A catbird seat in D.C. when U.S. bloomed

By Published on .

For two decades during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations I was in a catbird seat for what is commonly described as the Consumer Revolution.

In those decades a vastly expanded middle class was providing the richest market in the world. But consumers were choosing among a seemingly endless flow of products too artfully packaged or too complicated to permit meaningful comparisons, and advertising-from their vantage point-was part of the problem rather than a solution.

Two remarkable postwar developments had put advertising and marketing in the line of fire:

One was self-service retailing that offered mind-boggling choices but no salesperson to help. The other was color TV, a perfectly timed technological miracle ready and able to pre-sell consumers with powerful sales messages that combined color, music, attractive personalities and seemingly amazing demonstrations.

TV commercials were often skillfully framed to imply a lot more than they said. Soon bookstores were featuring best-sellers that stigmatized admen as hucksters, and ad associations were sneering at the authors. In retrospect it was a warning light unheeded.

When John F. Kennedy made a 1960 campaign promise to have consumer representation in the White House, the ad associations shrugged it off as politics. Another miscalculation. Soon the political scene was ablaze over the labeling of breakfast cereals. Weasel words on labels defied size and price comparison and failed to provide useful nutritional info.

Eventually the Grocery Manufacturers Association took the initiative in redesigning boxes and labels. But the ad industry was convinced this was its Alamo. Their defiance bought time, but its principal result was to enrich lawyers and lobbyists, and make journalists like me useful to people who wanted to understand what was going on.


Battle after battle was lost until a new generation of admen decided their game was advertising, not politics. They overruled the lawyers and created a system of self-regulation to clean house and get the government off their backs. Once the ad people regained control there was a happy ending. The self-regulation system accepted standards of truthfulness that made advertising less offensive. Yet in retrospect the new soft-sell techniques are no less effective today than the hard-sell TV spots that caused the storm.

But the Consumer Revolution did not stop with advertising. Ralph Nader and his counterparts were finding malfeasance in the federal regulatory agencies and flim-flam everywhere in the marketplace. Consumerists won big victories in battles over Truth in Warranties; Truth in Interest; flammable baby-crib blankets; and tire usage standards. The surgeon general issued a report that took cigarette ads off TV, and other reports about the impact of TV sex and violence, a recurring problem, are still unresolved.

One celebrated congressional hearing was a true-life tearjerker where a much admired young contestant on TV's "$64,000 Question" confessed the sponsor had been giving him answers.

In 1961 I was present as Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, stunned broadcasting with a convention speech describing TV as a vast wasteland.

seat-belt debate

The Nielsen ratings were criticized as unsound by a congressional panel, and radio disc jockeys were found to be soliciting push money from record producers. The ad associations were by no means the only business organizations obsessed by acts of futility. I have yet to hear a logical justification for the fierce fight Detroit staged against legislation requiring seat belts in cars. While it lobbied Washington, Japanese carmakers were establishing a beachhead here with small cars with standard equipment seat belts.

Ultimately, there was a marathon struggle over TV programming for children. It looked like a sure winner for consumerists. But by then consumerism had run out of steam.

When The Washington Post accused the FTC of trying to be the national nanny, the battle over kids programming standards collapsed.

My catbird seat was secure but not always comfortable. The owners and top editorial executives at Ad Age believed strongly that we served our readers best by providing fair and truthful information.

But ad associations and their most influential constituents saw the Consumer Revolution as an unwarranted effort to impair their creativity. There were times they had their knives out for me. My employer took its lumps and never shared any of it with me.

When I joined Ad Age in 1943 it was No. 3 among advertising trade papers. During the Consumer Revolution it flourished. Ad Age became must reading for CEOs who usually looked to pricey newsletters for expertise.

I know none among my peers who had better reason to feel their years in journalism were well spent. And that included the satisfaction of knowing that I had fulfilled the hopes of my employers by enabling them to do well by doing good.

Stanley E. Cohen was Ad Age's Washington reporter and editor from 1943-84 and wrote the Washington Beat column.

Most Popular
In this article: