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A Word from Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio

A Word from Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio

Cynthia B. Meyers
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    A Word from Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio
    Book Description:

    The behind-the-scenes story of how admen and sponsors helped shape broadcasting into a popular commercial entertainment medium. During the "golden age" of radio, from roughly the late 1920s until the late 1940s, advertising agencies were arguably the most important sources of radio entertainment. Most nationally broadcast programs on network radio were created, produced, written, and/or managed by advertising agencies: for example, J. Walter Thompson produced "Kraft Music Hall" for Kraft; Benton & Bowles oversaw "Show Boat" for Maxwell House Coffee; and Young & Rubicam managed "Town Hall Tonight" with comedian Fred Allen for Bristol-Myers. Yet this fact has disappeared from popular memory and receives little attention from media scholars and historians. By repositioning the advertising industry as a central agent in the development of broadcasting, author Cynthia B. Meyers challenges conventional views about the role of advertising in culture, the integration of media industries, and the role of commercialism in broadcasting history. Based largely on archival materials, A Word from Our Sponsor mines agency records from the J. Walter Thompson papers at Duke University, which include staff meeting transcriptions, memos, and account histories; agency records of BBDO, Benton & Bowles, Young & Rubicam, and N. W. Ayer; contemporaneous trade publications; and the voluminous correspondence between NBC and agency executives in the NBC Records at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Mediating between audiences' desire for entertainment and advertisers' desire for sales, admen combined "showmanship" with "salesmanship" to produce a uniquely American form of commercial culture. In recounting the history of this form, Meyers enriches and corrects our understanding not only of broadcasting history but also of advertising history, business history, and American cultural history from the 1920s to the 1940s.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5523-8
    Subjects: Marketing & Advertising

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In this 1948 broadcast, radio comedian Jack Benny, who specialized in self-deprecation, acknowledges the key role of an advertising agency in producing his show: “They doeverything!” In fact, the majority of nationally broadcast sponsored programs on network radio during the “golden age” of radio, from roughly the late 1920s until the late 1940s, were created, produced, written, and/or managed by advertising agencies. Consider a few examples: J. Walter Thompson producedKraft Music Hall(1933–49); Benton & Bowles oversawMaxwell House Show Boat(1932–37); Young & Rubicam managedTown Hall Tonightwith comedian Fred Allen for Bristol-Myers (1934–40); and...

  2. 1 Dramatizing a Bar of Soap: The Advertising Industry before Broadcasting
    (pp. 13-32)

    What is the significance of advertising, and why did it develop the way it did? Advertising industry critics often assume its role is to produce myths that might perpetuate power structures or to brainwash consumers into pursuing false desires.¹ When the advertising industry aims to align cultural artifacts with commercial goals, when it seeks congruence between cultural salience and profit making, it most definitely does express the economic power of its clients, the advertisers.² However, the impact of advertising messages, usually the focus of academic “effects” research, cannot be substantiated any more than the impact of other cultural discourses.³ Advertising...

  3. 2 The Fourth Dimension of Advertising: The Development of Commercial Broadcasting in the 1920s
    (pp. 33-54)

    According to adman Charles Hull Wolffe, advertising has always been available “on the air”: “In the haze of prehistory, a savage beat out tom-tom signals along a jungle-lined river and caused the magic of sound to rouse a distant audience of tribesmen.”¹ Commercial radio, implied Wolff, was rooted in human history and behavior. And in the United States, radio carried promotional messages almost from the outset: For example, a broadcast sold radio equipment over the air in 1915.² As early as 1922, one observer noted, “Concerts are seasoned here and there with a dash of advertising paprika.”³ However, the commercialization...

  4. 3 They Sway Millions as If by Some Magic Wand: The Advertising Industry Enters Radio in the Late 1920s
    (pp. 55-77)

    In the 1920s unending economic growth seemed possible, and the advertising industry appeared to be its motor; would radio technology help fuel further growth? By the end of the decade, advertising industry revenues reached a record $3.4 billion.¹ In claiming much credit for stimulating the booming economy, the advertising industry was perhaps a bit overconfident of its power over consumers. But in confronting the prospect of broadcast advertising, it expressed misgivings along with such confidence. While boosters promoted broadcasting as a better way to express business ideals and personalize selling than the voiceless medium of print, others dismissed it as...

  5. 4 “Who Owns the Time?” Advertising Agencies and Networks Vie for Control in the 1930s
    (pp. 78-102)

    Commercial radio developed in the 1920s amid a booming economy and progressive ideals. However, only a few years after the establishment of national networks, the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing economic crisis of the Great Depression severely challenged the young broadcasting industry. At the moment when radio was poised to complete its transition from a local to a truly national medium, capital markets dried up, consumption dropped, and unemployment soared. And yet, radio grew anyway. Despite the overall drop in consumer spending, the number of radio sets “in use” climbed from 9 million in 1929 to more than 16...

  6. 5 The 1930s’ Turn to the Hard Sell: Blackett-Sample-Hummert’s Soap Opera Factory
    (pp. 103-129)

    The impact of the October 1929 stock market crash was not immediately felt or understood by many in the advertising industry. “Business itself is healthy,” argued advertising columnist Kenneth Goode in November 1929.¹ The president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies asserted, “The main damage by the stock market situation may be psychological and that condition is one which advertising is best able to correct.”² If the economic crisis was a matter of perception, according to this rationale, the advertising industry ought to be able to help solve the crisis. Goode suggested that “While the bankers are busy on...

  7. 6 The Ballet and Ballyhoo of Radio Showmanship: Young & Rubicam’s Soft Sell
    (pp. 130-169)

    While the hard sell strategies of the Hummerts dominated daytime soap operas, with their slow, repetitive, didactic, hyperbolic narratives, other agencies tacked toward the soft sell. These agencies tried to build “showmanship” in radio to attract and entertain audiences in both advertising and programming. In contrast to their hard sell counterparts, they sought to avoid exaggeration and repetition, often experienced as hectoring, so as to attract audiences and avoid giving offense. They embraced the entertainment value of radio and through their discussion of “showmanship” focused on what they saw as a natural overlap between good advertising and good programming, both...

  8. 7 Two Agencies: Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn, Crafters of the Corporate Image, and Benton & Bowles, Radio Renegades
    (pp. 170-200)

    Successful advertising agencies differed from one another in more than just their advertising strategies. While the divide between the hard and soft sell is especially well illustrated by the contrasting practices of Blackett-Sample-Hummert and Young & Rubicam, many other agencies routinely relied on both strategies, emphasizing hard sell or soft sell more or less for particular clients or campaigns, or as advertising trends shifted. Batten Barton Durstine & Osborn, the agency whose name was compared to the sound of a trunk falling down the stairs onJack Benny, was the foremost specialist in institutional advertising for large corporate clients seeking to improve...

  9. 8 Madison Avenue in Hollywood: J. Walter Thompson and Kraft Music Hall
    (pp. 201-224)

    In early radio networking, Chicago and New York were the centers of program production; well-known serials such asClara, Lu ’n’ Emwere originally broadcast from Chicago. Chicago production gradually shifted to New York, where facilities such as Rockefeller Center and its Radio City became epicenters of radio; and then, by the late 1930s, a new center of program production arose: Hollywood. Home to the film industry at least since entrepreneurs had fled west to escape Thomas Edison’s onerous patent fees in the 1910s, Hollywood evolved from chief competitor to closest collaborator with the New York–based radio industry. The...

  10. 9 Advertising and Commercial Radio during World War II, 1942–45
    (pp. 225-252)

    World War II, like the crisis of the Depression, forced the advertising industry to justify its methodologies, even its very existence, to critics and clients alike. Although the Depression had emboldened its opponents among the critics of capitalism, the rise of radio helped the advertising industry prove its continuing usefulness to advertisers. In some ways, however, World War II presented even greater threats to the advertising industry. A war economy could cripple the advertising industry if corporate advertising budgets shrank drastically. The federal government could nationalize the advertising or broadcasting industry to control propaganda efforts. The federal government could also...

  11. 10 On a Treadmill to Oblivion: The Peak and Sudden Decline of Network Radio
    (pp. 253-281)

    The radio broadcasts of national network star-studded entertainment programs to nearly all American homes had its greatest reach during the 1940s. The war effort, rather than undermine radio, had helped make it even more central to American popular culture. Its strength and continued growth throughout the 1940s seemed unstoppable. Commercial radio had become practically synonymous with advertising itself. Cartoonist H. T. Webster makes the point in a 1945 cartoon showing a balding, bespectacled gentleman in a living room with a large radio set explaining to his nine- or ten-year-old daughter, “When I was a boynobodyowned a radio. There...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 282-294)

    Radio became a national advertising medium and a platform for popular culture in the 1930s; by the 1940s, its centrality in American culture seemed assured. Yet, by the late 1950s, television had supplanted it. In cultural memory, radio’s seminal contribution to the development of television is often obscured. The behind-the-scenes role of the advertising industry, which helped build broadcasting as both an advertising and an entertainment medium, is even less known. In one sense, the involvement of advertising agencies in programming during the radio era was an anomaly, because once the economic incentives shifted during the television era, agencies left...