Around 1900 the nation was entering a new prosperity. Its factories had excess production capacity to spew out phonographs and other durable goods, sold to a newly literate middle class and to million of immigrants. The factories needed some way to persuade the public to absorb the increased output. Although they didn't know it, they needed the advertising man.
Advertising had enjoyed a checkered and dishonorable historory in American life. The patent medicine industry had taught the lesson that the most worthless nostrum could be pitched, providing that it was effusively advertised and that the most extravagant claims were propounded. Reputable magazines such as Harper's eschewed advertising as undignified and demeaning to highbrow literary content. Nonetheless, by 1870 there were around 30 advertisng agents in the United States, buying and selling space in periodicals.
By 1900 the first rudimentary advertising agencies had appeared. Most still just placed copy, but a few offered creative writing as well. The agencies soon discovered a powerful and important truth: the branded name.
Americans asked the grocer for Quaker Oats, cleansed themselves with Sapolio Soap, rode the Erie Railroad with Phoebe Snow. the images of trademarks such as Aunt Jemima, the Campbell Soup Kids and Nipper the dog became more familiar to schoolchildren than the faces of their own parents. In 1899 Americans were subjected to the first integrated advertising campaign--the introduction of a new product and its concomitant advertising blitz--with the debut of the National Biscuit Company's Uneeda Biscuit, one of the first pre-packaged foods.
The introduction of popular general interest magazines in the 1880s like Munsey's, McClure's, and the Ladies Home Journal provided a fertile medium for the agencies. At first one enterprisisng agent tried to buy up all available space by analogy to the monopolies, but this soon proved unfeasible, and by 1907 there were over 13,000 weeklies in circulation. When these magazines entered a muckraking phase with the publication of Ida Tarbell's expose of the Standard Oil Trust in 1902 the hour was ripe to target the exact demographics the phonograph industry needed.
Victor was an early and fervent believer in advertising. Frank Seamon, Berliner's duplicitous agent and the father of the Zon-o-phone had been an advertisng man, as had Victor's vice president, Leon Douglass. When Eldridge Johnson first hired Douglass he revealed the meagre balance in the bank and asked what he should do with it.
Spend it on advertising, Douglass confidently replied. Between 1906 and 1929 Victor spent over 50 million dollars on advertising.
Victor's first agency was Powers and Armstrong, but the firm later settled on N.W. Ayers, still in existence today. Victor shook the advertising world with a first ever two page spread in Cyrus Curtis' revamped Saturday Evening Post in 1903. (The Post was the first magazine to charge a rate based on circulation.)
Early ads tended to stress the technical superiority of the product or to depict the factory, but such mundane appeals gave way to increasing sophistication. Chairs in advertising were established at major universities and primitive psychological theories of motivation were formed.
The prevailing theory was "associational" advertising--let the reader associate the copy with some pleasant emotion or experience. Prospects were deluged with images of smiling families gathered around hearth and phonograph. In many cases the characters repose in evening dress, lounging in mansions. In one classic ad for the Clarona, a small cheap all-metal phonograph, a lady in summer dress gazes upon her tennis court below her window.
Testimonials seemed to be the preferred technique. Although only a tiny portion of Americans attended or appreciated the opera, every artist from Caruso to any tenor who could pronounce LaScala was enlisted to exclusively endorse the product or to testify as to its mystic propensity to unequivocally reproduce his voice. The artists almost always appeared in full operatic regalia, often depicted as little people bestriding a turntable or pouring out of a horn. The legacies of these wonderfully successful campaigns that sold culture are thousands of unplayed Red Seal records still in the basements of America.
There weren't any movie actors at this time, but celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt wer pressed into servitude. The famous Shakespearean actor Joseph Jefferson endorsed Columbia records. Cal Stewart, who also had a stage act, was loyal only to Berliner, Edison and Victor at various times of his career. Even President McKinley, who had accepted a gift phonograph into the White House, was appropriated by Edison.
Another weapon in the advertising man's arsenal was the trademark, made legal and useable around 1893. A device dating to the trade guilds of the middle ages, the trademark was a guarantee of quality and authenticity. The advertising man brough the Smith Brothers, the Gold Dust Twins and the Corticelli Kittens into every home. Nipper wasn't born until 1900, but by 1906 Nipper and the Campbell Soup Kids were the most heavily advertised symbols in the world.
Between 1893 and 1929 approximately 1400 trademarks were registered relating to recorded sound. Edison and Bettini trademarked their signatures early on. Eldridge Johnson trademarked "Victrola," a word which he explained was a combination of "Victor" and "viola" and which soon led to an endless loop of ola suffixed machines such as the Carusola, Phonola, Modernola, Bingola, and Amberola.
The phonograph advertising man borrowed a page from the automobile advertising man: installment sales. As early as 1907 Victor announced a scheme to sell a $35 machine for a dollar a week, with an additional $5 deposit. No interest rate was specified. It sent a bulletin to its dealers that they could triple their money, and even included a sample "dunning letter" for delinquent accounts along with advice to never get angry or become abusive. By 1916 installment debt was well entrenched and Columbia was advertising a fancy Grafonola and records for $10 a month.
Sometimes the advertising man didn't have a big budget and had to do whatever it took to get the message across. Rocks and barnsides were plastered with slogans. Edison favored 75 foot long billboards, a device whose introduction coincided with the advent of automotive and railroad travel.
One intrepid Victor man tried to float an enormous balloon above New York City. In a fiasco that had the makings of an epic disaster, the balloon was filled with coal tar gas, an explosive mixture, and blown off course.
But the gold medal goes to the Columbia ad man who came up with the peanut campaign of 1902. Thousands of peanuts were sawed in half, the pod was removed, a piece of crumpled up paper with a message that read "Buy Columbia Records" was placed in the shell, and the peanut was carefully cemented back together.
Imagine how pleased your customers will be when they find this in their peanut, he told the peanut dealers.
Yes, just imagine.
Sources: Koenigsberg, Allen. Brooklyn, NY. Interview.
Turner, E.S. The Shocking History of Advertising.
Wood, James Playsted. The Story of Advertising.
Sivulka. Soap, Sex and Cigarettes.
Norris, James D. Advertising and the Transformation of America.
Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton
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