-From an Advertising Age
editorial, Jan. 7, 1946
The postwar world.
This was a phrase that I, an almost-8-year-old, heard from classmates and parents and on the radio and saw in magazines with increasing frequency in the closing days of World War II.
Whether in casual conversation or in advertising, these words were a rubric invoked for the promise of better, more prosperous times that lay just beyond the armistice-of technological breakthroughs and labor-saving devices and dazzling inventions that heretofore had resided almost exclusively in the imaginations of science fiction writers.
These unbounded dreams were hardly surprising, given that at war's end, America stood astride the world like that colossus that once spanned the harbor of an island off Asia Minor. Our primacy as a global power seemed secure and our potential as a nation seemed limitless.
As Lewis Lapham wrote more than 30 years later in Harper's: "In 1945, the United States inherited the earth . . . At the end of World War II, what was left of Western civilization passed into the American account. The war had also prompted the country to invent a miraculous economic machine that seemed to grant as many wishes as were asked of it. The continental U.S. had escaped the plague of war, and so it was easy enough for the heirs to believe they had been anointed by God."
Ultimately, many of our postwar material dreams got fulfilled. Although not all these dreams were quickly realized, the changes in our culture and our society have been monumental in the 50 years since the war ended. And the foundation for this sea change was laid in that tumultuous half-decade after the surrenders of the Axis powers.
Consider that in 1945, less than a lifespan removed, there were suburbs but no suburbia; radio and newspapers and magazines but no media; advertising but no marketing; aircraft but no jetliners; highways but no interstates; calculators but no computers. And perhaps most important of all . . . no television.
But almost from the moment the hostilities ceased, America collectively became hell bent on speed-shifting into a postwar mode. (Our English cousins were no different; they threw Churchill, their tenacious wartime lion, out of office even as British and Commonwealth troops battled the Japanese in the closing weeks of the Pacific campaign.)
"Reconversion" and "demobilization" entered the lexicon in late '45. Manufacturing facilities switched, almost overnight, from military production to consumer goods, and mustered-out troops re-entered the civilian world-a world joyful at their return yet not fully prepared to digest them-at a rate of hundreds of thousands every week. The acclaimed 1946 film "The Best Years of Our Lives" powerfully drove home the problems of civilian re-entry for veterans.
Nowhere was the speed of the changeover from garrison state to civilian consumption mode more evident than in advertising. Within days, U.S. newspapers and magazines began carrying ads heralding new products.
For instance, in the Chicago Tribune of Sept. 16-just two weeks after Japan's formal surrender-Oldsmobile trumpeted its '46 models, saying they would be "ready for delivery early this fall" and that "Hydra Matic drive has been improved as a result of combat experience in Army tanks." Another ad's headline said it all: "Only 30 days after V-J Day and the Bendix Automatic Home Laundry is here!"
Life for Sept. 10 provided an intriguing study in contrasts. The editorial was dominated by a 13-page b&w photo feature on a battered, atomic bomb-devastated Japan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's takeover of that country's rule.
If you read only the ads, however, you would hardly sense that a six-year global war had just been concluded. From Pepperell sheets and Royal typewriters to Cannon hosiery and A&P supermarkets (headline: "Fish dinner for 4 . . . only $1.51"), the accent was clearly on consumables.
In truth, however much of the apparent consumer bonanza in the immediate backwash of war was illusory. For all the marketing drumrolls and razzmatazz that bombarded the American public in late '45 and beyond, many products-including automobiles-were slow in entering the pipeline to the masses.
"There were a lot of shortages in '46 and '47," recalls Ed Maroney, now director of broadcast production at J. Walter Thompson USA, Chicago. "Cars were hard to get, so were clothes." He was one of 2.3 million returning veterans-more than the entire population of Philadelphia-who entered colleges and universities financed by the GI Bill of Rights after the war. (Another 5 million-plus received other types of GI Bill-financed training.)
Schools were hard-pressed to accommodate the surge of veterans eager to make up for lost time. Mr. Maroney joined hordes of GIs who attended a makeshift dockside campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Navy Pier, a school dubbed by its students "Oxford on the Rocks."
His first advertising job was with a three-man Chicago agency. "Most of the big agencies were running color spreads in Life and Look," he says, while his shop in the late '40s began doing auto spots for a spanking new medium-television. "I would rent a camera and shoot [the dealer's] cars in a city park, using 16mm film, then write the narration, edit the film, splice it and deliver it to the TV station, which ran the commercials, using an announcer, at breaks in an evening movie."
Another returning veteran and aspiring adman took a different tack at war's end: 24-year-old John "Jock" Elliott, fresh from 13 combat engagements in the Pacific on the battleship Pennsylvania, in December 1945 became a junior copywriter at one of the country's biggest agencies, BBDO in New York. During his first four years in the business, the man who decades later would be chairman of Ogilvy & Mather and a member of the Advertising Hall of Fame wrote copy for newspaper ads extolling articles in upcoming issues of Reader's Digest.
"I turned in my copy longhand because I didn't know how to type-still don't," says Mr. Elliott, now O&M's chairman emeritus. "And I knew nothing about the rest of the agency." He recounts how he was asked to work on the New York senatorial campaign of John Foster Dulles (later secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration).
"I designed billboards, bought the boards, bought radio time. Then somebody [at the agency] told me I didn't have to do all that myself-that there was a media department. I didn't even know it. That's how easy it was to be stuck in one place. And there was no training program then-at any agency."
Indeed, the agency business, and the entire advertising universe, was in the late '40s far smaller, more informal and less international that it would soon become. As the Maroneys and the Elliotts began their careers, neither they nor anyone else could have predicted the degree to which an approaching phenomenon would forever alter advertising and marketing-to say nothing of the society as a whole. Enter the baby boomers.
It started in 1946, this flood of newborns that would affect all aspects of American culture for decades to come. And it continued for 19 years, averaging about 4 million babies annually. The first of these 76 million-plus boomers began influencing the society from their bassinets and prams, as their parents sought new dwellings, preferably of the single-family, free-standing variety.
In the late '40s, America's housing stock was woefully outdated and inadequate. Virtually no home construction had taken place since the pre-Depression era two decades earlier. These new families, the majority with a returning veteran as breadwinner, yearned for a suburban life-which was not lost on real estate developers.
The result: Whole new communities sprouted almost in a blink-among the largest Levittown, N.Y., and Park Forest, Ill.-while established suburbs doubled and tripled in population as vast new subdivisions nudged the farmers ever deeper into exurbia.
The business districts of central cities and their suburbs didn't know it yet, but their death knell had begun to toll, at least as retailing centers.
And with the exodus to the new suburbia and its shopping malls, the automobile-by the late '40s far sleeker and more chrome-girdled than its prewar brethren-entered its golden age in America, at the expense of street cars and other modes of public transportation. Cars were advertised as never before, as were home appliances, power mowers, air conditioners and the myriad other accoutrements of the acquisitive new homeowner.
And of course there was advertising's double-barreled shotgun-television. Newspapers and magazines found themselves with a fresh and profitable new ad category-TV sets; and the sets themselves, gracing places of honor in the American home, were providing what would in just a few years become the most lucrative advertising medium of them all. By 1950, TV ad revenues hit $100 million, a fourfold increase over the previous year, and soon they would overtake radio's ad expenditures.
Combine this fledgling medium with millions of transfixed baby-boom children and voila!-advertising nirvana.
In his seminal 1980 book on that era, "Great Expectations: America & the Baby Boom Generation," Landon Y. Jones wrote that "Money for commercials flowed like a river as TV went about the business of turning toddlers into consumer trainees. Tests showed that children could recognize the word `detergent' before they could read. They sang `Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/Twelve full ounces, that's a lot' before they knew the national anthem. They were trained to buy."
And author Jones also pointed out that as the boomers have aged, they have remained "the dominant market force" in America.
The postwar era-or at least its first and most dynamic phase-ended in June 1950 with the onset of another war, the Korean conflict. But the changes set in motion during those five hectic, exciting, unsettling, cataclysmic years following World War II have altered forever the face-and the soul-of America.