1940s War, Cold War and Consumerism

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Population: 132.2 million (1940), 151.3 million (1950)

Employment: 52.2% employment (1940), 58.3% employment (1950)

Presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)

Big names in advertising:

Duane Jones, Duane Jones Co.; Emerson Foote, Fairfax Cone and Don Belding, Foote, Cone & Belding; Chester J. LaRoche, Young & Rubicam

Total U.S. ad spending in 1940: $2.1 billion

The U.S. entered World War II in 1941, creating immediate product shortages. Rubber and fuel were rationed, and auto production stopped immediately. Despite high levels of discretionary income and full employment, there was virtually nothing for consumers to buy. After the war ended in 1945, the economic depression that was expected never happened-although inflation was high for a time-so product marketers set about satisfying Americans' pent-up demand. They introduced a range of modern new products, many of which were the result of technologies developed during the war. These included the aerosol spray can, nylon, plastics and Styrofoam, among many others. The baby boom (1945-64) began, with the birth rate shooting up 25% right after the war and staying high, leading advertisers to focus on mothers with new babies.


Unlike during World War I, when companies cut back on advertising, World War II saw an increase in spending, from $2.1 billion in 1941 to $2.8 billion in 1945. Ad agencies focused on maintaining demand until the war was over and merchandise was available to consumers again. The industry was robust enough that the number of agencies-which Advertising Age began tracking during this decade-increased from 1,628 in 1939 to 5,986 in 1948.

Advertisers, from industrial companies such as Republic Steel and McDonnell Aircraft to consumer brands such as Dixie Cups and Bird's Eye Foods, stressed their patriotism with pro-American messages during the conflict. Frequently, they also reminded their customers to buy war bonds to support the country's war effort.

Meanwhile, the government utilized advertising to encourage participation in rubber, newsprint and scrap drives, and to keep Americans informed about wartime policies. The War Advertising Council developed "Loose lips sink ships," and volunteer agencies began a tradition of public service announcements such as Rosie the Riveter (J. Walter Thompson Co.) and Smokey Bear (Foote, Cone & Belding).

Another ad theme during the war was the "world of tomorrow," which suggested all the stylish, modern, time-saving products that consumers would be able to buy once the conflict ended. One illustration of this approach was Libbey-Owens-Ford's 1942-44 "Kitchen of Tomorrow" campaign, created by designer H. Creston Doner and promoted in magazines, newspapers and Paramount Pictures film shorts, as well as through a traveling tour of kitchen models seen by 1.6 million visitors.

Once the war ended, advertising picked up as consumers yearned for once-rationed products, with the $5.7 billion spent in 1950 double what was spent in 1945. Advances developed during the war translated into marketers' investment into research and development. Such new products included synthetic detergents, antihistamines, the LP record, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Prell shampoo in a tube (handled by Benton & Bowles) and the Toni home permanent in 1947 (acquired by Gillette Co. in 1948 and represented by Foote, Cone & Belding). Radio jingles proved valuable in the migration to TV commercials. The "Look sharp, feel sharp ..." line was put to animation in one of the first regularly run TV spots for Gillette blue blades, often in the advertiser's own "Gillette Cavalcade of Sports" series. Similarly, the L.S.M.F.T. slogan-"Lucky Strike means fine tobacco"-powered the dancing cigarettes of Lucky Strike.

African-Americans made their first significant inroads into the advertising industry in the 1940s. The first black agency, Vomack Advertising, was founded in Inwood, N.Y., at a time when most black-owned agencies focused on selling products manufactured by and targeted to blacks, through black media. Meanwhile, Johnson Publishing introduced Ebony in 1945.

New media

Radio remained the primary broadcast medium through the 1940s, but by the end of the decade, television was widely viewed as the medium of the future. After a promising start-RCA ran the first ad campaign for TV sets in 1940, the Federal Communications Commission approved commercial TV in 1941 and Bulova ran the first TV spot on New York's WNBT-TV in 1941-TV was effectively put on hold during the war. After the war, however, the technology took off. RCA Victor became the first postwar manufacturer to advertise TV sets, in 1946, and household penetration quickly rose from 0.5% in 1948 to more than one-third of homes in 1952.

Early advertisers that used TV to support their brands included Lever Bros., Pan American Airways, Firestone Tire and Esso. As in radio, ad agencies sponsored and produced most of the programming on television; Young & Rubicam alone produced five of the top 10 shows of 1949. Many consider "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports," sponsored by the razor maker through its agency Maxon, to be the first successful TV show. In 1948, three series-"Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" (produced by Y&R for Lipton), "Toast of the Town" with Ed Sullivan (Kenyon & Eckhardt for Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division) and "Texaco Star Theater" with Milton Berle (Kudner Agency)-were big enough hits to drive consumers into stores to buy TV sets.

A new development in the radio industry was FM broadcasting. While the technology languished until the 1960s, much of the groundwork was laid during this decade. Manufacturers such as General Electric Co. began to sell FM radios in 1940 and 1941. Meanwhile, print publications suffered in quality during the war due to a shortage of paper; even so, in 1942 The New York Times launched its Sunday Magazine, which became a major ad vehicle, especially for fashion brands.

Everyday life

World War II changed everything, from culture and entertainment to all other aspects of life.

The war was directly responsible for the rise of American fashion designers, for example. European designers, especially Parisian houses, had long driven fashion styles in the U.S. But during the war, U.S. consumers did not have access to their designs. U.S. retailers such as Lord & Taylor began to promote American houses instead, giving prominence to Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Halston and others. In entertainment, the war enabled women-including Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Sothern, who were formerly pigeonholed into supporting roles-to become stars. The postwar era also gave rise to African-American music and Spanish-language programming on local stations, with B.B. King among the DJs. Meanwhile, crooners commanded the airwaves, with the popular Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby joined by Jimmy Dorsey, the Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer, Frankie Lane and Perry Como. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were on the way to become singing cowboys.

Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, W. Somerset Maugham and Sinclair Lewis all found their way to the best-seller lists, as did other reader favorites such as A.J. Cronin, John P. Marquand, Lloyd S. Douglas and Thomas B. Costain. Movie screens featured the likes of "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Philadelphia Story," "The Lost Weekend," "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Double Indemnity." Two of the many screen legends working during this decade were Humphrey Bogart ("The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," "Treasure of Sierra Madre") and Orson Welles ("Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons").

In art, the main style of the 1940s was "dramatic realism," with prominent practitioners including George Petty and Norman Rockwell, who did war advertising, Saturday Evening Post covers and movie posters during the decade. Dramatic realism and cartoons by James Thurber, William Steig and others were often featured in advertising, but began to give way to photographic images; the 1940s was the height of the golden age of photography, which extended from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Animation also was a popular art form in the 1940s, and TV advertising began to feature it for the first time. Botany Mills introduced the first animated character in a commercial with its "Botany Lamb" campaign, while the electric industry animated its famous print icon Reddy Kilowatt in 1947.

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