1930s. For the most part, the public found the fare entertaining, but the power of the medium was brought home in 1938 with Orson Welles' presentation of "The War of the Worlds" on "Mercury Theatre on the Air" for CBS; a mass panic hit when people who tuned in late, many switching from the popular "Chase & Sanborn Hour," missed disclaimers and thought they were hearing actual news reports of a Martian invasion.

While most people gathered around the radio console at home, International Radio Corp. in 1933 introduced "the first and only pocket radio." Weighing a mere 2 pounds, the Kadette Junior sold for $12.50, including tubes.

In movies, audiences in 1935 were treated to the first three-color Technicolor film, "Becky Sharp," starring Miriam Hopkins. It was followed two years later by the first full-color, full-length animated film, "Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs." "All Quiet on the Western Front" won the Academy Award for best picture in 1930, and "Gone With the Wind" was the top film in 1939 (beating "The Wizard of Oz"). Audiences flocked to see such stars as Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Charles Laughton, Claudette Colbert, Helen Hayes and Jackie Cooper (with shorts by the Three Stooges, just in their Curley years).

On the music front, popular artists included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer and Aaron Copland. And for reading, people turned to novels by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright built Fallingwater in southwestern Pennsylvania, and Grant Wood painted "American Gothic," marking the start of the American regionalist style.

In sports, Ford Motor Co. became the first sponsor of the World Series in 1934. In 1935, the Kentucky Derby was broadcast for the first time, sponsored by Brown & Williamson. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, African-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field events, setting new records in all but one and destroying German Chancellor Adolf Hitler's attempt to prove the superiority of the Aryan race (but Mr. Owens still had to ride in the back of the bus when he returned home). And in 1939, New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, retired and told fans in Yankee Stadium that he was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

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