Buy American! A look back at trade-war rhetoric and patriotic marketing in 1932
Nearly 88 years ago, America was a hot brand—or at least the idea of buying American-made goods was hot.
As the Trump administration’s trade war with China continues to unfold, a dive into the Ad Age archives for our “90 years of Ad Age” series reveals just how endless such rhetoric and posturing has been across the decades.
“‘Buy American’ Wave Gains In Intensity; National Action Seen” reads the headline atop the front page of the Dec. 24, 1932, issue of Advertising Age. The news hook back then was a grassroots initiative by some American businessmen to encourage the consumption of U.S.-made products in an effort at “ending or at least mitigating the depression.”
Ad Age called the “Buy American!” push an “appeal to national pride and self-respect” that “ran like a flash of powder from coast to coast” in that pre-Christmas week, thanks in part to “a sensational campaign” by The Fair, a Chicago department store headed by D.F. Kelly, who happened to be the former president of the National Retail Dry Goods Association (NRDGA).
On an inside page of Ad Age, we showed the centerpiece of The Fair’s campaign: a print ad headlined “Hats Off to American-Made Goods” and depicting Uncle Sam, yes, doffing his hat. The body copy reads,
“Buy American” ... and put America First in Industry and Progress! Remember, a dollar spent on American-made goods is a dollar earned by American labor. Wear American-made clothes ... fill your home with the beauties and comforts of American arts and crafts. It’s for your material good to be patriotic in dollars as well as in sense! United we stand in support of a square deal for American labor ... sound value and fine quality for American dollars. Get aboard the bandwagon ... join THE FAIR in this progressive movement to BOOST AMERICAN INDUSTRY!
The Fair’s Kelly was in the process of rallying members of the NRDGA and, as Ad Age reported, “it is likely that members of the association will spread the new war-cry in their respective cities.” Meanwhile, a separate organization, the Made in America Club, also based in Chicago, was talking up plans to distribute its club insignia in the form of “license plates, windshield stickers and other material.”
And a brief separate story on page 12 of that issue of Ad Age noted that in New York City, “Citizens’ Association for America First, Inc., has been formed here as a national organization to further the nationalistic economic and political movement. Members are pledged to buy only goods manufactured in the United States, to employ American citizens, to buy only American securities and to encourage traveling in America instead of abroad.”
Of course, China wasn’t the trade-war target back then. Ad Age quoted a Made in America Club statement noting that “It is estimated that of the 60,000,000 Christmas tree lamps sold this year, no fewer than 48,000,000 were made in Japan at a labor cost of two cents an hour. The loss to Americans in direct wages is about $2,300,000, with further losses to suppliers of raw materials.”
The Club didn’t cite any specific American-made Christmas tree lights as patriotic alternatives to Japan’s offerings, but it’s worth noting the copy in The Fair’s print ads, as Ad Age reported, didn’t skimp on the hype, with product captions including “Cleveland tends to its knitting and sends us these smart sox,” “New York glorified American handbags,” “Made in Boston—these fine suede jackets” and “Illinois produces these fine hose.”