Lessons From Fortune (The April 1938 Issue)

A Look at an Era During Which Ad Agencies Advertised Their Way to Growth

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Rising unemployment. Weak economic activity. Competitive upheaval. Technology transforming work and play. Revolutionary changes in the media world. An uncertain international environment.

Yup, times were tough in 1938.

April 1938 Fortune ads
April 1938 Fortune ads

An as-it-happened telling of those times is rendered -- in words, photos and beautifully crafted illustrations -- in the 186 pages of the April 1938 issue of Fortune magazine. And it's more than a little resonant 71 years later.

Stories -- including a piece on the political controversy around the rise of chain stores (in this case "the little red-fronted A&P") -- tell the tale. But just as interesting are the ads -- particularly those by advertising agencies.

Proving their worth
Six shops advertise in the issue. Indeed, a Fortune house ad brags that agencies used 80 pages in 1937 -- five times the pages of any other general magazine -- "to build their own reputations with Fortune's audience."

And what kinds of reputations were they trying to build? For effectiveness; for knowledge on how to navigate hard times; and for a deep understanding of the consumer. Sound familiar?

Ad Age explores what marketers, media and agencies are doing to survive and even thrive in the downturn.
Young & Rubicam goes for drama. In a black-and-white illustration of a storm-whipped clipper ship, the captain bellows at the hands lashing down a sail: "Growl you may, but go you must," reads the headline. Likening the day's businessmen to sailors of yore, the copy continues: "The going is tough. ... But we do not believe that any business man worthy of his responsibility is going to be content to stand still. Through ingenuity and hard work, though the skillful use of every resource at his command (and that includes sound advertising strategy [italics added] he is going to keep his business moving ahead."

BBDO, meanwhile, takes out three pages to provide a documentary tour of the agency. It leads the reader through the main reception room, offers a glimpse of creative board head Leslie Pearl at work, checks out the radio-department studio control room and ends up in the BBDO test kitchen.

"BBDO knows all 15 copy-testing methods in use today," boasts one caption. The ad concludes with a classic call to action, inviting readers to ask for a copy of John Caples' study of "copy potency."

Luring the "don't knows"
This confidence in the purported science of advertising blurs into a sort of bland arrogance in a J. Walter Thompson Co. ad declaring, "The 'don't knows' have it." And JWT has the science to turn the "don't knows" into your consumer!

"It means recognizing that the Don't Knows are People -- not merely a mass of inertia," the ad reads. "Rightly approached, and approached again and again, they will respond. They will say 'I'll try it.' In time, vast numbers can be brought to say: 'I like it -- it's great.'"

James B. Arndorfer is a former Ad Age reporter. He now works for Miller-Coors.
That is, until they can create their own media environment that may not include the messages you're paying the agency to deliver.

Speaking of media, it's easy to forget that media revolutions have taken place before (the difference is they used to be easier to monetize). And radio was making its impact felt: A Fortune survey found that 23.5% of people got most of their daily news from radio vs. 45.2% from newspapers. Print's lead was narrower than it looked, however, as 28.2% answered "both."

The Columbia Broadcasting System reveled in its medium's clout -- and called out its wins with food marketers -- in a two-page spread showing a baby sucking on a bottle. "More 'food' dollars are now spent on radio networks than in all general magazines." It goes on: "The explanation for this Columbia record is simple. Everybody eats. And everybody likes to listen."

Women at the movies
And for those who think media clutter is a recent phenomenon would do well to look at the General Screen Advertising pitch for movie ads, in which a bunch of suits are chasing a woman in a veiled hat under the headline "Who can catch her?"

"Pursued by hundreds of advertisers as she pursues her daily routine and social evenings, the housewife or office worker is constantly distracted by various demands on her time.

"Make a 'date' with her at the movies -- the one time she will give you full individual attention."

Flipping through the issue, it's remarkable how many of the names are still with us and how consistent the pitches are with those of today. Effectiveness is increasingly emphasized.

But looking at these claims of certainty, today's reader must be struck by how radically unforeseen events changed the world and business in a few short years.

Could General Motors Chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr. -- profiled in the magazine -- have predicted GM in a few years would be making bombers instead of Buicks? Or the golden age of the auto created by suburbanization and the highways? Or the big questions around GM's future today?

The Y&R ad celebrates wind-lashed sailors who press on in the storm. Appropriately. Perhaps then -- and now -- it would make as much sense to also celebrate sailors who keep a (metaphorical) look out for what Nassim Taleb would call black swans -- the unpredictable events that can radically transform the world and what they mean for business. Instead of simply celebrating the latest in marketing science, point out a healthy respect for uncertainty. Though how does one bill for that?

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