During the major conflicts of the 20th century, the American ad industry managed to grow despite a dearth of new consumer goods to market. Ad industry executives shifted their emphasis from selling immediate gratification to promoting patriotism and faith in the industry as one voice of democracy.
World War I
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected by a narrow margin with the slogan, "He kept us out of war." But after Germany sank several American ships at sea, the U.S. in February 1917 cut diplomatic ties with Germany, and President Wilson quickly had to establish a policy on how to deal with the negative public opinion that would surround the country's entry into the war. He decided to flood the media with pro-war publicity to enlist support from a diverse population with widely differing opinions on U.S. involvement.
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war against Germany and a week later, on April 13, President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to handle that effort, with progressive journalist George Creel as its chairman.
The CPI's job was to organize the flow of information that connected the average citizen with the federal government. The CPI maintained that U.S. participation in the war was a struggle to preserve democracy. Implicit in that message was the argument that no "real" American would allow democracy to falter.
The CPI was divided into departments that oversaw different media channels, such as the Division of Syndicated Features, the Film Division and the Bureau of Cartoons, the Division of News, the Division of Advertising and the Division of Pictorial Publicity.
The Division of Advertising was formed in 1918 and headed by William H. Johns, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The division acted as a clearinghouse to organize the volunteer efforts of the country's ad agencies and adpeople. It was also supposed to make war advertising more efficient by managing all ad copy preparations and designs.
While brokering space was not one of the division's responsibilities, each company that donated space had its name printed beneath the CPI and Division of Advertising's seal: "This space contributed to the winning of the war by . . . ." Under the division's direction, $2.25 million in ad space ultimately was donated.
According to Mr. Creel's estimates, in peacetime the Division of Advertising's services would have cost $5 million—all of which the government received gratis. Such largesse in the donation of ad space and time set an important precedent for the ad industry, which continues to produce pro bono advertising for public service today.
In 1917, overall ad spending reached $1.6 billion. While that dropped to $1.5 billion in 1918, the final year of the war, spending rebounded to $2.3 billion in 1919.
World War II
As the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted his administration to remain only tacitly engaged in advertising the war. Allowing the ad industry to sell war bonds and promote recruitment, salvage drives and rationing programs not only freed the government from charges that it might be using the media to promote negative propaganda but also lifted from it the burden and the cost of advertising its programs.
Wartime advertising efforts included:
- The WAC: The War Advertising Council, first chaired by Young & Rubicam's Chester J. La Roche and staffed by volunteers from agencies and the media, was organized in February 1942 to help manage government campaigns to engage civilian support for the war. The council set out to locate sponsors that would cover costs and to distribute guides on how advertisers could incorporate official war messages into their ad copy and images, including public service announcements about buying war bonds, abstaining from luxuries, preventing venereal disease and recruiting women into war service and production.
- The OWI: Despite the WAC's efforts, bureaucratic problems of government agency overlap and lack of consolidation arose. In an attempt to alleviate those problems, President Roosevelt created the Office of War Information in June 1942 to serve as a government-run central clearinghouse for disseminating information and news about the war to the public and the media. The organization was hit by internal turmoil, and 1943 saw the demise of its domestic branch.
But despite excess-profits taxes (which cut into advertising budgets), hostile criticism, and a lack of consumer products to sell, advertisers still championed the war effort, associating victory with the "American Way" and the free-enterprise system.
Nash/Kelvinator wartime ads by Geyer, Cornell & Newell were typical of the campaigns that linked patriotism and free enterprise. The Nash/Kelvinator ads, placed in both women's and trade magazines, put the viewer in the mind of an infantry soldier as he entered battle:
"I'm not outguessing madmen with machine guns in their hands for the privilege of being told what to say and when to say it. I'm fighting for freedom! I'm fighting for the things that made America the greatest place in the world to live in. . . . I want to come back to the same America I left behind me . . . where our way of living has always brought us new and better things . . . That's what I'm fighting for."
War-bond ads, such as those for the General Electric Co. from N.W. Ayer & Son and Maxon Inc., used similar tactics: "And this shall be our victory: In a free nation . . . each home shall be a shrine of freedom." Democracy was linked in war-bond ads with the freedom to make consumer choices. A 1942 ad from Armco Sheet Metals, published in American Home, pictured the war as a battle to achieve a higher standard of living.
While corporate patriotism promoted the unselfish side of business and built consumer goodwill, ads envisioning the postwar world cemented the relationship between marketers and the average consumer with the promise of a better America.
Perhaps the best-known campaign to come out of World War II was the 1943-44 Libbey-Owens-Ford "Kitchen of Tomorrow." It was featured not only in magazines and newspapers across the country but also in a Paramount film short. In addition, three models of the "Kitchen of Tomorrow" traveled around the country, drawing more than 1.6 million visitors. The kitchen was based on several postwar kitchen prototypes advertised throughout the war years in women's and business magazines by architects, designers and manufacturers such as Revere-Copper & Brass, Bundy Tubing and Superior Steel.
Manufacturers of almost every sort of product, including plastics and electronics, advertised their version of the "kitchen of tomorrow," and like Libbey-Owens-Ford, showed how their wartime contributions would revolutionize domesticity after victory. The main argument behind such utopian images of the postwar world, as epitomized by the popular kitchen exhibit, was that when American manufacturers applied their war-won knowledge to civilian production, they could easily liberate domesticity as they had Asia and Europe.
According to Advertising Age, the number of ad agencies in the U.S. grew from 1,628 in 1939 to 5,986 in 1948. Ad spending dipped slightly after the U.S. entered the war, from $2.23 billion in 1941 to $2.16 billion in 1942, but total ad spending increased steadily throughout the war years, reaching $2.88 billion at the end of 1945. Overall, the WAC claimed it allocated $1 billion in donated media space and work time toward war-themed ads from 1942 to 1945.
After World War II, the War Advertising Council became the Advertising Council, composed of advertisers, agencies and the media, and continues to provide ad campaigns to public service organizations.