Indeed, the conventional wisdom in the early days of modern mass media was filled with paranoia that commercialism would pollute speech. Of course, the history of media has proven exactly the opposite; advertising has liberated the flow of information, not inhibited it.
Through the century, the evolution of media has been remarkably similar. Once those who own the medium come to recognize the fortune to be made by delivering audiences to advertisers-and once the audience comes to realize that given a chance between paying higher subscription prices or viewing ads, they prefer ads-the medium explodes.
Initially, publishing and advertising were joined at the press. Book publishers-from William Caxton, who printed the first book in English in the 15th century, to modern university presses-advertised forthcoming titles on their flyleaves and dust jackets.
So, while we may have been startled years ago when Christopher Whittle marketed his Larger Agenda series of books ("big ideas, great writers, short books") by inserting advertising into what is essentially a long magazine article bound in hardcover, he was actually behaving like a traditional book publisher.
When Whittle published William Greider's "The Trouble With Money"-94 pages of text and 18 pages of Federal Express Corp. ads-book reviewers turned away, aghast. But when Bradbury & Evans published Charles Dickens' "Little Dorrit" in 1857, no reviewer or reader blanched at seeing the bound-in ad section touting Persian parasols, smelling salts, portable India-rubber boots and the usual array of patent medicines.
Until the end of the 19th century, books ruled. Magazines were an afterthought, usually published on the side by book publishers, hence their names-Harper's, the Atlantic and Scribner's. Newspapers were rarely more than local rags passed hand-to-hand in taverns.
In fact, for decades after the Civil War the dominant medium of advertising was not print per se but the trade card. This medium was just that, a card about half the size of a postcard that had an image on one side and text on the other. The trade card was the first of the "free" media. The cards were distributed by "drummers" as they delivered goods to their clients.
The cards were often examples of high lithographic art in the service of selling patent medicine, canned meat and threads. Children often collected these cards; baseball cards are a direct descendant.
Yet it was the lithograph, not the trade card, that is crucial in the history of advertising. By the turn of the century they had become incredibly popular, not just as magazine inserts but as parlor art. "Suitable for framing" was no hollow claim. The photograph and halftone printing only magnified the attraction to magazines.
But as hard as advertising agents tried to get their ads into this format, many of the publishers fought to keep them out. Magazine publishers thought they had to protect their "gentle readers" from the effrontery of advertising.
There is a revealing story about how, at the end of the 19th century, George Rowell, a Boston advertising agent, offered Fletcher Harper $18,000 for the back page of Harper's. Rowell wanted space not for some outrageous patent medicine but for the home sewing machine. Harper kicked him out of the office.
Another time, Rowell asked Harper for circulation figures only to be told they were private. As punishment for Mr. Rowell's audacity, Harper refused to accept his placements for months.
Yet, at about the same time that Harper was denying space to Rowell, a medium-transforming event was occurring in Maine. One of Frank Munsey's magazines was headed to bankruptcy. He owed more than $100,000; in an intuitive stroke of genius, Munsey cut the issue price from 25¢ to 10¢, upped circulation from 40,000 to 200,000 and doubled sales.
What boosted the sales was advertising. He maintained his ad rates at $1 per thousand and guaranteed an audience. For the first time, instead of delivering his magazine to subscribers he was delivering his readers to advertisers.
This was a lesson not soon lost, as the Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan and others followed suit. Ads rapidly started moving to the front. Not only were they interspersed with editorial material, they were becoming the profit center of publishing, replacing subscriptions.
As the great benefactor of Munsey's action, Cyrus Curtis told an audience of advertisers, "Do you know why we publish the Ladies' Home Journal? The editor thinks it is for the benefit of American women. But I will tell you; the publisher's reason is to give you people who manufacture things that American women want and buy a chance to tell them about your products."
The die was cast. From then on, most of the innovations in newsprint were forced on publishers by advertisers. You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages rather than bundled in a ghetto at the back, the "jump" or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalization (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate). The use of b&w photography, then color, sweepstakes and, finally, discounted subscriptions were all pressed on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.
And the publishers fought them every inch of the way. Or, at least, until they did the math. First-copy costs in magazine and newspaper publishing were stupendous. Publishers were forced to pay attention to circulation, to democratize the medium, to move away from "all the news that's fit to print" toward a more sensible "all the news you want to read."
And while magazines and newspapers were profiting from the inclusion of advertising, let's not forget a usually overlooked form of advertising, namely, signage or outdoor advertising. From iconic images hung over a pub's door ("The Gold Fox") to identification characters around a store (the cigar store Indian, the golden balls of a pawn shop) to the current "spectaculars" of Times Square, we have had our landscape littered with notice-me-now images.
What started as sheets pasted on walls and as paint on the sides of barns became, in the 19th century, signs fastened to posts. The car, of course, revolutionized these billboards. As roadways improved, such signs became larger. To accommodate speed, they either unfolded like the Burma-Shave signs or they reached skyward as in the cathedral-like signs of Las Vegas.
Such outdoor advertising has always been a source of contention. From the glut of river-front signs all the way up the Hudson to Albany after the Civil War to the dense saturation of signs that cropped up alongside the interstate, critics were quick to point out the obvious: Such signs rarely bring you necessary information.
After World War I, Westinghouse had a surplus of war supplies: tubes, amplifiers, transmitters and crystal receivers. In November 1920, the company started KDKA in Pittsburgh on the "Field of Dreams" principle: If Westinghouse built the transmitters, Americans would embrace them. It worked. By July 1922, 400 stations had sprung up.
Like users of the World Wide Web today, no one then seemed to care "what" was on as long as they were hearing something.
However, great plans were being hatched for radio. Universities would take advantage of this new way to dispense their high culture by building transmitters. The government would see to this by allocating special licenses just for universities. This medium would never be commercialized.
Yet, there was a fundamental problem. Everyone was broadcasting on the same wave length. When transmitters were placed too close together, the signals became mixed and garbled. AT&T suggested a solution. It would link stations together using its already-in-place phone lines, and soon everyone would hear clearly. It envisioned tying some 38 stations together in a system it called "toll broadcasting."
The word "toll" should have been the tipoff. Someone would have to pay. Ma Bell suggested that time could be sold to private interests, and it called this subsidy "ether advertising."
The suggestion was not an immediate success. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, considered a presidential possibility, warned that it was "inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service . . . to be drowned in advertising chatter." If presidential messages ever "became the meat in a sandwich of two patent medicine advertisements," he said, "it would destroy broadcasting."
Like TV yesterday and the Internet today, the messenger was soon blamed for the message. Commercial radio broadcasting debased American culture with its incessant repetition of mindless humor, maudlin sentimentality, exaggerated action and frivolous entertainment, critics argued. Worse yet, it was forever talking about things-manufactured things, things to buy, things to have in your house, things you can't do without. It was selling us out.
What about those universities? Weren't they supposed to make sure the airwaves were commercial-free? While there were more than 90 educational stations (of a total 732) in 1927, by the mid-1930s there were only a handful. What happened? The schools sold their radio licenses to the burgeoning networks-called "nets" or "webs"-emanating from Manhattan.
In one of the few attempts to recapture cultural control from commercial exploitation, the National Education Association lobbied Sens. Robert Wagner of New York and Henry Hatfield of West Virginia to reshuffle the stations and restore a quarter of them to university hands. The Wagner-Hatfield Bill died aborning, defeated by an almost 2-1 margin.
One of the reasons the Wagner-Hatfield bill foundered so quickly was the emergence of a new cultural phenomenon, the advertiser-supported countrywide "hit" show. Never before had an entertainment been developed that an entire nation-by 1937 more than three-quarters of American homes had at least one radio-could experience at the same time. "Amos 'n' Andy" at NBC had shown what a hit show could do.
David Sarnoff at NBC thought a hit show was the way to sell its RCA receivers and he was partially right-more than 100,000 sets were sold just to hear the minstrel antics of "The Mystic Knights of the Sea."
William Paley at CBS knew better. Hits could make millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Although not yet called a "blockbuster" (that would come with the high-explosive bombs of WWII), the effect of a hit was already acknowledged. One of these hits could support hundreds of programming failures. And it could sell millions of dollars worth of soap and toothpaste.
In truth, TV never had a chance to be anything other than the consummate selling machine. It took 25 years for radio to evolve out of wireless; it took only five years for TV to unfold from radar. And while it took a decade and the Depression to allow advertiser control of the radio spectrum, it took only a few years and economic expansion to do the same with TV.
From the first narrow broadcast, TV was already becoming commercial. The prophetic Philo T. Farnsworth presented a dollar sign for 60 seconds in the first public demonstration of his TV system in 1927. Once Hazel Bishop became a million-dollar company in the early 1950s, based on TV advertising, the direction of the medium was set. It would follow radio.
The great shows of the first generation, the so-called Golden Age, reveal what was happening. Only the corporate behemoths could afford full-hour time chunks for their "Philco Television Playhouse," "Kraft Television Theater," "Firestone Hour" or "U.S. Steel Hour." What about all the little companies?
The big advertisers resisted giving up control of content, but they were goners. Simple economics made it cheaper for the TV networks to sell time by the ounce rather than by the pound, but certain systemic changes had to occur first. Most important, the networks had to recapture programming from the ad agencies.
Although it took extraordinary measures to accomplish this shift from agency control (most notably the quiz show scandals set up by advertising agencies, not networks), it would have happened anyway. The "nets" could make more by selling minutes than by selling half- or full hours. Magazines maximized ad revenue by selling space by the partial page; why not TV?
TV is the primary media force in the material world. Whereas generations ago, growing up was defined by a progression of books read and movies seen, for those born post WWII it has been marked by a progression of catchy TV jingles.
Print took about two centuries to gain currency as a source of communal memory; photography was in general use after 1900; the telephone took half a century to become part of everyday life; and radio was absorbed in 35 years. TV happened overnight. The Internet, of course, happened while we were at lunch.
We need not be reminded of what is currently happening to television to realize what the future holds even before it gets coupled with the computer. MTV, the infomercial and the home-shopping channels are the predictable continuation of this medium. The coaxial cable and the dish antenna have made narrowcasting-every advertisers's dream come true-a staple of more than three-quarters of American homes.
Programmers no longer have to gather their "must-have" audiences. They come fully assembled. ESPN, Discovery Channel, CNN, Lifetime Television and their likes allow a demographic predictability only hinted at in the dayparts of network programming.
Thanks to the remote-control wand, cable and the dish antenna, commercials will continue to migrate from their pods and enter programming. Like product placement in the movies, commercials will be written into the television text just as they had been in early radio. Remember, the first rule of the commercial world is: Given the choice between paying more money or paying attention to ads, we prefer to pay attention to ads.
We are now approaching the central economic principle that links media and advertising. Economists call the process "cost externalization," and if you want to see it at work forget about commercialized media and cruise down to McDonald's.
You order. You carry your food to the table. You clean up. You pay less. You should because you did a lot of work. Now go across the street and buy self-serve gas. You pump the gas. You check the oil. You pay less. In both cases, certain costs are being transferred to you. You are paying, but you are not aware of it because you seem to be saving money. Your payment is your time.
The same condition defines modern media. Television and radio are not "free."
We pay for them by consuming ads. When you turn pages of a newspaper or magazine, you are working, albeit not very hard. Magazines and newspapers would cost at least double if sold only by subscription. Early radio and early television would have been prohibitive.
The problem of the Internet is that, almost from day one, it was never sufficiently expensive. Advertising can pay to splash ink on paper and then deliver that paper to your door, it can pay to broadcast voice and video, but running electrons through a silicon chip is dirt cheap, literally. What cost can advertising externalize?
In retrospect, of course, things seem so simple. Had the Web developed so that you had to pass through screens to get to what you wanted to see, or if it had come with hardwired audio, advertising would have known what to do. But things on the Internet are far more complicated.
The problem, however, is clear enough. As things are now, content cannot be interrupted, let alone really underwritten, by advertising. No quid pro quo means no real foothold for advertising. Screens are not pages and blinking photons over in the corner are not commercial interruptions.
Perhaps-as we're seeing now with various Internet-based advertising schemes-we'll be paid to consume advertising, not by having the infotainment subsidized, but by having some other trade affected, like a price lowered. Or maybe we'll be able to save click-throughs and bank them. Maybe hardware will be exchanged for paying attention to ads.
Perhaps content can be broken up by advertising, if there is really something compelling on the other side of the click-through.
From a historical point of view it is exactly the dilemma faced by the printing press, the radio and even television. What to print? What to broadcast? Whatever it is that the Web finally shows, you can bet on one thing-sheer economics dictate that advertising will ultimately become a key component in its survival. The Internet will have the audience on one side of the screen and the advertiser somewhere on the other.
James Twitchell is a professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and