For the 125th episode of the Journalism History podcast, University of Kansas student Chloe Martens discusses her research examining how advertisers framed their products during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression years.
Chloe Martens: Camel, the cigarette brand, had an ad in the Washington Times in March of 1931 that referenced that their cigarettes had been cleaned with a new vacuum-cleaning apparatus that made their cigarettes dustless.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books, to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I am Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Black Sunday. It was April 14, 1935. A cloud of dust so horrific it was like a black blizzard or a tornado turned on its side, as the author of the book The Worst Hard Time wrote. Some thought it was the end of days, as this massive dust storm swept across the Great Plains. The Brownsville Texas newspaper declared “Dust, Death, Despair” in a headline three days later. As Ken Burns notes in a book of the same name, the Dust Bowl was the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history. The hard times it created is part of the broader narrative of the 1930s and the Great Depression. Yet, in these desperate times, businesses still needed to try to earn money, putting ads in newspapers and hoping people would buy their products.
On today’s show, we have University of Kansas senior Chloe Martens, who researched how advertising was framed in newspapers during the Depression and Dust Bowl Era.
Chloe, welcome to the show. Why were you interested in examining advertising during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl Era?
Chloe Martens: So this is a really interesting time to study, because the world changed so drastically so quickly, and it was hard for society to really accept what was happening. It’s important to take a look back in time to see how advertisers adapted to the shift in spending habits, to learn what techniques they used to overcome it. The pandemic has many parallels to the Great Depression, as it vastly impacted our economy and caused a lot of people to lose their jobs. Looking at history helps us get ahead of the future and know useful ways to adapt to a changing market.
Teri Finneman: Ken Burns, of course, has a phenomenal documentary called The Dust Bowl that examines this period that I highly recommend if anyone hasn’t seen it yet. I think many people are aware that there was something called the Dust Bowl, but may be less familiar with why it happened. So what did you learn about the Dust Bowl, uh, when you were doing your research, and why it happened in the first place.
Chloe Martens: So, to kinda set the scene for the United States at the time, I referenced an article called “The Dust Bowl in the US: An analysis based on current environmental and clinical studies.” So, according to the article, prior to the ’30s, there was an increase of migration to the Great Plains, which caused the grassland to be developed into farmland. This destroyed the brush that kept the topsoil in place. There was also a drought and extremely high temperatures that blew the topsoil across the land. Meanwhile, early in the 1900s, the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 was passed, which increased railroad infrastructure and increased westward settlement. So, before the Dust Bowl, there was more people than ever living in the region, all of whom did not know how to properly farm on the land.
Teri Finneman: Give us some context as to what advertising was like, in particular in the United States before the Dust Bowl and Depression years.
Chloe Martens: So, to get an understanding of the economic background of the time, I looked at the article “Consumer Advertising During the Great Depression –
– A Resource Guide.” At the time, the stock market was booming, in the 1920s and reached its peak in September of 1929. Similarly, the advertising industry had grown substantially, and during this time, they learned techniques for retail, credit, sales management, and even did research into the marketing process. But before we talk about advertising during the Great Depression, it’s important to understand what past advertisements looked like. As noted in the 1938 version of Advertising Media, by Hugh E. Agnew, the first advertisement that could be counted as a national campaign was a patent for medicine, in 1805. Following that book, Advertising Media: How to Weigh and Measure by Hugh E. Agnew, from 1932, stated PT Barnum was one of the first effective advertisers.
He was a stuntman at heart, and this showed through in his advertising. One of his famous sayings was, “I don’t care what people say about me if they only say something.” He got word out about what he was doing using gossip and by doing dramatic stunts.
He focused on immediate return, not long-term relations with consumers. In July of 1897, in the Mankato Free Press, there was an ad for the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. This ad had a grand picture of two people standing on jumping horses that said, “One towering graceful giraffe. Only one in America. Two menageries of wild and trained beasts. Fifty carved golden cages. Chariots, floats, and tableau cars. Twenty-four wisest elephants performing in three rings,” and so on. He used very descriptive language to dramaticize the events he hosted and get people’s attention.
I also researched what advertisements looked like in the middle- to late-1920s to see what advertising tactics were used leading up to the Great Depression. The main tactics I noticed were pushing urgency or scarcity of products, keeping up appearances, and promoting luxury. Ariel Shirt Shops had an entire page of advertisements in the Washington Times in January of 1929 using scarcity tactics and promoting –
– keeping up appearances. It stated, “Men, hurry, for values like these won’t stay in our department long,” and, “Value offerings that will make all of Washington sit up and take notice.” In the Bismarck Tribune, in September of 1929, JC Penney posted an ad that promoted the luxury of their brand and urgency for buying their products. It stated, “Styled for smart appearance and priced for thrift. Newest and smartest fabrics of the season. Luxurious fur collars and novel cuffs,” and, “See them, buy them early.”
Teri Finneman: It’s really interesting to hear some of these old ads. Uh, I know that you also looked at some advertising books that were published in the 1930s, so what kind of strategies did they discuss?
Chloe Martens: I referenced the book Advertising Media: How to Weigh and Measure, by Hugh E. Agnew, and it mentioned a general lack of awareness about the role of advertising. At the time, advertisers and strategic communicators were called space salesmen, because they bought space in the newspapers for the business.
Teri Finneman: Oh, I love that story. That’s great.
Chloe Martens: These space salesmen were –
– regarded as unimportant and infrequently invited to important meetings. Agnew argued that this was because the job was so technical and that people didn’t want to invest their time in studying the market. He stated, “Even in the advertising agencies, seldom is the man in charge of space-buying one of the key men of the agency. He spends more money than anyone else, but in experience in business, ability, and in knowledge, advertising, he may be inferior to the leading members of the staff.” Though, in the early days of advertising, when these space salesmen were given the opportunity to use their knowledge, stunt advertising was used. However, this did not remain effective, because it only led to discussion of the stunt, rather than discussions of the product or the business itself. They mentioned that the key to advertising was repetition and using stunts sparingly to intrude, introduce new products, names, or quality.
In 1932, which would’ve been right in the middle of the Great Depression, the key factors of effective advertising included where the target audience –
– was located, timeliness and necessity for illustration, money that could be invested and how much they would need to be invested to actually reach the buyer through that medium, and how impressive the medium would be. When talking about newspapers and advertising, it’s essential to remember that until 1870, publications represented an organization like a religious group or a political affiliation. These publications did not rely on profit or sales of the paper, because the organization paid for the news outlet to publish what was relevant to those groups and aligned with their ideals. This had major implications on how newspapers function, because prior to the 1870s, publishers didn’t have to care if their readers were interested in what they had to say. They only had to have the approval of the organization that funded them.
So, shifting back to the ’30s, Agnew noted that advertising controls 75 to 85 percent of revenue for a newspaper or magazine, and that was their main source of income. During this time, advertising shifted to being a very quick process, because they had to match the –
– speed that new products were being released. Due to the fast pace, newspapers and magazines became the main form of advertising, rather than by word of mouth or outdoor display advertising, such as billboards and signs, or even the property itself. To explain what this looked like, we can look at banks: the building itself is an advertisement, as most if not all banks are built with bricks or even some sturdier material such as marble or granite. This was a strategic move to show the public that their money is safe in that location and used to instill trust and confidence in that consumer. Agnew stated, “The expensive bank building is a visual reflection of the resources, reliability, and stability of the institution which it houses.” While newspapers and magazines were most popular, this is also when radio or broadcast was starting to introduce advertising into their messaging, but was much less researched and less marketable.
Teri Finneman: That’s great. You know, we need so much more advertising history to be done, and I’m really glad that you’re, that you’re doing this project. So, talk a little bit more about how did –
– advertising adapt more broadly to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl time when many people didn’t have any extra money to spend?
Chloe Martens: So, at its peak in 1929, the advertising industry was worth about $2.8 billion. While many believed the stock market crash was the catalyst for the Great Depression, the market was already declining in August of 1929. During this time, advertising spending was cut in half, at $1.3 billion, and as noted in Advertising in the Great Depression, spending did not get back to what it was before the crash, until after World War II. Society felt that advertising was unnecessary and didn’t really see the value in it or how it could help boost the economy. Advertising agencies first responded to the Depression by referencing the good old days where money was not as tight, though this was not efficient.
While the advertising industry declined, newspaper circulation and radio only increased, being nearly seven times higher than what it had been in 1927. So, as noted in Consumer Advertising During the Great Depression: A Resource Guide –
– to reach this increasing market, advertisers shift their, shifted their focus and messaging to themes of thrift, patriotism, and fear of humiliation. And used testimonials, the hard sell, product placement, and sponsorships to convince buyers to spend.
Teri Finneman: I know that you looked at a number of newspaper ads in the 1930s, and shared them with some of your classmates, and found some really fascinating ways that the advertising industry tried to connect with the times and still sell products. Talk about some of the specific ads that you looked at.
Chloe Martens: Yeah, so to see examples of this, I referenced Chronicling America, and took a look at newspapers from the time to see what advertisements looked like and asked of their readers. Some businesses specifically mentioned the dust and what people were experiencing. Camel, the cigarette brand, had an ad in the Washington Times, in March of 1931, that referenced that their cigarettes had been cleaned with a new vacuum-cleaning apparatus that made their cigarettes dustless.
Teri Finneman: And that’s one of my favorite stories: dustless –
– cigarettes, right? I mean [laughter], that’s a great story.
Chloe Martens: Exactly. And Lansburgh’s had an ad in the Evening Star, in July of 1932, for their cool glazed chintz summer drapes that said, “Woven with a smooth glaze that sheds every bit of dust.” The interesting part was not necessarily the text but more the graphic that, uh, went along with it, of a cloud of dust outside the window that the drapes would seemingly keep out. Laco had an ad in the Indianapolis Times, in March of 1931, for their castile soap that said, “It’s the fine bubbles that reach the dirt.” Looking at food advertisements was also interesting. The article “Advertising in the Great Depression” noted the 1933 bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration power to remove misleading advertising of the products it regulated. But it didn’t pass.
It wasn’t until 1938 that a less-strict version of the deal passed with fewer restrictions on what “misleading” meant. Meaning that, until 1938, these brands could –
– advertise their products completely inaccurately, if they wanted. It’s also important to note that 1933 would’ve been in the middle of the Depression, and 1938 would’ve been nearing the end of it, which may have had an impact on the bill being passed. So, I went back to Chronicling America, to look specifically at food advertisements. Carnation Milk had an advertisement in the Daily Alaska Empire, in February of 1938, where they stated, “Now enriched with Vitamin D. So important to health. No increase in cost. From contented cows.”
Teri Finneman: I love that, too, “From contented cows.” Like, I can see advertisers today still using the same, same kind of strategies. [Laughter]
Chloe Martens: Exactly. And the Evening Star, in September of 1936, when discussing the New Deal, there is a separate note in the text that stated, “Austria has ordered distilleries and producers of sugar beets to engage in the fattening of cattle.” It’s interesting to look back at the timeframe and question whether they did research into if what they were saying was true, or whether they simply had no regulation on what they could say –
– and knew that this language would sell. Advertisers also used patriotism and timeliness in their ads by referencing the New Deal, which was proposed by President Roosevelt in hopes of bringing prosperity back to the American people. An ad for taxicab operators in the Washington Times, in October of 1933, stated, “These are the days of new deals, new deals for the factory worker and the farmer.” There was another in the Washington Times, in July of 1933, for Kann’s Frigidaire, “Speaking of new deals, here’s one as remarkable as any you’ll see this summer.”
Advertisers also commonly used the hard-sell tactic. This meant that advertisers would put pressure on the buyer to commit to the purchase, and often back it up with an expert opinion. In the Independent, in September of 1931, the cigarette brand Chesterfield used this tactic in their ad. It stated, “It is well filled. It is neat in appearance. The paper is pure-white. He likes the flavor and the rich aroma. Everything that goes into Chesterfield is the best that money can buy and that science knows about.”
Another common tactic was emphasizing the thriftiness of the ad. Since the economy was bad and people had a lot of new debt they had to deal with so suddenly, emphasizing the cost-effectiveness of the product worked really well. Sawyer and Harris ran an ad in the Independent, in September of 1931, for their Star Brand and Poll-Parrot shoe, stating, “These shoes were bought on the new low-price market, and we have marked them at even shorter profits than ever.” And their slogan was, “The same goods for less money.”
Teri Finneman: It’s so interesting to see how many of these strategies still exist today. Uh, and I think you looked into how some of these more recent advertising strategies came into play, so talk a little bit more about that.
Chloe Martens: Yeah, so, this correlates to today’s world, because the success of an advertisement is influenced in its ability to adapt to an evolving world. It’s important to look back on when the world was drastically changing, and see what tactics worked then and how you can use them today. Allstate revisited the Dirty ’30s, first, by connecting to –
– today’s anxieties and troubles surrounding money from the pandemic and job losses to the ’30s. The message was to look at the positive, and remind the public to appreciate the little things. The article stated, “After the fears subside, a funny thing happens: people start to enjoy the small things in life: a homecooked meal and time with loved ones.” Hard times are often ignored because people wanna act like they aren’t happening, but the article states, “I don’t ever think it’s a risky thing when you tell the truth and tell it in a way that’s comforting.”
Though this messaging would not have been effective in the ’30s, as people were not yet ready to have a positive mindset, this ad was effective today, because people are ready, now, to be hopeful again, and are tired of being afraid of the pandemic and worrying about the unknowns. It reflects what’s needed in society: hope.
Teri Finneman: And then, for a bit of a twist on our usual final question of the show, why do you think it’s important for advertising students to understand advertising history?
Chloe Martens: I think, in many ways, trends of the past always find ways to reinvent themselves. As a part of the younger –
– generation of strategic communicators, I think it’s important to understand history and be able to find ways to incorporate it into our present using new technology. Being able to do this effectively and being able to market to all generations of people is an extremely valuable skill to have. History gives us a window to the past and a starting point for where to go to in the future.
Teri Finneman: All right, well, it’s been really great to have a student on the show who is interested in journalism history, so thank you so much for joining us today.
Chloe Martens: Thank you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter, @jhistoryjournal. Until next time, I am your host, Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: good night and good luck.