In my life, it was Jack Vilinsky.
Jack was an art director at McCann-Erickson. He was also among my parents' closest friends. And because my folks were of the business -- my father a market researcher, my mother a co-owner with Jack's wife Muriel of a company that conducted research surveys -- my childhood was surrounded by ad talk.
This was the '60s, so that conversation was routinely punctuated by invocations of genius. "Mary Wells, she's a genius," I can hear Jack saying as we gathered for a holiday meal at his and Muriel's house. It was a small house, filled with the accoutrements of cool: Jack's clay sculptures and oil paintings (nudes!), and his glossy volumes of Kandinsky and Miro. "Mamma Mia, that's-a some spicy meatball" burped from the TV. "Bill Bernbach, he's a genius," Jack would add. "The commercials," my mother agreed, "are better than the shows."
Jack worked on those commercials. He helped change the name of Esso to Exxon. Why, when he did the Opel Kadett campaign, he even got to meet Alan Hale Jr. ("Gilligan's Island"!). No doubt about it, advertising was, to this 12-year-old, totally fabulous.
So why did Jack hate it so much?
"Advertising is a terrible business," my father explained, invoking the names of family friends jettisoned from jobs or forcibly transferred overseas. "You can do anything you want," my mother told me routinely, as I matured and expressed professional interest in writing, "only, please don't go into advertising." As for Jack Vilinsky, he couldn't wait to escape it -- which he did, as early as he could, retiring to the studio and the art that made him so happy for the rest of his life.
Later, chronicling the advertising industry, I would continually confront the same schizophrenia, a malady I came to call The Contradiction. Here were people lucky enough to work in this "genius" business, crafting what Marshall McLuhan called "the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities," yet as often as not, they were miserable. Here were the men and women responsible for inducting a culture into urbanism, for selling the New Deal and World War II patriotism, for inventing TV and opinion research, for entertaining us during the '60s and '70s and winking at us during the '80s and '90s.
But they referred to themselves as "hucksters" and lived their days in fear. "Fear is as much a part of the air," an ex-copywriter named Patricia Tierney wrote in a 1971 expose, "as the pollution along Madison Avenue."
Finally, reporting a story about the Carl Ally agency, I came to understand The Contradiction. Ally was famed for its memorable, take-no-prisoners style of advertising, which acolytes said derived from the conviction that they were making a product, not performing a service. When I couldn't grasp the distinction, Jim Durfee, an agency co-founder, explained it to me.
"A product," Durfee said, "is something that is molded, produced, thought out and set out before the person: 'We have made this for you, we think this will help.' A service is hat-in-hand and through the side door. It was a completely different attitude toward what an agency was and what an agency made."
And that, quite simply, was it. The hate and love, the torture and genius, the job and the calling -- the tension was all of a piece. From the standpoint of its creators, advertising was either the 20th Century's greatest tool or its biggest sham, depending on how they bridged the enormous chasm between product and service. This was The Contradiction -- the split personality that begat modern advertising and made the era now ending the Advertising Century.
The Contradiction began, conveniently enough, in 1900.
Brand names and marks, which had built the patent medicine industry, had for years been drawing consumers away from the cracker barrel to Uneeda Biscuits and other commodity products. Advertising itself, much of it infused with guilt-ridden emotional appeals, was already such a fixture that marketers were spending $100 million on it in newspapers and magazines, double the amount they'd spent only 20 years before. Indeed, magazines blanketed the nation the same way TV does now, with 3,500 of them reaching some 65 million men and women.
But there was a problem. Advertising was undeniably working to draw these modernizing Americans to all manner of new product, yet no one knew how it worked. "I know I waste half the money I spend on advertising," department store pioneer John Wanamaker said. "The problem is, I don't know which half."
Advertising agents, who had begun as middlemen between marketers and the media, tried to paper over the dilemma by giving away more and more functions for their commissions. One of the most successful offerings was sloganeering. In 1898, Albert Lasker, the architect of the Lord & Thomas agency, induced one client, a hearing-aid manufacturer, to increase its ad budget from $10,000 a year to $180,000, and to triple the commission it paid, because it so liked the slogan his agency had written: "You hear! When you use Wilson's Common Sense Ear Drums."
Other agents had similar experiences. So two years later, cognizant of the power that writing, especially in tandem with illustrations, had over clients and their budgets, N.W. Ayer -- which vies with J. Walter Thompson for the distinction of oldest U.S. agency -- established a copy department.
Undoubtedly there were copywriters, then and later, at Ayer and elsewhere, who reveled in their artistry. Many were the literary craftsmen -- F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Marquand among them -- who sharpened their talents in the ad trade. But woe betide any who dared believe it was some mystical allure of word and image that was attracting consumer to marketer, and marketer to agency.
Albert Lasker knew better. "My idea of this business," he said many years later, "was to render service and make money."
And so the ad industry did, piling service upon service onto its offerings, engaging in what one disgruntled copywriter in the 1930s called "the endless cycle of selling" itself to clients -- whatever it took to stay a course strewn with bounteous commissions.
This process of self-justification influenced U.S. culture as profoundly and lastingly as war, depression and invention, bringing forth many of the appurtenances of the modern consumer edifice.
Consider broadcasting. In its infancy, it was a reflexive instrument, a tool for selling radio sets. That was what Pittsburgh station KDKA, owned by equipment manufacturer Westinghouse, had in mind when it transmitted the 1920 presidential election results (Harding won), and what it, RCA and GE wanted to do in 1926 when they created the NBC network. (A similar motivation, to sell online technology, underlay NBC and Microsoft's decision to start the MSNBC network exactly seven decades later.)
But broadcasting's real birth might more accurately be dated to the Postum Co.'s 1926 order that its Philadelphia advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, relocate to New York, the developing center of the broadcast-network business, to handle the account of its Jell-O division. Within eight years, that move bequeathed to the listening public "The Jack Benny Program," "Colgate House Party," "General Foods Cooking School" and a smattering of other audience-delighting radio programs.
Opinion research and market research, too, began as children of the advertising industry. In 1921, J. Walter Thompson hired the Harvard psychologist John Watson, the father of behavioral research, to help the agency plumb consumers' minds. George Gallup came to Y&R in 1932 to head its new department of copy and media research, and stayed for 15 years.
With head-spinning rapidity, a nation balanced between post-World War I prosperity and a calamitous depression was shaped by advertising's influence. Status anxieties were stoked by Theodore MacManus' Cadillac advertisement about "The Penalty of Leadership." Sex went public with Woodbury Facial Soap's "The skin you love to touch," written by Helen Lansdowne Resor. Celebrity culture was molded by the belief that people, as Stanley Resor put it, wanted their "news, education and entertainment through the medium of personalities." So advertisers like American Tobacco hired endorsers as diverse as naval hero George Fried and the actress Alla Nazimova to plug Lucky Strike cigarettes -- a product that was also used to "emancipate" women as well as enslave them to the physical ideal of slimness.
Advertising executives themselves became celebrities, as representative of this new America as baseball sluggers or Hollywood stars. Batton, Barton, Durstine & Osborne co-founder Bruce Barton rode his assertion that Jesus was the world's greatest ad man to the top of the best-seller lists with his 1924 book, "The Man Nobody Knows," and used his notoriety as a catapult to the U.S. Congress.
The industry was helped to prominence by the maturation of the U.S. marketplace. In 1908, cognizant that the upper-class market for automobiles was now saturated, Henry Ford introduced the term "mass production" to economics and began manufacturing his Model T. By 1927, he had driven the price of his one-size-fits-all car to a low of $290, and virtually all middle-class Americans owned an auto. His rival, Alfred Sloan Jr. at General Motors, understood that the automobile industry's salvation depended on changing consumers' attitudes; the auto had to be transformed from a low-cost form of transportation into a symbol of attainment, one that could induce consumers to continually upgrade. To that end, Sloan introduced the concept of planned obsolescence through cosmetic changes, providing "a car for every purse and purpose" and encouraging consumers to trade up as their circumstances improved -- a living model of sociologist Thorstein Veblen's concept of "conspicuous consumption."
Sloanism's triumph over Fordism -- Chevrolet sales overtook Ford's in 1927 and never turned back the lead -- had a penetrating effect on business management and the larger culture. If sales were not dependent either upon ever lower prices or real technological improvements but on status perceptions, artificial needs and superficial change, then focusing on the brand, rather than individual products, might prove the best way for a marketer to achieve lasting profitability. Products, after all, had life cycles and died. Brands, properly managed, could last forever.
That was the argument made in 1931 by a brash, young Harvard graduate named Neil McElroy to his superiors at the Procter & Gamble Co. In a three-page memo, he submitted that each brand within the package-goods company needed to be managed by a team whose sole focus was driving that brand into a No. 1 position in its category, even if that meant competing against other house brands. In other words, McElroy maintained, a brand was a business; its sales, advertising and other marketing functions had to be arranged to assure its lasting distinctiveness.
Between Sloan and McElroy, the brand was becoming the essence of marketing, and advertising the public face of the brand. No wonder that the president of the U.S. himself, Calvin Coolidge, had seen fit to acclaim the profession and its work at the 10th annual meeting of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "It is the most potent influence in adapting and changing the habits and modes of life," said the uncharacteristically loquacious Cal, "affecting what we eat, what we wear, and the work and play of a whole nation."
But a service business had its limitations. There was little to prevent one agency from matching, gun for gun, the weapons unsheathed by another to gain and hold a client -- the more so after 1921, when price competition was effectively banished by the Four A's lobbying to establish the 15% commission on media billings as the standard form of agency compensation.
Of deeper import, if advertising was only about serving clients, where was the value? The virtue? The self-esteem? In a culture increasingly under the thrall of science, advertising had to be able to prove its worth. Thus a succession of scientists descended upon Madison Avenue (as the industry began to be known in the 1920s).
Claude Hopkins, Lord & Thomas' president, and Ruthrauff & Ryan writer John Caples both saw their profession's salvation deriving from direct mail. It was a discipline in which "false theories melt away like snowflakes in the sun," Hopkins wrote in his treatise "Scientific Advertising."
Caples, the author of an immortal direct-mail ad for a piano-study course headlined, "They all laughed when I sat down at the piano," went so far as to hone those principles into specific rules. There were 16 formulas for writing headlines.
Direct mail proved a shaky foundation for mass advertising, of course, not least because even the most successful direct-response ads drew a numerical response so paltry as to undermine any support for the concept of mass advertising. Fortunately, World War II intervened and consumer goods began to disappear from the market, reducing for the moment any pressure on advertising to explicate its effectiveness through sales.
Rather, pushed by Sen. Harry Truman's investigations into the tax deductibility of advertising, the industry launched a frontal campaign to protect itself, promoting its importance to the war effort (today's Advertising Council, the public service arm of the industry, grew out of the War Advertising Council), and construing itself as "the information industry."
After the U.S. emerged from the darkness of World War II into the daylight of economic expansion, ad executives reignited their efforts to develop proprietary theories that could both define advertising's value and link it to an agency's own offerings. As often as not, these theories derived from contemporary psychology. The improbably named Norman B. Norman, a creator of the TV game show "The $64,000 Question," anchored his Norman, Craig & Kummel agency to the theory of "empathy." An elegant British import, David Ogilvy, said it was "brand personality" and not "any trivial product difference" that drew consumers to products. His one-time brother-in-law, Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates Agency, disagreed. To Reeves, repetition of a "Unique Selling Proposition" -- he explained it as "getting a message into the heads of most people at the lowest possible cost" -- was the foundation of advertising.
Battles between agencies over their scientifically designed products began to resemble religious crusades. Brand image, George Gallup huffed, was just a "passing fad." For a time, Ogilvy and Reeves stopped talking. "Each shakes his head," wrote Martin Mayer in his delightful chronicle of advertising in the '50s, "Madison Avenue U.S.A.," "over the way the other wastes his clients' money."
No wonder: there was vast wealth at stake. The end of the war and the march of suburbanization were fueling a demand for consumer goods unlike any the country had ever seen.
The creation of suburbia was an inevitable consequence of the car. The auto had already bequeathed to the nation the motel, the fast-food restaurant and modern retailing, in the form of the chain store. Indeed, as Sloan understood, autos had the paradoxical effect of promoting a landscape of vast sameness -- one in which a powerful brand could have national, even multinational reach -- and a desire for individuality that could only be satisfied by brand differentiation. Now, by enabling average Americans to have houses, yards and kids, in addition to well-paying jobs in the city, car culture became the foundation for an explosion in production and demand that had been held back by World War II and interrupted by the Korean conflict.
The appetite was whetted by the new medium of TV, which allowed advertisers to force new products and needs down the hungry throats of a long-denied public. RCA brought its first b&w sets to market in 1946. (Color TV, developed by CBS, already existed, but lobbying by its competitors persuaded the FCC to adopt a b&w standard, delaying color's introduction until the 1960s.)
The medium's impact was immediate. Movie theaters shuttered -- 70 closed in eastern Pennsylvania alone in 1950-51 and, as historian Erik Barnouw relates, Bob Hope's radio audience dropped by nearly 75% in the four years after 1949. Brands, meanwhile, rose like skyscrapers on the landscape: Hazel Bishop lipstick sales skyrocketed from $50,000 a year in 1950 to $4.5 million two years later thanks to TV advertising.
For advertising people, the possibilities for riches seemed endless. TV was offering marketers and their agencies an opportunity to bombard the entire country with message after message, each one worth a cool 15% to the agency behind it. Reeves, who assaulted the nation with such endlessly repeated slogans as "Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies 12 ways," publicly boasted how one client spent $86.4 million in 10 years "on one piece of my copy."
With all that money floating around, it was best not to let anything get in the way of a lasting client relationship. Not women; for decades it was hard to name more than two prominent women in the business, Helen Lansdowne Resor and Jean Rindlaub. Not ethnics; blacks were as absent from mainstream advertising as they were from the rest of U.S. corporate life; despite the prominence of Albert Lasker, Jews were rare presences at large agencies except in research departments. Not art; although a few designers, like Ayer's Charles Coiner, had distinguished themselves in advertising, for the most part art directors (many of them of Italian descent) were called "wrists" and separated from the development of strategies and campaigns.
And not the truth: that there was, as adman Victor Norman put it, "no damn difference between soaps." Norman was the fictional hero of "The Hucksters," a 1946 novel by ex-copywriter Frederic Wakeman that captured The Contradiction and the anxiety it bred. The book's villain was one Evan Llewelyn Evans, the chairman of Beautee Soap and a "scourge of account executives." "Two things make good advertising," Evans counseled Norman. "One, a good simple idea. Two, repetition. And by repetition, by God, I mean until the public is so irritated with it, they'll buy your brand because they bloody well can't forget it."
The caricature was rough. That it resonated with so many inside and outside the agency business was a testament to its underlying realities. The novel's pill-popping and preternaturally nervous agency chief, "Kim" Kimberly, was modeled on Emerson Foote, a co-founder of Foote, Cone & Belding, where Wakeman worked before turning to literary pursuits. (Foote suffered a nervous breakdown and retired from the agency in 1950.) And Evan Evans was a thinly veiled portrait of George Washington Hill, on whose Lucky Strike account Wakeman had toiled. Hill was said to have gone through 21 supervisors on his cigarette account in just a