Through the 1800s, the company used branded powder flasks and broadsides to advertise the company and to emphasize the importance of gunpowder to the nation. Du Pont's Eagle brand powder used the slogan, "Matchless for its power. Strong, swift and fatal, as the bird it bore." Entering the smokeless powder and dynamite markets after the Civil War, the company controlled 36% of the U.S. powder market at the turn of the 20th century.
By 1902, however, Du Pont was in such poor financial condition that it was sold to Alfred I. du Pont, a great-grandson of the founder (who died in 1834), and two of Alfred's cousins in a leveraged buyout that required only $8,500 cash. Within three years, the company diversified, acquiring 54 companies and increasing its market share to 75%. It quickly became one of the largest corporations in the U.S., manufacturing 56% of the national output of explosives, with $60 million in estimated assets.
The cousins also used a new organizational system based on family tree charts, with levels of managers to run their rapidly growing company. The new structure, which revolutionized American business, was applied by one of the partners to the then-struggling General Motors Corp. Du Pont further diversified when the federal government used an antitrust suit to force the company to sell some of its black powder and dynamite holdings in 1913, on the eve of World War I.
As it sought to acquire and overcome rivals, Du Pont turned to more sophisticated forms of advertising. It targeted farmers needing to clear and plow land, drain flooded fields and even exterminate animal pests as potential new consumers of dynamite. Salesmen distributed free cloth hanger signs along with broadsides, felt counter mats, blotters and calendars. The latter, which first featured the red Du Pont oval insignia in 1907, were hugely popular items in farm households. The most important dynamite advertising appeared in "educational" blasting handbooks and booklets, which promoted Du Pont products as they explained the proper use of explosives.
Du Pont was one of the first U.S. companies to use the fledgling technology of moving pictures to advertise the proper ways to use its products. It paid for 37 copies of a silent film, "Farming With Dynamite," in 1912, showing the movie around the country.
The motion picture and ad campaigns were apparently successful: Building a market where virtually none had existed before, Du Pont sold American farmers around 17 million pounds of dynamite a year by 1920. The company continued to produce similar films, eventually with sound, into the age of TV.
In the early 20th century, corporate diversification led Du Pont into a variety of new markets. The company established one of the first coal-tar dye factories in the U.S., allowing Du Pont to produce paints, varnishes and cellulose, one of the earliest plastics. During the 1920s, magazine ads for Du Pont paints proclaimed that "tinted walls are now the vogue," as consumers were lured from traditional white to colors by many manufacturers.
To sell its new products, Du Pont needed to instruct consumers in their use, so it turned to educational advertising. One of the company's most successful educational efforts was the establishment of a permanent company exhibit on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1916. Before the exhibit closed in 1955, more than 26 million visitors had learned of the wonders of Du Pont chemistry. Traveling exhibits for schools, colleges and even department stores were developed.
World War I and its aftermath proved to be a trying time for Du Pont. The company, which remained a leading producer of explosives despite efforts by the government to curb the "powder trust," produced 1.4 million pounds of smokeless gunpowder between 1914 and 1918. Overall, the company produced 40% of all explosives shot from Allied cannons during the war. It also manufactured chlorine and phosgene, poisonous gases, at a plant in southern New Jersey.
Profits grew accordingly. Gross receipts jumped from $25 million in 1914 to $329 million in 1918. The company had so much extra money that it purchased more than 25% of General Motors Corp.'s stock in 1917 to establish a place to put managers it did not want to keep at Du Pont. (Du Pont remained GM's largest shareholder until 1961, when it was forced to divest its holdings after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its ownership of 23% of GM's stock violated the Clayton Antitrust Act.)
Along with other companies involved in the war industry, Du Pont was singled out for criticism and special taxation during the war. In 1934, a special U.S. Senate committee on the munitions industry alleged that Du Pont had defrauded the government during the war by overcharging for munitions. The company was also accused of selling munitions to both sides. It survived most of the allegations, but was labeled as a "merchant of death" in a famous editorial cartoon published in Forum in 1934. The affair contributed to passage of the Neutrality Act of 1935, prohibiting U.S. companies from selling munitions to belligerent nations.
To survive the debacle and mark a corporate transformation, Du Pont hired Bruce Barton of Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn to personally oversee its advertising. The agency produced a $650,000 program of advertisements, radio programs, films and popular exhibits built on a new corporate theme. Launched in October 1935, "Better things for better living . . . through chemistry" became one of the longest-running slogans in U.S. advertising history, ending in 1999.
Du Pont debuted its new slogan in The Saturday Evening Post and through a new network radio program, "The Cavalcade of America" (1935-53), which emphasized humanitarian ideals.
Through this period, Du Pont continued using displays to educate the public about its products. Its most spectacular exhibit was "The Wonder World of Chemistry," which appeared at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Showcasing all Du Pont's chemical products, it cost $887,000 and was seen by nearly 10 million visitors.
It also featured Du Pont's latest product, nylon, patented on Sept. 21, 1938. To promote its invention, Du Pont took out a page ad in a special pre-World's Fair section of the New York Herald Tribune on Oct. 30, 1938, announcing it would introduce nylon at the exhibition.
In 1939, Du Pont introduced nylon hosiery, worn by live models at the World's Fair. News stories claimed they were "as strong as steel," a contention Du Pont was finally forced to give up. Du Pont sponsored a well-publicized "Nylon Day" on May 15, 1940, in which stores offered nylon hosiery to women for the first time, at the extravagant price of $1.15 a pair. By the end of "N-Day," the entire initial production of 5 million pairs was sold.
The demand for nylon stockings was so huge that Du Pont never met it before World War II forced the company to divert all nylon production to parachutes and other war uses. At the end of the war, a second N-Day, on Feb. 14, 1946, created "nylon beachheads," or "nylon riots," as women battled inside and outside stores to buy nylons as a reward for their wartime sacrifices.
Wartime synthetics such as nylon and neoprene, an artificial rubber developed by Du Pont in 1933, also created a level of consumer acceptance for chemicals that did not exist before the war. But even as Du Pont saw its "merchant of death" label disappearing in the public mind, the nylon shortage led critics to charge that the company was greedy or even unpatriotic. To avoid antitrust litigation, the company eventually licensed the technology to other producers, and Du Pont's favorable rating in opinion polls rose from 47% in 1937 to 84% by 1954.
Plastics and polyester
The postwar years were the era of plastics. Du Pont continued to make raw material plastics and trademarking and publicizing innovations. Delrin, a substitute for zinc and brass, was used in automobiles, as was a molded nylon called Zytel. The latter found its way into roller-skate and skateboard wheels and helped make the skateboard craze of the 1960s possible.
Du Pont tried to imitate the success of nylon with polyester, a synthetic substitute for wool and other fibers in men's suits first marketed in the 1950s. By the 1960s, polyester derivatives had become commonplace, as had permanent-press clothing. A Du Pont polyester film named Mylar changed audio and video tape recording and made boil-in-the-bag and microwave cooking possible. Mylar film was also used in the first satellites.
Teflon, developed the same year as nylon and used to help produce nuclear weapons-grade plutonium during the war, was promoted by Du Pont as a non-stick cooking surface in the early 1950s. However, it was not introduced to consumers until 1961, due to concerns that its fumes caused mild flu symptoms. The company responded in 1962 with a 20-page booklet, "The Anatomy of a Rumor," that debunked the health concerns, but the pamphlet appeared at the same time President John F. Kennedy was trying to convince the public that milk contaminated with strontium-90 was safe to drink. The observation that Teflon had been used to produce the same nuclear material that had filled the atmosphere with radioactive isotopes could not be avoided.
Du Pont made its most serious advertising mistake in 1963, when it introduced Corfam, a synthetic shoe material that promised a scuff-proof leather substitute but never duplicated leather's flexibility. Du Pont and BBDO created a sophisticated advertising campaign to market Corfam as a high-class product, but consumers disliked Corfam's inability to imitate the capacity of leather to shape to a wearer's foot and quickly equated it with cheap vinyl shoes. Du Pont lost $70 million that it had invested in Corfam before abandoning the product in 1971.
But the public's appetite for synthetics began to wane long before the Corfam fiasco. In April 1959, the American Medical Association charged that polyethylene film bags used by dry cleaners had caused four children to die from suffocation in Phoenix. By summer, the media reported that more than 80 children had died through mishaps with the bags, and 10 adults were said to have used the bags to commit suicide.
Instead of effectively defending the company, a Du Pont spokesman blamed "parental carelessness" in the deaths and maintained that the bags were "made to be disposable"—even though Du Pont had previously extolled their reusability. Newspapers and magazines responded by printing photographs of breathless human faces wrapped in transparent plastic film. Better public relations by the Society of Plastics Industry and the introduction of warning labels helped soothe consumer concerns in what was called the "plastic bag war."
Du Pont continued to be plagued by rampant "chemophobia," which intensified during the 1960s and 1970s. Its "Better things for better living . . . through chemistry" slogan was adopted by users of the drug LSD and other synthetically produced hallucinogens. The deployment of napalm and other chemical defoliants in the Vietnam War was a PR nightmare for the entire chemical industry. Earth Day on April 22, 1970, focused additional critical attention on plastics and other nonbiodegradable substances. Du Pont temporarily abandoned its advertising slogan in 1972, although it later reinstated the tagline without the "through chemistry" phrase.
In 1974, the reputation of the company suffered further because of its alleged involvement in the suppression of Gerald C. Zilg's "Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain," a 623-page history of the company and the du Pont family. The book received a positive review in The New York Times and was scheduled to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Then the club withdrew the selection, and the publisher, Prentice-Hall, reduced the size of the first printing. Mr. Zilg charged that Du Pont had launched a corporate plot to scuttle the publication. A federal judge awarded Mr. Zilg almost $25,000 from the publisher for reneging on a contract to promote sales, but the court threw out charges that Du Pont had illegally interfered with sales. The damages were overturned by an appeals court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the verdict in 1984. The book became difficult to find, even in libraries.
The company responded to its increasingly negative public image by diversifying. It acquired the oil, natural gas and coal company Conoco in 1981; started a pharmaceutical operation the following year (that company became Du Pont-Merck Pharmaceutical Co. in 1990); and made acquisitions in the agricultural industry. It also bought Shell Oil's herbicide and pesticide lines, making Du Pont the No. 2 U.S. agricultural chemicals producer. In 1986, Canadian liquor company Seagram bought a large share of Du Pont stock, reducing family control. The following year, Du Pont stopped making explosives, its original product.
"The Miracles of Science"
Foreign competition and a reduction in sales to traditional customers forced Du Pont to reinvent itself a third time in 1998; this time, the company focused on life sciences rather than chemicals. Du Pont divested itself of Conoco in a public stock offering, bought out Merck's share of their pharmaceutical company, bought its shares back from Seagram and formed a partnership with competitor Dow Chemical to continue the innovative research that had been the basis of Du Pont's success for much of the 20th century.
Du Pont also began to market some of its products more aggressively, in particular Stainmaster carpet fiber. A 30-second TV spot from BBDO, first shown during the late innings of the 1986 baseball playoffs, captured consumer attention. The "Landing" spot showed a young child sitting in a high chair, with an airplane-shaped dish in front of him. As an air-traffic controller voice-over cleared a plane for takeoff, the boy sent his dish airborne, flinging its contents onto a Stainmaster carpet. Another spot showed a woman trying valiantly to stop a table full of food from falling on her carpet.
Du Pont's first humorous commercials helped make Stainmaster a consumer success and Du Pont the largest maker of carpet fiber in the country. Combined with nylon, which continued to account for one-quarter of Du Pont's profits in the 1990s, and Lycra, used in Spandex athletic wear and Gore-Tex products, fibers such as Stainmaster became the top brand names and profit makers for the company.
In 1998, Du Pont was named the "most admired" company in the U.S. and global chemical industry by Fortune. It also made Working Mother's list of top 100 companies, was identified as one of the top 50 companies for minority employment by Fortune and was listed as one of the 50 best companies for Hispanics by Latina Style.
Also in 1998, Du Pont changed advertising agencies, making McCann-Erickson Worldwide its corporate agency of record.
The most dramatic advertising change made by the reorganized company was the elimination of its 64-year-old "Better things for better living" slogan. To establish Du Pont's new corporate image as a science rather than chemical company, in 1999 it adopted a new tagline, "The miracles of science," which it launched in a newspaper branding campaign.
In May 2003, Du Pont consolidated its $68 million global account at WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather.