Conversations in Management: Advertising

It’s inconceivable that a great possibility for service be drowned in advertising chatter.

Herbert Hoover

On AirJohn Cameron Swayze was preparing to go on the air. A lot was riding on the next fifteen minutes as NBC prepared to launch its first ever television news broadcast. Swayze, a veteran newspaper and radio reporter (as well as a game show host), carefully reviewed the upcoming stories. But he had more to worry about than the news because he wasn’t anchoring the NBC Nightly News. Instead, he was hosting the Camel News Caravan and R. J. Reynolds, makers of Camel cigarettes, had some requirements of their own. For one thing, no “newsworthy” person, other than Winston Churchill, could be shown smoking a cigar. For another, footage of “no smoking” signs was banned. In those early days, news or not, sponsors had tremendous influence over what made it on the air. Another show sponsored by Reynolds, Man Against Crime required that cigarettes had to be smoked graciously and never nervously. What’s more, a disreputable person couldn’t be shown smoking and smoking couldn’t be associated with any unsavory activities. This kind of control by a show’s sponsor was nothing new, it was a well-established radio practice, but it’s indicative of how after thirty years, broadcasters still struggled with how best to incorporate advertising on the air.

When commercial radio debuted after the first World War, it wasn’t clear that advertising would play a role as Secretary of Commerce Hoover made clear. For a while, it seemed that the sale of radios could underwrite programming. It wasn’t a completely unreasonable assumption. In 1922, sixty thousand American homes had radios. Seven years later that number exceeded 10 million. But radio programming was expensive and substantial revenue streams were needed for the medium’s growth. Advertising seemed the best solution. A fear, however, was that on air ads might alienate listeners. Folks might consider them intrusive or an invasion of privacy. The answer was the soft sell. Advertisers would sponsor programs like the Ipana Troubadours (tooth paste), The Clicquot Club Eskimos (soda) and The A&P Gypsies (groceries) but wouldn’t overtly sell anything. The goodwill generated by these programs along with the rise of the networks (NBC, CBS, MBS) emboldened advertisers. In 1929, adman Albert Lasker, risked it and aired hard sell advertising for Pepsodent toothpaste on the NBC network. Sales tripled and while some folks may have resented the hard sell, they all kept listening and started buying. The age of consumerism had dawned.

Yankelovich, a market research firm, has estimated that, on average, we’re exposed to over 5,000 ads a day. It’s an inescapable avalanche of encouragement. And not in a good way. We’re encouraged to buy more than we need, buy what we don’t need and to upgrade what’s working perfectly well. Frighteningly, we find ourselves buying things that we didn’t even know existed until some clever advertiser clobbered us with their irresistible unique selling proposition. We may be consumers, but we’re also being consumed by an insidious selling machine. We’re moved, conveyor-like, from one buying season to the next and they are beginning to all blend together. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade once marked the start of the Christmas season. Now Christmas decorations go up in October and Santa shows up in the Mall a week after Halloween. It would be one thing if all this buying bought us happiness, but it doesn’t. The joy of consumption turns out to be fleeting while the anxiety it produces becomes permanent. So hop off the conveyor and challenge yourself. See how many days you can go without spending any money. Can you resist the siren call of consumption? Can you tame the beast? Take the challenge and see.   —Ebert

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