Hirshon Essay: Exploring the Complicated History of Advertising

Nicholas Hirshon
Nicholas Hirshon, William Paterson University

Long before Ritz became America’s favorite cracker, there was Uneeda Biscuit. At the turn of the century, Uneeda benefited from one of the first national campaigns to brand a food product, a wave of advertising that encompassed newspapers, magazines, streetcar ads, and signs painted on the sides of buildings.

The inundation strategy worked: Demand for Uneeda soared so incredibly that the manufacturer was unable to buy enough tin for biscuit boxes and substituted cardboard. But the effort also kicked off decades of debates over a new consumer society, as documented in my recent article, “A ‘Great Power’ Defended and Denounced: An Examination of Twentieth-Century Advertising and Advertising Criticism in the United States” (Journalism History, September 2020).

I began this research during my Ph.D. program. I was taking a course on the history of American popular culture to gain the context I would need for my dissertation on the disastrous rebranding of my favorite hockey team, the New York Islanders, in the mid-1990s. I knew a lot about sports, but not much about branding. My professor wisely recommended some classic books and articles so I could come up to speed on how brands – hockey teams included – are sold to the masses.

To supplement the article, this teaching essay offers suggested readings, discussions, and assignments for undergraduate and graduate students in courses on advertising, media history, and popular culture. The article could serve particularly useful as a primer for graduate students embarking on research projects relating to advertising history.

Suggested Class Discussions

Some advertising campaigns are so ubiquitous that they become embedded in popular culture. For example, Uneeda Biscuit is among several brands name-dropped in The Music Man, the 1957 Tony Award winner for best musical, which was adapted into a 1962 film. In the show’s opening number, a group of traveling salesmen recall how “Uneeda Biscuit in an airtight sanitary package made the cracker barrel obsolete.” Can you think of other advertising campaigns that were so effective that they inspired mainstream references? What made these initiatives work so well?

The article describes how Sprite employed basketball star Grant Hill in a successful “anti-marketing marketing campaign.” Which brands are promoting anti-marketing marketing campaigns today, and how effective have they been?

Suggested Class Activities

Turn the classroom into a courtroom where advertising itself will go on trial, with students split on the defense and prosecution teams, and the professor as the judge. The defense will argue in favor of advertising based on themes discussed in the article, such as advertising’s value in ensuring fair prices, sparking economic prosperity, and informing customers about life-bettering products. The students on the defense team could call witnesses to the stand to play the roles of historical figures cited in the article, including Edward Filene of the Filene’s department store chain and scholars such as Stanley Ulanoff and Michael Phillips. The prosecution, meanwhile, would argue that advertising is misleading and deceptive, and could call witnesses such as author Raymond Williams, Richard Wightman Fox, and T.J. Jackson Lears. Students could cite examples of historical advertisements they have found through their own research.

Examine some of the digitized advertisements created by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency for Ford Motor Company between 1944 and 2001. Identify aspects of the advertisements that you believe to be misleading, and describe why. How does the ad reflect the denouncements of advertising described in the article?

Watch this compilation of television commercials with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, the main characters from the 1960s television series The Flintstones, promoting Winston cigarettes. Think about cartoon characters that hawked products during your childhood. Find a commercial with one of those characters to play for your class as part of an interactive 15-minute presentation on how advertising affected you growing up, and still does today.

Suggested Readings

Alfred Dupont Chandler, Giant Enterprise: Ford, General Motors, and the Automobile Industry (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964).

Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, eds., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980 (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1983).

Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York, NY: Picador, 1999).

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978).

Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985).

Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (New York, NY: Vanguard Press, 1951).

Paul H. Nystrom, Economics of Fashion (New York, NY: The Ronald Press Company, 1928).

Michael J. Phillips, Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising: Answering a Flawed Indictment (Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1997).

James Rorty, Our Master’s Voice: Advertising (New York, NY: John Day, 1934).

George Presbury Rowell, Forty Years an Advertising Agent, 1865–1905 (New York, NY: Printers’ Ink Publishing, 1906).

Stanley M. Ulanoff, Advertising in America: An Introduction to Persuasive Communication (New York, NY: Hastings House, 1977).

Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London, UK: Verso, 1980).

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