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Advertising on Trial

Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Advertising on Trial
    Book Description:

    It hasn't occurred to even the harshest critics of advertising since the 1930s to regulate advertising as extensively as its earliest opponents almost succeeded in doing. Met with fierce political opposition from organized consumer movements when it emerged, modern advertising was viewed as propaganda that undermined the ability of consumers to live in a healthy civic environment. _x000B_In Advertising on Trial, Inger L. Stole examines how these consumer activists sought to limit the influence of corporate powers by rallying popular support to moderate and transform advertising. She weaves their story together through the extensive use of primary sources, including archival research done with consumer and trade group records, as well as trade journals and a thorough engagement with the existing literature. Stole's account of this contentious struggle also demonstrates how public relations developed as a way to justify laissez-faire corporate advertising in light of a growing consumer rights movement, and how the failure to rein in advertising was significant not just for that period but for ours as well. _x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09258-9
    Subjects: Marketing & Advertising

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xviii)
  4. 1 The Rise of a Corporate Culture: Early Consumer Response
    (pp. 1-20)

    The end of the Civil War heralded a new industrial era in the United States. By the mid-nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution, already a century in the making, was gaining strength and momentum. Some technological innovations spurred more efficient factory production whereas others, such as the railroad, steamboat, and telegraph, allowed for easier transportation and communication that, in turn, facilitated changes with large social, cultural, and economic ramifications. As the number of factories increased, immigrants and native-born Americans flocked to industrial centers in search of work. U.S. cities grew in direct proportion. Between 1880 and 1890, for example, Chicago’s population...

  5. 2 Advertising Challenged: The Creation of Consumers’ Research Inc. and the Rise of the 1930s Consumer Movement
    (pp. 21-48)

    After the first wave of consumer activism in the early twentieth century, organized consumer activity tapered off by the end of World War I. No longer pushing for major federal regulation, consumer organizations largely concerned themselves with retail prices and sanitary issues. The National Consumers’ League (NCL) remained active. In addition to working on its white-label campaign, the organization also harnessed its political power to promote fair minimum wage and labor standards.¹ Scholars note how the surviving strands of progressive thought influenced social and political thinking as the Roaring Twenties came to an end and the Great Depression approached.² By...

  6. 3 The Drive for Federal Advertising Regulation, 1933–35
    (pp. 49-79)

    Until the 1930s the few existing advertising regulations were passed and enforced at the state and local levels. In 1906 when the Federal Food and Drugs Act was passed, advertising played only a minor role in food and drug sales. Thus, it did not occur to Congress to outlaw false and misleading advertising along with misbranded foods and drugs.¹ With the emergence of national advertising in the twentieth century, some lawmakers introduced bills to outlaw misleading advertising in interstate commerce, to levy a national tax on advertising, or to extend the act’s powers. The first federal attempt at regulating advertising...

  7. 4 A Consumer Movement Divided: The Birth of Consumers Union of the United States Inc.
    (pp. 80-105)

    By the mid-1930s even the most optimistic consumer activist had come to realize that consumer protection in the form of strict federal regulation was not forthcoming. Given that its key objectives had served as a model for the original Tugwell bill, Consumers’ Research Inc. (CR) was greatly disappointed by the battle’s outcome. As if the legislative limbo was not enough, summer 1935 brought yet another challenge to the budding consumer movement. A labor strike caused CR to split into two distinct fractions, each fighting for consumers’ loyalty. Those who remained at CR became increasingly insistent on viewing consumers as a...

  8. 5 Defining the Consumer Agenda: The Business Community Joins the Fray
    (pp. 106-137)

    The very nature of advertising in an economy dominated by oligopolistic markets suggests that advertising would find itself in a perpetual PR war to establish its legitimacy and undermine its foes. Indeed, by 1939 the industry’s various trade organizations had established permanent PR programs and had propelled these activities to the pinnacle of their missions.¹ Advertisers argued, in effect, that not only did they know more about consumers’ needs and wants than did consumer groups but they also knew more than consumers themselves. Contrary to the consumer movement’s call for product facts and information, the industry maintained that the average...

  9. 6 Legislative Closure: The Wheeler-Lea Amendment
    (pp. 138-158)

    If popular antagonism to advertising in the second half of the 1930s seemingly grew, and certainly did not diminish, the status of legislation for federal advertising regulation did not reflect this sentiment. The advertising industry had largely eliminated the threat of advertising’s aggressive regulation by 1935, and the consumer movement effectively had been removed as a viable lobbying force on Capitol Hill. By the latter part of 1935 it had become increasingly obvious that business interests dominated the debate. The consumer movement was fragmented and less able to present a united front. Its most radical wing believed that subsequent versions...

  10. 7 Red-Baiting the Consumer Movement
    (pp. 159-184)

    Although advertising’s federal regulation was essentially established in 1938, in subsequent years the advertising industry redoubled its public relations efforts to improve consumers’ perceptions. By the late 1930s business groups and trade organizations had established permanent PR programs, and several pegged them as requiring high priority. Many efforts to create coalitions with mainstream consumer groups had been fairly successful, although considerable debate on the best strategy still erupted.¹ Whereas politically moderate business groups stressed increased cooperation, conservative peers adopted a more militant approach. They accused segments of the consumer movement of being part of a Communist plot designed to destroy...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 185-198)

    Although the advertising industry’s strategy to control its practices was crowned with success, its PR program was far from foolproof. The start of World War II in early fall 1939 further complicated its plans for garnering public support. Even before the United States became actively involved in the war a large portion of all raw materials were tagged for war-related products and equipment, which left the consumer market with fewer products. The gradual shift from a consumer economy to a defense economy posed new questions about advertising’s role and function. Manufacturers, fearing that promoting consumer products when raw materials were...

  12. APPENDIX A: Key Players
    (pp. 199-204)
  13. APPENDIX B: Legislative Developments, 1933–38
    (pp. 205-208)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 209-278)
  15. Index
    (pp. 279-290)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-294)