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Explore 20th-century advertising with BackStory’s Brian Balogh

Leo Burnett, the Chicago ad executive who created iconic characters such as the Marlboro Man and Tony the Tiger, had this to say about his profession: “The secret of all effective advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.” These advertisements in vintage issues of University of Virginia Alumni News—what became Virginia Magazine—tell a story about those relationships in the 20th century. As much as these ads tell us about the products they advertise, they also reflect cultural anxieties about war, money and gender roles.

Take a look into the past, with commentary on select ads provided by UVA history professor and BackStory co-host Brian Balogh.

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Women

Advertisers began marketing directly to women in the early 20th century, selling them everything from cigarettes to beauty products to franks and beans. Certain companies, such as Bell Telephone, actually commodified women in the workplace, advertising “Telephone Girls” as part of its service. — Ed.

Technology

Over the course of the five decades represented here, companies like General Electric, AT&T/Bell Telephones and General Motors make major technological progress, and they do it quickly. In the 1920s and 30s, General Electric is working to get electricity into all homes in the U.S.; by the 1960s, Bell is advertising speedier phone calls thanks to satellites in outer space. — Ed.

Men

In 20th-century advertising, men were dapper, clean-shaven and almost always smoking. In these ads, men represent all of the major events and themes facing America: war, technology, change. There’s plenty of fun, too, of course. — Ed.

Cigarettes

Full-page ads for cigarettes appear in every single issue of University of Virginia Alumni News from the 1930s through the ’60s, until health warnings about smoking slowed cigarette advertising (and consumption) significantly. — Ed.

Curiosities

From Virginia tourism spots to tanning lamps, from board games to Coca-Cola, these miscellaneous ads offer a glimpse into how people may have spent their extra money and spare time. — Ed.

The Roaring ’20s

The 1920s, with its many economic successes, saw the rise of advertising as an important part of corporate strategy. Because businesses were introducing many new consumer products, from cars on a mass scale to packaged cake mix, there was an emphasis among advertisers on creating a personal connection between consumer and product.

Chin Golf, 1921

Chin Golf, 1921

In the new age of mass advertising in the ’20s, the emphasis was on how products would make you feel, and how others would regard you, not how the products would perform. The Shaving Stick turns a chore into a game. And not just any game: a game that is associated with the social elite and business success.

  Vol. 10, No. 1 (July 1921), p. 283

Luxenburg, 1924

Luxenberg, 1924

This advertisement is trying to straddle the old—with an emphasis on “conservative ideas,” and traditional colors and materials—with the new, stylish look, underscored by the Art Deco Background and the latest model car in the background.

  Vol. 13, No. 4 (November 1924), p. 92

GE Washing Machine, 1924

GE Washing Machine, 1924

For this target audience, the idea of Dad doing the wash was an eye-catcher. Middle-class men did not do this in the 1920s. Note also the appeal to “cost effectiveness,” a big selling point in the ’20s—the Age of Herbert Hoover and engineering efficiency. The real story, however, was that all this time saving was poured back into ever-increasing standards of cleanliness that ended up keeping the stay-at-home mom busier no matter how many time-saving devices the family bought.

  Vol. 13, No. 5 (December 1924), inside front cover

December 1924

  Vol. 13, No. 5 (December 1924), p. 116

March 1925

  Vol. 13, No. 8 (March 1925), p. 212

An Exciting Evening, 1925

An Exciting Evening, 1925

Science was not just about saving work or improving productivity. It was also about the arts. GE, through its broadcast stations, was bringing art and knowledge to listeners.

  Vol. 13, No. 11 (June 1925), inside front cover

YA-LO, 1926

YA-LO, 1926

In today’s sports-saturated world, it is easy to forget that the college football season was a scant nine games in 1926. For those who could not get enough, there were card games that claimed to be based on science! As a kid who grew up playing Strat-O-Matic baseball in the 1960s, a similar card game, I can report that things had not changed very much in 40 years. Even though there were more real games played every year, especially at the professional levels, things did not change from the card games of the ’20s until the introduction of video games in the 1970s. Thumbs have never been the same since.

  Vol. 15, No. 3 (November 1926), p. 68

Save Your Eyes, 1927

Save Your Eyes, 1927

Americans love gadgets. While these gadgets usually save work, this advertisement appeals to the health-improving qualities of this gadget—saving your eyesight and ensuring good posture, thus preserving your vital forces. Is it my imagination, or did the print seem a bit small? Might that convince the wary shopper that his eyes needed more saving than he originally thought?

  Vol. 16, No. 1 (October 1927), p. 44

General Electric, 1928

General Electric, 1928

As one of the consumer product companies most closely identified with science, and one of the first to invest heavily in research, GE was eager to identify science with progress. This advertisement taps into a century-long association between the United States and manifest destiny. But it also sounds, to my ears, a tad bit defensive. World War I, which ended only a decade earlier, shattered many associations between science and progress, as technology was put to use killing more soldiers, in more devastating fashion.

  Vol. 16, No. 9 (May 1928), inside front cover

 

The Great Depression

With the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, many large corporations turned to more defensive strategies. One such strategy was to remind consumers that despite tough times, these companies were their friends. Another was to emphasize the value that their products provided in tough times.

To Save Time is to Lengthen Life 1928-9

To Save Time is to Lengthen Life 1928-9

Even after “Black Tuesday,” the great stock market crash of October 1929, it was impossible to imagine the extent of the Great Depression that would follow. Advertisers certainly took a while to adapt their message. In this advertising, science and technology is associated directly with wealth, more happiness, and leisure. Within a few years, science and technology would be blamed by millions for causing unemployment, as machines replaced people. One thing the advertisement got right: leisure, as soon tens of millions of Americans were out of work.

  Vol. 18, 1929–30

  Vol. 18, 1929–30

  Vol. 19, 1930–31

  Vol. 19, 1930–31

  Vol. 20, 1931–32

  Vol. 20, 1931–32

I Really Don’t know if I should Smoke, 1932-33

I Really Don’t know if I should Smoke, 1932-33

As the Great Depression deepened, advertisers looked for new markets. Women represented a largely untapped market for tobacco at the time. This advertisement appeals to adventurous women, both in style and by reference to the women’s suffrage movement. But it is also appealing to women because in relative terms, women had more disposable income compared to men, because women’s jobs were lower paying and more women worked part time, factors that ironically made for relatively higher job security compared to men.

  Vol. 21, 1932–33

  Vol. 21, 1932–33

An Important Member of your Family 1932-33

An Important Member of your Family 1932-33

This advertisement models the “personalized” style that became increasingly prominent in the ’30s: Advertisers tried to create an intimate connection between consumer and product or service. FDR would emulate this approach through his fireside chats, using his avuncular tone to establish a personal-seeming bond to millions of Americans. AT&T had good reason to promote itself as a friend. It was a gigantic business at a time that business was blamed for the Depression. It, like GE, had trumpeted science, technology and research, only to watch many Americans claim that mechanizing portions of the phone system contributed to unemployment. And it provided a service that some viewed as frivolous during hard times, when even pennies were needed to provide food and shelter.

  Vol. 21, 1932–33

  Vol. 22, 1933–34

  Vol. 22, 1933–34

  Vol. 22, 1933–34

  Vol. 22, 1933–34

  Vol. 22, 1933–34

  Vol. 23, 1934–35

  Vol. 23, 1934–35

  Vol. 24, 1935–36

  Vol. 25, 1936–37

  Vol. 25, 1936–37

  Vol. 25, 1936–37

  Vol. 25, 1936–37

  Vol. 25, 1936–37

  Vol. 26, 1937–38

  Vol. 26, 1937–38

  Vol. 27, 1938–39

  Vol. 27, 1938–39

  Vol. 28, No. 1 (September 1939), p. 15

  Vol. 28, No. 2 (November 1939), p. 37

 

World War II

World War II provided a great opportunity for advertisers to reverse the image of big business, which had suffered during economic hard times. Business and its products were now associated with America’s winning ways and weapons during the war. Scientific expertise was especially credited with this success as increasing emphasis was placed on higher education.

  Vol. 30, No. 6 (March 1942), inside front cover

  Vol. 31, No. 1 (September 1943), back cover

Telephone Wire Coming Up

Telephone Wire Coming Up

Every company—and just about every American—wanted to be associated with the GI, with American’s fighting men during WWII. Americans pitched in by rationing all kinds of goods and commodities, from gasoline to cloth (by buying men’s suits with just one pocket). In this advertisement, Bell Telephone is wrapping itself in the image of the GI. But it is also explaining why telephone service may not be what some customers have come to expect, and it is appealing to the broad spirit of sacrifice that gripped the country during the war.

  Vol. 31, No. 5 (February 1943), p. 21

WAF/Chesterfield ad

WAF/Chesterfield ad

Millions of women pitched in to win the war—most in wartime industries, like Rosie the Riveter. But plenty of women enlisted in the military, in noncombat roles. Chesterfield, which had been pitching cigarettes to women for some time, took this opportunity to underscore that women who worked like men should also relax like men—with a Chesterfield.

  Vol. 32, No. 1 (October 1943), back cover

  Vol. 32, No. 2 (November 1943), back cover

  Vol. 32, No. 2 (November 1943), back cover

 

Post-war and the 1960s

The Cold War dominated American life after World War II. Besides scientific expertise, with the baby boom, the family was now seen as a crucial defense of the American Way. It is worth noting that at the very time that African Americans mobilized to demand full rights as citizens, there is very little representation of this population in the advertisements displayed in mainstream publications. This would not begin to change until the last third of the 20th century.

  Vol. 34, No. 1 (October 1945), p. 53

  Vol. 35, No. 2 (November 1946), p. 22

  Vol. 35, No. 7 (April 1947), p. 10

  Vol. 36, No. 6 (March 1948), p. 26

  Vol. 36, No. 8 (May 1948), back cover

  Vol. 37, No. 3 (December 1948), p. 26

  Vol. 38, 1949–50

  Vol. 38, 1949–50

  Vol. 38, 1949–50

  Vol. 39, 1950–51

  Vol. 39, 1950–51

GE linking its products with college education

GE linking its products with college education

As the United States settled into its twilight struggle with the Soviet Union, both industry and the government placed a premium on college-educated expertise. Scientists, who before WWII had been seen as brainy but not terribly practical were now associated with winning weapons, starting with the atomic bomb, as well as other wartime developments, from radar to jet engines. Because GE was one of the first large corporations to invest in research and development before World War II, it doubled down on its reputation that associated science with progress after the war.

  Vol. 39, 1950–51

  Vol. 39, 1950–51

“The Mask is Off” Chesterfield ad

“The Mask is Off” and “Nose Throat” Chesterfield ads

Three major medical studies linking tobacco to lung cancer were issued in 1950. But what was perhaps more disconcerting to the tobacco industry was that popular magazines like Reader’s Digest began to publicize this link. Tobacco companies fought back with advertisements like these, offering a veneer of transparency and claiming vague proof of their own: “Accessory Organs Not Affected.”

  Vol. 40, 1951–52

  Vol. 41, 1952–53

  Vol. 41, 1952–53

  Vol. 41, 1952–53

  Vol. 41, 1952–53

Mother/Daughter telephone ad

Mother/Daughter telephone ad

Many middle-class women who went to work during WWII were either forced out of jobs or left voluntarily. Yet either for economic reasons, or out of a taste for earning money for themselves, many of these women soon began to return to the workplace as the economy took off by the early ’50s. In this advertisement, Bell Telephone taps into this trend. But the advertisement does more than this, continuing to emphasize the “family feel” of one of the world’s largest companies and create a personal bond between consumer and company at the very time that Bell was hard at work mechanizing many of the jobs portrayed in the advertisement.

  Vol. 41, 1952–53

  Vol. 43, 1954–55

Action Shot of New England Life Agent

Action Shot of New England Life Agent

This might be the world’s only “action shot” of a profession that is not typically associated with excitement—insurance sales! The product being featured in this advertisement is a company-sponsored pension plan. These kinds of plans took off after WWII as more companies offered benefits to supplement government-provided Social Security.

  Vol. 45, 1956–57

  Vol. 45, 1956–57

GE “Can Your Child Go to College”

GE “Can Your Child Go to College”

Although the GI Bill and a booming economy vastly increased the size and capacity of higher education in the United States by the early 1960s, the post-WWII baby boom, combined with the growing association between a college degree and professional success, led to anxiety among parents about getting their kids into college—especially a good college, when so many kids would soon be applying. GE, long associated with highly educated personnel, offers a helping hand.

  Vol. 45, 1956–57

  Vol. 46, 1957–58

  Vol. 47, 1958–59

  Vol. 47, 1958–59

  Vol. 48, No. 1 (October 1959), inside back cover

Teaching By TV

Teaching By TV

Yes, teaching by TV was in many ways the original MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). Unlike today’s MOOCs, the information flowed in only one direction: from the “box” to often-dozing students.

  Vol. 48, No. 4 (February 1960), p. 1

  Vol. 48, No. 6, p. 1

  Vol. 49, No. 1, p. 2

  Vol. 49, No. 1, back cover

  Vol. 49, No. 2 (November 1960), p. 2

  Vol. 49, No. 4, back cover

  Vol. 50, No. 2, back cover

  Vol. 52, No. 4, p. 30

  Vol. 52, No. 5, inside back cover

  Vol. 53, No. 2, p. 30

  Vol. 53, No. 5, p. 30

  Vol. 55, No. 1 (September/October 1966), p. 18

“How to Stop Smoking” ad

“How to Stop Smoking” ad

With the publication of the Surgeon General’s Report of 1964, the emphasis in advertising slowly shifted from exclusively promoting tobacco products, to claims for products and approaches that could help smokers quit the habit.

  Vol. 56, No. 3 (January/February 1968), p. 21

  Vol. 57, No. 5 (May/June 1969), p. 23

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About Brian Balogh

Brian Balogh is a professor in UVA’s Corcoran Department of History. He founded the Miller Center National Fellowship and currently chairs that program. He is also the co-host of BackStory with the American History Guys, a nationally syndicated radio show that runs on Public Broadcasting Stations across the country. His most recent book is A Government out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America.

Photo courtesy of BackStory.com

Comments (7)

Rob Austin on 08/25/2015

In 1963, when I entered UVa, every week the Cavalier Daily ran a column written by humorist Art Buchwald and sponsored by Marlboro cigarettes. That year we won a television for our fraternity house by collecting God knows how many cellophane wrapping strips from Marlboro packages. We pledges were given quotas which meant much searching through trash cans around the Grounds.

Herb Crowder on 08/20/2015

I was on the staff and later Managing Editor of the University Magazine from 1960-63. I was also the Marlboro rep For UVA during that period. Most of our ads came from the Corner and Mens clothing stores like ElJo and the Young Men shop. Smoking was really in and I gave away thousands of small packs of Marlboro, Alpine and Philip Morris cigarettes. I secretly smoked Pall Malls when my boss wasn’t around

Malcolm MacLeod, MD on 08/19/2015

I started at UVa in 1952 (Kent House), and remember learning to smoke and
drink bourbon. I was impressed by the amount of cigarette advertising in the
early years. I finally stopped in 1972, but it helped me through a lot of stress,
including the Army. It’s finally prohibitively expensive.

Tom Doughty ENGR 62 on 08/19/2015

In 1954, when I started at UVA,  they passed out free packs of 4 smokes all over the grounds. That was advertising at that time that didn’t show up in the news.

Mike Rodgers (CLAS '78) on 08/19/2015

Interesting collection focusing on an interesting topic. As I tried to identify some of the celebrities - without reading the names - I began to compile a short list of “celebrities” who were created by the advertising in which they appeared. Johnny the Bellboy (who famously gave the “Call for Philip Morris”), Ronald McDonald, and, of course, the Marlborough Man mentioned in the article, are three examples of advertising creations that assumed a kind of real-life stature. How many others might be added to the list?

Rosanna on 08/19/2015

I’m intrigued by the presence of ads aimed at woman who read the University of Virginia Alumni Magazine, from as early as the 1930s, when only a small percentage of the University’s alumni were women.  I believe that at that time, women were only admitted to education, nursing and a few graduate programs.

Barrett Rossie on 08/19/2015

Great to see all this Brian. Are these ads a fair representation of the categories of advertisers in the old Alumni News? I’d like to see more ads from other categories— appliances, autos, other transportation, tourism/hospitality, real estate development and other categories that don’t make much of a showing.

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