We've come to see advertising as a
given, "as part of who we are," says Inger Stole, a professor in the
Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois
In the 1930s, however, advertising and its
practices faced "ferocious political opposition" in the U.S., Stole
writes in her new book, "Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and
Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s," being published in July by
the University of Illinois Press.
The book chronicles the now little-known story of how a consumer
movement rose to prominence in the late 1920s, its participants
reacting to a commercialized environment almost unknown just a few
A prime target of the movement was advertising, which was viewed
by many Americans as "business propaganda" and as "a controversial,
even scorned, undertaking," Stole wrote. The movement objected to
the industry's view of consumers as "helpless and irrational" and to
its reliance on image and emotional appeal, often playing to
people's fears and insecurities.
Instead, the consumer advocates wanted advertising that provided
only legitimate product information, such as that required by any
business or government purchaser, Stole wrote. Because it failed to
provide that, they believed that advertising "was not just flawed …
it was antidemocratic," she wrote.
The leaders of the movement wrote several best-selling books,
with titles such as "Your Money's Worth: A Study in the Waste of the
Consumer's Dollars" and "100,000,000 Guinea Pigs," which dealt
harshly with advertising in the context of other consumer issues.
They formed organizations such as Consumers' Research and Consumers
Union, published a popular magazine called Ballyhoo that lampooned
well-known ads, and lobbied for legislation that would include
regulation of advertising.
"The emergence of radio broadcasting in the 1930s as an
explicitly advertising-based medium also fanned the flames of public
discontent with advertising," Stole wrote. In fact, the story of the
consumer movement in the 1930s strongly resembled that of the
struggle over U.S. broadcasting regulation that played out over the
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The advertisers and their advocates fought back with new
techniques of corporate public relations, recasting their case for
the benefits of advertising and working to discredit the movement,
according to Stole. At one point late in the decade, that effort
even included "Red-baiting," accusing parts of the movement of being
infiltrated with communists.
Because most newspapers, magazines and radio stations were
dependent on advertising by the time of the movement, "The media
basically did not write or say much about this process," Stole said.
"Thus most people were unaware of the issues at stake."
Ultimately, consumer activists lost their battle for legislation
and regulation, settling for a severely watered-down bill, the 1938
Wheeler-Lea Amendment, still the main law regulating advertising.
"Advertising never again faced a direct challenge to its
legitimacy," Stole wrote.
"It was a period, however, when things could have gone quite
differently," Stole said, and the history of the movement may hold
as much relevance today as it did in the 1930s, if not more.
In today's environment, "Most Americans logically assume that
advertising is a given, that it is a natural institution built into
the American experience, much like free enterprise and its governing
institutions. Nothing of the sort is true," Stole wrote.
Modern advertising grew out of significant changes in capitalism
toward the end of the 1800s and did not really mature until the
1920s, after World War I, she wrote.
The consumer advocates of the 1930s "would very well have
remembered a time when advertising was virtually nonexistent, or at
least very, very marginal," Stole said. And they "understood
something we have since forgotten: In our self-governing society the
role and nature of advertising and commercialism should be
determined by the citizenry," she wrote.
Commercial speech does not enjoy the same First Amendment
protection as political speech, and "everyone seemed to get that in
the 1930s," Stole said. Even in our "hypercommercial society," she
said, the public needs to remember that advertising is an
institution that "if we want, we have the power to regulate it back
to a way we find more suitable to the way we want to govern
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